s114e^96 Somerton Park + Epiphany 2 19/1/97

""All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial." - 1 Corinthians 6:12.

Most of us are well used to hearing the story of the calling of Samuel in the night. It is often used as an example of devotion and obedience of Samuel for young boys and men. It is however instructive to carry on with the story, for the rather picturesque opening with which we are all familiar masks the reason for the call, which is demonic to say the least.

Eli, the elderly priest had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, and in the normal course of events it had been assumed that they would succeed Eli as priest at Shiloh - as indeed they had. (3) However despite the reprimand of their father, we are told the priests were scoundrels. They forcibly took offerings from the people (16) and "lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting" (22). If this sort of behaviour is "fornication" then I have no difficulty in saying with as much force as St Paul: "Shun fornication!" However when the Church uses the word fornication it means any unforced sexual intimacy between persons who are not married. Any forced sexual intimacy is called rape.

Sexual promiscuity, like overindulgence in eating or drinking, can be dangerous to one's self esteem. What can begin as a normal and natural activity given by God, and a real boost as one realises that someone else on this planet loves us, can pall as one or other finds they are being used. Sexuality, like any gift can be misused, and because it touches the very core of our beings, when it goes wrong, it hurts sorely. The Church has tried to shield young souls from such hurt, but she has been as successful at this as any parent is - not very!

Let me make myself quite clear - the message "shun fornication" is not the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. If Jesus had gone around saying this it is hardly likely to have been crucified. Yet why is it that the world thinks that this is the sole message of the Church? It is far more likely that the opening words of the epistle reading for today are closer to the central message of the gospel and which form my text for this sermon. ""All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial."

Can we look at people and respect where they are at? We proclaim a God given freedom to love, and respect people when they make decisions based on that God given freedom and right.

People make decisions about whom they will relate, how closely they wish to express that relationship and on what time scale. Provided that they are over the age of consent, they should be allowed to exercise that God given right, and we should respect the decisions they make, even if we fear that they are made for the wrong reasons or that they are becoming friendly with the "wrong" person. Anything less than respect is alienating.

The curious thing is that young people living together often related to one another in a very healthy way. The divisions of labour are all discussed and agreed on - just who does the washing, the shopping and the ironing. There is no external pressure for either party to act in a particular way. But later if the couple marry, the experts say that unconsciously each of the parties subconsciously slips into the unspoken expectations about roles inherited from their respective parents. There is nothing wrong with adopting these sorts of roles - except that it (more often than not apparently) happens unconsciously and without discussion and agreement. So the previous good relationship changes by a legal ceremony and a slip of paper. I find it no wonder what so ever that people are avoiding getting married. They know too many couples who have found marriage the end of a wonderful relationship, an end which comes often with remarkable speed.

The essence of a good marriage surely must be where both parties look at the other with courtesy and respect. So if the bit of paper and the legal ceremony is used as an excuse to treat the other discourteously or disrespectfully (as happens still in highly patriarchal societies) then the Church ought to be heard condemning this, as the world seems to hear the Church only condemning relationships outside marriage. I have no doubt what so ever that much more disrespectful behaviour happens within rather than outside married relationships. I think the sentiment was expressed by the former Bishop of Willochra that the high rate of divorce can be seen in a positive light. People these days have an expectation that marriage will be fulfilling emotionally - a rather higher expectation than previous generations. It might be added, perhaps we are placing too high an expectation on one another?

I can do no better than quote the words of a statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England in December 1991 in a booklet entitled "Issues in Sexuality": (p20 §3.2) "Christian teaching about marriage offers something much better than what it is commonly taken to be, namely a regulation which simply condemns those who break it. It offers two things: first guidance ... as to the way of life within which full physical expression of our sexuality can best contribute to our own maturity and sanctification and that of others; and secondly, a direction in which other sexual relationships can and should move, if they are to serve more effectually the true fulfilment of those concerned".

That direction is not: "Get married!" The direction, so graphically demonstrated in the preceding words of the paragraph, where they detail a whole range of physical and emotional circumstances different people find themselves in - is to respect one another - whatever the circumstances. They go on to talk about "... cost, hard work and self denial ..." (§3.3). Marriage can be a licence for exploitation or used as a tool to force another to accept being exploited, just as Hophni and Phinehas were exploiting others and using their position as priests to force others to accept being exploited. The Bishops are making it quite plain that that is not what they consider marriage to be.

The freedom is a freedom to love, not a freedom to exploit.

Above I said that what we mean by the word fornication is any unforced sexual intimacy between persons who are not married - essentially premarital sexual activity. The human sexuality task group reporting to our last Synod noted however that: "The expression of sexuality also preceded marriage. Among the Hebrews, sex was not prohibited through the betrothal period, and even at weddings, the major ceremony was the sexual intimacy itself. the book of Ruth describes intimacy between Ruth and Boaz, which leads to their betrothal. In the Song of Songs, sexual intimacy is delighted in before culminating in a marriage event."

It is clear that St Paul is not talking about premarital sexual activity when he says "Shun fornication". It is quite clear that he defines fornication as sexual activity with a prostitute. It is important to see that despite the blinkered (if usual) vision that the only possible scenario was that a male visited a female prostitute, and not a female visiting a male prostitute (or other variations on the theme) - it is the person who visits the prostitute who is culpable - not the prostitute herself. It is also important to recognise the he regards it primarily as a sin, not against the Lord, but against oneself. St Paul sees it as devaluing oneself - a person for whom Jesus died and in whom God has poured the Holy Spirit. It is a lack of faith - not in God - but in oneself.

Whatever St Paul's attitudes to prostitutes, they have to be balanced with the words of Jesus, who had occasion to say to the chief priests and the elders of the people: (as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago to the 8am congregation) "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Matthew 21:31).

St Paul bases much of his words on the esteem we ought to hold ourselves in. "Your bodies are members of Christ" ... "a temple of the Holy Spirit" ... "you were bought with a price". These are words which are designed to raise our self esteem not to stop us doing things which are "lawful" but not "beneficial". St Paul emphasises the positives, and it is up to us to do the same.

We are bidden as a Church to be seen to try to raise people's self esteem. Earlier I said that "the Church ought to be heard condemning this (discourtesy and disrespect within marriage), as the world seems to hear the Church only condemning relationships outside marriage."

In reality the Church has no business condemning anything or anyone. The church's sole task is to raise people's self esteem. To accept all people where they are and the contributions they wish to make. To say to all: "You are members of Christ" - saint and sinner - all are one flesh - by virtue that all are human beings, not by virtue of living up to expectations of sacred scripture or Church moral or ethical teaching.


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