Our worship series over the last several weeks has focused on the Ten Promises of God that are inherent in the Ten Covenant Commands given to Moses. Mining the theology of the Commands has unearthed valuable wisdom for the living of our days, even if the commands themselves sound a bit distant and simplistic.
The seventh command, “You shall not commit adultery” is a tough one to tackle in a sermon. How many of you have ever heard a sermon based on this command? This sermon should probably come with a PG13 rating. Parental discussion is advised.
Stepping into the history and theology of human sexuality and marriage is vast and risky and hard. Whether you are happily married, or not so happily married, single, divorced, remarried, widowed, or someone who has been denied marriage, you know how hard and sometimes painful the subject of marriage can be. My hope is that our reflections today will not sound easy or judgmental, but rather, thoughts about what God hopes for all of us - when it comes to our most interpersonal relationships.
And so, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Let us worship God in Spirit and in Truth.
Intro to the Reading
In our next reading, St. Paul the apostle is responding to a letter from the Corinthians. Paul is providing clarification on a variety of topics. Written before any of the gospels, this portion of the First Letter to the Corinthians addresses the conflicting messages early converts to the faith were getting regarding sexual ethics and the relationships between believers and nonbelievers.
I had the opportunity to share this reading with friends who are active in the Roman Catholic Church. After I read the passage to them, one said, “That must be in the Protestant Bible because I have never heard this ever before.” No, I said, It’s in the 7th chapter of 1 Corinthians. Let us listen again for a Word from God to our hearts today.
1 Corinthians 7 Directions concerning Marriage
7 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” 2 But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
5 Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 This I say by way of concession, not of command. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.
8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. 9 But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
10 To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.
12 To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. 16 Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.
The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Artistically speaking, where would the world be without Adultery?!
Think about how many novels have adultery as the theme or subplot?
Remove adultery and how many plays and operas would vanish into thin air like a stolen kiss? How much of history is the story of royal adulteries; think fictionalized shows like Game of Thrones?
Being raised Catholic with an exaggerated fear of Hell and eternal damnation, I was aghast when in my late teens I found out a friend of mine had lost her virginity. I asked, “Aren’t you afraid of going to Hell for committing adultery?” She responded, “Don’t you have to be married to commit adultery?”
“Huh, I thought…I didn’t realize there was a loophole.”
There must’ve been a loophole because in the Hebrew Scriptures it seems few people kept the seventh command. Think about some of the most exalted faith ancestors. Abraham took Hagar as a concubine. Jacob married sisters Leah and Rachel. We’re told Elkinah loved his wife Hannah more than his other wife, Peninah. David took Bathsheba from Uriah.
Solomon, a model of wisdom and exemplar of justice had 700 wives.
How can this command have meaning for us if it didn’t seem to have meaning in ancient Israel? For one thing, in Old Testament times, the idea of adultery was very different for men than it was for women. Marriage for a man meant duty, obligation, and responsibility for one’s wives and children. It didn’t matter how many you had, as long as you provided for their safety and security.
Yet, a woman was forbidden to have more than one husband – because she could only be the property of one man. Wives were owned, not simply “married.” Wives were for assuring the purity of lines of inheritance and the lineage of the clan. They were for keeping the property of the clan intact.” For one man to threaten the purity of another man's lineage was viewed as undermining the integrity and wealth of the family line.
I’ve spoke before about The Ten Commands being structured so that they deal with our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. Some consider that there is a subcategory of neighbor relations and that is our relationship with our possessions. The commandment involving adultery could be considered the first among the commands about possessions. That is why families arranged marriages and negotiated with dowries; to secure their female offspring’s future. It wasn’t so long ago that wedding vows still contained the phrase, “Who gives this woman in holy matrimony.” The language of marriage vows has changed in some traditions – instead individuals are now asked if they enter the union willingly.
In the October 2017 issue of Atlantic Magazine there appeared an article titled: “Why People in Happy Marriages Cheat.” I’m not going into the details of the article but there was a line by Esther Perel I’d like to share:
“Adultery is not what it used to be because marriages are not what they used to be.”
Perel is correct. Marriages are not what they used to be.
Back in seminary, my church history professor believed that every sermon should contain historical elements of one’s faith tradition. For that reason, I have included samples from a couple of the PC(USA) confessions for you to ponder about marriage and relationships. One is the Westminster Larger Catechism written in 1648. It counsels that the duties required in the seventh command include things like:
“watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses; … keeping of chaste company, modesty in apparel, marriage by those that have not the gift of continency (self-restraint or abstinence).
The Catechism goes further to help us not be led into temptation by outlining the sins forbidden by the seventh command. We are not going to read them all here, but notice the warnings against:
all unclean imagination… wanton looks, impudent or light behavior, immodest apparel…allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews (not food, grudges), and resorting to them…lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays, and all other provocations to, or acts of, uncleanness either in ourselves or others.
Covers a lot of territory…understandable that this was the confession of the Puritans.
As Presbyterians, we affirm that our confessions are time bound and addressing specific concerns in society. In the Affirmation of Faith, from the Confession of 1967, you will see how thinking about marriage greatly evolved from 1648. In 1967, concerns involved civil rights and the sexual revolution due to the discovery of new forms of birth control.
As we read the Affirmation, notice that the discussion about marriage falls under the title: The Reconciliation of Society.
Read the Confession / Book of Confessions: Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Part I, p. 294-5
It’s long been recognized that society has a stake in stable committed partnerships that provide the structure for child-raising -- and for sustaining the well-being of family members in times of crisis or illness or old age.
Professor Albert Winn wrote that the confession addresses the concerns over a culture which engages in practices that turns away from the self-denial essential in loving relationships.
Western Marriage has undergone seismic changes --- from being a determined arrangement by parents and grandparents to a choice of interpersonal love and commitment. And, in the 50 years since the confession of 1967 our understanding of marriage has grown to include partnerships of same sex couples. The seventh commandment’s principles and promises are for everyone.
The promise in the seventh commandment affirms Marriage is about eternal human significance. “It is not about sex, not about sexism, not about ownership, not about security. At its best, marriage is about finding what is missing in ourselves and providing what is missing in another until, because of that, both of us can become who we are really [eternally] meant to be.”
In marriage, we make a commitment to another person – to love and care for – to challenge and to support – forsaking all others. The understanding that we forsake all others is to understand there is not one, perfect, soulmate out there in the world for you to find. You can love more than one person…but in marriage…you pledge to forego all other persons. This is not unlike our pledge to God to forego all other gods.
This pledge is to work actively at loving one’s partner, making the concept of love a verb, something one does for another, rather than something that appears out of nowhere.
At its best, Love as a verb allows partners to be free, free to be who they are deep in their soul and free to grow into the people God intends for each to be. Someone once said, “marriage is the last and best chance to grow up.” Finding that kind of love relationship takes time and patience.
It takes trust and honesty. Sometimes it takes forgiveness. It certainly takes emotional stability and a willingness to surrender to the process of growth.
To let a third person into that relationship, whether physically or emotionally, does damage to the freedom and growth intended for the partners in a marriage relationship. And, it goes without saying, infidelity does damage to everyone living together in the family unit. A little girl who watches her father step out on her mother learns that having a bad relationship is better than having no relationship. An implicit lesson such as that can explain why the psychologically and physically abused stay in relationships.
A young boy grows up without a father and is eventually abandoned by his mother. He is shuttled from foster home to foster home. He looks for love and finds it in a street gang with drugs and violent rituals. He learns rage as a response. And, the damage ripples out into society and we all bear the fruit of the unhealthy relationship.
Wouldn’t it have been nice if God encoded us with instincts for the commands that we naturally obey?? Alas, human sexuality is complex, and we have free will. And, God’s high purpose for us in marriage has been breached as much as it’s been honored.
Yet, God’s mercy is generous and everlasting. Adultery is not an unforgiveable mistake - as Jesus taught those who were ready to stone a woman caught in adultery. After Jesus discredits her accusers, they all left. He turned to the woman and said, “Has no one condemned you?”
She answered, No one Lord.” He then said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” That’s good news. Regardless of the past, from this time on you will not commit adultery. From this time on a life of faithfulness, constancy and commitment is open to you.
Some say the desire for an all-consuming love is the most powerful longing in the human heart. God is love; therefore, the desire for love is woven into the fabric of our being—which is the kind of covenant faithfulness God wants from us and for us.
Simone Signoret wrote, “Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.” Faithful Love is not abstract; it is not distant. It is a piece of God's own heart and it is made manifest when we strive to live into this promise of God. Amen.
Grace us with the wisdom and strength to grow into who you created us to eternally be. Amen.