Sermon preached on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (2 August 2015) by The Reverend Christine McSpadden, Associate Priest

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (2 August 2015) by The Reverend Christine McSpadden, Associate Priest

The Reverend Christine McSpadden looks at the language of love and says "the church becomes a bit squeamish" when talking about sexual love.

Song of Solomon 5:2-end; 2 Peter 1:1-15

In the Hellenistic environment in which Christianity first flourished, the language of love was so important that there were three words for love - each denoting a particular kind or quality of love: philos, agape, and eros.

If you’ve studied any Greek you probably know that philos denotes a friendly, brotherly/sisterly kind of love - that quality of love for someone held dear in a close bond of personal affection. Agape denotes a vaster, encompassing, value-driven love - a moving affection for all humanity, for instance. The church seems to feel on pretty solid ground with these two loves, extolling their qualities as ideals.

But the church gets a bit squeamish when it comes to the third kind of love - eros. Eros, sexual love, affection rife with passion, yearning, and desire. Granted, many religions function to rein in this kind of love, fencing it in and taming human passions. I believe that this predilection reflects a deeper discomfort with the influence of eros in general - a fear of unbridled, hot, throbbing passions that threaten to enthrall, and carry one away beyond reason! God forbid!

And so that’s where we tend to go without much hesitation - forbidding, prohibiting, managing, curtailing, squashing, sublimating, and de-fusing the flame of eros. Sexual love is relegated to the sphere of unmentionables in polite conversation, thus becoming the unspoken energy in the room. So much effort goes into trying to control, manage, and sublimate our sexual selves that it often results in duplicitous living, denial, and even tragic acting out. You need only track the popularity of porn and pick up today’s newspaper to see the indiscretions of pent-up politicians, priests, and parliamentarians (à la Lord John Sewel) playing out in unhealthy ways.

The two readings we hear in this service focus on these three different kinds of love. The first reading from the Song of Solomon is probably one of the most erotic passages in all of scripture, while the second reading is one of the more disciplinarian and proscriptive of behavior. According to biblical tradition, the first is attributed to King Solomon, written when he himself was a virile, young man. The second, is attributed to Saint Peter, written to the fledgling church, close to the date of his martyrdom in Rome. The first reading celebrates eros; the second exhorts its restraint. The two of them together underscores the church’s highly fraught sentiments about human sexuality.

We don’t tend to talk much about human sexuality in a positive way in the church. We talk a lot about it in a negative way—what you can’t do, who can sleep with whom, who can do what with whom and under what circumstances. We talk about the policing and inhibiting of our sexual selves, but we talk very little about the flourishing and full realization of our sexual selves.

Oscar Wilde famously, and ironically said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” I think we have tended to make sex about other things in the church: about who has the power. Who and what holds authority.

Sadly, we rarely get out of circular conversations on the “issue of the day” to broader discussions about human sexuality, in general. We could be getting to the deeper questions about which so many people in the church, and so many more people outside the church, want guidance and sound wisdom: questions about sexual identity; about meanings of marriage that were drafted in the context of property transferal and ancient purity laws; about blessing loving expression beyond current narrow confines; about covenantal relationships in response to rising divorce rates, longer life spans, and more comprehensive understanding of what it means to be an integrated human being from the social, medical, physical, and psychological sciences; about sexual integrity.

We have the rich resources of scripture and tradition waiting to be mined for creative, expansive conversation around such questions.

It is a titillating and heated topic, to be sure. I am nervous even bringing it up from the pulpit. But I believe so strongly that we need a healthy perspective in the church on ourselves as sexual beings. For we cannot fully love until we embrace our whole selves, including the power and potential of our sexual urges and needs, and connect them to categories of sacrament, sacredness, and grace.

Because we practice a radically incarnate faith! At the heart of our understanding about God, lies the belief that God became flesh—took on flesh in all its pulsing, breathing, hungering, needing, desiring senses. Christianity consistently rejected as heresy any movement that tried to spiritualize Jesus’ or our nature. St. Paul clearly upheld the proclamation that our bodies are part and parcel of our reconciliation and new life in Christ.

The Song of Solomon has made rabbinical scholars nervous for millennia and reduced mystics to paroxysms of allegorical interpretation. But for all the efforts to tame its rapturous imagery, its inclusion in the canon of holy scripture gives a small balance to the integrated picture of ourselves created in God’s image. We are creatures with a libido—a sexual energy, appetite, and longing. Through that sensual force, we are driven to intimate connection, motivated to engage with others, yearning to know them, and to be known.

[I did a wedding last weekend, and I am always struck by the vows each partner takes when exchanging rings in the Church of England’s Common Worship rite. Each says to the other: “…with my body I honour you.” In the Episcopal Church we don’t have such an explicit statement. With my body I honor you. Such a statement gets beyond the covenant being made at an intellectual, or even emotional level, to include a raw, corporeal level.]

And that is the deep, relational level of our God who came and dwelt among us. Who suffered death on the cross on our behalf. Who rose again and was resurrected in the body. Who redeems us thoroughly—mind, heart, soul, and body. Who seeks the collapse of boundaries. Who ever yearns for communion with our whole selves. Unlocking us to love completely, abundantly, swept up in the intoxication and given a foretaste of that perfect love which knows no distinction between philos, agape, or eros. But is one love given by grace as gift that we might know bliss in our bones and share it with every fiber of our being.