Sermon - Epiphany 2 (Ordinary 2) Year B

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Loyalty in the body
Sex and faith

[Note: The stimulus for this sermon was the libertarian attitude to sexual morality which has been making great claims against the gospel even within the church, and the response comes from the epistle for Ordinary 2, which points to other important Biblical teaching, so that it is in part expository and in part topical, given the circumstances of the time.]

Sex is an important subject. Sometimes people say we pay too much attention to it, that there are plenty of other moral problems and that questions of social justice like the exploitation of the poor and ethic minorities, or issues like unemployment should occupy our thinking more and be the focus of moral indignation. Of course, there is a lot in that, but its not a question of choosing one or the other. We should be concerned with both social justice in the political and economic affairs of the world and with personal morality. Both are aspects of discipleship. Christians cannot be loyal to Christ and live carelessly in either respect.

It is an unfortunate caricature of the church to represent us as kills joys, all hung up about things of the body, who try to repress natural feelings because we can't cope with them. When I was young we put a good deal of effort into overcoming restrictive so-called puritan attitudes, and with a fair amount of success. People who think that the same thing still needs to be done, and who most need to hear what we do actually believe, are not likely to be here listening to this sermon, where they might once have been, but I think I should continue to bring out more of the deep spiritual significance of the way that God has made us sexual beings, for our own sakes and to help us in sharing with others the Christian view of common human experience. If some of us have suffered from too many controls which inhibited normal behaviour, it is equally true today that many have suffered from the consequences of irresponsible and licentious sexual behaviour. These are common human problems found in all societies whether or not they have ever been basically Christian. It is part of being human to have to struggle in some way with how we live as sexual beings. There is no human society that does not exercise some control over sexual behaviour. There is much about it in the Bible, and its not all about rules of morality that people often find it difficult to keep, although as Paul said in what we read today there is some value in the rules:

Law and freedom

Those among the early Christians who were not Jews did not feel bound by the Jewish law which had strict rules about sexual behaviour, and Paul had encouraged them to feel free of the old law. However, the rules from which it was agreed that they would be free were things like the Jewish practice of circumcision, eating only certain kinds of food and worshipping God in particular rituals. They had a big discussion about this at what is called the Council of Jerusalem after disagreements had developed between Paul and Peter, and more generally between the Jewish Christians and those of a Greek background. It is very significant that what they agreed on and the message they sent from Jerusalem to the Gentile Christians allowed them to be free of most of the Jewish law, but not in regard to some central aspects of sexual behaviour and the worship of idols. They were explicitly forbidden to engage in fornication and told to avoid blood and idolatry. [See Acts 15].

The reference to blood and things that had been strangled need not concern us, but it helps a little to understand the spiritual basis of the old laws. It had to do with their belief in life residing in the blood and their wish to avoid being contaminated by an alien form of life much as one might be if one joined oneself with a foreign god through the worship of an idol to which a sacrifice had been made. Some remnants of this kind of belief are still held in some parts of the world. That is why we in Australia have a live sheep trade with the Middle East: it is to ensure that the right ritual is employed in killing the animal, and that ritual was based on ancient practice developed to make sure that blood was drained from an animal that was to be eaten in case the life of the eater might be contaminated by the life of the animal. You might say that we don't need to be worried about such things except perhaps where it affects health, but the point originally was to avoid spiritual contamination, especially when the consumption of blood was associated with the worship of idols.

We might have different ideas about what causes us to be contaminated spiritually (and indeed Jesus saw that when he said that it was not what goes into a man but what come out of him that make him unclean); but if we are honest we know that spiritual defilement can happen to us. We know that if we are devoted to things that do not deserve to be worshipped or highly valued, then our false or vain worship of unworthy things will distort our values, our view of the world, and will affect our behaviour. It was not so very different for the ancient people, even if their understanding of biology was less than ours, they knew that if they worshipped other gods, sacrificing to idols, their lives would be affected by the different beliefs and the whole culture of which those idols formed a necessary part. The new Christians were advised to avoid such influences, because otherwise their loyalty to Christ could be undermined.

Why is fornication mentioned in the same way as idolatry?

Does sexual license, engaging in uncommitted, mixed or adulterous relationships, or prostitution, affect people in the same way as worshipping idols? Paul believed that it did and so did the leaders of the church generally. This was one thing they agreed upon after much debate. So although new Christians from Gentile backgrounds might be free not to follow the old Jewish law in many respects, they ought to realize that in those things regarding sexual behaviour they were dealing with matters of concern to humanity in general. Such rules were not for Jews only. Control of sexual behaviour was not something that was limited to a particular people or nation or to a culture of a certain time or place, as people who think themselves progressive are inclined to imagine today. A good illustration of the general human character of these concerns today is how people in Asian countries regard the undisciplined sexual behaviour of Westerners with disgust. They know what Paul knew when he said, you might think "All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. That is the common human experience. As I was saying a couple of weeks ago, people can see what God requires in nature [Romans 1:15-28] and they suffer the consequences of not living as God intended them to live. That is, these cautionary rules about sexual behaviour are NOT special rules for followers of the Christian or Jewish religions, but apply to the whole of humanity.

Paul included other bodily lusts as well as sex in his warnings, but focussed especially in sex:

Any false god or value would distract them from loyalty to Christ. He went on to plead with them not to be engaged in prostitution,

I see two levels of meaning here. One could have been that intercourse with prostitutes was sometimes part of the ritual practised at pagan temples, where temple prostitutes offered intercourse as a way of relating to the god that was worshipped at that shrine. It was a form of idolatry and for Christians a clear act of disloyalty to Christ. It was a means of spiritual pollution through allegiance with an outright competitor in the place of a spiritual union that believers should have with Christ:

One flesh is compared with one spirit in general, so the offense of disloyalty does not seem to be limited to ritual prostitution, but extends to all careless use of the body. The body is important.

It has never been part of the Jewish or Christian understanding of human nature that material life in the body is of no importance, that only spiritual things matter. There was a heresy early in the life of the church along those lines. One of the consequences of the heresy was that you could do what you liked with the physical body because it did not really matter for the separate life of the spirit. We have never believed that. Just as it is important to our faith that Jesus, while being at the same time the Christ of God, was in every respect a real man, so it was also important to see that what we did in the body really mattered to God. Now, why was that?

A sign of loyalty

We have seen that Paul was contrasting union with a prostitute with union with Christ, seeing the two as competing alternatives. It is part of loyalty to Christ to honour God in your body. As Paul continues:

It is not only about union with a false god that was sought through ritual prostitution. Paul is not only talking of such ritual unions but of sexual license in general as disloyalty to Christ. Here we have the image of the church as the bride of Christ, which we are reminded of in our marriage service. Another image of it is in the prophet Hosea's sign of God's love for an unfaithful people. Hosea went and married a harlot deliberately [Hosea 1:2-8], declaring that God continued to love his people in spite of their unfaithfulness.

It is both a sign and a reality. Sex is basic to God's scheme of things in a our capacity to form relationships in this earthly life and not only with each other. It is part of our nature in which it is possible to form a relationship with God. It follows that careless and wanton use of this precious ability deforms us spiritually because it spoils our capacity to make conscious, deliberate, free and responsible commitments in relation to God and to other people.

God's purpose for us to know him

I read in The Age [Melbourne newspaper], a piece by Paul Davies, the well known physicist at the University of Adelaide, -- his books on cosmology are well known, the best known is probably The Mind of God. You might have seen him a series of discussions with Philip Adams on the [Australian] ABC TV last year. He says of our ability to understand the universe:

The existence of a self-consistent loop of comprehension suggests that our existence as sentient beings in the universe is no accident. My own opinion is that the universe is indeed "about" something -- something subtle and clever and elegant, beyond the crudely material, something that involves an intellect and aesthetic aspect too .... the laws of nature do seem to ensure that life and consciousness of some form will emerge, somewhere and some-when, in an evolving universe.

That is a little abstract of course, as you would expect from a theoretical physicist, but its really quite simple. He poses the question of what the purpose could be for our ability to understand a great deal about the universe. Why has the universe produced conscious beings with the capacity to know the universe itself, to be conscious of having a relationship to it? I want to say that the Christian answer is clear: the purpose of our capacity for conscious knowing is in order to know God. He made and sustains the universe in such a way that it has evolved beings able to relate freely back to himself.

Remember that the Hebrew sense of knowing includes relating sexually as when it says in the Bible Adam knew Eve:

We still have the term carnal knowledge [literally, "fleshly knowledge"].  Our ability to know in the body is about relating. It is for this purpose that humankind consists of sexual beings, in the sense that just as in the power of the Spirit the ordinary stuff of bread and wine become for us in the Eucharist the food of our pilgrimage, so the ordinary stuff of human relationships, has come to be used by God as a means of grace for us to relate to him. Through our capacity to know each other as men and women we develop the spiritual capacity to know God. Religion necessarily has a lot do with sex. The sacramental nature of marriage (the actual relationship, not just the ceremony) is one way in which this is expressed and one of the means by which God brings that knowledge of himself to reality in our material world. So a true celebration of the sexual nature of people helps us to fulfil our destiny of forming a personal relationship in faith with our Creator.

So we glorify God in the body as we strengthen our loyalty to Christ, to whom we belong, who bought us with a price. Glory be to him.

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