Friday, July 17, 2009

I could be wrong

Whenever I teach classes that deal with the Bible or life issues from a Christian perspective, I tell people that at the end of the final session, I could say, "...or not."

That's because I know I could be wrong. It goes with being human.

Recently, I've shied away from writing much about the issues this post addresses. That stems in part from a weariness I feel with the sexuality issues that have often dominated the agenda of Christian churches in North America. Other reasons include an awareness of a stifling political correctness that I know will cause some to dismiss me as a bigot; a genuine desire not to offend or hurt people I love and respect--from clergy colleagues to blogging confederates, from friends to relatives; and a more general desire to avoid unpleasantness.

But the recent actions of the Episcopal Church-USA, the impending recommendations of the ELCA's sexuality task force, and reactions to my post on this week's Episcopal vote have incited me to respond. I did so specifically to a comment over on my Facebook account, presented in multiple parts there because of word limits. Here, slightly amended, is what I wrote there:
1. God loves all people, as evidenced in Jesus' death and resurrection. Jesus died for sinners.

2. All people are sinners, in need of the salvation Christ offers to all people. Jesus, of course, told Nicodemus that God so loved the world that whoever believes (that is, trusts) in Christ will have everlasting life with God [John 3:16]. Trusting Christ means entrusting our lives--past, present, and future--and our sins, which we renounce, in Christ's hands. The Gospel of Mark records only one sermon by Jesus: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent [that is, turn away from sin and turn to God, and believe in the good news [the gospel, the good news about new life through Jesus]" (Mark 1:14-15].

3. God extends grace to all. But not all are willing to let go of sin or the world in order to take Christ's offer. Jesus also told Nicodemus, "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through
Him. Those who believe [trust in Christ, not their own righteousness, virtue, strengths, personalities, or beliefs] are condemned already, because they have not believed in the Name of the only Son of God" [John 3:17-18]. God doesn't force Himself or His will on anyone. More on that momentarily.

4. Christians are called to extend love and justice to all people. Micah 6:8 says, "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?"

I take God's call to be just to be more than a matter of interpersonal relationships. Followers of the God made known to Israel and to all the world through Jesus Christ are called to work for justice for all people. This is why I favor civil rights for all people, including gays and lesbians.

5. But the actions of the Episcopal Church-USA and the recommendations of the ELCA Task Force on Sexuality do not involve civil rights issues. Basically,
both allow, in different ways, for two things to happen: the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the performance of marriage ceremonies for homosexual couples.

The call to any ministry of the Church is not a right. It is a privilege conferred on an individual by Christ's Church acting, it believes and prays, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Nobody has a right to be a minister.

Marriage is, depending on the Christian tradition of which one is a part, either a Sacrament or a rite of the Church. The Bible clearly teaches that marriage is to be a heterosexual pairing. In Genesis 2, the Bible speaks of the complementarity of male and female, then says, "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).

The Scriptures never consider the possibility of legitimizing homosexual behavior. Two of the ten commandments, given by God to protect us from ourselves and one another, assume heterosexual marriage. (The
Fourth: "Honor your father and your mother" [notice the two genders seen as foundational to the family]...The Tenth: "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife..." [addressed originally to men, equally applicable to women relative to their husbands; again heterosexual marriage is assumed].)

Attempts to find justification for homosexual relationships in the Bible, such as those posited by Anglican bishop Spong are fanciful, the equivalent of Elvis findings.

In short, the Church should be a firm advocate for all people's civil rights, but it is called by the Lord to tell people the truth. And the truth is that homosexuality is a sin, contrary to the will of God. (I have often hoped and prayed that I didn't have to say this because it's so countercultural, so contrary to what mainstream society says these days. But as Christians, we have always been at our best when have been countercultural toward the world and obedient to

5. The Church should be welcoming to all people. All people, including me, are sinners in need of a Savior. The Church should not be stingy about sharing the hope we have in Christ. 1 Peter says, "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do so with gentleness and reverence" [1 Peter 3:15].

We have love to share and we should. We're to extend the same call to others that Christ has extended to us; Jesus says, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).

The Church should also serve all people. Jesus says that on the judgment day, those who have allowed His grace to transform them will, almost without their realizing it, become great servants of the poor, neglected, and despised. Those who have ignored their neighbors will be unaware of their hardness of heart (Matthew 25:31-46).

But the kingdom of God, capable
of including all manner of sinners is incapable of including any sins.

This doesn't mean that only the sinless need apply. That would leave all of us outside of God's kingdom. (I myself would be disqualified and not just for sins of my distant past. Even today, by thought, word, and deed, by the wrong I've done and the good I haven't done, I have sinned.)

It means that as we welcome all people, we also need to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), supporting all who seek to grow into the people God has made us to be in living what Martin Luther called, "daily repentance and renewal." This is the lifestyle intimated by the psalmist when he prayed, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).

What the Episcopal Church-USA has decided and what the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is being told by the Sexuality Task Force is that it's OK for
churches and individuals to decide that there's one sin--the expression of sexual intimacy outside of marriage, the subject of the Sixth Commandment--with which they need no longer wrestle. They no longer need the correction or help of God in overcoming this one sin.

Not only is it arrogant to toss the will of God aside, it's also loveless toward our neighbor. For the Church to give license to sin is a direct contradiction of Christ, Who says, "It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble" (Luke 17:2).

6. Not only is it loveless to withhold the truth about sin from people, it also represents avoidance of our Christ-given responsibility. Jesus tells the Church, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19).

It is the responsibility of the Church to proclaim God's forgiveness, offered through Christ, to the repentant, and to withhold it from the unrepentant.

7. The Church is a fellowship of recovering sinners. This can be good news for the 2-3% of the adult population who, Masters and Johnson, the sex researchers, tell us are oriented to homosexuality. It's also good news for those of us who are oriented to other violations of the will of God--whether addiction, heterosexual adultery, covetousness, thievery, materialism, arrogance, injustice, unkindness, or whatever. In the fellowship of the Church, we meet a gracious God Who, as someone has said, loves us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us there.

It is the height of injustice and lovelessness for the Church to proclaim what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called a "cheap grace," a grace without a cross, forgiveness without repentance, discipleship without a commitment to embracing Christ's will. A Church that doesn't share
"the whole purpose of God" (Acts 20:27) to which it knows it, given our human limitations, is doing God and the world no good.

[UPDATE: If you're on Facebook, you'll find a very interesting, respectful discussion of this issue taking place. It's here.]

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