[Previous installments: Part 1, Part 2a, Part 2b]
Since moving to San Francisco two years ago, I have had and/or overheard several times over the same conversation about sex. The story goes something like this.
Context: San Francisco is the most single city in the U.S.
Characters: people who want to have sex, but are reticent to commit to marriage and/or long-term dedicated relationships.
Further implication for context: people are very lonely.
Plot: a quest for significant companionship. But this takes place through numerous sexual encounters that never lead to the desired end, leaving people as lonely and sometimes feeling more guilty than they had.
And, the most interesting thing to me is that I have heard this plot narrated as the story of traditional Christian communities / churches that are advocating sex within marriage as God’s plan for humanity and as the story of gay men in San Francisco. Two groups that would seem to be on opposite “extremes” of our culture’s understanding of sex are, in essence, playing the same script. And both are finding that it does not lead to the plot resolution they’re hoping for.
This highlights for me what is, perhaps, the most significant element of the Christian narrative of sex, and where the marriage analogy of Ephesians 5 gives us the severe grace of a call to repentance.
1. Self-giving Love
Ephesians 5 holds together Christ’s self-giving love on behalf of the church with the self-giving love that should define marriage in general and the sexual relationship in particular. When it invokes the creation narrative, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,” Ephesians 5 invites us to read and understand creation light of the story of redemption. That latter story is one of self-sacrificial love for the good of the other. The Christian story is cruciform, and Christian sex, too, must be cruciform.
This is where the issue of fidelity, of single-minded sexual oneness, comes to the fore. The pursuit of alternative partners beyond the one to whom we’ve clung to denies the story we claim as our own inasmuch as it makes us self-seekers of our own good, our own fulfillment, our own pleasure, at the expense of the other. This inverts the story of the cross. “Open marriage” is incompatible with the story of self-giving love.
I do realize that I’ve jumped from sex to marriage. I suppose I should apologize, and if there are dissenters out there I’m sure I’ll be charged with equivocating. But for all that our ideas of marriage are thoroughly modern and often assumed when we come to the text rather than being read out of it, I can’t get around the idea that marriage is the closest thing we have to creating a context that accurately narrates this story of complete self-giving.
What I’m getting at is this: the call for an “all-in” giving of ourselves is variously appropriate in different contexts. We give ourselves differently to people with whom we are in different relationships. Giving ourselves sexually to someone is a statement with our body that we are giving ourselves to them entirely. The Christian tradition has rightly insisted that if you aren’t willing to say to everyone as long as you both shall live, that such physical expression is a lie.
It’s probably important to say that sex isn’t the only way we can be inappropriately close to someone of the opposite gender. I know a guy who was best friends with a woman he wasn’t particularly interested in dating. The relationship developed an intimacy that was communicating to the woman a level of intimacy he wasn’t ready to stand by and express in other areas. That was a selfish use of a relationship.
Once upon a time I was at a men’s breakfast, and the pastor who was speaking encouraged us to process our responses to women using this grid: When you’re thinking about that woman, are you desiring her for your glory, or are you desiring God’s glory in and for her? If you can overlook the echoes of John Piper, that question can be a significant pointer toward which narrative we’re living out in our sex: either the world’s usually self-serving narrative of lust that seeks my own good even if, at times, at the expense of the other; or, the Christian narrative of self-giving love that seeks the other’s good even if, at times, at the expense of my own.
2. Union with Christ
Besides pragmatics and extrapolations, is there really any good reason to think that God wants sex to be reserved for one person to whom we are joined for life? (Or, if you prefer to build your theology from pop culture: Is Avatar right, that those who are best in tune with the world in which we’re created should mate for life?!) I do think so.
The union that we experience in sex is itself likened to the union we experience with Christ by the Spirit. Sex is an experience that joins us to another, changing both of our identities as we become one with the other. This is why Paul tells the Corinthians to guard against sexual immorality. Being joined “outside of Christ” means taking away the members of Christ and making them members of a prostitute.
It is not just official marriage ceremonies that make people “one flesh”–that is the function of sex itself.
The Christian story of salvation is one of being joined to another’s body, the body of the dead and risen Jesus. The “mystery” of sex, as articulated in Ephesians 5, is that an analogous kind of union is formed between sexually joined bodies on earth. The rich interplay between the God who is faithful to Israel like a husband, and the God who hates divorce, the Christ who gives up his body for his bride and calls the church to live in self-giving faithfulness, means that our sexual relationships provide a glimmer of the Christian story to those with eyes to see. We are joined to a body, we are one, to undo the union is to cut off the members of Christ. Am I talking about sex or marriage or salvation or church? Yes. That’s how sex works within the Christian story.
3. What is Suffering?
A few weeks ago I got to listen in on some thoughts on what God is up to in the world from Christians in New York City. They were wrestling with the question of what the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and glory has to do with their professional and personal pursuits. One woman volunteered this: Maybe suffering for the Kingdom, dying with Jesus, looks like being committed to a place.
Commitment as participating in the narrative of the self-giving messiah? That sounds like the gospel to me. Replace “place” with “person,” and I think we’re up against the scandal of Christian sex that the world (inside and outside the church!) is so reluctant to hear: even sex is a realm within which we are called to deny ourselves. Even sex is a realm within which we are called to commit. Even sex is a realm over which the crucified Christ reigns–and in which he invites us to live out a paradoxically life-giving narrative.
Can greater life come from greater self-denial? Can greater glory come from walking the way of the cross? Do we believe that the crucified Christ is the resurrected Lord over all?