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Embodied, Human, Sexual: The Only Way to Be Christian

By November 15, 2007 No Comments

I recently had a conversation with a young man who was part of the Soulforce- sponsored Equality Ride that toured Christian colleges and universities in the United States earlier this year. The college where I was then teaching had prepared–and prayed–long and hard to be attentive to the Equality Riders’ concerns and to be ready for the possibility of honest dialogue concerning homosexuality and Christian discipleship.

At dinner following the group’s presentation, this young man and I talked about the church’s abysmal treatment of gay persons in particular and its lack of openness about human sexual reality in general. He asked me whether I thought he could be gay (he was) and a Christian (he was). I told him, yes. I added, however, that this assumed that as Christians we were both called to be conformed to the image of the Son in terms of our obedience, whatever our sexual brokenness. “So you think my sexuality is broken?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered, “but no more than mine.”

This led him to ask if I thought it was okay for him to live in a monogamous, sexual union with another man. I suggested that as a follower of Jesus who also was gay, the Scriptures called him to the particular obedience of celibacy, just as it does any other single brother or sister in the community of faith. And no, it was not easy for me to say this just because I was married. In fact, sex–like anything else in my marriage–has ultimately been a unique opportunity, among countless others, to try to learn how to love, to learn to care about another’s needs more than my own: in short, to be a follower of Jesus, and to get it wrong so much of the time!

Then he asked me about 1 Corinthians 6. So we talked about Paul’s challenge in this part of his letter to all of the believers in Corinth. Paul spoke of them as those people who had inherited the life of the future Kingdom and were thus called to live out its values and ethics in the present by (and only by) the power of the Holy Spirit. This included sexual morality, an absolutely radical notion for the average Corinthian for whom sexuality and ethics had absolutely nothing to do with each other. “Sexual morality” was a whole new concept for people who had been reared to meet the desires of the body with no thought about human personhood and embodiment as permanent, or about manifesting the Presence of God in the world through self-sacrifice and self-giving love.

Sexual immorality was so commonplace that Paul had to explain himself when he enjoined his readers not to associate with sexually immoral people. He didn’t mean shunning their non-believing Corinthian friends and family, he clarified, for that would rule out virtually everyone they know outside the church: “you would have to leave this world” (I Cor 5:10). No, he said, the injunction pertains to you who are inheriting the Kingdom of God, who are beginning to live out that future now, in the present. You are on your way to completion (1 Cor 13:10), so in the meantime, let people know who you are, where you are headed, by what your lives look like today.

Homosexual members of the church in Corinth were to abstain from sexual practice, including with male prostitutes during pagan temple sex (a common form of worship for some). So too were their heterosexual brothers and sisters to abstain from sexual immorality, which included adulterous affairs, temple sex, or any other form of bodily, sexual union outside of marriage. Paul went on to tell certain married members of the Church to stop withholding sex from their spouses.

All of them, heterosexual, homosexual, married, single, were to live lives that presented a radical alternative to their culture. Why? Because their lives were not their own; rather, they were now children defined by the resurrection, stamped with the promise of their future in their present, sealed by the very Presence of the Spirit in and on them. They were children of the Father, Spirit-people whose new humanity was now determined and defined by the reality of crucifixion and resurrection, both Jesus’ and theirs.

“So,” I said to our visiting gay Christian, “could I ask you a question? If in fact Jesus is still human as the resurrected Son and the New Adam (you look confused–you do believe that? ), and if as people of the resurrection we too are going to be human in the new creation, do you think you’ll be gay when your body is restored, healed, and renewed?” He just stared at me. Finally, he answered quietly, “No one has ever asked me that before. I have never, ever thought about this. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about my sexuality in permanent terms.”

As we parted, I thought, you’re not the only one! Sadly, my friend’s response is far too common when I ask others about what Jesus’s original and resurrected humanity has to say about our own. It’s as if we are only Christians in our heads or souls. The idea of being permanently embodied human beings seems to be foreign to the church’s general way of thinking and acting and praying about how the Kingdom might come in our lives on earth today in a way that looks like heaven. In other words, we don’t take the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the human Son of God very seriously, or it would profoundly shake up our own sense of who and what we are.

To be truly human is the only way to be truly Christian. There are no disembodied followers of the Incarnate Son. We are the only creatures who manifest the divine image, males and females, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. How odd that we find it so difficult to tell the truth, to walk in the light, and to encourage each other at the level of our most basic human experience. It is what Jesus and the Spirit talk to the Father about constantly.

Practicing Resurrection

After an hour of questions concerning my current research and about the theological influences that had shaped my thinking, one of the theologians at the table clearly wanted to shift the conversation from theory into practice. “Cherith, I’ve been asked to meet with a congregation that has just had one of their leaders tell them that she’s a lesbian. They want help in working through their reactions and then must decide on an appropriate response. What would you do in my place?”

I waited a moment and then replied, “I’m not sure what I’d do, to be honest. But to be equally honest, I’ll tell you what I’d like to do, were it my congregation or any other. We’d start the day this way:

‘Welcome, sisters and brothers of our Lord Jesus Christ, children of our Father in heaven through the life-giving Spirit. We are gathered here today under the transforming grace of Jesus of Nazareth who, in his new male human body, is praying for us. He prays that we would be empowered to look and act and think and respond like him, the New Adam, the first-born, High Priest of a new race of human beings, the “children of the resurrection.”

‘We’re here to try to listen in community to the Spirit, for our sister and ourselves, for together we bear the glory and fame of the Name of YHWH on the earth. The Spirit has chosen in love to dwell among us as his living temple. He knows the mind of Jesus and the Father, and he will give us wisdom and power if we ask, to keep us faithful to who and whose we are today.

‘So, as we begin to worship and confess and listen to the Father, Son, and Spirit for awhile, let’s just have a quick show of hands. How about we start with everyone who has had premarital sex–could you please raise your hands? Thanks. Just keep them up. Now, everyone who has looked at porn at any time in the past 24 hours to 24 years, could you raise your hands as well? Thanks. How about those who’ve had affairs, been to strip clubs, “adult” video stores or theaters, gay bars, sex clubs? Let’s get those hands up. Excellent. Thanks.

‘Now, those who perpetually masturbate with fantasies fed through video games, films, TV, books, internet, and magazines–yep, join the hands. Anybody involved in prostitution? How about crossdressers among us, or anyone who lives with the constant feeling that they’re male in a female body, or the other way around? How about those who’ve been abused sexually, physically, or emotionally? Thanks for those hands. Okay now, all of you who are into self-mutilation, eating disorders, other kinds of body hatred, those of you who have same-sex attraction, and you married folks who withhold sex from your spouses for reasons of power, shame, neglect, whatever–we welcome those hands.

‘Finally, all those who are simply confused by, ashamed, or afraid of your sexuality and would love to wake up each day as a female or male follower of Jesus Christ in relation to other men and women and know that your “very good” human life is the particular delight of the Triune God who chose you before the creation of the world to be you and to be God’s–go ahead and raise your hands.

‘Okay, now that about 98 percent of us have our hands up (and I assume the rest of us either didn’t hear or didn’t understand the questions), it’s easier to remember that we come as fallen, beloved sexual beings in the presence of our male High Priest, Jesus Christ. So let’s pray, remembering that no sexual brokenness or healing is greater than another in the creation/new creation economy of the Lord Jesus, who not only happens to still be human but who was tempted in every way we are–which would include sexual temptation–and who prays for us constantly, from experience! Let’s confess before our Lord Jesus that we need his help to figure out how to be like him, and the Spirit’s power to actually do it–to get up every day and follow Jesus as a man and a woman in relation to other women and men–which is the only way to be a Christian.'”

It was so quiet around that table. (Thankfully, I saw a conspiratorial grin on the face of my interlocutor.) Then, after some nervous laughter and shuffling feet, our meeting quickly concluded.

Why? Was it because I was the only female in a group of older, white theologians who tended not to speak openly about these things? Was it because I didn’t come down on a course of action for the woman I had been asked about? I had no information about what she had chosen in terms of her obedience. Was she simply being honest, telling the church the truth about her particular brokenness that she might be held accountable to the same obedience as all the other single brothers and sisters in her community–to live a life of celibacy? Was her primary identity as a Christian, a beautiful, broken image-bearer of the Most High, grounded in the perfect human Son of God, Jesus Christ, who stands in for her until she is finished and her sexuality is transformed just like that of any other believer? Or was she leaving the church because she was claiming lesbianism as her primary identity, so that she saw herself only secondarily as a Christian?

Or was it just that my answer implied a bigger, harder question that included us all: How do we follow Jesus, the true human, as embodied, broken, sexually unique and wonderful men and women, bearing the divine image in and for the world in our relationships together?

The True Human

Does Jesus’ resurrection make any difference in our daily lives at all, or is it merely an “eternal life” insurance policy? Is our hope really based on the bodily resurrection of the Son who did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage so that he might become forever like us, and in turn make us forever like him, the new Adam? When I ask my students what difference it would make if Jesus of Nazareth were still alive today as a truly functioning male human being, they immediately default into “WWJD” mode. They try to imagine his reaction to current events or what his ethical response would be to injustices in the world today.

For many, it takes awhile for the penny to drop–to realize that this particular Jewish man actually is alive as our High Priest. The image of the invisible God and firstborn of the new creation was born into a poor Jewish family with questionable parentage, grew up with raging hormones and a keen sense that his relationship to YHWH was unique, found that some things came easily to him and others didn’t, and lived with daily human longings and massive temptations of all kinds for thirty years in Nazareth and three years on the road. Do we ever remember that he learned obedience through what he suffered? Jesus gets what it is like to be us, because he was–and still is. This real man from Nazareth, the Incarnate Son of God, has taken on our humanity as his and kept it, permanently and perfectly joining it to God. The epistle to the Hebrews is full of breath-catching statements which try to capture this basic reality that lies at the heart of the gospel:

Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters… . Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death … . For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Heb 2:11-18).

It is this embodied Savior, this true human who is the divine Son, who prays for us, stands in as our perfect representative in the eyes of the Father, and sends the Spirit of resurrection to dwell in and on us.

On one hand, it is completely understandable that we have a hard time believing this, and hence are poorly equipped to confess openly with, to pray for, and to walk alongside one another in our sexual struggles or even in our general daily behavior and thought patterns as men and women. We live a Christianity that is incredibly, heretically dualistic–separating body and soul–and that therefore mounts a poor defense against the pornographic milieu of our culture, which makes recreational sex a basic human entitlement. Instead of remembering that we will have restored bodies as completed humans, we are ashamed that we have bodies at all or that they work, hoping that heaven will be our deliverance from the very thing we are. We act like Gnostics who despise the physical world. We talk about our souls getting saved and going to heaven, rather than speaking of ourselves as Jesus did, as children of the resurrection (Lk 20: 36).

On the other hand, it is ironic that as Christians we are so very bad at talking about our basic sexuality as males and females in daily relation to God and other females and males. If ever there was a people enabled to live truly embodied lives of joy, pain, beauty, loss, discipline, delight, wonder, and celebration, you’d think it would be those who live and move and have their being in Jesus
Christ, the Incarnate One, who happens to be the only person who has ever pulled off being a truly human being and who is still Incarnate, a human male with a new creation body that is finished, fit for the age to come, and hence unlimited in its capacity to function in any dimension of the Kingdom of God forever.

If we fail to believe that Jesus was like us in every way, tempted as a healthy male with a body that worked, we readily forget the wonder of his present humanity: that his choice to be God the Son this way was a permanent choice on our behalf. In the end, this failure causes us to miss the heart of the gospel. This is, after all, the gist of the “good news,” the forward-moving plot of the story we inhabit and live out, the promise that we get our human lives back once and for all, permanently renewed, without any of the craziness of our present, broken experience. It’s all going somewhere, says Paul; it’s leading toward a finishing, our “completion,” when we become full-grown human beings conformed in love to the true image of the Triune God manifest in Jesus (1 Cor 13:10-12).

I get the impression that Paul practically trips over himself trying to find words to express his wonder. As he writes to the church in Rome, he hears creation groaning for its own restoration, as it holds on, waiting, hoping, longing for our final restoration, the renewal and restoration of the embodied image-bearers as they come into their inheritance, which is the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:23).

The good news of the gospel is that we are going to get our lives back, our fully human, permanent divine-image-bearing lives. The ascension of Jesus of Nazareth means that our humanity has been taken on by God, taken into God, and kept there, permanently and perfectly, until we are finished, completed, and ready for what is to come. I can’t wait.

Cherith Fee Nordling is visiting assistant professor of theology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. She has most recently published an essay on theological anthropology in the Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology.