This is the second of two sermons I preached on the issue that threatens to split our denomination in half: homosexuality. (Click here to read or listen to the first sermon.) In this sermon, I use Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6 to refute the most common arguments used by opponents of the church’s stance. From my perspective, there is no room for compromise.
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3 version of this sermon.]
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Last week, the Connectional Table, an official council of the United Methodist Church that includes twelve bishops, approved a petition that they will submit to General Conference next year, which, if approved by General Conference, would change our denomination’s stance on homosexuality. Their proposal redefines marriage as between not a man and woman but between two people.
I oppose the plan; in fact I don’t know anyone on my side who supports it. And maybe it won’t pass anyway. But as we look ahead to next year’s General Conference, as our United Methodist Church decides what to do about this most controversial issue that risks splitting our denomination apart, we can expect to hear more rumblings for change, and feel more cultural pressure to change.
So this is the second of two sermons that will deal with this issue. I won’t preach a third one any time soon. But I think the issue deserves this attention, in part because, whether I talk about it or not, the issue of homosexuality, or what is now referred to as LGBT, or LGBTQ, is all over the news these days. It was in the news this week regarding the Boy Scouts. Next month, the Supreme Court will make a ruling on whether or not same-sex marriage will be legal in all 50 states. Expect to hear the issue come up again and again in the presidential campaigns from both parties. The candidates will be asked about it when they debate one another.
This couldn’t be a more timely topic for a sermon!
But let me preface my words by saying that I know that for some of you this could be a painful and deeply personal subject: you may struggle with same-sex attraction yourself, or you may have loved ones who do, or you may just disagree with me. Plenty of people do! I love you, even if we disagree on this topic. And if you disagree, I invite you to talk with me more about it.
That being said… when Paul warns in verse 18 to flee from sexual immorality, I hope you’ll appreciate that if Paul’s understanding of sexual immorality includes homosexual practice, then, for me, this can’t be a matter of theological indifference. I don’t see any middle ground for the United Methodist Church.
Paul is writing to a church in Corinth that is part of a culture that is, believe it or not, more sexually promiscuous than our own. And in verses 12 through 20, Paul tackles some arguments that some members of the church are using to justify sleeping with prostitutes. And their arguments have a very contemporary ring to them. And I want to begin by looking at one of them. Paul quotes their argument back to them. It goes like this: “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food—and God will destroy both one and the other.” That’s their argument. And what they mean is this: “It’s O.K. to sleep with a prostitute because sexual desire is nothing more than a natural, healthy physical appetite like eating.” Sex is nothing more than a physical process, a biological imperative. To deny ourselves physical intimacy would be unhealthy, unnatural. We were made for this, and if we deny it to ourselves something is wrong with us.
As a culture, we say that sex is normal and natural, and you should be having as much of it as you want with whomever you want, at least as long as both parties give their consent. Remember the controversy a few years ago, when a couple of famous athletes, Tim Tebow and Olympic runner Lolo Jones, both outspoken Christians, told the media that they were still virgins, and the response was like, “What is wrong with these people? They are freaks!”
And for many Methodists, this idea that we should be able to do what comes naturally to us is at the heart of their objection to our church’s doctrine on sexuality: People are born this way, they say, and they’re born with these desires, therefore they should do what they want.
A couple of responses: First, I’m skeptical that many people, if any, are “born that way.” Things are rarely that simple—although I don’t deny for a moment that many people find themselves attracted to people of the same sex, and they didn’t experience this attraction as a conscious choice. It’s who they are. But as I indicated last week, it doesn’t matter. Because what the Bible says is sinful about homosexuality is not the desire itself; it’s the acting on it. For all I know, there may be a biological influence on same-sex attraction in many cases, but this influence alone can’t determine one’s behavior.
Consider this… We celebrated David Letterman’s retirement last week after 33 years of being a late-night television host. And I was reminded of that awkward episode in 2009 when Letterman faced the camera, and told his audience that someone had been blackmailing him—threatening to go public with embarrassing information about Letterman’s sex life—that he had had sex with women who worked for him on the show. That this blackmailer would turn the story into a screenplay unless Letterman paid the blackmailer two million dollars.
Referring to these multiple affairs, Letterman could have said, “Well, this is just a natural thing; monogamy, for men like me, is unnatural. And even though I’m married, I was born to want to have sex with as many women as possible, and I had these opportunities, so I took advantage of them.”
No, that is not an acceptable excuse—even if it’s true.
Being faithful in our sex lives is difficult for everyone—male, female, gay, straight, or anywhere in between—and it might feel incredibly unnatural to be faithful. Why wouldn’t it? What comes naturally to us are the very things that separate us from God. We need to be saved from the desires and impulses that come naturally to us. And this is why the central metaphor that Jesus uses to describe the Christian life is carrying a cross. This is why he tells us to deny ourselves. Die to ourselves. To put to death, as Paul says elsewhere, what is earthly in us, including sexual immorality.
Another thing that some Corinthian Christians were saying is found in verse 18: “Every sin a person commits is outside the body.” This is hard to translate and interpret, but the Corinthians were making the point that sleeping with prostitutes can’t be a problem because, after all, it’s just a physical, bodily act—and sin is something that happens “outside” or beyond the body. In other words, sin is related to what happens in our hearts, in our spirits, not what happens in our bodies. Therefore I can have a meaningless relationship with a prostitute, and it won’t cause me any harm. That was their argument.
And this brings us to another important objection to our church’s stance on homosexuality: Many people say, forget about the fact that God gave us these different kinds of bodies, which seem perfectly made for intimacy. These physical differences between male and female don’t really matter to God. What matters is not the physical act itself, but the spiritual quality of the relationship: So God is more than O.K. with two men or two women being physically intimate, so long as they are doing so as part of a loving, committed, monogamous, lifelong relationship.
But Paul says no: In fact, as he tells the Corinthians, the exact opposite is true: Paul says that the purely physical, bodily, anatomical union between man and woman is what counts—not the quality of the relationship—not its attributes—not whether it’s loving or committed or whatever else. In other words, even through the seemingly “meaningless” physical act between a prostitute and the man who’s paying for her services, a spiritual bond is created: Paul quotes Genesis 2 to describe that bond: “The two become one flesh.”
By contrast people on the other side of the issue that’s dividing our church are saying, “No… It’s not the physical act. God doesn’t care how we use our bodies, what he cares about is whether there is genuine love there—commitment, monogamy, etc.” Or in the Corinthians’ words, “Sin is what happens outside the body.” And Paul says no! The two become “one flesh” through male and female coming together—and, as he indicates in Romans 1, only through male and female coming together.
To understand this, let’s go back to Genesis 2, which Paul is quoting here. Remember the story? God is trying to find the man a suitable partner. He makes all these animals. But the man is still lonely. Then God takes a part of the man’s side—it’s often translated “rib”—but it really means the side of the man and uses it to create the woman. And what happens when the man sees the woman: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”
Remember the movie Jerry Maguire? At the end of the movie, Tom Cruise comes home to Renee Zellweger, his estranged wife, and says what? “You complete me.” That’s what Adam is saying to Eve, in so many words. The missing part of the man is found only in the woman, and the missing part of the woman is found only in the man. A man can’t give to another man what that man is missing, any more than a woman can give to another woman what that woman is missing. That’s why people who support the church’s traditional stance on sexuality say that one prerequisite for sexual activity is the complementarity of male and female. These differences between male and female matter to God!
And you might object, “Yes, but Genesis chapter 2 isn’t literal history. It’s figurative; it’s symbolic; it’s poetry.” O.K., for the sake of argument, let’s say that it is just poetry; and it’s not meant to be taken as literal history. That’s fine. But doesn’t poetry communicate the truth? In fact, doesn’t poetry often communicate the truth more effectively than a history or science textbook. If that’s the case, then what truth is being communicated here? That God intends for sexual activity to be between male and female only—because they complement one another physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, you name it.
If the Bible writer wanted to communicate something other than that truth, he would have written a different poem with a different point. See what I mean? We’d have a different creation story.
And this brings us to another major objection raised by Methodists who want to change our church doctrine, and it’s perhaps the most common of all: Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. Surely, if it were so important, Jesus would have said something.
How to respond to this? First, why would Jesus say anything about it? In what context would it make sense?
Homosexual practice was already illegal in first-century Judaism. It was universally condemned and rarely practiced. In fact, the Jews’ attitude toward homosexual practice was as countercultural in their day as the church’s traditional stance is countercultural in ours. If Jesus spoke out against it, he would be wasting his breath! “Why are you telling us this, Jesus? We already know this!” It made perfect sense for Paul to talk about it because he’ speaking to a Gentile culture that does approve of homosexual practice.
Besides, notice what Jesus did speak out against? Divorce, which was widely practiced by Jews of his day. Lust, which was widely practiced by Jews in his day. Personal vengeance, which was widely practiced by Jews in his day.
When Jesus disagreed with the status quo of his day, he spoke out against it. Yet he didn’t speak out against the status quo of his day regarding homosexual practice, which was condemned in the strongest terms possible in the Old Testament, as every first-century Jew already understood!
So Jesus didn’t mention homosexual practice. But… when we look at what Jesus does say about sex in general, he rules out any kind of sexual activity that doesn’t involve a man and woman in a lifelong, monogamous marriage!
Why do I say that? Because of what Jesus says about divorce in Mark 10: “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” That’s Genesis 1, and those words emphasize the physical differences between the sexes. Then Jesus says, quoting Genesis 2, which we just looked at, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and”—this should sound familiar—“‘the two shall become one flesh.’” Which, as we just discussed, only happens through a union of man and woman. And then he goes on to say, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”
So Jesus affirms the same thing Paul affirms—that sex is for two different, or complementary, kinds of human beings coming together, and only through this coming together is a real bond formed.
So here I am arguing about Jesus’ silence on the subject… but maybe he wasn’t silent—which is a point I made last week. The Holy Spirit, who, according to Jesus’ own words, is the very spirit of Christ himself, inspired, guided, spoke through the authors of the Bible to write what they wrote about everything, including homosexual practice—and what they wrote condemns it in the strongest terms possible in both Testaments. If we believe in the Trinity and the inspiration of scripture, there’s no way around this.
I went to Emory’s Candler School of Theology, a theologically liberal seminary, whose professors are mostly happy to change our church’s stance on sexuality—and they in turn influence so many of my clergy colleagues who believe the same thing, unfortunately. The seminary’s most popular professor is a New Testament scholar and liberal Catholic named Luke Timothy Johnson. He supports changing the church’s stance—but not because of what the Bible says. He would agree with me that I’ve accurately represented what Jesus and Paul and the rest of the Bible have to say on the subject. The Bible, he says, is clear that homosexual practice is a sin.
But, he says… The Spirit is showing us a “new thing.” The Spirit is showing us a new thing.
A new thing that directly contradicts that “old thing” that the Spirit had previously shown through the words of Paul, and Jesus, and the authors of the Old Testament? I suppose Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, could say the same thing!
For those of us who, like John Wesley, are “people of one book,” who believe in the inspiration, the truthfulness, the authority of scripture—who believe that everything that guides our Christian faith and practice should come from this book alone—well, that is not an argument that any of us should be prepared to make or endorse. And yet I’m hearing it more and more often.
Listen, I confess that I graduated from Candler back in 2007 happily liberal on this issue—alongside too many of my classmates. I know all the arguments; I used to make them myself; and I now see how foolish they are, and I was. I’m ashamed of myself for what I believed back then about God’s Word. I’m ashamed of myself for leaning on my own understanding and trying to be wise in my own eyes, rather than trusting in this word he gave us. God’s Word has proven itself true to me time and time again. And when I actually submit to it, that’s when I’m happiest of all!
As Paul says here, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price.” We are, as Paul says elsewhere, slaves to Christ. A part of what that means is, we’re not in charge; it’s not what we want, but what he wants. The way we know what he wants is through God’s Word. And through this Word he gets to tell us what to do with every aspect of our life, including this most intimate and personal part of our life.
Have you failed in this area…?
So my position now has disappointed a lot of people. I’ve lost a couple of friends over the issue. So be it. As Martin Luther said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”