1 Corinthians 7:1-9
Today we take up the topic of sex, and we do so for a variety of reasons. One is that sex is everywhere, or at least it seems to be. It is at the heart of movies and literature, and is a central feature in just about every sitcom and every commercial. It seems you do not have to watch television long before you see a Viagra ad or hear some sexual innuendo, not to mention the near explicit sex that can be seen on some of the shows, both those in the daytime and those at night. Sex, at least reference to it, is everywhere.
Another reason for devoting a sermon to this subject is that sex is one of the great driving forces in human life, contributing to everything from how we think about ourselves to how we relate to others. If we do not talk about it, assumptions about what faith thinks about sex will rush in to fill the void, and those assumptions may be far less Christian than they claim to be.
Now, it’s not my place to offer a talk on the birds and the bees or present a kind of Christian Kama Sutra, but I’d like to make some faith affirmations about sex which are, I believe, rooted in scripture and doctrine.
1. Faith affirms sexuality.
We are made sexual beings. Our sexuality is not something to be denied or made the subject of shame. Our sexuality is part of the good order of creation. You know Genesis well where it says, and the text puts this songfully,
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).
The fact that we are sexual beings is basic to our human framework. Because sexuality is fundamental to our framework as persons, we cannot begin to relate to others or to God in any way other than as sexual beings.
The human body in all its magnificent wonder is not to be scorned. While it is true there are passages in the New Testament that speak negatively of the flesh and put the flesh in a kind of opposition to the spirit, it is important to know that those passages refer to worldly and ungodly aims more than to the body itself. They are not put-downs of the body or of sexuality, but rather of a life that moves away from God. Indeed, the New Testament is so far from denigrating the body that its central affirmation is that God took on human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. It says, too, as far as our bodies are concerned, that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6.19), and that we are to present our bodies to God as part of our spiritual worship (Romans 12:1). The Bible is not embarrassed by our sexuality but affirms it, and includes it in the way we relate to God as well as to others.
2. Faith affirms sexual expression.
There is a character in The Color Purple – Celie – who, for one reason or another, largely because she has suffered abuse, has come to believe that satisfying the sexual appetite is an unholy enterprise, something from the darker side of life, ungodly, sinful, and incapable of being pleasurable. Then a friend tells her, “God love all them feelings . . . That’s some of the best stuff God did.”1
Without analyzing what led Celie to her inhibitions regarding the expression of the natural affections, we can find some of the same inhibitions and even prohibitions in church history. It may surprise you to learn that, early on in Christian history, some of the church’s leading teachers took an extremely negative view of marriage and of sex within as well as outside of marriage. They thought marriage hindered the development of the spiritual life and that sex was evil unless it was entered into for the purpose of having children.2 One leading teacher even said the people of the Old Testament would not have had sex had they been able to have children any other way.3
Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 7 begins to show how these attitudes which developed in the early church are really quite inconsistent with the highest principles of the New Testament. There we find Paul certainly values his celibacy, for it keeps him free to work and to travel without having to take another into consideration, but he likewise realizes this life is not for all. He believes partners are to have a healthy sexual relationship with an eye on mutual satisfaction. Sex is for both partners to enjoy, and part of the task of marriage is to negotiate that mutual satisfaction.
3. Faith affirms the need for sexual discipline.
While Paul gives holy license for the enjoyment of sexual pleasure, he does not have unrestrained sex in mind. He calls for self-control. And this is critical if sex is to be enjoyed. The sexual impulse is good, but it needs to be controlled by something higher. The sexual urge is strong, and, if left to itself, could pull us in directions exciting at the moment but actually harmful to long-term well-being. So faith affirms the need for sexual discipline. Here discipline means gladly surrendering to a structure and a limitation for the sake of a higher good.
We are wise to submit the sexual urge to the discipline of honesty. No sex act is appropriate that requires you to be dishonest with yourself, with another, or with God. In this regard, the only holy way is the way of truthfulness.
We should submit the sexual appetite to the discipline of wisdom. No sex act is appropriate that requires you to deviate from your best understanding of yourself, your goals and your values. No sex act is appropriate that takes place without the fullest and most accurate view possible of the consequences, emotional and financial as well as physical. No act is appropriate that does not think clearly beyond the moment.
We should include as well the discipline of unselfishness. No sex act is appropriate that is not in the best interests of the partner. This has to do both with the partner’s immediate pleasure and future well-being. Release and self-gratification are always part of the sex act, but no legitimate sex uses another person selfishly. We are to seek the satisfaction of the other and not just satisfaction from the other.
Also important is the discipline of commitment. No sex is appropriate that does not take place in the context of fidelity. Genuine sensitivity to the other calls for loyalty to the other, the giving and receiving of one another, not just for the moment. There is no true delighting in another that keeps an eye out for someone else.
Through all we have said this morning, we have been submitting this matter of sex in all its dimensions to the discipline of religion. No sex is appropriate that cannot be held up to God in open acknowledgment before the Lord. Unless God is in a relationship, that relationship is bent toward wrong. When God is in a relationship, love’s most remarkable gifts can be discovered, nurtured, and shared.
These disciplines do not take away pleasure, power, beauty, wonder or fascination. Rather, they add to the joy of human tenderness. If we follow these disciplines, and devote ourselves lovingly to the person God gives us – to the one to whom we are given – in relationship, then we shall find that this matter of sex is one of God’s best inventions and a delightful part of a life lived in holiness and God-given joy.
Mark E. Yurs is Pastor of Salem United Church of Christ in Verona, WI.
1. Quoted in Mary Louise Bringle, Despair: Sickness or Sin? (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), p. 39.
2. David and Vera Mace, The Sacred Fire: Christian Marriage Through the Ages (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986), p. 89f.
3. Ibid., p. 90. This reference is to St. Augustine.