These past two Sundays we have spoken about sexuality as an essential part of our humanity. The Cliffs Notes version of these weeks would go something like this:
We are all sexual beings. From the moment we’re born, emerging from the union with our mother, cutting the chord and making us an independent human being, we cry out for connection. We grow up in our parent’s embrace, gain a sense of safety and security from those who care for us, and continue to expand our world through friendships. Our sexuality takes on a new power during adolescence, continues to grow in young adulthood, and matures throughout adult life. Sexuality is the force within us that drives us toward relationship, that seeks intimacy, that works against our being along, and which allows us to thrive in solitude in seeking communion with God. Sexuality seeks expression through creativity, to seeing and making beauty, giving itself to a skill, a cause, a life partner. It is an energy, which, at its core, is good and blessed, taking us beyond ourselves and overcoming our selfishness, seeking, ultimately, communion with creation and the Creator.
This is the ground we’ve covered up to this point and is foundational, I believe, for a healthy understanding of sexuality and a spiritual footing for what it means to be sexual people. It’s a high view of sex, seeing it as a holy gift, related to our whole selves, body, mind, and spirit.
It’s within this wider picture of sexuality that physical expressions of sex are best held. Our sexuality drives us out into the world to love and create and embrace life and sometimes it drives us straight into a collision with another person who we come to love and share in sexual intimacy.
And once they are sexually intimate, the happy couple lives happily ever after…!
Or maybe it’s a little more complicated than that.
Or a lot more complicated than that…
Sometimes when things get complicated us preachers like to create three point sermons. It helps give the impression that it’s all under control. It’s complicated, but nothing a little 123, ABC can’t resolve.
I’m going to resist the temptation to speak about sex as if it’s not a complicated matter, but I am going to embrace the prerogative that every preacher has, to every once in a while have a three point sermon. That’s just the way this one worked itself out this week.
So when our sexuality involves sex, what are some spiritual markers that make for healthy sexuality, or, good sex?
Let me set this up just a little bit more by introducing a couple key players in all this. So this is really three points plus an introduction. Here’s the introduction, which is actually longer than any of the points.
We could call this When Eros met Agape.
In English, we count on the word love to cover a lot of ground. It can mean romantic, sexual love. It can be the bond of love between family members, siblings and parents and children. It can be the kind of love that we commit ourselves to for ethical reasons – seeking the well-being of the planet and fellow human beings.
The Greeks thought that this was a little much to pack into one word, so they divvied out these different aspects of love to different words. The two that we’re concerned about right now are eros – sexual love, the root of our word erotic; and agape – love that seeks the well-being of another, even if it involves personal sacrifice, sometimes spoken of as unconditional love.
Like other major, archetypal forces in the world, the Greeks imagined sexual love as a personified being, a god, who interacted with other forces, having a life of its own, influencing the course of human affairs. Eros was a primordial god of intimate love and desire. The Romans called him Cupid, but we’ll stick with Eros.
This was news to me, but a little research revealed that Plato wrote that Eros was conceived by the gods Poros (Plenty) and Penia (Poverty) [Wiki reference HERE]. Now imagine this with me. Getting inside the Greek mind here, this basically means that they understood Eros as inheriting the DNA, carrying the genes, of both plenty and poverty – a “child” of these gods Poros and Penia. So Eros, passionate love, lives in this state of either feast or famine, has times when its appetite is full and satisfied, and has times of hunger and craving and almost starvation. It’s no wonder sex is such a powerful force, for life and for destruction of life. It seems to live in the extremes, and has a big appetite. If you’re hungry, impoverished, it’s hard to think about anything else. If you can’t find a healthy way to be fed, you might start doing desperate things that cause harm to yourself and others. This is a powerful force.
Eros, in its goodness, is the restless energy within us that wants to give itself away, and receive in return the feast of affirmation and acceptance and embrace. Eros recognizes beauty, finds value, and wants to be a part of it. Wants to share in the beauty that it perceives.
The Songs of Songs was written in Hebrew, but involves the force of eros. The connection between hunger and feasting is direct in different parts of the text. The young woman says, “As an apple tree among trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting table, and his intention toward me was love.” Eros is ready for a delicious meal.
But there’s another word for love that the Greeks used. Agape. This was a word that the first Christians especially picked up on. The gospels speak of Jesus teaching that we should love God with all our being. Agape. Love your neighbor as yourself. Agape. Love your enemy. Agape. This is the kind of love that doesn’t waver between the extremes – poverty and plenty. It’s steady. It’s constant. It’s committed even if it hurts. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians “Agape is patient. Agape is kind; Agape is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Agape never ends.”
Agape didn’t get its own god for the Greeks, but the early Christians taught that it was a force to be reckoned with. The kind of love that God shows toward us that we in turn can share toward others.
Present within every healthy sexual relationship are these two forces of eros and agape. Not always there is full strength and not always balanced, but present, somewhere, in the relationship.
So now that we’ve got Eros and Agape introduced to each other and at least maybe holding hands, let’s get to three spiritual markers of what healthy sexuality, good sex, might be.
Spiritual Marker #1
Good Sex = Two Becoming One
At the core of sex is an impossible math equation. 1+1=1. This goes back to the Genesis creation account of the single human being, Adam, alone in the garden. In order to make a second human being, a partner, God basically rips out Adam’s heart and forms it into another human being. Genesis says that it’s a rib, which technically isn’t the heart but just protects the heart, but essentially what’s going on here is that for the one human to have a second human, they have to watch their own heart walk around alongside them. It’s a rather vulnerable undertaking. And the first human says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” There was one, and now there are two. Only, strangely enough, the two still have this distant memory of being one, and something within them wants to get back to that unity. Genesis goes on to say, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
Sex is that way of relating by which we remember and realize one flesh. That’s the spiritual impulse behind sex. And orgasm can be one of the fullest ways we have available to us of transcending ourselves. For a brief time to allow the boundaries of our own body to get a little fuzzy and to merge with the other. One plus one = One.
Not only do the two people become one, but they get to work at allowing eros and agape to become one as well. In healthy sexuality, eros and agape are also in bed and want to become one. So it’s more than just eros getting hungry and getting fed and getting hungry, and going back and forth in this way, and it’s more than just agape having the steady, committed love even to the point of sacrificing one’s own desires. It’s eros and agape learning to live together, learning what makes each other tick, accepting the other on its own terms and accepting the gifts that the other offers.
The passion of eros is in search of the covenant of agape, and the commitment of agape needs the energy of eros. This is portrayed beautifully at the end of the Song of Songs. The lovers say to each other. “Set me as a seal upon your heart, like the seal upon your hand. For love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.” Passion is as fierce as the grave, Eros, and so it seeks that seal of covenant of security that binds two people together – agape.
1+1=1, whether it be two people coming together sexually, or the two forces of eros and agape.
Spiritual Marker #2
Good Sex = Telling the Truth
When sex is good, it’s an act of telling the truth. When you take off your clothes, you’re allowing another person to look at the truth. It’s hard to hide when there’s nothing to hide behind. And since we are whole human beings, body and soul, the union of sex leads us into a coming together of our whole person. It’s one thing to have to show that mole on your thigh, or to let someone touch a part of you that you’ve never really liked, but it’s another thing to start having to reveal blemishes on your soul. It takes a few seconds to get naked and jump into bed and start rubbing bodies together, but it takes a whole lot longer for souls to come together. It’s hard to fake it for too long when it comes to our own shortcomings and hurts and hangups. This is real vulnerability.
There’s no such thing as a quickee when it comes to sharing one’s soul with another person. Foreplay can last for years. This is where the part about love being patient and kind comes in. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Can love be patient enough to endure him working through being sexually abused as a child and never being taught how to see himself as a strong, whole person? Can love be gentle enough to work through her poor body image and come to slowly discover herself as beautiful and sexy to her partner? Can love hope against hope that when the sex life has been cold for months or years that a spark of intimacy can be revived into a flame of warmth if both are committed to meeting the other person where they’re at without trying to change them to serve their own needs. This is where eros isn’t enough. Eros and agape have to become one for a couple to continue to grow as sexual partners. And sometimes agape has to take the lead when eros is paralyzed.
Sex can be just a body thing. Lips, hands, skin, but if it’s just physical it’s not completely truthful. It’s hiding something. It’s keeping some of the clothes on, holding back on letting the other person into your life. And that can’t last for too long. Eventually somebody’s going to get bored. And they’ll leave, either literally or emotionally, and you’ll live together as resentful roommates, or you’ll just not live together.
But open up the mystery of the soul to one another, and all of a sudden we have a lifetime of discovery ahead of us. And a lifetime of forgiveness, healing, disappointing each other and thrilling each other with surprises of grace and faithful love. It’s about sex, but it’s about a whole lot more than sex. It’s about sharing ourselves with another, entrusting ourselves to another. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to risk being seen for who we really are, blemishes and all. Positive results are not guaranteed. Frustration and hard work are guaranteed.
Good sex is a commitment to telling the truth, which takes a long time to do.
Third and Final Spiritual Marker
Good Sex = Two Becoming More
One of the expressions for sex that we have in our language is love-making. There is a recognition in this phrase that when people unite in sexual intimacy that love is not only shared, but made. Something is created, generated, comes into being that wasn’t there before. Sometimes this can be an actual creation of a new life. A couple makes love and makes a child that increases and deepens the love between them. The couple gives the child to the community and love is again increased. Each child at Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship is a gift to all of us and we all benefit from the unique personality and gifts that each child brings. And each child will, we pray, serve the world in ways that increase and deepen the presence of love in ways we can’t yet imagine or anticipate. It starts with love-making.
And the two become more through sexual intimacy that doesn’t produce a child, which, I would have to say, on average, is the majority of time. There is a synergy that comes through love making where each person is enabled to become more of who they are. And while this happens in the privacy of the home, the effects spill over into all of one’s relationships and one’s work. When partners are able to take refuge in each other’s arms and have that place of safety and understanding and kindness and intimacy it creates more love to give.
So these marriage relationships that we have are so vital to nurture and attend to because for couples, that’s your core. That’s your home base. That can be your primary source of restoring and generating love. And what happens between spouses has ripple effects that are felt, even when we’re not conscious of them.
There are probably another 3 or 10 or 100 markers for healthy sexuality, but this feels like a good start. Good sex = two becoming one, telling the truth, two becoming more.
Eros and agape have a long, complicated road ahead of them and for them to do well, it will take the support and prayers and nurture of an entire community. And the everlasting grace of God. Lots of grace.
Other sermons in this series: