Healthy Sexuality III: Good Sex, Eros and Agape in Bed – 9/19/10 – Songs of Songs, 1 Cor. 13

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:

Healthy Sexuality I: Our Bodies, God’s Image

Healthy Sexuality II: Created for Relationship

Healthy Sexuality IV: Sexuality and Spirituality, When All is One


Spirituality and Sexuality – 7,22,07 – Song of Songs 7:10-8:7

When I was growing up one of my favorite songs to sing was “His banner over me is love.”  One of the great things about this song was the hand motions.  “I’m my beloved’s and he is mine his banner over me is love.  I’m my beloved’s and he is mine his banner over me is love. …his banner, over me, is love.”  Another thing that really made the song great was that we would start slow and then speed up, so that by the end we were getting our “banners” all mixed up with our “over me’s” and our “loves,” which, for kids and adults, can be very funny. 


What we were singing about, of course, was God’s love for us and our love for God.  The line, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine” is a phrase that gets repeated throughout the Song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs.  And this Song, this poetic book of the Bible, has often been interpreted as a love song between God and Israel, or between Christ and the church, of God’s passionate love for the covenant people.  All of this is quite true, but once you start reading this thing it becomes pretty clear that this is not the only way this was meant to be interpreted.  When it starts out with “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For love is better than wine,” and then quickly moves into the lovers speaking fondly of each other’s bodies, it certainly opens the door for something a little more than just spiritual affection. 


Now I took the risk of asking you all to name your favorite OT passages and I guess I should have expected that somebody would name the Song of Songs.  It’s one of those texts that goes completely counter to any notions of religion as something drab or disconnected from our humanity.  It is charged with passion and energy, so much so that as you read through it you have the occasional thought of “Wow, how did they let that get in here?”  For those desiring an integration of the spiritual and the physical parts of our being, it’s an important text to know and claim as part of our Scriptures.


As Mennonites we know a thing or two about songs.  About a song’s ability to lift us out of our individuality and unite us in spirit.  About the importance of singing together and the value of harmony and the way that a song can be a prayer.  Well, here we have a book that dares to have the title Song of Songs.  Sort of like the title King of kings or Lord of Lords.  Of all the kings, of all the lords, of all the songs, this one surpasses them all and is the greatest, not even on the same level, but the Song of Songs.  And the song that is sung here, at least one interpretation of it, is a song celebrating the desire for intimacy, including sexual intimacy, between two people.


The passage that was read begins with that familiar refrain, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me,” a woman’s voice noting that she has given herself over to her beloved, and that her beloved has focused his love and desire on her.  The relationship is one of mutual affection and reciprocal love.  She continues, now speaking directly to her partner “Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages; let us go out early to the vineyards and see whether the vines have budded, whether the pomegranates are in bloom.  There I will give you my love.”  She continues a little later, “I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranates.”  This kind of language runs throughout the poem, with continual references to the aliveness of nature, sometimes placing the lovers within the blooming natural world, sometimes using nature as a metaphor for each other’s bodies, and sometimes the line between each other’s bodies and nature getting blurred enough to give the sense that it is all intermingling and unified in the bond of love between these two partners.  The song is filled with expressions of the urge for togetherness, and the delight of having found a partner who makes the whole world bloom with life. 


We inherit a tradition that has often thought in dualistic terms of body and spirit, with the greater value being placed on the latter.  One of the first challenges to the early church came from the Gnostics who believed that the physical world itself, including our bodies, was evil, and that our true nature is heavenly, spiritual.  The purpose of life was to transcend our material body through gaining gnosis, saving knowledge, of our pure, spiritual selves.  Traces of Gnosticism pop up in different religious systems that over-emphasize saving our souls and place no inherent worth in the physicality of our bodies and creation.  On a more general level, the church historically has struggled to see sexuality as a good gift from God to be enjoyed and celebrated.  To borrow the two favorite phrases from last week’s children’s story, the church’s attitude toward the spirit and body split has often been: Spirit, soul, spirituality “Oh, that’s good”  Body, flesh, sexuality “Oh, that’s bad!”


Perhaps it is worth jogging our memories as to how Scripture imagines our humanity as it has been created by God.  That God looked with joy on the physical creation of light, and sky, and vegetation, and animals and echoed that “it was good.”  And when humanity finally came on the scene, God saw everything that was made, and “indeed, it was very good.”  And that there was a kind of wholeness there that knew of no division between spirit and body, or soul and sexuality, that we all, animals and humans alike, come from this dark, rich earth, and we come all fired up with desire and spiritedness.  And that shame about our bodies isn’t something inherent in our natures, but something that has come on the scene later, so that now we cover our nakedness and also cover ourselves from God’s gaze.  And God comes looking for us and asks, “Where are you?” Like portrayed in that Garden of Eden scene.  Where is this wonderful creature I’ve created and why are you hiding from yourself and from me? 


And then for the bulk of our history we have been hidden from the wholeness that God would have us live.  The unity of selfhood that can so easily come undone, and make unhealthy separations and severances between things like our body and our spirit.  So the body hides from the spirit and the spirit hides from the body and we feel the dis-ease that results.


So we also must remember that central, pivotal revelation of our faith that can take us beyond our dis-ease — what theologians have called incarnation.  Incarnation, built around the Latin word carnus meaning flesh, physicality.  Enfleshment.  Signaled in that crucial line from John’s gospel “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”   Jesus, modeling, teaching us, about the coming together of Holy spirit and Holy body.  Jesus embodying God’s presence for all five of our senses to see, hear, smell, touch, and then, in his parting, offering a meal that we are to continue tasting, the bread and the cup, knowing God in the everyday elements that sustain us and enter our bodies and give us energy.  The goodness of our bodies and of God’s desire to dwell within our bodies just as Jesus modeled.  No more hiding.  No more severing.  But unification, togetherness, incarnation.


The biblical story we are rooted in is one where both body and spirit are good creations of God and where God shares with creation in this urge for togetherness. 


Ronald Rolheiser has written a book called The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality.  I’ve referred to it a few times before in sermons and musings.  Part of what he tries to do in this writing is to communicate an understanding of spirituality that includes, rather than excludes, our sexuality and the drives and desires that live within us.  Spirituality and sexuality, he believes, flow out of the same energy that God has breathed into us.  He begins the book, in chapter one, with a quote from the German poet Goethe and then makes some of his own comments.  The poem: “We are fired into life with a madness that comes from the gods and which would have believe that we can have a great love, perpetuate our own seed, and contemplate the divine.”  And then Rolheiser: “It is no easy task to walk this earth and find peace.  Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated, and aching.  We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest.  Desire is always stronger than satisfaction…This desire lies as the center of our lives, in the marrow of our bones, and in the deep recesses of the soul…Desire can show itself as aching pain or delicious hope.  Spirituality is, ultimately, about what we do with that desire.  What we do with our longings, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us, that is our spirituality.”


The Song of Songs is a picture of how that charge of desire that makes up our spiritual/sexual selves can play out in a relationship.  And, for much of the time, as it was in the beginning, it is good, very good.  “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”  The relationship is reciprocal, with mutual desire, each enriching the life of the other.  Honoring each other’s bodies.  Finding beauty in the most mundane parts of each other: chapter 7 How graceful are you feet in sandals, O queenly maiden!…your neck is like an ivory tower, your eyes are pools in Heshbon.”  And I won’t go into what they say about the less mundane parts or else I’ll really start blushing.  These partners are entranced with each other. 


But all of this does come with a word of caution.  This is not some imaginary world of bliss and fantasy.   


With the vulnerability that comes with giving over oneself to another comes the risk of being wounded.  In what I consider to be one of, if not the, most powerful statements about love and desire in all of Scripture.  Chapter 8:6-7 “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.  Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.  If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.”  As grand and fulfilling as mutual affection can be, the desire and passion that lies underneath our longings is like a raging flame, fierce as the grave, strong as death itself.  In a word, powerful.  A power not to be taken lightly and not to be played with. 


It is not difficult to find ways that the fire has burned or injured many.  Sexuality is a root of both great good and great harm.  In its distorted form, this power manifests itself in obsessions, addictions, abuse.  All so common…All so incredibly damaging.


In a moment of reflection, the lover steps back from her passion to reflect on its fierceness.  It’s like a fire. She could dump a whole hurricane on this flame and it still wouldn’t go out.  She considers all the wealth she may be able to muster, and still considers this drive to be more powerful.  It has great value and should not be treated flippantly.  And so she expresses her yearning for this fire between her and her lover to be contained within a safe place.  “Set me as a seal upon your heart, like the seal upon your hand.”  What we share, let us share it within this safe space that we have created together and let the power between us be balanced.  Mutual caring.  Wrap me around your heart, like a permanent seal, and I’ll do the same for you.  Let us find a way to let this fire warm us and give us light without overtaking us and burning us.


Ronald Rolheiser, himself a celibate Catholic priest, speaks of all of us having that fire within, that good gift of slightly overcharged desire that God has placed in our bodies.  Our spirituality and sexuality both come from that fire.  He says, “Sexuality is an all-encompassing energy inside us.  In one sense, it is identifiable with the principle of life itself.  It is the drive for love, communion, community, friendship, family, affection, wholeness, consummation, creativity, self-perpetuation, immortality, joy, delight, humor, and self-transcendence.  It is not good to be alone.  When God said this about Adam at the dawn of creation, God meant it about every man, woman, child, animal, insect, plant atom, and molecule in the universe.  Our sexuality is the energy inside us that works incessantly against our being alone.”


The Song of Songs, the most sublime of all songs that we sing in life, is about how we shape our energy and desires in such a way so as to delight in communing with others.  We are all sexual, spiritual beings and we express that urge for togetherness in all our relationships.  God has made us for each other and for God’s self. 

 My prayer is that we can continue to learn to live safely and joyfully under the banner of love.