Branded: Preaching the Law (and Sex) to Youth

[1] In Galatians, Paul gives us an impassioned lesson on law and bodies. I was preparing a sermon on Galatians when I was asked to write this piece about preaching the law to youth, especially in regards to forming sexual ethics in youth. I offer here that the “brands” of Christ, invoked by Paul in Galatians 6, offer a symbol of the way law and gospel function for our bodies: for our life as bodies and for our bodily ethics, which are indeed the only kinds of life and ethics we know. Paul writes:

See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised — only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule — peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.

(Galatians 6: 11–16, NRSV)

Branded: Preaching the Law (and Sex) to Youth by Anna Mercedes

[2] In contrast to the bodily mark of circumcision, Paul points to the brands, or in Greek the “stigmata,” that he bears as a result of his discipleship of Jesus. Paul rails against the “flesh” in Galatians, but at most places it stands not for embodied life as we might understand it today, but rather for confidence in human ritual and particularly circumcision. It is that confidence that Paul opposes, because for him it is antithetical with the confidence given by Christ.

[3] Today the burned brand is a mark of ownership and possession, a mark that can dehumanize, and wound a body. The brand is also, like a tattoo, a mark of counter-culture, a mark of resistance, an intentional mark claiming possession of one’s own body. Brands on a body can have more than one meaning. The Christian “brand” given us in the water of baptism also marks our bodies with more than one meaning, and Christian youth carry this complex “stigma” as they come into their sexualities.

[4] We often try to form the sexual ethics of youth by preaching laws to them. When children are little we tell them to be obedient and good and helpful. When they are youth we tell them to be good with their bodies, and we do this by either explicitly or implicitly telling them what “good” sexuality means to us. When we do this, we are indeed presenting rules, conveying cultural laws, as adults must to some degree do with young people. But we are not “preaching the law” in the context of Christian proclamation.

[5] The brand of Christ, whether visible through the wounds of persecution, through which Paul may have acquired his stigmata, or in the chrism of baptism, seals us to lives of bodily revelation of the preached law and gospel. However, often all things bodily are relegated to the category of law. The way Paul uses “flesh” as a trope for confidence in righteousness through adherence to religious laws plays a major part in this. But preaching law is not mainly about what we do with our bodies in terms of sexuality, or even what we do with our bodies in general: it is too simplistic to find the scriptural passages that overtly deal with morality and expect those to function as preached law, and it is still more overly simplifying to do so with the lines that deal specifically with sexual morality. Almost any line of scripture can function as law, even those that sound overtly like good news, and almost any line gospel, even those that sound overtly legalistic.1 The function of the preached law, regardless of particular content, can concern the body and sexuality in so far as is the point is about confidence in the righteousness of our bodies, just as the function of the gospel is about confidence in the righteousness of God, who is a God for us, as Christian bodies.2 Carrying the mark of Jesus branded on our bodies, we receive the proclamation of the law in our bodies and we receive the proclamation of the gospel in our bodies as well. This means that even if we would like youth to hear the law for their bodies, as persons branded by the mark of Christ, the gospel is also for their bodies. Those of us who would proclaim the law are also opening the door — even if we would rather block it until the youth “grow up” — to the Spirit’s work of the gospel.

[6] In our bodies we receive both law and gospel, and Christian proclamation conveys both law and gospel. We entrust this complexity, responsibility, hardship, and joy to youth when we consider them hearers of the word, or theologians, which is what we must consider anyone — child or adult — to whom we preach. For their hearing of the law and gospel, their distinguishing of the two, and therefore their becoming theologians can be the only aim of our proclamation.3 The sermon does not deliver a lesson in morality but fosters faith, and if we are trying to form youth in regards to their sexuality at the same time, then the stirring of faith is a powerful and dangerous enterprise. It is an enterprise that is rightly theirs, yes, but one that we may be terrified to acknowledge in them. For this is to acknowledge them as agents of Christian discernment.

[7] So when we are preaching the law to youth, especially if we have sexual morality in mind, we need to be prepared for something. The law of God, so Lutherans affirm, has at least two uses, both fostering life: the arrangement of created life so that we can live in a functional society, and the indication of our need for God, again so that we can truly live.4 The preached law points to our bodily need for God. And as God is the one who meets this need, the preached law is met by the bodily revelation of God in all God’s fecundity and largesse. We need to be prepared, if we are trying to preach the law to youth, and trying to talk about sexuality in the same breath, for the possibility that sexuality may come across as a really good thing: a thing that can foster life, not only in the procreative sense but in the thickening of relationships, the suffusing of our bodies with pleasure, the empowering of ourselves as responsible moral agents, and the discovery of ourselves as beloved of God.

[8] If we are in any way afraid to admit God’s good news for our bodies to young people, I would suggest that we have very little business preaching the law while talking about sexuality with them. We can pass on cultural norms and familial expectations, but we have no business implicating sex in the preaching of the law unless we are able to implicate it in gospel, too: unless we are prepared for everything we say as preachers about sex to be open to the functions of law and gospel at the same time.

[9] And we have many good reasons to be afraid to let the gospel and sex come together for young people. For sexuality is broken, and most of us have had cause to discover this at some point. So we look at youth and we are understandably afraid: afraid that they will get hurt, that they will get pregnant, that they will contract disease. We are afraid they might be raped. We are afraid they will embarrass us. We are afraid they will turn into adults before our eyes and leave us behind. We are afraid, perhaps, of the desires in ourselves of which their young passions will remind us, desires that may have hurt us or have been long neglected, reminding us of what is broken in our lives. We are afraid they are not ready, or we are afraid we are not ready: for our lives to get messy, for our relationships to get passionate, for our bodies to feel deeply, for us or for them to risk sin.

[10] We Lutherans know that sex does not equal sin; we know that sex is open to sin but also to grace. But many U.S. youth today will assume that sex equals sin, and that abstinence from sex equals righteousness. They absorb this idea up with their daily dose of the cultural tonic. They are taught in public schools and at “promise balls” and at many churches that sexual activity is for later, not because that is the way our cultural norms about marriage and maturity would have it, but because, many Americans have the audacity to presume (ignoring the complexity of the vastly different cultural norms evident in the bible and at different periods of Christian history), this is the way God would have it.5

[11] Preaching the law to youth while also talking about sex is likely to be something different than the persuasive contemporary cultural message about sex, cultural norms which may or may not square with even the civil use of divine law. It will need to be more fluid and adaptable than that, because the law of God is alive, and cannot be fixed into a firm set of messages that stand for all youth among us, or even for one young person on all occasions. The aim of the preached law is to point to our need for God — an aim ill served by the civil use of the law, though sometimes overlapping with our failure to meet even that law — and its satisfaction is our delight in God’s meeting of that need. Youth are formed as Christians, with all of us, Sunday after Sunday, in their repeated encounter with this met need, this revelation of God’s presence as a God for them, and not in their ongoing reception of a particular set of cultural norms.

[12] To bring sexuality into the message when we are preaching the law invites the possibility that every statement we make about sex can be received as judging or liberating news. Recognition of the multivalent possibilities of proclamation is different than a claim that law must always be preached with gospel, as though in preaching the law to youth we must also attach some good news lest they think us stodgy or status quo when we talk about sex. That argument would overlook the ability of the preached law to convey gospel, not just to set up the gospel or contrast with the gospel, no more than the Jews set up the Christian story or stand in necessary opposition to Christians. When Christians position Jews in that way, we commit supercessionist violence, with bodily consequences. And when Christians position the law in that way, they flatten the spirit out of it, again with bodily consequences: until the law becomes a list of “can’ts,” and the gospel a list of “cans,” and our life in Christ a thing we achieve by abiding by the “cans.”6 This turns the gospel into laws, and the whole thing goes flat.7

[13] Listen to everything you would say to youth about sex: Can you hear in your words space for both good and bad news, both judgment and mercy, both restraint and freedom, both lack and plentitude? Can you hear, not a two-sided sermon, but the possibility that any of your statements could function in either way, as law or gospel? For too many of us, sex, and embodied life generally, have been full of hardship and brokenness and suffering, also of judgment and shame and restraint and lack. We will therefore need a lot of mercy for ourselves if we hope to preach law and sex, because it may be our tendency, coming from such a place of hurt, to block out the goodness, to impart only fear. And then we won’t really be preaching, we won’t really be in the office of the preached law. The preached law remains integrally inflected with the gospel, like you’re looking at a speckled stone, and you can’t quite tell which of two colors it is. Lose the difference all together and you’ve lost the gospel, but in the fascinated contemplation of the interplay of the two, in discernment of the difference, one experiences the gospel in a way that would not be possible were the tones of the gospel extracted and presented apart from the law.8 I suspect we too often think of preaching the law as discrete stepping stone “a” before discrete stepping stone “b,” the gospel. And then we are persuaded by cultural pressures to strand youth on stone “a” until they turn 21 or get married or otherwise reach a magic maturity. But God has given them, and all of us, the combined foundation now, the entangled revelation of God’s judgment and mercy — the bodily revelation of God’s judgment and mercy, for us and for our bodies.

[14] It is not our place to dole out the gospel frugally and partially for youth in an effort to protect them. God gives. We worry that it will be too much for them, like we worry that the bread and wine will be too much for our baptized toddlers. Can we instead just call the thing what is, wholly, good and bad, and stand beside them as they navigate the tumultuous currents of love and life to which God has called them? From my work in youth ministry I can say with confidence that youth are ready for the challenge of thinking theology and of thinking about being bodies. So preach to them as those who are capable of hearing the gospel, as those branded with the freedom of the Christian, as bodies both stigmatized and claimed: bound by their unceasing need for God, bound also by the unceasing meeting of that need, and yet freed by both as well. Honor their wisdom and give them complex words: Luther and Bonhoeffer and Our Bodies, Ourselves and “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” and the bible, and candid speech about danger and pleasure, and even pop culture and all its trenchant and dangerous messages about sex. Just give them yourselves, too, because if there is one thing that makes forming youth different from forming the rest of us it is that it is a little too early for them to fly solo. But then again, it is always too early for any of us to fly solo, for in God we are now and forever not alone, always forever belonging to a community, always forever accountable to each other, as bodies, as sexual bodies. And this reality is both law and gospel.

Anna Mercedes is Assistant Professor of Theology and Gender, College of Saint Benedict / Saint John’s University, St. Joseph, Minnesota and Collegeville, Minnesota, respectively.

1] For further explanation, see Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to his Thought (London: Collins, 1970) 132–134.

2. The gospel rightly concerns our bodies, even though Luther writes in his Galatians commentary of 1535 that the way to distinguish law from gospel “is to locate the Gospel in heaven and the Law on earth, to call the righteousness of the Gospel heavenly and divine and the righteousness of the Law earthly and human…” (LW 26.115). Luther’s contrast between earth and heaven signals, rather than a disembodied gospel, the way in which agency in the gospel comes from God and is beyond all our human efforts.

3. Luther posits the ability to distinguish between law and gospel as the mark of the theologian, with strong resonance to the ability of the theologian of the cross to “call the thing what it is” in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. In his 1535 Galatians commentary, Luther writes that “whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian,” and also that the “distinction between the Law and the Gospel, is necessary to the highest degree; for it contains a summary of all Christian doctrine” (LW 26.115–117). For further discussion of the necessity of this distinction for Luther see Ebeling, Luther, 110–140, and Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008) 58–67.

4. On the development of the controversial “third use of the law,” see Timothy J. Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997) 177–210.

5. Two introductory articles on the shifting sexual norms in the bible, and the differences between them and our norms today, are Walter Wink, “Homosexuality and the Bible,” in Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches, ed. Walter Wink (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999) 33–49 and Carolyn Pressler, “The ‘Biblical View’ of Marriage,” in Engaging the Bible in a Gendered World, ed. Linda Day and Carolyn Pressler (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 2006) 200–211. Rosemary Radford Ruether offers a study of changing sexual and marital norms through Christian history in her Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family: Ruling Ideologies, Diverse Realities (Boston: Beacon, 2000). On abstinence education in the contemporary U.S., see Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009).

6. An example of the way the gospel can be received as a list of commandments, rather than as gospel itself, is found in Luther’s discussion of the way Christ’s life can be perceived, apart from any recognition of that life as lived for you, as an exemplary path to follow. See the discussion of this and the translation of Luther’s work in Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, 63–64.

7. Ebeling describes the phenomenon thusly: “If the gospel were meant simply to compete with and replace the law, it would itself be no more than a form of law.” And similarly, “The failure to distinguish the law and the gospel always means the abandonment of gospel, leaving only law.” See Ebeling, Luther, 114 and 118.

8. For the controversy amongst Lutheran reformers as to whether the gospel could function apart from the law, see Wengert, Law and Gospel.


10. For a contemporary cinematic interpretation of this parable that illustrates precisely how creative this parable is, see Modern Parables: Living in the Kingdom of God, volume 1: The Shrewd Manager Compass Cinema, 2008;

11. For one helpful overview of this new legislation, see

Anna Mercedes

Anna Mercedes is Assistant Professor of Theology and Gender, College of Saint Benedict / Saint John's University, St. Joseph, Minnesota and Collegeville, Minnesota, respectively.