Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Pastoral Concerns (Part XIV)

This is the 14th and final installment in this blog series on the theology of the body. If you want to listen to the messages, they are found by clicking “listen.”

The scope of what has been covered is quite vast, but we will conclude with some pastoral advice in how these issues are playing out in the wider culture.  One of the themes of these blogs is that most Christians are not aware of the larger biblical vision and therefore we may encounter stiff resistance even within the church to historically orthodox positions regarding human sexuality.  Indeed, the voice of the culture has often overpowered the voice of the grand biblical vision.

I would like to briefly highlight four of the challenges you will face.  First, there are those who say that the whole discussion about same sex marriage, homosexual ordination, gender reassignment and so forth is “much ado about nothing.”

This is the “distraction from mission” argument.  They point out these issues do not appear in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, Jesus never specifically addresses homosexuality and that the Old Testament also condemns planting your field with two kinds of seed, so what is the big deal.  In short, this whole debate is nothing more than a massive distraction from our real mission, which is evangelism and social justice.

In response, we must first begin by remembering that the body in general and marriage between a man and a woman in particular is the greatest physical icon which God uses to portray a range of spiritual truths and a primary means of grace.  If the view of the body which this generation has embraced is allowed to prevail, then the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ will be vacated of its power and theological force.  Furthermore, any issue which has torn almost every mainline church in two is not “much ado about nothing.”  This is a serious issue, not a peripheral one.  Second, the creeds do not address any ethical issues; that is not their function.  The creed lives on the plane of historical acts set in a larger theological context:  So when the creed says, “We believe in the forgiveness of sins” that is meant to cover all sins without listing any of them.  So, homosexuality is not mentioned in the creeds, but neither is murder or rape or embezzlement.  Third, Jesus’ provides an unambiguous affirmation of marriage between one man and one woman in Matthew 19 and the strong embrace of the original creational design.   Fourth, we should always be on guard against the Manichean heresy which has re-emerged today.  It views the body as morally irrelevant and therefore incapable of sinning.  The body is not to be trusted.   They accomplish this, in part, by driving a wedge between the Apostle Paul and Jesus; or between the Old Testament and Jesus, allowing the church to ignore, for example, the sin lists in the New Testament which repeatedly condemn homosexual behavior.

The second argument you will hear is “why has the church focused so much on this one sin to the neglect of hundreds of other sins of which they are, by comparison, silent.”

Why, for example, would the church devote so much energy to fighting homosexuality, and never even mention even more pervasive sins such as greed or covetousness or stealing?  The answer is that to my knowledge no one in the entire church anywhere in the entire world has tried to take greed, or covetousness or stealing off of the New Testament sin lists and put it on the sacrament list. The church universally condemns sins like greed.  However, if someone tried to take greed off of the sin list as found in Col. 3:5-9 and say that we are now taking that sin off of the cross and making it a sacrament or a means of grace, then we would all be up in arms, and the church would be splitting over the issue of greed.   We are often accused of singling this issue out, but they are the ones who have singled it out by seeking to engage in a modern version of doctrinal re-assignment:  taking a sin and making it a sacrament.  This is the sole reason for the focus on this sin.

The third argument you will hear is what I call the “agree to disagree position.”

In this vision, this issue is not about revelation.  Rather, we only have endless human preferences and multiple paths to human flourishing.  The church is not seen as a defender of biblical revelation, but as an adjudicator in the midst of a sea of human preferences.  Conviction has been overturned by preferences; divine revelation has been supplanted by personal perspectives.  Truth has been uprooted by experience.  In this miry pit, the only solution is the market share solution.  We all agree to disagree about human sexuality and allow that there are multiple versions of truth and that the church will find a way to accommodate each segment of its market share.  This is a post-modern view of truth setting up shop in the church.

The fourth and final argument you will hear is that we are portrayed as angry and bigoted, which seems to be in such contrast to Jesus, who is warm, embracing and affirming.

This is an argument which we must take very seriously.  Kindness and gentleness are fruits of the spirit and we must always conduct ourselves in this way.  It is very important that we communicate very clearly that we are not opposed to homosexual people.  Our struggle is never against flesh and blood.  We must have a zero tolerance for all forms of bullying and harsh, hateful attitudes and attacks.  The church opens its doors to all.  We can no longer expect non-Christians to embrace Christian ethics (adultery, fornication and sodomy were once against the law in the US, now none are).  In our text Paul makes it very clear that even in a pagan culture (like Corinth) we are to exercise church discipline within the church, but exhibit an open embrace of those outside the church because that is the only avenue of witness we have to an unbelieving world.  The main strategy we have used to portray our “civility” to the world is summed up by the phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”  The idea behind this phrase is that we can be opposed to homosexual behavior and even call it a sinful act, but we must clearly affirm how much we love the homosexual person. However, the wider culture neither understands nor accepts such a distinction.  Any judgments about sin in this culture, however gently we communicate it are regarded essentially as hate speech.  We have the added problem in that there are numerous painful examples where the church has not been welcoming to homosexuals.  The real distinction, according to Paul, is with those who call themselves Christians (where we uphold the highest Christian ethic) and those who do not, with whom we offer a bold and even extravagant embrace.

Today, we must approach the whole issue from the widest possible frame.  The church must wake up to the realization that the current debate about sexuality is not merely whether the church should “accept” or “reject” same sex marriage.  That assumes that this whole debate is about one issue rather than a whole vision of human identity and the sacramental nature of the body.  Today we hear quite a bit about the LGBT and the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer/Questioning, Intersexed and Asexual) community.  The proliferation of letters beyond L and G and the growth of “choices” on Facebook clearly demonstrates that there is far more going on than a discussion of same sex marriage.  We are on the front end of something, not the end of something.  Today, the debate also includes, for example bi-sexual, transgendered and intersexed persons.  In other words, this is not a discussion only about sex or marriage, it is, at a deeper level, a discussion about the elimination of all gender gender identity, even those markers physiologically given to us through creation.  This is, therefore, fundamentally about the Christian view of the body, the moral boundaries inherent in our creation, and the spiritual, sacramental nature of Christian marriage.

Conclusion

So, we end where we began at the start of the series.  We are engaged in a 50 year struggle.  I will not live to see the end of this struggle.  But, many of you will and you will be the faithful bearers of re-inserting the full Christian vision into the life and witness of the church. We need not shy away from the immensity of this task.  We must roll up our sleeves, build beautiful Christian families and patiently articulate the inter-connectedness of these various issues with the whole vision.  I am very confident that you can do this and do it with grace.  This does not lend itself to a quick fix.  We don’t need a better argument, we need to embody a deeper truth in our lives.  As Christians we must recognize how deeply we have been trapped by a whole array of sexual immorality ranging from pornography to fornication.  Our focus should be on the manifestation of holiness within the church.  We have much to do in our own midst.  The most important spiritual work we need to do is not within anyone “out there” but the face we meet in the mirror each morning.  Let us ask God’s help to make us holy so that the world will see that the church truly is the glorious bride of Christ.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: The Body in Art and Media (Part XIII)

This is the 13th part in this series on the Theology of the Body. If you want to listen to the messages, they are found by clicking “listen” on the home page of my website.

In this article I want to address the two primary ways these images influence men and women. For men, I want to develop the theme of lust, and for women, the theme of self-loathing. Let’s begin with lust, which can take root in men or women, but men are particularly susceptible to it. Lust is a form of idolatry – the veneration of a false image. To view a pornographic website is to engage in idolatry. This is not a benign force. It will destroy your inner self – forces a separation of your love of Jesus Christ with your sinful desires, it will destroy your marriage and it will destroy your ministry. If a man forcibly seizes a woman and sexually forces himself upon her, this is called rape and it is a capital crime. It is a crime because it is an assault on the dignity and sanctity of a person. If someone assaults a woman in this way we call it rape; when this is done on a large billboard where we rip someone away from the wholeness of their body we call it advertisement. We have different temperatures we use to describe people: cold, cool, warm and hot, all with different implications. It is perfectly fine to refer to someone as warm because it means they have a warm personality. But for a man to refer to a woman as “hot” is an assault on the holy dignity of a woman and no one in this community should ever use such an expression.

This lust oriented idolatry can take root in men or women, but, for women, idolatry is more likely to be manifested as self-hatred, or hating one’s own body.

For women this starts very early through the images which are portrayed. Women are also being barraged with bodily images. A survey was recently conducted with a number of young teenage women. They were asked if they could change one thing about themselves, what would it be. I don’t know if anyone said, like Solomon, make me wiser. But the survey did reveal that the number one answer was to lose weight. In fact, another survey found that 42% of girls between the ages of 6-10 said that they wished they were thinner, and four out of five were afraid of becoming fat. By high school a full 10% of women have eating disorders.

This includes a range of conditions like anorexia, bulimia nervosa, binge eating, etc. To put this in context, some 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s whereas 30 million have eating disorders.

The average American woman is 5’ 4” and weighs between 124-138. The average model is 5’ 10” and weighs 110 pounds. These so called idealized images have had a huge impact on our culture. Even the so-called models who are portrayed in the media have been photo shopped to send the message even to them that their bodies are not good enough. As the people of God we must recognize the anti-catechesis which happens when you put a Barbie Doll in to the hands of a young girl.

One of the early Barbie Doll accessory kits comes with a scale permanently set at 110 and comes with a little book on dieting which, if you open it, only has one admonition inside: Don’t Eat! All of this results in self-hatred. When a young girl is standing in line at the grocery store and sees the front cover of Cosmopolitan or Glamour magazine the message is sent, I should look like that. As they get older they think, “If I looked like that, I would be desirable, or I’m too fat, or my face is not shaped right,” or whatever.

This is the disincarnation of women because it is separating themselves from the true spiritual and sacramental nature of the body, what John Paul 2 calls the “ethos of the body.” The opposite of the body as sacrament is the body as self-loathed. If you are a parent or will be one someday, this calls for very intentional catechesis to counteract the onslaught of images which engulf our society. We must talk about it. One of our doctoral students, Shivraj Mahendra, published a book about pornography in India. This was the first time this theme had been discussed in Christian circles and it has helped many people. It is always good to speak openly and frankly about these challenges.

If we judge someone by the color of their skin, we rightly call such separation of a person from their body racism; but if we judge someone by the shape of their body, we call it glamour.

This is why the Wesleyan vision is so important, because it calls for nothing less than the re-orientation of your heart and living under the gravity of holy love, rather than the gravity of sin. Discipleship today has become reduced to sin management. We get caught into endless cycles of guilt and shame and we ask for forgiveness and we move on and then get caught again. This cycle goes on and on. This is why we must be filled with the Holy Spirit. The incarnation is God’s great testament to the holiness of the body. We are all designed to be icons of the incarnation. Twice in the 7 ecumenical councils, the church affirmed the use of icons. The reason is that an icon is designed to be a window into heaven.

So, if you walk into an orthodox church and you see icons of Jesus or other saints, it is meant to portray them in all their fullness, because an icon is designed not as a work of art in itself, but as a window into a heavenly reality. In the deepest Christian tradition, every human person is meant to be a walking, breathing, icon of the incarnation, a window into heaven. Pornography, or as John Paul 2 calls it, “pornovision” is the greatest example of the disincarnation of the human, by turning the body into an icon of lust rather than of Christ, that is idolatry, rather than image bearing. Such images are sinful not because the body is dirty. Paul says we cover those distinctive markers of our gender to honor them. It is pornography and related sexual images which actually veils the full sacramental, spiritual identity of a person. To put it bluntly, the problem with pornography is not that it reveals too much, but that it reveals too little.

I want to end with the positive vision. View this famous icon of Jesus from Turkey – Christ Pantocrator – Christ the Almighty – Ruler of All. This the oldest icon of Christ Pantocrator in St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai.

Notice his eyes. The right side shows Jesus as the judge of the world, the one who comes to set things right. The left side reveals his compassion and love for the world. In this case, art is being used not to conceal the inner life, as in the degrading pictures we see on newsstands, but to reveal the inner life of the incarnate one. Probably the most famous full image of Jesus is found overlooking Rio de Janerio.

Notice the statue is an extension of an image of Jesus, but it is being used to reveal Christ’s call to the world; his love for the world, with hands outstretched.

The answer to all is not to retreat from these arenas. God into all the world is not just a geographic statement, but going into everyone’s world… the world of law, the world of media, the world of education, the world of film, the world of art… Our goal is to re-incarnate human existence, demonstrating to the world that we are all image bearers in the world. As it is written in I Cor. 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: The Body in Media (Part XII)

This is the twelfth part in this series on the theology of the body. If you want to listen to the messages, they are found by clicking “listen” on the home page of my website.

One of the dominant themes of this blog series is that the body is not merely a biological, functional entity, but a deeper spiritual and theological one. This is precisely the point of dispute in I Cor. 6:12-20. The Corinthians had been unduly influenced by gnostic ideas about the body. They assumed that because the Christians declared all foods clean, it was because the body was not of importance to Christians. They extended this to the idea that engaging in sexual immorality is a matter of indifference to the Christian. Paul reminds us that our bodies are united to Christ. Our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and so forth. This has important implications for how the body is portrayed and the many ways the body is extended into the world. We are created as subjects before God, i.e. to say each of us has a dignity before God and an inherent beauty because we are sacramental image bearers in the world. To meet someone or to see someone is what John Paul 2 calls a “reciprocal gift.” In the Christian vision, we present ourselves to one another as whole persons. Self-donation is at the heart of the Christian vision, not just in marriage, but in the whole of human relationships. But, self-donation must be rooted in the soil of a mutual, reciprocal gift. Whenever the subjectivity of the body becomes an object, then we are ushered into the world of shame. In an earlier part of this series we discussed this in relation to marriage, but it has important implications for all the ways the body is portrayed. This brings us to theme for this meditation; namely, the way art and media portrays and extends the image of the body out into the world.

To develop this we must understand a little more about the word “media.” Media is the plural form of the word “medium” and refers to all the ways we insert any intervening agency or means or instrument to extend human communication. When two people meet one another and talk there is no medium between the two. If I am speaking to a very large audience, perhaps in a stadium where there are thousands of people, then a microphone becomes an intervening medium which extends my voice. A microphone is a modest medium because we still share the same space and I am speaking to you in real time. A cellphone is also a medium, but it allows us to communicate across great distances. If you and I were to talk on the phone and I was in Kentucky and you were in Kazakhstan, we no longer share the same space, but we speak in a shared space of time, what we call “real time.” A YouTube video is a further extension of media because I can be taped speaking and that tape can later be shared and someone can view it and we no longer share time or space. This medium allows the full separation of both space and time and makes it available to potentially millions of people. This is where we get the term “mass media.”

There is no media which is inherently evil, but there are ethical implications for how media is used in relation to the ethos of the body. This meditation focuses specifically on ways in which bodily images are portrayed and extended out into the world. When an image is portrayed – perhaps a provocative billboard, or a Super Bowl commercial, or even nudity in a pornographic magazine or website, a body is ripped from its wholeness and turned into an object. This is a powerful force in our world. Carl’s Jr. Hamburger paid 4.5 million dollars for a 30 sec. spot of Kate Upton using her body to sell hamburgers and French fries. Our culture is inundated with these kind of images. They are used to incite lust or inordinate desires in the viewer, often to engender lust or to associate a bodily image with a product, like a new car. In both cases, John Paul II makes the point that it necessary to assign the evil in the proper place. We often refer to these images as “dirty images.” But, in the Christian vision, the body is never dirty, because we are always image bearers in our bodies. The evil is in the separation of the body from its full reciprocity as a person – a subject. The evil is in the lust, whether is a sexual lust or a material lust, that is the evil which must be named. To view images in this way is to separate a person from their God given wholeness and turn them into an object. This unleashes tremendous destructive forces because when this happens an image becomes an idol.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Egalitarianism vs. Complementarianism (Part XI)

This is the eleventh part in this series on the theology of the body. If you want to listen to the messages, they are found by clicking “listen” on the home page of my website.

This particular piece in this blog series seeks to explore whether the mystery of Christ and the Church informs the discussion or debate about egalitarianism and complementarianism. Egalitarianism emphasizes the equality of the genders; the term complementarian emphasizes distinctions between the genders. This has become one of the defining dividing lines between denominations, especially as it relates to marriage, headship, submission, ordination, leadership, and a host of other issues. I have served the church around the world long enough to realize that deeply committed Christians have different understandings of these issues and they are, at least in part, born out by our own experiences of wholeness or brokenness in the manifestation of these principles. But, when seen through the mystery of Christ and the church to which we all are pointing, either as symbolized in marriage, or as we embody it collectively as the church, the bride of Christ, we might be able to view this discussion in a different light.

In an earlier blog post we explored the wonderful truth of man and woman as “subjects.” This is the testimony to egalitarianism. A woman is not related to a man as an object. Rather, they are both full subjects. In marriage, one is not subsumed by the other; rather, the two become one flesh. Submission is not the duty of one, but the call of all. The wife submits to her husband as unto the Lord, and the husband lays down his life for his wife just as Christ laid down his life for the church. Both are called to self-donation as two subjects.

However, just as Christ and the Church is not one thing but two glories brought together in the marriage of the lamb, so each of us brings our own unique glories to the union. These glories cannot be placed into universally defined vocational roles or “appropriate tasks” type boxes. Nevertheless, we each have our glories to share. We each bring distinct perspectives which, in the Christian vision, are not sanded down and domesticated, but received and celebrated. This is the testimony to complementarianism.

This is one of those interesting debates in the church where both sides have been wrong, and both sides have been right. In the cultural context of autonomous solitude the genders are at war with each other, and they struggle for power and dominion over the other. Even scriptures can be used as bludgeons against the other as we struggle to position ourselves into the siren song of autonomy. But, in the greater song of the New Creation, we see that it is only through dying and self-donation that we discover the true meaning of our own identity. This identity can only be fully realized in community as reflected in the family, the church and, ultimately the Triune God—the eternal “sweet society.” Christ as the head, laid down his life for the church and called us joint-heirs. The church, in turn, joyfully submits to Christ and is summoned into glorious union with the Triune God. So, egalitarianism and complementarianism are not two things, but different aspects of the one thing; namely, the mystery of Christ and His church.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: God is Not Just Saving Souls (Part X)

This is the tenth part in this series highlighting key insights from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

The word “incarnation” is taken from John 1:14: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The word incarnation simply means “in the flesh.”  At a particular time—in the fullness of time—the eternal Second person of the Trinity became a man, i.e. he entered into human flesh and became fully man with no compromise in His full deity.  Colossians 1:19 and 2:9 really drive this point home.  Col. 1:19 says, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,” and in 2:9, he says, “in Christ all the fullness of the deity dwells in bodily form.”  This means that the body is designed to be the recipient of divine fullness.  God believes in bodies – he designed them with functional and spiritual capacities.  As we have noted throughout this blog series, all the means of grace are mediated through the body:  bodies are baptized, bodies take sacraments, bodies read or listen to God’s Word, Bodies express self-donation in the world, and it is a body through which God supremely made Himself manifest in the world.

If you know anything about the early church, you will know what a radical truth this is.  The gospel came into a cultural setting which did not trust the body.  There were many gnostic movements at the time which taught a secret “knowledge” or “gnosis.”  The theme through much of it is that the body is evil and cannot be trusted.  In short, the body is a trap which must be overcome to release the light within and discover the real you within.  This is still a dominant motif in Buddhism and Hinduism which, in different ways, do not share the Christian view of the body.

Today, we are seeing the resurgence of a lack of confidence in the body.  We are told repeatedly that the body cannot be trusted.  This is particularly evident in the recent attention given to gender reassignment.  Today, it is said that you might be a woman trapped inside a man’s body, or a man trapped inside a woman’s body.  This Christian and contemporary view might best be contrasted by three statements.  In the Christian view, the heart is deceitful, the mind needs renewing, and the body is trustworthy.  In the contemporary view, the heart must always be followed, your mind is clear and your body cannot be trusted.  This is an inverse of the Christian vision.

We must reclaim a Christian view of the body.  We must reclaim the truth that there are ethical boundaries inherent in our creation as “male” and “female” because we were declared “very good.”  St. John was so insistent on this point that he boldly declared that anyone who did not confess that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh is the antichrist (I John 4:1-3).  We have been painfully slow in recognizing this.  This is why we must be more precise when we refer to the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection—to say it more accurately, the bodily Incarnation and the bodily Resurrection.  This is at the heart of the Christian proclamation.  Christ’s bodily resurrection, as I Cor. 15 argues, is the first-fruit of our bodily resurrection.  The two are linked.

Despite the language of popular Christian discourse, God is not saving our souls so that they may someday dwell in some disembodied state for eternity.  Salvation is about all of creation being healed in its full embodiment.  This is why truly evangelical preaching must embrace not only inward faith leading to justification, but full bodily redemption.  Our vision of sanctification is extending the holiness of God into all the world.

This is why we care about creation; this is why we cannot turn a deaf ear to the bodily plight of desperate Syrian refugees.  This is why we must rescue women trapped in human trafficking, feed those who are hungry, and a thousand other things.  These are not ancillary tasks of the church which we squeeze in on the side, but they are our fleshly demonstration of our confidence in the bodily incarnation and the bodily resurrection.  The gospel must never lose its earthiness, its enfleshment, its embodiment. There are thousands of ways in which this world dis-incarnates human existence and the gospel reverses them all!

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: The Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Part IX)

This is the ninth part in this series highlighting key insights from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

This morning I woke up and during my exercises I saw a commercial on the television set which was quite amazing. A large x-ray screen was set up and through the screen the viewer sees skeletons approaching one another, then kissing and hugging one another. Then, they peek their heads around the corner of the X-ray screen and you see that it was two men kissing, or two women kissing, or two disabled people kissing, etc. The commercial closes with the following admonitions: “Love knows no biases. Love knows no disabilities. Love knows no genders.” Interestingly, all three of those statements are Christian statements. It is what is NOT said, but assumed, by the commercial which reveals the real two messages of the commercial. First, that any love which is to be authenticated must culminate in a sexual act. Second, the disassociation of the human body from love. The sexualization of all relationships has been one of the great losses of our generation (discussed in an earlier blog) and the second point of the commercial is actually the theme of this blog.

A theology of the body enables us to see how God has woven into the very fabric of creation and inscribed in the design of every human body wonderful, theological truths which we have largely ignored. The church has been caricatured into two camps. On the one side are the conservatives who are portrayed as angry protestors, shaking their fists in the face of those who support the erosion of traditional Christian values. On the other side are the so-called “progressives” who listen to whatever the culture is saying and find new ways to say that the Bible affirms that. But our culture does not need to meet an angry church. Our culture does not need a church which serves only as a cultural echo chamber. We are in the sunset of that time when we need only raise our voices and state what are against. We must be able to articulate what we are for. We must sing a more beautiful and more compelling song about God’s design and plan. His design, as we have seen, is nothing less than our bodily reflection of the Trinity and the wonderful trajectory leading to union with Him. We must embody an entirely new vision which is holistic, beautiful, compelling and resonates with the biblical and historic witness in deep and profound ways.

The next few articles will seek to demonstrate the connection between our bodies and the incarnation of Jesus Christ and His bodily resurrection. One of the prevalent comments made to us today in regard to same sex marriage or gender reassignment is that we are making “much ado about nothing,” or “a mountain out of a molehill.” The whole arena of human sexuality is seen as a very minor issue, unrelated to such great and vital doctrines as the incarnation and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the heart of a proper theology of the body is a new awareness of the deep connections between a whole range of issues which have co-opted the church and the glorious truths which lie at the very foundation of the gospel itself.

The connection is born out of our belief that the human body has a dual meaning, i.e. it has a concrete physical meaning, as those physically created male and female with practical capacities, for union, for self-donation, for covenant faithfulness and through the bearing of children participating with God as little co-creators with Him. But our bodies also have a deeply spiritual meaning as pointers to mysteries beyond us. This is why we find ourselves using sacramental language when referring to marriage (either our own marriage, or as singles the offspring of marriage, or all of us as members of the church, the bride of Christ). Marriage is an outward sign of an inward and invisible truth. It is sacramental or, if you prefer, a “means of grace.”

St. Paul points to this when he says that the mystery of marriage is profound, but I am “speaking of Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:32). The picture of the church as bride and God as husband finds its final eschatological expression in the following texts. The marriage supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19:6-9 and the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven in Rev. 21:1-4 like a “bride adorned for her husband” draws upon marriage as the most apt analogy to describe the union of Christ and his church. This amazing mystery of Christ and the Church does not fall out of the sky disconnected from all that has gone before it. Rather, deeply woven into the Old Testament is the idea that Yahweh is Israel’s husband. We should not read Rev. 19 and Rev. 21 without recalling to mind, for example, Isaiah 54:5 where Yahweh declares, “your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is His name … the Lord will call you back as a wife distressed in spirit.”

Israel is God’s bride and this, through the gospel, eventually encompasses not just the remnant of Israel, but men and women from every tribe, tongue and people who are summoned into the church as the bride of Christ. So God and Israel in the OT eventually gets broadened to become Christ and the Church in the NT. So, the marriage between a man and a woman is a type or picture of the greater truth—the deeper mystery of Christ and the Church. This is why John Paul II calls marriage the “great analogy” and the “pedagogy of the body” in the sense that God places us all in bodies and calls us to embody the gospel in enfleshed ways. This, of course, is exactly what happens supremely in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus embodies the gospel in his very presence in the world. The incarnation is the final link between anthropology and theology. To destroy the bridge of the body is to disconnect God from the physicality of the world.  If we do that, we are only left with Artistotle’s Unmoved Mover, not the God of biblical revelation.

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: 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.