Scripture: Leviticus 18
This, and this alone, is Christianity, a universal holiness in every part of life, a heavenly wisdom in all our actions, not conforming to the spirit and temper of the world but turning all worldly enjoyments into means of piety and devotion to God. – William Law
Do any of you remember music videos? I know that music videos still technically exist but their real heyday was in the 80s and 90’s. I remember when I was around 10 or 11 and there was nothing else on TV I would flip through the channels until I landed on either VH1 or MTV (I wasn’t in Canada remember, so no Much Music) and the various music videos would drone on, generally not producing much excitement. However, every once in awhile a video would pop on that would excite my young mind. Usually they dealt with one topic and one topic alone, a topic that we didn’t usually talk about very much: Sex! One of the catchiest tunes was by the band Salt N’ Peppa, called ‘Let’s Talk About Sex (Baby!)’. And that’s exactly where I want to begin today, talking about sex! Not exactly what you expected to hear in Church this morning I bet! Because all too often just like when I was 10 it’s not a topic we deal with in church very often.
In fact, it’s such a challenging subject that when I was prepping for this Leviticus series I was originally going to skip over the topic altogether. If Leviticus is known for anything other than its laws, it’s the topic of sex. And so when I came to the topic of holiness and purity, our larger topic today, I was going to have us read the first five verses of the passage and skip right over to the last five verses – skipping right over all that nakedness and controversy. I wanted to skip it because I just didn’t want to get into it, especially with the current state of the Anglican Church and our discussions about same-sex marriage and the division that this has caused, because this passage is at the heart of the debate. But as I thought about it, I had this niggling feeling at the back of my mind that I would doing a disservice to Leviticus, to the Scriptures and to all of you if I chose not to address the topic. But in addressing the topic I want to remind everyone that we do so with charity and love – because when it comes to sexual ethics, particularly in the climate we are in the Anglican Church there is division, there is pain and hurt on both sides and we need to be charitable to people who differ from us. And so as we talk about how we can cultivate a Biblical imagination around holiness, let’s talk about sex, baby!
Let’s jump into Leviticus 18. If you didn’t notice (I’m not sure how you could have missed it), there was a lot of nakedness this morning. Don’t uncover your father’s, or your sister’s, or your brother’s nakedness and on, and on it went. One of the problems with Biblical translations is that they can sometimes mislead us – for example in today’s reading you might be led to believe that all we’re talking about is nakedness – the kind of naked skin we might see plastered over billboards or filling our airwaves in commercials – but what Leviticus means by uncovering nakedness is sex. In our passage verses 6 to 23 almost exclusively deal with sexual relations and it is full of prohibitions, things that Israel was not meant to do. Most of the prohibitions have to deal with relations between family members, though we do have a few other prohibitions thrown in too. What is clear from all of them is that Leviticus understands sex differently than our culture does. Sex is not merely an individual reality, it isn’t something which just affects the person or people involved, sex in the imagination of Leviticus has inherent communal and relational realities.
Notice how in many of the prohibitions the consequences extend beyond the guilty parties – for example ‘you shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father’. The act doesn’t just impact the two parties it stretches to the father too. This is somewhat common sense – if you have an affair with someone then partners and children and family networks are all impacted. But Leviticus goes further, it equates the husband or the wife’s ‘nakedness’ with one another. There is a recognition that sexual ethics is not merely individual – the decisions we make impact others, they are not purely about personal pleasure, or individual decisions but are rooted in God’s covenant with the world and with Israel stretching back to Genesis. Sex in the imagination of Leviticus is understood in the context of marriage covenant between a man and a woman becoming one flesh as God lays out in Genesis 2, in the creation narrative. For Israel then, sex was a gift from God, part of God’s creation of the world and designed to fulfill the purpose of humanity to be fruitful and multiply. While you might disagree, in the context of Leviticus’ vision for Israel’s life it makes sense that sex outside of the confines of marriage between a man and a woman would not be permitted and seen in a negative light.
At this point you might be wondering why this is so important, it’s just sex, it’s just something happening behind closed doors etc. But nothing in Leviticus is disconnected from the reality of God’s enduring presence: once again in our passage we heard that common refrain that we have heard repeated over and over again these past 4 weeks: I am the Lord.
Leviticus’ claim is that sexual ethics – and holiness and purity more broadly – are intrinsically connected with the presence and person of God. In the opening of our chapter this morning we once again have the Lord speaking to Moses, telling him to speak to the people of Israel and say “I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived and you shall not do as they do in the land of Ca’naan to which I am bringing you…my ordinances you shall observe and my statutes will you keep, following them: I am the Lord. You shall keep my statutes and ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord.”
Holiness and purity, which include sexual ethics, are part of Israel’s calling to be God’s people, a people set apart from the nations surrounding them, a nation set apart from the people who follow other gods and other moral and ethical codes. In laying out the ethical codes for community life in the Ten Commandments, in the sexual ethics of the passage we read today and in challenging his people to be shaped by justice and care for the poor (which we’ll deal with next week) God sought to set Israel apart from the nations around them, and to encourage the flourishing of the community. In our passage God promised that as Israel followed them and observed his commandments that they would experience life. The distinctiveness of Israel’s life was not merely meant for Israel’s sake alone, but rather it was part of Israel’s calling to be a light to the nations, to be a lamp shining on the hill showing the nations the truth of God’s goodness, presence and what life under God’s guidance would look like.
Holiness in the imagination of Leviticus is living in a way that we can be close to the presence of God; it is being faithful to God’s covenant and living under the bounds and limitations set by God to encourage the flourishing of life – even when it is a challenge, and alternative visions for life are more tempting.
And so what does this mean for our life as a Church, how can this vision for holiness and ethics challenge us to live a life rooted in a biblical imagination?
First I want to suggest that Leviticus’ vision for holiness and sexual ethics should present a challenge to us. Just as Israel was called to be a distinct and holy community devoted to God as a light to the world, so too is the Church called to be a distinct and holy community devoted to God as a light to the world. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we conform to the shape of the world around us or whether we conform to our calling to be the Body of Christ? Is our life together reflective of God, the Holy One of Israel, of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour? Or does it reflect the priorities of our surrounding culture? Leviticus presents this challenge to all corners of the Global Church, all corners of our own Anglican Church and everyone here at Grace Church – whether you support the traditional sexual ethic or one that includes same-sex relations. Is our life distinct from the culture around us? Or do we allow our culture to dictate what we believe about ethics and morality? Does our communal life, reflect the Good News of God – as declared in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? Because if it doesn’t we need to seriously examine why we are here, why we do the things we do, what we believe and how we act. If each of us in our global Church were to accept this challenge, no matter where you find yourself on the topic of sexual ethics, I imagine our life would be better for it, and I imagine we would shine more brightly as a light to the nations.
Secondly, I believe that the Levitical vision for holiness and ethics provides us hope. The promise God made to Israel of life if they followed his commandments and statutes, remains for us as we strive to live as the Body of Christ. In Jesus, through his life, death and resurrection the law of Israel, the law which we read in Leviticus has been fulfilled. We are enabled to live out our lives being transformed into the image of Christ; we are able by the grace and mercy of God to flourish; and even when we stumble and fall away from God we are given the opportunity to return to his loving arms. May we live with our differences in love and charity, and each be transformed by the love of others. May we seek life, may we be challenged to be a distinct and holy people, a light to the nations, and may we flourish as God’s children.
Let us pray.