I Thess. 4: 3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body[a] in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.[b] The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 8 Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit. 9 Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10 And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11
When I last spoke from this passage, over 15 years ago, I was afraid of the responses I might get, because it touches on some sensitive and controversial things. I did get a very painful and personal letter in response. But it was also a courageous one, and full of integrity, for the author signed his name. As long as I don’t mention the person’s name, I believe it’s okay to talk about that letter. It came from a man I respected highly then, still do, and always will. In his letter, he said that he had never before seen any connection between peace and social justice, and personal sanctity, in terms of sexual conduct; he had perhaps even assumed a disconnect between them, even, perhaps, some competition. And he was glad I illuminated that connection, for it convicted him in a way he felt he needed. Yet, it was not the intention of my message to convict anyone, certainly not to condemn, anyone.
In that message I had lamented how churches tend to divide, to separate, sometimes even to fight, over whether their mission and their moral and ethical concerns have to do with peace and social justice for poor and marginalized people—which I think is a very important and biblical concern– or whether they focus on personal morality, holiness and sanctity, especially in matters of sex. I think that’s also a valid and biblical concern. But I said then, and I say it again, today, that Paul in today’s passage combines and unites these concerns when he uses what we commonly consider peace and social justice language for matters of the most intimate personal relationship and conduct, as well as the language of personal holiness and sanctity.
Might they be two sides of the same coin? I think so. That was the point that I really wanted to make with that message on this passage fifteen years ago, and I hope I convey it well today.
And with that, I’ve already touched on two sub-points of the second question in the outline already, about what kinds of Old Testament biblical language Paul uses in this passage. But first, Question #1: Why did the Thessalonian Christians need to hear these words? Because the culture in which they lived and had grown up was as sexually promiscuous, predatory, and exploitative as parts of our society and culture are today. Thessalonica hosted a temple to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, from whom we get the word, “aphrodisiac.” No need to mention what went on in that temple, not in the presence of children, but temple services included prostitution. Greek and Roman upper class people, especially slaveholders, both men and women, believed themselves entitled to the sexual services of their slaves, of either sex, and upon demand. And civil law backed them up. That’s how some Christian slaves ended up as martyrs, for their refusal to comply, and for their explanation why.
In the cult and the culture of Aphrodite, love largely meant emotion, attraction, affection and desire for anyone and for any sort of sexual relationship and behavior. Perhaps that is why Paul immediately goes on to talk about love, but in a different, fuller sense, when he says, “you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more.” But here, he speaks of love in terms of virtue, conduct and character. Think I Corinthians 13 kind of love- (“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth”). That’s how Paul wants them to love each other as Jews and Gentiles, men and women, in one church.
Furthermore, many of the Thessalonian Christians likely had moral, spiritual and emotional wounds from their pre-Christian participation in that culture and cult. If so, Paul was not only reminding them of God’s wider and fuller understanding of love, his words assured them of a new life going forward, the gift of a clean slate by the cleansing, freeing mercies of God. And yes, here they get guidance on how to remain in the goodness, the innocence and the true joys of a redeemed and forgiven life.
As for the next subpoint, b), Why do we need to hear these words still today? you can just write into the outline, “Ditto.” Aphrodite is yet alive and well, still demanding worship and sacrifice, even human sacrifice, from us. All humans know, deep down, that we need love. God made us that way, because God is love. So, we spend our lives seeking to receive love and to give it in some way or another. But our all-powerful, ever-present media tend to define love the same way that Thessalonica’s cult of Aphrodite did: simply or supremely as the expression of physical desire and attraction.
Now for the second question: What biblical languages does Paul use in regard to the love that brought all of us into the world? First subpoint, A: Paul applies the language of peace and social justice from the Hebrew Bible when he says, “in this matter no one should wrong or defraud a brother or sister (I Thess. 4:6).” That language echoes the law and the prophets of ancient Israel, in their visions and descriptions of social peace and justice. Paul effectively links the God-given gift of sex to possibilities of social harmony and justice. Conversely, he links illicit varieties of sexual activity with the social sins and injustices that Israel’s lawgivers and prophets condemned: false weights, withholding wages, giving false testimony, and exploiting and oppressing the poor, the orphan, the foreigner and the sojourner.
If that sounds surprising, today’s “MeToo” movement has done something similar, and rightfully so: exposing sexual activities that are exploitative, predatory and destructive of persons, families and communities, for what they are, as matters of personal and social injustice.
There’s a line in the movie, Vanilla Sky, in which someone says, “Don’t you know that when you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not?” Vanilla Sky is not a religious movie, I take it. But that statement reflects something very biblical: In the Creation Account of Genesis 2-3, the sexual bond is, spiritually as well as physically, the reunion of the one flesh image of God that was sectioned (which is where we get the word “sex”)—that is, split into two -to distinguish Eve from Adam. “For this reason they shall leave their mother and father and cleave to each other; and the two shall become one flesh.”
In the first chapter of Genesis we read that the male and female human reflect God’s image, not just by themselves; men and women can also reflect God and God’s justice in all their just and interdependent relationships. Men and women need each other in order to reflect the image of God most fully, and not just in marriage and childbirth. In any relationships of mutual dignity and care, working together, and worshiping together, men and women can reflect God together in churches, on corporate boards, in work spaces, friendships, church leadership, and more. Whether God has called us to singleness and celibacy, or to marriage, both maleness and female-ness are blessed with unique capacities to beautifully reflect God’s image, together, and on their own.
That’s why our personal histories of sexual activities will affect us so deeply, perhaps for all of our lives: because in sexual union a powerful one-flesh bond is created, one that reflects the unity of God and of God’s nature. If, after sexual union, that relationship is ruptured, as casual hook-up sex does, or now I hear it called, “recreational intimacy,” the one-flesh bond that connected two people is also ruptured. That has to hurt emotionally and spiritually, as much as such a tear would hurt physically. No wonder St. Paul compares that to breaking one’s word and defrauding the poor and the vulnerable.
The biblical vision of peace and justice includes values of fairness, equity and security for all. That’s why we often hear the Bible’s peace and justice language applied to the right of people of any sex, sexual identity or gender presentation at least to live without danger, violence, fear, oppression, discrimination, ridicule or shame. I think that’s right, too. Even if you’re as traditional as I tend to be about sexual morality, we have to recognize that fear, shame, rejection, hatred and certainly violence are not only sinful, they actually bond people to the very things they are shamed for. No one is going anywhere toward the holiness Paul enjoins in this passage without first knowing how much they are worth and how greatly and unconditionally they are loved by God and by us, and how the mercies of God release us from all bondage and guilt. Where repentance is necessary, it’s the goodness of God that leads us to it, not the meanness of the saints.
As for subpoint b in the outline: that second kind of language that this passage uses is that of holiness, purification and sanctity, Paul writes, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified,” and” God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” That is the language in which we usually have heard teaching and preaching about sex in church. Maybe the only language. If we got the impression that that is because sex is something dirty and offensive to a holy God that must occur only whenever God is not looking, you didn’t get it from me.
Nor did we get it from the Bible. It begins with God’s blessing in Genesis on everything that God saw in Creation and declared “good.” That includes each one of us, as well as that expression of love which brought each of us into the world. The very first blessing given by God to humans, in Genesis, chapter 1, was to bear God’s image as both male and female. In the next breath, another blessing is added: “to be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth.” We know only one way for that to happen.
One reason why the biblical language of holiness and sanctity applies to sexual conduct is because this awesome power to bond and to bring about life brings us so close to the nature, the power and the pleasure of God. The love that brought each of us into the world is not just a powerful biological function; it is a reunion of reflections of God’s nature that we might consider male and female. In that one-flesh bond, God has shared with us something of his power, to bond and to bring forth life, with all the joy and the responsibilities that come with it. As a spiritual director once told me: “Sexuality and spirituality are only a hair’s breadth apart from each other; like electrical wires in a fuse box, power can arc from one to the other in either direction.”
Being image bearers of God makes us like the priests, the vessels and the utensils within a temple, as well as being temples ourselves, which all exist and operate for the worship of God, all beautiful, priceless, and consecrated to God by means of sacrifice. That’s why Paul could tell his Corinthian friends: 19 “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies.” That makes everything we do with our bodies, including the love which brings us into the world, ideally acts that honor God and reflect God.
Paul is following Jesus in this matter. Jesus’ teachings on marriage and divorce appeal to the original “two-become-one-flesh” bond of equality, mutuality and interdependence between Adam and Eve, before the fall into sin. As in His teachings and conduct on other matters, like violence and poverty, Jesus points us toward God’s original and ideal intention for Creation before sin entered the world.
Jesus also pointed us forward, toward the completion and the coming of God’s kingdom in fullness. We most often hear Jesus’ words in John 14, “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am you may also be” in memorial services. And that works. But really, that is the language of ancient Israelite courtship. He there defined his mission as coming to court a church to live with him forever in a loving and intimate union. That reflects the language of Israel’s prophets, like Hosea and Ezekiel, who spoke of Israel’s covenant with God as a marriage, and of Israel’s idolatry and injustice as infidelity.
The New Testament ends with the union of the Bridegroom, Christ, and the Bride, the church, in “The Wedding Feast of the Lamb.” That’s why some churches treat a wedding service and the marriage that follows not just as a civil ceremony that conveys legal and social status, but as a sacrament, because of the power of married, covenantal, love to convey grace and reflect Christ’s relationship with the church.
Again, the first kind of biblical language Paul applies to the very personal, intimate bond that brought us all into the world is the language of peace and social justice from Israel’s civil law and the prophets. The second is the language of holiness, sanctity and consecration, from Hebrew ritual law, especially as it applied to holy places, holy things and holy people, consecrated to the worship of God. So, what God has brought together in social justice and personal holiness, let us not break asunder.
As for that last question, “So What?” Both social justice and personal sanctity are not just rules and rituals to gain rewards and avoid punishments. They are based on the character and nature of God, so that we might reflect God’s nature, in both God’s extravagant generosity and his uncompromising holiness and truthfulness. We call those two seemingly opposite aspects, “grace” and “truth.” “The law came through Moses,” wrote St. John. “But grace and truth come through Jesus Christ.”
To keep personal holiness and social justice together, especially in the area of sex and sexuality, we must also keep grace and truth together. Which is what I hope my good friend, the letter writer, experienced in my response to his painful and very personal letter: both grace and truth. For his disconnect between social justice and personal sanctity, he confessed, led to his indulgence in pornography, online and in print. Until then, he had thought of pornography as only a negligible private indulgence, of no risk, harm nor consequence to himself nor to anyone else. But now he was seeing it for what it was: an injustice toward women, his wife and children, himself, the community, and God, to the detriment of his relationships with them.
With his confession came a request for my help and support. From then on, we would meet, talk and pray together regularly, in a relationship of accountability, to monitor his journey of freedom from that injustice. He had been worried about how I would react to his confession. If anything, I was humbled and honored by his vulnerability, his honesty and the risk he took with me. They only increased my love and respect for him, which continues to this day. We experienced the love that Paul enjoined on the Thessalonians through an intimate, mutual, personal sharing of prayer and sharing, and of God’s grace and truth.
Now, I know that keeping grace and truth together is not easy, nor does it give easy nor automatic answers to all the questions and controversies we face today. If I take the overall Biblical theme of peace and social justice seriously, which I do as one theologically Anabaptist, then, to be honest with God and myself, I have to do the same with the Biblical trajectory about personal morality, holiness, including sexual morality. That is why I have been reluctant to join the growing movement in so many churches to affirm and officiate any kind of wedding other than what our Confession of Faith and my ordination vows permit. That’s not a stance I take without some ongoing struggle, given all the friends and family members I know and love who self-identify as gay, lesbian, or more. And I will continue to love them. God does. Also, because hatred, shame, silence, rejection, punishment and ostracism are neither Christ-like nor effective in helping people toward the fullness of life in Christ. Those of us with more traditional sexual standards must therefore come up with better personal, pastoral and congregational responses to all the varieties of human complexity, brokenness and struggle in every area of life, not just sexuality, than the fearful, hateful ones that many have seen or suffered. That’s a call for grace.
Likewise, if we hold to more inclusive, affirming and permissive views of sex and sexuality, we will have to come up with better biblical and theological reasons and resources than the ones I have heard and read so far, ones that don’t saw off the limb of biblical authority on which all Christian moral discernment sits, which do more than just negate the negations, and which won’t obligate us to sacrifice all truth in a misunderstanding of grace.
For the greater any power and blessing are, the greater are also the temptations, the dangers and the damages of its misuse. Sex can therefore be as much a realm of self-deception, even self-harm, as of life, delight, and fulfillment. That’s why we need better guidance about this awesome, beautiful, holy blessing and power than what our ancestors in Thessalonica got from their culture, or what we get today from ours. Consent, equality of power, and “do no harm,” have their place. But given the very urgent power of life and love, those standards by themselves are naïve. That’s a call for truth.
Because I foresee more people like my friend, the letter writer, life’s walking wounded (aren’t we all?) limping from the cult and the culture of Aphrodite toward Christ and the church, seeking both grace and truth, like what I hope I gave to my friend. After trying and being hurt by everything else, some people will hunger for holiness and true, lasting love. God forbid they should find us either looking down our noses at them in fear, judgment or hostility, or that they should find us running blindly from the hateful, hurtful excesses of our prudish past into the very things they are fleeing and seeking healing from.
If we don’t come out in the same places on everything on all the moral and spiritual discernment ahead of us, I hope we still trust each other’s motives and can listen to each other with the same love and humility with which we wish to be heard. For those of us here who take the more traditional stance on sex do not always or only do so out of ignorance, fear, hatred or bigotry. Often they do so knowing the hard knocks of life, in their own histories, or those of their families. Those who take what we might call a more progressive, inclusive stance do not do so out of any desire to corrupt the church and lead everyone down the primrose path of perdition. They do so out of love and painful, powerful, personal experience and with fellow strugglers who did not ask for their desires nor their struggles. Can we listen to and learn from each other in these matters? Can we wait and work and pray patiently together for more light than what our partial and dueling pieces of the truth currently emit? Can we work and wait with both grace and truth?
Whoever we are, whatever our blessings or our brokenness, living in these sexual bodies responsibly, fruitfully, is never easy. We must do so in reference to the Creator of our bodies, not in reference to the media, the internet, the fashion magazines, Hollywood’s latest celebrities and sex symbols, nor our dueling ideological extremes. For however complex and confusing our personal desires and histories may be, our gendered bodies and relationships are still part of God’s extravagantly wonderful plan and purpose for us to do nothing less than reflecting God’s goodness and glory in human flesh and bone.