Third Sunday before Lent (The Feast of St Valentine)

07 jul 2017


Preacher: Canon Mandy Ford, Chancellor

Readings: Romans 7:13-25

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.

Some of us have been considering issues of sex and desire in a short study course, looking particularly at the issue from the perspective of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Christians, and a good number of the congregation and clergy were together at the London Pride march yesterday. So it seemed like a good Sunday to consider the place of desire in Christian experience.

I do so, mindful of our aspiration, as a cathedral, to be a place of full inclusion for all Christians regardless, of their gender or sexuality, among the many and diverse ways in which we can be human.

As the Church of England continues to struggle with its internal battles, one of the sad outcomes is that, as a church, we have little credibility in speaking about the way in which God’s purpose for his children is being so horribly distorted in our culture.

Our culture has so perverted the nature of relationships, those “more than friendship’ relationships, that it is hard to know where to begin.

Our theology, our tradition, our Christian teaching says the purpose of relationships is to share in friendship respecting and promoting the good of the other, to experience the self-abandonment of love, to offer hospitality, to nurture families, to build the Kingdom.

That is a long way from the swipe left/swipe right culture of Tindr or Grindr which says, all I want from this relationship is your body for my sexual pleasure.

It is a long way from the online dating culture that says, all I want from you is the personality as you chose to project it in cyberspace, for my entertainment.

Where is spiritual love embodied and united in relationships which are incarnational: relationships of mind, spirit and body?

When I speak of embodied desire, I’m not just talking bout sex‚Ķ

Even though the world thinks that desire means sex and that the church thinks that sex means sin.

Where is the subtlety that recognises that we are embodied creatures and that our desire for God is experienced as longing, joy and pleasure through our senses and emotions as well as our minds?

In our reading today we see how St Paul is grappling with the problem of sin and the body.

His letter to the Romans does not make easy reading, because the language he uses can seem very confusing to us.

Paul seems to be contrasting the spirit and the body when he writes that “ the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin” as if nothing to do with the body could be good.

Again, later in the passage Paul writes "For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh." 

But don’t confuse flesh and body here.

Paul usually thinks of the body in a positive light. The body is a gift of God, and it is in the body that the believer is called to glorify God.

Without bodies we could not sing God’s praise, read God’s word, or receive God in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Flesh, on the other hand, is the short-hand term Paul uses when he wants to talk about a body or life that is being misused, that is, a body that is controlled by Sin.  The positive body in that case has become the negative flesh.  It is important to realize that body and flesh do not mean the same thing in Paul’s writing. 

Our bodies, like everything else in creation have been gifted to us by God.
Paul tells us, elsewhere, that the whole of creation, including our bodies, is groaning in labour until God and creation are unified in the Kingdom of love, peace and joy.

In the meantime, our bodies, like the whole of creation, are fallen, frail and fallible.

But that doesn’t mean that we should not try to make good choices and develop holy habits.

Paul struggles with knowing that he can’t always make the right choice, and lives in fear of being overwhelmed by sin, desires he can’t control, ungoverned by law.

But he is not without hope, hope in Christ, who is the fulfillment of the law.

Now, this is where I have to make my confession. I am a natural non-conformist, and while I have overcome the worst excesses of my adolescent rule breaking, I know that it does not lie far below the surface.

For this reason, the language of law really troubles me. I want everyone to have freedom and fullness of life as far as it is possible, not to be constrained by rules and regulations.

Paul knows just where to point the argument with my inner adolescent, he tells me the law is intended to give life, not to diminish it.

For Paul, the primary purpose of the law is to urge us toward life, towards all that is healthy, life-giving, and of true value ... even when we, captivated by immediate desires, would rather seize those things which lead to death.

Just in case this language all sounds a bit dramatic, perhaps I might use the example of the Bread Ahead salted caramel doughnut here.

Our bodies need food.
We can desire and enjoy food for the benefit of the body. We can be grateful for the creativity skill and dedication of those who grow and prepare our food. We can enjoy eating, that is fulfilling the desire for food. And you can do all those things with a doughnut.

But the flesh desires sweet, expensive, creamy Borough Market doughnuts
for reasons which are distorted, by greed, by the feeling that I deserve a reward for working on Saturday, by the pressure to consume.

Sometimes a salted caramel doughnut is the occasion of sin! (and too many salted caramel doughnuts will kill you..)

Paul tells us that the law is there to help us see what is life giving, but also to help us to recognize that we will always fall short of fullness of life.

For Paul, with his background experience as an observant Jew, the law means the Torah, the holiness code, and the wisdom of the people.

For us, as Christians it means the teaching of Jesus and the wisdom of the gospels. It means bringing together the demands of love and justice, loving God and our neighbour.

Our desires may be distorted, but they have their source and purpose in the ultimate desire, that is our desire for God, and as Christians we have submitted ourselves to that ultimate desire, we are drawn by that ultimate purpose.

This is what draws us to the imitation of Christ, the human who was not without desire but who was without sin, the person whose behaviour united love and justice in complete self-giving.

This is the law of love which ought to govern desire. It is the law of love which we see in the permanent, faithful and stable, self-giving, Kingdom building relationships within our congregation.

It is the law of love that we all fail to live fully, but which we can by grace seek to live.

One of the cultural myths of the age is that relationships are a private matter. Our relationships impact on our friends, our family, our church, our society.

As we seek to live out our vocation as an inclusive community growing in orthodox faith and radical love, let’s hold all the elements of that vision together, remembering that love and faith are gifts of grace given to build up our community and the wider church.

If we are convinced that same sex relationship can serve God’s purpose in Creation, then lets make sure that they are the holiest they can be, relationships that grow Christlike people, relationships of hospitality and service to others, relationships that build the Kingdom.

If we are convinced that marriage between men and women is given by God to build up his Kingdom, then lets make sure that we honour and promote marriage, support families, encourage couples to shape households which build up the Kingdom.

Let’s honour those who life the single life and those given celibacy as a gift and calling, so that together, as an embodied community, desiring God and his Kingdom we may seek to live the law of love.