You might have seen my recent post about ‘Doing Theology in the Local Church‘, and the three rough scripts of talky-bits that I delivered as a result. One of the big questions that came out from our first term of doing it was the broader question of how our Christianity and our sexuality are related. We decided to devote a term (three evening services) to start thinking about this, because it is a vital missional and pastoral set of conversations, questions, and issues. After a brief introduction from Amy, we had a discussion in smaller groups around the room, and fed back a few questions. To start off, though, we felt that the best way to start a discussion about Christianity and sexuality was to start with Jesus. The post below represents a tweaked version of the ‘script’ of the talk.
It’s fascinating to hear about how different peoples ideas about sex are formed and shaped.
I want to share a few thoughts that I’ve had, to try and kick-start the next three sessions. But first, let me begin with a short story. A few years ago I was presenting a theological reflection on some of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. The passage in question is talking about ‘Fleeing sexual immorality’. Now, I make no pretence to be a proper biblical scholar, but this is a difficult passage. We’ll start at the end of verse 13;
“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body”
At the end of the session, one of those listening came up to me, introduced herself, and thanked me for her paper. It later turned out that she was a well known liberal theologian whose work I’d had to read at university, which I was glad I hadn’t known at the time. She thanked me, because, she said, despite disagreeing firmly with what I was saying, she finally understood something. To paraphrase her, she’d never been shown the reason behind why Christians think what they have historically thought about sex. To put it bluntly, no-one had explained that the reason Christians take sex seriously, and much more wisely and in context than any other culture, is because when we become Christian, everything changes. Paul is being quite blunt – don’t unite the body of Jesus with sin, don’t commit adultery.
Now this might be difficult to hear. And this is why I think Paul uses the phrase ‘flee from sexual immorality’. You see, fleeing isn’t an instant thing. It involves a new direction, but it recognises both the complexity of where you start from, and the process involved in disentangling from it. When we see refugees on the tv ‘fleeing’ from their bombed homes, we don’t tut and ask why they are taking so long to cross a continent, we recognise that their fleeing is complex, compelled, and difficult.
It is a bit like one of Jesus’ encounters in the Gospels – the story of the woman caught in adultery. After dispatching her accusers, Jesus doesn’t condone or excuse her sin, but instead invites her to leave it.
Think back to the short passage we just read. 5 verses. Sexual immorality might be the theme, but it is only mentioned 3 times. Jesus is mentioned at least 7 times. I wonder if that gives you a sense of a different way of talking about sex.
I wonder if the Holy Spirit, through Paul’s words here, is encouraging us to take a different approach to discussion of sex and sexuality. What if we were to focus on Jesus, instead of on ‘sexual immorality’, whatever particular perversion or secret that phrase brings to our particular minds?
One of the things that God is continuing to speak to me about is ‘the mind of Christ’, which we explored in our first evening service focused on theology back in last term.
The invitation throughout the whole New Testament is towards Jesus, and away from wherever we are. Sometimes it is gentle, like Jesus cooking breakfast on the beach after the resurrection. Sometimes it is rather more urgent, as we are invited to flee from something that isn’t good for us.
Notice that Paul – and Jesus too in various ways – doesn’t tell us to pretend there isn’t a sexual element to creation, or ourselves, or relationships. The invitation is to flee from something, to someone.
Sexuality is something that, by being fully and truly human, Jesus knows something about.
Sexuality is something that, by being fully and truly divine, Jesus knows something about.
And, regardless of what we might think now, I wonder what Jesus thinks?
And, because Jesus is fully human, we wondered what Jesus might think and feel and experience about sexuality?
And, because Jesus is fully divine, we want to hear what God says about sexuality and the complex aspects of this.
Because of these things – because it matters what and how we think about God, and what and how we do with what God says – we want to invite you into this conversation for three weeks. i’d imagine that in the little groups you’ve just discussed in, there have been at least as many opinions about sexuality as there are people.
But this week, we want to talk about Jesus. Because, ultimately, everything that truly matters can be found in Him, and is interpreted and understood in light of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
In the Vineyard, we love the Bible, and we believe that when it speaks on a subject or subjects, we not only have to listen, but, in the words of James, we must be both hearers and doers of the word. In the Vineyard, we believe that loving Jesus and the Bible mean certain things, so very briefly we are going to explore some of these. Whilst the Vineyard is a young movement, we stand in the historic stream of what is called evangelicalism and pentecostalism, streams of historic Christianity that have shaped the way we are. And, like so many parts of the church, as Todd Wilson puts it in his brilliant book Mere Sexuality;
“somewhere along the way, Christians divorced the Bible’s teaching on human sexuality from the Bible’s teaching of Jesus. As a result, we turned the good news of God’s intentions for human sexuality into a stale set of moral rules, a decidedly unevangelical thing to do. But this is what happens when we separate Christian ethics from the Christian gospel. We’re left with moralism, holding moral convictions without evangelical roots, and legalism, promoting Christian behaviour by rules rather than by the gospel.”
Debra Hirsch (quoted in Todd’s book) says that “we have inadvertently cultivated a sexless Jesus”. I think she’s right – and i think it is because we too often forget to hold in tension the wonderful truth that Jesus is fully human and fully God. And, just as God’s character contains multiple aspects like grace and truth, sovereignty and intimacy, so does Jesus’ humanity contain multiple aspects. And one of these, whether we like it or not, is his sexuality, his sex, and the way that he experienced them. This is not the most important part of our humanity – but it is a vital part, literally, and a part that Christians need to reflect on particularly in a culture where, as Amy pointed out, sex and sexuality is thrust in our faces at every turn.
It’s not unlike the culture the early church found itself in. Michael Kruger, a specialist in the early church, writes:
“as Christianity emerged with a distinctive religious identity, the surrounding pagan culture began to take notice. And it didn’t like what it saw. Christians were seen as strange and superstitious—a peculiar religious movement that undermined the norms of decent society. Christians were, well, different… While it was not unusual for Roman citizens to have multiple sexual partners, homosexual encounters, and engagement with temple prostitutes, Christians stood out precisely because they refused to engage in these practices.”
And why did the early Christians, and pretty much every major strand of Jesus-followers since then, live like this?
Well, I’d like to suggest that it is ultimately because of the life and teaching of Jesus. Just as the Vineyard has been at the forefront of rediscovering the joy of being obedient to Jesus in pursuing and practicing the things of the Holy Spirit, I wonder if it is in our gift to rediscover the joy of being obedient to Jesus in how we understand, live out, experience and talk about our sex and the sexual aspects of our identity.
To give you a sense of where we’re going, I’ve got three points, we’ll pause after the first for a discussion, and we’ll end with book recommendations and ministry.
Jesus is a sexual being – in the limited way we understand that
Now I realise that for some people, the idea of Jesus as a sexual being is difficult to wrap our heads around. But we need to remember that the big shock about Jesus, who is God, is that he is also fully human. It’s often said that the earliest expression of Christian faith, the Apostles Creeds and so on, don’t mention things like sexuality. But they do firmly stress Jesus’ humanity, and it is from that that we can start to think afresh.
Let’s start at the beginning. Jesus was born as a particular human male, at a particular time, in a particular culture. Before you think that means that maleness is particularly important, remember that he was born of a woman, a virgin indeed, emphasising the miracle of his birth but also the incredible humanity of Jesus. God himself swam in amniotic fluid, as you and I did. God himself was born of a woman, as you and I were. God himself grew up, had friends, went through puberty, navigated relationships, and would have been subject to the sexual and social expectations of his timer – as you and I are.
The only difference, of course, is that Jesus was without sin.
But Jesus didn’t have it easy. In Hebrews we read that Jesus’ humanity and divinity were so perfectly intertwined that, just as God in Christ recognises and resonates with the beautiful mess of humanity, the difference means there is an amazing invitation. Let me read Hebrews 4:15
‘For we do not have a high priest how is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin”
Tempted in every respect.
Yet without sin.
This is the amazing Jesus we worship.
Some of you might now be thinking, ok, fair enough Tom, I see how Jesus’ humanity gives him some empathy with our struggles, but surely that was all a show?
Well, no, not really.
I went to an all boys school, and one outcome of that is that whenever we talked to girls, our friends would snigger and watch, amazed at the bravado. Then the rumours would spread. This happened to Jesus, even during his ministry.
Consider the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, which we find in John 4:4-26. Scholars observe that it was highly unusual for a man, particularly a single Rabbi, to talk openly to a woman. Neyrey puts it clearly “It is bad enough that a female is conversing with an unrelated male in a public place at an unusual hour. Worse, the reader is told that she considered the most significant item in this conversation Jesus’ remarks on her shameless sexual behavior”. Not only were Jesus’ actions and interaction liable to gossip, but he was openly talking about sexual issues with her. Outrageous! Borchert puts it another way, “Jesus did not seem to be bothered by such customary patterns of restrictive conversation. His message was for everyone, those of every culture and standing in society”. Jesus simultaneously upholds the vision of sexuality that he has inherited from his father and his Jewish upbringing – sex is for the context of marriage, a coming together of husband and wife, and is a part of being human and not the whole fundamental identifier – with his radical Kingdom message of welcome. As far as onlookers, perhaps including the disciples, were concerned, Jesus was in a risky situation with a woman of ill-repute. Yet he looks past that, dignifying her, setting the sexual aspects of her identity in their place.
Finally, Jesus also spoke meaningfully and authoritatively about sexual issues. Two examples in particular emphasise this. Firstly, the famous and rather difficult passage about lust. You’ve probably heard it before, and possibly been struck by how seriously Jesus seems to take lust. That is because this stuff matters – it distracts us from Jesus. Both here in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament, at issue is where our desires are directed. Do you remember the curse in Genesis 3, in the fall? Part of the outcome of our sin, according to God, was that the woman’s desire would be for her husband, and he would rule over her. That wasn’t how it was meant to be. Secondly, a brief example, Jesus’ presence at a wedding at Cana, where he performed the first miracle of his public ministry. This is important – Jesus celebrated the wedding as a good thing, echoing the male/female pattern of marriage that is a key hallmark of the distinctive biblical vision of sexuality.
Jesus loves us all – wherever we are coming from
In the Vineyard, we often use the phrase ‘come as you are, don’t stay as you are’. In general terms, this means that we love people and we always want them to be moving closer to Jesus. Some of the time, this is quite simple. Other times it is a bit more drastic. Some of you may be squirming as I say this, feeling unwilling or unable to share about sexual aspects of your story and identity, but I believe Jesus wants to say: you are welcome, you are loved, come into my family, and let me love you into life in all its fullness.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus upholds a vision of ‘mere sexuality’ – yet he also interacts with those who don’t conform to that vision because he loves them. For example, he was friends with prostitutes, interacted with women without their husbands present, and defends a woman caught in adultery. This is just the surface-level visual stuff. As well as the obvious stories, Jesus’ ministry is full of subtle examples of his interest in and care for humans as sexual beings. Delving beneath the service, some scholars argue that the centurions servant might have been a homosexual lover. Reading the account of the clearing of the the temple is also instructive – it is just financial, but you have to remember that the Israelites were distinct in their culture for not having temple prostitutes. We can’t be certain, but perhaps Jesus was deliberately restoring the temple to a place of worship, as it was on its way to seeing other things happen that were not good.
If you remember the allusion to the early Church’s radical way of talking about sex, you can see the roots of it here. The Gospel of the Kingdom of God that Jesus taught, demonstrated and inaugurated, challenges us all, at every level of society and in every aspect of our identity. Walter Moberly, a well known biblical scholar, challenges us that: “The Gospels portray a compelling and attractive person, who engages seriously with people and is good company at a party. Yet all the evidence is that he lived as a sexual celibate”. Jesus is a fully sexual being, yet the way he lives is radical, celibate, and waiting. In a culture where sex is rampant and almost seems to be a human right, Jesus offers us a better way. Richard Hays, another biblical scholar whose work on homosexuality is probably the best summary I’ve come across, writes “Despite the smooth illusions perpetrated by mass culture in the United States, sexual gratification is not a sacred right, and celibacy is not a fate worse than death”. Can you imagine how different our lives would be if we saw anything and everything not in terms of our earthly fulfilling of our desires, but in the way Jesus invites us, our desires aimed at glorious life with him?
I love the picture of Jesus we see in John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. John describes a woman caught in the act. We don’t know what kind of adultery was going on – but the shame this woman felt must have been huge. Then the fear. Then the mob draws her towards the nearest religious judge, the rabbi Jesus. But a surprise awaits. He doesn’t excuse what she’s done – in fact, he uses it to challenge her accusers. Jesus is reminding us that, when it comes to sexual sin, like every other kind of sin, we have all sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. Jesus is firm, and Jesus is gentle. Jesus is simultaneously affirming and celebrating the vital unity of the marriage contract between husband and wife, whilst also forgiving the woman and releasing her into new life. This should be a model for how Christians talk about sex and issues of sexual identity. Welcome first. Recognition of the universality of sin. Care. Challenge, yes, but only in the context of relationship, and directing desires towards Jesus.
Jesus wants us all at his wedding – as both bride and guest/stranger
Some theologians talk about God using images in the bible to help our small brains understand what he is saying. I think this is especially important when it comes to sex and sexuality. We’ve got it’s importance way out of proportion. We aren’t looking at the world as it really is, was, and will be. C. S. Lewis puts it powerfully; “Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is . . . Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means – the only complete realist”. Jesus invites us to bring our whole selves – not defined by but including our sex and sexuality – towards him, towards reality, and ultimately towards the wedding that every other wedding and party is a glimpse of. The Bible uses the picture of a wedding and a marriage to demonstrate the beautiful coming together of Christ and the Church.
If you’ve heard me talk about the Kingdom of God, the Lord’s Supper, or other important biblical themes, you might have heard me talk about time travel. It is similar with sex. When we talk about reality, we must remember where we’ve been from, where we are, and where we are going. Jesus isn’t calling us to flee back to a 1950’s vision for society – we are looking forward to the redemption of all creation, which includes a restoration of God’s good design in creation, before the fall. We cannot talk about this apart from a discussion of Jesus – otherwise our ethics and theology are not Christian.
And ultimately, the time we are travelling towards, is a wedding. The wedding supper of the lamb, King Jesus. How we are now is not how we will be. Sex and sexuality, and all the complexity and mess of these in our lives, will be set in their proper place when we truly recognise Jesus as King, our bridegroom, and take our place in the body of Christ, the Church. This theme, resonating with the language of the Kingdom of God, is seen especially in some of Jesus’ stories, like the Parable of the Ten Virgins, the Parable of the Great Banquet, the Parable of the Wedding Feast, and the New Testament imagery of Jesus as a bridegroom.
We’ve tried to cover a lot this evening. Amy’s introduced us to the conversation – and set it in the wider context of what we are trying to do in this church generally and these evening services particularly.
We want to be a church without walls – in a culture where people put up walls around every aspect of their identity.
We want to be a church that follows Jesus, seriously and widely, wholeheartedly.
We want to be a church that listens, weeps, prays, and speaks with and to every kind of person, wherever they are, whoever they are, in order to invite them towards Jesus.
We want to be a church that doesn’t start talking about sex with a list of rules, but instead by speaking of our great love, our great lover of souls, King Jesus. And what a marvellous disruption the Gospels present to us. Jesus, God himself, understands what it is like to be a human being. Specifically, he knew what it was like to be a man, but he interacted with women and eunuchs and children in ways that demonstrated genuine care and love and understanding, because his humanity is always intertwined with his divinity.
We want to be a church that talks about sex, not as an ultimate expression of our identity but as a part of being human that Jesus cares about, speaks into, cares for, and wants to be involved in. Thats why we are running both a marriage course and a single life workshop. It’s why we run small groups, providing little signs of a family that isn’t quite like families we’ve been part of before. It’s why we gather to be transformed by the presence, power and Word of God, praying for each other.
I realise that I’ve perhaps opened a million cans of worms, and not provided any answers. So, to sum up: our sex and our sexuality are aspects of our identity, they do not wholly define us. Our culture tells us that we cannot live without sex – Jesus shows us a better way. Our shame and our past tells us we cannot be loved – Jesus is fiercely protective, always inviting us towards him. In Jesus, God himself became human, completely human, and knows what it is like to wrestle with temptation.
Next month, we’ll consider what the Bible actually says about sex and sexuality, the ‘mere sexuality’ that I’ve alluded to a few times. For now, though, I’d like to recommend a few books that have informed what I’ve been saying and sharing this evening.
Books that I recommended after the service: