Lent Sermon Series: 2: Christ and the Sexual Revolution
Gospel reading: Mark 8: 31-end
Please be seated
May the words of my lips and the thoughts of all our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Please note: The following sermon is rated PG for content and language. It is not intended to offend. Additional disclaimers: The views contained herein are not necessarily my own. I’ve attempted to build a plausible argument, not provide an ethical path – please don’t think my moral compass unduly defective. Please bear in mind it is a quite difficult topic.
So, how to begin… I’m aware that my admittedly arbitrary allocation of this area has been the subject of some amusement or at least irony. In the light of that, I would plead the following sermon be not perceived as an evasion of the question, but rather an attempt to address both the issue which is perhaps behind the subject and indeed also offer some observations of relevance to the series as a whole – with apologies for rather taking issue with the title. By way of further disclaimer I would ask you to pardon any Freudian slips and indeed invite you to follow the Radio 1 custom of playing ‘Innuendo Bingo’. In that spirit, let me assure you that in deviating from my brief I am not standing here in criminal undergarments, nor am I – to the contrary of common advice in speaking publicly in difficult circumstances – imagining you sitting there in your underwear; I am and you are all fully clothed, thank God.
This then, is the second sermon in our Lent series and I am tasked with the topic of ‘Christ and the Sexual Revolution’. I would like to properly begin by taking issue with both the subject matter and also by qualifying a possible implication. If this all sounds a bit nit-picky, well, blame the concept of a sermon series. Hopefully we’re all adult enough to cope. For the record, yes, that was a deliberate double entendre.
What am I getting at? Well, if we’d been ballsier as a staff team, we’d have just called this ‘Christ and Sex’ but that was (probably rightly) perceived as being a bit too risqué, though admittedly it may also be indicative of the Church’s discomfort with the topic in general. Instead I’m left with a sort of theological/ sociological lecture on an era 20+ years before I was born and which frankly, I’m afraid I find rather passé. Indeed, in the light of Fifty Shades of Grey, a resurgence of misogyny in popular culture and a proliferation of pornography, I’m afraid I find the concept of the sexual revolution quite frankly tame and possible laudable. I don’t wish therefore to say anything judgemental about sex or indeed the sexual revolution, nor do I think it is within the parameters of this sermon to do so. Which brings me on to my second point, the qualification. This sermon and indeed all those throughout this series and entitled, ‘Christ and…’, not ‘the Church and…’. Now I am conscious that for some Christ and the Church are to be more or less to be equated but I’m afraid this is not a theology nor indeed an eccelsiology with which I have a great deal of sympathy. When St Paul talks about the Church as the body of Christ I personally take that to be a symbol or a metaphor rather than a doctrinal blueprint. It is therefore on that basis that I would also like to say that while the Church may have taken it upon itself, particularly (and often heinously) in the past, to pass judgement upon sexual matters – and that may or may not have been and continue to be its prerogative – I’m not convinced that Christ did, and therefore I’m not going to here, because it is neither the topic of this sermon, nor – in my opinion – the Christ we encounter in Scripture. On that note, there is of course a good deal in the Hebrew Bible, which we as Christians refer to as the Old Testament, with regard to sexual ethics and Jesus as an obedient and (largely) observant Jew was no doubt someone who was informed at a very deep level by this teaching, but I’m afraid that the Christ who speaks to me most clearly from the pages of the New Testament is one who was graciously non-judgemental and who spoke truth into people’s lives while leaving them to sort out the details. It’s only with the earliest Church and particularly St Paul that we get into more legalistic territory and indeed I’m not saying that to be judgemental (much as that particular apostle on sex has proved difficult and problematic), rather that that was a different era, with different communal circumstances and needs and Paul was teaching into that. Basically, I want to talk about Christ and sex, not Christ and the Sexual Revolution, nor indeed the Church and Sex or the Church and the Sexual Revolution. To do so, however, would be to both risk connotations of the Da Vinci Code and somewhat trash the proposed topic. By way of compromise, if I ever get past prevaricating into preaching itself, I would therefore like to offer some brief thoughts on ‘Christ and the Legacy of the Sexual Revolution’ – not quite such a catchy, or indeed, dare we in rather clichéd fashion, put it, sexy title – but it is from that position that I (at last) proceed.
We need not concern ourselves therefore so much with what the sexual revolution was but where we find ourselves as a result of it. By way of a further gripe with the subject area I would like to say that part of the reason I referred to it as passé earlier is that I expect that its revolutionary spirit or at least its perceived deviance in contrast to previous generations has been grossly exaggerated. One has only to have a vague idea of soap operas of the Romantic movement or indeed the dark underbelly of Victorian society to know that Christian morality has not been as all pervasive as a cursory reading of recent British history might have led us to believe. For that reason also, I wish to concentrate on the cultural legacy of the sexual revolution in terms of its broad-brush effects and rather than bemoaning any possibly resulting increased acceptance of promiscuity, the reality of pre-marital sex or normalised cohabitation, dwelling on any eventual implications for the AIDS crisis or criticising some of the lifestyle choices of the period which were undoubtedly harmful, I’d like to concentrate in the little that remains of my designated 10-12 minutes on the largely positive emergence of acceptance and inclusivity for which free love must presumably take a good deal of credit.
I’m not going to stand here and say that Jesus was a hippie, or indeed that if he’d been around in the ‘60’s he would have been – that would be both a crass anachronism and a very poor application of doctrine – but I do think that the incarnation calls us to embrace the possibility that in some sense there is something of Christ to be celebrated about the sexual revolution.
In terms of its legacy therefore, Christ arguably calls us in love to among other affirmations, an acceptance of differing sexual orientations and a celebration of difference. If the Church sees it as its obligation to get its knickers in a twist about more specific matters then so be it. That’s its own business and I can see why for perfectly good reasons, such as a desire to be ‘true’ in some sense to Scripture, it does so. Just to be clear, I am not saying that the Church should not have a position on sexuality morality, nor that it should not provide moral advice in this area, I am simply sticking to my slightly revised topic. I don’t envy our leaders.
If we define the sexual revolution as a challenging of boundaries, a rejection of institutionalised (moral) authority and like I said, an inclusive acceptance, than I have difficulty seeing why Christ would have much of an issue with it. However, in terms of legacy the problem arguably comes when the Church feels obliged to either follow or react stridently against cultural trends for the sake of reactionary relevance or polemical self-preservation: docetism or ebionism if we’re going to be heretical about it. But again, that lies outside the purview of this sermon for the reasons I have already outlined.
I guess the problem with this ‘Christ and…’ business is that it requires an act of monumental presumption on the part of the preacher. Whatever Paul may say, I’m not sure the Church can really claim to know the mind of Christ. Nor from scrutinising the New Testament and the Gospels in particular can we ever get back to the historical Jesus, we simply get portrayals of him and have to hope that somehow, through the Spirit we can discern an obedient path. Another reason why this sermon has not dealt in moral prescription: we don’t 100% percent know what Christ thought about sex, we only get the evangelists’ take on it. This in itself, rather undermines for me another possible argument from a doctrinal perspective that as the Christ is part of the eternal Trinity, he’s not going to change his mind so whatever he did [or indeed did not say] about sex by implication therefore applies (without pastorally sensitive exceptions) for all time. For me, it just doesn’t work like that.
Okay, so to sum up. Jesus didn’t say that much about sex, but he did challenge immorality. He was much more scathing about the religiously self-righteous who took the moral high ground. For me therefore, he would affirm the positive legacies of the sexual revolution, largely reject the Church as a moral arbiter, but challenge abuse. I can’t see him ever waving placards of hate, rather helping to hold up banners of love. Ironically, of course, my particular take on Jesus is directly informed by the cultural forces unleashed by the sexual revolution. I may not be a child of the 60’s, but I am just about a grandchild of it. In conclusion, therefore I hold my hands up and admit my bias: I have been conditioned by both my upbringing and societal factors much bigger than parental or familial influence to reject authority, embrace inclusion and rebel against judgement. My Christ is a Christ of the sexual revolution because I cannot escape its influence. My portrayal is deeply compromised and this whole sermon (and perhaps the series itself) deeply flawed. But hey, that’s the incarnation for you.
God bless and thanks for listening. Sorry I didn’t get round to the Gospel…
Reverend Matthew Hunter, Curate