Part V of “Redeeming Sex”
Scriptures: John 8:1-11; Matthew 9:9-13
So, let’s review where we’ve been so far in this series. We began with a look at sexuality as a gift from God, part of our creation in the image of God in which we reflect God’s nature as community and in which we carry out God’s mission for God’s creation. In the second sermon we discussed what happens when sex is taken out of this context, when we make it a self-imaging idol that we worship. When that happens, all of our sexual orientations become disoriented and need redeeming. In the third sermon we looked at marriage as the proper context for which God made sex, as a sign pointing toward our ultimate intimacy with God. Marriage is a sign of the kingdom of God and, when lived in that context, it is a witness to the image of God in its kingdom community and kingdom mission. Last week we turned our attention to the culture and its obsession with sexual identity as the ground of our being. Our culture wants to define people by what they desire, but we argued that God calls us to be defined by his image in us, an image that is lived out in holiness and humility. Jesus is the perfect example of that image, and it’s to his example that I want to turn today.
It’s hard for most people, especially most Christians, to imagine Jesus as a real human being with a sexuality. You might remember several years ago when the movie The Last Temptation of Christ came out, suggesting that Jesus had sexual desires. Christians were appalled at the possibility. Then The DaVinci Code came out and made the bold claim that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene and that their child was the real Holy Grail. I got a lot of calls about that one, even did a class on it.
Somehow, we struggle with the idea that Jesus could have been tempted in this way, which probably says more about our own views of sex. The creeds tell us that Jesus was fully human, but one of the great heresies of the past and present is that of Docetism, which suggests that Jesus wasn’t really human but only seemed to be so. That seems to be the view of those who have a problem with Jesus being really human like us, including having a real body with real human needs.
I remember doing a Christmas Eve sermon once where I described a live nativity where the baby Jesus filled his diaper and stunk out a church packed with people. I used it as an illustration that the baby Jesus was like all other babies, and that’s what babies do. I had an irate couple in my office the day after Christmas who were incredibly offended that I suggested that Jesus had poopy diapers. I saw them later in the day at a Chinese restaurant I frequented and it took every ounce of my sanctification to not send them a poo-poo platter.
The early church theologian Origen argued for a Jesus that was utterly sexless, which meant that he would have also been utterly non-human. Surely, Jesus had feelings that were complicated. Indeed, the writer of Hebrews says that he was “tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin” (4:15). Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, and thus his humanity, like ours, includes sexuality. But we’re not sure what to do with that, given that Jesus was single and sinless. As missiologist Michael Frost puts it, “When in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Mary Magdalene sings, “I don’t know how to love him,” she expresses the general frustration we all seem to experience regarding our view of Jesus. We’re uncertain of how to—or whether to—view him as a sexual being.”
But if sexuality is part of our being created in God’s image, it was also part of Jesus, who was the perfect image of God lived out in a human life. Perhaps the problem comes for us because we have narrowly defined sexuality as something we do with our genitals rather than something that is part of human life in general. Theologian Marva Dawn says that while humans have a genital sexuality, we also have what she calls a social sexuality. Implicit in each of these is a longing to be completed, to be in community, in relationship to another. It’s part of our creation in the image of God. The problem arises when we focus on genital sexuality as the primary thing that defines us and neglect the broader dimension of social sexuality, or non-genital intimacy with others.
While the single Jesus chose not to express his sexuality genitally, he was most certainly one who expressed intimacy in social contexts. Jesus was attractive to people, both men and women, not because he was a first century “hottie” as the kids say (or as portrayed in the recent movie Son of God where he was played by a male model), but because he exuded real intimacy—intimacy with God and intimacy with others. People sought Jesus out, especially those who, as we read in our first Gospel lesson this morning, were curious, broken, sick, hungry, or marginalized. He was as much attracted to them as they to him—they were people in need of real intimacy in a world that had rejected them. Jesus gathered twelve disciples around him and poured his life into them, not only as their rabbi but as an intimate friend. He had intimate relationships with both men and women—think of John, the beloved discipled, or Lazarus whom he loved, but also of Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed him and supported his ministry.
In short, Jesus was able to be passionate about and intimate with people without the need for genital sexuality. That reality challenges our modern assumptions that one can only find fulfillment in sexual relationships or in marriage and family. Jesus remained a single savior, but he was never lonely and enjoyed deep levels of intimacy with all kinds of people, gathering them around himself into a new family.
To put it another way, Jesus is the perfect image of God, the one who demonstrates what full humanity really looks like. Being human may include genital sex, but it doesn’t necessarily require it. It always includes community and mission, however, which Jesus sums up in the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love for God and love for others; intimacy with God and intimacy with others; reflecting God’s nature in community, and reflecting God’s mission in caring for others and the creation; our love for God characterized by holiness and our love for others characterized by humility. This is what it means to be a real lover, a real human being in the model of Jesus.
It’s this model of Jesus that we have to live into if the church is going to make an impact on a world that is sexually broken. Lord knows we haven’t done a good job of that to this point and you could argue that’s why the culture is largely hostile to the church. We’ve looked at sexual issues as just that—issues to be debated as points of law rather than being in relationship with the people who are dealing with those issues. As I said last week, we have either insisted on holiness without humility, or humility without holiness. We’ve chosen either love for God or love for neighbor, not necessarily both. We need a different way of being—we need to live the way of Jesus.
There’s one particular story in the Gospels that strikes me as a model for living the way of Jesus in a sexually broken world. Actually, it’s a story that wasn’t in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John, which is why your Bible likely has some kind of marks to that effect. Scholars debate where it came from and where it belongs, since some manuscripts included it as part of Luke’s Gospel, but most believe that it’s an authentic story about Jesus that circulated throughout Christian history and was later pasted into John. It’s the story of the woman caught in adultery, or at least that’s what most modern Bibles call it in their headings. Actually, that title skews the story a little bit, as we’ll see. I think it would be better titled, “Position and Posture.”
The story begins in the temple, where Jesus is teaching the people. A woman is dragged into the temple court by a group of Pharisees and scribes who see her as a test case that might trap Jesus once and for all. She has been caught in the act of adultery, a crime of genital sexuality for which the punishment, according to the Law of Moses, was death by stoning—meaning you threw a person off a height and, if that didn’t kill them, then you hurled stones at them until you finished the job. Of course, the law also said that her male partner was also to be stoned, but he was nowhere to be found—already a double standard for punishment!
The Pharisees present the question to Jesus: The Law of Moses says this, what do you say? It’s a trap question, a question of law if you know the context. See, while the Law of Moses required a death sentence (and that’s a strict interpretation of the law), the Jews under Roman rule were not allowed to carry out death sentences on their own. So it’s a perfect set-up—if Jesus says, “No, don’t stone her,” he is arguing against the Law of Moses, which questions his Jewish credentials. On the other hand, if he says, “Yes, stone her,” he could be charged with violating Roman law. Use either answer, or argue with them on the merits of each, and Jesus is in trouble.
The Pharisees and Scribes try to make this woman and her sexual history into an issue to be dealt with and argued, a point of law. They have a position on the issue and they want Jesus to take one as well; what they hope will be the wrong one. They wanted to “bring an accusation against him,” says the story. It’s the kind of argument that so characterizes our own times, when issues are more important than people, where winning the argument is more important than a right relationship.
But in response to their position, Jesus instead takes a posture. He bends down and begins writing in the sand without saying a word. What did he write? Scholars have long speculated about it—everything from writing out the ten commandments to writing the names of the women some of the men in the group may have slept with. But those speculations aren’t important. What’s important is that Jesus doesn’t argue a position on the issue. That doesn’t mean he has no position. Jesus understood the law; after all, he is the one who came to fulfill it. He had even strengthened that law in his own teaching, saying that looking at a woman with lust is the same as committing adultery. Jesus knew the law, God’s standard of holiness, and he didn’t change it, but he didn’t feel the need to defend it, either.
Instead, he changes his posture. Curiously, he bends down and begins writing in the dust. It’s a posture of humility but, in a way, also one of authority. In our world when someone challenges us with an argument on a position, generally we will run to our computers and bang out a lengthy Facebook post arguing our own position. Jesus, on the other hand, doodles in the dust and says not a word of argument in response. I wonder how long he doodled there before speaking—the silence deafening.
But then he alters his posture once again. He stands up, looks at the crowd and says, “Whoever hasn’t sinned, throw the first stone.” In those few words, Jesus changes the posture of the situation. Whereas the Scribes and Pharisees saw themselves in a superior position to the woman they threw down in the dust before Jesus, in one small statement Jesus has now put them all on the same level—as sinners. There is no superior position they can take, no punishment they can dish out that they themselves do not deserve; only the posture of humility when confronted with their own sin.
Jesus bends back down and keeps writing in the dirt. One by one, the men began to go away, beginning with the elders—probably because they had the most sins from which to repent. They go from position to posture—stoop shouldered, shuffling, chastised, humbled. Humility will do that to you.
Jesus stood up again, this time to speak to the woman who was now alone, her accusers gone. “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”
“No one, sir.”
“Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.”
Here’s the irony, the only one left standing who really had the authority to condemn her did not. The only one who truly understood God’s position on adultery, did not condemn her. Instead, he took a posture—a posture of grace instead of a position of law; a posture offering new life instead of a position requiring death. Jesus knew that this woman’s life could change with grace, a second chance. The stones, on the other hand, would have shut out that opportunity.
Oh, his position didn’t change. Jesus didn’t suddenly say to her, “God loves you just the way you are; your adultery is no big deal; go on your way and be fulfilled.” That’s cheap grace. Instead, Jesus says to her, “Go and sin no more.” You have been offered grace, therefore go and live in the light of it. Go and be holy. That grace will cost you something—it will cost you your desires, your old life, your broken ways of being. But it will also bring you a new life, a new chance to become fully human, to be who you were created to be.
This is the gospel, the good news, encapsulated in a story, and its a story that invites us to find ourselves within it. Are we like the woman, caught in a cycle of sin and feeling condemned, used, and shut out of life? Are we like the Pharisees, standing there in condemnation and fighting for their position? Are we like the crowd, standing by and doing nothing at all? Or are we going to be like Jesus?
Friends, I think it’s time that we, as disciples of Jesus, focus on our posture when it comes to a sexually broken world. Yes, we may have different positions on a particular issue. Our denomination has an official position, for example, on homosexuality—that all people are of sacred worth, but the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. We will not do same sex marriages nor have ordained clergy who are “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” Many agree with that position, I think it’s the biblical position, but many do not. But agreeing or disagreeing with it doesn’t tell the whole story. Regardless of position, the posture must always be the same. Jesus understood the law, indeed was the author of it, but he understood its purpose—to bring people to wholeness and healing. The people who gathered around Jesus did so not because he was reminding them of the law, but because he was inviting them to a new life.
“Go and learn what this means,” says Jesus to those who questioned his posture, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” God desires that we be merciful as he is merciful. It’s not defending the law—God is perfectly capable of doing that himself—rather it’s about taking the posture of Jesus. People were drawn to him because of it. When the church repels hurting people, it’s clear that we’ve been doing it wrong. We’ve been arguing about genital sexuality and not engaging in the social sexuality that invites intimacy on a different level—the kind of intimacy that people in a broken world are desperately seeking.
I said it last week and I’ll say it again. Do we really believe the gospel? Do we believe it can change people’s lives? We don’t need more rules anymore than we need more cheap grace. What we really need is to be like Jesus.
The God who has every right to condemn us for our sins from the position of his holiness chooses instead to offer us grace through the humble posture of his son, who was willing to die for us. As Paul tells us in Philippians 2, he “emptied himself by taking the form [the posture] of a slave and by becoming a human being…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” He did that for us, all of us sinners. And Paul says that we should have the same attitude, the same posture, that Jesus had. “Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.” Position and posture.
Position and posture. Holiness and humility. Loving God and loving neighbor.
That’s what it means to be fully human in the image of God. That’s what it means to be like Jesus.
Hirsch, Debra. Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations About Sexuality and Spirituality. IVP Books, 2015.