Sunday, 28 January 2018

Epiphany 4- LGBTQ+

We are continuing with our sermon series on questions submitted by members of our congregation. Today the question is, 
“Are the LGBTQ community welcome to the church/God’s kingdom?”
 And just before we begin, please know that you can disagree with me. I go back to what Bishop NT Wright said at a public lecture. He said something like, 
“25% of what I say is wrong, but I’m not sure which bits those are”.
 So I’m going to try to deal with this topic as best I can, and I’m just going to have to ask for your grace if you don't agree with what I say. I'm going to try to give you a sense of what the discussion is like in the Anglican church at the moment. This is an incredibly volatile and sensitive topic, and to deal with it in only 20 minutes is tricky.

It is tricky because Scripture and the tradition of the church matter to us. We want to teach what is true according to what God thinks- as best we can come to know that. We want to have integrity as Christians and not follow whatever wind happens to be blowing through our society. We also believe that the call to discipleship means picking up our cross and denying ourselves.

This is also an incredibly tricky topic because we are talking about people we love. We are talking about “us”, not “them”. They are our family members. They are our friends. They are members of our churches. They are people we work with. I even have friends who are in a polyamorous marriage (which is three people all being married together). … I know people I love very much who find themselves in the LGTBQ+ categories. … It’s not just a theoretical question. Regardless of what we say, we are talking about people we love, and we don’t want to cause them difficulty or pain.

The question again is, 
“Are the LGBTQ community welcome to the church/God’s kingdom?”
 The quick answer to this is that everyone who walks through those doors and wants to follow Jesus is welcome to be a part of the church. … Being in God’s kingdom is only for God to judge. That is a matter of integrating your character with the will of God under the guidance and grace of Jesus, and really only God can say how much that integration has taken place for any of us. … But, regarding the church, all are welcome here. And I would, frankly, be horrified and surprised if someone was treated with anything but love if they came through the doors.

(I should say we aren’t going to have time to deal with transgenderism, in terms of Scripture. In that regard we will be looking at homosexuality exclusively.)

First, we want to look at this question through the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was known for his welcome to those rejected by society. … This doesn’t mean he was “soft on sin”. When we read the Sermon on the Mount we even find that he sometimes made laws harder. Jesus’ love can warn the prideful Pharisee, but it can also speak tender acceptance to the depressed sinner. Looking at this question through the person of Jesus, it has to ultimately be about our love for people. However, we also have to recognize that love looks differently depending on the circumstances.

I’m mainly going to look at our readings from Leviticus and Romans, which tend to be used a lot in these discussions.

Our Leviticus reading contains laws spoken to the people living in the Promised Land about how to be God’s people. We heard a whole list of sexual relationships that are forbidden. Mainly, these have to do with sexual relationships with relatives. We are also told not to offer our children as a burned offering, and then it also says,
 “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman” (Lev 18:22).
 It then talks about not laying with an animal. … No real reasons are given here for following these rules, so scholars have to make certain assumptions about what those reasons are.

The trick with this passage in Leviticus is we still want most of this to apply. We don’t want to drop the prohibition against incest or bestiality, regardless of how consensual the parties involved are.

The command against male homosexual acts also follows a command against sacrificing children to Molech. This has led some to wonder if the homosexual activity is related to some sort of Canaanite practice. The people of God were told not to imitate the religious practices of the peoples that surrounded them (Leviticus 18:3). God’s people were to be set apart. It has also been suggested that, in Canaanite practice, homosexual actions were between socially unequal people and were probably not all that consensual. If this is the case, then we have to question if modern-day life-long homosexual relationships are equivalent to what is being described in Leviticus.

On the other hand, if these acts are in the category with the other forbidden sexual acts listed in Leviticus, then that prohibition would carry over to our own day as a part of the moral code of God’s people, just as we want to maintain the prohibition against incest. … Some have suggested that the prohibition against male homosexual activity has to do the fact that it falls outside the framework of producing offspring (which isn’t to say all acts, or even all couples, will produce children, rather it is about the framework for producing children). Since it was the assumption that people would produce children to fill the Promised Land, then sexual activity that can’t fill the land with offspring is counter-productive to Israel’s calling at that time. The people of Israel took family incredibly seriously. Having children was an incredibly important thing, to the extent that those who were unable to have children were considered to be enduring a terrible hardship. Homosexual behavior may have been seen as being contrary to this central ordering of social life.

Our Romans reading is a letter where Paul is introducing himself to the church in Rome, and also instructing them in Christian belief and practice. The first few chapters are about Paul saying both Jews and Gentiles are in similar circumstances. Gentiles sin by acting against the created order, primarily by not worshiping the Creator and worshiping creatures- idols. Paul seems to see homosexual behavior as a consequence of a society turned to idolatry. …. On the other hand, the Jewish people aren’t any better off. They may have been given the Torah, but they aren’t able to follow it perfectly. Paul says that whether one is Jewish or gentile, both are accepted on the basis of faith.

In the letter to the Romans, we are now dealing with the church age, rather than the age when God’s people were occupying the Promised Land, so this passage has a lot more ability to speak to our own part of the story. That makes this passage the hardest to deal with for those who want to be for same sex marriage. It’s important to say that Paul’s main topic isn’t homosexuality, rather he is speaking about it as a consequence of a society’s turning away from from the Creator to worship creatures. He sees it as a disordering of creation. Interestingly, here again we see homosexual behavior being related to idolatry.

Paul probably uses the example of homosexual behavior because Jewish sensibilities were particularly offended by these Greek and Roman sexual practices. It would be an obvious example of sin to his Jewish readers. Scholars argue about what homosexual behavior looked like in the ancient Mediterranean world. Some say it mostly involved an unequal relationship- slave and master, or child and older man- and by modern standards are abusive by nature. (Some scholars think this passage refers to the court of Caligula in particular). Something like a socially-equal life-long relationship between men, seemed to be more rare. … Though it would probably have been more equal between women, which leads other scholars to think the presence of women in the Romans passage means these aren’t necessarily abusive relationships. This is a point scholars argue about.[1] 

In general, when we look at the Bible as a whole, homosexual behavior is not seen in a positive light, but we still have to ask if we can really relate a modern same-sex life-long relationship between social equals to an ancient practice of homosexuality which may have had connections to pagan worship and which may have been between social non-equals. That is an important question for many in the church. Are we comparing apples to apples, or apples to oranges?

Tradition is the historical experiences of God's people as they try to live out their lives. The tradition of the church has taught that sex is to be confined to heterosexual marriage. … 

It is also the tradition of the church that we sometimes feel led into new territory by the Spirit. We shouldn’t just recreate the past. We have to live the truths of the Gospel in our own time. For example, the church declared that gentiles did not have to be circumcised to join the church, but Scripture seemed clear that joining the covenant of Abraham meant taking Abraham’s mark. … Or, consider slavery. While scripture never says slavery is good, it assumes that slavery is a part of society, … but at the same time it points towards a time when the practice of slavery will be dissolved. … Women taking leadership roles in the church has been controversial in the past, but again, Scripture seems to hold women up in a way the surrounding cultures didn’t, which points to egalitarianism for women. As we read in Galatians, 
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26, 28).
 … Some have asked if homosexuality is on such a developmental trajectory.

The way we have dealt with divorce might be considered similarly (Mark 10:1-12). Jesus speaks strongly against divorce, as it was practiced in his day. In Jesus’ day a divorced woman was very vulnerable, and Jesus’ denial of the practice of divorce may have been for the protection of women. The church recognized that while life-long marriage is the ideal, the world is messy and a woman should not be forced to remain with a man who beats her, for example. Though the letter of Scripture seems to teach against divorce, the church made the decision that in some cases divorce should be permitted. Grace was given to deal with the non-ideal.

Some have suggested that we should think about same sex life-long relationships in a similar way (See Terry Donaldson's article below). While not the Christian norm, or ideal, grace should be shown by making space for such relationships in the church, just as we do for divorce and remarriage. … 
 Still others say that the sexual norms of an ancient culture shouldn’t necessarily apply to our modern culture and we should be free to ignore passages like those above. 
Of course there are still others who do not want to show any support of homosexual actions while still wanting to affirm those who are attracted to people of the same sex.

I want to give the final word to two friends of mine. Both are clergy. Both are men who are attracted to men. They have the same orientation, but how they choose to react to that inner reality is different. One has chosen to live as a single celibate man. The other is single but believes in affirming same-sex relationships. These are voices that are incredibly important to listen to because this is a reality they are living every day as they seek to follow Christ. I have promised to keep them both anonymous.

The following is from my friend who believes in affirming same-sex relationships. This is what he said when I asked him what he would like to say to the church-

“When you live in a world that sees you as a deviant, so outside the norm, that you are told your identity is immoral, it is hard to love yourself, respect yourself, or simply have hope. It is even harder when you go to a Catholic school. Growing up, I knew that I was gay, before I knew what “gay” meant. I was too thin, too soft, too wispy, too girly. All labels others used to describe me ... and of course, with a hiss, called “gay”, “fag” by others. I had not even kissed another male or even particularly thought of doing so. My identity as outcast was given to me. My day was not about dreaming of a happily ever after with the person that I love. It was about surviving the next day, and the next. Growing up for me being gay meant different and bad. That is a common narrative.”

“I have been a person of faith my whole life... a faith that could not be rooted in myself, for how I was could not be saved. I was a walking sin. As I went to mass I had a faith that was rooted in greater hope beyond my daily struggle and survival. At some point this faith had to interact and react with my given identity as a gay person. I either had to live in the hopeless state that bullies called me into, or in the hope-filled state of my baptism. […] I rested my life on the incarnate Word, Jesus, and the Creator that formed me, the Savior that ate and drank with outcasts and sinners. I choose to be gay and love Jesus Christ- The incarnate Word that wraps his love and life around me...all of me. Through love...I came to believe it is okay to be a creature of God, made in the image of a loving God that loves me deeply and painfully. What being gay means to me is I am forced to be awake to this love and to embrace the unique creative person that I am. I am free. Being gay and a follower of Jesus means a freedom to see the beauty of the disenfranchised, the discarded, the disappeared. I have chosen to love because, in my baptism, I am called into the ministry of Jesus. To offer hope to the widow and orphan.”

This is what my friend who is committed to celibacy said when I asked him what he would like to say to the church-

“It is hard to sum up my experience as being a Christian and gay in a short statement. Maybe a good description would be feeling out of place and defensive. I have always felt out of place among my Christian brothers and sisters. As I got older, I realized that the normal life experiences that almost everyone gets to have are not a possibility with me. As I’ve told more and more people my orientation, I’ve also had to defend my status as a Christian. I had to somehow prove to the individual that I am an orthodox Christian who holds to Scripture. Even now as a pastor, as soon as someone learns about my attraction to the same sex, I have to prove that I can still be a pastor. Thus, among Christians I have felt out of place and defensive of my status as a Christian. Most Christians do not have to prove their Christianity to others, but I have always had to prove it. This double standard is difficult.” 

“I have also felt out of place among lgbtq+ affirming people. I hold to a traditional sexual ethic because of my Christian convictions, as a result I am committed to singleness. I feel loved and accepted among lgbtq+ affirming individuals, but also pitied because I am a single person. There’s a lack of understanding why I would even hold to such an archaic sexual ethic. Because I am not searching for a husband, some have questioned my mental and emotional stability. In these scenarios I have to defend myself as well, and it gets exhausting.” 

“It is important for the church to realize that there is shame and rejection with being gay, and when that is combined with the possible shame and rejection of being a Christian, life becomes very difficult. The best thing as a church to help someone who is lgbtq+ is not necessarily holding to the correct theology or agree with movements within society, but it is showing community and love. Community and love are so rare for someone who is used to shame and rejection.”

Here are some other places to look if you want to explore this topic more:

see Justin Lee's Torn
Lee is a gay, committed Christian, and affirms same sex marriage.

Wesley Hill's, Washed and Waiting 
Hill is a gay Christian who promotes a celibate life.

Seeking to be Faithful in the Uneasy Middle by Terence L. Donaldson

[1] Regarding homosexuality in the ancient world and how it related to modern day homosexuality. Especially, the question "was it always exploitative"?   

Some suggest that there was something like marriage for same sex couples in the Greco-Roman world. 
Clement refers to women marrying women (Paidagogos 
Louis Crompton, a homosexual scholar, in his book Homosexuality and Civilization seems to indicate, from his point of view as a historian, that there were were homosexual relationships that are comparable to modern-day homosexual relationships.  
Bernadette Brooten is a lesbian New Testament scholar who wrote Love Between Women and is convinced that Paul would be against all forms of homosexual behavior, even modern non-exploitative expressions.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

When the Bible Offends- Epiphany 3

Today we are in week 3 of our Epiphany series based on questions that have been submitted by members of our congregation. This is our question for today:
“How do we deal with controversial passages/messages in the Old Testament vs the New Testament?”

You have heard a few difficult passages this morning. In our Genesis passage God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In our Psalm it speaks about happy people hurting infants. In our passage in Corinthians there are reinforcements of patriarchal male-female relationships, and a lot of time is spent dealing with whether a woman covers her head, and declarations that a guy shouldn't cover his head and shouldn't grow his hair long (contrast that with some popular images of Jesus!). In our Gospel we hear Jesus basically call a woman a dog for not being Jewish. All of these are examples of troubling passages. And there are many more we could look at.

There are some broad principles that I find helpful when I read the Bible and bump into these kinds of passages.

First, as Christians we look at Scripture through the lens of Christ. We read Scripture in a way that always keeps Christ in mind. We always interpret it in a way that is in accordance with the person of Christ. For example, in Psalm 137 we just read,
“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Ps 137:9)

When we read that passage and we ask if it is in line with the person if Christ, something seems off. It doesn’t make sense. So, we are forced to find a way to read it that makes sense of it in light of the person of Jesus. One way that Christians have done this is to read it metaphorically. In the Psalms many ancient interpreters would see Jerusalem as the church or as the soul. Babylon becomes the enemy, which might be viewed as Satan or sin.

Origen (185-254AD) said this about this disturbing text- 
“the just [people] give up to destruction all their enemies, which are their vices, so that they do not spare even the children, that is, the early beginnings and promptings of evil. … For ‘the little ones’ of Babylon … are those troublesome sinful thoughts that arise in the soul, and one who subdues them by striking, as it were, their heads against the firm and solid strength of reason and truth, is the person who ‘dashes the little ones against the stones’; and he is therefore truly blessed.” (Against Celsus 7.22).

And Ambrose (340-397AD) says about this verse, 
“[we] shall dash all corrupt and filthy thoughts against Christ” (Concerning Repentance 2.11.106).

It also helps to read according to the genre. We can’t read every part of the Bible the same. Psalms are poetry, songs, and prayers. They are expressions of an emotional reality. In Psalm 137 Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. The psalm is full of bitterness and pain, even a desire for revenge. The Psalm expresses a desire for the destruction of a group of people who have been the cause of incredible pain for the psalmist's people- brutal slaughter, slavery, and the destruction of the Temple (which is nearly the destruction of the faith of the people). The psalmist, expresses the emotional desire to eliminate the Babylonians to the very last- even a child who might grow up to do more destruction. The genre is poetry, which is full of hyperbole. It is not a command to go and harm children. We do this in our language sometimes. In prayer it is especially appropriate to give our anger to God. I remember a friend describing his experience in Sierra Leone where he saw even children with limbs cut off by a rebel army. I remember going to my room that night and pouring our vicious angry prayers for vengeance. This might be the kind of thing the psalmist is doing. All the emotions are found in the Psalms. I think it was Calvin who said that the Psalms are a mirror for the soul. All that is to say it is important that we read according to 
the genre. 

Another general principal is to consider the part of the story the passage of Scripture is in. There is the creation and fall part of the story. There is the calling of Abraham and Sarah’s family. There is the giving of the law, and then the establishment of the kingdom under David and the building of the Temple. Then there is the arrival of the Messiah- Jesus Christ. And after that the establishment of the age of the Church. … The parts of the Bible are all parts of the overarching story and it is important to read the Bible according to where in the overarching story we find the scripture we are reading.

We read in Leviticus that, 
“You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material” (Lev 19:19).
 We don’t make Christian farmers and clothing manufacturers follow those laws because we are in a different part of the story. It was written reflecting a time when Israel was defining itself against the people that surrounded them. They were drawing thick lines to create a space for them to be drawn into a kind of holy purity. Even the way they planted their crops was effected by this call to purity. While we still care about holiness, we are not called to enact it in the same way because we are living in the age of the church. 

Bishop NT Wright speaks about the authority of Scripture using the analogy of a 5 act play. Imagine a long lost play has been discovered and a group of very experienced Shakespearean actors are given the play. The problem is that the last act is lost. The actors act through the play, but for the missing last act they have to improvise it. They can’t ignore the acts that came before because there wouldn’t be continuity, but neither can they just re-do the first act. The story has to progress. It has to move forward, but it can’t ignore what has come before.

When we encounter a text like Leviticus 19:19 that talks about not planting 2 different kinds of seed we can rightfully see that as being part of the establishment of ancient Israel. They were to be different from the nations around them…. However, for us the purity of the sacrifice of Christ means that we are no longer required to follow the ceremonial purity requirements. Christ has moved us into a different part of the story. However, we can’t ignore Leviticus in its entirety. There is a moral thread that carries through that we shouldn’t ignore. For example, Lev 19:18 says, 
“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.
 I’m sure we don’t want to ignore that verse. So there are some aspects that continue to apply, and some that don’t really fit our part of the story except as far as they might remind us of the purity and holiness of Christ. Sometimes we will say that there is a ceremonial purity part of the law (which is fulfilled by Christ), and then we say that there is a moral code that still has an effect in our part of the story. 

Another way of saying this is that we read scripture as a whole. We don’t just pick and choose versus out of the Bible. Each verse is found in a book that relates to a particular time in the history of the people of God. 
 In the Book of Common Prayer we find the 39 articles, which are declarations about various questions that were in the air during the reformation. Article 20 says, 
“THE Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. …”
 It is a way of saying that we need to read the Bible as a whole. It needs to have an overall coherence.

We have to consider the individual part of Scripture in the context of the whole of Scripture, but we also need to consider the immediate context of what we are reading. For example, In Matthew 15 we read about Jesus having an encounter with a Canaanite woman. She comes to Jesus saying,
“'Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’ But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.’”
 It sounds brutal, right? But when we read it in context it gives us another possible reading.

Gentiles were considered defiled people. The teaching Jesus gives immediately before this passage is this, 
“'it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person. … Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person’”.
 Right after this passage a woman comes to Jesus who is considered defiled, but she is speaking words of faith (which Jesus recognizes- Matt 15:28). What comes out of the mouth is what defiles the person or doesn’t. With that context it looks like this was a test for the disciples regarding purity. This woman was traditionally considered impure because of being a Canaanite gentile. Her heart is exposed by her words of faith. Is she impure?

I want to speak about one other principle that is helpful as we read Scripture. That is historical context. In the ancient world, in some cultures, there was a practice of child sacrifice. Some scholars think that this was also true of the world Abraham lived in. To show your ultimate dedication to a deity, you offer something that is incredibly important. The theory is that because children were so valued, they were also considered very valuable sacrifices. In a sense then, the fact that a deity asks Abraham to sacrifice his son is not all that unusual. ... What is unusual is that God stops the sacrifice and essentially says, “I am a different kind of God”.

Historical context also helps us with our passage from 1 Corinthians 11. The biblical teaching here generally has to do with the value of modesty. Modesty looks different in different cultures. In the culture Paul was speaking to it meant women covered their hair and there were very patriarchal roles between the genders. We then have to ask the question as the church, “are we supposed to recreate that ancient image of modesty and impose the same patriarchy, or are we meant to be modest according to our own culture?” As missionaries encountered people who lived in warm climates like Hawaii or the Amazon rain forest their modest would be expressed in a different way. They wouldn't have to wear much for clothing. The value of modesty should matter more than the specific expression of modesty in a particular culture.

We might find that we are offended by this kind of teaching, but I think that when we look at the historical context and the cultures that surrounded them we often find that the Scriptures are quite progressive for their time. They have a trajectory that aims us towards a more respectful relationship between the genders. 

There is much more that we could say. I’m not at all suggesting that these principles solve all our problems when we are reading the Bible, but I think these principles can get us thinking a little bit about how we read the Bible and maybe gives us some avenues we can explore when we do bump into something hard. 

Ultimately the Bible is a guide for us. In 1 Timothy 3:15-17 we read that, 
“sacred writings… are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”.
 Scripture is not given to us as a science textbook, and not even necessarily as a history textbook. Scripture is given to us for spiritual formation and to prepare us for God's mission. We should be careful to read it accordingly. AMEN

Recommended reading:
If you want to investigate reading the Bible, especially in light of difficult passages, then I recommend the following. 

Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan
Did God Really Command Genocide? by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan 

The Bible Tells me so by Peter Enns

The Story we Find Ourselves in by Brian McLaren

The Blue Parakeet by Scot Mcknight

How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart

Scripture and the Authority of God
 by NT Wright
Surprised by Scripture by NT Wright

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Discerning God's will for us- Epiphany series- 2

Today we are continuing with our sermon series based on questions that have been submitted by the congregation. This morning we are looking at two questions.

The first is- 
“Where are we going in the emerging church of 2018?”

And the second is- 
“What plan does God have for me? I feel like I am spiraling out of control with no end in sight.”

Before we get into dealing with these questions, I just want to speak to the person who wrote the second question. … I think just about everybody in this room feels deeply for you. I know as soon as I read it I felt my heart hurt for you. … I think most of us have felt something similar, so please don’t feel alone or feel like no one cares. That is a very difficult place to be, spiritually and mentally. If you want someone to walk with you through that feeling please let us know, or please reach out to someone you trust. …

The reason I put these questions together is that they are both about discernment. They both have to do with trying to understand where God is leading us. The question essentially becomes, “How do we hear God?”

I’m just going to start with what I would do if I was feeling this kind of discomfort and feeling like I was at a moment when I needed God’s particular direction. ... Assuming that there wasn’t any major sin in my life that I haven’t dealt with, the first thing I would do is give myself a bit of a spiritual check-up.

The question, 
“What plan does God have for me? I feel like I am spiraling out of control with no end in sight”
 might indicate a spiritual hunger. I suspect that feeling of spiritual hunger is actually a way that God is speaking to you. … When you feel hungry or thirsty your body is telling you that you are missing food or water. Or you might be hungry because you are missing a nutrient. … In a similar way, when a question like that arises within us it can be an indication of a spiritual hunger telling us that we are missing something.

To diagnose our spiritual hunger we might want to begin by looking at our overall spiritual health. It is important that we periodically and prayerfully review how we are living our life. Are we living a healthy Christian life? In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus tells his disciples, 
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
 A healthy spiritual life has to do with Jesus saying, “Obey all I have commanded you”. Christ’s commands are given to us to we can lead a joyful life empowered by God’s Spirit to transform the world around us. One way I find helpful to review my life according to the commands of Christ is to think of 3 directions- 
 Up, In, and Out.

First, we will look at “Up”. “Up” has to do with our relationship with God. We are creatures made for worship. How is our relationship with God? Are we worshiping God well? Are we putting our hearts into a worshipful place when we come to church? When we worship do we see God as present with us? When we sing hymns are we conscious that we are singing them to God? When we say “amen” to a prayer do we realize we are saying “I agree” to something that was said to God in our midst? When we receive the bread and wine are we conscious that Christ is giving himself to us in that moment?

But, our relationship with God is about more than what we do on Sunday. If our relationship with God is only something we deal with on Sunday then we are on a starvation diet. Do we take time to walk outside and inwardly praise the creator of the trees, and the sky, and the sun and the moon? Do we listen to beautiful music that draws out heart to God? Do we praise the One who gave health to our bodies- the heart pumping blood through our veins, the air that fills our lungs? Do we have a daily habit of prayer and Bible study?

“Up” is all about our relationship with God. In Matthew 22:37, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said, 
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”.
 This is what “Up” is about. Are we loving God well? Is that THE main priority in our life?

Second, we will look at “in”. “In” has to do with our relationship to one another. It has to do with community. Jesus said the second most important commandment is, 
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39).
 If you want to know if you have a healthy relationship with this community, ask yourself this question, “Within the Christian community, is there someone you feel you could call at 2 am if you were dealing with a tragedy?” If we don’t have someone here we know that well, then we can develop those relationships. One way to do that is to form a small group that meets weekly.

In the context of that group though we can’t keep people at arm’s length. We need to be willing to be vulnerable and available to those people. We need to share what we are actually thinking and feeling. We need to share our successes and our failures- Our struggles- Our sins- Our virtues and strengths. Are we available to others? Do we make time for them? Do we listen, rather than dominate the conversation? Do we listen for what is the deep core of meaning in the life of the other person? What brings them pain? What brings them joy? What is their relationship with God like? … Do we have relationships that help us mature in our faith? Is there someone in our life we see as a mentor? Is there someone whose relationship with God we respect, who guides us? Is there someone who is less mature in their relationship with God that we actively work to develop a friendship with?

“In” is all about our relationship with other Christians, especially in our church. I sometimes hear people say, “I don’t have to be a part of a church to be a Christian”. When someone says that they should realize that, in terms of Christian history, they are part of an incredibly small number of Christians who have thought that way. Even the desert fathers and mothers who went off on their own to lead lives of prayer soon had people coming to them to learn from them. Christianity has always been a communal endeavor. We need each other to grow into the people God wants us to be. We need to learn from each other. We need to know what it is like to love and be loved. We even need to know what it is like to bump into each other so we can learn patience and forgiveness. … When I am all by myself it is easy for me to feel holy, but it is often when I am with others that I see my own impatience. When I am with other faithful people, my own faith is encouraged. A healthy Christian life is a communal life. I love Paul’s summary in Ephesians 4:11-13- 
“The gifts [God] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
A healthy church has a variety of people with a variety of gifts who are all working together to build up the body of Christ so that we can grow more and more into the likeness of Christ. 

Finally, I want to talk about “out”. “Out” is about our service to the world. As Christians, in someway we need to be involved in helping hurting people. We should be involved in making the world better. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says to his disciples- 
“You are the salt of the earth”, 
“You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:13, 14).
 Salt is a preservative. In the ancient world salt was put on food to keep it from spoiling- it fought against decay. Jesus is saying that we are supposed to be the preservative of the world. Similarly, light shows what is hidden in the dark. With the light we can see the path and any dangers in the way. If we are the light and salt of the world, then the world should be better for our being in it. This neighbourhood should miss us if our doors closed. The city of Red Deer should miss us if we shut down. Our neighbours’ lives should be worse if we moved out of the neighbourhood. This can be formal, like serving at the Mustard Seed with our team, but it can be as simple as inviting a lonely neighbour over for tea. “Out” means living a life of service to others. Jesus says that we will meet him as we encounter the stranger in need, 
“as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).

I have found “up”, “in”, and “out” to be helpful for giving me a general check-up in terms of my spiritual health. But, there are times when we are generally spiritually healthy and we still feel a spiritual discomfort that causes us to search out God’s will. This means God might have something more specific to say to us and this is the harder task of discernment. The real challenge of discernment for most of us isn’t deciding between smoking crack or going to Bible study. The real challenge is between choosing between two good things. Should I stay at this job or go to that job. Should I say yes to helping with this ministry, or will that stretch me too thin? That is the hard task of discernment and the Bible doesn’t always have a verse for that. Sometimes God has something very specific to say to us because he has a specific call on all of our lives. When we look at the saints we see very specific callings. St. Francis of Assisi was called to a life of joyful poverty, service to the poor, preaching, and love for creation. St. Thomas Aquinas was called to an academic life, helping the church describe God and the mysteries of theology.

So how can we hear God's specific word to us? Most commonly, and most importantly, God can speak to you directly through your thoughts. If want to plant the idea of an elephant in your mind I have to use my vocal chord to speak the word “elephant”, then your eardrums have to hear the sound and interpret the word, Then you have the idea of an elephant in your mind. … Well God can bypass all that business and just give you the thought. That doesn’t mean all your thoughts are God speaking to you. … You still have to discern which thoughts are from God and which aren’t, which is partly why it is important to know our Bibles well and to have mature Christians that can help us hear. Over time we can learn to recognize that voice better. This is the primary way God speaks to us as individuals, but most of us haven’t been taught to hear that still, small, loving, and authoritative voice. And we can’t force God to speak. Sometimes that silence is important as well. Hearing God’s voice can be challenging.

Sometimes these thoughts take the form of dreams, or strong feelings. Sometimes you might have a friend say something to you that strikes a chord deep inside you. Sometimes you notice strange coincidences. Sometimes a passage of the Bible just keeps jumping into your mind. Sometimes a memory, or a person keeps coming to mind. … When we do hear God saying something to us, it is important to test what we are hearing against the general teaching of Scripture. In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 Paul says, 
“Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” 
Sometimes a mature Christian friend or a good spiritual director can help us with this testing as well.

I haven’t said much about the future of the church, but that is because if we have a church full of people doing exactly what I just described, then the church will be fine. Ultimately it is God’s church and the church will always be fine, but that is no guarantee for us as St. Leonard’s. The Church, as God’s people in the world, will always exist somewhere, but if we want to be a part of what God is doing in the world then it is important that we are constantly seeking out God’s will and trying to live lives directed by that will. AMEN

Suggested reading:

Hearing God by Dallas Willard
The title sort of says it all. Willard was a brilliant spiritual teacher and a philosopher. He speaks about the "still small voice" of God and how it is that we can hear God in our lives.   

Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
This book outlines a number of ancient Christian practices that have helped Christians in their spiritual lives. This is a book I go back to again and again. When discerning God's will we may want to practice solitude and silence for a time to make space to hear God more clearly. I have also found this book to be a good guide to the practices of a healthy Christian life. (You might also want to look at James Bryan Smith's Good and Beautiful... series, which explores these themes further)

Weeds Among the Wheat by Thomas H. Green S.J.
I haven't finished reading this one yet but from what I have read so far it seems like a very good guide to the practice of discernment. Green outlines what the Jesuits are famous for. 

The First Spiritual Exercises adapted by Michael Hansen S.J. 
St. Ignatius of Loyola is well known as being the founder of the Jesuits and for leading people through a retreat he called the Spiritual Exercises. For those who are unable to go on a 30 day Spiritual Exercises retreat at a place like Loyola House, this book is a way to experience the Exercises at your own pace and at home.  
The Living Church by John Stott
In this book Stott attempts to consider the basics of the Church. Just as C.S. Lewis tried to explain the common core of Christianity in Mere Christianity, so Stott attempts to write a kind of Mere Church book that focuses more on what the church has had in common while still expressing his own convictions. This is a helpful book at a time when there is so much change within our culture, which the church must engage.     

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Did the wise men going to the bad place? (Epiphany sermon series)

Today we are starting our Epiphany sermon series, which is based on questions that have been submitted by members of our congregation. I once heard The scholar and bishop N.T. Wright say that 25% of what he says is wrong, but he's not sure which bits those are. I feel that same as we enter into this series. It's likely we are going to disagree at points and I might very well be wrong in some of the things I'm going to say, but this is the best I can come up with right now. You are allowed to disagree with me. I will probably offend everyone at some point during this series, so I ask for your grace and patience especially during these sermons.  Please know you can disagree with me. 

Did the wise men going to the bad place?

 The first thing I want to do is explain that question a bit. … These wise men come to see and give homage to the child born in Bethlehem. They saw a star that foretold his arrival and they brought three gifts for the child. The wise men don’t seem to be Jewish, which means they were probably gentiles. The Greek word Matthew uses for them is Magi. Magos can be translated as “wise”, but it is also translated as “sorcerer”, or “wizard”. It is from this Greek word that we get the word “magician”. It refers to someone who claims to have magical powers, or someone who practices witchcraft.[1] The Magician might examine the stars as they look for omens in the sky- we usually call that astrology. … 

We see other Magi in the New Testament as well. For example, there was a man who practiced magic in Acts chapter 8. He is called Simon Magus, or Simon the magician. … Generally, the Bible is quite negative regarding those who practice magic. Deuteronomy 18:10 says 
“There shall not be found among you anyone who … practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer”.
 So not only are they not Jewish, but their beliefs also seem to be against the Jewish law.

These magicians come to honour Jesus as a baby, but they don’t seem to stick around to hear the teachings of Jesus when he is grown. They don’t learn about the cross or the resurrection. These wizards from a (probably) polytheistic religion died not knowing much of anything about Jesus, except that he was born. 

What happened to them when they died? Did they go to the good place, or the bad place?

We’re using this as a bit of a case study to consider all religions. What about people of the many different religions out there in the world?

We are dealing with two of the questions submitted by members of the congregation. The first question is, 
“Is everyone not a believer going to hell?”
 And the second question is, 
“’In my Father’s house there are many mansions’ could this be translated to mean that there is a place in heaven for people of different faiths? If that is so and we acknowledge that other faiths worship the one God how can we justify Jesus’ saying that no one comes to the Father but by me?”

I would like to look at our understanding of other religions briefly, then we will look at how we understand hell. We are dealing with a lot so we won’t really be able to go into a lot of depth.

First, what are we to make of other religions? I spent 4 years of university studying world religions. My first degree was in religious studies.  Mainly, I studied Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. 
I was in classes with believers of a variety of religions. I can honestly say there are beautiful things in the world’s religions and there are also things that I disagree with in those belief systems. 

We find a similar kind of reaction in the Bible. For example, in Acts 17 Paul says this to a group of Pagan polytheists, 
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (22-23).
 He seems to be saying that their instinct to worship is good. Paul even quotes from some of their own respected authors. He says God 
“is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; [Probably from Epimenides of Crete] as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” [From Aratus' poem “Phainomena”] (Acts 17:27-28). 
Paul finds a common point in their own beliefs in order to talk about Jesus. He doesn’t seem to wholly reject their religious instinct and even quotes from their own writings.

At other times though, Paul has sharp disagreement with those other religions. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul is speaking about their pagan neighbours and says, 
“I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor 10:20).
 That sounds incredibly harsh until we look at what the city of Corinth was like. The theologian Peter Kreeft has said that 2/3rds of the citizens of Corinth were slaves and that much of what was bought and sold in the city was human flesh in the form of slavery and prostitution. There were many places of pagan worship in the city of Corinth, but the major center of worship was the temple of Aphrodite. It is said that her temple had 1000 prostitutes.[2] To say that a belief system that can enslave and abuse and destroy human beings like that is demonically influenced isn’t as harsh as it sounds at first.

I think if we are honest this is how we all really feel. Some of us might want to say that all religions are equal so long as you are sincere because that’s the nice thing to say. But, I’m sure the men that flew planes into the World Trade Centre were very sincere in their belief that this was their service to God. (Please don't think I'm saying anything about Islam by mentioning that.) I’m sure none of us want to recognize that as a valid way of serving God. Not all religious actions and beliefs are equal. We need some way of discerning the good from the bad.

(I’m not saying that we Christians are innocent either- we have followed negative instincts as well.)

I think we have to recognize that we have points of agreement and points of disagreement with other religions. Often these disagreements are about how the world works. They are philosophical differences. 
Is reincarnation true or not? Christians would generally disagree with Hindus on this. 
Is it important for human beings to serve God? Christians would disagree with Buddhists on this. 
Is God triune- Father, Son, Holy Spirit? 
Is Jesus Christ the most accurate image of the invisible God (Col 1:15)? 
Is Jesus God come to us in the flesh, or is he just a prophet, or what? 
We are going to disagree about these things.

There are plenty of things we can agree on. We agree on a lot in terms of morality. If someone is about to get hit by a bus we will all hopefully pull the person out of the way. We also have a lot of similarity when we compare mystical experiences. There is a lot of overlap when it comes to human beings trying to be good and trying to reach out to “the ground of being”, or that “something more”. We have to just recognize that we have similarities and differences and we don’t do anyone any favors by pretending that’s not the case.

As Christians we have to be true to who we are and how we function within our worldview. That means we have to take Jesus’ words seriously when he says in John 14:6, 
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.
If someone is saved, it is because of Jesus. Being saved- being a part of the kingdom- being in a healthy relationship with the Father- means more than just the afterlife, but today we are going to look at what that means for the afterlife. Since the question had to do with hell, I’ll focus on that aspect of the afterlife.

 When we say “hell” most of us have an image pop into our minds. I found it helpful to know that the word in the New Testament that Jesus used was “Gehenna” which was a garbage dump outside Jerusalem. 

(Present day Gehenna- the Valley of Hinnom)

It had fires that burned the garbage and animals picking through and fighting over scraps. It was also a dumping ground for executed criminals, whose bodies weren't claimed. So the language Jesus uses is very metaphorical, but he does say there are spiritual consequences after this life. There will be judgement against evil.

What is hell like? Some theologians think hell is a place of everlasting pain. Others think it is a kind of emptiness where you are at a distance from God. So if God is the source of all joy and peace and you are separated from God in hell you would be left with sadness and anxiety. … Some think people experience that pain for all eternity, and others think it is a place of destruction where a person is destroyed and then no longer exists.

There are 3 basic views about hell-

The first is called the Exclusive view (Exclusivism). In this view humanity has so walked away from the Holy God that we all deserve hell. Only those who call on Jesus to save them and have their character renewed by him are saved. Everyone else is lost to hell. This means that people of other religions are lost. Atheists are lost. Even Christians who say all the right things, but don’t really mean it might be lost. This view takes Jesus’ words seriously when he says, that the way to eternal life is narrow and the way to destruction is wide (Matt 7:13). St. Augustine (354-430 AD) leans this direction.

The second view is called the Universalist view (Universalism). In this view everyone is saved and hell is empty. God’s love overcomes everyone and, whether they want it or not, they are forced into God’s presence. No one can ultimately resist God’s goodness and everyone is eventually won over by God’s goodness and love. God is merciful and gracious and can’t stand for any aspect of what He has created to be lost. Origen (184/185- 253/254 AD) taught this, but the early church condemned that particular teaching. The modern theologian Karl Barth has been said to lean this direction as well.

The third view is called the Inclusive view (Inclusivism), which is the view I find most convincing. The idea here is that, yes, it is through Jesus that people are rescued from going to hell, but he rescues more than those who explicitly call on his name. He might rescue those whose characters are in line with who he is. So in addition to saving faithful disciples of Jesus, Jesus might in his grace and mercy save a Buddhist who focuses on loving-compassion. This person might, in some ways, be in line with who Jesus is. That person has responded to truth that is in accord with the character of Jesus. They might never have heard the name of Jesus, but they sense that a deep love for other beings is a very important thing, and they might focus a substantial part of their life on developing that.  Is the character of the person pointed toward or away from Christ- his character, and the ways of his kingdom? This view gives Jesus the freedom to decide without us placing theological constraints on him saying who's "in" or "out".

An example of this view is found in C.S. Lewis’ book The Last Battle.  It is generally a very interesting metaphorical exploration of heaven and hell and the book of Revelation. There is a young warrior who was born in another country and served a god called “Tash” rather than the lion Aslan (who is the Christ character). He dies and finds out that Aslan was the true God and Tash was a false god. The warrior says, 

“the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, ‘Son, thou art welcome’. But I said, ‘Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash’. He answered, ‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me’. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, ‘Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?’ The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, ‘It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?’ I said, 'Lord, though knowest how much I understand.’ But I said also (for the truth constrained me), 'Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days'. 'Beloved', said the Glorious One, 'unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek'.”
It is an interesting possibility Lewis imagines. ... Jesus is a free person, and he has complete freedom to save whoever he likes, even if they don’t fit the formula we usually use to say when someone is “saved”. We are told in the Gospels that the grace of God will be so generous it will be shocking and scandalous. So in this view the wise men have a chance of being saved even though they might not know about the cross and resurrection. In this view God wants to save everyone who can be saved. He doesn’t want any good to be lost that can be saved.

Personally, I lean towards the Inclusivist position because I think it makes the most sense of the character of Jesus we see in the Gospels. It recognizes the freedom of a human being to reject God, but it also recognized Jesus’ freedom to save whoever he wants. Though I still think we should not make assumptions as if we can presume on his grace. 

So, are the wise men in the bad place? I hope not. Ultimately it is all up to God and I trust in God’s goodness, justice, and mercy. I think that although the wise men don’t fit the model of what we usually call “saved” that they responded to Christ and showed him honour in the way they thought best. They endured danger and incredible person cost to show Christ honour, and I think Jesus honours that. Amen.

If you want to explore this topic more I recommend the following:

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
This is sort of like theology done through story. What might hell be like? What kinds of people might be there? what might heaven be like? what kinds of people might be there? How are those two realities related? Lewis imagines that those in Hell don't necessarily want to be in heaven, in fact they prefer hell over heaven because of the kinds of people they've become. They refuse to enjoy heaven.  

Love Wins by Rob Bell
In this Book Bell explores the issue of hell and heaven and what scriptures says about the matter. Bell has received a lot of heat for this book. It has led many conservative and fundamentalist folks to reject him as a Universalist (a claim he rejects). It is a very accessible book. 

The Last Word and the Word After That by Brian McLaren
McLaren writes a fictional account of a pastor wrestling with the issue of hell and salvation and arrives in a very similar place as Bell.  McLaren has been rejected by the same folks as Rob Bell. In my opinion their views would mostly fix well within Anglican circles.

Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle
This book is a response to Rob Bell's book Love Wins. They think Bell has gone too far and no longer represents a historically Orthodox position. While Bell and McLaren represent an Inclusivism that leans towards Universalism, Chan and Sprinkle lean towards Exclusivism. 

The First & the Last by George Sumner
This is a more academic book about how Christians can have meaningful dialogue with those of other religions without resorting to a secular pluralistic "everybody's right" kind of view. Sumner wants to retain the exclusive truth claims of Jesus (I am the way, the truth and the life), but he also wants to consider how God may work graciously even within those other religious systems.

[1] Magos in W.E Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words
[2][2] “You Can Understand the Bible” by Peter Kreeft
Follow @RevChrisRoth