A year ago this past Thursday a couple asked to meet with Dennis and me. Even though I emailed and texted them beforehand, they wouldn’t tell me why they needed to meet with me so urgently. Great, I thought, they’re either PO’d at me and are leaving the church, or they’re getting divorced.
Either way, I’m going to be late for dinner.
When they came to my office, I could feel the anxiety popping off of them like static electricity. The counseling textbooks call it ‘active listening’ but really I was sitting there in front of them, silent, because I had no idea where or how to begin.
The husband, the Dad, I noticed was clutching his jeans cuff at the knees. After an awkward silence and even more more awkward chit-chat, the wife, the Mom, finally said: “You and this church have been an important part of our lives. You baptized and confined our daughters so we wanted you to know what’s going on in our family and we thought we should do it face-to-face.”
Here we go, I thought. They’re splitting up or splitting from here.
“What’s up?” I asked, sitting up to find a knot in my stomach.
And then she told us something else entirely. Something surprising.
She told us their daughters, youth in the church about my oldest son’s age, had both come out to them.
“They’re both gay” she said.
“Is that all?!” I asked. “Good God, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to tell me you were getting a divorce! Jesus doesn’t like divorce.”
They exhaled. I could see they’d been holding their breath.
“This church has been a big part of our lives and we wanted to make sure you knew that about them” she said.
“But also…” her voice trailed off and then her husband spoke up. “We also wanted to make sure that they’d still be welcomed here, that there’d be a place for them.”
“Of course. Absolutely.”
I could see the hesitation in their eyes, like I’d just tried to sell them the service plan at Best Buy so I said it plain: “Look, I love them. This church loves them. And God loves them. Nothing will ever change that.”
“You don’t think they’re sinners?” she asked.
“Of course they’re sinners” I said “but that would be just as true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners. It’s pious types he’s got a problem with.”
We talked a bit more.
About how this “issue” was playing out now in the larger United Methodist Church. About how it can be hard to adjust to picturing your kids’ future as something different than what you’d always imagined.
“You guys baptized and confirmed them here” the dad said by way of example. “I’ve always pictured them having a place here.”
As Dennis broke down for you last Sunday, the United Methodist Church stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed impasse over the issue of human sexuality.
The Council of Bishops earlier this year received a report from a special 30-person global commission called “The Way Forward,” and on Friday the Council of Bishops released the broad strokes of what will be their recommendation to the larger Church next winter at a special session to decide the matter.
And on Friday night Dennis called me to tell me to talk about it in my sermon. “I’ll be away for the weekend,” he said before disappearing in a cloud of sulfur.
The Council of Bishops weighed 3 options put forward to the them.
Two of the options, on either end of the spectrum, could be termed the conservative and progressive options. The former option would keep our church polity and discipline as it is now where homosexuality is described as being contrary to Christian teaching and openly gay Christians are kept from serving in the ministry. The latter option, meanwhile, would liberalize the Church’s language on sexuality.
The challenge for a global Church, of course, is that there are many churches, especially in the developing world, that insist on the conservative option while there is a growing cultural consensus in North America towards flexibility on our views of sexuality.
What the Council of Bishops recommend is a middle way, a compromise called the “One Church” Model where the United Methodist Church doesn’t fracture and schism into pieces yet would allow churches and jurisdictions to decide for themselves, based on their mission field and cultural context, how they will interpret and enforce teaching on human sexuality.
In other words, it would allow the Church in a place like Greenwich Village or Dupont Circle to look different than the Church in Mississippi or Ghana.
Let me repeat that so you’ve got it:
The mission field would determine our position on sexuality and enforcement of it not our differing interpretations of what scripture says about sexuality.
And just in case the term “mission field” conjures up exotic images of sun-swept savannas, by mission field we’re talking about places like Aldersgate and 22308 where, for my kids and their peers, it’s strange-to-the-point-of-archaic that Christians are even still having this argument. Like it or not, Will and Grace settled this question for the culture years ago. In such a mission field, the question is do you care more that people have the right position on sexuality or do you care that they know Jesus is the friend of sinners?
If the recommendation is approved next winter (long odds still), then the best case scenario is that the United Methodist Church’s position on sexuality will be peace amidst difference. So, it’s much too early to know what will come of this issue in the larger Church but Dennis thought we owed it to you, as pastors of this particular church, to articulate why we endorse something like this middle way.
What the “One Church” model gets right that both of the other options get wrong, in my view, is that our mission to proclaim the Gospel to our community is more urgent than our being the Church with the right position on sexuality or the right interpretation of scripture on it.
Put another way, nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly.
I have no interest in being a part of the Church-of-the-Correct-Opinion, whether that Church is traditional or progressive. I want to be a part of a Church that makes the Gospel what St. Paul says it is: the most important of our concerns.
And, notice in 1 Corinthians 15, in his definition of what is supposed to be our chief concern, the Gospel, the only sins Paul mentions in the Gospel are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them.
It seems silly to the point of missing the plot to spend time and treasure ($2,000/minute when the global Church gathers for days to debate this issue- I don’t want to put a damper on your generosity, but for every dollar you give to this church pennies to a nickel of it go to fund this argument)- it seems silly and sinfully wasteful to me to argue what does and does not constitute a sin when the wages of every one of all of our sins have already been paid by Christ’s bleeding and dying.
Once for all.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins.
The inverse of his argument sharpens what’s at stake:
Since Christ has been raised from the grave-
we, who are in Christ by baptism, are NOT in our sins.
Or, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, the lynchpin of the entire New Testament: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
And being in Christ is not something for you to subjectively discern. You can know you are in Christ Jesus because, just before Romans 8, Paul has told you that by your baptism you have been crucified with Christ in his death for your sins, buried with him, and raised in him for your justification.
Therefore- by your baptism- there is now no condemnation. Isn’t our willingness to divide Christ’s Body the Church over issues of sexuality a disavowal of that Gospel Therefore?
If we’re wiling to split the Church over some “sins” (the sin of homophobia for some, the sin of sexual immorality for others) aren’t we really declaring therefore there are still some sins for which is condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?
Look, don’t let the earring and tattoos mislead you.
Theologically-speaking, I’m the most conservative pastor you have on staff. That’s not even a joke. Theologically-speaking, I’m so hyper-Protestant our DS accuses me of being Methodist-in-name-only.
So I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I really do. In the wake of #MeToo and this current administration, I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies and of women, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church.
Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.
I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we mean by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Incarnation,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood.
And I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the Gospel of Christ and him crucified.
I get it. I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, those parents who came to Dennis and me last spring grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such traditionalism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.
So I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate. But, I find other issues, other biblical issues, more urgent. Namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.
In all our arguing about getting it right on this one issue- I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news.
Take today’s text:
If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness.
His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin.
This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. Because by baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin- however you define what constitutes sin- all of it is his).
And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it).
You’ve been clothed, Paul says, with Christ’s righteousness.
So why do we spend so much time arguing about sinful living vs. holy living when the former cannot undo nor can the latter improve the righteousness of Christ with which we’ve already been clothed?
Nothing you do can take those clothes which are Jesus Christ off of you. And nothing the baptized OTHER, with whom you disagree, can do can take those clothes that are Christ off of them.
To be blunt about it-
Whether you’re progressive or conservative- it doesn’t matter how correctly you interpret scripture on sexuality nor does it matter with whom you share a bed or what you do in it- none of it changes the fact that if you are in Christ God regards you as Christ. That is not your pious achievement nor is it your moral accomplishment; it is grace. It is gifted to you by God through your baptism.
If we were all convinced that all of us who are baptized are as righteous as Jesus Christ himself-
Then maybe we’d be less eager to divide his Body the Church in the name of our righteous causes.
I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel, says St. Paul, frees us from the Law.
The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies you before God not at all. And because by your baptism you’ve been clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness, the opposite is also true. Having an “impure” sex life effects your justification before God NOT AT ALL.
The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex. Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification.
In fighting over who has the righteous position, left and right, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of self-righteous works of the Law that prompted the Protestant movement exactly 500 years ago. And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture about sex- they’re the Law: Do this…don’t do this.
The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law.
The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ.
I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sexuality debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.
You’ve fallen short of traditional biblical teaching.
You’ve fallen short of being open and affirming and inclusive.
You’ve fallen short.
I care about scripture and tradition, sure.
But I care more about the Gospel.
And the Gospel, as Jesus says, is good news. It’s for sinners and scoundrels and phonies not saints. It’s for those who are sick and know their need not for the show-offs with their claptrap about holy living.
I care more about the Gospel.
I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree. I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in Christ’s perfect righteousness. More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of your lives.
God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free.
I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys that God’s grace isn’t costly.
Paid in the hard-to-obtain currency of your right-believing and your-interpreting and your holy-living.
But here’s the thing about holiness-
Holiness, as Martin Luther said, doesn’t become a reality in you until you’re more passionate about the grace of God in Jesus Christ than you are about your own holiness.
The former is to love God for what he has done for you.
The latter is to take God’s name in vain in order to love yourself for what you do.
Luther said we prove our depravity as fallen creatures not by our sin but by our propensity to fill Christ’s empty tomb with well-intentioned obligations, to add to the Gospel that we are made right with God by grace alone in Christ alone through trust- not the uprightness of our sexuality or interpretation of scripture- alone.
Back to those girls-
And, since you baptized them, they’re your girls as much as they’re their parents’.
If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone UNLIKE them, then all our fighting is costlier than $2000 per minute.
If our ecclesial brinkmanship over sexuality implies to even one person that our having the right position on sexuality in any way effects our justification, then the debate isn’t worth it.
And if my kids’ peers are any indication, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this impasse.
Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Velma on Scooby Doo was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. Admit it, Anderson Cooper is the only member of the media you actually trust.
Our culture- this mission field- has moved on whether we like it or not. Queer Eye seems passe at this point.
If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then this isn’t a hill he would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel.
Why would he?
The Gospel is that because Christ was crucified for your sins and was raised for your justification there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
You see, the rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that it means we can’t shake those Christians who think there is STILL CONDEMNATION.
Condemnation for those who have the wrong view of scripture.
Condemnation for those who aren’t inclusive enough.
The rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that we’re forever stuck at the party called SALVATION with THOSE PEOPLE WHO THINK THOSE PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE AT THE PARTY.
The Elder Brother in the story never goes into the Father’s feast for the prodigal son- but the WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.
THE WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.
I don’t know what will come of the Bishops’ recommendation and I suppose its naive to think the United Methodist Church will get through this debate more easily than the other denominations that jumped into it ahead of us; nonetheless, we’re in favor of a middle way because it seems that a middle way which leaves everyone slightly teed off is exactly how God works.
Such a middle way allows good people of faith to keep on discussing who it is those girls- your girls- can love but such a middle way does so without jeopardizing the Church’s primary mission to make sure those girls- your girls- know who loves them.
Know who loves them.
To the grave and back.
Who takes us into himself in our baptism and who gives himself to be taken into us through the wine and bread that is his body and blood.
Honestly, there is no way forward other than a middle way.
Because all of us who are baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us.
All of us baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us; such that, not one of us can say to the other, no matter what we think about scripture or who we sleep with- not one of us can say to the other, I have no need of you.