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Ecumenical World Pride Service, Bloomsbury Baptist Church, London, 7 July 2012.

Sermon – The Revd. Dr. Ruth Gouldbourne, Co-Minister, Bloomsbury Baptist Church

During this service, we have affirmed, with joy and delight that, in Jesus, we are accepted by God as who we are, LGBT or straight. And we have affirmed that this acceptance is God’s gift of love to us made flesh and blood in Jesus, and in this we rejoice and celebrate.

And we have confessed our failure to love whole-heartedly and without prejudice, and the times when we trip up and hurt others and damage our selves and spoil the world. And we can dare to do this because we are not caught up in confessing what is not sin – but that must not and does not blind us to what is sinful within us and among us – and the freedom and possibility into which we are released as we dare to trust the gift of forgiveness and the healing it brings.

And we have been challenged to think about just how we love – how far we dare to love, what limits we might want to put on our loving.

 And we have heard Scripture; love one another as I have loved you; words that echo and tease and question the roots of ourselves and leave us nowhere to hide.

 And it is all pretty huge and demanding and overwhelming.

 How do we do it? What would it look like, what shape can it take – and how on earth do we live it out in a world in which we are hated, attacked, condemned, questioned and looked at sideways. Loving, being loved is at the heart of why we are here; the right – the need, the call to love and be loved as we truly are is what the organisation is about. And in a few moments, we will share bread and wine – the gift of love beyond our imagining, our deserving, our capacity to name. And it is a call – a call to us to live in this love, to live out this love, to dare to name this love in ways that change the world.

 Sometimes it can be hard to listen to Paul – he can sound so black and white, so hard-edged and dogmatic. And at other times he can be so complex and his sentences can be so long that we are not really able to follow him, and the subtleties of his arguments can be lost without technical language and careful elucidation.

 And then he says this;

 Be kind.

 Be kind and compassionate to one another.

See, kindness we can manage. Kindness we can grasp. We know what it feels like, when somebody is kind. And we know – usually we know very clearly and without having to ask hard questions and study texts and take all the circumstances into account – what it takes to be kind; how to do it.

Be kind; it’s about paying attention to the other, it’s about meeting them. It’s about choosing to smile and not frown, it’s about picking up the dropped pen at work, and opening the door when the buggy is getting in the way and offering a steadying arm on the escalators and it’s about buying a cup of coffee when somebody’s wallet has been stolen and making the phone call when somebody is stranded and needs help finding a hotel room. It’s usually small, and it’s often practical, and it doesn’t take studying or justifying.

And it changes the world.  That’s what Paul says, anyway.

These verses we have heard come at the end of one of Paul’s powerful descriptions of how we are to live as the people of God; and indeed it is more than a list of instructions about how to do the  people of God thing. The section actually starts with these words a few verses earlier; put on the new self created to be like God – to live the life of God in true righteousness and holiness. And then he goes on to outline all that is to be put off as a result – anger and falsehood and stealing and bearing false witness – and sums the whole thing up with “Be kind”.

To be kind is to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

And just in case we were in any doubt, he goes on to make the link quite explicit; be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, as dearly loved children and live a life of love just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

To be kind is to live like Jesus, it is to live the life and love of God.

And that’s the way round that it is. Not – we must love like Jesus loves ands then we will be kind…. That gets back to being huge and unmanageable. Be kind and we are living like Jesus.

Now of course, Jesus didn’t go around like a wimp or a doormat; he turned the money changers out of the temple, he challenged the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he was angry – or compassionate – it’s the same word – at the exclusion heaped on the leper who was so unsure of his place in the love of God that he almost didn’t dare ask for his health.  The kindness, the compassion of Jesus wasn’t acquiescent in the face of injustice and oppression. So this “be kind” isn’t about being compliant to injustice, prejudice, hatred and harm. Indeed, it is absolutely the opposite of that; kindness, compassion, forgiveness – this life of Jesus lived out through and among us – it is about a fullness of being human that is rich, accepting and transformative.

Kindness too often is seen as small, weak, feeble. The idea perhaps of turning the other cheek, not letting somebody get to you, being a doormat and putting up with it.

 But it is so far from that – at least in the gospels and in Paul’s description. Take that idea of turning the other cheek…

Strike you on the left cheek, turn the other cheek – demands treating as equal, acknowledging humanity and presence

Take your cloak, give him your shirt; in a culture where to cause another to be naked is to be shamed, this is about saying this is where your actions lead, this is the truth of what you are doing – but doing without diminishing or harming – and also without compromising or denying one-self.

Carrying a pack a second mile; the soldier can, by law demand a mile’s load bearing – but cannot, by law, demand more. So, going the extra mile is both kind – and challenging, exposing the oppression and denying its power.

All of these actions are kind; they do not damage or injure the other. But neither do they give into or condone oppression and hatred.  They are playful, teasing, questioning, opening up possibilities. Confrontational – possibly; but also kind. It doesn’t diminish the other, it doesn’t condemn or violate the other – and nor does it allow the other to remain caught into the domination system of prejudice and scapegoating. It confronts an oppressor with the reality of their position while at the same time undermining it.

It is fundamentally the position that Jesus adopted when confronted with those who tried to tell him who he was and how he should be; he refused their definitions, and challenged them to see him as he was – love for them. And when they killed him, he did not strike back. But nor did he stay dead. He was raised and he came to them, and continues to come to them – and to us, and says – I love you, and there is nothing that will change that.

And Paul says – be kind and compassionate; be imitators of God.

This is kindness, the action, the activity of love that comes not from anxiety to placate, nor anger to dominate and make the other like us; it is rooted, as Paul makes clear, in knowing who we are in Jesus. He did not allow the other to dominate, but neither did he try to force the other to be like him, to dominate the other, or justify, protect himself by obliterating the other. He was kind, out of love and strength, not fear or distress. And as he was to those around him, so he is today – to us and others. And so– we forgive because, as we are forgiven; forgiven not to carry on as we have been, but to live like God in true righteousness and holiness. The attitude – the actions – that we offer to others come out of who we are, not who others want us to be, or try to make us. It is rooted in the compassion we know we have received as those who are held in the love of God, forgiven, renewed and recreated to be the life of God in the world.

It isn’t easy of course. It isn’t just summed up in gentle deeds gently done. To be called to love as Jesus loves is to be called to a cross, as the gospel reading makes clear. But this is a cross that we can carry, we can bear, because it is not about killing who we are before God, but about daring to confront those around us with the truth we have heard, seen, touched and tasted, so that they too can become their new selves. And such a cross is not our death, but is resurrection.

Be kind. It is possible. It is manageable. It may even be playful. It is not so huge that it overwhelms us and sends us back into our safe secure place where we are in control. It is step by step, it is act by act, it is communion by communion. And it comes from knowing who we are – what we have affirmed through the service; those who are accepted, those who are forgiven, those who are challenged, those who are loved.

 Thanks be to God.

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“Welcome one another: The Scriptures and Sexual Diversity”

Arnold Browne

Disgraceful behaviour!

Last week I did something for the very first time in my life. On this one occasion, at least, I managed to overcome my anxiety that this was unmanly behaviour. It would not have happened had it not been so cold. There were only six of us, three women and three men, and the building was unheated. I had worn my hat on the way there, and this time I did what the three wise women did, and kept it on throughout. Paul may have told the Corinthians that ‘Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head’ (1 Corinthians 11.4), but he was honest enough to abandon theological justification and conclude that male and female headwear and hairstyle was more a matter of social convention: ‘If anyone is disposed to be contentious – we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God’ (11.16).

As my inhibitions testify, customs can be persistent and persuasive.But, even as he urged men to cut their hair and take their hats off for worship and women to grow their hair and keep it covered when praying and prophesying, Paul couldn’t help observing that men and women are mutually interdependent, and that, above all, all of us owe our existence to the grace of God (11.11-12). Observing the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul by receiving communion with my hat on was perhaps part of the continuing process of my own conversion. My head ‘was strangely warmed’. It was liberating!

It was the snow and ice that led me to 1 Corinthians 11, but it may not be a bad place to begin our exploration of the resources that the Bible may have for us in the diversity of our sexuality and human flourishing.

In a brief introduction to his letters to the Corinthians (Canongate, 1998) the novelist Fay Weldon accuses Paul of prating love while demanding submission: ‘don’t smoke, don’t own guns, don’t be unrighteous, don’t spit in church, let’s have no dissension here! Don’t, don’t, don’t. Put away your adulthood and submit’. But, of course, Paul’s response to the difficulties and divisions facing the community at Corinth is much more thoughtful than that. Instead he shows the community ways of bringing together their reading of the Jewish Scriptures, what they have heard and believe about Jesus, and their own concerns,
experiences and questions. It is less a matter of giving them his answers than of giving them the resources to find their own.

Twenty-five years or so after Jesus’ death in Jerusalem, our first Christian writeraddresses this congregation in Greece. He begins by reminding them that they in Corinth are called by God to be saints, ‘together with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours’ (1.2), and he encourages them to focus on that call. They disagree about many things, and their communion is threatened with schism (1.10, cf. 11.19). Some have written to him with their slogans which he quotes,

‘All things are lawful for me’ (6.12, cf. 10.23), ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’ (6.13), ‘It is well for a man not to have sex with a woman’ (7.1), ‘All of us possess knowledge’ (8.1), and they may have hoped that Paul would pronounce as to who had the right answers.

But Paul does no such thing. Is it lawful to eat food first sacrificed to idols (8.1) and then sold in the meat markets? Well, yes and no! And the way you will find out is to bring together your reading of the Scriptures, your commitment to Jesus Christ, and the particular circumstances in which you find yourselves, where you are called to be saints.

Paul acknowledges that from their reading of Scripture alone, the enlightened and sophisticated individuals in the community know that, in the words of the Shema, ‘There is no God but one’ (8.4, cf. Deuteronomy 6.4) and that in the words of the psalmist, ‘The earth and its fullness are the Lord’s’ (10.26, cf. Ps. 24.1). And so Paul allows that there are occasions when they may ‘eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience’ (10: 25).

But that is not the whole story, because the Scriptures are to be read in the light of their commitment to Christ, and reading this way Paul adapts the Jewish confession of God as one Lord: ‘Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist’ (8.6). And what a difference that makes. ‘We know that “no idol in the world really exists”, and that “there is no God but one” ’ (8.4); but this one God is identified in Christ with what is foolish and weak, low and despised (1: 27f), and so the yes to eating must sometimes become a no for the sake of the conscience of a brother or sister who, although perhaps not so wise or strong, is one for whom Christ died: ‘When you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ’ (8: 12; cf. 10: 29).

Far from taking one side with an easy answer, and very far indeed from simply saying ‘don’t’, Paul suggests that for some of the community, who are more superstitious about  idols, it may be dangerous to eat this left over meat. But, pressing the point about the particular circumstances of the community, for others the danger may lie elsewhere. If there are those who may be destroyed by eating food sacrificed to idols (8: 10), then there are also those for whom it is Lord’s supper itself that has become dangerous to eat: ‘For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement on themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died’ (11: 29f.).

This seems very strange indeed to us, and is another reminder that Paul’s cultural context
is not ours. But it seems most likely that those who do not discern the body are those who are failing to recognize the needs of those poorer and weaker members of the body who are going away hungry. Being faithful to God’s call is then not a matter of easy answers, such as no to idol meat and yes to the Lord’s Supper. What matters is the nature of God in Christ, and the whole community whom he calls to be saints.

I find it particularly remarkable that when addressing that question of gender differentiation in worship, Paul offers, in that one short passage in chapter 11 (2-16), two different ways of bringing together the creation accounts in the Jewish Scriptures, commitment to Christ as Lord, and the particular experiences and concerns of the community. The first is hierarchical, God and Christ, husband and wife. From the story of the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2.21-23) Paul argues that men and women are fundamentally different, and the latter subordinate to the former. This was the common view of his Jewish and Graeco-Roman contemporaries, and was accepted as part of the natural order. Paul can ask, ‘Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair it is her glory?’ (11.14-15). What Paul here calls ‘nature’ we would call ‘social convention’, and it seems that he has an eye on those ‘outsiders’ (14.16, 23-24) who might be misled by seeing women prophets with dishevelled hair into thinking that Christianity was simply another ecstatic cult. The priority is the call to commend the gospel.

But even as Paul argues that hierarchical gender distinctions are natural, he offers a simultaneous second reading of the creation accounts in the light of Christ, stressing the mutuality of men and women: ‘Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God’ (11.11-12). And so he leaves no doubt that in the Christian community both men and women have the authority to pray and to prophesy as they build up the church.

This diversity of interpretation, even within one passage addressing one issue, suggests that we will need to listen to different voices as we work together to interpret the Scriptures in the light of our own call to follow Christ in the twenty-first century. And in our proclamation of the good news in our particular circumstances we will need to be aware that what we have discovered to be ‘natural’ and what might now be obstacles to the acceptance of the message in our society will be as important as, but very different from, the assumptions and conventions of first century Corinth.

Doing well and doing better!

Because Paul has such a bad press, ‘don’t, don’t, don’t, … submit’, as Fay Weldon puts it, I would like to share with you one more remarkable example from 1 Corinthians of a bringing together of the Scriptures, following Jesus, and particular circumstances in ways  that allow considerable diversity of sexual practice within one call to proclaim the gospel. Paul finds it necessary to defend himself against fellow Christians who have questioned  his apostleship. They have pointed out that he is not accompanied by a wife, as James, Peter and the other apostles are, and that, unlike them, he does not get his living by his  preaching of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9.3-7). Paul acknowledges that the pattern of the other apostles’ lives is based both on scripture and on the teaching of Jesus. On their side of the argument is, of course, Genesis 1-2 and the command, ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1.28). And Paul even finds a scriptural text for them, in support of their being paid by those to whom they minister. It seems a surprising one to us, but Paul allows to them that what is written in the law of Moses, ‘you shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain’ (Deuteronomy 25.4) was expressly written to give Christian apostles a ‘rightful claim’ on their churches (1 Corinthians 9.8-12). He also readily agrees that ‘the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living bythe gospel’ (9.14), which seems to recall Jesus sending out the twelve taking nothing for their journey (Matthew 10.5-15; Mark 6.8-11; Luke 9.2-5). And in allowing that the other apostles have the right to be accompanied by believing wives, he may also have been aware of the tradition that Jesus sent out his appointed seventy in pairs (Luke 10.1). On his own side of the argument, Paul repeatedly says that he engaged in manual labour so that he would not be a burden to those to whom he preached (1 Corinthians 9.18; 2 Corinthians 11.7; 1 Thessalonians 2.9), and he is clear that he would prefer all Christians to be single so that they can devote themselves fully to the affairs of the Lord (1 Corinthians 7.7, 32-34).

Even so, Paul does not question the other apostles’ interpretation of scripture or deny that they too are following Jesus. Instead he defends his own position by interpreting scripture in the light of Christ. He reads these scriptural texts not as commands that he must obey, but as rights that he has received. And, in the light of Christ, he gives up these rights to be accompanied by a wife and to be supported by the Christian community (1 Corinthians 9.12-18). For Paul this renunciation follows Christ in putting others before himself. His argument continues, ‘For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win some of them’ (9.19). What he says here of himself echoes the language he frequently uses of Christ, who ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’ (Philippians 2.7).

Interpreting scripture in the light of Christ, Paul argues that it is appropriate for him to remain single and to support himself by manual labour. However, he accepts that the other apostles are being loyal to scripture and to the teaching of Jesus in being accompanied by believing wives and supported by the Christian community. Paul believes that he is imitating the pattern of Jesus’ life in renouncing his right to support just as much as the other apostles are following Jesus’ teaching in their dependence on the community. Reading scripture in the light of Christ leads not only to a diversity of interpretation but also to an acceptance of such diversity.

Given Paul’s own preference for singleness in the service of the Lord, and remembering the slogan of some of the Corinthians that ‘it is well for a man not to have sex with a woman’ (7.1), it is interesting that Paul does not point to the singleness of Jesus as his example or concede to the tendency of those in the congregation who wanted to turn celibacy into a rule. Instead he allows both the right of those apostles to be married, and he affirms those Christians who still choose to marry: ‘So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better’ (7.38). In the service of the Lord it may only be a second best, for we owe more to Freud than to Paul if we see  our primary calling to be to heterosexual partnership and procreation. But it is here an acceptable option, and it is worth noting that Paul’s emphasis is on mutuality rather than dominance, wife and husband are equally owed their ‘conjugal rights’ and each has ‘authority’ over the other’s body (7.4), and this is more about desire, ‘if his passions are strong … it is no sin … let them marry’ (7.36), than about procreation.

It was good to hear Paul being drawn into the imagined pillow talk of John and Effie Ruskin in Peter Bowker’s Desperate Romantics, a drama about the Pre-Raphaelites shown on BBC 2 last summer. After five years of his refusal to consummate their marriage poor Effie pleads with John, ‘the husband does not have authority over his body, but the wife does’. That would have been a marvellous moment for 1851, but neither the imagined nor the historical John was persuaded. The real Effie later wrote to her father that among John’s alleged reasons for the non-consummation were ‘religious motives’. The marriage was annulled, and in 1855 Effie married John Millais and together they had a family of eight children.

Becoming one flesh.

Clearly Paul’s positive attitude to sexual intimacy reflects the influence of the tradition about Jesus. He says that his teaching not to divorce and remarry (7.10-11) is based on a command of Jesus, and indeed it is very similar to the saying in all three synoptic gospels that remarriage is adultery (Matthew 5.32, 19.9; Mark 10.11-12; Luke 16.18). Paul seems closest to the tradition recorded in Mark (10.2-9) which assumes that both husband and wife could initiate divorce and where Jesus is innovative in teaching that adultery can be committed against a woman as well as against a man: ‘whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her’ (10.11). Of course, Paul has more to say, ‘to the rest I say – I and not the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 7.12), and it is possible that he is suggesting a circumstance where remarriage may be appropriate. His world is no longer that of marriage only within the Jewish nation (see Num. 25; Deut 7.1-7), and indeed he has nothing to say against interracial marriage. And in the world of his Christian congregations a believer may be married to an unbeliever, and bodily union is at best also a sharing of hearts and minds: ‘Wife for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband for all you know, you might save your wife’ (7.16, cf. 7.14). But where the unbelieving partner wishes to separate, then the believing partner should let them go, and,
Paul adds, ‘In such a case the brother or sister is not bound’ (7.15). This not being bound would normally be taken to mean being free to remarry, and perhaps this is what Paul means here. In any event, Paul’s discussion of Jesus’ Palestinian teaching in the different circumstances of Greek Corinth is instructive. He at least does not make the mistake of turning Jesus’ words concerning the preciousness of sexual intimacy and mutual faithfulness into a law that binds.

In his Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (Allen Lane, 2007) Martin Goodman considers how far the Christianity adopted by Constantine had strayed from its Jewish roots and sees the Christian view of marriage as an unbreakable bond rather than the Jewish view of marriage as a contract between husband and wife as one of the key differences (p. 545). As we have seen from 1 Corinthians, it is questionable  whether ‘unbreakable’ was always there from the beginning, but Jesus’ challenge of divorce by his appeal to Genesis (1.27 and 2.24), ‘So they are no longer two but one flesh’, does seem to shift the emphasis from a legal contract to a personal bond (Mark 10.2-9, cf. Matthew 19.3-8). Divorce, says Jesus, was allowed by Moses ‘because of your hardness of heart’, and it seems that Jesus’ fundamental attitude to the commandments is to see them as inadequate. It is often pointed out that, in looking back to the beginning of creation, Jesus is regulating sexuality by an appeal to the creation story as affirming a model of male-female monogamy. But we need also to notice that in speaking of regulations written ‘because of your hardness of heart’, Jesus is also using the creation story to look forward to the dawning of the promised new age when, in the words of Ezekiel, God ‘will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36.26, cf. 11.19).

In this light it is worth looking again for a moment at Genesis 2.23-24:

 Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken’. Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.

Doubtless the institution of marriage is in view here, but in hearing that rapturous cry, ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’, we can perhaps understand why commentators such as von Rad and Westermann have seen this story as setting our sexuality in the wider context of the need for relationship and human community.

There seems to be just such a more inclusive of the passage in the New Testament itself. Paul writes to the Galatians:

As may of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer any Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (3.27-28). Jew or Greek, slave or free, but male and female in an echo of Genesis 1.27, ‘So God created humankind in his image … male and female he created them’, and in anticipation of the climax of his letter, ‘for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision in anything but a new creation is everything’ (6.15).

In this context Paul’s ‘no longer male and female; for you are all one’ seems also to echo Genesis 2.24, ‘they become one flesh’, particularly when we remember that Paul uses this text ‘the two shall be one flesh’ in 1 Corinthians 6.16-17 in a discussion of the believer’s relationship with Christ.

So in the New Testament we have not only Jesus’ use of Genesis 2.24 to refer to marriage as the new age dawns but also Paul’s use of it to refer to the wider context of human relationship recreated in Christ. In a conversation with the novelist Howard Jacobson shown two weeks ago (24/1/10) in the first of Channel 4’s new series, The Bible: A History, Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, found the meaning of the creation narratives as  ‘the redemption of solitude’.

The New Testament gives us two different account of this not being alone in two different interpretation of the ‘one flesh’ of Genesis 2.24. In some ways these two New Testament accounts of ‘the redemption of solitude’ stand in tension with each other. We have already seen that Paul thinks that marriage can be a distraction from the fullness of life in the community of those called by Christ (1 Corinthians 7.32-35). And Jesus himself, in calling men and women into the community that shares his life and destiny, asks them to be willing to break the ties of family commitment, including, in Luke’s version, wife in the list of those who might have to be abandoned ‘for the sake of the kingdom of God’ (18.29-30, cf. Mark 10.2-30).

Jesus, like John the Baptist before him and Paul after him, seems not to have chosen the way of marriage, and we have glimpses of the ways in which his ‘redemption of solitude’ was realized in the wider context of human community. For example, in his reaction to the woman who, in Luke’s account, bathes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them and anoints them with ointment (7.36-50). Jesus shows no anxiety that her sensual and tactile act is humanly inappropriate or sexually dangerous. Instead he says, ‘She has shown great love’ (7.47). Perhaps we can link this with his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5.27). Jesus suggests here that male sexuality requires male responsibility. Just as the men at that dinner table would have dismissed that woman from the city, so other men required women to cover themselves. Ben Sira warned fathers, ‘Keep strict watch over a headstrong daughter – see there is no lattice in her room … do not let her parade her beauty before any man’ (Ecclesiasticus 42.11-12). But Jesus accepted the bathing, kissing, anointing as an act of love, and he expected men to be able to look at a woman without wanting to have her, without seeing her as someone to abuse or possess.

Again there is diversity of interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures, by Jesus and in the light of Christ, and there is diversity of practice. And neither is made into a rule. Some abandoned family to follow Jesus, but Peter remained married. Paul commended the unmarried state, but he never questioned the married Peter’s status as an apostle.

 To whom it is given.

In Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus’ teaching about divorce, ‘his disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry’. But he said to them, ‘Not anyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given’ ‘. And ‘this teaching’ seems both to refer back to his teaching about marriage and then forward to what Jesus says next about eunuchs, including those ‘who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’ (19.10-12).

There are diverse callings, and they are all for those to whom they are given as God’s
gift, for whose who live by God’s forgiveness.

When I wore my hat last week no one commented as we warmed our hands with our coffee cups after the service. My sisters and brothers accept me with my head covered or uncovered. But in France a parliamentary committee has recommended a ban on women wearing veils in public places, and in a bleak refugee camp in Somaliland, Quresh, a woman whose husband had just been shot and killed, recently described how the religious police had then run into her house in Mogadishu: ‘Woman, why are you not wearing a veil?’ ‘There were two of them with a whip … even now you can see the marks’ (The Observer Magazine, 31/1/10).

Paul was once one of the religious police – it was one of his credentials: ‘As to zeal, a persecutor of the church’ (Philippians 3.6). Circumcision, food laws, Sabbath observance were to be imposed by force if necessary. But ‘the conversion of Paul’ was to a new understanding of his religion. He had, he told the Romans, been reading the Scriptures as ‘the law of sin and of death’, but now he read them as ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ (8.2). Now the commandments are not to be imposed, because loyalty to Christ comes above everything else. And so remarkably he could say to those same Romans about Sabbath observance, ‘Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds’ (14.5).

At the beginning of the same letter Paul depicts the disorder of a collapsed selfish society that, as he goes on to explain, is reversed when the new community in Christ follows his selfless way of ‘peace and mutual upbuilding’ (14.19). In describing this self-determined society Paul includes one example of behaviour that most of his Jewish and Gentile contemporaries would have agreed was a rejection of gender distinctions that were both natural and conventional. Same-sex relationships were disordered because men should not be the passive, penetrated partner and women should not presume to have the active mind and desires of a man.

As we read this Romans 1.26-27 in the light of Christ and in our own circumstances, we should consider:

that what we understand to be ‘natural’ or ‘conventional’ matters;
that Paul is not offering ethical guidance at this point in the letter;
and, above all, that the converted Paul left behind an understanding of religion as the imposition of commandments.

Paul challenged even those who keep the fourth commandment and those who did not keep the Sabbath not to pass judgement on each other (14.10). Instead they and we are to ‘welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God’ (15.7).

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Timothy Radcliffe, OP

The Church’s teaching on sexuality is based on natural law, but the former Master of the Dominicans argues that a Christian vision of sexuality can also embrace another kind of sexual ethic derived from Jesus’ gift of himself at the Last Supper In Ireland 50 years ago, it was notorious that the clergy used to try to regulate kisses. People were told how long they could kiss, maybe 10 seconds if they were under 18. And there were rules about what sorts of kisses were allowed. (The most dangerous kiss of all was known as the French kiss.) But it is better to reflect upon what a kiss says. The body is made to be communicative, and the face is the apex of the body’s communication. The face shows what it means to be bodily, and the mouth, speaking and kissing, expresses the culmination of communication.

When we think of Christianity and sexuality, then people usually ask what is permitted or forbidden. What sexual activity is permitted between people who are not married? Can people of the same sex have a sexual relationship? This is to start at the wrong place. The first question in all ethics is: “What does my behaviour say?” Ethics is learning to behave to each other so that we relate ever more deeply. An action is not bad because it is forbidden but because it undermines human communion, though if it obviously does do that, then it may be good to forbid it. It is natural that when Jesus wishes to express the utter communion of God and humanity, then he does so by giving his body. He is not giving us a lump of matter. He is making a sign that speaks and creates communion. And Jesus says that this body is given for you. It is gift. This may be incomprehensible because for the last 400 years we have tended to think of bodies as possessions. If one thinks that one’s body is fundamentally an important possession, then of course one can do what one likes with it, as long as it harms no one else. The result has been a sexual ethic that has often been founded on rights regarding possessions. Usually a man was seen as owning not only his own body but also the body of his wife. He could do what he liked with her, though she did not possess his body in the same way. Adultery by the woman was seen as a form of robbery since in sleeping with another man she would be unlawfully disposing of her husband’s property.

When Jesus gave us his body, he was expressing the deepest meaning of what it is to be a body. To be a body is to receive all that this body is from one’s parents and their parents before them. It is ultimately to receive one’s being from God. Our existence is a gift in every moment. God gives me being now. So our sexual relations should be expressive of the gift of oneself to another, and the acceptance of the gift which is the being of the other person.

Jesus’ words at the Last Supper take us to the heart of a sexual ethic. Sexuality is about communion; it speaks. And what it should express is mutual generosity, the giving and the receiving of gifts. But the Last Supper was also the moment at which Jesus faced and embraced the contradiction of communion. On that night he shared himself with Judas who had sold him, with Peter who would shortly deny him, and with the other disciples who would mostly run away. It was the dark night, when there was betrayal, lies, fear, violence and death. On that night Jesus faces all that subverts and destroys human communion. He faced and transcended it.

The Eucharist is the sacrament of hope, because on that night, when there was apparently nothing to hope for, Jesus performed this astonishing gift of himself. And Christian sexual ethics should help us to live with hope, in the face of our own failures and denials and betrayals of each other. Christian sexual ethics teaches us to speak truthfully with our bodies, and to overcome the lies that we may sometimes tell. When you have sexual intercourse with someone, you say with your body, “I give myself to you, without reserve, now and for ever, and I receive all of you as a gift.” But if we  get up the next morning and leave a note by the bed saying, “Thanks for the pleasurable sex, but I never wish to see you again”, then we have, in a sense, lied with our bodies. It is as if we were to say “I love you eternally” and then walk away for ever. We need to touch each other truthfully, to mean what we say when we kiss. We need to live out the deep meaning of what we do with each other’s bodies.

But if a Christian sexual ethics is to be hopeful, then it must teach us how to say the words that heal the wounds when we lie. We need to find the words that break the silence and which restore communion. It is not enough just to go to confession and get absolution. We need to give and receive absolution from each other. To live one’s sexuality truthfully means also that we find ways to overcome the lies and heal the hurts.

Bad sexual behaviour is usually linked with domination and violence. All over the world today, one can see the violence that often accompanies sex. War is always associated with the rape of women, but women are daily forced to submit to the domination of men, who force them to have sex. As John Paul II said, a man may rape even his own wife. Millions of children are forced into sex with foreign tourists in Thailand and the Philippines. Whenever dominance is introduced into a sexual relationship, then the heart of our sexuality is denied. The Last Supper teaches us that the heart of a Christian sexual ethics is the renunciation of violence. We seek mutuality and equality. When someone desires the body of another person, then that desire should not be rapacious, seeking to take possession of the body, as if it were a piece of meat to be devoured. We must learn to desire in a way that delights in the other, that treasures their vulnerability, that takes pleasure in their very existence. We must delight in another as God delights in us, tenderly and without dominion. If a good sexual relationship overcomes the distortions of power, reaching for equality and mutuality, then it is a preaching of the Gospel to the society in which we live. It challenges the unjust power structures of every society.

So often relationships merely echo the patterns of dominance of the society. If society is ruled by men, then men will probably rule in the home and in the bed. So a good sexual ethics offers a challenge that is implicitly political. If we are formed in our homes for reciprocity, then we will not beat home in political structures that oppress.

At the heart of a Christian sexual ethics is fidelity. The typical form that this has taken throughout Christian history has been through the marriage vows, when a husband and a wife pledge mutual fidelity until death. This has become much more difficult in our society, in which people live much longer, and are more mobile. Marriage is a fragile institution. In fact in our society no bonds are as secure as they used to be. We live in a society of short- term contracts, whether at work or at home. And this creates immense problems for couples whose marriages have broken down and who find themselves in “irregular situations”. Fidelity is much deeper than simply not getting divorced. It is offering a context in which people take the time to belong to another, to see the other and be seen. One needs courage to remain with another when they begin to see one’s weakness. The Eucharist invites us to endure infidelity, when we are exposed in all our fragility.

There is a deep link between sex and death. In the Old Testament, the begetting of children was the principal hope of immortality. One would be immortal in the memory of one’s offspring. So sexuality was our defiance of death. That is why one had a duty to raise children for one’s brother if he were to die without issue.  Sex and death are still linked today. For most of Christian history, the bearing of children was a time of extreme danger for women. And now there is the link with Aids, especially for women in poor countries, where they may have no control over when and with whom they have sex.

So what can a Christian sexuality offer us in the face of death? It is not just the delegated immortality of children, though that does indeed reveal the profound creativity of human sexuality in the face of mortality. Also we give our bodies to each other as an act of love which is stronger than death. The Song of Songs says, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is as strong as death” (8: 6). But in Christ, love is stronger than death. Sexual relations should express that love of the Father for the Son which defeats our old enemy. Our society is both obsessed with sex yet lacks a deep exploration of its meaning. When the Church does articulate a vision of sexuality it is usually in terms of the natural law. This has its own usefulness and beauty, and I do not wish to dismiss it at all, but it carries the danger that the sex may then be seen reductively, in terms of the production of children. Sexuality must be placed again in the complex context of human communication, with its defeats and victories.

On the night before he died, Jesus gave us his body and this invites us to a deeper understanding of what it might mean to offer our body to another person. Sexuality speaks of a relationship that is founded in the giving and receiving of gifts. At the heart of sexuality is gratitude and generosity. Sexual intercourse is the transmission of the gift of our being, and so a profound expression of what it means to be human.

Timothy Radcliffe OP is the former Master of the Dominicans. This is an edited version of an essay included in Christianity and Sexuality in the Time of Aids, a collection of essays just published by Continuum(ed Lytta Basset & Timothy Radcliffe, ISBN 9780826499110, £10.99.) It was first published in The Tablet (www.thetablet.co.uk) and is reproduced by kind permission.

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