As we begin this series on healthy sexuality I’d like to suggest that we, 21st century North American people of faith, are situated in a time and place that is strange, not so well defined, somewhat contradictory, and, also, hopeful.
On the one hand we church folks hold among us, within us, the traditions and teachings of the church in regards to sexuality. In the church we are just beginning to move out of a rather extended period when sex and sexuality were generally viewed as negative, part of a sinful nature, necessary among spouses to conceive children, but overall more a source of shame than joy. Very early in Christianity’s development a sharp dualism developed between the body and the spirit, with the spirit being understood as the good, redeemed, godly, eternal, part of us and the body viewed as the source of desires and lusts and earthly, as opposed to heavenly, inclinations. Major split. Spirit good, body bad. Devastating split, in regards to understanding ourselves as whole, unified, integrated spirited bodies. Along with this was a split of the sexes, with the male being identified with the thinking, meditating, rational spirit, and the female being identified with the lowly body. The one who menstruates, gives birth, nurses infants, entices male desire with physical beauty. She lives a bodily life. So another major split. Male good, woman bad. This is an oversimplification, but enough of this is still with us in some ways that we recognize it as a legacy that we have inherited. Dualistic thinking like this can hold an extremely powerful and persistent grip on the mind, even if we want it to go away.
In an essay titled “Sex without Shame,” Keith Graber Miller of Goshen College points to an extreme example of sex negativity in church history. He writes, “During the patristic period and early Middle Ages, sexuality increasingly was perceived as problematic. This is especially clear in the requirements prescribed for various sins in the late medieval English penitentials. The penitentials prescribe 10 years of penance for coitus interruptus and lifelong penance for oral sex. But the same guidelines require only seven years of penance for premeditated murder.” (Published in Sojourners, Sept/Oct 2009) Does anyone see a problem here? Wow.
There have been bright spots. Celtic Christianity, for example, developed independently of the rest of European Christianity, at least for a while, and held to the inherent goodness of creation. The blessedness of the physical world, including our bodies, seeing creation as a book that revealed God’s glory, a second gospel. Another bright spot has been various mystics who have used sensual, erotic language to speak of God and creation. Teresa of Avila, living in the 16th century, wrote such poetry. One of them goes like this: “When God touches me I clutch the sky’s sheets, the way other lovers do – the earth’s weave of clay. Any real ecstasy is a sign you are moving in the right direction. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” (Love Poems From God: Twelve Sacred Voices From The East And The West, Daniel Ladinsky translator, p. 295).
But overall, teaching healthy sexuality is an area in which the church has not done well.
So that’s the one hand. And then there is the other hand, the other polarity that is with us, perhaps arising because of religion’s failure to do this well. This is our post-sexual revolution, hyper-sexualized present day North American culture.
If one polarity has said sex = shame. The other polarity has countered with sex = awesome. And it should be practiced many times in many places with many partners. This shift has helped remove the cultural taboo of sexuality and open up education and conversation about all things sexual. It has also been accompanied by a greater equality between the sexes, helping highlight that, surprise, men and women have different sexualities and that there must be a mutuality of learning and listening in order for there to be a healthy balance of power and enjoyment. And, even bigger surprise, not all men and women are biologically oriented to being attracted to the opposite sex.
The significant problem with this cultural shift is that it has been detached from a spiritual grounding that holds human sexuality in a sacred, holy light. As having something to do with an expression of our being reflections of the Divine life of our Creator.
Rather than being reduced to spirits who should have no real physical desires, we are reduced to our bodies that have no real spiritual substance. And sometimes reduced to just certain body parts, as if a person’s beauty and value are contained within certain highly sexualized parts. And again, we are looking at a separation, a duality – a separation of body and spirit, a division of the physical and spiritual aspects of who we are.
If we’ll allow for these vast oversimplifications of church and culture, just to get at a general truth about some of the dynamics present for us, we have the gist of what makes our time and place strange, not so well defined, contradictory, and hopeful.
One polarity says sexuality is mostly shameful, but spiritual and sacred. The other polarity says sexuality is great, but not spiritual or having anything to do with being God’s creations. Both live with a dualism that misses the mark.
And I would imagine that within our congregation, like within any group this size, each of us has been influenced and shaped in varying ways by these polarities pulled to one side or the other.
What we get to work at, discover, heal into, is what I find extremely hopeful: That is, receiving sexuality as a good and wonderful gift, that is also spiritual and sacred, to be honored. That’s a big part of what this series is about. Looking toward the place where these nasty dualisms are overcome and we live as whole, spirited bodies, created for intimacy – physical intimacy of lovers, and emotional intimacy of friends. This is in keeping with the broad definition of sexuality we’ll be working with – the drive toward intimacy; or, even broader, the drive toward relationship.
Our intention here is to root healthy sexuality in our sacred texts, the scriptures of Old and New Testament, and to do so, we start at the very beginning.
And for that we turn to Genesis One, which despite The Creation Museum’s claims to the contrary, is much more concerned with a theological telling of creation than a scientific one. Concerned with meaning. What does it mean to be a human being in creation? That’s the question Genesis One addresses.
The opening words of the Bible are “In the beginning God/Elohim created the heavens and the earth.” All of the scriptures that follow tell us very little about the heavens and quite a bit about the earth. Which is to say that the Bible concerns itself primarily with this world, this life, these spirited bodies that we have been given. That’s where God is at work.
In an image that evokes that of a mother bird, we next read that the Breath/Spirit/Wind of God, Ruach Elohim, hovered over the primordial waters. And from this eternally patient hovering, Elohim speaks and through language, the spoken word, articulates the world into being. “Let there be light.” Let there be waters above and below the earth. Let there be dry land. “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruits with seed in it.” “Let the earth bring forth creatures of every kind.” There is an explosion of energy and physical matter. Things that can be seen and touched and smelled and tasted. Creations of all different shapes and sizes and colors and textures. Some creations that even have the power to recreate themselves in a similar yet unique form. Plants with seeds. Fruit trees that are so glad to be alive that each one produces hundreds of fruits with each of those containing hundreds of seeds, each of those holding the life force to begin the life process all over again. Creatures mating and reproducing and caring for their young.
Annie Dillard is an amazing observer of the details of the natural world, and she writes this: “Even on the perfectly ordinary and clearly visible level, creation carries on with an intricacy unfathomable and apparently uncalled for. The lone ping into being of the first hydrogen atom ex nihilo was so unthinkably, violently radical, that surely it ought to have been enough, more than enough. But look what happens. You open the door and all heaven and hell break loose…There are, for instance, two hundred twenty-eight separate and distinct muscles in the head of an ordinary caterpillar…or, again, there are six million leaves on a big elm. All right…but they are toothed, and the teeth themselves are toothed. How many notches and barbs is that to a world?” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, pp. 134,135)
And there’s more in Genesis One than simply listing all the things that are being called into being. There is a qualitative aspect about what is being created. And it gets repeated throughout the text. Those beautiful, all important words: “And God saw that it was good.” It is good. It’s hard to underestimate how key of a declaration this is. The entire creation, with each additional day, each additional level of beauty and complexity is delightfully wonderful. It’s all good, God says.
The text builds in this way, until God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they were created. Male and female God created them.” The common Ancient Near Eastern notion of bearing the image of God had been reserved for the king, the pharaoh, the emperor; God’s representative image on earth. But here it is said that God creates all of humanity, male and female, in the image of God, each one bearing the imprint of the divine life, of royal blessing, of holiness. In their bodies. Their physical, flesh and bone bodies.
Then God tells the human creatures: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” which could be roughly paraphrased as “Have sex and make babies.” Humans are created as sexual beings with reproduction being one aspect of that sexuality. Enjoyment, expression, and intimacy being other aspects. Then the climactic statement of Genesis 1, before the Sabbath of the seventh day: “Elohim saw everything that had been made, and indeed, it was very good.” Not just good. Very good.
The sun goes down on the final day of physical creation with the human creatures, the God-image bearers, having been charged with sexual longing and those words echoing throughout the universe. It is very good.
That’s the underlying narrative on which the rest of the story is built.
From that point, things, famously, do not go so well. Misdirected desire, brokenness of relationship, sin, and with it, an alienation from our own bodies. And here we are, both image bearers of the Divine Light and ones who continue the distortion of this very image. Still, we believe, with all our heart, that when you peal back the façade, when you cut through the crap, the sin and brokenness of our humanity, you arrive at this core of blessedness that God has declared very good. That, in the words of Psalm 139, God continues to weave together each new human in the mother’s womb and delight over these bodies that we are, each one a new creation.
If you’ve ever been told, directly, or indirectly, that these bodies of ours are not good, that bodies are shameful, then you’ve been lied to. Don’t believe it for a minute.
I suppose this is something like a 101 kind of thing. Something so basic, yet so rarely embraced. We live in these sexually alive bodies that desire community, intimacy, physical, caring touch. It’s who we are, it’s a natural, holy gift, and there is no conflict necessary between the best of what the church and the culture has learned. There is a reconciling of the polarities that we are called to, a shame-free wholeness of body and spirit.
Call it God’s plan, call it God’s sense of humor, but it is in these spirited bodies, in all their oddities, ailments, and urges, these aging fragile bodies that the divine image dwells and, even, where the redemption of the world takes place.
Other sermons in this series: