The Seventh Commandment: No adultery
Getting a sermon launched on the subject, “thou shalt not commit adultery” is kind of heavy going. I was looking around for just the right way to broach the subject when I remembered the perfect joke. I hadn’t told it in years – and I’d never told it from the pulpit. The reason for that is that way back in seminary my wife informed me that if I ever told that joke from the pulpit that she would divorce me.
So, when I began laboring on this series on the Ten Commandments, and I saw this one looming on the horizon, I went to Deanne and said, “would you still divorce me for telling that joke from the pulpit?” Nor did I have to remind her which one. She looked at me kindly and said that after all these years, she didn’t think she would leave me for telling that joke from the pulpit, “but,” she said, “I don’t have to attend your church.”
So, I’m sorry, but I can’t bear to lose my most important parishioner, and we’ll just have to come at this another way. And the first challenge is whether we’re going to take a narrow view of the commandment or a more expansive view: whether to consider only offenses against marriage or the broader range of offenses against chastity that give rise to adultery. For the truth is, many people think that simply because they are unmarried, this commandment couldn’t possibly apply to them.
Which brings to mind another old story – NOT on the forbidden list – of a law student stumbling into class on little sleep, held up only by his coffee. It was a class on Family Law, and the student – one Mr. Jones – had barely taken his seat when the professor called out, “Mr. Jones, would you please define for the class the difference between adultery and fornication.” Mr. Jones at that moment suffered what would be called a “Senior moment” if he had been forty years older. His mind went blank, and he stammered about. Finally, he said, “Well, uh, ah, the difference between adultery and fornication is, well, to tell the truth, Professor, I’ve tried ‘em both and I can’t tell the difference!”
With that in mind, we will take a more expansive view of the topic of adultery. We will talk of love – and of passion – and not merely of their betrayal, in order to try to understand God’s intent for us in our most intimate relationships. And we will not be diverted by technicalities or special rules intended to justify ourselves or the need to fix blame or mere matters of State law.
Now, most preachers, I think, would attempt to convince you of the good in God’s design for love – and marriage -- and then try to explain why it sometimes doesn’t work. I’m going to take the opposite tack. I’m going to start with what we all know – that many loves fail, and that people let each other down – sometimes for no other reason than just a lark – and that we all hurt each other terribly — and THEN try to explain why it doesn’t have to be that way.
And I want to start with one of the funniest stories C.S. Lewis ever wrote, one featuring the first men sent to Mars for long-term study of the planet. Writing c. 1960, Lewis assumed that the whole crew would be male; and, that the British would be as much a part of space exploration as the Russians or the Americans. So, here is this group of brave scientists and technicians and a military man to lead them, serving a two year service stint on a space station on Mars, when suddenly, all unlooked for, a rocket ship arrives off-schedule. Its commander is a Scot named Ferguson, and his cargo is two new crew members.
One is old, fat, and VERY female – a good time girl who can’t find anyone to show her a good time any longer; the other is young, thin, not identified first-off as female – and a crashing ideological bore who drivels on about eroto-therapy and whatnot. It seems that the folks back home have been worried about men living alone in space without women, so they’ve SENT them some. Which the men seem interested in until they realize that these two – are THEM. They are the only volunteers who could be found, it seems. Let's pick up the story there.
Later, after dinner, Ferguson told the Captain, “Ye maun recall, they’re dealing with an absolutely new situation,” to which the Captain replied, “How does it differ from men on whalers or even on windjammers in the old days? . . .It’s about as new as people being hungry when food was short . . .Do [those women] really suppose every man in the world is so combustible that he’ll jump into the arms of any woman whatever?”
“Aye, they do,” said Ferguson. “They’ll be sayin’ you and your party are verra abnormal. I wadna put it past them to be sending you out wee packets of hormones next.”
“Well if it comes to that,” said the Captain, “do they suppose men would volunteer for a job like this unless they could, or thought they could, or wanted to try if they could, do without women?”
“Then there’s the new ethics, forbye.”
“Oh, stow it, you old rascal. What is new there either? Who ever tried to live clean except a minority who had a religion or were in love? They’ll try it still on Mars, as they did on Earth. As for the majority, did they ever hesitate to take their pleasures wherever they could get them?”
Pause there. Hear that again: Who ever tried to live clean except a minority who had a religion or were in love?
Those who have a religion that says that God is honored when we make right choices for our lives believe that the right choice of a mate is of great importance. As Paul said to the Thessalonians, it is part of our sanctification that “each one of you know how to take a wife for himself [and we would add today, a husband for herself] in holiness and honor.” The right partner lightens all loads; the wrong partner – even if adultery is not an issue – can load you down with all kinds of burdens. And how one starts out, in the choosing and in the promising, matters. Those who want what God wants are hesitant to be drawn into what might be short-term, ill-advised relationships, because they are earnestly seeking after his will, knowing that in his will is their best chance for happiness.
Of course, not all people are religious. But religious or not, if you are in love, it makes you want to behave in a way that honors your lover. People who are in a hurry, who want something from someone else, and who keep pushing to get it, are acting out of a selfish desire to use the other, not honor the other. Real love means I want what you want; And yes, I want you to want me, perhaps, but I will not force your choice. Love does not force things. "Love is patient and kind," says St. Paul; "love does not insist on its own way."
So the Captain was quite right. Whether from motives of wanting to honor God or wanting to honor one’s earthly love, real lovers treat each other with respect, and both religion and love strengthen one in being faithful in keeping one’s promises. And as for everybody else – well, why should you care what they think at all? They know neither religion nor love; they just want what they want, and will be as happy with someone else as with you.
Oh, I know, they are very popular. And they smirk and strut, both on TV and among our peers, proud of their supposed experience and sophistication. Baloney. These are the amateurs of love. Amateurs of passion. Showboats who can't make it in the big leagues. They have no idea how truly bad they are at what they think themselves expert in.
Let us think of a different kind of partnership, with a different kind of physical basis. Rather than love, with its physical expression, sex, let’s talk about – I dunno – ice dancing or something. You know, just because this man and this woman are both expert SOLO skaters, it doesn’t mean they know how to partner each other. In fact, the more partners they have had, the harder it is for them to truly learn to partner each other. And to reach championship caliber, the two skaters have to learn to anticipate each other’s moves in a way that can only come from months and years of exclusive practice with only each other.
And so it is, in love and marriage. To build a relationship of trust, in which passion can fully express itself to its utmost, requires exclusivity; requires trust; requires a long-term relationship. A romantic relationship may start off with all kinds of fire and energy, but it will not reach its peak for several years; in fact, I’d say married couples don’t really know what to expect from each other and how to truly please each other until they’ve been married maybe seven to ten years. And just because they’ve stayed married, it’s not a given that they’ll truly manage to build the relationship they could have, but they sure won’t build it if they can’t settle down to make the attempt.
And what shall we say of later life, when the body’s response is no longer as automatic as it once was? Only those who have given themselves completely to each other and built the relationship they were hoping for will have the resources to continue to grow in their love, instead of merely settling for a long, slow decline. Love does not die when passion goes to seed, and if you have built the relationship the right way to begin with, well, then, you will find that yr love will be deeper and stronger than ever.
My friends, “happily ever after” is never guaranteed, but you sure as shootin’ won’t get there if you keep trading partners. Forget the posers and the amateurs, the people who are all surface and no soul; they have their reward. You were made for better things. And, please hear me: I’m not criticizing anyone whose personal story didn’t go according to the script; I’m just saying that if you want to know how to succeed at love, you gotta look to those who are playing at championship level and pattern your life after them.
Just for the sake of example, let me ask: how many people here have been married – or were married (to the same person) for 25 years or more? Would you stand? Now, would those who have been married for less than 35 years please sit down. Thank you. Now, would those who have been married for less than 50 years please sit down. Thank you. You may be seated, too. Thank you. I don’t mean to embarrass anybody, but did you see these folks? These are the bronze medalists, the silver medalists, the gold medalists in love. These are the people who know how to build the relationship that lasts.
They know all about passion. Oh, never doubt it. And they know, too, about sacrifice, for they have offered themselves for each other over and over. And they know about forgiveness, both given and received. The very young might think them out of date, but they are anything but out of date. They have found what works, and their achievement no one can take from them. And every one of them will tell you the same thing: that it is true what we say at wedding after wedding, in those magnificient words of the wedding charge:
Be well assured, that if these solemn vows are kept inviolate, as God’s word demands, and if steadfastly you endeavor to do the will of your heavenly Father, God will bless your marriage, will grant you fulfillment in it and will establish your home in peace.And isn’t that what you wanted?