Sex and Relationships

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Tonight our subject is sex and relationships. To help our thinking I want us to look at 1 Peter chapter 4 and verses 1 to 6; and my headings are first (after some introduction, Right Thinking; secondly, The Real Issue, and thirdly, Being Maligned. But first, by way of introduction, I want you to see this:

The Asch Experiment

I wanted you to see that little video clip, because of the power of lies if everybody around you is denying the truth. People then usually follow the lying crowd. That experiment devised by Solomon Asch has been repeated many times and it finds that only a minority do not conform to the group. And many people follow lies regarding sex and relationships – tonight's subject. When the apostle Paul was discussing sexual matters on one occasion, he wrote (Ephesians 5.6):

"Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience."

So first be warned of people who can mislead you regarding sex and relationships. Secondly (by way of introduction), remember we all sin in one way or another. And sexual sins, says Jesus, can be in the mind as well as acted out. So before the apostle Peter goes on to talk about sexual matters in our passage, he makes clear a fundamental truth in verse 18 of chapter 3. There is forgiveness through the Cross of Christ for all sins - the 'respectable' sexual sins of hypocritical Pharisees and the less respectable sins of outright fornicators and adulterers. He writes:

"For Christ… suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit."

So if you are already in a mess regarding sex and relationships, remember that great good news. And, thirdly, Peter does not explicitly deal with victims of sexual sins – a survivor of abuse or the innocent partner in a broken marriage – nor with those who can't get married (nor with those directly called to the single life). But there is much in his epistle on the general problem of innocent suffering.

Well now for our first heading, Right Thinking. Look at verse 1 of chapter 4:

"since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin."

The last part of chapter 3 and the first part of chapter 4 of 1 Peter contain some verses that are not crystal clear. And how that phrase "arm yourselves with the same way of thinking" ties in with the context, is disputed. But at least you can say it means that your mind matters when it comes to sex and relationships and not just your physical instincts. So, two more things need to be said about Christian right-thinking by way of fuller introduction.

The first is an obvious simple principle. It is this. You need to get your mind clear about what is sexually right and wrong before you meet someone of the opposite sex - someone you find attractive - at a time and in a place, when and where, there is temptation. But, secondly, and importantly, you need your mind clear about a basic fact – namely that so much modern research has found the traditional Christian sex and marital ethic is best for children, best for adults and best for wider society. Not only is it best (on average) in terms of marital stability and so for bringing up children; for child and adult health; and, yes, for material prosperity. It is also best in terms of adult sexual well-being - a primary value in the modern world.

It is a fact that one of the biggest ever modern sexual surveys came to the following conclusion - I quote Time magazine: "the women most likely to achieve orgasm each and every time [with their partners] are, believe it or not, conservative Protestants." This blew the minds of some secular journalists. No longer could they laugh off the research that shows that women who follow the Christian ethic of sex only for traditional lifelong marriage are, on average (of course, you have to underline on average), better in bed than those who do not follow that ethic. And women who have sex only with their husbands are twice as responsive sexually as women with multiple partners. And on the health front, of course, the only form of sex, truly safe from disease, is to reserve sex for lifelong marriage. So your mind matters in thinking about some objective facts that tell you the obvious, namely that it is wise to follow our divine maker's instructions when it comes to human flourishing.

That brings us to our second heading The Real Issue.

Perhaps, only perhaps, verse 1 (which scholars disagree over) is shorthand in the light of baptism that Peter has just been talking about. And it relates to the fact that in baptism you symbolically die with Christ. For by faith in Christ in God's sight your sinful life has been buried and is a thing of the past – in God's sight it has ceased. So, now, as a new Christian you should think about becoming in your actual living, what you already are in God's sight. Whether that is the case or not, Peter says quite clearly that as a Christian you are (verses 2-3)...

"....to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. For the time that has passed suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry."

This couldn't be clearer. Peter is telling these Christians in the early church they have a choice. Either they can spend their lives giving in to "human passions" [or "desires" or "lusts" (as the word used to be translated)] or they can spend their lives being obedient to "the will of God". And Peter is arguing that since Christ has suffered for them, and is now risen and reigning over the whole universe, and since it is for their own and other people's good, the Christian has no choice. He says they are:

"to live for the rest of the time in the flesh [that is to say, as long as they remain alive on this earth – they are to live] no longer for human passions but for the will of God."

But what is the will of God regarding sex and relationships? Well, Jesus made it so clear. On the one hand, he taught a tight sexual ethic that put the marriage of one man and one woman at the centre of this ethic – so with no sexual intercourse before or outside marriage. And, on the other hand, he was realistically compassionate. So, first, his sexual ethic. For that, he went back to the Old Testament creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2. So in Mark 10.6 we read that Jesus starts to outline his position with a quote from Genesis 1:

"From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female."

Jesus is quoting part of Genesis 1.27 which says:

"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them: male and female he created them."

Jesus starts, therefore, by underlining the reality that to be human is to share humanity with the opposite sex, not the same sex. So while men and women are equal, the difference between the sexes is a fundamental difference. It is part of the way God has arranged things. It is not a minor difference and simply a matter of human plumbing. But then Jesus goes on in Mark's Gospel to say (Mark 10.7):

"therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh."

Jesus is now quoting directly from Genesis 2.24 where it describes marriage (marriage that, of course, is something going on in all societies as a recognized and regulated human institution). And what should happen is clear. For God's created order is maintained when a man leaves his parents to "hold fast" to his wife – a woman not a man (whatever David Cameron may say about "gay marriage"). And then he becomes "one flesh" with her. And the events should take place in that order: first the leaving of your father and mother; secondly the holding fast to your wife or husband; and thirdly becoming "one flesh" with each other. So Genesis 2.24 (that was endorsed by Jesus and elsewhere in the New Testament) implies that marriage involves four things. One, it is an exclusive union - it is "a man and his wife". Two, it is publicly acknowledged – there is this "leaving" of father and mother. Three, it is to be permanent – it is "holding fast" to your wife or husband (so no cohabitation). And, four, it is consummated by sexual intercourse – the "becoming one flesh". But Jesus then highlights two things that the Old Testament hadn't made so clear by adding to Genesis 2.24 the following words in Mark 10.8: first …

"So they are no longer two but one flesh."

And Jesus had already changed the "they" of Genesis 2.24 to "two shall become one flesh". That immediately rules out polygamy that the Old Testament tolerated. And it makes clear that sexual intercourse cannot be just recreational – a sort of "contact sport" – as tragically many think it can be in the West. For it is a profound making of two into one at various levels – physically (obviously) and that is easy. But there is a psychological and spiritual dimension, which is why people so often feel guilty and dirty after pre- and extra-marital sex. Then, secondly, Jesus adds something else. And this must have been quite a shock to his hearers, as divorce and remarriage were not uncommon in Palestine at the time. For he secondly said this (Mark 10.9):

"What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."

This was totally new. Jesus was saying that in marriage it is not just two people deciding to put rings on their fingers. But God himself is joining those people together and for life "for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do them part," as we say in the marriage service. So Jesus says, not only polygamy is wrong but also serial polygamy, through remarriages. Not surprisingly he went on to say in Mark 10.11 and 12:

"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

Then, finally, Jesus taught that there should be a proper perspective on sex and relationships. For he taught that while marriage was an institution for this life, it was not an institution for the life to come. He said that when people rise from the dead, "they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" (Mark 12.25). So no single person need feel inferior. In heaven the bliss will not be less than provided by human marriage but more than and beyond marriage and for all. And, very importantly, also Jesus revealed by his own celibate singleness that to be fully human did not require you to be sexually active or experienced. Well, in outline that is a fundamental part of the "will of God" in respect of sex and relationships. And Peter, who probably was the apostolic source for Mark's Gospel, would have had this in mind when he taught about sex and relationships. And the reason this Christian ethic is so important is there in the Old Testament. For, Genesis 1.28 goes on to explain why God has created the human creature male and female. Verse 28 says:

"And God blessed them and said to them, 'be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.'"

First, then, we are told, the reason the human creature is male and female is that this planet might be populated and that there might be succeeding generations. So when there is a failure to repopulate, as now in Europe (and China), there are massive problems. But such population and repopulation needs to be in an environment of stable families where the father and mother, committed together for life, love and help each other. For Genesis 2.18 says:

"The Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper for him.'"

That help, of course, is to be mutual. And Jesus' strict ethic helps those objectives. For in a divorcing and remarriage culture you don't have family stability. There is clear evidence that, on average, children and adults suffer through family breakdown. So does the state. Even the very liberal anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote of the emotional strain to married couples in a divorcing culture. And by the way, Britain has the highest divorce rate in the European Union, almost twice the EC average. UNICEF in 2007 ranked child wellbeing in Britain as the lowest of 21 industrialized countries. And Guy Brandon, in his Jubilee Centre's Cambridge Paper, Free sex, who pays? estimated that the total cost to the public purse of the sexual revolution and family breakdown could be as much as £100 billion a year to the tax payer and wider economy – more than the entire government's education budget of £90 billion! So, on the one hand, Jesus taught this strict ethic.

But, on the other hand, he and his apostles were realistically compassionate. They knew that the world was created good but now through sin and selfishness is fallen. Many, therefore, of the early Christians had been living quite contrary to this ethic of Jesus and the apostles. But he and his apostles did not want them to incur God's final judgment. They, therefore, worked for changes in their convert's lifestyles. Peter certainly is assuming that people he is writing to will have been, in "the time that is past", verse 3, living:

"in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties and lawless idolatry [which may have involved temple prostitution]."

And the apostle Paul could write to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 6.9-11):

"do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."

And, of course, Jesus himself had as his first evangelistic agent a sexually mixed-up woman. You read about her in John 4. She had gone through five husbands and was now cohabiting with another man. But Jesus saw her needs and helped her; and after she trusted Christ she became a great personal evangelist. Then there is a Johannine fragment in John 8 about a woman "caught in the act of adultery". Jesus, unlike the Pharisees, forgave her but said, "go and from now on sin no more" (John 8.11). So Jesus, while strict, taught forgiveness for all sexual sins but then wanted change. Undoubtedly, there will be some here tonight, totally mixed up in wrong sexual relationships (including homosexual relationships) or abortion or pornography or a range of other things.

But never forget there is forgiveness through Christ, if you confess your sins, and trust him to empower you by his Holy Spirit to resist future temptation. He bore all sorts of sins on the Cross of Calvary – including sexual, marital and family sins, as Peter has just written in chapter 3.18. Let me repeat that verse:

"Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit."

And that brings us to our third heading, and I must be brief, Being Maligned. Look at verses 4 – 6:

"With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead [probably people who had died in recent years – this is another one of those difficult verses], that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does."

If you follow Christ and his way, don't be surprised if non-Christians "malign you". Don't be surprised if they call you a bigot, a homophobe, judgmental or out of the ark and not going with the modern world. Sadly, if such people don't turn to Christ, one day (verse 5)…

"… they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead" 

That is why you need to pray for them and seek to win them to Christ and without apology. I must conclude. I do so simply by asking you not to forget that ASCH conformity experiment or forget Peter's desire that in response to God's creative goodness and Jesus' death for you and his ethic, you should seek in the Holy Spirit's strength to …

"live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God."

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