9 – Invaded by Agape

Home Learning Hub Sexuality, Rome and the Church 9 – Invaded by Agape
“Roman society was patriarchal, and masculinity was premised on a capacity for governing oneself and others of lower status. “valour” made a man most fully a man… Sexual conquest was a common metaphor for imperialism in Roman discourse, and the “conquest mentality” was part of a “cult of virility” that particularly shaped Roman homosexual practices.” (Wikipedia)

According to the disciplined cultural view of the earlier Roman Republic, homosexual relations were agreeable if the man of higher class took the dominate role. In practice, homosexual relations became more generalised in the Roman Imperial age. This isn’t said to single out this form of sexuality, but because some have said that peer related homosexual relationships weren’t common.

The Image of God

These notes are about all our lives and our call to be faithful to, love and serve each other. But one question that needs to be addressed is this: If a homosexual couple live together in love, serving their church and contributing to the needy in their community faithfully, isn’t this the law and the Prophets, love for neighbour?

We know and love many people who belong to different faiths. Some of those we know, we respect highly in different ways. Some of them live better community lives that some Christians we know. We have some vales in common and we nourish these to make our community a better place, also to witness about Christ, who is the source of everything good.

Even in ancient pagan religions, there were always adherents that were good people. They did not follow the self-serving trend of their community. What concerned God wasn’t some nominal adherence to the right faith. It was the impact of that faith on the community. If the faith promotes a wrong image of God, a self-serving image that is contrary to the cross, then this has eventual wide-ranging consequences for the nurture of people.

And God loves people. When it comes to sexual morality, God’s witness is that this is to be in the context of a marriage between a man and a woman, where there is a love-for-life commitment to each other and to their children. This is God’s image reflected into our sexual morality. It may not always work out. We often mar the image of God in some way. That is our brokenness. But when that happens, God doesn’t stand over us in judgement. His cross shows his love for us in our fall.

God’s Agape

In the Greek and Roman cultures, false images of God had a massive impact on the destruction of life. Love was seen mainly in this role of conquest. People spoke of their many lovers, using the Greek word eros, for sexual love. Paul said this way of living shouldn’t be seen among us. Sexual immorality and greed belong to the worldly powers, that the love of God is overcoming through us.

In the Roman pragmatic world, when someone was unbeneficial, they may be just cast aside. This was how humanity was treated, like those dying of plague, even relatives, thrown out to die. Rome practiced a mutual charity of, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” They saw non-returned giving as lacking the values that built the Empire. Magic settled disputes, rather than love and possible restoration. If Nero didn’t like a senator, he simply ordered him to commit suicide.

It was into this world that agape came, as such a shock, through the early church. This is the Greek word for love, most commonly used in the New Testament. It means giving, without the expectation of receiving back again. This is the antithesis of empire. The church protested paganism by service. They took in the dying, at the risk of their own lives. This love brought many to Christ.

Emperor Julian lamented that the church was winning the world, by love for their enemies. This was the contrast between the gospel and the pagan world. It moved the concept of love from the love of self, to the love of neighbour. To compete with the church, Julian put moral reforms and welfare in place. This is what Paul called, the church transforming the powers through service.

The greatest image we have of agape in human history comes from God himself. He travelled the furthest distance to come to the weak and lower people. He is God, and yet he came and suffered as a slave. And he forgave us freely, without us earning it in any way. The change of life he brings to us, isn’t for him. But a grace and blessing to us. He didn’t do any of this for himself.

This is the message the early church took out into the world. They had been so impacted by this selflessness and grace: from Jesus washing their feet, to allowing his suffering to show us God’s love, to his non-retributive response. Jesus did what was best for us, not what was best for himself. He didn’t save himself. All of this filled the disciples’ hearts with a new way of looking at the world, which was real. The resurrection of Christ brought the victory to agape.

Agape is the great revelation that hit the Roman and Greek pagan worlds. It fills the pages of the New Testament. John especially erupts onto the scene with this new vision: “God is agape. If any man does not agape, he does not know God.” “We agape, because he first gave agape to us.” “How can we agape God, if we don’t agape our neighbour?” Agape becomes our temple, and view of divinity, of culture and of relationships, a revolution of our religious and social lives.

Agape and Marriage

This is how the early church thought of marriage and sexual morality. How would agape look at these things? First, the woman is elevated out of a patriarchal way of living. If God has made man and woman in his image, as Genesis shows, then they are equal.

If a woman is expected to be faithful in a marriage, so is the man. In fact, the man now looks at the woman entirely differently. He loves her. He doesn’t want anything bad to happen to her. He wants her to have the best possible life in their marriage. This is now what motivates the man.

Think about what a revolution this is, what an impact the church has had on the world in this way. A faithful, life long relationship between one man and one woman. Before the church, women were pretty much fair game. This revolution in our cultures, which has significantly shaped our world today, never happened, it never came into the world, except through the church. Not since Adam and Eve.

The Pharisees didn’t practice it. They didn’t practice polygamy, but they made up problems with their wives, divorced them and married again. This is what Jesus said about them. It looks like a kind of ongoing serial polygamy. It was the church that said, “God has been faithful to us in Christ, let’s be faithful to each other, even when it’s tough.” This goes for all our relationships, not just in marriage and family. Let’s forgive and restore. This is what faith is; faithfulness, copied from the faithfulness of Christ.

Genesis Agape

This is the power of the Genesis narrative. It shows how the creational God acts, just like he acted on the cross. This love gives an authority on how to view life. It shows God’s view towards male and female, as both equally made in the image of God, equally deserving of human rights, of human value, to be treated equally with agape.

Humanism provides no such basis for living. It provides no authority, except for what each one of us believes for ourselves. God’s love lays the foundation for agape, or human rights.

Sexuality isn’t a personal preference. It is a community issue. Individualism, rampant in Rome, and rampant today, destroys community. It introduces into community a self-definition of love, that has no boundaries, except our own views. It puts the community on this trajectory. It opens us to a hedonism, that is the antithesis of human welfare.

Selfishness is our biggest problem. It comes out in all our lives in different ways. It is the root of all our problems in the world. The only way God can deal with it, is it to die on the cross for us, and then point us to his own image. So, we can’t blame others for their selfishness. The idea of non-selfishness must be seen in the church. If we aren’t spending our lives on building wider community, we can’t blame others for following us.

The cross of Christ and creation show that love is a community ethic. It is living for others, for the best interest of all our community into the future. In former generations people didn’t base decisions on their own “love,” but on how their actions would affect others. In today’s hedonist world, we now decry this as contrary to individual fulfillment.

But where do we draw the lines? What is fulfillment? How do our hearts cultivate love? Love goes through thick and thin. “Love doesn’t fail.” When we fail, and we all fail, God forgives us freely and picks us up again. It may hurt, it may take time, but he will not fail us. We are not this kind of love, but he is. We are to help and love one another as we go through our failures together.

“A cord of three cannot easily be broken.” We stand with each other in failure and walk through together, because it happens to us all. This is all people are looking for, not someone to say we are right, but to be with us when we fail. God doesn’t despise our failures, or us when we fail. He loves what we learn from them, how we learn to humbly care for others. Our only fear is what others think, and that doesn’t matter.

What builds our world, what keep it safe for all? What protects the image of God in humanity and protects the interest of children? There must be an authoritative answer to these questions. If sex isn’t defined by God in Genesis one and two, then who defines it and what is its definition? The answer is paganism, in its eventual outworking.

Agape and Family

It wasn’t just love for the woman that changed the men’s behaviour in Rome, but also love for the children. This is how the gospel changes our cultures. If God has loved me freely, how can I share that love with others? This is what brings regeneration to a pagan world.

The early Christians looked at the children suffering in the Empire and thought, “How can we bring a new nurturing for these children? How can these weak ones be protected? How can our society shift from its pragmatics of power, and build on a footing of agape? The early church found commitment to marriage was the answer. They found that agape, putting the interests of others ahead of ourselves, was reflecting the true God into our world, and into the wellbeing of others around us.

This is how the transformation of marriage and sexual morality came into the Roman world. It came in through the astounding discovery of agape, shown us by the act of the gospel. It didn’t come in through the law. Paul didn’t teach these things because of the law of the Old Testament. This law showed us some good principles, but it isn’t the life, the motive, and person of God, who we see in Christ. The church fashioned love in the way they did, not because of law, but because God is love.

The men began to change how they live, and the woman also renewed the way they looked at the world around them, thinking only of the welfare of others. This provides the context in which children were put first, not just by keeping the marriage wholesome, but also by making the children’s needs a priority, whether those children were male or female, healthy or sick, or had prosects in life or didn’t. They were of the same value, because Genesis tells us they are equally made in the image of God. This is how God wants us to see all people, not through the eye of pragmatics, or what we call today “quality of life.”

Agape isn’t just a commitment to a troubled relationship, gritting the teeth and bearing it. It is a commitment to build into that relationship the things that nurture the relationship. It is a commitment to love and build love where it doesn’t exist. This is what God did for us. This is the love Paul defined in his letters. Only this kind of love, not a self-orientated love, can bring hope and healing to a world that is broken.

It isn’t easy. It takes a heart that is contrite and then open to God’s love. But this is what the cross shows us about our human heart. If there is going to be a new world, then this cross must break into our hearts and give us a new vision.

Agape, not Law

The wonderful thing is this: If our sexual morality is founded on agape and not on law, then it means we can receive people who we deem have failed in this morality. Law judges and disqualifies. Whenever we found our ethics on law, this is what we do. This is the reason we have shunned others. We have thought that God had given us laws about sexual morality and marriage, and if any people break those laws, then God is angry.

God’s anger isn’t a human anger. It is sorrow at the suffering, which he came to have compassion on. Com-passion means to suffer-with. He was so angry at the suffering, that he came to show us what to do about it, how to forgive it, how to reach out and build bridges with a broken world. He came to suffer with us, to forgive us for the violence, injustice and abuse we did to him, and then to say to us, “It’s not law, it’s bringing in a hurting community and learning together, slowly, but surely, how agape works and saves and remakes us.”

When our sexual morality is built on love, then it is about human welfare. It is about healing lives, all our lives, not just “the righteous.” That is why the church embarked on their early teachings and their way of living in sexual morality. It was a program to heal, not to judge. It’s all about putting all our lives back together.

And if it’s about putting lives together, and not a self-righteous code for living, then that means all our lives are equally important, even the lives of those who don’t agree with us, and those who are hurt by the “Roman world.” These are the ones the early church reached out to the most, to help, just like Jesus did.

Law is a terrible thing to build our lives on. But agape works. Agape builds bridges with a broken community, just like God did in Christ with us. Agape shows us the way. The way is to love our neighbour, not to shun them.

The church is cast into the world, to live out the Genesis truth of human value, which includes all those who don’t agree with us, all those who persecute us. Our answer to them is the love of God, to uphold their human value, to serve them in their need, as if they were part of our own family. The way is to build wider community that includes, that heals, that serves, that cares for the suffering, that points the way for us all towards God’s agape.