This is the only Sunday in the whole of the three-year lectionary cycle when a reading from the Song of Songs is set as one of the primary readings, so we better make the most of it. The Church, of course, has a long history of doing completely the opposite and trying to ignore this particular book of the Bible. It is rarely read. When it is read we tend to limit that reading to a rather small number of sections. If we do read the whole book we tend to do so with translations that often tone down the language to an extent that the original meaning is lost.
Why? Because the Songs of Songs is a selection of erotic love poems which get quite raunchy in parts (at least by the standards of the time when it was written). It is one of just two books in the entire Bible in which the word God does not appear (the other, for trivia quiz geeks, is Ester). No-one is quite sure why it was included in the Bible. One article I read in preparation for this sermon listed at least 12 different ways it is possible to view the poems. The most common is probably that they should be treated not at face value but as an allegory for the loving relationship of God (or Christ) with His people (or Church). It is a little ironic that this view is particularly popular amongst fundamentalist Christians who insist on a literal interpretation of every other book.
Taken at face value, however, it is an evocation of sensuality and sexual love. It presents physical lovemaking in a positive light as something to be celebrated. It can be argued that viewing the poems as an allegory for our relationship with God places that sexuality on an even higher pedestal. Surely only the images that we hold in the very highest regard are suitable for describing God. If God’s love is depicted as urgent and passionate and physical, and our idealised response is depicted in the same terms, then surely those qualities must be ones which are to be admired and honoured.
However we read this book we are thus forced to the conclusion that the authors considered our physical sexuality as a gift from God which we should honour and express thanks for. As such it is a very welcome counter-balance to other passages of the Bible which tend to dismiss our sexuality as distasteful, distracting or downright sinful; passages which whilst small in number are generally read much more frequently than these poems.
By comparison the second lectionary reading seems rather dull. It’s a story of how a group of Pharisees complained that Jesus’ friends didn’t wash their hands before meals as was required by Jewish law.
The Jews had a real passion for making rules. According to tradition Moses received 10 commandments from God. The books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers, however, are stuffed with many more. A third century rabbi called Simlai counted 613 of them. This wasn’t all, there were more rules in the Oral Torah, and then there were books of case law which effectively introduced more rules. There was so many rules that it needed the specialist “Teachers of the Law” referred to in this passage to remember what the laws were and how to apply them.
Jesus was fed up with all these laws. He thought that Jewish society had lost the plot. They were so obsessed with imposing all those laws that they’d forgotten why the laws had been introduced in the first place. Many were almost certainly irrelevant now. They had been developed in one context and no one had noticed that they were now living in an entirely different context. Some, like handwashing before meals, were probably still useful but had been blown out of all proportion into elaborate rituals.
Most importantly though people were beginning to think that the whole purpose of life was to live without breaking any of the laws. Living in accordance with the Law had become more important than developing a relationship with God. What a miserable existence! Jesus, according to John, came that we “might have life, life in all its fulness” (John 10:10). You don’t live a full and God-filled life by obsessing over rules and regulations. Rigorous adherence to those laws was now actually preventing people living fulfilled lives and cutting them off from God.
“‘These people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
So we’ve spent some time looking at the passages separately. How on earth (or in heaven!) are they related? … and how do they apply to our lives today?
The Church as a whole, and Christians as individuals, have struggled with its rules about sexuality for centuries. This struggle has been exacerbated by the sexual revolution within wider society over recent decades. The debate has been most vocal recently about gay and lesbian sexuality but it is more general issues that I want to focus on today. There is growing disconnect between the church’s official teaching on sexuality and our lived experience. In 1994, the last time Methodist Conference voted on the issue, it reaffirmed “the traditional teaching of the church on human sexuality, namely chastity for all outside marriage and fidelity within it” and this remains Methodism’s official position.
But this teaching differs quite markedly from our lived experience. Many of us here will have unmarried adult children or grandchildren or nephews or nieces living in responsible, loving, fulfilling relationships which are clearly not chaste. Some of us may have initially reacted to this with dismay or disapproval, but most, over time, will have come first to accept and then to value those relationships, and the happiness and joy they bring to those individuals. There are several young people in the next generation of my family whose lives are being enriched and affirmed through such relationships. My life is being enriched and affirmed by observing the joy that those relationships bring. It seems crazy to me to assume that there is anything inherently wrong with this way of living.
Sometimes these relationships will end, the joy will die and be replaced by pain and grief. But I would much rather that this happens when it is only the two individuals involved, than after a premature marriage and the birth of children.
So how do we align this lived experience with the church’s traditional teaching on sexuality. Can today’s readings help us? I think they can.
The first reading helps draw us away from the notion that sexual activity is inherently distasteful, distracting or sinful. Some types of sexual activity certainly are sinful, we should have no tolerance of exploitive, violent or coercive relationships. Sensitive, consenting, respectful expressions of love, by contrast, are a blessing. We need to recapture the positive vision of that sexuality which is evoked by the Song of Songs. This at least is in line with our church’s teaching which in 1994 affirmed “the joy of human sexuality as God’s gift”.
The second reading reminds us that Jesus rejected slavish adherence to religious laws and appears to have been particularly critical of laws that had been developed in one context and then applied uncritically within a different later context. If there is one thing we can say with any certainty in this area, it is that the context in which we express our sexuality has changed massively since the church’s traditional teaching in this area was first formalised.
Jesus said virtually nothing about how our sexuality should be expressed. Paul did say a little more but what he did write was always specific to a particular context. He was writing at a time when most parents arranged marriages for their children, often in their middle or late teens. Marriage marked the transition of a woman from being the possession of her father to that of her husband. It allowed clarity in how money was to be inherited. Throughout most of Christian history marriage has been more about maintaining order in society than it has been about ensuring the happiness of husband or wife. Today, by contrast, most of us would see mutual fulfilment of husband and wife as the primary purpose of marriage.
Given these changes it shouldn’t surprise us at all that traditional teaching needs reviewing (and this is without any mention of the effect of technological advances such as the widespread availability of reliable contraception). Maybe we need to take our cue from Jesus and, in the light, of scripture, tradition and our contemporary experience, review how our teaching can best support our young people in the context in which they are living today.
Following this morning’s gospel reading we should perhaps be suspicious that this will be best achieved through specific and detailed quasi-legal pronouncements (the sort of thing that the Pharisees and our Conference so dearly love to debate). I suspect a much better approach would be to develop softer guidance aimed at supporting individuals to reflect on their own faith, their own experience and their own relationships in discerning how they should live out their own lives. As a parent I would much prefer guidance, which opens up the prospect of conversations with my children, to pronouncements, that close them down.
Such guidance needn’t pull its punches. It must be completely intolerant of any exploitive, violent or coercive expressions of sexuality (whether within marriage or outside). It can stand against societal acceptance of increasingly early sexual activity, and stress the need for individuals to have the psychological and emotional maturity to make such important decisions. It must allow for those who want to continue to observe traditional church teaching to be supported in this. It is my personal belief, however, that it should also ensure that those who, after thoughtful and prayerful consideration, decide to live otherwise can still feel loved and accepted as part of our church community without feelings of guilt or shame or a need to conceal the lifestyle they have chosen.
As in all areas of life, Jesus calls us to live life in all its fullness through loving God and our neighbour. He calls us to do this in the light of the personal relationship we have with him. I pray for guidance to choose my path in the light of my relationship with Jesus. I also pray for welcoming love for those whose different relationship with Jesus may lead them down a different path.