EXCLUSIVE IDEALS, INCLUSIVE LOVE
I Cor. 6:12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins people commit are outside their bodies, but those who sin sexually sin against their own bodies. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
For any who might ask, “Why is he preaching on that passage?” I say, “It was one of four recommended passages in the lectionary Bible schedule for one Sunday this month.” And if you should ask, “Why that one when there were three other passages, none of them having to do with the very delicate, controversial and personal subject of sex?” believe me, I asked myself that question, too. And so you almost had a sermon today on something non-controversial, like “always do the right thing.”
And then I thought to myself, “Coward! Haven’t some of your most fruitful messages been on the passages you wanted most to run away from, the ones you had to approach with fear and trembling, as a fellow sinner and struggler along with your audience, to be equally judged and inspired with them, with no temptation to speak like some learned master lecturing down from on high?” If such messages were not fruitful for others, at least they were for me.
And then I remembered what Martin Luther said: “If I am not preaching the gospel precisely where it is most under attack and contention, then I am not really preaching the gospel.” That sealed it for me. He should carry some authority in this sanctuary, don’t you think?
For the gospel is always preached under controversy, in every generation and culture. And this is a gospel message. For one thing, in the marriage bond, in conjugal relations, and in parenthood, we see a powerful demonstration of God and of God’s utterly self-giving love, to the point where the relationship between Christ and the church is likened to marriage. Secondly, the gospel comes to us as an offering of peace with God, and from God. But it is a peace that we enjoy only as much as we surrender our selves, spirit, soul and body, to God. If what today’s Bible text says about love, sex and marriage seems harsh, restrictive and repressive, or if it seems freeing, loving and liberating, will depend upon the degree to which we are surrendering ourselves to God as Lord of our bodies, as well as of our souls and spirits. As Paul says in this passage, “The body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” He goes on to say: “You are not your own; you have been bought with a price; therefore, glorify God in your bodies.”
Thirdly, this is a gospel message, because there is a growing tendency in our culture to discount and dismiss all moral and spiritual boundaries, especially in matters of sex, love and marriage, as infantile, oppressive and exclusive, to even call into question whether there even is any such thing as sin, evil, or any reason for guilt. Our task, I am increasingly told, is simply to affirm, approve and even celebrate the whole open-ended, infinite variety and diversity of sexual desires, behaviors and expressions in this world, even in the church. Therefore, the only evil thing we can ever do is to not approve or affirm them all. Or to set boundaries to them. Therefore, the gospel offer of forgiveness and the transformation of our lives is not only unnecessary, some tell me that it is judgmental, divisive and exclusive.
Now, these critics are right when they take us to task for so often starting out our words on sex with lists of dont’s and dangers and disasters, as though we were talking about toxic waste, instead of the God-ordained delight and desire by which we all came into this world. Our words and thoughts on this matter should always convey more delight and gratitude than fear or grief. And if we would exclude any person from our love, or from the love of God, there’s another valid criticism.
But there, I have just uttered an ideal, the ideal of indiscriminate love for all persons. And the ideal that we can embrace all persons even while we can’t embrace all values and actions. Those ideals logically exclude a lot of other ideals. Ideals are exclusive things by their very nature. To exclude competing ideals is to set boundaries. To apologize or repent of the way in which some ideals exclude other ideals would be like apologizing for, or repenting of, gravity, logic or geometry.
But ideals are always directions toward which we strive, not destinations at which we arrive. Oh dear, did I just reveal that I am the only one who has never achieved his ideals? On this planet, there is always a distance between the real and the ideal. In the struggle of growth in which we journey from the real toward the ideal, a lot of love is needed. And forgiveness.
But in probably every society in which the gospel has been preached, it has engendered controversy and contention over matters of sex and sexuality, because the Bible has such very high ideals about sex. Those high ideals are often interpreted as contempt or fear of bodies, love and sex, which they are not meant to be. But sadly enough, many Christians have exhibited plenty of such contempt and fear about bodies, love and sex.
But I can understand where that fear is coming from, even if I disapprove of it. The blessings that God intended are so so great, that the damage we can do outside of God’s ideals can be equally great. So we get a sort of constant swing of the pendulum back-and-forth from a prudish, puritanical hostility toward bodies and sex, and women, since they bear and deliver babies, and a wild, loose, libertine anything goes mentality, sometimes within the same person, in the same lifetime, sometimes among people in the same generation, and often between generations. Its no accident that the generation that came of age in the 1920’s could be so wild compared to their usually uptight Victorian era parents. That may have been in reaction to them. Nor is it an accident that, thirty or forty years later, in TV shows, married couples were shown having separate beds. There was a lot of controversy when Lucille Ball, on the TV show, I Love Lucy, was pregnant. That may have been in reaction to the excesses of the previous generation.
Today we’re going through the opposite swing of the pendulum. Sometimes, though, in the same generation, people square off at different ends of the pendulum swing, and derive their values on reacting against each other. Probably like the members of the First Century church at Corinth, to which Paul was writing these words. Reading the whole letter, I get the sense that Paul is writing to a very conflicted church, in which people at the extremes were reacting against each other and pushing each other toward greater extremes. In the letter you’ll see that Paul is answering questions and countering ideas from people on both ends of the spectrum: prudes and puritans who say, “Its good for a man not to touch a woman,” and loose-living libertines who said, “All things are permissible to me.”
Oddly enough, as different as they are from each other, they’re starting from the same place. They end up at different points, but they both start from that ancient Greek mindset that says that to be spiritual is to escape from the material world and from one’s body and all its desires and drives into some disembodied spiritual existence in heaven. They tended to see the material, physical world as evil beyond redemption, while the spiritual world was supposed to be immaterial, like radio waves or wireless technology. Paul quotes them as saying, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy both.” So either you learn to live now as though you had no body, no desires and no needs, like those allegedly Christian crackpots in the Third and Fourth Century who spent years living alone at the top of tall posts to show how spiritual and unworldly they had become, or you live now in wild and merry abandonment, indulging all your whims, because whatever you do with this body doesn’t matter; God will liberate you from it soon.
Not so fast, says Paul. “The body,” Paul says, “ is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” Paul is thus reminding both the prudes and the libertines that matter matters. God did not destine the material world of flesh and blood and bodies just to be destroyed like some mistake that he regrets. From the very beginning of creation, God called this world of bodies and matter, “good.” God loves it and intends to redeem it, not destroy it. So, God will not liberate us from bodily existence: he will give us eternal, resurrection bodies. Therefore, our bodily actions today have eternal spiritual consequences, for good or bad. That is as true for sex as it is for feeding the poor or tending the sick or building a home with Habitat for Humanity.
Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians that “your bodies are members of Christ.” Christ sent his Spirit into the world so that he might live his life through our bodies, and to redeem them for an eternal resurrection life. So honor God with your bodies, Paul says. For a Hebrew like himself honoring God would mean using the body according to God’s will, to make and share food, to make and share goods and services, and, if so called, to make love and, God willing, to make life. Within God’s guidelines and blessings of course. According to God’s ideals.
That’s what is behind Article 19 in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. You’ll find it in today’s bulletin. We looked at it last Sunday in our Senior High Sunday School Faith Exploration Class. Every article in the Confession of Faith not only guides us in matters of faith and action, they give me guidelines for pastoral practice. It reads: “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life. Christian marriage is a mutual relationship in Christ, a covenant made in the context of the church. According to Scripture, right sexual union takes place only within the marriage relationship. Marriage is meant for sexual intimacy, companionship, and the birth and nurture of children.”
Those, I believe, are the ideals under which our sexuality is most blessed by God. They make sense from a Hebrew, Old Testament point of view that says that when God made his material, physical creation, he pronounced it good. But they also imply a New Testament sense for the resurrection and redemption of the body, beginning with Jesus’ body. They also assume a sense for the God of both covenants as a living, faithful, covenanting, relational God. And finally, living it requires that we are surrendered to God and that we desire to honor God with our bodies, and not just indulge our appetites. But there’s no promise made that doing so will always be easy or automatic. Yet anything outside of that, Paul tells us to flee.
If we are to flee immorality, then we need to know the ideals toward which to head. First: This statement calls us to reserve sexual expression with others for the context of a lifelong commitment and covenant, which we call marriage, because anything short of “lifelong” means, as Paul says, the painful rupture of what has become, through sexual activity, one flesh. Unless our partner has publicly promised to be there for us, not just tomorrow morning, but next year at 2 AM if a baby awakes, and at age 97 when we don’t look so “hot” anymore, sexual activity is heading us toward a painful spiritual amputation, rather than toward a delightful spiritual union.
Secondly, it calls this lifelong covenant “mutual,” in the sense of an equal and mutually respectful and dignified relationship, one of equal power and worth for both partners, because humans, male and female, were all created of equal worth, and are redeemed for relationships of equal worth. Yes, some biblical laws and stories represent the lower social power that women had, and too often still have, in the world. But that was a result of our fall into sin. With Jesus, we can live a new, redeemed reality. Besides, the trajectory of the biblical witness challenges and undermines that history of female subjugation.
Thirdly, the statement also blesses marriage between just two partners, because of their equal value in God’s sight. Having more than one wife or husband implies and symbolizes that one gender is worth more than the other. Yes, some of the patriarchs of the Old Testament had multiple wives. But in every case, their family histories were disasters. They were poster children for monogamy in reverse. Polygamy was also a result of the fall. But in Christ, the marriage covenant becomes a picture of the covenant between One Savior and One church.
Fourth, the confession also reserves the blessing of marriage for “one man and one woman.” Maleness and femaleness are both equal and complementary parts of the image of God, for we read, “in the image of God he created man, male and female.” Thus the first marriage was a union, or re-union– of the two parts of God’s image in humanity that were separated when God formed Eve from Adam: maleness and femaleness. Through the sacred fire of sexuality, it can be said that two parts of God’s nature desire and delight in each other upon their reunion. With the fall into sin, however, there is a painful rupture of the two aspects of God’s image in us, maleness and femaleness, which marriage is called to reconcile. If we are called to seek and model the peace of God, that must include peace between the sexes. Working toward the reconciliation of that ruptured relationship is difficult but crucial work.
Finally, our confession says, Christian marriage is a mutual relationship in Christ, a covenant made in the context of the church. For it to be a Christian marriage, there must be the commitment on someone’s part to a spiritual basis to that marriage, so that the sexual bond is at the service of the spiritual bond, and not the other way around. Otherwise what will sustain the covenant and the commitment when, for reasons of health or other forces beyond our control, sexual expression is not possible? This amazing power is given us to sustain and create life. But not just biological life. Also life in the form of mission, ministry, service, hospitality and prayer together. Among Protestants and Anabaptists, some of their most effective mission and ministry work has been done by married couples whose every aspect of their relationship was a living demonstration of the gospel.
Now I admit: those are uniquely Christian and Biblical ideas about marriage and sex. We cannot and must not legislate them on others and impose them by force. We must accept the cost, that they always get the church into hot water with every society over at least one of those ideals, if not more. Where we lived in West Africa, some people objected to the Christian and biblical ideals of monogamy and equality between and women.
In the time of Paul, these ideals sometimes led to persecution of the church. In the pagan Greek and Roman mindset of the time, slave-owners had full legal rights to the bodies and services of any of their slaves, of either gender, for work or pleasure. We have histories of the martyrdom and punishment of some Christian slaves whose faith was discovered because they refused the sexual demands of their masters.
Today, in this society, it is the biblical weight on behalf chastity outside of marriage, and on heterosexual unions that many people find offensive or exclusive. I understand: none of us asked to be tempted as we are. Very few people ever chose to have same sex desires. On that particular matter, I empathize with all who feel same sex desires, some overwhelmingly, some occasionally. I know them as beloved friends and relatives, as do many of you. But I submit to the Mennonite Confession of Faith that does not permit me to perform a same sex wedding, because any ministry I do relating to marriage must aim at the ideals I have just mentioned. To me, all these ideals are mutually reinforcing. I fail yet to see how I can surrender one and keep the others. Furthermore, I am under oath as a pastor to support all who are seeking to be chaste and obedient to God in every aspect of their lives, whatever their desires and struggles. And they require of me the same loyalty to biblical authority and to our Confession of Faith that undergirds my commitment to peace, anti-racism and economic justice. No, I don’t have the final answer on how to respond pastorally to same sex desires and relationships. But I find very little that is helpful from either the extremes of law without love, or love without law.
I can live, work and worship respectfully with Christians who disagree with me about how to respond to homosexuality. No doubt they are thinking about the pain and exclusion that people with same sex desires feel. That bothers me too. I can also live respectfully and peacefully in a society in which same sex marriages are legally recognized. I think that will eventually be the case here. But until I can see how I might relinquish one ideal without undercutting the others, I simply will not perform or celebrate any weddings where the marriage would not and could not grow toward godly ideals for marriage.
But just because a marriage matches one of those ideals, such as heterosexuality, does not automatically mean that it is closer to God’s ideal than one that violates other ideals. Not if that marriage lacks respect, or monogamous faithfulness, or a life time commitment. So we have no right to look down our noses at other people and other relationships. At various points and times, we all fall short of the ideal. Increasingly, the church is being left holding the bag for an exclusively Christian understanding of sex and marriage. And that is how it should be.
Yes, the other side of these ideals is those boundaries that some people love to hate. But here’s something every civil engineer and architect knows: that boundaries can actually increase our freedom. Take away all the lane dividers, all the traffic lights, all the stop signs, and the curbs between streets and sidewalks, and no one is going anywhere. Or design a children’s playground in which there is no appropriate distance or no barrier between the slide or the sandbox and a busy street, and children will be too afraid to play, or very restricted in their play.
In the genetic memory of our race is the memory and the longing for that first playground of Eden, literal or symbolic, in which there was a maximum of innocence and freedom, with only one boundary. The breaking of that boundary resulted in less freedom and the need for more boundaries. But life according to the ideals of which I have just spoken is the closest we can come back to the innocence of the Garden.
And yet the stern-faced angel still stands at the gate of Paradise with the flaming sword barring us from re-entry. For many of us, maybe all of us, on that sword are inscribed the memories of our own failings and shortcomings, including those in the area of sex and marriage. I don’t have to tell us, for example, that pornography is one of the largest global industries, right up there with drugs, prostitution and weapons. We don’t have to go looking for it; it comes looking for us.
As the casualties of today’s sexual revolution pile up, some will come limping into the church, I hope. But I also fear that the pendulum will swing in the other direction, back toward the fear and contempt of bodies and sex. And that will be unhealthy, too. To avoid either extreme, the task before us is three-fold: 1) to keep ourselves surrendered to God and moving toward godly ideals; and 2) to welcome and give thanks for all the gifts of God and to enjoy them according to the ideals and, yes, the boundaries, God has given. That way lies freedom and the closest we can come to our original innocence. And thirdly, to be prepared for hospitality and ministry to all who have been wounded in this vital part of life.
My experience tells me that rebels against all boundaries can be as fearful and angry as are the prudish and puritanical. I can understand why: Where do you go when there’s no direction in which to strive? How does one heal when what doesn’t matter still hurts? How can you be safe if your neighbor has no boundaries either? To such ones I say: Look again at these boundaries and ideals. In them are some things you may want some day: forgiveness, healing and the chance to begin anew. From eleven years of serving and getting to know this congregation, I can also, without reservation, offer you friends who will not turn away from anyone in fear or hatred, whatever the temptations, the history or the issues you bring. In the right setting among us, anyone can find support, encouragement and accountability from someone among all the fellow strugglers here, to help you on that journey from the real toward God’s ideal. Because of human nature, every saint has a past. Because of God’s nature, every sinner has a future. That, this morning, is the gospel.