I have received more comments on this sermon title than I have for any sermon that I have ever preached. From the moment the title went on the board some of you became worried. Some of you, I know, are worried for me right now. I appreciate that because it is, in fact, hard to preach on sex.
Apparently, it's also difficult to write about. In preparing this sermon, I went to my topical file drawer where I place clippings and articles of interest that I keep from different Christian magazines and journals. When I pulled out the file marked "sex," it was completely empty. Now because of some denominational debates, I have a file that is three inches thick on homosexuality, but I have nothing on biblical sexuality, which tells me something. We don't talk about this much in the church.
Recently the chaplains at the University of Nebraska took a survey of incoming freshman and asked them the question: How much influence did your church play on your views of sexuality? Of the freshman who were surveyed, 2 percent said that their church had anything to do with their views of sexuality, 2 percent. Some of the comments that they also included in the survey are worth quoting.
"People in my church don't believe in sex."
"Our church is boring. They don't talk about sex or dating or marriage. It's probably just as well; they'd make that boring, as well."
"In our youth group, we talked about sex some but avoided the juicy stuff."
If it's true that the church doesn't talk about sex, then we are the only ones today. I defy you to make it through a night of television without finding somebody who's climbing into bed with somebody he or she is not married to. Or to listen to a conversation at the office without an joke eventually emerging. Or to read the newspaper without finding there a scandal or a sexually explicit advertisement, or a desperate person placing a desperate ad in the personals.
Even in the congregation today there are married people who are not sexually fulfilled. There are single people who thought sex would make them feel better, but it didn't. It only made them feel worse. And there are young people who are making mistakes with this; and some of the mistakes, we are discovering, are big enough to kill them.
According to the Janis Report, which was released three years ago, 21 percent of the men who were surveyed and 15 percent of the women who were surveyed said they had had intercourse by the time they were 14 years old. In our part of the country, 82 percent of the people have had intercourse by the time they are 19. People who are in the brackets have more premarital sex and extramarital sex than those in brackets. Thirty percent of those who indicated that they were religious said that they also had extramarital affairs. And 70 percent of those who said they were religious, 70 percent, said that they had had premarital sex.
The church needs to talk more about sexuality because we are sexual beings.
This is not a topic about them. Let's start with that. This is a topic about us. That's one of the reasons why the church needs to be talking about sexuality much more than we do.
In spite of these statistics, which I find staggering, I still do not believe that most of us are as obsessed with sex as our sitcoms and our movies and our commercials think we are. I find as a pastor that we struggle with a lot of issues in life, and the paramount issues, frankly, aren't sexual. We worry much more about our health and our families and finding good work and in life. We worry more about our fears about the future and our fears about our children than we think about sex. Actually, I think we worry more about finding good friends than we do about finding good sex.
The Bible makes it clear that while we are not consumed by sexuality we are also sexual beings. We were, in fact, created as sexual beings. And so the best reason for the church to be talking about sex is because the Bible talks about it. Nowhere does it do that more eloquently than in the second chapter of Genesis. Listen to the beginning of this text.
"Then the Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.' So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call thembut for the man there was not found a helper as his partner."
Nothing on earth, not even his work could satisfy Adam's yearning for a partner. The sexual yearnings that we have in our lives are not part of the fall. They're not a result of sinful nature. They are part of our created package, what God intended from the beginning. From the beginning we have been created with a desire to have a partner. Nothing else on earth, nothing else that God may put in front of our eyes, nothing else in our work, nothing else will satisfy that particular yearning. It is in the design of your body.
Now it's important for Christians occasionally to remind themselves that God did not create you as a soul and then just wrap a disposable body around it that isn't important. Rather, according to the text, he created you as a body and then he brought that body to life by giving you a soul. That means that the body and the soul are intricately related. What your body yearns for is symptomatic of the yearning of your soul. That's my thesis today.
We all live with two bodies: the one we want and the one we have.
I find that most of us live with two bodies: the one we want and the one we have. I have yet to meet anybody who's perfectly satisfied with the body he or she has. That's why we diet and exercise and use makeup as a way of getting closer to the body we want. Now exercise and dieting and cosmetics, those can all be healthy things; but when we get preoccupied with them, we are in essence saying that our soul is more committed to the body we want than it is to the body we have. But according to Genesis, your essence of the thing that gave your body its life, the thing that yearns for a tied to the body you have, the one that God created and called good.
One of the most important choices you can make about sex is to stop thinking about the changes that you've got to make in your body to be sexually attractive. We have teenage girls who are literally starving themselves to death trying to do that. We've got marriage partners who are desperately trying to recreate their partners in their own image of goodness. And we have way too many supermodels showing up in magazines tyrannizing us with examples of the body we want.
Who are those women? I have never actually seen one of those women. I think they use mirrors or something. It's a myth. It's a myth.
The Bible makes it clear that you are the good creation of God. And you are a sexual creation no matter what shape your body is in. No matter how old your body may become. That's the one that has a soul. And, thus, that's the one that yearns for a partner.
"So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of the ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, 'This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh'" (Genesis 2:2123).
This text was not written to state that the male comes first in creation. It was written to state that the male and the female both come from the same flesh. In other words in Eve what Adam found was that which was missing from his side, right next to his heart. Our sexual impulses whisper or sometimes maybe scream that we are not yet complete on our own. If we could just find this thing that is missing, then we would be whole, then we would be reunited with our soul. We would be one flesh.
Our sexual yearnings are essentially a yearning for God.
But because this yearning is actually a yearning of the soul, if you want, you can choose to see your sexual longing as longing for God. That makes intercourse, becoming one flesh with another person, something of a sacrament.
Sacraments are visible signs of things that are eternal. In the Protestant church there are only two sacraments: communion and baptism. But there are other things in life that are like sacraments or things that we call sacramental. They are physical acts that point to our yearning for God, who is the partner we really want, and is the only partner who will satisfy the yearning of the soul. We engage in sexual activity as an expression of our soul's deeper yearning for God.
That is why this holy act can never be reduced to talking about it as if we're saying, "Are you doing it?" or something that will take away the loneliness for the night, or something that will just fulfill bodily urges. When you engage in sex, you're not just touching somebody's body; you're touching the soul. That's why there is so much hurt and guilt tied up with sex. Because we have lost the holy sense of it, probably because the church doesn't talk about this enough, we don't tend to think of sexual activity as holy activity. We don't realize that we are getting our hands onto people's souls when we do this. We don't realize that that's why we carry around so much hurt and guilt from our sexual experiences.
And that is why the Bible clearly teaches that sexual intercourse has to be confined to the bonds of marriage. Only then have two actually become one flesh. Ask people who are divorced, and they will tell you that there is nothing as painful as pulling apart two souls that were once united. Or if you have sex with someone to whom you are not married, take a hard look in the mirror in the morning and ask yourself how good you're feeling. Why is it that you feel empty? It is because your soul has just been robbed. If there is no commitment, no vow for life, then you have to keep people's hands off of your soul; for what God would have for you is a love that endures.
I am conscious of the fact that in our congregation half of the members are single adults. So what does it say to the singles in the church that intercourse and sexuality is reserved for marriage? Or what does it say for those who are married but are far from experiencing anything remotely resembling a sacrament in their bedrooms?
Let me conclude with three observations I would make about that pressing and critically important question.
1. While sexuality is essential to your created nature, sexual activity is not. You are always a woman in the presence of men, or you are always a man who is in the presence of women. That doesn't mean that you exist for the opposite sex, but it does mean that you can still enjoy your sexual identity without having to wrap your soul around another person.
The greatest example that we have of a life that was well lived was that of Jesus C man. To call Jesus a man is to refer to more than his gender. He was a man with the sexuality of a man, but he did not marry. He did not have children. He remained chaste his whole life. So clearly, while sexuality is essential to our nature, sexual activity is not essential to living a good life.
2. We can now find complete joy in knowing God as our partner without the aid of sexuality or marriage. It was for this reason that the apostle Paul said no to sex and marriage, in order that he might say yes to the upward call that God had upon his life. Marriage is neither a right nor a necessity. It is a vocation that some are given and some are not. But all of us are called to know God. And we are all missing something in our lives, things that are hard to live without. But what we are also finding is that we can come to know God even in our longing.
3. Most of the people who enter into sexual relations outside of marriage are not promiscuous people; they are lonely people. But they are the ones who are discovering that sex does nothing for even for lonely married people. The only time our longing for God is met through the sacrament of sex is when we are one flesh, when we can say this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.
M. Craig Barnes is pastor of National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D. C. He is author of When God Interrupts and Yearning.
Craig Barnes is pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, professor of pastoral ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and author of The Pastor as Minor Poet (Eerdmans).