Eros and Ethics

Susan R. Andrews
Sermon, Friday Evening
November 5, 2004

Song of Solomon, Chapter 2
I Corinthians 6:12-23

My first year in seminary, I found myself teaching sex education to a bunch of junior highs in a Congregational Church outside of Boston. It was the early 1970’s, and the only denominational curriculum available was that produced by the Unitarians. I don’t know who was more embarrassed – the kids or me. There I was naming all the anatomical parts and passing around diaphragms and IUDS and multi-colored condoms. Those adolescents were so horrified, that I’m sure they delayed any sexual exploration for at least an extra five years!

The worst part of it, however, was that the curriculum was spiritless. It was all facts and terminology and biology. And it was totally lacking in values or scriptural content or moral grounding. And so, three years later, when I once again taught sex education to junior highs at the First Presbyterian Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania, I wrote my own curriculum. I did include a birth control show and tell. But more importantly, central to each class was a passage of scripture – including the two texts we have heard this evening. My hope was that the young people squirming in those chairs in front of me would sense the sacred quality of sexuality – the sacred goodness and joy and delight and pleasure that God has implanted in our bodies. I wanted them to leave knowing that their sexuality was a precious gift – a gift to be lived out responsibly and joyfully to the glory of God.

Phyllis Trible has written – pardon the pun – the seminal modern commentary on the Song of Solomon. Entitled “A Love Story Gone Awry” (in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Fortress Press, 1978) she suggests that the garden imagery in the Song of Solomon is the recreation of the Garden of Eden before the fall. It is an ode to erotic love that describes what could have been, and can be again. She reminds us of the suspicion – even hostility – that the church has given to this love poetry.

Trible does a deft comparison between the Garden of Eden and this re-created Garden of Eros described in the Wisdom literature. In the Garden of Eden we find sexuality entangled with guilt and judgment and shameful nudity. In the Song of Solomon we find love woven with play and imagination and delight – a nudity that is both exalted and desired. And there is no guilt found anywhere. In Genesis we find pain in childbirth, unequal power between the lovers, and a suggestion that adult love demands leaving ones father and one mother. But in the Garden of Eros, childbirth is eagerly anticipated, the Rose of Sharon invites her beloved into her mother’s chamber for the consummation of their love, and their relationship is a rich mutuality of power and passion. Though God is never named in the Song of Solomon, God’s delight and creativity saturates every verse and is embedded in each fleshy word. And twenty-five years ago, when those junior high students in Allentown heard their married youth advisors read these words to one another – a dialogue of intensity and abandon and desire – those adolescents experienced a God’s love story not gone awry, but embodied in sacred sexuality.

Now it may seem a stretch to connect St. Paul to the vivid sensuality of this Wisdom literature. But with his usual theological intensity, the apostle reaffirms the main point of the Song of Solomon. He proclaims that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit -that sexuality is a sacred gift to be used to glorify and enjoy God. And, Paul makes clear that erotic love becomes destructive if it is not shaped by moral and spiritual love. The apostle is directly confronting the dualism of his day – the thinking that the body and the soul are somehow separate and that therefore, what one does with one’s body simply doesn’t matter when it comes to the sanctity of the soul.

As with all of Paul’s writings, these verses are penned within a specific context. And so we must be careful how we use these particular words to express universal truth. As we know the letters to the Corinthians are the most situation defined of all of his letters. He is writing to the church at Corinth to answer their specific questions and to comment on their specific behavior. Can faithful Christians eat meat previously used in pagan rituals? Should women keep their heads covered? Should the rich wait for the poor before they eat their community meals? And what about sexual behavior? In the surrounding Greek culture where promiscuity and temple prostitutes and pedophilia was socially acceptable, how is a Christian to understand the holy demands of sexual behavior ? Of course, underlying all these controversies is the question about freedom. If a Christian has been set free by the saving and forgiving power of the Risen Christ, does that mean that the Christian is free to engage in any kind of behavior?

Mimicking the mantra of the day, Paul plays devils advocate. “All things are lawful,” he says, affirming that through Christ, it is gospel and not law that sets us free. But then Paul lifts up the moral dimension which is the foundation of Christian freedom. As Christians we are free in God and for God and through God. But we are not free from God. Though all things may be lawful, not all things are helpful – not all things are beneficial. Though all things may be allowed, not all things are for the best – not all things empower and honor others – not all things – edify or build up the community or the soul or the Body of Christ. And so when it comes to the freedom of sexuality created by God, the question becomes for Paul, how can our sexual behavior glorify God and ennoble the other? How can agape – the moral love which is incarnated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – how can this moral love be fully expressed through erotic love?

I want to digress for a just a minute in order to underline just how important context is. The context in this particular passage is temple prostitution and that is the fornication that Paul is referring to here – a context which makes little sense to us today – unless we want to consider the sexual misconduct and abuse that is still practiced in our Christian “temples” today. In our 21st century world, our context for sexual ethics is different – a world where 80% of college students have sex together regularly – many of them with the people they will eventually marry – a world where growing genetic research and cultural homophobia are clashing and have led our religious communities to become embroiled in divisive and ugly debates about homosexuality – a world where 9 out 10 of the heterosexual couples married in most of our churches have been living together before the wedding. The controversial sexual behaviors being practiced today are different than those prevalent in Paul’s day, and so using his language, we need to ask: Does any of this contemporary behavior glorify God and ennoble the other? Or, is it the kind of spiritual prostitution that desecrates our union with Christ – the language Paul uses to describe the Corinthians.

I have now joined the group of former Moderators, and like some of my colleagues in this sanctuary, I continue to cherish the privilege it was to represent all of you during last year. But I also share with some of them the scars of misrepresentation – the experience of having my words distorted by partisan reporting. Maybe that just goes with the territory. And so, here I go again! 

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has written what one commentator has called, “the best ten pages written about sexuality in the twentieth century.” Entitled “The Body’s Grace,” Williams grounds his words in the kind of elegant sensuality and moral integrity of our two scripture passages for this evening. He affirms the sacred space of erotic love. But he also underscores an ethical imperative. And he does this by grounding his ideas in covenant theology – in the faithful and utterly dependable covenant God has with us – and the faithful and exclusive covenant we are called to have with God – the One God, beside whom there is none other. Because we are created in the image of God, Williams suggests we are called to embody the creative ethic of God. Or to use Williams own words, “to desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire…it is to ask the moral question:”How much do we want our sexual activity to heal and enlarge the life of others?” (Eugene Rogers, editor, Theology and Sexuality, Blackwell Publishers, p. 313). Isn’t that lovely – a sexual ethic that “heals and enlarges the life of the other?”

What such a reciprocal and mutual covenant ethic suggests is that asymmetrical – unbalanced – sexual relationships are simply not part of God’s vision. Sexual behavior that exhibits power over the other, sexual behavior that focuses on me instead of thee, sexual behavior that hides in the shadows of shame instead of unfolding in the sunshine of God’s delight – such behavior does not “heal and enlarge the life of the other”. Using Williams’ critique of asymmetrical relationships, I believe we 21st century Christians must proclaim unequivocally that prostitution, promiscuity, adultery, pedophilia, clergy sexual misconduct, patriarchal heterosexual marriage, furtive teenage sexual experimentation, “hooking up” for casual sex – all of this is wrong – not because it breaks some antiquated rule, but because it does not heal and enlarge the other – because it does not honor the faithfulness and fidelity of covenant – because it does not glorify God in the temple of sacred sexuality.

So, I hope we can affirm that sexuality grounded in the grace and truth of Jesus Christ does not invite open license. But neither can it be codified within narrow prohibition – as I have discovered in my thirty years of ministry. What about the 60 year old widower who in the agonizing valley of grief after the tragic death of his beloved wife, found himself falling in love with one of our young single female elders, and discovered that his courage to marry again was nurtured by the sacred healing of their sexual love? What about the 24 year old young woman – an elder and a child of te church – who has just fallen in love with a woman – and discovered the joy and delight of eros for the first time her life? What about the two graduate students living 500 miles apart – patiently waiting to marry when they finish their studies – but wanting to grow deeper in a wholistic love for one another with body as well as soul? What about 75 year old Catherine and 80 year old Frank – old and single and both dying of cancer – who want to comfort each other flesh to flesh and bone to bone – without entering the morass of legal and financial issues that plague their two bickering families?

I wrestle with these situations, as I’m sure many of you do. But the context of real people’s real sexual lives has led me to a place where I am not always sure about what God forbids. But I know in my body and in my soul what God celebrates. Sacred sexuality is about glorifying and enjoying God with the full worship of our bodies. Sacred sexuality is about reflecting the image of God in us by desiring the joy of the one we desire. Sacred sexuality is about shaping erotic love with agape love – healing and enlarging the life of the other – even at the cost of sacrificing our own needs. Sacred sexuality is about sharing our bodies in the context of covenant – a faithful and monogamous and enduring relationship that reflects the dependable fidelity of our utterly faithful God. And sacred sexuality becomes – in the wide grace of God’s redemptive plan – a way to be beneficial – a way to edify and build up the larger community of God’s people.

Friends, we are about to come to this generous table – where the very body and blood of our Living Lord will be given to us joyfully and freely. There is no dualism at this table. There is no separation of mind from body or soul from sensation. Here in taste and smell and touch we will be fed with the nourishing presence of the Living God. As spiritual people, as sexual people, as ethical people, as beloved people – let us come. Let us taste and see that the God is good.

May it be so – for you and for me. Amen.

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