I realised that in ten years of preaching I don't think I've ever preached anything about sex. Maybe it's because I get fed up with the way people assume that all Christians ever want to do is tell everyone that they shouldn't be doing 'it', apart from under rather proscribed circumstances. But when this week's reading came out, with the big word FORNICATION in the middle I thought, 'hmm, maybe I ought to say something about this for a change.' This was rather complicated by realising that I didn't actually know what fornicate actually means. So I thought I'd better do a little homework. This is what came out...
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Betrayal and Faithfulness
My friends have occasionally poked fun at me when I’ve slipped up, muttered something under my breath or sworn at another driver, with the phrase, ‘And you... A vicar....’ If you're religious, it wouldn’t surprise me if you have had similar experiences where people have judged you perhaps because you call yourself a Christian (or some other path - but I'm going to focus on Christianity here) but then often don’t live up to their standard of what being a Christian should entail. In other words their understanding of being a Christian is entirely based around ethics. It’s not what you believe but how you live that counts in their eyes, and I suspect often in our eyes too. I have sometimes heard people say, ‘I try to be a Christian’. I don’t try to be a Christian. I am one. It’s a bit like saying I try to be a man. Genetically I have no choice in the matter. Every cell in my body has x and y chromosomes. I might try to be a good man, but I can’t help being a man. But people in general don’t view Christianity like that. They think trying to be a Christian means trying to be 'good', assuming that Christianity means you have high ethical values and always do the right thing, usually feeling morally superior for doing so. That’s one of the reasons why people call us hypocrites because they tell us we say one thing and then do another.
Actually, if we’re wise, we don’t tell other people how they should live. But perhaps we ought to think sometimes about how we are supposed to live as Christians. I don't often preach about morals because it's such a cultural minefield (and I really don't want to be accused of hypocrisy myself because I'm not a particularly 'good' person). And then every so often I read a passage and it’s simply focusing on ethics. That’s what we find in the Colossians reading where it’s not so much about what we believe, but how we live as a result of what we believe.
This last bit, the ‘as a result of’ bit is really important.
This, and I’d like to underline what I’m saying here, is not about Christians telling other people how to live. This is not about us moralising to the world in general. Instead what we find in this passage is a series of prohibitions that I think are all linked by one common theme, the choice between faithfulness or betrayal. This is not so much about rules, but about the ethics that flow from what we believe, and why those ethics should flow. It is therefore not our place to tell other people how they should live. That is up to them and to their beliefs, but for those of us who call ourselves Christians, St. Paul is trying to tell us some important truths about how he thinks we should be living. What I want to do with this is ask, 'Why?' Why should we live like this?
So let’s have a think about the context of the letter as a whole and then see what is being said to us as Christians. Now the funny thing about this book is that the backdrop to it seems to be just what I’ve described, that the Colossian church had become rather caught up in moralism as opposed to spirituality. They were metaphorically putting the cart before the horse. Morals should flow from spirituality, but they were beginning with the moralising. If you were to read the previous chapter you can see St. Paul saying that they must not be taken captive to people telling them strict rules about how they had to live and about self-abasement, rules, self-imposed piety and severe treatment of the body. His main argument is that Christ died literally to these things, and in him we should also be dead to them because he is living within us. Rules on simply appearing pure by living according to strict religious piety are not in St. Paul’s book.
Or so it seems...
But then when we read this passage what we get is what looks like a whole series of rules. But appearances can be deceptive. What St. Paul is saying, what his essential message is, is that as Christians our minds should be turned towards the things of God and away from being held captive to cultural standards. In other words our ethics should flow naturally out from what we believe and how it liberates us to be free, and faithfulness or betrayal feels like the choice we are offered. To my mind everything in this list is about betrayal.
So we get the list, that from our spirituality should flow a desire to turn our backs on fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). I think all of these need some unpacking. After all, what is fornication? If you are conservative in your beliefs you’ll probably have a very wide understanding of the word, so that it refers to pretty much every sexual possibility other than what takes place between a husband and wife that could lead to conception! The reality is that actually this is one of those words which is really difficult to get the correct interpretation. It seems most likely that people will say what they want it to mean in order to provoke feelings of guilt in those who don’t behave the way their leader thinks they should. So in order to try and help those who feel eternally guilty because of normal human drives, let me say that fornication appears to mean one of three things, it is first and foremost tied linguistically to mean visiting a prostitute because the root meaning of the word fornication comes from the Latin word, fornix, which means an arch which was a euphemism for a brothel. The other two meanings are either adultery or incest.
Let me see if I can make it fairly clear then. Fornication is basically the sexual betrayal of the one to whom you are committed, usually through what was then an illegal act, and for Christians it shouldn’t happen because our spirituality should be moving us towards faithfulness in all our dealings.
The betrayal theme continues with the prohibition against impurity. Again, what does he mean by impurity? Sometimes this is translated as uncleanliness but remember that Jesus and his disciples violated a number of Jewish purity laws. So St. Paul probably means something different from that and perhaps the closest we can get to it is sexual indecency, because the word he used, akatharsia, was normally used by St. Paul in a sexual context. Whereas fornication referred to illegal sexual acts in that culture you could probably say that uncleanliness referred to immoral or questionable sexual acts in that culture. Now this one is much more difficult to define but I think that again you need to ask the question, is the action you’re contemplating going in some way to betray the person to whom you are committed? If the answer is yes, then that falls into the category of uncleanliness.
How about passion then? How on earth does that get into a list of improper behaviour for a Christian? After all, shouldn’t I feel passion for my wife, and don’t we talk about the Passion of Christ? Well once again we’re in the realm of sex and this time it is not the proper appropriate desire for our beloved, but unrestrained passion. Once again it is the betrayal of the person closest to us by directing the passion that is properly theirs towards another.
How about evil desire? Well at last we get away from sex, (at least a little). Desire in itself is morally neutral. In a good relationship the couple naturally desire each other, but St. Paul clearly gives it a moral compass by referring specifically to evil desire. What makes it evil? When you desire something that is not yours to have. It is basically about not being content.
And once again we have a sense of betrayal.
Now it is about betraying God by being discontent with what God has provided. There is a subtle tension here with right and proper ambition which is to make the best use of your gifts and abilities, which can sometimes involve striving and working hard, as opposed to the desire to have more and more...
...which leads naturally to greed which is more of the same but rather more intense, being an insatiable desire to have more; more power, more money, more sex. Why is this idolatry? Simply because of what I have already said, that it is not being content with what God has provided and choosing to try and get more. By doing so one is saying to God, ‘You are not enough for me.’
Now there is a second list here, of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth, but to be honest I think I would be repeating the same message. In the first list the failure is one of betrayal, either of your spouse or partner, or of betraying God. The same could be said about the second list except that now they are very clearly tied to outward and mainly verbal expressions, but the same thing applies - each one is a betrayal.
So what then can we say about this passage? I think its key message is this. If you are a Christian then you are someone who recognises the love of God and God’s faithfulness to us by coming to demonstrate his nature in the person of Christ. St. Paul is saying that since God is faithful to us we should naturally reciprocate by being faithful to him and to each other.
If the Holy Spirit is living within us, then God’s natural actions should begin to flow through us. So if God is faithful to us then we should be becoming faithful to God and to each other. This then is basically a passage about how being a Christian means that we should be faithful to God in exactly the same way as God is faithful to us. This is about reciprocal behaviour.
Of course it’s not easy. Everyone of us, at some point in our lives, and perhaps at many points, will be confronted with the temptation to be unfaithful by our words or our actions to those who love us, either our family, our friends, our beloved, fellow Christians, or our God. More or less what St. Paul is saying here is, God lives in you. God is faithful. So do likewise and let God’s likeness live out through you.
Or more simply - God is faithful to us. We should therefore be faithful to God and each other.