FAITHFUL TO ONE
This week we move into sermon #2 on love, relationships, and sexuality, and it's getting harder. By harder, I don't mean harder to talk about, but rather harder to focus and condense into the space of a twenty-minute sermon. Today is the day to talk about erotic love, as it is expressed in marriage and in sexuality. Just that topic alone could keep us going for weeks, so I know we're not going to exhaust the topic in one sermon.
The natural world is full of options for sexuality and relationships. The amoeba just splits in two when it wants to reproduce. More than 6 percent of male sheep are homosexual (Epstein, Psychology Today, Jan/Feb 2003), the black widow spider kills her mate after sex, the bull Elk assembles harems of up to 60 cows (National Audubon Society Field Guide to N. American mammals), while the Canada Goose and Gray Wolf mate for life. So, if you want to follow what's "natural," you can take your pick.
I happen to think that our sexuality is about more than what is "natural." We do not have a mating season, when an otherwise latent sex drive appears, and the sex drive does not disappear when the age of childbearing ends. That says to me that our sexual nature has to do with something more than procreation. I can tell you that is good news to this woman who has been unable to conceive children. I think our sexuality conveniently provides a means of fulfilling that early commandment to "Be fruitful and multiply." But I think its primary function is not physical, but spiritual.
Here's a statement for you to chew on for awhile. I believe that sex in our human relationships is meant to be what the sacrament of Holy Communion is meant to be in our relationship with God. It is the physical, material sign of the spiritual reality of being One. We'll talk about that more in a minute, but for now you can contemplate how freqeuntly Communion should be celebrated.
Sex and Communion are, in a significant way, both about the same thing....becoming one, which is why sex is tied into marriage. Jesus, in Matthew 19 reminds the Disciples of the purpose of marriage in Genesis: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." Marriage is a gift where we can learn how to become one with another, different person so that we might learn how to become one with God.
Right in the marriage ceremony itself, the United Methodist ritual calls for me to hold up the wedding rings and say to the congregation, "These rings are the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, signifying to us the union between Jesus Christ and his church." The Church has always proclaimed that what we do in a marriage is somehow a mirror of what we are doing with God.
I chose the passage from Hosea this morning so that you could hear one of many places in the Old Testament where God talks about God's relationship to Israel in the language of marriage. When Israel starts worshiping other gods, God calls it adultery and prostitution. When God calls them back, it is in the language of a husband tenderly bringing a wife back home. That doesn't go away in the New Testament; it is simply transferred and used to describe the relationship between Jesus and the Church, the bride of Christ.
As you know, marriage and I have not been easy partners. I am in no position to say, "Do this and your marriage will thrive." I have never been in a marriage that thrived, and therefore have no authority to talk about that, although I can offer a very good catalog of marriage-killing mistakes. But my own troubles have led me to deep prayer and searching about what this whole marriage thing is supposed to be.
Once as I was struggling with this, God led me to Isaiah 54. It began "Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child," the words leapt off the page. It went on... "Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your Maker is your husband the Lord Almighty is his name...The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit–a wife who married young, only to be rejected, says your God." I don't know how long I cried.
For me that night, it became clear. Human marriage was meant to be a mirror of our relationship to God...the God who loves us for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. Learning to do that with another human being is practice for learning to do that with God. That's why it is better to have one spouse than many...because we are learning to forsake all other gods and be faithful to one. Let me say a word about that..
You don't have to be a pastor long to learn that faithfulness in marriage is a real struggle for a lot of people. A lot of good people. There was a time in one church when I wanted to stand up on a Sunday morning and say, "Okay, is there anybody out there sleeping with the person they're supposed to be sleeping with?" It seemed like every day there was another confession coming into my office. There is also a gender difference, which I see most often at weddings. Toward the beginning of the wedding ceremony, I ask both the bride and the groom if they will take the other as husband or wife to live together in holy marriage. I ask for promises to love and to honor and forsaking all others to be faithful as long as they both shall live.
The bride gets the questions first, and she beams and readily says "Yes.." The groom goes along fine until I get to that last line about forsaking all others. Invariably, I see this pained expression go across his face, as he nervously says "I will." He's not a bad person. He's not planning to run around on his wife. But he seems to know that something in his nature is descended from the bull Elk, and he knows that he's in for a struggle. The women at least think it's going to be easy, although my other experiences have shown that women also have their problems with faithfulness.
I believe that we need to be really careful with our sexual behavior, but not for the usual reasons of AIDS and venereal diseases. I believe sex is as much spiritual as it is physical. When you have sex with another person, you are joined for life. You are one. Paul weighs in on the same topic in 1 Corinthians 6:15: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.' But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit."
The sexual act is holy. It is an act of love and therefore an act of God. There is no room there for fear or for violence or force. "Even as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me, says Jesus. Sex, like love, is patient and kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking...always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. It is a physical sign of love and therefore should have the qualities of love.
But it is more than just a sign. It is a mystical reality. Something really happens there in the bedroom beyond what is happening physically. Two are becoming one. Paul doesn't say the mystery is absent with a prostitute...no, that's all the more reason to be careful. Just like signing a marriage license has legal consequences, so having a sexual relationship has spiritual consequences...and perhaps material and legal consequences as well.
I go back to the example of Communion. In the United Methodist church we call Communion a sacrament because we believe something more than eating and remembering happens. We believe that in some mystical way we are being made one with God and with each other. That's why the symbolism of one cup and one loaf of bread are important...we all take the same substance into ourselves and it becomes physically part of our bodies. Jesus has promised to be present in a special way in that bread and cup so that as the bride of Christ we take him into ourselves. The two become one. Your Maker is your husband. The marriage feast of the Lamb.
I don't think sexual fidelity in marriage is necessarily "natural." From most accounts, it appears to be a struggle. I think the reason to do it anyway, is that, in a very real way, the struggle to be faithful to your spouse is the same struggle as the struggle to be faithful to God. The other faith options look really good, and many are certainly easier; but the Christian way is the way to which we have committed ourselves. We have decided to follow this God and not something else. We strive to behave as Jesus teaches and not as others would have us do.
In the same way, other human relationships might look good, and might well be easier and more pleasant...at least for a time...but we are called to stay faithful as a means of developing a faithful character. It is a spiritual discipline. The person that can say "no" to an attractive other woman or man is well on his or her way to being able to say "no" to the lure of money, possessions, and power...well on the way to becoming a faithful disciple of the one God.
Sex represents the commitment to the one relationship that we have chosen to teach us about faithfulness, and it accomplishes and maintains the spiritual union needed to keep the relationship strong and vital. When the Roman Catholic church wants to say that someone is no longer a part of the church, they ex-communicate them...they bar them from the table of the Lord's Supper. I don't agree with forcibly keeping anybody from the table, but I do agree that to be away from the table is to be distanced from our relationship with God.
I think the same thing is true of sex in a marriage. While taking into account physical disabilities; if you are married and not having a regular sexual relationship, you are ex- communicated from the relationship and even Paul agrees that this is not healthy. You can read about that in 1 Corinthians 7.
Which brings us to the question of divorce. Because I think God intended the covenant of marriage to give us an opportunity to learn life-long faithfulness, I don't believe that God ever intended for marriages to fail. Both Old and New Testaments bear this out. But neither do I think that God wants us to compromise what it means to be faithful just because we are not able to do that with our current spouse. Divorce should be an absolute last resort. The intent of a couple getting married should be that this is a life-long commitment and that they will both do everything in their power to learn how to love the other and to remain faithful in all ways. A good marriage does not fall from the sky. It is the reward for many years of hard work as well as pleasure.
But the reality is that if you have no sexual relations with your spouse, if there is no mutual love between you, if your heart is not continually trying to seek the best for your partner instead of yourself, and certainly if there is physical violence or emotional blackmail...you don't have a marriage...I believe you are already divorced in God's eyes, no matter what a legal piece of paper says.
It is that sort of break in the loving relationship that God wants us to try our best to avoid, not the legal status. If the above is true, then your marriage has crumbled....or perhaps never was. You need to seek help...both from God and from human counselors to see if a new marriage can be created between you, or whether you two are simply unable to mirror a relationship with God.
I really, honestly believe that all our relationships with other people are our proving ground for learning how to relate to God and for learning what to expect from God. I can't tell you how many times I have seen a person's spiritual problems have a direct link to problems in a human relationship...most especially parents and spouses.
I say to you, for the sake of your spiritual life and the character of your soul, take on the discipline of loving faithfulness. Don't just live together. Make the commitment; make the choice. Enter into the covenant to be faithful to another, even as God is faithful to you. Those of us who are single are invited to find other avenues for learning faithfulness to one thing. It might be the church or a cause or a child or a friend. Those who are single, please recognize the reality that a sexual relationship unites you spiritually with that person for life. Take to heart the warning often posted in china shops, "If you break it, it's yours." Those who are married are called to focus, not just on being technically faithful, but in becoming to your spouse all that God would want in your relationship to God as a faithful disciple.
The goal of all of it is that we learn to love God in mind, body, and soul. Marriage is meant to be a mirror of that love, and sex the nourishment that keeps the image healthy and sparkling. One bread. One body. One Lord of all.
© 2003, Anne Robertson
Return to AnneRobertson.com