This post is part of the blog tour for Daniel Kirk‘s new book Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? I am covering chapter eight which it titled “Sex in the Plot of God’s Story”. You know, that subject we Christians struggle to address.
Human sexuality isn’t an easy subject for Christians to address. Often we come across as defending some sort of Victorian Era idealism. When the pendulum swings the other way we find pastors writings books as if they are sex therapist (and their lack of qualification show) or they do odd publicity stunts like putting a bed on the roof of their church to they can have a live webcast where they discuss sex with their parishioners.
For those who have been around evangelicalism for any length of time you are used to the cliches that sex before marriage is boring and bad and that the only fun, exciting sex is reserved for marriage. The whole sales pitch is very utilitarian, but it doesn’t explain the “why” of sex. Kirk attempts to do this very thing.
The project of this book is to link Christ and Paul around the proclamation of the Kingdom of God and the new creation that God has enacted upon the world beginning with the resurrection of Christ. It is this message that united Jesus and Paul. Jesus proclaiming God’s Kingdom through his words and deeds. Jesus was vindicated by God as the agent of the Kingdom through the resurrection. Paul reinterprets the story of the Hebrew Scriptures through this apocalyptic event. Paul recognizes that Jesus is the one through whom God has begun the new creation and through whom he is establishing the Kingdom. Paul sees the church as the community that embodies the Kingdom and the new creation. I recommend reading the reviews of the early chapter by Nijay Gupta, Matthew Montonini, Tim Gombis, James McGrath, Jamie Arpin-Ricci, and A.K.M. Adam to get a full bodied understanding of Kirk’s project.
In the biblical narrative it begins with a man and a woman created together in Genesis 1-2. You know the narrative. It provides many principles regarding sexual identity between males and females in a monogamous relationship. Of course, Jesus and Paul both reference this story. Yet many see Jesus and Paul as being somewhat different regarding human sexuality. Kirk notes this when he asks:
- “How do we square the ‘do not judge’ Jesus with the ‘homosexual-condemning’ Paul?”
- “What sort of indicators do we have about what faithful sex looks like within the story of God’s renewal of creation?”
- “For Jesus, how does the coming reign of God lend a distinctive stamp to what sex is and how it should be both faithfully received as a gift and then in turn given to another? And for Paul, what does sex have to do with new creation that comes through the crucified and risen Christ?” (p. 162)
In Jesus’ teaching Kirk finds three “strands of sexual expression woven together”: sex, marriage, and lifelong fidelity (p. 163). When asked about divorce Jesus appealed to the creation narrative to show that man and woman are made for each other, that they are to create a new family unit by coming together sexually, and that it is intended for life. Kirk writes, “In the Christian story, sex takes place within marriage…this is a lifelong partnership. In joining two people sexually, God unites them as one flesh, not to be separated.” (p. 164)
OK, so that is the biblical story. What about our story? Our story informed by Freud, Jung, Madonna, and Glee?! “What does the Christian story look like when played well in this arena?” (p. 164)
Kirk notes that the story of Jesus calls all types of sinners into the community. This includes those with sexual sins. We aren’t to compromise our story, but we must remember that it is not an excuse for exclusion as if sexual sins are categorically worse than other sins. “The church must become the place where the sexually promiscuous experience a committed form of love and embrace that prove to be authentic expressions of acceptance of which serial sexual encounters are only cheap parodies.” (p. 164) Kirk points out that we come to Jesus for forgiveness of sins and this includes sexual sins! (p. 165)
It isn’t possible to offer forgiveness and an alternative vision unless “…we actually believe that the Christian story line of sexual oneness in lifelong marriage is a better plot than the one on offer in the world around us.” (p. 165). Do we believe that this committed, serving, suffering oneness between two people is a better story than using others for pleasure or short-term sexual commitment with many off-ramps for self-preservation. The concern with Christian sexuality is not that it is “better” sex (sorry to burst the bubble of some popular pastors). Christian sexuality is committed sexuality. It is a place where weakness trumps performance. This is rare in our world.
How does this connect with the Kingdom of God? Kirk notes that Jesus said sexuality will not matter in the future Kingdom, therefore, “Sex is an important part of our life on earth, but not the most important thing any us has to say about ourselves.” (p. 167) In other words, sex is not essential to human identity. Our identity transcends our sexual activities. While Paul is the one who is often criticized as being a hard-liner regarding sex Jesus himself is the one who condemned even lusting after a woman who is not one’s wife! Kirk writes, “A critical stage on the path to spiritually healthy sex lies along the way of naming, confessing, and turning from misguided desires. We must be willing to come to God for forgiveness of sexual sins, healing from sexual brokenness, and freedom from sexual enslavement.” (p. 167) As long as we self-justify we will not understand sexuality as Jesus understood it. We will think sex is all about us and our pleasure. We won’t understand sex in it’s greater context.
Kirk proposes that Jesus and Paul understand sexuality in much the same way through the same biblical framework. I agree. Jesus and Paul were both conservative about sexuality (Paul went as far as to advocate celibacy as a superior state, see pp. 168-169). They understood some expressions as holy and some as sinful. Do we as the church align with them?
The money quote from the chapter is this:
As the church has grown more gracious about divorce, more lenient about premarital sex, less concerned about extramarital sex, and more accepting of homosexual sex, it has begun to surrender that part of the good news that proclaims to us the extent of God’s gracious forgiveness. As proclaimers of the message, we are giving up the powerful tool of acknowledging ourselves to be, in the area of sexuality, in ever-present need of God’s grace and mercy. (pp. 167-168)
If we don’t present human sexuality as lifelong covenant between man and woman we refuse the healing grace of God to those who have been damaged by misguided sexual expression.
When Kirk turns his attention toward Paul he emphasizes Paul’s comparison of marriage to the relationship between Christ and his church (and how our marriage relationships can proclaim that relationship to the world around us). (pp. 169-170) For both Paul and Jesus sexual sins are serious. They ruin this imagery. Likewise, they ignore the goodness and usefulness of the human body in the Christian story. Your body is you. You are embodied. What you do with your body matters, especially if you are following Christ. (pp. 171-173)
So where does sex fit into the story told by Jesus and Paul? This is Kirk’s conclusion:
Too often, Christians have believed the competing narrative that speaks of finding greater security, a greater sense of significance, a greater amount of pleasure, or even greater love, through sex outside the lifelong bond. We have not lived as though the Christian story really offers a more compelling vision of reality than the alternatives that confront us. We need to get this story straight because it is tightly connected with the gospel. We are an embodied people. We are a people created to be joined to another body. We are a people meant to be given security through such a lasting physical, sexual union. And we are meant to be given eternal security through lasting union with the physical body of the resurrected Christ. (p. 173)
What does this chapter teach the reader about sex?
First, sex is not internally defined. It is defined by the biblical story. It is given meaning by creation and new creation. It is given direction by a King and his Kingdom.
Second, sex is not a relationship in itself. Sex is given purpose when two people know they are giving their lives to each other until “death do us part”. Sex is not about conquering others. Sex is about giving one’s self to another.
Third, sex is not about “me”. It is about “us”–husband and wife. This allows for vulnerability, error, mistake, embarrassment. It allows for the Genesis imagery of being “naked, but not ashamed”. The world tells us sex is about performance. Sex is like trying to climb to corporate ladder. You must be good at it or you will be shamed. Marriage should be a place of grace where sex between two people is filled with mercy and love.
Fourth, sex can proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom. If Christians live our sexual lives as intended it provides another venue for our counter-claims against the world.
Fifth, sexual sins matter and the church needs to continue proclaiming the kingdom approach to healthy sexuality. We shouldn’t do this with bait-and-switch tactics like “Sex outside marriage is no fun” and “Christians have the really fun sex”. This makes sex as selfish as the world’s story. We must show how a selfish approach to sexuality dehumanizes us.
Finally, the church must show grace to those who fail sexually. While telling our story we must not become condemning of others. It is one thing to say what is right and wrong and to hold each other accountable. It is something different to demean people who fail sexually. Grace is still the guide.