Friday, May 18, 2012

Covenant, Sexuality and Spiritual Life

Warning: This is a long blog.  It is in fact a sermon I plan to preach on May 20, 2012.

Sermons are longer than blogs, although most sermons probably shouldn't be. I am posting this one only because I thought it might be helpful for those of you who wanted me to go further with the ideas I introduced in the last blog.

The sermon title will actually be Imitating God and is a personal reflection on Ephesians, chapter five.


A week ago, our President announced that he favored same-sex marriage and that he will work to make it legal throughout the nation. Like everyone else, I heard him and reacted. Nonetheless, I did not intend to address the issue so soon. I don’t rush into themes that are current in political life if I can help it. I try to keep our church as safe as possible for people of all political persuasions. That is not because I don’t have political opinions. I refrain from political talk because you do not come here to listen to me talk about that. You come to hear a word from eternity about eternal things.

There are issues however that cannot be separated from faith because they impact the way we understand and live out the teachings of Jesus. In such cases, even if our words divide friends or congregations, we are responsible to address them in the light of Holy Scripture.

Same-sex marriage is not the main theme today. The main theme is the fifth chapter of Ephesians. However, because this chapter is about covenant, sexual morality and marriage, we can hardly ignore the current national discussion about what constitutes marriage.

I will do my best to speak more about this as the months go by. For now I will say that I don’t believe a political state has the right to define marriage. A state may decide whether it will recognize a marriage; it cannot define what the word means. There has been no time in recorded history when human beings did not know what marriage was. In every culture and in every century, marriage has always involved at least one woman and one man. Although in some eras of history and in some places marriage has included more than two persons, Christianity gradually pressed upon Western civilization the norm of a two-person marriage, consisting of one person of each gender.

Marriage is one of those words that have an assumed meaning, like “motherhood.” When one hears another person speak of motherhood, one may assume, without thinking about it, that the conversation must necessarily involve a woman. If a man fervently wants to be a mother and sues the state because it refuses to acknowledge his right to become a mother, we are going to get confused. We know that a man can become a parent. We also know that a mother is a parent, but we cannot stretch the meaning of the word “mother” to describe a man who is a parent; at least we can’t do it yet. In time, if science develops a way for a man to carry an implanted embryo in his abdomen – and one fervently hopes that the baby will be born by C-section – we may create a new word to describe a man who carries a fetus in his body. It is most unlikely however that the word will be “mother.”

Language exists to define things. In most cases, the meaning of words shift over time. But some words acquire a level of sanctity or horror that move them beyond the power of any culture or nation to change. ‘Mother’ is one of those words. ‘Eucharist’ is another. For that matter, so is “Nazi.” Time and circumstances have fixed the meaning of these words. We are not free to use them any way we choose, at least without damaging healthy conversation.

The Bible repeatedly warns us about the power of language and about the sinfulness of misusing language. In today’s passage for example, we are told to not use profanity. Profanity is the use of words to shock or to insult people. It has no other meaning and no other purpose. In the past few years, profanity has become more common. One hears it a lot more than in times past. Most of us occasionally use profanity, as I have done on occasion. But it is not good for a Christian to swear. I am sorry for having done it and I believe this chapter clearly teaches us to avoid it.

The misuse of language includes jokes that belittle individuals because they belong to a particular race or a religion. I don’t mean cute jokes that begin with something like, “there was once a German, an Englishman and a Cajun who were arguing about how to choose a wife. The Cajun finally said ‘when I choose my wife …” Everyone here will want to know the end of that story! Unfortunately, I made it up. Since I didn’t get around to creating an ending for it I can’t share it with you!

I can tell you another one though.

Europeans tell jokes that compare their different cultures. I heard one about how in heaven the English run the government, the French cook the food, the Germans run the trains and the lovers are Italians. But in hell the joke claims, the Italians run the trains, the English cook, the French run the government and the lovers are Germans.

That’s funny because it makes light of the various strengths of those nations and because it is so over the top that no one takes it seriously.

We cross a line though when we demean and belittle others with our jokes. We all have a good idea where that line is too because we usually stop telling the story when someone comes into the room that belongs to the group we are belittling.

Sexual stories are in the same category and are mentioned in Ephesians, chapter five that we have read today. When men get together they often tell funny stories about sexual situations. Up to a point those stories relieve tension. They make light of the fact that sexuality is something that preoccupies most of us. But we can cross a line where funny becomes crude. When we do that, we devalue ourselves. We lose our dignity as people made in God’s image and likeness.

So, the Bible has much to say about misusing language and about how corrupt communication harms our ability to discover and to share truth. The ninth commandment tells us to not bear false witness. Jesus tells us to not take oaths. James tells us to not curse our neighbor. Again and again, the Bible tells us that words can bless and words can also harm. Because of this, we are responsible to govern our language.

Words also set boundaries and borders. They do this by describing where one kind of thing begins and another kind of thing ends. The word “night” defines a period of time. We may not know exactly when night becomes day but we all know that it occurs sometime just before sunrise. After that point, we know that time has become day. To call day night or night day would be a form of mischief because it would confuse our ability to express clear thoughts. Sloppy language creates sloppy thoughts. Sloppy thoughts create sloppy deeds. A Christian, who strives to live in truth, must avoid all forms of deception, including self-deception. So he must watch how he uses words.

States as well as individuals can misuse language. Jesus said on one occasion that the lawyers had sinned against God and had “taken away the key of knowledge.” (Luke 11:45) He was referring to the sort of practice that makes common words mean uncommon things in a legal context. When that happens, only the lawyers will know what the law requires and will use their knowledge to control the masses. To understand what Jesus meant, just read a credit card contract. If you understand it at all, you will discover that credit card companies may change the date your payment comes due and to charge large late fees when you inadvertently send in your payment two days later than the newly established due date. You will be notified in advance in that very fine print at the bottom of your monthly statement.

This is wicked and dark because it corrupts language.

Changing the meaning of the word “marriage” is another example of abusing language. It is an act of cultural hubris because it shifts the meaning of family to mean something no human society has ever embraced before. Polygamy will not be far behind and shouldn’t be. If a man has a right to marry a man, he ought to have the right to marry three women. We at least have precedent for that form of marriage. It won’t be a Christian marriage, of course, but that is another subject altogether.

In the end of course, the state will do what the people wants it to do. States, like individuals, can agree or disagree with God’s law. However, the people of God within those states are obligated to resist human law in those rare situations when human law becomes illegal. We are under no obligation to obey the state if it violates that law that governs nations as well as individuals. We established this principle at Nuremburg. When we tried the Nazis for crimes against humanity, we determined that human law is not created but rather discovered. Law cannot be drawn out of a magician’s hat, like a rabbit. It evolves out of something immensely greater than itself that both precedes it and supersedes it. The English call this principle common law. Americans call it precedent. The Bible calls it wholesome communication.

The chapter goes on to tell us that our actions must also be governed.

Christians don’t get drunk, for example. The Bible continually warns us about the dangers of intoxication and to avoid it. Bishops must “not be given to much wine.” Proverbs warns that wine can deceive and that those who give into it are not wise.

All of this can be said of drugs of all sorts, legal or illegal. The misuse of mood altering or intoxicating substances is something Christians must avoid. And verse 17 reveals the reason: “Don’t act thoughtlessly but understand what God wants you to do.” Intoxication numbs our reason. It captures our attention. It hinders our ability to understand what God wants us to do.

There is a single thought that unites everything in this chapter, namely that we must govern the powerful elements of our lives because if they are misused, they will destroy life instead of giving it. Furthermore, this chapter assumes that the health of the community is ultimately more important than our personal fulfillment. We tend not to like this principle but it is one the Bible assumes; from Genesis to Revelation. The community gives us life and must be safeguarded by those who live within it. Because words and deeds either strengthen or harm our communities, they are important for a disciple to govern.

We must also govern our attitudes and other facets of our inner life.

We must avoid greed, which is a form of drunkenness and idolatry. Greed destroys life by making us slaves to things. It leads us to think of persons in terms of their utility to our desire to acquire things. Greed quickly becomes a god. It makes us forget The One true God.

Do you begin to see pattern? This chapter is a warning to avoid things that erode life.

But it also addresses the sorts of things encourage life.

Being filled with the Holy Spirit will encourage life, according to verse 18.

Singing the Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs encourages life, according to verse 19

Making music in our hearts to the Lord encourages life, according to the same verse.

Understanding and obeying God’s order of things encourages life, as we see in this chapter’s instructions about marriage and family.

The Christian view of sexuality and family is at odds with our current culture to such a level that I don’t see how the two can be reconciled. The surrounding culture ridicules the very foundations of our beliefs about sexuality and family and so we are increasingly apologetic about those beliefs. We shouldn’t be. However, we should actually live the values we claim to believe instead of yelling at other people.

A few years ago, I wrote a book about sexual life from a Christian perspective. It was more explicit than some people thought it should have been, but I thought it was writing for adults who would be mature enough to discuss adult subjects. It is back there in the bookstore.  I encourage you to pick up a copy and let me know what you think.
The core reality about Christian morality is that sexual life is challenging. It is challenging for nearly everyone, whether they are a free soul or a puritan. It is especially challenging for a Christian living in a promiscuous world.

I don’t mind telling you that at various times in my life, I have found this part of faith difficult. There have been times when it felt like wild horses were pulling me away from fidelity to my wife and family. During those times, I felt like a hypocrite, especially when I was teaching passages like the one we read today. I have never had an affair but my restraint was sometimes not so much about morality as I might like to think. I escaped because God sent people into my life to hold me accountable and to help me through the seasons of temptation. Also, I may have just been a coward, the truth be told.

I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable by over sharing my struggles. I am merely trying to say that moral life involves a struggle. And it is a struggle that nearly everyone has, in one way or another. Jesus said that when we want to have a sexual relationship with someone who is not our spouse, we have crossed the line. Unfortunately, that includes lusting after famous people like Sofia Vergara and Salma Hayek!

There are a few people in the world with low sexual desire. They may tell us that sexuality is not an area of great concern for them. That is all well and good unless they marry someone who does have sexual desire and then their lack of desire will quickly become another kind of problem.

What I am saying is that nearly everyone finds moral life challenging in some way or another. For this reason we should not demonize one another for struggling with sexual life. Whether we are tempted by the opposite sex, the same sex or in some way that humiliates us, we all need the encouragement and love of God’s people as we struggle with what is for many of us the most challenging part of our lives. On the other hand, we cannot afford to trivialize immorality. If the Bible is to be believed, the effects of immoral behavior on individuals, families and communities are often devastating. Trivializing the effects of immorality erodes our resolve to be morally upright people.

We need to also recognize that hypocrisy always intrudes into this conversation. As we enter our national debate about homosexual marriage, we don’t want to be lectured by people who have played fast and loose with their heterosexual lives. Politicians and talk show hosts who have repeatedly cheated on their wives and have gone through multiple marriages have little to say to us in this debate. They can hardly claim to be proponents of traditional values. Their lives have corrupted their speech. If they want to speak to us humbly about how their mistakes have cost them and their families, then our ears should to be open to hear them. If they rage at others because they believe that the immorality of others is in a different class than their own immorality, we can, and should, easily dismiss them.

What our times require of Christians is what all eras of history have required of Christians: that we love justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. If we warn people about the affects of immorality it must be out of love for their souls and not out of a desire to control them. Furthermore, we must be willing to confess our own sins. We are all pilgrims. None of us have arrived. All have sinned and come short.

In verse five of today’s passage, Paul puts his finger on the real issue: “imitate God in everything you do because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.”

It is easy for me to get worked up about homosexual sin because that is not an area of temptation for me. However, this chapter speaks just as much about greed, which I have not addressed at any length today. That is because I am rather inclined to explain away all the Bible passages dealing with greed. I also have not talked much about lusting in one’s heart. After all that is something that, bless our hearts, most of us do from time to time. Boys will be boys. Give us a break!

Perhaps if we have learned anything from this chapter it is that without humility and love, we will not make any progress in our spiritual life. For without humility and love, we will not be able to fill our hearts and minds up with God. And without filling our hearts and minds up with God, all the rules and moral guidelines in the world will not make us holy.

Some of you in this service today have dedicated children to God. You will now decide if it was just a cute little ceremony or whether you intend you children to become covenant people. If you do want them to become covenant people, you must set your own life in order. You must become a covenant person. You must decide to be faithful to your wife and husband. You must turn away from all the temptations that will undermine your ability to teach by example as well as by words. And, if you fail, you must repent and confess to your family that you have made a mistake but that nonetheless you do not intend to forsake the ways of God.

To lead your families, your love for them must speak louder than the rules you impose because of love. If you do, your children will learn God’s ways even if they later think you were a bit overboard. If you do not love, they will reject your rules, and probably resent the church and the God who they believe led you to become such a tyrant.

We must also love our spouse. Christian marriage is not meant to be an endurance contest. Even a good marriage is not all sweetness and light and most marriages will face daunting challenges. Sometimes, sheer boredom and a desire for novelty will become the challenge. Sometimes it will be the seasons of life that change the ways we think or act. Having children, raising children, releasing children, growing old – all of these things present challenges. In some of these seasons, we may have to choose love and fidelity with less effort than at other times. But scripture teaches us that doing precisely that – choosing to love and to remain faithful, will result in holiness of life for ourselves, for our families and for our communities.

Some of you in this service today just graduated from high school or college. You have prepared yourselves to go out to work and live in a culture that is changing so quickly that we can hardly catch up. Much of what you have experienced in church may soon appear irrelevant for the decisions you must make. I urge you to not make that mistake. The way we have said things, the way we have lived our lives, and the way we have experienced church is indeed far from adequate. Nonetheless, there is something here that is the very essence of life and if you lose it, nothing will compensate for the loss.

Unfortunately, it can be lost. You can lose your way. You will not lose it because of your sin or mistakes, although those will humiliate you and hurt those you love. You can lose it if you corrupt your communication to the point that truth becomes impossible to recover. And, you can lose it by walking away from love.

The essence of life is learning to love God and learning to love your neighbor as yourself. Keeping rules, even good rules, will not compensate for a lack of love. But neither will a form of love that you have defined for yourself. To be a Christian is to be submitted to God and to be submitted to God is to wrestle with what His word says in the company of Gods people. If you allow the world to define the meaning of love, or morality or of life, you will lose your way.

So make a decision this morning to imitate God in everything you do, because you are His dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ who loved us and offered Himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.

In short: we offer ourselves to God by doing what Christ did – offering ourselves to serve others and in so doing become a sweet aroma to God.

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