Sunday, May 6, 2012

What Happens in Thessalonica Stays in Thessalonica

(Part One of a Three Part Series on Sex, Purity, and Justice) 

     One of the most popular ads right now promises us a world in which we can do some incredibly stupid and maybe even fun things in Vegas, and not have them effect us at all. Unfortunately, it's just not true. Expense tabs, debt, compromises of morality, memories, and hotel towels seem to find their way back home, even in the movies.

    As much as we may want this to be true, wanting something to be true doesn't actually make it so.  I'm sure sky diving instructors don't comfort nervous jumpers by saying, "Don't worry?  This event is totally separate from the rest of your life! What happens in the air stays in the air."  For that matter, ask employers if what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook.

    What we do even in Vegas matters.  The Hangover was a raunchy movie, but even it had the decency to point out that what happened in Vegas had a ripple effect. Skydivers have to land; the words we post in social media are words we say in the real world, and they stay with us.

     We can’t segment our lives. Our experiences are all connected.  TV is episodic; life is not.  What happens in Vegas become one small story in the bigger story of my life, and that narrative does not stop.  Ever.  What happens in Vegas will stay with me the rest of my life.

    We can’t separate the physical part of us from the spiritual part of us, either.  I've talked to many people who have been determined to believe that “What happens on the outside of my body stays on the outside.”  Once again, this is not the way the world works.  What we do on the outside effects the inside.
    
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 2,000 years ago, Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica.  In the first several chapters he noted:
  • they were full of faith (they had turned from idols to the living God);
  • they loved each other and seemed to understand community well; 
  • they were enduring persecution well; 
  • their reputation had spread far and wide. 
   In spite of all these good things, there was a problem to address. Apparently, there were a number of people who were convinced that “What happens in Thessalonica stays in Thessalonica.”  
"As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living.  Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.  This is the will (desire, purpose) of God: your sanctification  (purity): You should avoid sexual immorality." (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3)
     For Paul's readers, the word he chose for "living"would have invoked an image of walking about in an ordinary day. Paul starts this section by saying they are pleasing God (two thumbs up!) but there is more they need to know.  In this case, they needed to focus very specifically on an area that causing them to stumble:  sexual purity.

     The word translated as “sexual immorality” provides an umbrella under which a lot of sexual activity fits: promiscuity, adultery, prostitution, pornography… The list goes on.  Basically, their sex lives needed the purity of sanctification.

     At the time Paul wrote this, the Gentiles in Thessolonica lived in a culture saturated with distorted views of marriage, sex, and family. Historians recorded upper class Roman ladies identifying years not by chronological numbers, but by the names of their ever-changing husbands. One Greek writer noted: ”We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and of having a faithful guardian for all our household affairs.”

     Paul was writing to a church with people who had this lifestyle embedded in them. They had to learn a new way of viewing sex.
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    “ The most crucial theological truth about sexuality is that God loves sex and evil hates it.  God made us sexual, and He glories in his plan for our union and joy.  Evil hates what God loves, and it has found that more harm can be done through sex then perhaps any other means.  Often the chief battleground for the human soul is the terrain of sexuality.”                                    - Dan Allender
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  Here in an important biblical truth:  sex is holy and sacred, and act of self-sacrifice, intimacy, commitment and trust.

    That's why Christians make such a big deal about it. Sex is not just another thing we do, like shopping.  Sex effects our souls. And because it's such a big deal, God has provided pretty clear instructions about how we are supposed to live in this area.

   First, he sets a boundary: sex is to be experienced only within marriage.  This may seem restrictive, but because of God's purposes for sex, that boundary is necessary.  Rivers need banks; cars need roads; stock markets need regulation; my blood needs veins and arteries.  In every area of life, we see how boundaries maximize the ability of things to flourish. Sex is no exception.
 
     Second, God intends sex to fulfill at least four key purposes: procreation, unity, personal formation, and pleasure.  While some of these can clearly be experienced out of marriage, understating how all four work together to fulfill God's purpose is important.

    Procreation: Sex brings babies.  This is not a secret. That fact that we can avoid the consequence of children does not negate that this is a key reason we have sex.  Children are a blessing, a gift from God. Not only do we ensure the continuation of humanity, but we have an opportunity to experience a glimpse of the kind of love God has toward us. God is our Father in a spiritual sense; how important is it, then, that earthly fathers embody that type of fatherhood God gives us - loving, committed, just, pure, holy?
     Unity: Sex is meant to seal bonds of trust, love and commitment.  That's one reason God sets marriage as a boundary line: during sex, we communicate with our bodies that we have made a covenant; we can now give each other everything, baring body in soul in mutual trust and self-sacrifice. It's no secret that sex within marriage might not fully fulfill this design.  Sex outside of marriage simply cannot.
     Personal formation: Sex refines us. Two very different people, with different levels of desire, different schedules, different libidos, different love languages, different personalities. different....everything.... must make this funny, embarrassing, awkward, intimate and beautiful act become good and meaningful for both people.  That's not necessarily easy. It will require patience and selflessness.  Within the safety of covenant, we have the freedom to explore sex without worrying that our marriage partner will leave because we don't do everything just right. Over time, we become better people as we learn to understand, appreciate, and whole-heartedly embrace our spouse completely.
     Pleasure:  Some may argue this is a very nice side effect, and it may well be simply a nice perk.  But if pleasure is one of the characteristics of life in eternity with God, I'm not sure why He wouldn't purposefully give us glimpses now.    


 “And ‘control your own vessel’ in a way that is holy and honorable, not overpowered by lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” (1 Thessalonians  4:4-5)

    "Control your own vessel" is not really bumper sticker material.  It's a phrase that seems archaic, but seeing how writers use it other places in the Bible can be helpful. Based on its placement elsewhere, "vessel" can be read two possible ways:
  • "Control yourself sexually in a way that is holy and honorable." (See a comparable example in 2 Corinthians 4:7)
  • "Relate to your spouse sexually in a way that is holy and honorable. (See a comparable example in 1 Peter 3:7)
   It's a brilliant word choice.  No one in the Thessalonican church could honestly read the letter, then look around the room and say, “The rest of you should really listen up!!!”  Married or single, there is a holy and honorable way to handle your sex drive.

    Then Paul makes an important distinction: those who know God are supposed to know the purpose of sex; those who do not know God don't have the same advantage.  Those who know God are supposed to know why sex matters; those who do not know God have fun but ultimately aimless sex, unhooked from deeper notions of design and purpose. "Just do it!" would have been a relevant slogan 2,000 years ago.

     Here's an analogy: If someone gave you a car and taught you to drive safely, but didn’t tell you why you should drive, would that be enough?  Sure, driving is fun; the GPS is really cool; the leather seats are nice; learning safe driving tips is helpful.  
    But at some point wouldn't you say, “What’s the point?  This is great as far as road trips go, but where am I going exactly?  My GPS shows me where I AM, but not where I’m going or where I should be - or why I'm even on this road heading to that place. I might be having a lot of fun going somewhere bad. Wait - is this Michigan Stadium?  Ahhhhh!”

  In Thessalonica they had nice, shiny cars, and they knew how to drive, but they didn’t know the purpose. They didn't know where they were going, or why.  

     Following our desires for sex is not necessarily wrong any more than having a car and driving somewhere is bad.  The vehicle and the road are not the problem; problems arise when we follow our God-given sexual desires in a way that the roads we take break God’s will and take us to the wrong destinations.  

     We can engage in sex just for fun, or just to ease loneliness, or just because we feel like it, or because we truly love someone.  We drive the car for a lot of reasons, and the journey is nice, but we separate the act from the purpose at our peril.  God has a purpose for everything we do.  What we do with our skin effects our soul. When we have sex (or do anything, really) something is happening to our character, priorities, view of pleasure, view of people, and relationship with God.

    What we do forms us into a people of increasing or decreasing holiness and honor.

    Paul phrases the verse in a negative sense: "They don't know God so they don't understand the purpose of sex."  There is an assumed message here that is far more positive: “You understand the purpose because you DO know God.”

   But how many Christians who claim to know God actually know the purpose of sex?

 “And that in this matter no one should exploit or violate a brother or sister.” Thessalonians 4:6) 
In Paul's time, Thessalonica was the hub of a lot of commerce.  The Thessalonians understood in economic terms what it meant to exploit or violate people:
  • Transgressing the bounds of justice (a merchant who knows what ought to be done and constantly pushes the boundaries of the law)
  • Cheating and defrauding in trade and business (merchants who used weighted scales – taking more than they should at the expense of others)
  • Increasing or lessening the value and prices of goods by the buyer and seller (they would cheapen something valuable in order to profit at the expense of the seller)
  • Not keeping to the bargain, contract, covenant (they didn't understand - or didn't care about - the importance of commitment)
  • Taking advantage of the weakness and ignorance of people (they could spot those easily manipulated and take what they wanted from them)
   To an audience that understood exploitation and fraud, Paul explains that sex outside of God’s design and purpose does the same thing.  The stakes are higher, though, because now they are trading in dignity, respect, honor, and people, not merely things. Like the merchants, they are: 
  • Transgressing the bounds of justice (they know what kind of respect ought to be shown,  yet they constantly push the boundaries)
  • Cheating and defrauding (they take more than they should at the expense of the other person)
  • Lessening the value of sex (they cheapen purity, sex, intimacy and trust)
  • Not keeping to the bargain, contract, covenant (they you don’t understand the importance of covenant)
  • Taking advantage of the weakness and ignorance of people (they spot those easily manipulated and take what they want from them)
     On the one hand, this is a depressing list that reveals a treatment of people that not only damages others but damages society as well.  On the other hand, treating people with honor and holiness brings about the opposite effect: a society in which both individuals and communities flourish as honor, dignity, and value are returned to one of the most intimate acts we can do.  How is this accomplished?
  • Enforcing the bounds of justice (we know what proper sexual boundaries are,  and we protect them.)
  • Helping others flourish (if the scales are going to tip on question of sex and purity, it will be in favor of purity.  The question is not "How far can I go?" but "How pure can I stay?")
  • Attaching the proper value to people and sex (increasing the value of sex and intimacy by treating it like the precious gift it is, and helping others guard their purity) 
  • Keeping and honoring covenants (understanding that every relationship trains people how to flourish or flounder in an eventual or existing covenant. This involves treating someone else’s future or present spouse like they want others to treat their future or present spouse.)
  • Protecting the weak and vulnerable (in a world where so many people are vulnerable in this area for a lot of different reasons, honorable people stand out because they protect those most in need of a hero). 
That the kind of world purity and self-control offer. 
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