“No one will snatch them from my hand…”

When people we know and care about are going through a hard time, and they often are, we offer encouragement saying, “hold on” or “hang in there.” I have said these things to people myself. What I think we mean is what I just said. We mean it is “a hard time.” Not a “hard always.” We mean that we know they are “going through” it – they will eventually get through and come out the other side. We mean that the suffering is temporary and if they can patiently endure it, if they can put their heads down and “hold fast,” the pain will abate, the storm will finally pass and they will survive. As the old-time preacher used to say, “Like it says in the Bible, ‘And it came to pass.’ It don’t say ‘it came to stay,’ it says, ‘it came to pass.’”

Truth be told, I feel pretty shallow when I say things like “hang in there” – I feel like they don’t really offer much help at all. And I suppose they really don’t. Honestly, there is really very little we can actually do for those who suffer, and there is very little others can do for us. In times of emotional or spiritual pain, in the times of dark discouragement, in times of doubt and even despair – there is sometimes nothing that can be done. Only the passage of some time dulls the pain – a little. Sometimes, the only way to help is to come alongside, to be with somebody as they suffer – just to care.

But the fact is that there are some things that we can’t get over. There are some things we can’t go through. We go into some storms and don’t ever come out – they become a permanent part of our world. We sustain some wounds that never fully heal – we don’t get past them in this life… we live with them. We adjust, we adapt, we carry on, but we carry on as somehow different people than we were before. Some wounds are less serious than others. Sometimes we can adapt, adjust and carry on.

Sometimes that’s the best we can do, and it’s usually good enough. But what about the bigger disasters? What about the illness that we won’t get over? What about the wounds to the soul that won’t get better – no matter how much time passes. What about when we are simply overwhelmed and can’t “hold on” or “hang in there.” What about when we reach the end of our rope and what about when we are just played out and what about when we just don’t have anymore left in us?

I’m sure some will say, “Well you can’t stop.” “Quitting is not an option.” “Never give up!” “Never surrender!” Okay, I’m good with that, as far as philosophies of life go. I basically agree that you have to do as much as you can, for as many as you can, for as long as you can. But all of that is qualified with the “as you can.” I think that there sometimes comes a time when you just can’t anymore. Sometimes will-power is not sufficient. Sometimes inner strength fails. Sometimes when sheer determination just won’t get it done. Sometimes when our best is just not good enough. Sometimes our faith, and hope, and even love just runs out. What then?

Well, my friends, that is what the gospel is all about. That is what Jesus is all about. That is what God is all about. Here is what it is. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” We know what it means when something is “wanting,” don’t we. We speakers of “American” don’t use the term that way much anymore. When we say “want,” we mean what the Brits mean when they say “fancy.” “Want another piece of cake?” “Fancy a stroll in the park?” “I’ll pick you up after the game if you want… If you fancy… If you like.” We mean something like “desire.” But the idea behind the word “want” goes in a little different direction. “Want” means the “lack of something.” It means the absence of what is essential, necessary, or required. “I read over her qualifications and found them wanting.” “If you move in with me you’ll want for nothing.”

So when the poet says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” he means that for those in the care of the Lord, what is essential or necessary will never be lacking. And what is necessary is not so much increased strength, or even faith – or even confidence in God. What is necessary has nothing to do with me – or the state of my soul – or how I am thinking of feeling. Wheat is necessary is not in me at all. What is necessary is the unconditional reality that God will not let me go – even in the hardest possible times. That means that no matter what, God’s strength will hang onto me. Even if my strength fails and I can no longer “hang in there.”. Even if I run out of faith or hope – or even love for God. Even if I am overwhelmed and let go – especially if I let go, God will hold onto me. Nobody – and I include myself in that nobody – can snatch me out of God’s hand. God’s grip is too tight, God’s hold is too fast, God’s hand is too strong. This is what Paul was thinking about in Romans 8 when he wrote, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I’ve been doing the preaching thing for a lot of years now – I calculated the other day that I have preached somewhere around 3000 sermons – I used to preach 3 or 4 times a week. At about 30 or 40 minutes each (I used to preach a lot longer than I do now –if you can believe it) that comes to – well it’s a lot of talking about God. Anyway, I’ve been talking about God for a long time and I’m pretty much at the point where I can be pretty self-disclosing without worrying too much about what people will think. So I can tell you that over the years, there have been a few times when I have pretty much given up on God. I have seen people suffering in ways that ought not to be. I have prayed and felt like there was an iron dome over my head – my prayers just went up and bounced off back down to me. Nobody listening – or at least nobody answering. I have experienced so-called Christians using their religion to hate and bash and kill other people – even other Christians! I have watched bad guys win and good guys lose – way too often. And here’s where I’ll be honest… there have been a few times when I’ve said, “enough!”. “God, if you are there, you are really making a mess of all this – or if we are the ones making the mess, you are not doing much to fix it.” I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had my doubts – and a few times, well, I even turned my back and said, “Too much! That’s it, I’m done with you.” Yep. I’ve said that.
But here’s the thing… God has never said that to me. And you know what? I don’t believe God has ever said that to anybody. My reading of the gospel is that Jesus Christ is God’s Word to us – and that word is “I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Heb 13:5) In Jesus Christ, God’s Word to us is “I will be with you always, even to the end.”(Matt 28:20) In Jesus Christ God’s Word to us is “nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love given to us in Christ Jesus.” This doesn’t mean that we can just do whatever we want and it will be okay with God. Love doesn’t just let us get away with everything. In fact, I believe that the God of the Bible is a God of justice. And justice demands a full and honest accounting. Everything hidden will be revealed, every thought will be disclosed, we will answer for every word and every act done outside of love. But the light that shines in judgment is always the light of Love. It is the burning, searching, searing light that removes very trace of darkness – and heals, makes whole, and completes the process of creation. It is the light of love that makes us fit for eternal joy.

Here is the last word then. If we could save ourselves, if we could heal ourselves, if it depended upon us, then that would be the way of salvation – and Christianity would be like any other religion. The message would be “try harder,” “do better,” “work more,” and hope it’s good enough. But that is not the message. The message is that “what we could not do because of our weakness, our brokenness, our woundedness, that is exactly what God has done, and will never fail to do. We are held in God’s unfailing grasp of love. And no one – nothing will snatch us from God’s hand.

What Do We Think We’re Doing Here?

I want to begin the conversation, and I hope, spark our thinking about what may be the most important question we can ask. It’s a simple straightforward question about our over-arching mission as a church and as individual followers of Jesus Christ. The question is: “What do we think we are doing here anyway?” There are other ways to phrase the question. “What are we trying to accomplish in our lives and through this church?” Or perhaps, “Do we have a calling, or a mission? If so, what is it?”

How should we get at this question? I mean, where should our thinking on this begin? How does anybody “come up with” a sense of calling or mission? What “inspires” a deep and enduring sense of purpose?

One source of inspiration is our feelings. “If it feels good, do it.” The idea is that we basically make decisions on a “pain – pleasure” continuum.  Avoid pain, pursue pleasure. On this view, our mission in life is to maximize pleasure. We can accept certain levels of pain, discomfort, inconvenience and so forth only in so far as they ultimately lead to our greater pleasure. Many of us… and probably all of us at times are inspired by pleasure. We will work hard and endure a lot of suffering if we think the “pay-off” is going to be pleasurable enough.  I ask myself, “How much am I motivated by my own pleasure?” And I ask, “What is pleasing to me?” Pleasing physical sensation motivates some, but it’s pretty low on the list of pleasures for most. Many people are pleased by what we might call more elevated pleasures – things like, an appreciation of beauty, a sense of accomplishment, or security, or peace of mind, or of power or control. Emotional pain is associated with a sense of waste, failure, insecurity, powerlessness, insignificance.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with being motivated by these feelings. They are inevitable. As creatures with a partially animal nature this is just part of who we are. That is fine – we can even celebrate it as a gift and blessing from God. As the wise man says in Ecclesiastes 2:24, There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.” But of course this is not all. For we are not merely bodily, mortal beings – highly evolved animals. We are children of God who look beyond pleasure for meaning – for our mission in life.

As Christians, naturally we look to Jesus Christ for guidance and truth. So what does Jesus have to say about our mission – our purpose? The marching orders Jesus gives to his people are actually pretty clear. Let’s start with what Jesus says through the gospel according to John. In John 20:20-22 we are told that after the resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them [again], “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The word “mission” comes from the Latin “missio” which is the translation of the word “send.”  So the first thing is that Jesus sends his disciples – he gives them a mission. It’s seems undeniable that the disciples of Jesus were give a mission, but who exactly are the disciples sent on this mission? Of course they are the 11 – well actually 10. Judas Iscariot was dead and Thomas was absent. But is it only these 10 men that Jesus has in mind for this mission? I don’t think so. Rather it is a mission upon which the whole church of Christ is sent. The apostles, or “sent ones” are part of the infrastructure of the church – essential, but in no way the whole thing. So Paul writes, in Ephesians 2:19-20, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” We confess that we are “one, holy, universal and apostolic church.” In German the word “apostolic” is “apostolische” which kind of gets at the idea of “apostle – ish” – So we are the apostle-ish or apostle-like church. That means that what the apostle’s mission was, so our mission is.

Furthermore, in the passage of Matthew’s gospel in which the disciples are sent (the so-called great commission), they are charged to replicate themselves. Matthew 28:19-20 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” We are the “them” who are to do everything Jesus commanded the first disciples. Okay, its clear enough that the mission on which Jesus sends his disciples is our mission too. But what exactly is that mission?

Let’s go back to the text in John for a minute. “As the Father has sent me… so I send you.” The question then is, “How does the Father send Jesus.” This is where today’s gospel lesson from Luke comes back into view. Luke 4:16-21  “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Here is Jesus Christ’s own definition of his mission. Here is the “As the Father has sent me…”

First of all, The Father sent Jesus in the power of the Spirit. The anointing or unction of the Spirit is given to Jesus because he needs it for his mission. Even Jesus cannot do his work on his own, with his own energy, strength or power. He relies utterly upon the powerful presence of God’s Spirit to do ALL the work we was sent to do. So Jesus says in John 5:30, “I can do nothing on my own.”  And in Luke 4:14 He went in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. “

Next, In the power of the Spirit, Jesus was sent to people in certain conditions. He was sent to the poor, to the captives, to the blind, to the oppressed. What does this mean? Who are these people?

All these people are suffering from conditions of privation. Privation is a state in which things that are essential for human well-being are scarce or lacking. This can be a lack of material things like food, or shelter or medicine. But social things like education, opportunity, equality or justice can also be lacking. It can even be a lack in qualities of character. People can lack compassion, integrity, understanding, generosity, or self-control. In some ways, all privation has roots in an impoverished or broken relationship with God. Call that sin, if you wish.

So the mission of Jesus Christ is to go to people in all kinds of states of privation and address them with good news. This good news is not merely a message, but the actual initiation of a process of reversal. The reversal starts at the deepest level of privation. Most deeply, In Jesus Christ, God is reversing humanity’s broken relationship with God by forgiving all sin and reconciling the world to himself. 2 Corinthians 5:19 “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…”

From this deep healing of human brokenness, In Christ, God goes on to initiate the reversal of every condition of privation. Willfulness is reversed to self-control. Callousness is reversed to tenderheartedness. Greed is reversed to generosity. Falsehood and guile are reversed to honesty and integrity. Justice is given where there is none. Opportunity reverses hopelessness. Freedom reverses addiction. Education reverses ignorance. And even on the most material levels, food reverses hunger, shelter reverses homelessness, medicine reverses sickness… and so on.

This was Jesus Christ’s mission. Jesus Christ was sent by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to go to people in all states of privation and declare the great reversal… the great “turn around.” The time has come and the process has begun.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. This is the year of the Lord’s favor… Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

As the Apostle Paul put it, “ 2 Corinthians 6:2 “Look, now is the acceptable time; look, now is the day of salvation!”

Finally, (and I’m almost done this morning) it comes to us. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Just so. In Christ, we are sent by God to carry on the mission of the great reversal. We are supposed to be busy undoing human privation. We are supposed to be preaching, teaching, and above all working to fill up what is lacking – what is lacking in spirit, soul and body. That is our mission. When we are on this mission, when we are using our gifts and abilities to do this thing, we will have a full measure of the Spirit of God to empower and enable us. So the Bible says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13

Next Sunday after worship we will have a very important meeting of the congregation. This meeting is for the entire congregation – members and non-members alike. It’s for everybody who cares about the mission of Jesus Christ and the future of this Presbyterian Church. What I’m asking you to do between now and then is to think and pray about the conditions of privation – right here in our little corner of the world. What is really lacking, in the spirits, minds and bodies of the people here – those in the church and in this community? There’s plenty of lack to choose from, but some needs may be more acute than others. We need focus in our mission. As St Paul said, 1 Corinthians 9:26 “I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air…” So, I’ll end where I began.  The question is: “What do we think we are doing here anyway?” “What are we trying to accomplish in our lives and through this church?” Clearly we have a calling, and a mission from Christ. But we need to move from generalizations to specific action. So, the question I’d like you to wrestle with is just this… In concrete terms of your life and our corner of the world, what is our mission?

 

Sex and Culture

This is the last of this series of sermons on Power, Money and Sex. If you will recall, the subtitle of the series is Christian ethics in everyday living. Christian ethics in everyday living means trying to do the right thing in the situations we face and with the people we meet every day. Last week I talked about sex as a part – a big part of every human life. My main point was that sex is a good gift from God. It is a gift given by the Creator to be properly used and thoroughly enjoyed by humans. Today, I want to get a little more specific – especially about the issues of human sexuality that have for several decades dominated the conversation in our churches and in our culture.

Like any other set of attitudes and beliefs, our attitudes and beliefs about human sexuality are heavily influenced by our culture. To say otherwise would be dishonest. The church has always been in a kind of give and take relationship with culture – sometimes rising up in protest against some aspect of culture, sometimes championing a popular cultural cause. Yet as those who seek to be faithful to Jesus Christ, we can’t simply align ourselves with particular cultural attitudes or beliefs. Instead, we need to seek to discover what ways of thinking and feeling about, and acting on these sensitive issues are faithful to God whether or not culturally accepted. Being a cultural or political conservative or a liberal is not what really matters. Those labels tend to cloud what is really important. Faithfulness to God, as we understand faithfulness, is the single most important measure of any Christian attitude, belief, or practice. Though we are in the world and are necessarily influence by the world, we are not supposed be of the world. Is Jesus a liberal or a conservative? The question is nonsensical. Jesus is the light of the world and shines his searching and knowing light upon all.

As many of you know, the Presbyterian Church USA – our denomination – is in the midst of a time of discernment and change with respect to how we include in the life of the church sisters and brothers in Christ who are of differing sexual orientations. In two days our Presbytery – Wabash Valley – will vote on a proposed amendment to the church constitution that will permit churches and pastors to perform and celebrate same-sex marriages. Your Session, the elders you have elected to lead this particular church have been studying and praying about this question, and will continue to do. I do not speak for them, but I am personally in favor of this amendment and intend to vote for it. This is, for me, a matter of following in the Way of Christ. I’ll tell you why.

First, and above all else, I believe that the message of Christ is that God opens wide arms of welcome to all people. At various times in the history of the Christian church certain groups of people have been categorically excluded from full participation in the Christian community. At first the message of God’s forgiving and accepting love in Jesus Christ was thought to be for Jewish believers only. This seemed to be the message of Jesus himself. Here is a little story from the gospel of Matthew. “Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting 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.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”

I believe that what we see here is the beginning of a trajectory – a movement toward inclusion and away from exclusion. The trajectory continues through the book of Acts when Peter is sent to non-Jews with the inclusive word from God: “Do not call unclean what I have made clean.” This same movement toward inclusion reaches a kind of theological high point in Paul’s letter to the Galatians when he writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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.” Here the apostolic message of inclusion in Christ is applied across all boundaries of race, sex, and social class.
Understanding the Way of Christ in terms of movement or trajectory toward inclusion has prompted the church to stand against cultural practices of exclusion and injustice. The church’s stand against slavery and all forms of racism, and the church’s demand for equal standing for women and for divorced people in all areas of the church’s life – are examples of how we have attempted to put into practice Christ’s way of welcome for all people – especially those who historically have been marginalized and left out. The church has shone as a light in the world in these ways.

There are those who say that the case with sexual orientation or gender identity is different. It is said that sexual orientation and gender identity is strictly a matter of choice, whereas biological sex (as I discussed last week) and race are not. Of course, this says nothing about divorce and remarriage. But we’ll set that aside for now. I will not take the time to go into detail here, but I strongly disagree that sexual orientation is a matter of choice. First, there is no solid scientific evidence to support that idea. On the contrary. The biological or genetic mechanics of sexual orientation appear highly complex, but evidence points away from choice. The science admittedly is not conclusive. But, science aside, gay or straight, almost nobody experiences sexual orientation, or gender identity (masculineness or feminineness) as merely a choice. If you are heterosexual, do you recall a time when you chose to be? I mean, if you feel desire for a person of the opposite sex, do you remember choosing that desire? You will certainly recall choosing to act or not act on your desires – that is what we all do. Because we believe that promiscuity – indiscriminate and casual sexual activity – is contrary to the purposes of God, gay or straight, we choose not to be promiscuous. I believe that sex within a covenanted partnership is the faithful way. And I believe that the majority pattern for marriage is one man and one woman. But I have to ask, does the fact of a majority pattern exclude the possibility of a faithful minority pattern? The point is this: if my basic sexual desire is a given, should I be expected to renounce, deny and repent of what God has given me? Why would I be expected to completely renounce my sexual orientation or sense of gender?

The answer that is most often given among Christians is, “Because the Bible says so.” I am not unfamiliar with the argument –taken from the Bible – or at least from certain passages in the Bible. But I believe that excerpting a few passages from their over-all context and applying them without taking into account the larger movement of scripture does not show a deeper faithfulness to scripture, but a more superficial. And it does not show a more faithful commitment to the Way of Jesus Christ. I read the other day a comment on the ongoing process of the proposed changes to the PCUSA constitution. I quote: “[T]he trend is clear: same sex marriage is going to [be] (sic) allowed in all PCUSA churches by all PCUSA pastors.” The author continued, “This is a clear departure from the plain meaning of the Scriptures on the subject. This is also a clear indication that the denomination has made up her mind to go her own way – in direct contradiction to the Way set forth by God.”

I find statements like this offensive in the extreme, and obviously I could not disagree more. Simply saying that something is “the plain meaning” of the scripture does not make it so. My study of the scriptures on the subject does not yield any such “plain” meaning. Instead, what I find is that principles of sound biblical interpretation show me that the few (perhaps seven in all) passages that deal with same-sex activity have nothing to do with what we know today as homosexual orientation. The best historical scholarship shows that what we know of today as homosexuality – that is a particular sexual orientation – was not even thought of in the biblical world. The fact is that when I apply the best practices of biblical interpretation, practices like Christ-Centered interpretation, interpreting scripture by scripture, and paying attention to biblical and historical context, I discover that these few passages are dealing with matters entirely other than homosexual orientation and same-sex marriage. They are dealing with matters like ritual purity, violence toward strangers, cultic prostitution, lax divorce laws, and the consequences of idolatry.

The Way set forth by God is the Way of Jesus Christ and is not necessarily made clear in a surface reading of a few passages in an English translation of the Bible. Jesus Christ himself is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” In the Bible, Jesus has nothing whatsoever to say about same-sex orientation or same-sex relationship. What Jesus does have a lot to say about is inviting the outsider in, lifting up the oppressed, making room at God’s table for everyone, and giving his life for the reconciliation of all. This is the way set forth by God in Christ. I believe in this way with all my heart – and the PCUSA with all its shortcomings is in no sense departing from this way.

Finally, what does this all have to do with culture again? There are those who say that the stance of the PCUSA is not a light in the world, but a compromise with the world – a capitulation to cultural trends. But there are many cultural trends. Fox News and MSNBC both have their audiences. Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan both sit on the US Supreme Court. The fact that a dimension of the Way of Christ has some support in some aspect of culture is neither proves nor disproves it. Cultural approval or disapproval is not a measure of faithfulness. Let the culture wars rage on… our business is to seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. Our business is to discover and live out in all the particulars of our world the Way of Jesus Christ.

Binding and Loosing

About ten years ago an article by Mark Allan Powell, professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio appeared that can be very helpful as we seek to answer some of our questions about the authority of the Bible. [i]

Here is a brief summary of what Professor Powell wrote.

There are many “prescriptions” (Thou shalt) and “proscriptions” (Thou shalt not) in the Bible.  These are not just in Old Testament law.  They are also in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles.  We cannot simply affirm, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” as if every scriptural mandate has “universal and permanent applicability.”  At the same time, we can’t set aside Biblical commandments just because they no longer fit with the “shifting values of our age.”  What to do?

Some help can be found in the gospel principle of “binding” and “loosing.”  In Matthew 18:18 Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  It appears that the “church” is given authority to “bind” and “loose,” but what does this mean?

The ideas of binding and loosing are best understood in terms of the Jewish rabbinical practice of applying scriptural commands.  “Jewish Rabbis ‘bound’ the law when they determined that a commandment was applicable to a particular situation, and they ‘loosed’ the law when they determined that a word of Scripture (while eternally valid) was not applicable under certain specific circumstances.” The application of the principle of binding and loosing becomes clear in the famous argument between the schools of first century rabbis Hillel and Shammai. “… The question was raised whether one might be guilty of stealing if one finds something and keeps it without searching for the rightful owner. When such a search is required how extensive must it be? The Talmud (traditional Jewish oral law) states, ‘if a fledgling bird is found within 50 cubits of a dovecote, it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limits of 50 cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it.’” Thus the commandment “thou shall not steal” is bound when the bird is found near its owner, and it is loosed when the bird is found at a distance. While it is universally true that stealing is wrong, what constitutes stealing in a particular situation is subject to interpretation.

 

It may well be that Jesus was practicing the rabbinic principle of binding and loosing when he offered his interpretation of the law in the sermon on the Mount, or when he appeared to relax certain Sabbath restrictions. Jesus has the authority to bind and loose the law “because he is a unique manifestation of God’s presence.” But it appears that not only has God given this authority to Jesus but, in turn, Jesus has given it to the church.

 

The church’s exercise of this authority can be seen in the apostolic witness. Consider the example of eating food offered to idols. While idolatry is permanently and universally sinful in the Bible, what constitutes idolatry is not always clear. It would be up to the community to ask “is the scriptural prohibition against idolatry applicable to eating food that was once dedicated to idols?” However this question is resolved, it is clearly the community that resolves it and does so with divine authority. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

It is the church that is given authority by Jesus to determine the applicability of biblical mandates in an immediate situation. “The Bible itself recognizes a need for the church to consider the continuing relevance of biblical prescriptions and proscriptions and, when there is controversy, to declare whether those directives remain binding or whether they might be loosed. Thus, the Bible does allow for biblical mandates to be declared invalid for specific contemporary situations, but it makes clear that such a loosing of the law is only to be done by a community that is following the example of Jesus and adhering to principles of interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture as he did.”

 

In another article[ii] Professor Powell writes, “The church today may consider whether the Matthean understanding of binding and loosing can continue to inform its ethical deliberation with regard to current issues. To take an obvious example, contemporary questions regarding acceptance of homosexual behavior may be considered in this light. Should the biblical prohibitions of same-sex sexual relations be bound or loosed with regard to specific contemporary situations? What if, for example, the couple can be determined to be exclusively and irreparably homosexual in orientation, and what if they are willing to commit themselves to living in a monogamous relationship that is accountable to the church? Could the prohibitions be deemed inapplicable to that situation?”

 

Food for thought.



[i] “Binding and Loosing: Asserting the Moral Authority of Scripture in Light of a Mathean Paradigm.” By Mark Alan Powell, Ex Auditu, 19 (2003): 82.

[ii] “Binding and Loosing: A Paradigm for Ethical Discernment from the Gospel of Matthew.” Mark Alan Powell, Currents in Theology and Mission, 30 (2003): 6.

Jesus Saves!

Jesus Saves!

In what way is the death of Jesus meaningful for us? Or perhaps it’s better to ask, what does the death of Jesus do for us, since it is often thought that Jesus’ death has some real effect for us. It is often said that Jesus died to save us – to take away our sins. But how is that? What can it mean when we say, “Jesus died to save us?” And how can someone else’s death, take away my sins?

When theologians talk about the meaning of the death of Christ, they will speak of theories of atonement. What does “atonement” mean? Webster conventionally defines atonement as the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. That leads me to my first point.

While the concept is everywhere present, the word “atonement” occurs only twice in the New Testament. In both instances it refers to a sacrificial act involving the shedding of blood. This language is borrowed from the ancient Jewish sacrificial system, but blood sacrifice is not unique to ancient Judaism. In all sacrificial systems the life of an animal or, in rare instances a human, is offered to appease a god. It can be found in the religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Pre-Christian Europe, the Pacific Islands and pre-Columbian America – and many others. In fact, it is the chief characteristic of almost all ancient or so-called “pagan” religions. One author has said, “Paganism without blood is no paganism at all.” One of the common features of a religion of blood sacrifice is that the animal sacrificed is usually eaten in a ritual community meal. Sounds familiar.

It is very common to hear Christians speak of the death of Jesus in terms of blood sacrifice. Since Christianity was born out of Judaism and in a world where religions of blood sacrifice were common, it is understandable that the early interpreters of the death of Jesus would seek to express its meaning in these terms. As the Christian tradition developed through the centuries this language of bloodshed was retained and even glorified. Many of us are familiar with popular hymns that proclaim “a fountain filled with blood” or ask, “What can take away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

Personally, I find these images repellant. I cannot be comfortable taking part in a religion centered on blood sacrifice. The only way that I can accept the language of bloody sacrifice is to understand that it is a relic of ancient times and should be interpreted metaphorically. Blood is a metaphor for death, a symbol of a life freely given. This I can accept, but I want no fountain filled with blood!

Still there is the death of Jesus, and the question of how this death affects me. How does Jesus save? Remember I said that theologians speak of theories of atonement? There are several such theories and I want to consider two major theories now. The first is the substitutionary theory, and the second is the victory over evil theory.

The theory of substitutionary atonement has several subsets, like “the satisfaction theory” and the “legal or judicial theory,” but however it is nuanced, it comes down to basically this: God is very unhappy – angry, disappointed, outraged, saddened, wounded, offended, and generally upset with the human race. And justifiably so. In great love, God gave humans paradise, perfection and freedom. In their freedom humans rebelled against God and chose to sin and become selfish. This is not only a historic rebellion, but also one that occurs over and over in every human life. This situation is so intolerable to God that God intends to send everybody to hell. Some theories say that God doesn’t really want to do this (God is Love, after all) but God’s own justice and holiness require it.

It is at this point that Jesus – God’s Son steps in. God sends Jesus (and Jesus also volunteers for the job) into the world as a human – the perfect, consummate human. As a human, Jesus stands in for the whole race. Jesus becomes the substitute. All the righteous wrath of God is then poured out on Jesus. On the cross God is punishing Jesus instead of you and me. God allows or perhaps even wills Jesus to be brutalized and killed. In fact, God even sends Jesus to hell for us. In this way everything that God has against the human race is resolved. We are reconciled to God (some say God is reconciled to us!) and all is forgiven. Jesus became the substitute victim and took all our sins and sin’s penalty on himself and we are saved! Well not quite. We still have to accept Jesus as our savior – meaning only those who accept Jesus by believing this theory of atonement actually receive the benefit of Jesus’ death.

I do not mean to make light of this very serious business, but I have an insurmountable problem with this idea of atonement. I just don’t think God comes off very well in it. I don’t see how God can be like that. In this theory God seems remarkably like an ancient near eastern despot. God is good and benevolent, but also pretty inflexible and not just a little vindictive. I mean, can you imagine that the Creator of the Universe, the source of all goodness and life, can’t forgive human sin without first having a perfect human beat up and murdered to pay for it – to square everything? This idea of atonement makes God out to be more like the Godfather. It makes God into the kind of being that I think none of us want to imagine ourselves as being. I certainly do not aspire to be like this.

The other basic theory of atonement is very common among Lutherans. I think that is because it was a favorite of Martin Luther. Sometimes called by its Latin name Christus Victor, this theory understands the death of Christ as a cosmic struggle against the powers of evil, that separate human beings from God. On the cross Jesus engages the powers of evil. In a nonviolent act of surrender to violence, Jesus allows evil to do its worst to him. Much in the way that Mahatma Gandhi took on the British Empire by challenging the empire to do its worst, Jesus challenges evil and through the resurrection triumphs over it. The meaning of Christ’s death, is that through death Christ breaks the power of death over the whole human race. Consequently, we humans are freed from death and may live joyfully in the hope of resurrection.

This theory has much to commend it. And I want to commend it to you with some modified emphasis. Christ appeared in the world as the embodiment of love. Throughout his life and in all of his teachings he demonstrated that love is the greatest power in the universe. The presence of God in human life is manifest as unconditional love. The life and death and resurrection of Christ, may be understood as the ultimate cosmic struggle of the power of love, against all other powers. Neither greed nor hatred nor prejudice nor any other power of self-assertion, nor even the power of death itself can overcome the power of love. The power of love is the power of life, and in Jesus the light of that love shines most brightly. Nothing quenches the light of love. As the gospel of John says, “the light shines in darkness and darkness does not overcome it.”

If this is the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ, and I think it must be, how is this saving knowledge for us? In one place, the apostle Paul says, “if the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives in you, that same spirit will also give life to your mortal body.” It seems to me that the consistent message of the early church, the consistent question that was posed, was not “are you saved?” but “have you received the Holy Spirit?” I believe those first followers of Jesus, recognized that it was the unleashing of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of love, the spirit of life that occurred through the death and resurrection of Christ. They experienced the power of that spirit, to form them as a church on the day of Pentecost. Immediately, they began proclaiming that this same spirit was free in the world and available to any who would open themselves to it. The act of faith in Christ was, and is, the act of opening the human soul, your soul and mine, to the power of the spirit of love, the spirit of life. This is how Jesus saves.

The power of love drives out whatever stands in its way. And that which stands in the way of love can only be named as sin. The gift of the spirit, the gift of love is at the same time, the gift of the forgiveness of sins. It is the healing of the soul, the calming of our anxiety, the instilling of hope, the infusion of life. Accepting this gift is what it means to be saved. Being in our midst, as the gift of love, the gift of life, is how Jesus saves. Accepting the death of Jesus is accepting my own death to all that is not God’s intention for my life. Accepting the resurrection of Jesus is accepting that God is present and active to make my own life new and alive in love everyday.

For me, it is necessary to move beyond bloody and brutal theories of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As bloody and brutal as his execution was, he embraced it freely on our behalf to demonstrate what self-giving love looks like in the extreme. He embraced death to show that love and life are finally triumphant, for these are the greatest powers in the universe. These are the power of God.

For Further reading I commend J Denny Weaver’s books, The Nonviolent Atonement (2nd Edition 2011) and The Nonviolent God (2013).

Sermon from February 2, 2014

When Love Hurts

By Steve Quinlan

March 2, 2014

 

“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” 1 John 3:17 NRSV 

 

It’s been almost twenty years now since the publication a little book by Loren Mead of the Alban Institute.  The book caused quite a stir when it first appeared and it continues to have an impact in the church today.  The book is called “The Once and Future Church,” and in it Mead describes what 20 years ago was a predicted, but now is a full blown paradigm shift in the way the church thinks about and does mission.

 

You know what I mean by a paradigm shift?  It is a radical and often dramatic change in how we think about something and as a result, how we behave.  Think about how people thought about the origin of species before and after Darwin, or about the working of the mind before and after Freud, or about the relationship between energy and matter before and after Einstein.  You get the idea.   In the same way, the Christian church had for a long time thought of Missions as something done by professional missionaries in faraway places.  But today things have changed.  Today we understand that the place to do mission is not so much far away – though that work is still important – but today we understand that the place for us to do mission is right here – right outside the front door of the church – and maybe sometimes even inside the doors.  And the work of missions is no longer done mainly by clergy or other professional missionaries, but by every follower of Christ – you folks.

 

But what does it mean to do missions?  That’s a huge question, but it means at least this: our mission is to love one another and all our fellow human beings with an eye toward helping people know God and live well.  That is the mission of Christ.  As Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

 

I don’t think that this means that God wants people to have an abundance of material things, or an abundance of money.  Rather that people would have a deeply meaningful life – a rich relationship with God and healthy relationships with others.  An abundant life means a life full of hope and full of possibility.  It means a life free from poverty of soul and poverty of body, if you will.  An abundant life is, in my mind, a life in which human needs, the needs of spirit, mind, and body are met.  This is what God’s love is about.  God is Love, and God is creating a humanity that has everything it needs and can flourish in the image and likeness of God.

So I return then to our passage for this morning.  “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

The question in my mind is this: if the focus of our mission is right here in our neighborhood or our community, then in terms of the immediate mission before us, what are the world’s goods, and what is the human need?

 

This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, and it is what I really want to talk with you about today.  To put the question simply, can we help in our community, and if so, how?  What are the needs and do we have the goods to help right here where God has put us – in Peru, Miami County, Indiana?

This is where we can engage in a little conversation today.  But before we do, I’d like to take a minute more to talk to you about another book I’ve been reading.  In the last couple of years there has been a spate of books published addressing the question of how Christians can best help meet the needs of people.  How do we best show the love of God?  At the top of the list of those books is one by Robert Lupton.  Lupton is a Presbyterian and an inner city mission worker in Atlanta, Georgia,  and his book has the very provocative title: “Toxic Charity, How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It.”  His premise is this:  one-way charity – that is charity that gives or serves without requiring or expecting the receiver to do anything – often does more harm to people than good. “How?” Lupton asks. By creating dependency, by destroying personal initiative, and by robbing people of human dignity.  Lupton says, “when we do for those in need what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves, we dis-empower them… While one-way giving may seem like the Christian thing to do… Such charity subtly implies that the recipient has nothing of value [to contribute to their own well-being or to the health of their community.]”

 

Lupton goes on to describe how charity related dependency occurs. It goes like this: “give once and you elicit appreciation; give twice and you create anticipation; give three times and you create expectation; give four times and it becomes entitlement; give five times and you create dependency.”  After that, continued giving just deepens dependency.

 

Of course this has nothing to do with emergency or short-term giving. There are times when people face a genuine emergency and need help right now with no strings attached. It’s altogether appropriate that we should come to the aid of people in those situations. It’s also clear that we don’t want people to stay in those situations and that once we address the emergency we need to take the next step and address the cause of the emergency and discover if there are ways to help people get back on their feet and become self-sufficient once again.

 

It’s also clear that we are not talking about people with genuine disabilities or incapacities that make it impossible for them to take care of all their own needs. Again our call is to act compassionately and provide the necessary support. But even people with disabilities are not usually unable to do anything. Many persons who are facing challenges in one way have extraordinary abilities and capacities in other ways.

 

So here’s the point.  It cannot be disputed that most of the giving and serving that Christian people do is well-intentioned.  We feel compassion and we want to help.  We give and we serve from our hearts.  But sometimes that is not enough, we also need to give and serve with our heads.

 

Now then, let’s use our heads a little bit this morning and have a little conversation. As you look around in this community, what are some of the greatest needs that you see?

 

[Feedback time]

Okay then.  Now let’s talk about our goods.  What are the things we have that might be used for the long term benefit of those in need?  Here I don’t want you to think only about material goods, but other goods that we have.  For instance, many of us have good educations.  Many of us have tremendous practical knowledge and know-how.  Many of us have great interpersonal skills.

[Feedback time]

 

Before I finish, I think I need to say a word about politics and economics.  The kind of loving that I am advocating is not an extension of a political agenda.  I don’t really care if somebody is a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent.  By definition, politics is about getting and holding the power to govern, and that’s not what I’m talking about.  Neither is loving an outgrowth of an economic philosophy.  People can be kind-hearted and fair or ruthless and exploitative whatever economic system they prefer.   Christian compassion may demand that we get involved in government or economics in some way or another, but  Christian compassion is not an ideological position – it is a living expression of the God who is self-giving love.

 

So there it is.  Mission starts right at our doorstep and Christ calls us to love God by loving and helping those in need.  But the help we offer should not only be well meaning, but well thought out.  We should work with those in need to help them break out of the humiliating and dehumanizing cycle of dependency that many are caught in.  Our purpose in doing mission – in giving of our goods for others it not to make us feel good about our helping – we will feel good I think and that’s fine, but it’s just a byproduct of loving.  Our purpose in helping is that others would discover that, as the saying goes, God loves them just the way they are but doesn’t want to leave them that way.

This kind of mission hard.  It is a long-term, hands on commitment to walking with people on the path to dignity, integrity and an abundant life.  May God guide and inspire us as we seek to obey Christ’s commandment to love.  Amen.

Imagining God

Imagining God

Human beings have the extraordinary capacity to dream and imagine.  Our brains can create realities in our minds, inner worlds that appear to us as “real” as any other world.  This faculty of imagination is the primary arena in which God works to shape our lives.  God speaks to us not merely by telling us facts we ought to believe, but by telling us stories and giving us visions that fire our imaginations and allow us to see the world, and ourselves in new ways.

Jesus taught in parables – almost exclusively.  He did not say anything to them without using a parable.” Mark 4:34 (NIV2011)  Why? Because he understood that for truth to take hold of people at the deepest, life changing level, it would have to take hold of their imaginations.  People need not only to think in new ways, they need to feel and to see in new ways.

How do we see God?  What do we imagine God is doing in our lives and in our world?  What would the world look like if we saw it as God sees it?  What would relationships between people look like if we saw each other as God sees us?   If God’s dream for the world can take hold of us, what would we do?  Where shall we turn that our imaginations may be so inspired?

Well, we should turn to the stories of our faith.  By this I mean, of course, the stories of the Bible, but I mean more than that.  Stories told by great faith-moved writers; not only people like John Milton and John Bunyan,  but more contemporary writers like G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien.  Even, and perhaps especially writers who speak with different voices, writers like Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Sayers, Walker Percy , Taylor Caldwell, and Madeleine L’Engle – among many, many others.  My point is not to create a reading list – you can create your own – my point is that we need to open ourselves to works of the imagination that speak to our imaginations – that might help to awaken our capacity for being grasped by a vision of God and God’s world – at least our corner of it.

Blessings!

Steve

A Very Brief Statement of My Beliefs

Last month (scroll down) I wrote about my faith, that is, how I sense that the living God shapes my life. Now I’ll very briefly tell you some of the things I believe to be more or less true about how God makes “himself” known to the world and therefore to me. That “more or less” may sound a little equivocal, like I’m not really certain of these things. That is because I’m not. Certainty seems to me an illusion. So I do not say I have certain knowledge of these things, but agree with Saint Paul’s statement “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12 (NRSV)

(As an aside, you also may wonder why I put “himself” in quotation marks when writing of God. It’s because I want to draw attention to the traditional and not altogether satisfactory use of the masculine reflexive pronoun. I use “himself” because I just don’t know how else to use a reflexive pronoun to speak of God. I could say God “herself” but that doesn’t get me any further. I can’t say God “itself” – too impersonal. I have tried saying God “Godself,” but “Godself” is not a word in the English language, so I’ve stopped doing that. I can’t reinvent the English language just because it is not adequate to speak of God. Look, God, in creating us in “his” own image, created us male and female. That tells me that God is both masculine and feminine, and neither exclusively. You may notice that in what I’ve written below, I have simply avoided the reflexive pronoun altogether. Discretion is the better part of valor.)

So here is what I believe, more or less.

I believe in one ineffable God whom philosophers have called the Numinous and the Sacred, whom theologians have called the Ground of Being and Ultimate Reality, whose name the ancient Hebrews rightly dared not speak, whom Jesus lovingly addressed as Abba, Father.1 I trust that this God creates all things, sustains all things, reconciles the world in Jesus Christ, and relates to us personally. I assert with the Apostle Paul that in God we live and move and have our being.2

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a fully human being who was born and grew and lived and died as every other human being.3 I claim that in Jesus the Word of God was made flesh so that we rightly affirm the divinity of Jesus as Christ.4 I believe that after he died, God raised Jesus from death so that his followers experienced Jesus as yet alive, and I experience him as yet alive still.5 The mystery and full meaning of the incarnation, death, resurrection and real presence of Christ exceeds the limits of rational explanation, and yet is the ground of our hope in life and in death.

I believe that God is Spirit, and as Spirit is truly present in all the world.6 This divine presence is often referred to in Scripture as Holy Spirit, but is also known as the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God, or simply Spirit. The presence of God the Spirit makes possible our experience of reconciliation and communion with God and our fellow humans.

It is my sense that the acts of God in creating, revealing, reconciling and transforming are dynamic and ongoing processes.7 The enjoyment of these divine processes in the fullest possible measure is, I believe, the divine intention and aim for all human beings, indeed for all creation. As Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”8

Correctly interpreted, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments bear faithful witness to these acts of God in Christ.9

I believe that the new and reconciled life, a new way of being in the world, the reign of God’s justice and peace is manifest in, by and through the church, the called-together people of God, as the church seeks to be faithful in living out its calling.

I believe that in the church this new way of being in the world is signified and sealed by the two sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ. In baptism we re-present our engrafting into Christ and inclusion in the covenant of grace. In the Lord’s Supper we gratefully remember Christ’s sacrificial death, join in loving communion, celebrate the gift of eternal life, and are spiritually nourished and strengthened to live out our calling in faith.10

I believe that in living out our calling in faith the church works as the body of Christ for the fullest possible realization of God’s reign of justice and peace among all people.11

I believe a lot more than this, but this kind of religious belief-talk should be meted out in measured doses. So this is enough for now.

Steve


  1. ineffable means beyond words or description; numinous means mysteriously supernatural; Ultimate Reality and Ground of Being were terms used by German-American theologian Paul Tillich; in Rabbinic Judaism the speaking of God’s name was strictly prohibited; Abba, Father see Mark 14:36 

  2. Acts 17:28 

  3. Gal. 4:4; Phil. 2:7; Heb. 4:15; any many other places 

  4. John 1:14 

  5. 1Cor. 15:4-9 

  6. Jn. 4:24; Ps. 139:7 

  7. Here I am influenced by the Process Theology of John Cobb, David Griffin, Marjorie Suchocki, and Catherine Keller, among others. See www.processandfaith.org for more information on Process Theology. 

  8. John 10:10 

  9. Luke 24:27 

  10. Matt. 28:19; Lk. 22:19 

  11. Ephesians 1:22-23 

As For Me – A Testimony of My Faith

I want to try to tell you what my faith means to me. My hope is that you will read something here that may prompt you to think about your faith and how you would describe what it means to you.

Without going into a lot of detail, let me just say a few words about what this post is and is not. It is a testimony about how what I consider to be a living faith in a living God shapes my life. This is not a statement of my beliefs. If you want that, I’ll post it next time. This is also not a statement about my ministry. If you want that, I’ll post something about that a little later.
What I want to do here is tell you in simple and practical terms what my faith is and how it matters to me. So…

My faith is about a God who is real to me. God is as real to me as any person I know. Of course, I don’t see God with my eyes or hear God with my ears, and I often don’t feel the presence of God with any inner sensation. But God is real to me like air is real. God is all around me, outside me and inside me. God is intimately aware of me – God knows all about me and thinks about me all the time. And I am aware that I am breathing God and swimming in God. As it says in the Bible, “In him we live and move and have our being.” My faith lets me experience a God who is real and who is present.

My faith makes me aware that God wants things for me and wants things from me. This is a way of saying that God has an intention for me. How do I know this? Mainly, I know it by how I feel when I do things. When I do some things, I feel a kind of peace and harmony – I feel a positive flow of energy. Its like being carried along by a warm current. I feel like I’m moving with the flow, and it just feels right. I feel like I am moving forward, like I am growing, and I feel very grateful. On the other hand, when I do other things, I feel all out of whack. Everything feels awkward and out of harmony. There’s a clash and a kind of harshness to things. It feels like I’m swimming upstream, like I’m on the wrong bus, like I’m knee deep in a muddy swamp. Slog, strain, try harder and still get nowhere. I feel frustrated and resentful. My faith teaches me to pay attention to these feelings and seek a positive flow of peace and harmony, because God has a way and wants me in it.

I talk to God all the time. Sometimes I talk in words, but most often I talk in thoughts. I ask God all kinds of questions. I ask about people and choices and things I don’t understand. I ask about the Bible – what it says, what it means, how it matters. I ask about my work for the church – what I should do, what I should say, what direction I should point. And God answers me. Sometimes God answers with the feelings I was just talking about, but most often God answers with thoughts and ideas. Things occur to me. I get ideas. It would be easy enough to say that these thoughts and ideas just pop into my mind from nowhere, but my faith tells me otherwise. My faith tells me God is behind this. These thoughts and ideas are not infallibly correct and fitting. Some don’t work out at all. But many do – way too many for it to be random. Of course I think about things a lot. I read and study and meditate a lot, and my personal history is full of this stuff. So I could say that its research and hard thinking that yields good thoughts and fruitful ideas, and it’s true that my time spent in study and reflection is important. But my faith tells me that genuine insight is a gift – an inspiration – a grace. It comes to me, not just from me.

My faith tells me that God is doing something of ultimate importance in the world. Ultimate importance. To me that means that there is nothing, NOTHING, more important than what God is doing. I don’t know what God is doing in detail, but I’ve got a clue. God is creating a good world. My faith teaches me that God is good and is making the world good. That includes making people as good as they can be. It makes a huge difference to me to be a part of that creative process. To participate as a partner with God, as what C.S. Lewis called “a sub-creator” is hugely important. It gives my life meaning and purpose. This transcendent purpose is what keeps me going. If I didn’t feel like I was part of something much bigger than myself, something much more important than me, I think I’d be tremendously bored. I’d feel like my life was a big waste of time. All this is about having an answer to the big question “WHY?” Why am I alive? Why does my life matter? Why should I care? Why should I get up and keep going another day? Why? Because I am involved in God’s doing something of ultimate significance, something of Biblical proportions! To put it simply, my faith gives my life meaning.

My faith teaches me that God is incredibly clever at using everything to work out His creative purpose. Lots of bad stuff has happened in my life. I’m sure it does in almost everybody’s. I’ve done stupid and hurtful things. I’ve been ashamed with good reason – and without good reason. I have known emotional pain and I’ve experienced loss. I’ve seen people I love suffer and felt helpless to do anything about it. There are parts of my personality that I like, and parts that are broken and misshapen. But even through all the bad parts of me and bad things that happen, God seems to be able to still use this stuff for His purpose. Its as if nothing is irredeemable. Nothing is beyond the hope of still being the vehicle for good. This is what some people have called “the providence of God.” I believe in this. My faith teaches me that God has a fantastic knack for bringing good out of what goes badly. This give me hope. My faith tells me to never give up hope, because God is not frustrated by any kind of setback.

My faith also tells me that the adventure of being alive with God is going to go on forever. A few years ago there was a movie called “The Never-ending Story.” One part of that story always and endlessly led to the next. My faith tells me we are on a “never-ending journey” of creation and discovery. Just when we think we have learned all there is to know about something, bang! Some new insight occurs, some new way of looking at things happens, and we realize that we’ve only just scratched the surface, we’ve only just begun. Sometimes people ask if I have a favorite Bible verse. I always tell them its 1 Corinthians 8:2 “Anyone who thinks he knows something, knows nothing yet as he ought to know it.” There’s always more to know, always new ways to know. Always more to experience, always more to discover. The poet T.S. Eliot wrote,

With the drawing of this Love,
And the voice of this Calling,
We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring,
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

My faith tells me that God calls me onto a never-ending journey of joy and discovery.

These are some of the most important aspects of my faith.

Now you may have noticed that I haven’t said anything that much resembles a formal or creed-like statement of faith. I haven’t used many traditional religious words. I haven’t talked about heaven and hell, or about salvation from sin, or about judgment or mercy or holiness or being born again or resurrection or any of that stuff. I haven’t even said anything about Jesus Christ. All those omissions are on purpose. You see all that stuff is about religion – the Christian religion in particular. My faith is prior to my religion. Faith is a living trust in a living God. Religion is an attempt to describe faith and to regularize certain beliefs and practices that are meant to help us have faith and grow in it. Unfortunately, its way too easy to get religion and faith mixed up. Faith is what is of first importance. Religion is secondary. I consider myself a man of faith, but I know lots of people who are way more religious than I.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a Christian – a dedicated follower of Jesus the Christ, but I have to admit that sometimes the Christian religion with its many difficult beliefs and practices can actually be an impediment to faith. So I don’t ever want to get the cart of religion before the horse of faith. Do you think Jesus the Christ was trying to become the founder of a new religion? Or was he the true man of faith, trying to teach people the way that their faith in God might grow and become the ultimate guiding light in their lives? Do you think Jesus would be pleased that for over 2000 years those who claim to be his followers have fought and killed over what they thought were or were not correct religious beliefs? I don’t think so. Jesus embodied and taught what is at the heart of true religion – a living faith in a living God. That’s why when I set for myself the task of sharing with you something about my faith, I wanted to make it a more-or-less non-religious statement. I wanted to affirm what the 20th Century Christian martyr Deitrich Bonhoeffer called “a religionless Christianity.” I want you to see that even if you don’t know all that much about your religion, you can still have a deep and meaningful faith – a living faith in a living God that can shape the way you live your life – shape it for the good.

Stephen Quinlan ~ July 2013

A Sharing In Christ

As we read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, it may be good to remind ourselves that this epistle is what may be called “an occasional letter.”  That is, Paul wrote this letter, not to set down his beliefs in general, but to address some specific issues and answer some particular questions that arose in a unique historical situation.  Because some of the issues Paul addresses have such historical particularity, we may question their relevance for today.  These days most of us do not struggle with questions about baptism for the dead, or about appropriate head coverings to be worn in church.  And thanks be to God, we have pretty much moved beyond questions about whether women should speak in church or what is the proper length for a man’s hair.  These are all questions that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians, but for the most part, they are not our questions.

So when we read what Paul has to say about eating meat that was offered to an idol in some pagan religious ritual, we may rightly wonder what, if anything, this can have to do with us.  You see, in Corinth, as in most of the larger cities of the Roman Empire, much of the meat sold in the market place came from animals that had been slaughtered as a sacrifice to one of the many deities being worshiped at the time.  When you pick up your next pot roast at the supermarket, you will not wonder whether the poor cow was sacrificed on an altar to some pagan god.

So if we are to get anything out of this part of the Bible, we need to look behind the question and Paul’s answer to it.  We must look behind it for something else, and when we do, we’ll find that behind Paul’s answer to this question there is some very important theology.  For want of a better label, I’m going to call it Paul’s theology of “a sharing in Christ.”

Paul had no problem with somebody eating food that had previously been offered to idols or “demons” as he called them.  To eat such food outside of the context of faith had no religious significance at all.  “Give thanks to God for the food and eat up.”  That was his advice.  But, to eat in faith, as an act of worship, that was another matter all together.  You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.  You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

Paul writes, Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.  I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.  The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.  (10:14-21).  The thinking goes something like this.  When one sits at table, and partakes in a ritual meal, a kind of partnership is created between those who eat, and the one to whom the table is dedicated.  This is the whole point of eating as a religious practice.  In the consumption of the sacrifice, the worshiper is joined to that which is offered in a very intimate union.  The food and drink are no longer external to the worshiper, but very literally become part of her.  When someone eats a sacrificial offering in faith he becomes one with the offering, he becomes the offering if you will.  Ultimately, it is the self that is offered to the deity.  The self is offered – given over – to be joined in a partnership – a union – of service and devotion.  When true worshipers leave a meal of ritual sacrifice, they walk away as an agent – no, more than an agent – they walk away as an extension of their god.

To partake of the table of the Lord – as we regularly in our worship – signifies a triple union for us.  First, we are united with Jesus Christ in his self-offering to God.  His life and death and life again become ours – and we become his.  As Paul wrote just a few paragraphs before “Anyone that is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (1 Cor. 6:17)  Or as Jesus so elegantly expressed it, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56)

Second, in this meal we are united to the Father through the self-offering of the Son.  In union with Jesus, we give ourselves to God and are accepted and welcomed by God – received, as it were, into God’s presence, and God’s presence is given into us.  Again, as Jesus expressed it in his magnificent prayer in the 17th chapter of John’s gospel, “I ask . . . that as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . . I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

And third, we are united to each other in a bond that is closer than friendship, closer than family ties – it is the unity of the Spirit that makes us one body – one living entity.  “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” This bread, though broken remains a single loaf and this cup, though poured out remain one cup. As we share this meal, that which is in me is in you – and what is in you is in me – we have co-union – communion.

As we leave the table on any given Sunday morning morning, we leave only a time and a place.  We leave Sunday morning and this sanctuary, but we do not and cannot leave this triple union.  Where I am, there are you. We may be apart, but are not separate. And where we are, there is Christ.  And where Christ is, there is God.  Where God is, there are we all.  In this way God continues to be bodily present to and for all people.

This table is a sign of a sharing.  It is a sign of a partnership and a union.  It is a sharing in the Lord.  “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?”  It is a sharing in Christ.  In the Book of Common Worship there is this most extraordinary prayer to be said after the Lord’s Supper.

“Eternal God,you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, you have made us one with all your people in heaven and on earth. You have fed us with the bread of life, and renewed us for your service. Help us who have shared Christ’s body and received his cup, to be his faithful disciples so that our daily living may be part of the life of your kingdom, and our love be your love reaching out into the life of the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”