Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Celibacy and Singleness for the Kingdom (Part VIII)

This is part eight in this blog series on the Theology of the Body.

In Matthew 19:3-12 Jesus amazes the disciples by saying that even in the face of human brokenness and sin, God’s original design for marriage remains intact. Indeed, the force of Jesus’ teaching is so great that the disciples say something which is almost modern in its tone, “if this is true, perhaps it is best not to marry” (Matt. 19:10). Jesus’ reply places before us the theme for this article; namely, the sacred and high calling of singleness and celibacy.

In reference to singleness and celibacy Jesus says, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given” (Matt. 19:11). This clearly implies that there is a secondary gift which, although few receive it, runs parallel with marriage; namely the sacred gift of singleness and celibacy. Now, the word “singleness” is not the language of the New Testament; that is a modern term. If by single we mean a state of autonomous solitude, then we are not capturing a biblical view of what we call singleness. If, by single, we mean “single minded focus” or “exclusivity of intent” or the “undivided life” then we are moving much closer to the biblical vision. Jesus points to a sacred state which our Lord himself – and the Apostle Paul, among others, were called to. This state is where a man or woman chooses (or is chosen) to not enter into the state of marriage for the sake of the kingdom.

To capture Jesus’ point we must recall what Jesus said in Mark 12:25. There, in the context of a dispute with the Sadducees (who denied the bodily resurrection) Jesus teaches that in the resurrection “they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.” This is an eschatological statement with enormous ramifications. It demonstrates that marriage, as important as it is, is not an end in itself. Marriage, is, after all, an image, a type, a pointer. It is an image, as we have said, of the Trinity, an image of self-donation, an image of covenant faithfulness or hesed; an outward image of a deeper spiritual truth. This means that marriage points to something beyond itself. St. Paul himself confirms this in Ephesians 5. He explores this world of self-donation in marriage; the wife submitting as an act of self-donation beautifully mirrored by the husband’s act of self-donation in laying down his life for his wife resulting in the two subjects becoming “one flesh” recalling the language of Genesis, “the two shall become one flesh.”

But, at the apex of that passage, right after the reference to one flesh, Paul says something interesting which reflects the Mark 12:25 passage. He says, “this mystery is profound, but I am referring to … ,” and you except him to say the mystery of marriage or something like that. Instead, he says, this mystery is profound, but “I am speaking of Christ and the church.” All of these texts indicate that marriage is not an end in itself, but a pointer to and, indeed, an imaging of—a reflection of—Christ and the church. That is the eschatological reality to which we are all moving; namely Christ and His church, the eternal state of our being brought into full fellowship and communion with the Triune God. In the eschaton there will be no marriage, because there will be no need for a pointer, we will all be engulfed into the very presence of the Triune God. There is no need for an earthly mirror when we stand before Him in His heavenly glory.

We live in the “already-not yet” tension of the kingdom. That means that the rule and reign of God is already breaking in, but it has not yet been fully realized. So we live in this tension between the present age and the age to come. Now, some people have a particular sensitivity to the eschatological reality regarding marriage, i.e. some have the gift in this age of that which will be shared by all of us in the age to come; namely, the fleshly typology of marriage is lost in the fuller reality of the Bride of Christ married to Christ Himself, namely, the church. In that case, a call to singleness and celibacy is a temporal anticipation of the future resurrected life. This is the “gift” to which Jesus refers to in our text. If you have the sacred gift of singleness and celibacy, then you have been called to live in the present age in such a way that you are already embodying the eschatological reality of the marriage supper of the lamb which fully and joyfully unites Christ and his church. In the eschatological sense we are all in our own way mirroring that future marriage. Most of us are called to mirror it through the sacrament of marriage. Others have the higher calling of mirroring it in the present as they are already, as it were, married to Christ through their devotion to the church of Jesus Christ. If you are called to singleness, it is not because you are in the state of solitude, but because you have already discovered that even deeper communion to which even marriage only points to as a shadow of that which is to come. This is why Paul goes so far as to say that the person who chooses marriage does well, but the one with the gift of celibacy and singleness does better in the sense that he or she actually embodies an even fuller realization of the in-breaking kingdom.

Clearly, this is a divine gift and it is never meant to put singleness at war with marriage. This is not a zero sum game where the only way we can honor marriage is to denigrate singleness, or by honoring the celibate life we somehow disparage marriage. Indeed, John Paul II says that “the renunciation of the married state by those called to singleness is actually heightened when we are aware of not only what we are choosing, but what we are renouncing.” The church has struggled with this partly because of some of the writings of Augustine and the challenge of Manicheanism. But, these negative attitudes towards marriage were rooted in falsely equating sexual activity with the sin nature or a non-Christian view of the body—both Gnostic tendencies. However, these views actually cloud the earthly witness which both marriage and celibacy are meant to mirror, namely, the marriage of Christ and His Church.

We should also acknowledge that the choice is not merely between marriage and a life calling to celibacy and singleness or, if you prefer “the single focused life.” There is the temporary state of celibacy which everyone experiences. Many of you, perhaps, do not feel called whatsoever to the celibate life, but, you are not yet in the married state. This is the state of temporary celibacy. It is also found even within marriage, where St. Paul says in I Cor. 7:5 that a husband and a wife by mutual agreement may enter into a period whereby they refrain from all sexual activity in order to focus on prayer and fasting. So, we see that though the calling of lifetime celibacy is an extraordinary and high calling for a special group; the experience of singleness and celibacy is universal. So, for example, you may not particularly sense that you are called to live out the eschatological realities of being married only to Christ in this life, but yet you find yourself temporarily in the single state. This is a special window of time when we can at least capture a tiny glimpse of the eschatological life by focusing single mindedly on the kingdom in the present, even as we put our own future into God’s hands. Even within marriage, as noted, we may enter into periods of temporary celibacy.

So, we see that marriage and celibacy are not two separate things but one thing. Both mirror and anticipate the same reality. Both states are deeply intertwined with the other. In the Christian vision, all those called to singleness can only come into the world through marriage and the single and celibate state prefigures the time when we will all be engulfed in the real marriage; namely, the mystery of Christ and His Church. Those called to marriage all experience a temporary state of singleness and celibacy both before and, at times, during marriage, and we are all moving inexorably to that day when there will be neither marriage nor giving in marriage. So marriage and celibacy are deep mysteries which are deeply entwined. I hope you are beginning to see how deeply the contemporary church has been co-opted by the culture’s war between singles and married, the war of the genders, and the quick sand of autonomous solitude. Because all relationships have become sexualized, deep and beautiful same sex friendships have become eroded. There is so much that we must recover in our day.

If I might draw from Homer and the wisdom of Greek mythology in reference to the Straits of Messina and the rocky shoal of Scylla and the six headed monster of Charybdis: It is this mysterious anticipation of future realities which keeps both states (marriage and celibacy) from being destroyed by the Scylla of solitude and the Charybdis of autonomy.

Perhaps, drawing again from Homer’s Odyssey, you may recall that Odysseus and Jason planned a strategy to resist the effects of the deadly allure of the Sirens. It involved strapping Odysseus to the mast of his ship and plugging his ears with wax. But the sound of the Sirens was too great and it penetrated the wax and only through great agony did Odysseus pass the strait. Jason, on the hand, heeded the advice of Princes Medea, who suggested that Orpheus, the Greek God of Music might counter the song of the Sirens with an even more compelling song, the music of heaven.

This is our task today. We must not be captivated by the song of this age which only knows the inward gaze, the war of the genders, the zero sum game between marriage and singleness, the autonomous self, and thinking that Christians are only against things. We must tell a bigger story, we must cast a larger narrative; we must sing a better song. We live in a highly sexualized culture and I can think of fewer gifts to this world than those specially called men and women who have the gift of celibacy. I actually rejoice in the birth in recent years of the Protestant monasteries: Taize in France, Jesus Abbey in S. Korea, St. Bridget of Kildare, the first Methodist monastery, etc. There are now over 100 Protestant monastic groups which have arisen as a part of the neo-monastic movement. So, let us honor those called to the celibate life. Let us also honor those who build beautiful Christian marriages, for both states image that one great marriage to which we are all moving: Christ and His Church. For in your authentically Christian lives—both celibate and married—we hear an even more compelling song, the song of the eschaton; the song of the transitory nature of this life; the song of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb; the song of the future bodily resurrection; the song of the New Creation which is being joyfully embodied in anticipation of the future reality and promise of our eternal communion with the Triune God.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Man and Woman as Subject (Part VII)

This is the seventh part of a blog series on the theology of the body.

In this blog I would like to talk about a deep fundamental violation of the sacrament of the body.  When we survey the wide landscape of sexual brokenness in our world today; undoubtedly the one which looms above them all is not homosexuality or gender reassignment, although they seem to be getting all the press.  It is not divorce, or adultery, or even fornication, as commonplace as they have become.  These are public sins and we see them lived out and even honored in the press through the lives of people like Ellen DeGeneres or Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, the 72 day marriage of Kim Kardashian, or the tragic story last week about Lamar Odom, etc…  All of that public sin is dwarfed when compared with those slain by lust.  Jesus is so bold and straightforward on this point that He shocks his listeners by pointing out that when we look at someone with a lustful gaze we are actually breaking the 7th commandment, “Thou Shall not Commit Adultery.”

We need to be very clear about what lust is, and what it is not, because there are several places where we can go off the rails.  On the one side, sexuality and the inherent beauty of it, with its reciprocal attraction, embedded in masculinity and femininity is part of God’s glorious design.  And within the covenantal bonds of marriage, human sexuality finds its full expression in the unitive, self-donation, and procreative act which comes about, in part, because of a God-given desire and attraction to the other.  Indeed, it is through the joy of sexual union that we are enabled by God’s design to enter into that mysterious collaboration as co-creators with God.   There are times in the history of the church when the church did not give space to honor and even celebrate human sexuality as the creation and gift of God.   Yet, to look at someone (anyone – a man looking at a woman or a woman looking at a man) who embodies God’s sacramental presence in the world and look at them in a reductive way… that means to reduce them from subject to object and is committing lust.

The seventh commandment, as understood in the Ten Commandments, is violated when a married man or woman enters into a sexual union with someone other than the one to whom they are married.  To violate this within marriage is called adultery.  If you are not married and you engage in a one flesh relationship with someone who is not married, this is known as fornication.  Jesus summons us all into the deeper reality of this commandment.  As it turns out there are two deeper levels which go beyond the outward physical act of adultery to which Jesus points us in this passage.

Let’s first go to level one.

It is lust which destroys the spousal meaning of the body.   To even look at someone for sexual pleasure is wrong because it reduces God’s creation, a subject, into an object by dis-embodying that person’s physicality from his or her inner self.  God intended a man and a woman to stand before one another in the full reciprocity of the “I” – I is subject.   In the Fall, the man and woman covered the very physical markers of their distinctive human sexuality in shame.  To look with lust at someone’s private sexual markers is to dis-embody those physical markers from the whole person who embodies them.  This is to rip someone apart.  Pope John Paul 2 calls it the “dis-incarnation of man.”

Even if we do not perform a bodily sexual act with anyone, but simply look at someone with an eye which reduces that person from a subject to an object, as in a sexual object, we have committed adultery.  It is lust which turns someone into an object, dis-embodies them from the very inner life which allows us to fully participate in the visibility of the world.  This is why, after the Fall, shame enters the world and men cover the physical, visible signs of masculinity, and the woman cover the physical, visible signs of femininity.  Because these visible signs which had heretofore been integrated into their lives and bodies as a sacrament in joyful communion with God have now been separated out as objects of desire, destroying not only the union of their communion, but even the unity of their own persons.

This second level can perhaps best be raised by asking a question, “Can a man commit adultery in his heart against his own wife?”  “Can a woman commit adultery in her heart in the context of her own husband?”  John Paul 2 says, and I think he is correct, that lust can destroy a marriage even within it, not just outside of it.  Whenever we depersonalize someone, even our spouse, we are committing adultery.  If your wife becomes just an object to satiate your sexual desires, or if your husband becomes just an object to satiate your sexual desires, you have committed adultery in your heart.   There are many ways we objectify people so that even our spouse is not God’s subject, but our object through which we live.  This is the fruit of the commodification of marriage which we discussed in an earlier blog. The body in all of its capacities, sexual and otherwise, all becomes the bodily terrain through which de-personalizing appropriation can take place.  Jesus creates a new threshold for us in understanding adultery.  He points to the very root of the problem at the very seat of our being; the human heart.   This is why Hebrews 4:12 says, “The word of God is living and active and sharper than a two edged sword, dividing soul and spirit and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” That is the great new Christian reality which creates a huge gulf between Rabbinical Judaism and the gospel, and an even larger gulf between Islam and the gospel.  This is the great gospel point:  Jesus Christ transforms our hearts.  Nothing else will suffice and still be called Christian.  The re-oriented heart which now moves under the gravity of holy love is the singular great potency of Christian faith and identity.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: A Trinitarian View of Sacraments (Part VI)

This is part of a series of articles on marriage, human sexuality and the body. Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part III here. Read Part IV here. Read Part V here.

One of the persistent myths which is deeply rooted in popular Christian consciousness is that the Old Testament is somehow cruel, exacting and demanding, whereas the New Testament—especially the teaching of Jesus—is easy, grace filled, and more generous.  The Sermon on the Mount is surely the greatest single blow to this myth, and our passage today, Matthew 5:27-30, should wipe away any remaining doubt: You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.”  We should instantly recognize this as the seventh commandment.  Jesus goes on to say, “But I say unto you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Once you begin to devote yourself to spiritual formation, you slowly begin to acquire specific vocabulary which gives you a kind of cartography of the heart and the inner life.  In other words, we have access to vocabulary which the world does not have.  One of these words is the word “lust.”

This series seeks to provide a kind of scenic overview of the extensive and profound theological work on this subject done by the late Pope John Paul II.

One of the dominant themes of these reflections is that your body and my body are sacraments. If you find the word “sacrament” troubling, then perhaps you will be more comfortable saying that our physical bodies are “means of grace.”  That is, they are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.  We affirm, as Protestants, that Jesus Christ only instituted two sacraments: Eucharist and Baptism.  As Wesleyans, we understand that the Holy Spirit is also the progenitor of sacraments, or “means of grace.”  Some notable examples would be: Reading of Scripture (Wesley at Aldersgate); laying on of hands to heal the sick (anointing with oil is a sign of the Holy Spirit), and laying on of hands to set apart for ministry (we call this ordination).

These are just a few examples of where we, as Wesleyans, see special windows of grace where the Holy Spirit can touch us, empower us, and re-orient us toward God’s rule and reign.  All of those sacraments (or “means of grace”) also are only possible through the body.   The sacraments of Christ, Eucharist and Baptism, cannot be done apart from the body.  It is a body which takes the Eucharist and a body which is baptized.  In the sacraments of the Spirit, it is the ears that hear or the eyes which read God’s word.  Bodily hands are laid upon the sick and the ordinand.  It is a body which is either healed or set apart for ministry.  So, John Paul II makes the point that before Christ established any sacraments, and long before the Holy Spirit established any sacraments or means or grace; there must have been, by necessity, a primordial sacrament which precedes them all; namely, the creative work of God the Father in creating bodies in general and the sacrament of marriage in particular.

Thus, one of the central themes of this whole series is that the body has a sacramental presence in the world.   It is only the body which makes the invisible, visible. Therefore, the body is fundamentally a theological category, not merely a biological one.  Once we recognize the Trinitarian basis for the sacraments, then we see that the Triune God invades our entire existence, and therefore, there are ethical boundaries which are inherent in our very creation.  As I said in the first article on this theme, freedom of will is not the freedom to decide what we will call good and what we will call evil, but the freedom to choose whether or not we will embrace the evil or the good.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: The Spousal Meaning of the Body (Part V)

This is part of a series of articles on marriage, human sexuality and the body. Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part III here. Read Part IV here. Read Part VI here.

Within marriage, we discover what John Paul calls the “spousal meaning of the body.”  We are created for marriage.  To even say that today sounds controversial, because we have been so versed by our culture to the strains of solitude.  But Jesus repeats this in Matthew 19 “a man shall leave his mother and father and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”  There are, of course, those who are called to celibacy and marry the church.  There is a profound dignity in singleness which we will explore later on in these homilies.  But, the basic design is marriage.  Our modern discomfort with this is perhaps illustrated by the recent trend in the elimination of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day in the church.  This has been driven mostly because of concerns that those who are single or childless might feel excluded.  But, this is a sign of the inward gaze which is the anti-sacrament of autonomous solitude.  Surely, the more profound insight is that our very presence in the world, or in this room, is a testimony that we have or had a father and a mother.  And we stand even in our singleness and honor our father and our mother, which is the first commandment with a promise.

The contemporary world has set the genders at war with one another in endless cruel and destructive ways.  Remember, the trajectory of the fall is always pushing towards autonomous solitude; the trajectory of redemption is always summoning us to communion with the Triune God.  The world lives under the gravity of sin and self-orientation; we live under the gravity of holy-love.  This is the heart of what John Paul meant by the “spousal meaning of the body.”

It is in Genesis 4:1 that, even in a post fallen world, the mirror of the Trinity is not fully broken in us.  Adam lay with his wife and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain.  Eve says, “with the help of the LORD – Yahweh – I have brought forth a man.”  It is marriage between a man and a woman in the mysterious communion of sexual union which unites us as “one flesh” and, in the gift of God allows us to join him as little co-creators with God.  A new little life proceeds from that sacred union, which further dispels our solitude and further deepens our self-donation.  Eve came out of Adam, and a new little Adam comes forth from Eve.  A child comes forth, and we now have a Trinity; an intimate unity of father, mother and child whereby we discover the mysterious spousal meaning of our bodies in all its masculinity and femininity, each given to the other, and both given to the child as a reciprocal gift of self-donation.   The world we inhabit, which only knows autonomous solitude, actually scorns the reproducibility of the body. That rejection is actually, at its root, a rejection of the Trinity.  Reproducibility is impossible in same sex arrangements, but through the lens of autonomous solitude, the inherent problem is not recognized.  I realize that, for quite a few of you, when you think on your  family you may be saying, “Wait, my family was not a picture of the Trinity, it was more of a picture from hell.”  Certainly, the cultural landscape is littered with painful brokenness.  But, this is another reason why your generation must “go back to the beginning” and do a reboot on the whole system.  You have inherited my own generation’s chaos whereby marriage was actually used to promote autonomy and eschewed any notion of reciprocal self-donation.

However, the Triune God keeps the constant sign before us because, even today, there are signs of hope.  I have seen many, many students over the years who have stood up in the midst of unspeakable wreckage and re-captured God’s design, because God’s design remains intact.   Even in painful situations, the echo of the Trinity is there in the bearing of children.  And in that family – the little Trinity – God, once again, assigns to the body the signs of love and faithfulness and conjugal loyalty.   Just as we saw last week how all the means of grace find their expression in the body – you baptize a body, you take Eucharist into your body, etc.  So, we find the communion of the Trinity not merely in a place of worship like this, but in the daily life of the couple.  Each day acts become tasks, and these tasks becomes acts, all deeply spiritual and so liturgical in its daily-ness that we can miss the glorious mystery of the whole thing.  Because, it is in our daily lives that we find a thousand fresh ways to say to our spouse, “this is my body, given for you,” and it is that phrase which, of course, becomes the central declaration of the Eucharistic mystery where Jesus says, “this is my body, given for you.”  However, this declaration is not only about Jesus giving his life for us, but is the fundamental truth of God’s whole relationship with us as His creation.  He has given himself to us – completely – God’s self-donation of Himself. We, in turn, are called to give ourselves to one another because that is the very mystery of divine communion found only in the Triune God.

Read Part VI here.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: The Meaning of our Original Nakedness (Part IV)

This is part of a series of articles on marriage, human sexuality and the body. Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part III here. Read Part V here.

I am using as the basis for these homilies the wonderful theological work done by the late Pope, John Paul II which he delivered in his weekly homilies between 1979-1984 which remains, in my estimation, one of the most comprehensive theological explorations of a theology of the body, marriage and human sexuality I have read.  The purpose of this blog series is to underscore how utterly inadequate it is for us to be merely against something like homosexual behavior without being able to articulate what we are joyfully for.  I am concerned mainly about our own conversation in the church, because we have to recover that before we have anything to say to the wider culture.  In my view, we have at least 20 years of homework to do before we can regain any form of public witness on these issues.  It is far too tiny of a strategy to try to come up with 5 clever objections to this or that practice, without recognizing the deeper void of theological work which addresses the very foundation which will enable us to speak to the whole spectrum of brokenness in our society ranging from divorce to digital pornography to homosexual practice to adultery to fornication to gender reassignment, and so forth.  It is your generation which must regain your theological composure.  To put it bluntly, we cannot twitter our way out of this!

During the last three blog entries, we have seen how our creation as “male” and “female” are not solely biological, functional categories, but steeped in deep mysteries and theological realities which reflect God’s own nature and His original design for His creation.  Even in a post-Fallen world, we saw how in Matthew 19, Jesus reminds his questioners that despite the rise of human sin and brokenness, despite our hardness of heart and the cultural fog we are in, the original design remains joyfully intact.  The phrase which Jesus uses twice in that text should be our reminder today:  “From the beginning it was not so.”   We began to realize that we actually lost the struggle decades ago when we accepted the world’s definition of marriage as a shifting cultural arrangement designed to deliver happiness, companionship, sexual fulfillment and economic efficiency.  In contrast, the Scriptures summon us to remember how families are intended to reflect the Trinity, the sacramental nature of the body, what it means to be image bearers in our very physicality, the power of self-donation, and the mystery of actually becoming co-creators with God in the reproducibility of children, not to mention how our very bodies prepare the world to receive the incarnation of Jesus Christ. There is a mighty chasm between these two visions and we had better recapture the original vision and design.  The former is a utilitarian vision which sees marriage as a commodity; the latter is a biblical vision which sees marriage as covenant.

The utilitarian vision sees the body of a  man or woman as an object which can be assessed like a car. Is it bright, new, shiny and full of power, or not?  Is your body thin or fat; does it conform to the shapes we admire or not; is your hair the right texture and color or not; are your teeth shiny and straight or not?  In the covenantal vision, the mystery and glory is that we have bodies, and those bodies are beautiful to God because they are living sacraments in the world, an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, since all of the means of grace come through the physicality of the body.

In Genesis 2, we have the joyous creation of “male” and “female” which culminates in their awakening and the remarkable passage in Genesis 2:25 which says, “the man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.”

First, John Paul asks us to consider the meaning of our original nakedness.  Remember, last week we had to go back (as Jesus did in Matthew 19) and look at the pre-Fallen Adam.  Our theologies have focused primarily on fallen Adam and Christ as the second Adam (as in Romans 5 and I Cor. 15:45), but we needed to remember the pre-fallen Adam and the original design. In the same way, we must also go back to the pre-fall Adam and Eve and remember our original nakedness.  We know nakedness today only through the lens of the Fall.  Therefore, nakedness for us is a sign of our shame.  In the Western theological traditions, we have mostly viewed the Fall as the portal through which we have been cast into guilt as transgressors of God’s law.  That testimony is true.  But, the actual account in Genesis names two other, perhaps even deeper, realities of the Fall; namely fear and shame.  It is fear, shame and guilt which has destroyed the original communion of persons in the primordial design, whether between man and woman, or between ourselves and the communion of the Triune God.  In a post-fig leaf world which clothes our shame, it is difficult for us to even conceptualize what it means to stand naked without shame.  But it is here that we discover the true nature of our original design.  The reason the man felt no shame before Eve, and Eve before Adam is because they were one flesh.  They were in the state of original unity.  And that was the design: “a man shall leave his mother and father and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”  Sin pushes us back into our autonomous solitude, destroys the communion of persons, and heaps shame upon ourselves and our bodies.  It is sin which brings this new self-consciousness, or shall I say, self-orientation.  Adam and Eve become aware of their nakedness and felt shame and fear.  All of this is revealed through two questions God himself asks us after the Fall.  The first question is  “Where are you?” (loss of communion).  Adam answers that he and Eve had hidden themselves because  “I was afraid (fear) and I was naked (self-consciousness).

The second question is, “Who told you that you were naked?”  Adam’s response reveals a profound loss of communion and the newly emerging self-orientation.  Eve, who was before the Fall one flesh with Adam, now becomes an object – an object upon which Adam heaps blame and guilt.  “The woman you gave me…”  You see, shame robs us of the self-donation which is integral to God’s own nature where we fully give ourselves to the other such that we are one flesh.   All the ways we shame the body of another and heap shame upon our own body is because of the loss of original nakedness.  We, of course, joyfully recapture a glimmer of the original design through the covenant of marriage when a man and woman can stand before one another naked and without shame, and say, “this is my body, given for you.”  Remember those words in Ephesians 5:28, “husbands have a duty to love their wives as their own bodies.”  To shame your wife’s body is to shame yourself, and to shame the Triune God from whom all bodies come as gifts.  Outside of covenant, we can only know shame.    Inside the covenant, we have the summons to be free from all shame and enter into joyful communion with the Triune God.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Man and Woman in their Original Solitude (Part III)

This is part of a series of articles on marriage, human sexuality and the body. Read Part I here. Read Part II here.

One of the great insights of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body series is his understanding of what it meant for Adam to be “alone.”  Before the creation of the woman, man is said to “alone” despite the amazing diversity of creation.  Adam is allowed to discover his own solitude within creation.  Each of the animals is brought before him to be given a name.  Yet, none is found suitable.  This is important because we normally only think about solitude in reference to man not having a mate, i.e. man needs a woman and a woman needs a man – no other creature was found to be suitable.  But, John Paul points out a deeper solitude which is rooted in our very being.  Man stands incomplete and alone in the universe.  In a sense, Adam is “incomplete” unless he discovers the deeper communion into which God calls him and us.  God does not need to create the world in order to have fellowship.  This is where Islam, in my opinion, has a vulnerability in their doctrine of God.  By rejecting the Trinity, Islam is left with a solitude God.   Biblical revelation teaches that God is a communion of three distinct, eternal persons, united eternally as One.  Islam rejects that in favor of the doctrine of tawhid—the absolute Oneness and solitude of God.  That, in turn, means that the Muslim cannot “know God” in the sense of entering into the joy of His communion, because there is no “knowing” even within Allah’s own being. In Islam, the emphasis is on knowing Allah’s will, i.e. obeying him, not knowing and loving him and entering into fellowship with Allah.  However, in the biblical account, the answer to our solitude is that we are included in the mystery of God’s triune nature in that we are brought into full communion with him and, secondarily, we are in communion with one another.    The creation of Eve deepens our identity with God because we are invited to become co-creators with him.  The sexual union of two who are “others” mirrors by design our own relationship with God who is not us, but another.  Adam and Eve give birth to a child.  Eve is brought forth from Adam and a new man – a new Adam comes forth from Eve.

We also learn more of what is meant by the fact that we are image bearers.  It means, in part, that we have been given the power to make choices.  We can embrace communion with God or reject it.  It could not really be any other way.  You can make someone obey you, but you cannot make them love you.  Thus, the tree of good and evil in the Garden is used by God to teach us what it means to be image bearers – we have choices.  We are given space to love God or to reject him.   Freed will does not mean that we are free to create our own good and evil, but the freedom to decide whether we will embrace what is good or what is evil.  The Fall is many things, but, at its root, it is the choice of man and woman to alienate ourselves from God, others and the rest of creation.  Hell, as it turns out, is finally solitude – autonomy – aloneness, the rejection of community with the Triune God, with others and within the colloquy of our own inner self.

C. S. Lewis masterfully pictures this in his allegory of heaven and hell known as The Great Divorce.  As you may recall, Hell in the book is a gray town; those who go there lose the solidity of their bodies; they become like ghosts. Even the grass is so hard that they can’t walk on it, and a leaf is too heavy to even pick up, because they have lost the solidity of their bodies.  Hell is further pictured as a place of no communion.  Every house is farther and farther from every other house; they are alone in the gray town, thousands of miles apart from one another; yet, as it turns out hell is just a tiny speck in the soil of heaven because everyone has collapsed in on their own aloneness.

As image bearers, Adam and Eve have been granted moral weight in the universe. The word “glory” is the word for “weight” in the Old Testament.  Our very physicality carries with it ethical boundaries set at creation by God himself, the violation of it makes us “less weighty” or more “distant” from God’s glory and His original design, which is communion with Him, with one another and, indeed, with all creation.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: From the Beginning It Was Not So (Part II)

This is part of a series of articles on marriage, human sexuality and the body. Read Part I here.

The problem we face today is actually much deeper than we realize.  The Christian church in the West has largely embraced the wider cultural views regarding the very purpose of marriage—and therefore, we get off on the wrong foot to begin with.  Marriage is, in the wider culture, broadly understood as a shifting cultural arrangement to promote happiness, companionship, sexual fulfillment and economic efficiency.  Marriage in the contemporary period is a commodity.  Like all commodities you should expect returns, (in this case emotional or romantic returns) or you can abandon or discard the relationship and opt for one which is better.

For the last forty years, the church has largely adopted the world’s definition of marriage.  The deeper vision of reflecting the Trinity, the sacramental nature of the body, being image bearers in our physicality, not just our spirits, the power of self-donation, joining God as creators in the reproduction of children, and, indeed, the very foundation for the future incarnation, and so forth have not been a prominent part of the Christian discourse about marriage.  Therefore, once we accepted the wider cultural, social, pragmatic and biological definition of marriage, we really had no proper ground on which to stand in order to oppose potentially any kind of marriage arrangements.  But, in the beginning, it was not so, as the whole creation of male and female is cast in a larger theological context; it is not merely social and biological; it is also spiritual and theological.

For example, we often describe a “sacrament” as an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, but then we limit ourselves by thinking of sacraments only in terms of the two which Christ established: baptism and the Eucharist.  Wesley, on the other hand, prodded us to think more deeply and expansively about all the means of grace which, for Wesley, is a much larger category than baptism and Eucharist.  John Paul II makes the point that Christ is not the only one who provides sacramental means of grace.  There are sacraments which flow from the Father and the Spirit.  We will actually explore how marriage is the primordial sacrament later in this series.  But, for now, let us lay the groundwork that your physical body itself is a kind of sacrament.  It is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, because we have been created in the image of God.  In Genesis, this is what distinguishes us from the animals and which roots us as spiritual and theological beings—not just a spirit inside of us, but the whole of who we are as image bearers.  We are, bodily, a living sacrament and our bodies are a sign to the world of God’s presence—ultimately fulfilled in the incarnation and expressed through the physical community of the church.  In fact, the human body is the bridge between theology and anthropology.  Indeed, without the physicality of the body the “means of grace” as we know it would cease.  Think about it. You baptize a body, you take the Eucharist into your body, you confess Christ with your lips, you lay hands on the body of the sick and anoint with oil, or lay hands on someone to set apart for ministry, etc. Even Scripture is read with our eyes or listened to with our ears.  Only the body can make the invisible, visible.  It is the ultimate outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  It is just so close to us that we can easily miss it.

Going Back to the Beginning

John Paul II’s Theology of the Body takes Jesus’ point and goes back to the beginning as he asks us to consider more carefully the “pre-fallenAdam.  Many of our theological constructs only view humanity through the lens of the Fall.  The first Adam embodies the Fall, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, embodies redemption.  So, theologically, we have mostly developed the two Adams: the fallen Adam and Christ as the Second Adam, because that is found in Romans 5 and I Cor. 15:45.  But, when Jesus refers to these pre-Fall texts in Matthew 19, he is referring to the pre-fallen Adam, the original, creational Adam.  When Paul says, “in Adam all die and in Christ all are made alive”, that is a reference to only Christ and the fallen Adam.  But, when Jesus says “from the beginning it was not so” he is calling us to look back even before the Fall.  We have to go back to the original design and understand something of the theology of creation, the theology of the body, and God’s original intention for the cosmic role of Adam and Eve in the original creation, which we must examine before we rush too quickly to Genesis 3 and the entrance of sin.

It has long been a complaint against popular evangelical theology that our Bible begins with Gen. 3 and end with Rev. 20, a theological omission of the opening two chapters and the closing two chapters.  The result has been a theologically reductionistic narrative which stretches from Fall to Judgment, rather than the actual biblical narrative which stretches from Creation to New Creation.  (This “whole Bible” approach was one of the many restorations brought about through the Wesleyan revivals).   But, can we fully understand the fulfillment of the New Creation unless we first understand the origin, intention, purpose and moral framework of the original creation?

The fact that Jesus, in a post-Fallen world as recorded in Matthew 19, quotes and masterfully combines Gen. 1:27 (male and female) and 2:24 (two united as one flesh)—both pre-Fall texts—is a powerful reminder that, despite the Fall and the tragic entrance of sin into the world, the original design of creation, as embodied in unfallen Adam and Eve who were created “male” and “female” and were united to become “one flesh,” remains intact as God’s plan and design for us, and He will not relinquish this even in the face of sin, hardness of heart and a whole spectrum of cultural issues which seek to cloud everything.  A few years ago, the Supreme Court of India ruled that that every person “has the right to choose their gender” because Hindus have no doctrine of creation and therefore there are no moral boundaries inherent in our creational design.  Jesus, in contrast, says to us as he said to them, “from the beginning it was not so…”  We must remember this.

The “Progressives” Are Desperate, the “Conservatives” Are Weary, but God Is Still Holy

The United Methodist Church is in the full throes of a crisis, with deep divisions over our response to homosexual practice and the ordination of self-avowed homosexuals.  The latest attempt to resolve this crisis is a plan known as “a local option proposal compromise.”  This plan has emerged through the good faith efforts of a group of conservatives, progressives and moderates who have worked hard to find common ground.  The long awaited plan was finally released.  The basic thrust of the plan is as follows:

1) We all agree to change the Discipline to say that “sincere Christians disagree” on the issue of homosexuality and we remove the language which says that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.
Congregations spend a year in prayer and discernment as to whether they will allow same sex weddings on their property or receive a practicing gay or lesbian person as their pastor.  A 2/3 vote would allow it.
2) Pastors, even when churches oppose, may conduct same sex weddings off site.
3) Congregations who cannot accept the new Discipline or the new practices in the church may, after a year of prayer and discernment, leave the church with a 2/3 vote.
4) If a church leaves, they must repay any loans to the conference and also pay two years of apportionments in full.
5) If the payment is made, the church retains their buildings and other assets.

In my view, this plan should be rejected.  Despite the cultural wave flowing against the church, the “progressives” have already been looking at the make-up of delegates who will be attending General Conference in 2016.  They do not have the votes to change the Discipline. The African delegates will be 3% higher than in 2012, and the U.S. delegation – as a whole – is actually more conservative than in 2012.  We must understand that the progressives agreed to this plan because they are desperate.  They also know that we are weary of fighting.  Of course, there will be more public shaming of the conservatives than ever before, and the demonstrations in Portland will be the stuff of daily news.  Welcome to life on the margins of a post-Christendom society.  But, we cannot forget that the Discipline will not be changed unless we can be enticed to cast our votes for that change.  This latest proposal is an attempt to find “a way forward” to get the conservatives to raise their hand and vote for a change in the Discipline.  This plan calls for an agreement by conservative delegates to permit homosexual practice and ordination in the church and then wait for a year before we can leave.  We then make a payment at the exit door (two years of apportionments) and receive our buildings as a consolation prize.

Brothers and sisters, it is never right to do wrong.  How can we vote to change the Discipline after forty years of faithfulness on this issue?  The UMC has voted eleven times on this issue, and all eleven times, the progressives have been defeated.  They now propose a Faustian deal whereby we surrender our conscience and raise our hands to give them the votes they cannot produce on their own.  They get the UMC, they get a progressive Discipline, they get our absence as we will no longer be around to impede their further dismantling of historic Christian faith, and, don’t forget that we will also be publicly betraying much of the African delegation.  What do the conservatives get for all this?  We get our buildings.  Really?

We should remember a lesson from the last General Conference in Tampa.  The few hopeful votes which took place were later vacated by the Judicial Council.   How will it feel after we have agreed to change the Discipline and permit homosexual practice in the church, yet during the “year of discernment” the Judicial council determines that the Trust Clause (par. 2501) makes it unconstitutional for the UMC to allow exiting churches to retain their buildings?

There is also a powerful pragmatism which is at play when we say, “OK, we have to vote for something unconscionable, but, in the end, we get to keep our land and buildings and we can keep on ministering to our people.”   But, again, it is never right to do wrong.  What good will the buildings be to us if we only receive them through these means?   Let’s be inspired by those faithful Episcopalians and Presbyterians who have already walked this painful road.  I personally know of many congregations who walked out of multi-million dollar facilities and found themselves in a school cafeteria.  Now, ten years later, they have rebuilt new buildings and, in the process, have re-discovered the true meaning of the body of Christ.

We must not allow this compromise plan to loosen our resolve or divide us.  We must keep voting with our biblical, historic convictions as we have been.  If the UMC decides to keep allowing covenant breaking, then we have the wonderful New Room Covenant which will allow us to stay in the church, keep all of our assets and preach the gospel, disciple new believers, etc.  Why should we be the ones who leave the church?  As long as our official Discipline reflects historic Christian teaching (as it currently does) then we are on the right side of the line, and all the squawking and disobedience by the progressives over the next four years can just be background noise as we move on in the work of the gospel.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Let’s Go back to the Beginning (Part I)

This is the beginning of a series of blogs on marriage, human sexuality and the body.

Brother and sisters, we are living in the wake of a multi-generational neglect of a biblical vision of the body, marriage and human sexuality.  The church’s inability in recent years to articulate a compelling response to issues like same-sex marriage and gender reassignment has highlighted the deeper neglect of our thinking on these, and many other issues.  It is grossly ineffective and inadequate for the church to be simply against something in culture without the capacity to articulate what the biblical vision calls us to; namely, the positive vision which is so beautifully set forth in Scripture.  On this issue, we must confess that our Roman Catholic friends are about twenty years ahead of us, and we need to listen to what they are saying and find appropriate ways to bring this into our own theological frameworks.  Wesleyan theology is itself a synthesis movement, because Wesley loved to draw from and learn from every Christian tradition, including Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, the Puritans, etc.—all of which find their way into the great Wesleyan synthesis.

Between Sept. 5, 1979 and Nov. 28, 1984, the late Pope John Paul II preached a five year series of weekly homilies on the Theology of the Body, which remains one of the most beautiful expositions of this theme I have ever read.  My goal this semester is to share with you the broad outlines of that study.   I can hardly begin to unfold this in just seven installments, but I hope to provide a kind of scenic overview which, in turn, might inspire you to capture a vision for the kind of theological spadework which you must learn to do.

Think about it:  What might happen if we really took time to think through these issues?  In comparing some of the basic impulses of Protestants vs. Roman Catholics, I often joke that when a new social-cultural issue emerges—whether it be on human sexuality, nuclear armaments or global immigration—the Jesuits are called in by the Pope and told to go out and think about it and return in twenty years with a report which forms the basis of a papal encyclical.  In contrast, the Protestants jot down a few thoughts on the back of an envelope while they are in their car on the way to a mass rally to address the issue.  I am, of course, exaggerating, but I think you get my point.  What kind of robust theology might emerge if we really took time to think about these issues?  We cannot simply “cut and paste” Roman Catholic reflections into our tradition, but we would be foolish not to listen to those who have already thought about this deeply.

Discussions about marriage, divorce and issues of human sexuality are not new.  What is new is our unpreparedness for the current questions being asked.  It is way too simplistic and reductionistic to think that the task before the church is to come up with a clever answer against, for example, homosexual practice, without stepping back and seeing it within the larger picture of a whole host of sexual brokenness on the cultural landscape—like digital pornography, adultery, fornication, gender re-assignment, etc. These problems cannot properly be addressed in isolation from the larger theology of the body.  This is why when the Pharisees tested Jesus in Matthew 19:3-8 with the question “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” it is a question which, in some ways, mirrors a hosts of questions which are today being hurled at the church:  Is it lawful for a man to marry another man;  Is it lawful for a person to change their gender.  It is important to be clear about biblical ethics and historic faith, and straightforward answers are necessary.  However, we should also accept responsibility for our own theological sloppiness in grasping the larger picture.  We have about twenty years of homework which we have neglected to do.  We are like the school boy who complains that he failed an exam, even though he never actually took time to study.  The culture has given us a test, and we have failed it.  It is not the time to lament or to place blame, we just have to start doing our homework.  Personally, I think it will take us decades to get on the right side of these tests.  I may not see it my lifetime, but I am reminded of the famous reply by John F. Kennedy when he asked that certain fruit trees be planted on the lawn of the White House. The seasoned White House gardener said, “but Mr. President, it will take 40 years for those particular kind of trees to bear fruit,” and Kennedy reportedly said, “Well, then you had better plant this afternoon!”

The first phrase of Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees receives quite a bit of space in the early homilies of Pope John Paul.  What Jesus does methodologically is very instructive for us.  Jesus doesn’t answer the question right off the bat.  They ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”  It is a question which, on the surface, begs for a simple “yes” or “ no” answer.  Yet, Jesus perceives that just answering the question will not help the questioner, because the problem is found, more fundamentally, in the very foundation of the question itself.   Jesus often looks beyond the question and to the questioner in his personal encounters, revealing his interest in the larger picture, not just answering a question per se.  Jesus wisely opts to expose their presuppositions and, in the process, gives us a glimpse into the deeper theological foundations upon which any answer, however simple and straightforward, must be based and built.   Therefore, Jesus calls them and us “back to the beginning.”  That is the title of this first homily, “Let us Go Back to the Beginning.”   Jesus brings up the original Creation twice in the short discourse with the amazing phrase, “from the beginning.”  In verse 4, “from the beginning the Creator made them male and female…”  and again in verse 9, in reference to Moses allowing the certificates of divorce” he says,  “from the beginning it was not so.”

The Protestant focus on the creation account in Genesis has been focused overwhelmingly in response to questions about material creation and issues around evolution and included precious little about human sexuality.  This is why false teaching is so good for the church. It actually forces the church to go back and examine texts which we have not read deeply enough.  Jesus masterfully brings together two texts from Genesis.  He quotes Gen. 1:27, that God “created them male and female,” which he joins with a quotation from Gen. 2:24: “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”  These texts deserve closer scrutiny.  What becomes clear is that when God created us, male and female, these are not merely biological categories; or, if I can put it more bluntly, these are not mere functional categories.  They are never less than that, of course, but to be ‘man’ or ‘woman’ are enfleshed realities which are deeply embedded in theological realities which reflect God himself.

In the future, we will explore how the Trinity is reflected in the creation of man, woman and child, as we join God’s creative work.  But that is to get ahead of ourselves.  The current point is to recognize the impossibility of understanding or explaining our identity from the world’s perspective.