Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sermon: 2 Epiphany (18 January 2009)

Sermon: 2 Epiphany (18 January 2009)
(1 Samuel 3:1-20/Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18/1 Corinthians 6:12-20/John 1:43-51)
Sex and Sacrament

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We have just experienced some of the most sublime and moving seasons and events in the cycle of liturgical worship: Advent, Incarnation, Epiphany.

Advent fills us with the longing of the ages, with the aching need of all mankind.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence (Is 64:1-2, NRSV)!

The incarnation is all mystery, all wonder.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth (John 1:1-5, 14, NRSV).

Epiphany pierces us with light and sound as the heavens proclaim the glory of God in the face of Christ and as the voice of God breaks silence to reveal his only begotten Son.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Mk 1:9-11, NRSV).

Our hearts and spirits soar during these seasons as we see and hear and perceive things beyond our understanding and imagining.

And then, while we are still overwhelmed and dizzy from these spiritual heights Paul plunges us headlong back into the ordinary, daily muck of humanity: fornication and prostitution of all things. The saints in Corinth to whom he writes are confused, as are many saints today. Paul has come to them preaching a message of freedom in and through the cross of Christ: freedom from the ancient curse, freedom from sin, freedom from the Law. But the saints in Corinth have misconstrued freedom as license. You are no longer bound by the Law’s dietary code; kosher has no meaning for you. All foods are clean in Christ, Paul has preached. Then we are free to eat as we please, some of the Corinthians have concluded – even meat offered to idols in pagan temples: “Food for the stomach, and the stomach for food,” they say (1 Cor 6:13). But, no. What has Christ to do with idols? What have we to do with food that scandalizes a brother or sister for whom Christ died? While all foods are lawful, not all foods are beneficial. Our freedom must never become a stumbling block to others; it is needful for us to exercise the freedom of restraint. The body for sex and sex for the body, many saints in Corinth seem to say. If in Christ we are free, then we are free to love as we please and free to love whom we please. But, no. Fornication, sexual relations outside marriage, which was prevalent in Corinth then and pervasive in Western society now – it is not love and it is not the way of Christ or his church. And prostitution – sex as commodity, human flesh as product to be bought and sold? It is not love and it is not the way of Christ or his church. Adultery and incest, which were poisoning the Corinthian church? These should not even be named among God’s people. These are not love and they are not the way of Christ or his church.

Some people – then and now – take a dim view of Paul and the faith, based on these and similar instructions, particularly those instructions that deal with sexuality. Outdated, repressive, pre-scientific, homophobic, misogynistic: this is how many both outside and inside the church characterize Paul, and, by extension, the faith he preached. And Paul certainly did condemn the flesh – sarx he called it in Greek – but not the flesh-and-blood of which man is made and not the physical, material world. Paul was no dualist who considered matter intrinsically inferior and evil and spirit superior and good. No. When Paul condemned the flesh, he meant those uncontrolled passions that manifest in human – or perhaps subhuman – behaviors and which draw us farther from God. Eating is human – not an evil in itself, but gluttony is flesh. And because gluttony can reign in our bodies as an uncontrolled passion, we discipline ourselves through prayer and fasting. Sex is human – not an evil in itself, but lust is flesh. And because lust can reign in our bodies as an uncontrolled passion, we discipline ourselves through abstinence and chastity. Neither Paul nor the church devalues eating. In fact, the church elevates it to the level of sacrament: “Take, eat: This is my body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me,” our Lord says, and so we say each week at the Great Thanksgiving. Neither Paul nor the church devalues human sexuality. In fact, the church elevates it to the level of sacrament.

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’ 24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed (Gen 2:21-25, NRSV).

So our story says, so we believe, and so we remind every couple who comes to the church for the sacrament of holy matrimony. It is only in the church – only in Christ our Lord – that we, in our eating and our sexuality, rise above the level of animals and become truly human. It is only in the church – only in Christ our Lord – that our eating and our sexuality are truly celebrated as divine gifts, as attributes of humankind in union with God.

And here we come to the heart of human sexuality. Here we come again to Advent, Incarnation, and Epiphany. Advent acknowledges the separation of man from God, the isolation of each man and woman, and expresses the great human longing for God to come down, to dwell among us, to be Emmanuel. The Incarnation fulfills that longing as God comes not only to dwell with us, but comes to be us – ending the isolation of man from God by uniting his divinity with our humanity in one person, Jesus Christ. The Epiphany – the Baptism of our Lord – consecrates our own baptisms and completes the symmetry of union by uniting our humanity with Christ’s divinity, making us one with him, one with each other, and sons of daughters of God our Father. Human sexuality prefigures these great spiritual truths on the physical level. Human sexuality serves as sign pointing toward these.

Then God said, “Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of heaven, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that moves on the earth.” So God made man; in the image of God He made him; male and female He made them. Then God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:26-28a, NKJV).

This is the story of man – male and female together in union – uniquely bearing God’s image before all creation. It is the story of God’s intent from the foundations of the world – male and female together in union. But the story turned and sin entered the garden – sin which defaced the image of God in man and defiled the union of male and female; sin which bred shame, accusations, discord, pain, and unfulfilled desire. The union of man – male and female – which shone forth the image of God into all creation was broken and replaced with alienation: alienation of man from God, and alienation of man – male and female – from one another. Human history is a quest for reintegration, a quest for reunification. Human sexuality is a physical expression of man’s deepest need to end man’s deepest isolation. Human sexuality is a physical expression of man’s deepest longing to return to the garden, to once again join male and female and bear the image of God. Human sexuality is a physical expression of man’s ultimate goal of theosis, union with God. Human sexuality is Advent longing for Incarnation and Epiphany.

It is for this reason that Paul condemns fornication, prostitution, adultery, incest, and homosexuality: not because sexuality is debased, but because it is exalted and because none of these expressions of human sexuality reunify male and female in a manner that ends isolation and reveals the image of God. All these expressions of human sexuality leave us in Advent. It is only in marriage – in a man leaving his father and mother to be joined with his wife as one flesh – that human sexuality finds its fulfillment and points toward Incarnation and Epiphany.

Those who doubt Paul’s exalted view of marriage and married sexuality must read again his letter to the Ephesians.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of his bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church (Eph 5:22-32, NKJV).

“This is a great mystery”, Paul writes, that the intimate, sexual, marital relationship between husband and wife is sign and symbol of the intimate union between Christ and the church. No other human relationship, no other societal structure carries this honor and bears this burden. Marriage has rightly been called the church in the home, the domestic church. So, many Christians become understandably concerned when legislatures and courts attempt to redefine the parameters of marriage: what constitutes a marriage or who can be married. Marriage – and marital sexuality – is a gift of God to reunite male and female as bearers of the divine image and to signify the union of Christ and the church. It is not to be entered into lightly as our wedding service emphasizes, nor is it to be redefined in ways which destroy its God-given purpose. Marriage belongs to God, not to legislatures or courts.

So, too, human sexuality: it belongs to God, who alone gives it meaning and purpose. Humans simply have neither the knowledge nor the capability to rightly manage sexuality without God. God knows our society has tried to manage on its own, with resulting confusion and chaos. Mixed messages and contradictory messages abound. The media glorifies sex even among adolescents: music, magazines, movies, television – they are all sexually charged. And yet our school family life curricula – aimed at those same adolescents – promote abstinence or “safe sex.” Mixed messages: our society is confused because it has wrested sexuality from God’s control. The sexual freedom of the 60s and 70s culminated in the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s and led to the current “hookup” culture – a culture which treats human beings as tools, or worse, and leads to less real intimacy and more real isolation. Mixed messages: our society is confused because it has wrested sexuality from God’s control.

We simply cannot afford to be confused in the church. We cannot afford mixed messages or mixed lives. Our marriages and our sexuality must conform to God’s design and purpose, so that we might bear his image and point the way toward the intimate union of God and man. Paul asked the saints in Corinth a pointed question: “[Or] do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, and that you are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19, NRSV)? And then Paul reminded them and us and all God’s people, “For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20, NRSV).


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