God's Word for today

Saturday, 3 December 2011

"Sacramental sex"?

Jenny has recently written a post on her blog in which she expresses concerns about modern (or should that be post-modern?) society's apparent slide into sexual immorality.  I can emphathise with Jenny, what with her being a mother of four children - my own son James, who turns 14 next May, is at the age where a number of youngsters' hormones begin to go into overdrive.  I once said (in a sermon, nogal) that males have two heads - one attached to their shoulders by way of the neck, and the other attached to their loins by way of the penis - and that it is (in my admittedly unscientific opinion) impossible for blood to flow to both at the same time!

I would also imagine that any Christian parent would also identify with the following concerns expressed by Jenny:

I don't want to live in a society where sexual experience for teenagers outside of a committed long term relationship is normal.  I don't want to live in a society where the family is no longer a fundamental unit.  I am afraid that our 'higher values' are being determined by our selfish desires rather than a desire for the common good.  We are being extremely short-sighted.

Yet somehow as a Church (and as Christians in general), we don't seem to have a handle on understanding our sexuality.  And when it comes to sin, it seems that we regard sexual sin as being the most heinous of all - certainly, the most severely punished, especially comes to a woman falling pregnant outside of wedlock (the whole gender inequality issues around this are the subject of a separate post, at least for now...).

As a result, we've tended to attempt to regulate sexual behaviour through a series of rules and regulations.  Yet wherever there are rules, our human nature is to try and find loopholes.  For example, in response to a prohibition on sex outside of marriage, those who do not simply ignore this find themselves asking questions such as "how far can one go before what they are doing is regarded as 'sex'?"

Yet at the same time, it's easy for me to be smug about this.  I was married at 22.  Most youngsters nowadays are not likely to get married at such a young age.  In the meantime, James has for the past four years (at least) had a pretty fair idea of what happens behind the closed door when Mom and Dad go to bed.  Add into the mix the continual commoditisation of sex in our society today (even amongst Christians), and clearly the "rules and regulations" approach is going to get the Church absolutely nowhere.

So I was pleased to find a somewhat refreshingly different approach to understanding sexuality in a Christian context - that of being akin to a sacrament.  In a sermon entitled "How Sinful Is Sex" (based on Song of Solomon 3: 1-5 and I Corinthians 7: 1-9), the writer (United Methodist Church minister Mark Schaefer) traces how Christians' generally unhealthy attitude towards sexuality has developed down the centuries (to read the whole sermon, click here).

How, then, does one begin to change these negative attitudes, while at the same time not wanting to be seen to be advocating an "anything goes" approach?  I believe that the "sacramental" approach has merit.  As Schaefer states:

A sacrament, after all, is a visible sign of an invisible grace.  It is a material means through which we experience the love and grace of God.  In our theology, we proclaim that God’s grace is known to us through the free gift of the waters of baptism, and in the free gift of the meal shared in the communion.  Through these ordinary, physical, material things, God’s grace is conveyed to us.

By that reasoning, a meal over beer and pizza with an old friend in which relationship is maintained and grace shared, could be seen as sacramental.  A game of catch with a child, can be a sacrament. Probably not the kind we’ll see in church, but nevertheless sacramental.  Sex can be a sacrament.  Again, probably not the kind we’ll be having in church.

As Belinda and I approach 20 years of marriage, I can honestly say that I have experienced the love and grace of God through Belinda.  I cannot think of any earthly relationship that comes closer to expressing the love that God has with humankind in covenantal relationship.  I don't know anyone else who comes closer to laying their life down for me than my wife - just as Jesus selflessly laid his life down for us.  And our sexual relationship is the physical expression of the love we share.

On that basis, for us, our sexuality must surely be sacramental?  Shaefer asks similar questions:

But why cannot sex be thought of as sacramental? It should be thought of that way.  Indeed, do we not speak of the sacraments as mystery?  Is not our sexuality one of the most powerful—and mysterious—elements of our human existence?  And when sex is used the way it is meant to, does it not convey love and grace?  Is not sex about making oneself vulnerable, open for the sake of the other, with tenderness, love, caring, and commitment?  Does healthy sex not require that?  Do we not see something of God in that vulnerablity, that commitment, that love?

Imagine if we saw sex not as something dirty, something taboo, something sinful and forbidden, but as something sacramental?  How would that change our perceptions?  How would we treat sex if we saw it as sacramental?

He goes on to add:

I am reminded of the reverence that Catholics have for the Eucharist.  They don’t drop crumbs on the floor, they don’t pour the leftover wine down the drain.  There is an air of reverence for the very thing through which they encounter the grace of Christ.  We don’t have quite the same practices of piety, but we are not without reverence for the sacrament.  Would we baptize with water we’d gotten out of a muddy puddle outside?  Would we seek to offer baptism to someone with whom we had no relationship?  Would someone seek to be baptized who didn’t know the congregation or who had no intention of making a commitment in faith?  Would we serve communion using stale bread and spoiled juice?  Would we carelessly throw the bread on the floor or gargle with the juice?  No, of course we wouldn’t because we know that that behavior would not respect what that sacrament means for us.

And so it should be with our sexuality.  We should treat our sexuality with the same reverence, the same respect, the same dignity, the same awe as we would any other sacrament.  As we would any other means through which we encountered the love and grace of God.  We would more fully understand the meaning of the verse from the Song of Solomon that says, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready.”

If we can begin to understand our sexuality in this manner, then we might begin to understand a sexual ethic that is pleasing to God without constantly having to enforce our bad dogma by beating people with a big stigma!

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