Woodside United Methodist Church

8900 Georgia Ave, Silver Spring, MD 20910
Sunday Worship 11:00 AM, (301) 587-1215

Part of the Silver Spring Cooperative Parish with
Marvin Memorial United Methodist Church

Sermon: The Sex Question: What is the Christian Understanding of Healthy Human Sexuality

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"The Sex Question: What is the Christian Understanding of Healthy Human Sexuality?" is the eighth question in our sermon series "10 Questions that are Transforming the Faith" (inspired by the book by Brian D. McLaren "A New Kind of Christianity").

“Your Body is a Temple” 1 Corinthians 6:9-20
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for fornication by for the Lord and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall become one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

In the book, The Year of Living Biblically, AJ Jacobs writes about how he attempted, for one year, to live as faithfully to the Biblical commandments as he could. The Bible has a lot of commandments in general, and a lot of specific commandments dealing with the human body. One of these commandments, from Leviticus 15:19-20 deals with female menstruation and the issue of cleanliness. Basically, a woman who is having her period is considered unclean for seven days, and anyone who touches her is also considered unclean. Even her husband. And, in fact, the Bible even goes so far as to say that “everything upon which [a menstruating woman] lies, or sits, will also be considered unclean.” So during this year, Jacobs, who had not previously been an orthodox follower of Biblical scripture, began observing the ritual purity laws, refusing to shake hands with or embrace any female friend or colleague, and during her period, he was also not permitting himself to touch his wife, Julie. Julie, however, was not following the Levitical purity laws and was not exactly flattered by her husband’s complete physical avoidance of her. “This is absurd,” she said. “It’s like cooties from seventh grade. It’s theological cooties.”

So one day, Jacobs comes home, and just as he was about to plop down in his favorite arm chair, Julie stopped him. “I wouldn’t do that,” she says. “Why?” “It’s unclean. I sat on it.” OK, fine, he thought, she didn’t appreciate the impurity laws. Point taken. So Jacobs began to move to another chair. “I sat in that one, too.” Julie said. “And the ones in the kitchen. And the couch in the office.” She sat in every chair in the apartment. The next day, Jacobs purchased a “Handy Seat”: one of those aluminum canes that unfolds into a three legged-chair, and he began taking it everywhere—his own little island of cleanliness in a sea of potentially unclean subway, bus or restaurant seat in New York City.

Now, this might be an extreme case, but the rationale behind the purity laws established in the Bible is to create an order which reflects the sacredness of creation, specifically the sacredness of the human body. The Old Testament purity laws may seem bizarre and burdensome to us, but to the ancient Israelites and to the modern orthodox Jews and Christians who still adhere to some of them, they are about order, respect, physical and spiritual health, community life. These law are grounded in an understanding of creation as having an order, ordered by God; that fundamentally everything created by God was good, it’s just how we use those things that are created by God. Bodies are not bad, it’s just how we use them that can be harmful to self, other and God. This was true in the wilderness, true in the Temple, and true in the early church when Paul encouraged the followers of Jesus Christ to think of their own bodies as temples, and to keep them holy and pure. In short, our bodies are good, and what we do with them matters to God.

We modern Christians have great discomfort with bodies and bodily “stuff.” For the most part we would just like to avoid talking about our bodies at all, and just stick with the spiritual stuff. Our culture has a great fixation on bodies—especially young, thin, beautiful ones. But for the rest of us, our bodies get old, and sick and sometimes don’t work right, sometimes aren’t “normal”, definitely aren’t perfect. And they do gross, embarrassing things. And while it is often at those times when our bodies do fail us—when we are naked and vulnerable underneath our hospital gowns, that we pray the most we’ve ever prayed—for the most part our bodies do not feel very holy.

The funny thing is, though, is that the Christian faith is very bodily. Essential to Christianity is the belief that our God took on human flesh, became incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ. And Jesus was fully human, as well as fully divine. The gospels tell us that Jesus’ body got tired, hungry, thirsty, bled and died. The scriptures don’t say this, but I can just imagine, John—and maybe this was the real reason he was the “beloved” disciple—because he was the only one who would tell Jesus when he had spinach in his teeth (“Hey, Jesus, psst—you’ve got a little…right there”) I don’t mean to be irreverent (well, maybe just a little) but I am just trying to make the point: Jesus’ body did what every other human male body does, even the stuff we don’t really want to talk about.

But we know that we are more than just physical beings. We are also spiritual beings. And there’s an essential connection between our physical selves and our spiritual selves. We cannot follow Christ without being willing to use our hands to serve. And the way that we use our bodies—what we eat, drink, speak, and act is a reflection of our spiritual health. Our spiritual nature exhibits self-control over our physical urges. Including our those natural, biological, sexual urges we all have.

Our bodies are good; part of how we are created is as sexual beings. We are unique in all ways, including our sexuality. Our bodies are not our own—they are created by and belong to God. We must exhibit self-control, self respect, self care, and also respect and care for others. We must acknowledge that some sexual behaviors and desires denigrate, disrespect, objectify and exploit the human body and the human soul.

Which is exactly what Paul is saying to the Corinthians Christians—he’s talking with a bunch of converts from both Judaism and the pagan Greek culture and he reminds them that while “all things are lawful,” not everything is good for you. Though they might not follow the Old Testament purity laws, our bodies are still temples, holy and sacred. The culture in which the Corinthian Christians lived was not so unlike our culture today—where the sexual norms by which non-Christians lived were very different from how Paul, in the name of Christ, was calling the church to live. The main category of sexual behavior that Paul asked the Christians in his care to avoid was, in New Testament Greek, “porneia.” If this word sounds a lot like “pornography” that’s because that’s where we get the word in English. And like that Supreme Court Justice, we may “not be able to define it, but we know it when we see it.” Porneia is a broad term—it means sexual immorality of any kind including prostitution, adultery, incest and, yes, homosexuality.

In the first century Greco-Roman world there was a lot of porneia, much like our world today. And yet the church today, for the most part doesn’t have a lot to say about human sexuality except: “It’s dirty…save it for the one you love.” And “homosexuality is a sin.” The church, in general, is completely hung up on the two issues of homosexuality and premarital sex. But how we as Christians understand healthy human sexuality, and how we live it out is a lot more complex that that. And our ability to talk about our sexual lives as one part of the larger whole of how we physically embody our faith in Jesus Christ is truly a conversation that could transform the Christian faith and our own lives, too.

I believe that what the Bible says about sex is that it becomes sinful, it becomes porneia, when we separate the body from the spirit—when we say that “anything goes” and that what we do with our bodies doesn’t matter. Or when we say that all that matters is our spiritual selves and that our bodies are unclean, shameful, bad. It is my interpretation that when the Bible condemns certain sexual behaviors, it is not the sexual act itself, but the power dynamic, the lack of self-control, the way in which certain kinds of sexual behaviors harm people and degrade the image of God, the holy temple of the human body.

I believe that there is healthy human sexuality and unhealthy human sexuality and the line is not heterosexual verses homosexual. Sex that is respectful of the whole person—that honors both the body and the spirit—and that includes the essential ingredients of love, commitment, and mutual respect, is healthy human sexuality.
Frederick Buechner: To say that morally, spiritually, humanly, homosexuality is always bad seems as absurd as to say that in the same terms heterosexuality is always good, or the other way around. It is not the object of our sexuality that determines its value, but the inner nature of our sexuality. It’s not whom you go to bed with or what you do when you get there that matters so much. It’s what besides sex you are asking to receive, and what besides sex you are offering to give.

Allow me to give you two brief stories to illustrate this understanding of healthy and unhealthy human sexuality.

A few years ago, I worked as a volunteer advocate for the DC Rape Crisis Center, which entailed, from time to time, being called to the hospital when a sexual assault survivor came into the emergency room. I recall one particular night, when the phone rang well past midnight, and I got up out of bed, threw on a sweatshirt and went to the hospital to meet a woman who had just been raped by her boyfriend. I sat with this woman as she gave her testimony to the police, as she underwent examination by the doctors, as she filled out tons of paperwork. We sat together for hours, and the thing that struck me more than anything, the thing that I will never, ever forget was the look in her eyes. She was not there; her eyes were completely blank, vacant. She didn’t cry or shout or scream in pain. She was just numb. This woman had had sex with a man, but it was against her will; it was sex that abused both her body and her spirit, and perhaps because of this, or perhaps as a way of coping with what had happened to her, her body and her spirit were no longer one. It was like she was dead. And her body would heal, probably fairly quickly, but her soul would be wounded for a long time to come.

Three summers ago, I was asked to be one of the bridesmaids in a wedding of two good friends of mine from seminary. The wedding was held on a beautiful day in early July in a UCC church in New Jersey. Friends and family were gathered together, there was music and flowers and even a flower girl, my daughter, Nora. It was very much like my wedding, and most of the weddings I have had the privilege to participate in as pastor or guest, except that this wedding had not one, but two brides. It had taken some time for my friend Chris’ parents to accept the idea that their daughter was going to marry another woman—and part of that was because she was going to publicly declare in front of friends and family that she was going to have sex, with a woman. But when Chris’ mom got up to read the 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and she read the words: love is patient, love is kind…she wept. Just as any parent would, she wept tears of joy. Because her child had found someone who was going to love her, body and soul, with that kind of enduring, unconditional love for the rest of her life. And what more could she want that that?

Some people say that “a sin is a sin,” but I just don’t see how those two things can be the same, in our eyes, or in the eyes of God.

Jesus did not put people into categories. Whether they were women or men, Pharisees or foreigners, people with illnesses in their bodies or illnesses in their spirits, Jesus loved each individual person. Jesus healed people’s bodies and their souls, and he called them to live a life wholly devoted to God. And he gave up his very body for all their sins and for ours. As we come to the table this morning, as we eat, as we drink, and renew our spirits let us remember that ours is a bodily faith, that our bodies are holy and sacred, and that what we do with them matters to God.