Archives For Sexuality

We continued our church-wide Bible Study on Scripture and Sexuality by looking the Song of Songs.

SESSION THREE: MUTUAL VULNERABILITY AND DELIGHT— SONG OF SONGS AND MARRIAGE AS A PARABLE OF TRIUNE LOVE

WHERE WE ARE

So far, we’ve done little to deal with the actual portions of the Bible that mention sexuality.  Purposefully, the first two sessions were meant to try and reframe how we approach and think about the Bible.  In the first session, we discussed how the reading of the Bible is a churchwide endeavor.  That is, the Church is the means by which we mediate our understanding of scripture, because it provides the communal frame through which we can interpret the particulars of scripture.  

  In the second session with David Fitch, we doubled-down on the importance and difficulty of reading as a community.  David helped introduce us to notions of ideology and banners, concepts that help us to identify what happens when we start throwing scripture at each other; that is, David helped us see when we turn the grace of God as communicated by scripture into the Law as dictated by the antagonisms society envelops us in.  When antagonisms are the basis of the Church’s (Read: the community’s) use of scripture, the Bible becomes a weapon, an instrument of ideology.  

David left us with the question of how to discern what it is that God is doing on the ground in the Church.  Discernment on our part requires an active participation in the life of Christ by forming our discussions in the same way that Christ forms us through the cross.  Discernment means beginning in a space of brokenness – the only space from which God enters the scene.  It begins, then, with a posture of humility that acknowledges sin and shortcoming, opening up the community to seeing collectively where God is present and where God is working among them and outside of them.  

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Once again, since I want to make sure this sinks in for everyone, I’m going to reiterate the assumptions and premises to help us navigate this question and open ourselves to how God is shaping us through it.  (Notice: the emphasis here is on what God is doing.  We cannot proceed unless we can first get to a point where we acknowledge our need to be led, to be taught, to be humbled in the work of God in this community.)  

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses, which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

SONG OF SONGS AND MUTUAL, MATERIAL JOY

First, take a look at the ancient wedding rite as found in the Book of Common Prayer. While the rite obviously assumes the male/female norm, notice what the liturgy names as the first purpose of Christian marriage:

Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of  God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and
this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and  first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us
the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture  in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

In the debate over sexuality, verses are plucked from various and different contexts to corroborate one position (and by the very same token, denigrate the position of another).  Think Leviticus 18 and Romans 1, to name a few.  

The most neglected book of the Bible in this discussion, and perhaps the most neglected book generally in the Church, is the Song of Songs.  Perhaps, this is because it is the most openly erotic book of the Bible.  Perhaps, it is because the love song uses language many of us would never dream of saying in the bedroom (nor would we want to hear it). 

Given the openly amorous language, I wonder why this does not get the attention it ought to receive in debates about sexuality.  

It is a love poem, but a love poem of a different kind, something not found in the whole of scripture.  Ancient Jewish interpreters of this poem understood it to be a love song conveying the relationship between God and Israel.  Reading in that legacy, interpreters in the early Church understood the poem on two levels: on the interior relationship that constitutes the trinity, and the relationship between God and the Church.  For ancient interpreters, rarely was it the case that this scripture was referenced to refer to marriage as we know it.  

The Song of Songs was not a song of human marriage, but of the marriage of the divine, through which human marriage finally became intelligible to early Christians (Paul, famously, advocated chastity and asceticism before marriage).  It should be indicative even from the name of the poem, which takes a superlative, genitive form.  It is the Song from which all other songs proceed, which is to say that the relationship disclosed in the Song of Songs is the primary relationship of focus for those in the Church.  

The Song of Songs shows us that, in the life of the Church, marriage becomes intelligible only on a tertiary level.  The Song of Songs, in primarily disclosing the relationship that constitutes the Trinity, reflects the focus that Christian marriage is meant to reflect: the unmitigated, continuous exchange of grace and love between partners.  The relationship that the Song of Songs most ardently expounds is the relationship of grace that marriages are meant to reflect.  

Marriage, then, is a signifier of the one-way grace and love of God for the world, given in Christ through the power of the Spirit.  

Take this passage from Song of Songs 5: 1-8

  1. I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.
  2. I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.
  3. I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?
  4. My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for
  5. I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.
  6. I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
  7. The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
  8. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love.

Obvious innuendos aside, the centerpiece of this passage is the opening and closing to the Beloved.  The whole dramatis of this section relies on the climax that occurs in verse 6.  Read as the relationship between the Church and the Lord, this can be identified immediately as a statement begrudging the lustful desire of the Lord’s flock and instead turning her to seek after him properly.  

Beneath this, though, is a deeper meaning.  The theologian Robert Jenson writes in his commentary that what is revealed in the oscillation of open and closed is moreover the laying out of the recurring pattern of Israel’s salvation history.  This history is laid clear by the shifting nature of the love the woman has for the Beloved, shifting from seeking after him, to desiring him, to knowing him properly.  

Deeper still, there is something revealed about the nature of the Trinity here.  The same oscillation between lust and love, between eros and agape, is representative of the continuous exchange of love and grace, and the transformative, active power therein, that makes the Trinity’s inner communion distinct.  

The song, in its ebb and flow, tracks and maps the exchange of love that constitutes the unity of God: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.  

And notice (this next part is important for the rest of what I am going to say):  The kind of love and desire described, the kind of actions used illustratively, they are all embodied acts.  

BABETTE’S FEAST

The cult classic film, Babette’s Feast, is a helpful example in attempting to understand the grace God gives, which is the same grace that makes God, God.  In the film, which takes place in a small town in Sweden, the two female leaders of a struggling congregation that declined after the passing of its founder, find a woman on their steps needing a place to stay.  She was fleeing persecution from the French, who had killed her family.  The women agree to let her stay, and in return she cooks and cleans for them, providing meals for their services and maintaining the church.  One day, she happens to receive the winning ticket of the lottery, worth $10,000.  After notifying the two sisters, she insists that they celebrate her winnings with a large feast, which she offers to prepare.  She leaves for a while to get everything necessary for the feast.  When she returns, a boatload of food arrives with her, and she prepares a full meal in French style, with which the locals are unfamiliar and on first taste, unsatisfied.  But as the feast progresses, the gathering becomes more and more lively, the food tasting better and better with each bite.  

At the end of the feast, the two women, fearing that she will leave since the feast is over, ask the lady what she plans to do.  She replies by saying that she is not leaving, for she spent all her winnings on the feast.  “That is the cost of a meal for friends at Café Anglaise,” she states.  

The story is a story of unmerited grace, where the Christ-figure both upsets and reconciles.  The narrative, which shows a lot more Gospel than cultural criticism will allow us to admit, tells us a several things.  

  1. The human Jesus really was a human, who appears to us in the state of brokenness and need. Therefore, the redemption offered in Christ is one offered through a body.
  2. The price of grace can be paid only by Christ: It is inaccessible without him.
  1. The promise of grace is never revoked, for it promises bodily resurrection and rehabilitation.

TRINITY, THE BODY, AND MARRIAGE

Before we start judging gay people for the supposedly distinctive unrighteousness of their marriages, straight Christians need to first have a positive understanding of what marriage is and what it does.  And for us Christians, that means taking the resurrection seriously.  In fact, taking the resurrection seriously is the only way that the Christian view of marriage makes any sense.

The resurrection, we confess in the creeds, is bodily; the Christ who leaves the grave on Easter morning is not only alive, but he is alive and breathing. The resurrection we profess is embodied, which makes the marriage of two people not simply a sign of invisible grace, but a physical embodiment of the promise God gives in Christ, the only promise that could ever be unconditional.  

As we saw in the Song of Songs, the relationality of the Trinity is what marriage ought to point to.  And insofar as one person of the Trinity is, in fact, a Person (albeit with a capital P), then the relationship expressed in his life, death, and resurrection, provides the necessary centerpiece of the physical bond we call marriage.  

In fact, without that piece, marriage is simple a soluble spiritual bond that cannot sustain itself, and that will inevitably not take seriously the importance of the body.  That is, without the resurrection, Christian marriage becomes unintelligible, because the body becomes meaningful. 

In the ancient world, between the 1st and 4th centuries, a proto-religion called Gnosticism came out of the early Christian tradition. You’ve probably heard the name before.  In fact, you’ve probably been a practicing gnostic before (don’t feel bad about it; its America’s religion, really).  There were two central things, thematically speaking, that made Gnosticism different from the early Christians: their conception of the body, and their notion of salvation.  The latter, for Gnostics, informed the former.  They thought of the body as encumbering the soul, the freedom of which is the ultimate salvation.  

We may not want to admit it, but we (as a society) are much more prone to thinking of bodies in this way, in this negative light that ties the body to a negative materiality.  For Gnostics, salvation ultimately ended in the release from the body and the ascent of the pure soul.  

Despite its ravaging popularity, even to the point of being a distinct part of our philosophical inheritance, the Gnostic notion of the body is utterly different from the one offered in Christ and in our marriage to Him.  

The marriage rites, which quote from Genesis (something we will talk about next week), tell us that the couple “cleaves” to each other.  The couple, that is, literally physically attach to each other (yes, that means what you think it means).  The resurrection and the ascension, the moments in which God raises both Christ and humanity with Him, are bodily acts, and in that vein give our bodies a substantive meaning – a positive meaning.  

Further, the ascension, which is the visible sign of the unity of the Trinity in which all of humanity is invited to participate, actually makes our material lives good.  The goodness of the body of Christ, raised into active participation in the unity of love and grace, raises our bodies into that goodness as well.  When Christ returns from the dead in the physical body that was nailed to the cross, the bodies we have were given a good meaning. 

The resurrection, assured in the ascension, makes the bodies we have important conduits of grace.  Grace comes not in a disembodied, vaporous form, but in the substantive body of Christ. That body was made naked and vulnerable to us, such that we might “see the Father” (John 14:9).  The vulnerability of Christ’s body is a sign to us of the goodness of our own vulnerability.  And remember, the body the disciples see after the resurrection – it’s still vulnerable.  Jesus urges Thomas to “put your finger here; see my pierced hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27).  

Nowhere is the vulnerability of our bodies more evident than in marriage.  

Thus, all the acts of marriage, and especially sex, are the truly parabolic moments that signify a couple’s reflection of the Trinity.  We have to remember that the Trinity, whose love we attempt to reflect in marriage, is the constant self-disclosure and love and grace to itself, which requires of it an absolute vulnerability.  Each of the members of the Trinity is always already open and vulnerable to the others.  

When we open ourselves to others (literally and metaphorically) and become vulnerable, our three-way relationship with us, our partner, and God becomes intelligible.  Our nakedness takes on a theological meaning, because it reflects the same nakedness that binds the Trinity together.  

Thus, marriage is not only an outward sign of an inward grace, but a physical sign of a bodily grace.  God, who is all in all through Christ in the unity of the Spirit, cannot help but raise our bodies, too.  It is only from that stance that we can begin to evaluate, in a Christian sense, the goodness, or not, of nuptial unity.  That is, if we are to evaluate marriages as a church, then this positive understanding of the goodness of our bodies and the reflection of the Trinity that is a centerpiece of the sanctifying function that marriages serve for the community called the Church.  

That grace, moreover, is the means by which marriages become sanctifying bonds given as a gift to the Church for its edification.  More on that next week.  To end, I want to offer you a “Charge for a Wedding,” written by Eugene F. Rogers, a theologian who was my first teacher at UVA, which does not depend on male-female normativity for the coherence of Christian marriage:  

“Dearly beloved: we have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of these God’s human creatures, [x and y], in Holy Matrimony.  Marriage signifies the mystery of the love that God bears for human beings, in that God desires, befriends, and keeps faith with us.  That love is mysterious to us in that, unlike us, God just is love, an interior community, never lonely, already rich.  That love is open to us in that God desires, befriends, and keeps faith in God’s very self, as these two desire, befriend, and keep faith with each other.  And God’s Spirit internally witnesses and blesses and keeps faith with the love in God as today we externally witness and bless the love of these two human creatures in God’s image.  Today the celebration, blessing, and witnessing of this wedding catch us up into a parable of the inner love and life of God.” 

I’m leading a Bible Study on Scripture and Sexuality in my congregation this summer. For the second session (since I was traveling), participants watched a video conversation I had with Dr. David Fitch of the Northern Seminary about how Christians can discern the debate around human sexuality without participating in the antagonisms which exist outside the Church in the larger culture.

Here is the video and the session notes distributed for the class:

Reiteration of “Yes, but…” Conversation Parameters: 

Just to make sure we start from a place of continuity, I want to reiterate the “Yes, but…” parameters set out last week.  These allow us to maintain a posture of grace and humility when discussing such a fraught subject.  Since this is a subject we approach as a community, formed and read on the level of discernment (more on this later), it’s important to keep each of these in mind going forward. 

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned, it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively, it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes, which have been supercededby the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized, instead, that their reading* of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.  *Note to Jason:  added emphasis

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

 

Recap from Session 1:

Last week, we started off our discussion by focusing on how it is that Christians approach, read, and appreciate the Bible, and attempting to place this within the larger discussion of how we, the Church, ought to read the Bible together.  For us Christians, the sacred nature of the Bible can often be forgotten when we approach it to justify our previously arrived at conclusions.  This is part of the meaning of the term “sinner.”  To package the Bible up and, in essence, read it for ourselves, is a mode of self-justification that belies the underlying problems facing us as readers.  Further, searching the Bible for particular passages on particular issues places us at the wrong starting point, the whole while* assuming that the Bible is meant to be used in the fashion of proving people wrong. *Note to Jason:  Urban for: “all the while”

The Bible (and, especially, the New Testament), the great narrative of God’s grace visited to the world through the flesh of Christ and the witness of the Spirit, was written for and speaks to the primary duty of the Church:  The apostolic proclamation of the Gospel.

And just so we are clear on what exactly that Gospel is: “For while we were still sinners, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5).  

As we said last week, the broader plot, the narrative that undergirds it all, should determine how we read (i.e., interpret) the particulars.  Thus, we should approach the Bible not in search of particular self-justifications that we can hurl at other pews, but rather with a larger hermeneutic (a fancy word for ‘the lens through which we read’) that makes sense of the particulars.  

That hermeneutic* is none other than the grace offered to us endlessly through the cross of Christ. This means that when we read the Bible, we approach it as sinners postured by grace. Note for Jason: added emphasis 

 

Some Notes on David Fitch

We ended last week by talking about how sexuality, and scripture, is something to be approached at the level of community, formed by the discipline of tradition and informed by the context we inhabit.  

David Fitch, as we see in the interview, provides us with a way of conceptualizing (a) why reading the Bible well is so hard in modern culture (a culture opposed to the proclamation that Jesus is Lord), (b) what makes reading the Bible on a communal level so difficult, and (c) the ways our cultural divisions, ideologies, and arguments find their ways into the Church, tailoring how we interact with, perceive, and understand our relations to one another.  He posits in his book that the Church has been consumed by the “us vs. them” version of faith, one that guts the Gospel message at its very core.  Subsequently, Fitch notes, the Church is subsumed by the “enemy-making machine,” feeding off our own fears, anxieties, and ideologies.  

Fitch argues that when we as a Church engage in this kind of reading and line-drawing, we simply reiterate the cultural argument, stymieing any attempt to preach the Gospel and blocking off anything God might have to say on the matter.  

In short, when we approach scripture with the divisions of culture already inscribed into our eyes, we preclude both God’s presence and, logically, our ability to preach that presence.  

Fitch’s argument borrows a lot from ideology studies, which is a dense and complicated field that mixes philosophy, critical theory, and sociology.  One of the claims that is central to what we are doing here is that ideology is bigger than the Church.  That is, ideology tends to dominate our modes of thought, and since we are Christians, it is particularly obvious in the way we think about, interpret, and use the Bible.  

In modern studies of ideology, the concept of “antagonism” dominates.  To be clear, this is not the colloquial notion of “antagonism.”  An antagonism is the process by which we make someone an enemy by turning them into an “Other.” An “Other” is what we turn people into when we dissociate them from their concrete reality and identify them by monolithic abstractions.  To turn someone into an “Other” is to distance them from who they are by not allowing ourselves to be present with them.  It functions on us, too.  The defensiveness and hurt we feel when labelled particular names which bear particular connotations (such as sayings like, “You’re just a liberal,” or “You’re stuck in the 18th century.”) is a result of the simplification and monolithic abstraction that is a patent mark of “Otherness.”  

The antagonism, displayed in the process of othering, is precisely what occurs when we see people in our image of God, rather than in the image Christ made them to be.  When we turn people into objectified “Others,” we do violence to that Christological imprint.  

Fitch notes, importantly, that we do not knowingly start antagonisms; the genesis of the antagonism is ideology – it is a product of our social and cultural life and thought.  Fitch wants us to realize that when we are functioning essentially as an “us vs. them” church, we are presupposing the antagonism.  

The concrete way this functions is through what Fitch calls “banners.”  Banners are an ideological product that extract in-life practices and means of navigating the world and turns them into abstracted identity markers.  Banners signify a monolithic, abstract structure that conveys a simplistic model with no (or, virtually, no) relation to the complexity the thing has in its concrete form.  These banners tend to lead to a thing ironically called a “master-signifier.”  These master-signifiers do not actually function to show any relation occurring in reality.  They serve only to confuse. 

For example, when we label someone “progressive” or “conservative” and proceed from there to bash our Bibles over their heads, we are participating in the “banner.”  The banner, then, is in the service of a dichotomization, a crystallizing of who the enemy is and what they stand for.  This is the antagonism we spoke about earlier.  

The banner, with its abstracted simplicity, removes the material reality from people and the church.  It obscures, under the guise of “us vs. them” the ability to physically discern what God is doing.  

 

Speaking Christian:  Discernment

Sexuality, it turns out, is one of those things we use banners for all the time.  Sexuality is not, as we pretend it to be, a singular issue.  Presenting it as such necessarily presumes that there are different opposing camps, only one of which can be right.  Sexuality is, however, bound up in a world of complexity.  In fact, it is bound up in the world.  

Just as we cannot talk about who we are without talking about the world in which we live, sexuality cannot be abstracted from and discussed apart from its material reality, which is found in people, in all people.  

Reading the Bible and searching for answers to a particular question (like sexuality), ignoring the larger narrative, and approaching the text with a microscopic hermeneutic, are each signs of reading the Bible ideologically; that is, it is a sign of reading the Bible through the lens of antagonism.  The Church, then, is assigned the task of discernment.  Discernment is a “local” project; it involves the Church being first open to seeing what God is doing.  From there, discernment involves being led (Note, the passive voice) by God to learn how to speak Christian in a culture that rejects Christ.  

What, you might ask, does discernment at the level of the Church really involve?  The active components of discernment are myriad, but Fitch offers a couple crucial points from which to begin.

  

  1. Discernment begins from a space of brokenness:  The Church is a collection of sinners, not saints.  The process of discernment begins, then, not from a hierarchical positioning, but with a posture of humility that acknowledges sin and shortcoming, no matter the argument.
  1. Discernment reduces the language of positions:  The Church is caught up in its “position” on x and its “policy” on y.  This language is not only foreign to the Gospel, but it is the reproduction of cultural norms.  The language of “positions” is bound to treat people as objects instead of faithful Christological subjects.  Further, policy and position leave no room for God to work in the world through our brokenness.  

According to St. Paul, the Church is the “fullness of Christ,” which means that the Church submits both to Christ’s reign and, consequently, His presence.  A resulting tenet of the Church is that Christ is the only alternative to the “antagonisms” of our time.  Antagonism, violence, banners, master-signifiers:  They are all tools of the one Paul calls “the Enemy.”  

Each of these tools from the Enemy’s toolbox requires a constant stream of new enemies because – pay attention here – the enemy-making machine has no positive definition.  That is, the only way it exists is by constantly defining itself by what it is against.  

But, the Church cannot exist like this.  If the Church is the fullness of Christ, then Jesus, in his fullness, provides the Church with what the Enemy’s enemy-making-machine cannot:  a substance and sustenance that does not run out, a “well-spring that never runs dry.”  When Jesus commands us, then, to love our enemies, it is not just a challenge to our virtues as a Church; it signifies the endless love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness God gives through the death and resurrection of Christ.  We cannot learn to love, much less love each other, if we have not first learned of how Christ has loved us (unto death on the cross!).  

So, part of the work of discernment is asking the question: “Can the banner we use make sense apart from describing who or what it is against?”  If it cannot, then there is no room for God’s work, argues Fitch, partly because we have tied our own self-definition to the definition of our enemies.  However, concrete, mutual discernment can combat the enemy-making machine, not least because it opens us again to be able to see where God is working, even in conflict.  

Scripture teaches us a thing or two about God working in conflict.  He does not recede from the scene; in conflict, God intensifies his work of healing and restoration.  Focusing only on the determinative point set by the Enemy does not allow us to recognize what God is doing in the midst of our disagreements.  

 

Some Suggestions

At the end of the video, David Fitch offers some tips for how to deal with talking about this.  I’m just going to reiterate and clarify them a little here.

 

  1. Tell stories.  Don’t start from an argument, but a story.  Stories allow us to avoid a confrontational beginning by humanizing the situation.  Stories remind us of the concrete reality from which our discussions arise.  They also mimic the way God tells his story in the narrative we call the Bible.  They allow us to begin in weakness and vulnerability.  In dislodging ideology from below, stories provide a substantive referent, rather than the exhausting extraction and abstraction of the “banner.” 
  2. Ask good questions.  Banners, ideology, antagonisms, master-signifiers:  They always mask a contradiction.  Good questions lead to the discovery and inquisition of these contradictions.
  1. Provoke…sometimes.  Provocation can, when used well, take the existing wisdom to its extreme, thereby laying bare what the contradiction is that upholds such wisdom.  Use sparingly.
  1. Always look for a place of agreement.  Note:  This is not looking for agreement, but a place of agreement.  The subtle, but important, difference is that the former is about arguments, while the latter is about people.  The emphasis is not on theoretical agreement disjointed from subjects in the world, but on relationality and community in which agreement takes the form of a connection made possible by Christ.

Happy Pentecost! 

I kicked off a church-wide Bible Study today on scripture and sexuality, starting with how we understand and interpret the Bible generally. Below is the lecture I wrote from which I riffed in the class as well as the audio of the class. If you’re a member of my parish and missed it, here it is. If you’re a Christian or just someone curious somewhere else here you go.

Session One — Interpreting the Bible

Prayer & Rubric

I’d like to frame our first session together with this quote from St. Augustine of Hippo, who, after the Apostle Paul, is likely the most importantteacher for all believers on the Protestant side of the Christian family tree. It’s often erroneously attributed to John Wesley, but it comes from Augustine. Not only do I want it to serve as our prayer for our time with one another, I think it also provides a helpful rubric around which we can discern the questions about sexuality before the Church today. 

Here’s the quote:

“In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” 

No matter where you fall on the issues dividing the Church, no matter what side of this debate you’ve chosen or will choose, this is the framework with which we should all be discerning the questions with which the Church wrestles at the present moment. Is a traditional understanding of Christian marriage essential to the proclamation of the Gospel such that we insist upon uniformity, or is it a doubtful matter over which we can grant those with whom we disagree latitude to disagree with us? Likewise, we should ask whether a liberalizing of the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage is essential so that we insist the entire Body support it; that is, is full inclusion of LGBTQIA Christians constitutive to our understanding of the faith— is it a justice issue— such that something less than a progressive policy is a betrayal of the faith? What is essential to our message that requires consensus? And what is just important to us that might permit liberty towards another? 

What Augustine calls doubtful matters, the ancient Church labeled “adiaphora.” 

Adiaphora are matters not regarded a requisite for faith and thus permissible for disagreement.

I would argue that marriage and ordination, on their face, are not essential to the Christian message and mission, especially for Protestants; however, I would also argue that some ways, progressive and conservative, of speaking about same-sex marriage and gay ordination do threaten to obscure or undo the essential message of the Gospel, replacing it with a version of the false Gospel scripture warns us against in Galatians.

Note too, as we proceed, that caritas, from which we get charity is the same root word in the New Testament as grace. Regardless of how we think and feel about these matters, as members of the Body and thus as members of one another, we ought to gift one another the grace to impute to them only faithful, sincere motives.

Guiding Parameters

I’ve been a pastor for twenty years. In my ministry, I’ve met a lot of United Methodists who read Adam Hamilton, Beth Moore, the UpperRoom, and the WashingtonPost, but not many who read the Bible with the same care with which they put together their fantasy football team or follow their preferred candidate in the primary. Sexuality is like a lot of issues where people in and out of the Church make assertions (from their tribe’s vantage point) like “the Bible says…” or “Jesus said…” without a firm scriptural foundation.

My goal in this Bible Study is for folks at the end of it to understand how people who worship with them might disagree with them on the questions dividing the larger Church and, by understanding, contribute to the hospitality necessary for a diverse community of faith. I want us to be able to get beyond shallow Christian-splaining like “the Bible says…” and, for that reason, I do not plan for us to look at the oft-cited clobber passages on homosexuality until the fourth or fifth session. Today, I want us to explore what is the Bible and how we interpret it. Next week, I want to use my conversation with Professor David Fitch to help us think about how we use the Bible to discern God’s leading as a local community. For the third week, rather than turning to passages that prohibit sexual behavior, I want us to study first the Bible’s positive understanding of intimacy by looking at the Song of Songs. From there, we’ll look at how we read Genesis in light of the Apostle Paul and the ancient marriage rite, and then we’ll turn to the Letter to the Romans and how the Old Testament proof texts connect not only to Paul’s understanding of sexuality but to the adoption of all of you Gentiles into the People of God.

Because it’ll be a couple of weeks before we even get to those passages that lurk whenever someone asserts “the Bible says…” I wanted to establish some parameters about the scriptural witness so that folks on both sides of this issue can step back and pause, realizing that their position isn’t as strong as they might think nor is their opponent’s perspective as weak as they might presume. There’s a reason the larger Church is divided on the subject of sexuality; scripturally-speaking, it’s not a slam dunk for either side. This should not surprise us. The Bible is not about sexuality— more on what the Bible is “about” later.

Here are the “Yes, but…” parameters that should chasten our conversation:

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambigious teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

If the above is true, if there’s a tension in scripture when it comes to these questions, then why do so many Christians on both the traditional and liberal ends act as though there’s no ambiguity about what God thinks about these matters?

What God Thinks

 When it comes to our God talk, sexuality in scripture is not unique. We live in a culture where, thanks to the internet, everyone is an expert on anything they want to spend a few minutes investigating online. Consequently, there’s no dearth of Christians making pronouncements about what God thinks on any number of issues. If you don’t believe me, you’ve obviously not spent any time on Facebook or Twitter, CNN or Fox News. Just this weekend, for example, I heard from Christians that God is very angry and will judge evangelicals for their support of Donald Trump’s administration. I also heard from Christians that God is responsible for Donald Trump’s administration— that Donald Trump is like Darius in the Old Testament— and that believers are encouraged to pray for him. This week I heard Christians on news channels insist that the restrictive abortion laws in some states around the country were the work of God. I also heard that the protests against those laws was God at work. This week I was told that God is very unhappy with conditions at our southern border, and I was also told that God wants us to have safe and secure borders. This week on Christian Twitter I read that God hates gay people and will punish his Church for its increasing inclusivity, and I also read that God affirms gay people and wants a more open and affirming Church.

Even when Christians look to the Bible for guidance on issues that impact our lives, we come to different conclusions. Some of us, for example, come to scripture with a fundamentalist frame of interpretation, looking for the most binding verse on a given topic. Others of us approach scripture from a liberal frame, searching for the least restrictive verses (“God is love; therefore, whatever strikes as love is acceptable”). 

Depending on the issue, most of us vacillate between being fundamentalists or liberals. 

For instance, some of you are red-letter fundamentalists when it comes to Matthew 25 and what sounds like Christ’s command to care for immigrants or the poor in our midst, but when it comes to the incarnation you’d prefer to chalk it up as myth. Likewise, some Christians are fundamentalists when it comes to what the Bible says about marriage but when it comes to the New Testament’s teaching on money and possessions or violence they’re quick to attribute the teaching to an ideal achievable only in the Kingdom. On the one hand, some United Methodists are literalists when it comes Jesus’ welcome of outcasts and sinners (i.e., LGBTQIA people) but, on the other hand, they want to “demythologize” the accounts of the bodily resurrection of Christ. 

Just as an aside, this last example is a very real dynamic in the UMC, and it’s why I may be inclusive on this particular issue but I’m in no way a progressive.

We come to passages, picking and choosing.

We switch how we approach scripture depending on the questions and issues before us. 

This is because very often our ways of reading the Bible are in fact methods of self-justification. 

We all have previously arrived at opinions on various issues, and we go to scripture looking for verses to buttress them. This in part is what it means to be a sinner. We not only make God in our image; we read God’s word according to our image too. 

Recognizing our own sinfulness and our proclivity to self-justify, it’s important for Christians to come to the Bible with an understanding of what the Bible is and what the Bible is about, and it’s important for Christians to come to the Bible with one another. 

Just as verses and passages cannot be read in isolation from what the Bible is about, Christians cannot read the Bible in isolation from one another. 

What is the Bible?

What we call the Christian Bible was codified by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, and despite what Dan Brown would have you believe there was little dispute about what should and should not be included in the canon. Think about the dating behind what we call the Bible. This means that Christians worshipped the crucified and risen Jesus Christ as Lord, baptizing believers into his death and resurrection and celebrating the eucharist, for three centuries without the Christian Bible. Consider too— until very recently, most Christians could not read. Discipleship until recently in history has been informed by but not dependent upon reading scripture.

Therefore, asking “What does the Bible say about…?” is the wrong place to start when it comes to our questions and issues because it obscures how the witness of the Church begins not with the Bible but with the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Christian message begins not with the Bible but with the kerygma, the announcement of the Gospel that we find summarized in passages like 1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 1, Peter’s Pentecost sermon, and woven into the ancient baptismal and eucharistic prayers which predate the New Testament. 

The message about Jesus, in other words, precedes the message of Jesus. 

Another way of putting it: The Gospels were written for the Gospel (as found in the Epistles); the Epistles were not written to flesh out the Gospels. 

Why is this important? 

When you come to the New Testament especially but the Bible generally, you should be mindful that it was written and codified to be in service to the apostolic witness that “the Lord Jesus Christ, gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Galatians 1).” 

The Bible’s purpose is not to give you a purpose-driven life, for example, but to point you to Christ. The Bible’s purpose isn’t firstly to tell us what Jesus did (and taught us to do) but to show us what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. So, when it comes to the issue before the Church today, if you believe, for example, that marriage must be between a man and a woman, but you don’t believe God physically raised Jesus from the grave, then you’re misusing the text of scripture. Ditto if you argue that the Church should become more inclusive of marginalized people but you’re not so keen on the notion that Christ died as a substitute and sacrifice for our sins. 

Like any other book, the Bible’s primary plot should determine how read its parts. This is what scripture refers to as “rightly dividing the word of truth, between Law and Gospel” (2 Timothy 2.15). 

The primary subject of the Christian Bible— shocker, I know— is Jesus Christ in his bleeding, dying, and rising for us. 

Cross and Resurrection. Sin and Redemption. Atonement and Grace.

How do we know this to be true?

We know it to be true historically in that the preaching of the apostles is older than the books of the New Testament. We know it too from Jesus himself. As Jesus tells the disciples on the road to Emmaus: 

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” 

All of the Bible, Jesus teaches the disciples on Easter, testifies to himself.

Jesus makes the very same point in John’s Gospel: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” 

Even the organization of the Bible echoes the point. What we have in scripture as the Old Testament does not not match what Jews today would recognize as their Hebrew Bible. This is because the early Christians took their Jewish scriptures and reorganized it, concluding it with the prophet Malachi, in order to foreshadow the arrival of John the Baptist and thus the incarnation of Christ. 

We speak often about “believing the Bible” but this is to put the matter wrong. Actually, this is to treat the Bible in the way that Muslims regard the Qu’ran. Notice, the Bible is not an item listed to be believed in the Apostles’ Creed; rather, the creed recites the plot summary of the Bible. The Bible reveals what we are to believe about God’s work of salvation in Christ Jesus; the Bible by itself is not an object to be believed. 

We worship Jesus Christ, as Christians. 

We do not worship the Bible.

All of which is to say that before we can discern what the Bible says about a given subject, we must understand what is the Bible, which includes an understanding of what the Bible is not. 

What the Bible is Not

The Bible is not a Museum, a collection of historical curiosities from which we can learn information about the past. The Bible is not a Spiritual Gym, a place to help us strengthen certain areas of our spiritual, personal, or moral life. The Bible is not a collection of Proverbs which give us nuggets of wisdom on the good life— though the Bible does contain Proverbs. The Bible is not mythology nor metaphor— though the Bible employs both mythology and metaphor. The Bible is not a set of Teachings on what God would have us to do or how God would have lived— though the Bible does contain teachings. The Bible is not a Library of loosely connected books. 

The Bible is like JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. 

Like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Bible is a collection of stories, letters, songs, histories etc. that, taken together, tell a single overarching story. In The Lord of the Rings, the macro-story is about Frodo and the fellowship destroying the ring of power in order to free Middle-Earth from its enslavement to the Dark Lord, Sauron. In the novels, Gandalf frequently smokes what the reader is led to assume is marijuana. Gandalf’s superiors even chastise him for how his smoking muddles his mind. Now, are there passages in The Lord of the Rings about the relative goodness or badness of smoking? Yes. Is The Lord of the Rings about smoking? No. Could we make conclusions about smoking from reading The Lord of the Rings? Sure. Would it be odd and in some ways a violation of The Lord of the Rings to flip through it looking for textual support for what The Lord of the Rings says about smoking, pro or con? Absolutely. When it comes to sexuality, we often treat the Bible in exactly that way. We’re forcing the Bible to answer questions that are subsidiary to its primary story.

That’s not what it’s about. 

It’s about Christ freeing us from our enslavement to the Dark Lord. 

The Bible, in other words, is not meant to give us a Jesus-flavored answer for whatever questions we bring to it— it’s not a religious Ouja board. The Bible is meant to convey something very specific to us. 

The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Book of Common Prayer are the doctrinal standards of the Church of England whence John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, came. Article Six summarizes what we’re to confess about scripture: 

“Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

Scripture, Article Six states, contains not everything God has ever thought about anything we can think up but everything necessary for you and I to be saved in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. And because scripture’s purpose is salvific, Article Six says, anything not in it cannot be required of us. It’s not essential, to get back to the quote from Augustine. It’s a doubtful matter, and we give freedom.

What Article Six says about scripture is simply what scripture itself says to us. 

John ends his Gospel with this PS: 

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” 

If the Bible was a set of teachings, law, or proverbs according to which we’re supposed to live— if it was Law— then certainly you would want to include everything Jesus said and did. But if the Bible is about our coming to a saving faith in Christ as Lord, then John thinks he’s given you everything you need to know. 2 Timothy 3 makes the same point when it says to us: “…to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” Timothy doesn’t say all scripture is equally important. Timothy says all scripture is useful. And by scripture, Timothy has the Old Testament in mind, and by righteousness Timothy means firstly Jesus Christ himself who is the only Righteous One and who gifts us his own righteousness by the baptism of his death and resurrection. This is but a way of saying what John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel: Jesus is the Word of God.

Jesus is the one Word which God speaks to us: 

“The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1).

When we refer to the Bible as the Word of God (for the People of God), we mean it in a penultimate sense. 

Jesus is the Word of God to whom the testimony of scripture reliably bears witness to us. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that the “preaching of the word of God is the Word of God;” that is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and received faithfully then (and only then) is it the Word of God, for then the Risen Christ uses it to bear witness to himself. Whenever we conclude the reading of scripture in worship, we implicitly recognize that God’s Word is not fundamentally what is on the printed page but is the Living God attested to by those words on the printed page. 

The Three-Fold Form of the Word

The theologian Karl Barth makes a similiar point with a helpful visual— what he called  the Three-Fold Form of the Word of God. 

Barth illustrated the Word of God as three cocentric circles.

The inner circle is Jesus Christ, the one Word of God. The next middle circle is scripture, the Word which witnesses to the Word. The outer circle is the Church, the Communion of Saints, the tradition of receiving scripture’s testimony And, outside the third circle is you and me, the community of present-day believers. 

The Three-Fold Form of the Word is a helpful cipher. For one, it protects Jesus from our partial and prejudiced readings of scripture. For another, it reminds us that we worship the Living Christ not the Bible. Third, it illustrates how we must read the Bible in light of how the Bible has been read before by the saints. Most important of all, it reminds believers like us that we’re all on the outer circumference separated from the one Word of God by several layers of transmission and hearing only an arc along the perimeter; such that, we cannot afford to ignore what other believers along the circumference hear and discern God say through scripture.

We must be formed by the ancient prayers of the Church before we can pray well on our own, spontaneously. Like learning scales must precede a musician’s ability to improvise and jam, so must we pray— and, I would argue, read scripture. Apart from such formation, we bring to prayer and Bible-reading a self unformed by the saints. Thus, greedy people will pray greedy prayers, frightened people will pray frightened prayers etc. The same holds true of scripture. Progressive people read the Bible progressively. Conservative people read the Bible conservatively, and prejudiced people read the Bible prejudically. 

We need to interpret the Bible with other believers and the whole company of heaven. If, for instance, you interpret a scripture passage in a new way, a way that no one else has ever interpreted it, you’re wrong. 

We need to read with others, and we need to do so knowing that Jesus is the Word of God at the innermost of the circles. 

The Bible must be interpreted christocentrically. 

Reading the Bible Like a Movie

Jesus Christ, both what he said and did and what God has done in him and spoken to us by cross and resurrection, is the interpretative lens (the hermeneutic) by which we read all of scripture. The Bible itself gives us this hermeneutic. John’s Gospel calls Jesus the “logic” of creation. This is how Paul interprets his own Jewish scripture. Paul reinterprets the Law given to Moses by God in light of the cross and resurrection, concluding that the purpose of the Law is to convict us of sin and turn us, all of whom fall short, in repentance to the mercy found in Christ. Paul says that Jesus is the telos— the end and the fulfillment— of the Law. In Colossians, Paul says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation, in whom all things were made and find their summation. 

Put another way, the Bible should be read in the same manner in which you re-watch a film. Upon a second viewing, the climax of a film shapes how you watch the prior scenes. In this case, the climax of the movie that is the Bible is our redemption in Christ. 

We read backwards into the Bible from the cross, and forwards towards Revelation from the cross.

For example, we read the creation of Adam and Eve with the command “be fruitful…filling the whole earth…” in Genesis in light of the New Testament’s announcement that the command is now closed for Christ “has filled all in all.” Likewise, we read that the covenant of marriage was established by God in Adam and Eve— as the wedding rite does— in light of the New Testament’s teaching that the “covenant of marriage signifies the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” We read Exodus’ warnings about sinners’ names being blotted out of the Book of Life in light of Revelation’s conclusion where it’s the Lamb’s Book— not the Book of Life— that imputes to us admission in the Kingdom. We read the commands of the Law in both testaments in light of the Gospel message that “Christ has borne for us the curse of the Law (it curses us because not one of us can meet its demands perfectly) by becoming a curse in our stead.” 

Our scripture today in worship— we read the parable of the sheep and the goats in light of the Gospel message that the Lamb of God was made a goat and judged in our place so that goats like us might be counted among God’s faithful flock. 

Another way of saying that we should read the Bible christocentrically is that we read it, as 2 Timothy commends, dividing the Law from the Gospel; so that, our interpretation of scripture does not cloud its central claim that “By grace you have been saved in Christ through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2). 

Beware False Gospels

This verse from Ephesians is an especially critical hermeneutic for Protestant Christians. Martin Luther (and John Wesley) said the Church stands or fall on the doctrine of justification; that is, what justifies us before God is not the righteousness we accrue by our deeds or doctrine but solely (sola) our trust in the perfect righteousness of Christ credited to us by our baptism into his death. This is what we pray over the water at every baptism; “…clothe them Christ’s righteousness; so that, dying and rising, she may share in Christ’s final victory…”

In an ultimate sense, the only thing that counts for the Kingdom is Christ credited to us by faith. When we read christologically, dividing Law and Grace, we’re able to read scripture in submission to the Gospel promise that through faith alone in Christ alone “there is now no condemnation.” Our takeaway from a purity code from Leviticus, therefore, isn’t that it’s an antiquated custom based upon a byegone taboo. That may be the case but that’s not neither interesting nor a christological way of reading it. Rather, we read such a prohibition understanding that the condemnation merited by those who fail its demand has been borne by Jesus Christ upon the cross. 

This is an important distinction, I think, in how we conduct the conversation about sexuality, for it doesn’t say the biblical Law is wrong. It proclaims that the Law, which Paul calls holy, righteous, and good, has been fulfilled. 

In Galatians, possibly the oldest book of the New Testament, Paul warns Christians against adding any other stipulation to the Gospel of grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. Christ plus anything else added to it, Paul admonishes, is no Gospel at all. 

Christ + ________ is a false Gospel. 

Paul’s warning can be rephrased in terms of the Augustine quote with which we started. 

What is essential over which we must have unity?

The Gospel of grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. 

What are doubtful things over which we can grant one another freedom?

Every other deed and doctrine we might derive from the Bible, culture, or politics.

To make doubtful things essential, Paul writes in Galatians, is to preach a false Gospel. 

So the questions for us as community of readers, wrestling with sexuality and the Bible are simple questions even if a consensus answer is not easy to find. Is a traditional understanding of marriage essential to the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel? Does gay ordination get in the way of the Church’s mandate to preach the message of grace? Asked from the other side: is the full inclusion for LGBTQIA Christians into the rites of marriage and ordination a “justice” issue constituitive of and essential to the Gospel message itself? Or, does understanding it in terms of justice and liberation impose upon traditionalists something added to the Gospel which must also be affirmed? Is “All means all” required confession for all believers. Likewise, does a traditional understanding of sexuality impose upon liberals something added to the Gospel which they must believe?  

In advocating our respective positions on sexuality, are we creating false Gospels, adding doubtful beliefs and behaviors to the essential message of grace? That liberal and traditional Christians now view sexuality as an issue worth schism suggests both sides have raised doubtful beliefs to the level of essential beliefs, which, Paul would warn, are false Gospels.

If Christ alone and his righteousness credits to us the Kingdom, then— I believe— essentializing any particular understanding of marriage and ordination, liberal or conservative, confuses the criteria by which we should be evaluating those vocations. If marriage and ordination are indeed “doubtful things” over which we can disagree in freedom, then the criteria by which we assess them is not the Kingdom but the Community, the Body of Christ.

Faith alone silences every charge for any sin against us; therefore, Christians shouldn’t be debating sexuality with terms like sin/abomination/rights/feelings,etc., because eternity is not at stake. Rather, Christians should be discerning sexuality in the very terms the ancient marriage and ordination rites give us:

Would this same-sex couple’s marriage build up the Body of Christ? 

Would this gay Christian, called by God, build up the Body of the baptized through ordained ministry?

For the record—

I think opposition and resistance to the Traditionalist Plan in the UMC need not equate to a progressive (I hate that term— it’s elitist) United Methodism. In fact, I think if opposition to the TP leads to or becomes synonymous with a progressive Christianity then GC2019 will only hasten our decline. Theologically speaking, I am not progressive. 

I happen to think that, on the one hand, the Traditionalists are not really traditionalist in that their chief concern, sexuality, is not a matter of creedal confession and, on the other hand, the justification of the ungodly is the most inclusive and traditional doctrine possible. A bare-knuckled, unapologetic Pauline understanding of grace makes our holiness-enforcing and bickering over inclusion unintelligble as Christian speech.

Masked by the Traditionalist Plan’s regressive treatment of gay United Methodists is the larger structural problems in the denomination and the longer historic acrimony of which GC2019 was but the latest skirmish.

As Diana Butler Bass shared at a gathering of pastors and laity in my home this weekend: “Those who think that if the One Church Plan had passed all would be well in the UMC are living a fantasy.”

Had the One Church Plan passed a different 50% of the UMC would now feel aggrieved and victimized. That the math and the felt outcome would not have changed— and that the council of bishops were unable to avoid any other outcome— shows the extent to which the UMC is broken. 

Christians are good at burying the dead. 

Christians are seldom good at giving a funeral to church programs or polity.

Brad Todd, a good friend and parishioner, shares these thoughts on GC2019:

“The United Methodist Church has finally admitted this week that it’s not united at all but what’s worse is that few in the nation’s second-largest (for now) Protestant body seem to even understand why. 

After a divisive global gathering of the denomination to sort out policies on gay ordination and gay marriage, I have been more dismayed by the way my fellow Methodists have reacted to the conference than by anything that was decided at the conference – and I think I’d be saying that no matter which side ended up on the 47 end of the 53-47 vote. That event was ill conceived and destined to fail no matter how the votes fell. Almost all American Methodists speaking out this week express angst about the church’s future – but these emotions, on both sides, are mostly unconstructive and not aimed in the direction of our problem.

The United Methodist Church’s unfixable rot has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with polity.

For the purposes of argument let’s totally set aside for the next 1,200 words what I believe is a symptom of our problem – the debate over church’s positions on homosexuality – and focus on the tectonic plate structure that ripped us open at that specific fissure. It’s not that I don’t think the debate over sexuality is one we can respectfully have, but I think people like my pastor Jason Micheli have accurately noted that the Methodist left and Methodist right have both pursued this legalistic question far outside the dominant shadow that should be cast by our shared commitment to spreading a theology of sin-cleansing Grace, and only sin-cleansing Grace. 

So for a moment, let’s assume both sides on this question have enough sin and wrong to go around and look behind the way we got to this food fight.

And while we’re at it, let’s junk the faction labels crudely borrowed from secular politics (my chosen profession, incidentally) and use centuries-old, value-positive religious analogies instead – let’s call those who want to change the Book of Discipline’s policies on gays “reformers” and those who like the current policies “orthodox.” 

For decades in the last century, orthodox Methodists protested the drift of the UMC on societal issues and personnel policies but their objections were beaten back by the majoritarian, procedurally rigid, top-down polity of the denomination’s quadrennial conferences. 

An insulated, career-tenured church bureaucracy functionally ignored the unrest in the years between conferences. But eventually, as mainline American Christians began making church a thing of their memories and not of their lifestyles, the numbers got away from the old majority in the UMC – and the people I’m now calling “reformers” became outnumbered by a booming population of orthodox Methodists in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. This week in St. Louis, those globally-diverse orthodox Methodists used the same rigid majoritarian polity to stuff all notions of reform on gay marriage and ordination policies.

Too few got the irony of a mostly-white losing faction using rainbow avatars to deride the lack of inclusiveness of a real rainbow coalition on the orthodox side.

This omission once again should have proven that the problem is polity and not people.

The United Methodist Church as we know it was forged in the post-war era dominated by national brand conformity and big, top-down, bureaucratic solutions. From government to beer brands to department stores, the age that spawned the UMC created national behemoths in almost every consumer category. But today, Sears & Roebuck is in bankruptcy and Amazon is creating a hundred million different, individualized department stores on the smartphones of a hundred million Americans. In politics, a reality show act with a can’t-miss Twitter account created an organic movement that blew up both political parties in the 2016 election. In The Great Revolt, the book I wrote with journalist Salena Zito, we attempted to put that election in the light of every other change that has happened in our economy in the 12 years since the smartphone was introduced. This Methodist failure should also be put on that timeline.

Why should United Methodists think our musty, unresponsive, hierarchy is going to fare any better in this moment of individual empowerment than any other fat, slow post-war monstrosity? 

You simply cannot force people to change their minds or trust your brand today. 

Organizations that dictate from the top are doomed to fall in consumer-led coups. 

Sometimes those coups elect Donald Trump, sometimes those coups nearly nominate Bernie Sanders, sometimes those coups send your company to bankruptcy, and sometimes those coups split your denomination.

The likelihood of this failure in Saint Louis was entirely foreseeable – the numbers are the numbers. But the bishops and ordained church leaders and staff who cooked up the one-sided reform plan ignored the denominational dynamics they’d put in place over the last three decades, and chose to never look in the mirror. Now they seem shocked that the orthodox delegates wouldn’t accept what they smugly dubbed the “One Church Plan” (a title reeking of “do this or else” sentiment) crammed down their throats. The back up Connectional Plan – which would’ve split the church into three quasi-autonomous strains – raised so many long-lead constitutional questions that it had no chance among the delegates, reflecting the fact that it was proposed ten years too late. But tone deaf bureaucracies are always late to the party with the answer that would work. It’s the nature of the arrogance of unchecked power.

The inherent impossibility of running a bottom-up religion with top-down bishops and winner-take-all conference showdowns is the crisis Methodist now must address if we are to quit sniping at each other long enough to get back to the work of spreading the good news of Christ – together or apart.

Next year in Minneapolis when Methodists gather again for the regular global conference, this reform of our polity should be the only item on the agenda. Let’s blow the whole thing up and replace the cathode-ray tube governance model with a digital-age grass roots structure that puts congregational work first.

It might look something like this:

  1. Make a denomination wide commitment to evangelism, above all social activism and even the good work of the church. A shrinking army argues more than a growing one, so it will be good for governance and has the added benefit of being the one thing Christ compelled the church to do (sarcasm intended.)
  2. Allow any UMC church that wants to leave the denomination with its property to gracefully do so, provided they assume any debts associated with the property. Deed over all other church properties to the congregations that remain. Make it clear that no congregation is held captive. The mother church must earn the trust of its congregants every day and a land-poor mother church will be a more responsive mother church.
  3. Make the job of bishop a 5-year, one-term job to be completed at the end of a ministry career. Refashion the job to be a congregational consultant and ministerial mentor instead of the current role of administering a needlessly complicated system of itinerancy and moderating parliamentary procedure.
  4. Dismantle the bulk of the central denominational staff via generous early retirement packages. Every other industry has right-sized itself in the last decade – and many of them gave up middle management layers that were less flabby and failed than ours. Devolving power away from the central organization of the denomination is essential to sustainability in the new age of smartphone connectionalism. Keep only the departments and agencies that provide direct services to congregations, and trim even those. 
  5. Spin off the mission functions of the denomination to separate entities that are sustained only on voluntary subscription payments from congregations. As Christians we believe we are all called to mission – so our denomination should trust Christ to adequately do the compulsion.

Critics of my plan will say that this is incompatible with the inherently catholic notions of pastoral authority that have been embedded in Methodism since our founder John Wesley came from the Anglican tradition. They are right. But Bible-centric orthodox Methodists will surely agree that this pastoral authority model has few plausible New Testament roots and modern reform Methodists have to admit that this system no longer works for any of us no matter how we got it or how long it took them to realize they will never again have the numbers to run the machine.

Dueling speakers on the floor of the St. Louis conference extolled, in alternating speeches, the need for Methodism to focus on the teachings of the Bible and on the need to reach a new generation for Christ. They are both right. We need a new polity to achieve both – or either – aspiration.

Our secular politics has devolved into a poisonous frenetic cycle in which the second line of any dialogue is either: “you’re a bigot” or “you’re a traitor.” Now we’ve let those same slurs come to define how church people talk to each other. We have a better model than that.

Forgive us of our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

 

 

Exodus International

Jason Micheli —  March 3, 2019 — 1 Comment

Transfiguration Sunday — Luke 9

    If you’ve endured more than a handful of sermons in a United Methodist Church, then, chances are, you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go. 

     I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus all wrong. 

If you’ve sufferd through a few sermons on the Transfiguration, then you already know I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience instead of rolling up his sleeves and going back down into the valley of life where we are called to serve the least, the lost, and the left behind (which, for the record— just so you get to know your pastor a little better— is my least favorite Christian cliche). 

But that’s how preaching on the Transfiguration is supposed to go, right? 

The way down the mountain is almost always a descent into moralism— about how discipleship is about going back down into the valley, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and embrace the outcast and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm in front of their non-Christian co-workers. 

     If you’ve endured more than a few Sundays in the mainline church, then you already know that’s usually the way preachers preach this text on the Transfiguration: Don’t rest in Christ.  Go back down the mountaintop, back into “real life,” and do like Christ.

     Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think that’s the only  option allowed. 

——————

     Except- 

If Peter is wrong, if this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, then when Peter professes “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” why doesn’t Jesus correct him? 

     Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’

     Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter: ‘Peter, it’s not about resting in me. It’s about doing like me, for the Son of Man came not to serve but to send you out to serve?” If Peter’s suggestion that they rest there is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does just before this scene and say: ‘Get behind me, Satan?’ If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?  It’s not an idle question.

      In fact— pay attention now— here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something that someone has said to him. 

You got that? This is the only instance in the Bible where someone says something to Jesus and Jesus doesn’t reply. 

—————-

     Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology, that rather than talking about God, as we claim, most of the time we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice. 

     There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this preview of the Gospel message into moralism. 

     Just think- 

     What would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching— how we should go and do what he doesn’t seem to understand he should go and do? Which is but a way of making ourselves the focus of this story. 

     Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down. More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that the takeaway from the Transfiguration is not what we must go down and do for God through our good deeds or holy living. The takeaway from the Transfiguration is what God is about to go down and do for us. 

For ALL of us. 

For ALL of us. 

I’m going to say it again— for ALL of us.

The Transfiguratin is about what God is about to go down and do.

Once for ALL. 

The Transfiguration— it is a preview of the Gospel. 

————–

Luke spells it out for you:

Just before this scene, Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the super-pious holiness enforcers, and get crucified by an angry crowd taking the only democratic vote in scripture (“We want Barabbas!”)

Next scene, today’s scene: 

Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, are there on this mountaintop “speaking with Jesus about his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.”

Accomplish. 

Luke doesn’t say Jesus was about to experience something unfortunate or unintended in Jerusalem. He says accomplish.

It’s vogue among preachers today to downplay the crucifixion, but when you read the Gospels straight through you discover that not only does Jesus talk about his death all the time, he speaks of it as a necessity. 

He speaks of it as a mission he will accomplish.

Luke says here that Jesus speaks of his crucifixion as a departure that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.  

And the Greek word Luke uses for departure? Any guesses?

Exodus. 

They’re talking about the exodus he will accomplish in Jerusalem.

You see, what St. Luke shows you here on the mountaintop is what St. Paul tells you in his Letter to the Romans: that our baptism into Christ’s death— it is our exodus from the Pharaoh called Sin.  In case you miss that point— Luke piles on the clues. He tells you about Jesus’s shining happy people face and his bedazzled Rick Flair clothes.  And Luke tells you that Moses and Elijah appeared there in glory.  And that Christ became it. Became the glory That Christ was transfigured before them into glory.

————–

Luke doesn’t throw around glory as just any generic adjective. 

It’s like Indiana Jones asked in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Didn’t any of you guys ever go to Sunday School?” 

In the David story, the glory of God is what spilled forth from the ark of the Law and struck an innocent bystanding boy named Uzzah dead. That’s 2 Samuel 6. That’s why Indiana Jones tells Marion to close her eyes when the bad guys open up the ark— he knows the Uzzah story.

And likely, Indiana Jones knows too that the glory of God is what dwelt in the Temple. 

In the holy of holies. 

Behind the temple veil. A veil that was there— pay attention now— not to protect the holy God from sinful us.  A veil that was there— by God’s own mercy and design— to protect sinful us from the holiness of God. 

Elijah and Moses appeared to them on the mountaintop in glory, Luke tells us. 

The glory of God transfigured Christ, Luke tells us. 

And Peter and James and John beheld the glory, Luke tells us. 

Notice what Luke doesn’t tell us— they lived. 

They lived. All three of them, they’re like Harry Potter. They’re the boys who lived. 

Peter and James and John— sinners all, Peter maybe most of all— beheld the umediated glory of God, loosed from the Temple, in the flesh in the transfigured Christ, and they did not receive the wage their sins had earned them. 

They were not struck dead. 

They lived. 

That’s why they walk away dead silent. 

They were dumbfounded by this preview of the grace of God where another’s death will do for undeserving sinners. 

————–

    All the news in the United Methodist Church this week, all of the acrimony over inclusion and acceptance, on the one hand, and sin and holiness, on the other hand— it can obscure a basic presupposition of the Bible that’s implicit here in the Transfiguration. 

What even Indiana Jones knew that all those folks at General Conference in St. Louis seemed not to know is this basic Gospel grammar:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. 

(So who are we to draw lines?)

What makes you a child of God isn’t anything inherent to you or achievable by you. Not a one of you. All of us— the gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. So great, in fact, that when we even begin to argue about whether this or that is a sin is to have lost the Gospel plot. 

     You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. 

     You have to be rendered acceptable. 

     You have to be made acceptable. 

You are a child of God not by birth but by adoption— an adoption that St. Paul calls an exodus, our baptism into Christ’s death.  You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are— not a one of us. That’s the assumption that animates all the action at the Temple where glory lived, and it’s the assumption that leaves Peter and James and John speechless after they run into that glory on the mountain.  

To understand this you have to go back to the Book of Leviticus. 

Once a year a representative of all the people, the high priest, would draw the short straw and venture beyond the temple veil, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the glory of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord. Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord. Acceptable to be counted among God’s People.

     After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

     And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away into the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God. 

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God veiled in glory as alien from the New Testament God we think we know. But, as Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. 

    We’re meant to see them as preparation. 

We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice. 

That’s exactly how the New Testament Book of Hebrews frames Jesus’ death: 

As the perfect sacrifice for sin. 

    One sacrifice. Offered once. 

The temple veil is no longer needed. 

The glory of the Holy God need be feared no more.

One sacrifice. Offered once.

Such that now our justification before God is based not on who we are or what we’ve done but on who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ. 

Because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice— because of our exodus, our baptism into his sacrifice offered in our stead— our acceptablity before God— for all of us— must always and forever be spoken of in the past, perfect tense. 

It has been accomplished.

It is finished.

Ephapax is the word the Bible uses to describe the sacrifice, which Luke here calls an exodus. 

Ephapax: “once for all.” 

For all sin. 

For past sin. For present sin. For future sin. 

Ephapax. 

Once for all sin. 

Once for all those believers adopted by the baptism of his blood.

————–

So why in the hell are some arguing in the United Methodist Church about who is and is not compatible with Christian teaching? 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching. 

According to the survey I sent, there’s two dozen LGBTQ people in this congregation.

If you think they’re the ones incompatible with Christian teaching, you need to read your Romans, or try the Sermon on the Mount on for size (Be perfect?!). 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching. Why are we dividing Christ’s Church by arguing over who is acceptable? None of us— not a single one of us— are acceptable. All of us have been made acceptable.

Don’t you see—

The cross of Jesus Christ already contains everything conveyed by a rainbow flag.  

God judges not a one of us according to us. God judges every one of us according to Christ— according to Christ’s perfect (once for all sin, once for everybody) sacrifice. 

Such that, now, by grace alone— not by what you do or who you are— by grace alone— now, like those three disciples on the mountaintop today, you and I (though sinners we are and sinners we always will remain)  We can sleep easy before the glory of God.

We can sleep easy before the glory of God. 

Luke shows you in their sleeping what St. Paul tells you: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…there is therefore NOW NO CONDEMNATION…NOTHING CAN SEPARATE US FROM THE LOVE OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS.”

Why are we arguing when all of us— gay or straight, liberal or conservative, married or divorced, addicts or clean, racists or sexists or homophobes, skinny or not so skinny, black or white or brown, male or female (or somewhere in between), old or young, rich and poor, even people who actually like Maroon 5…all of us sinners have been made acceptable.

Not by our behavior.

Not by by our belief.

But by our baptism.

By our baptism into his departure, his exodus, his once for all death accomplished for you, for your sin…by our baptism, you and I— still in our sins— we can sleep easy before the glory of God.

That’s the Gospel. 

Everything else— every single other thing we can say—is the Law not the Gospel. 

And Christ is the end of the Law, scripture says. 

For freedom from the Law, Christ has set us free, scripture says. 

That’s the other takeaway Luke wants you to see in this preview of the Gospel. 

Jesus appears there with Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, because the Law— with all of its demands for holiness, all of its expectations of a lifestyle compatibile with its commands— the Law ends in Jesus Christ. 

Full stop. 

Moses and Elijah appear there in glory but their glory fades. 

The glory of God is the Christ who delivers grace. 

You see—

Christianity is either all grace (what God has done for you) or it’s all works (what you must do for God). 

Grace and Works— they’re mutually exclusive. 

That is the insight of the Protestant Reformation. 

If it’s not all of the former, it is all of the latter— no matter the lip service you might pay to grace.

Any attempt to balance or blend grace with works destroys the very notion of grace. 

It muddles the Gospel with the Law. It creates a kind of Glawspel, which is exactly the sort of toxic religion I witnessed this week in St. Louis. 

Everything that is not the Gospel of grace is the Law.  

And as soon as you make Christianity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands— it’s funny how, as much as we fire off scripture at each other, we don’t much quote that scripture. 

As soon as you make Christiantity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands. And thus far, only one guy has been able to clear that bar. He was as perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect. 

So why don’t we worry about proclaiming what Christ has done for us— for ALL OF US— instead of yelling at each other about what we think the other ought to do for Christ?

————–

Whenever you make Christianity about the Law— about living a life compatible with the commandments— you become a debter to every single one of its demands. 

Don’t you see?

That’s why this is the only place in all of scripture that Jesus doesn’t reply. 

That’s why Jesus doesn’t rebut him. 

That’s why Jesus doesn’t say “Get behind me, Satan.” 

Peter is right. 

It is good for us to be here— at least, it should be.

Peter is right. 

It is good for us to be here. 

It is good for us to see that the Law, according to which not one of us measures up, ends in the glory of his grace; so that, the Law is fulfilled in us not through our pious deeds or holy living but through faith alone. 

Faith alone in the Gospel of grace is what reckons to you the credit of a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching. 

That’s not just good news. 

That’s the good news.

So Peter is right.

It is good for us to be here. 

Because the Church is the only place in the world— at least, it should be— twhere we can lay down all our burdens of what we ought to do but don’t and what we oughtn’t do but did— this is the only place where we can lay those burdens down and rest. 

Rest in his grace.

————–

On Tuesday afternoon in St. Louis, after the vote, I watched from up above in the press box, as a group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor. They fell on their knees and wept.

Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration. 

If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity— it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box.

Peter is right. 

Until we learn to lay down the Law and go cold turkey from commandment-keeping and holiness-enforcing, until we learn to rest in Grace, every journey back down the mountain will be a descent that leaves the Gospel behind. 

So come down to the Table. 

And roll up your sleeves. 

Come down to the Table. 

Where Christ invites you not to serve but to be served. 

Wine and bread. The Body and Blood. The tangible promise of grace. 

Come down.

Taste and see the goodness of God  that is yours. 

Not as your wage, something you earn. 

But as your inheritance, something that’s yours by way of another’s death, something that is yours as an adopted child of God. 

       

     

The Decision

Jason Micheli —  February 20, 2019 — 3 Comments
Over the years, Tamed Cynic has grown far larger than I ever countenanced when I first began blogging by Tony Jones’ urging— several thousand readers a day. I get a lot of correspondence, much of which I regrettably don’t have the time to engage. Sometimes, something catches my eye and its worth reposting here.
As the UMC nears its global gathering to debate a way forward through the impasse over sexuality, I received this note from a UMC pastor in the MidWest:
Every United Methodist pastor since 1773 has answered the same nineteen questions in regard to entering the life of ordained ministry. 
In the Conference I serve in, every candidate for full membership is paraded in front of the entire clergy session at the beginning of Annual Conference and are asked, as a group, to answer those questions. Some see it as a profoundly holy moment in which we are tied to the clergy of the past who answered similarly, whereas others treat it as a mere formality before kneeling in front of, and being prayed over by, the Bishop.
During my time as a provisional candidate I did whatever I could to serve God at the local church to which I was appointed, and when I received word from the Board of Ordained Ministry that I was to be fully ordained I rejoiced.
But then I worried.
I worried because for a very long time I was afraid about one question that I would have to answer before the clergy session: 
 

“After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures and will you preach and maintain them?”

 
For months I desperately prayed for a way forward. On one level I thought that just saying yes would be okay because then I could get ordained and keep doing the work I love. But on another level I knew that I couldn’t faithfully say yes.
There is a particular doctrine of the UMC, one that has driven us to the point of schism, that I believe runs counter to a full and canonical reading of the Bible. That doctrine is as follows: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Until the day of the clergy session I was still wrestling with what to do, and I finally resigned myself to say “yes” and continue to work from within the church to change our doctrine. It’s how I felt years ago when I first felt God calling me to the ministry, and it’s how I still feel today. 
But then when I stood in front of all my clergy peers, and was asked the question, I was physically unable to open my mouth. 
I really felt like God was preventing me from speaking. 
I stood there with my eyes on the floor while all of my soon-to-be fully ordained brothers and sisters shouted, “Yes.”
And I said nothing.
The service continued and the room erupted in applause, and the next night I knelt before the Bishop and was fully ordained in the United Methodist Church.
The following Monday I received a voicemail from my District Superintendent. “You need to come to the District Office today for a meeting.”
So I did.
And within the first few minutes my DS cut straight to the chase:

“I watched you during the clergy session, and I saw that you didn’t answer the question about our doctrine. So I need you to swear to me right now that you will not marry two men or two women at your church.”

For years I feared having this sort of question being placed before me, and perhaps I felt a new boldness from the stole having so recently been draped over my shoulder that I answered simply, “No.”
We went back and forth for awhile about the ins and outs of the church’s current theological position, and my disagreement with it. I expressed that at the moment there were no gay couples at the church I was serving, but if a couple did arrive and demonstrated the same qualities of a faithful and monogamous relationship as a heterosexual couple I would not say no to presiding over their marriage.
———————-

When I was a teenager one of my best friends came out to me before even telling his parents. They disowned him and so did his church.

And when  I was at my first appointment I discovered that a former pastor had told that church that if anyone was gay in the pews they needed to come to his office where he would “pray the gay away.” 
When some of my friends outside the church discovered the doctrine of the UMC in regard to homosexuality they all asked me the same question, “How can you believe that?”
I don’t.
I never have.
Before I got ordained I had hope that we would’ve repented of our wrongness and hard-heartedness before I had to stand before the clergy session. But I was wrong. And even in the moment of my silence, I believed in the possibility that the United Methodist Church could change.
But when I was called into my DS’ office, my heart grieved for my church. 
I don’t know what will happen at the Special Session of the General Conference toward the end of February. 
We might change, we might stay the same, and we might be ripped apart. 
 
I am not ashamed of the Gospel, and I love getting to do what I do.
But sometimes I sure am ashamed of the church. 
 
-Anonymous 

Nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly. 

It insists upon a Church where there is no distinction between us. 

Because not a one of us is righteous. 

We’re all the ungodly. 

This coming Sunday’s lectionary reading is Paul’s great text on the necessity of the resurrection for Christian confession. At the top of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes his hearers back to the Gospel he delivered to them. The Gospel, Paul reminds this unholy lot, is “our most important urgent concern.” It’s an important text not only for thinking through the logical necessity of the resurrection for Christianity but also for reflecting on the current divisions in the United Methodist Church over the issues of human sexuality. 

Just shy of two weeks from now United Methodist leaders, clergy and lay, from around the globe will gather to debate whether “it” is or isn’t a sin and what implications that should have for our polity, which currently labels homosexuality a lifestyle “incompatible with Christian teaching.” 

Side Note for Later:

Does the justification of the ungodly make the very concept of  “the Christian lifestyle” a non-sequiter? Or, is a better construal of “the Christian lifestyle” the everyday ways by which Christians prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt “Yes, Christians also, in fact, require Christ to be crucified in our stead?”

Given our denominational bickering over “holiness” I think we United Methodists would do well to notice that in Paul’s rundown of the Gospel the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them.

As Robert Capon says, throwing mud in the eye of all of us woke and pious types:

“The only people in heaven will be sinners made safe in his death, gratis.

And the only people in hell will be sinners, forgiven free of charge as well.” 

As I make plans to journey to St. Louis for the UMC’s Special Sex Conference, I can’t help thinking we’ve jumped the Jesus shark, arguing to brinksmanship just 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. 

Though, red-handed and pants-down, sinners we remain.

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?

Or, are we instead implying that we’re in Christ not by way of Christ’s doing for us but because of our own holy living and righteous doing?

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— their every sin too. This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. 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.

Jesus was stipped naked to clothe you, in your naked and ugly sin, with his own righteousness.

By fixating on the sin in another you’re just giving Jesus his clothes back— but he doesn’t want them returned.

In fact, he left them in the tomb.

And when he returned, a new Eve found him in a garden as naked as Adam. 

To be blunt about it- 

Whether you’re liberal 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. And if you’re tempted to interrupt now and say something along the lines of “Yes, but as baptized Christians declared righteous for his sake we should live according…” I’ll insist, as Paul does in Romans 6, that the introduction of any “shoulds” eliminate the Gospel of grace altogether. 

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.

Holiness 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. If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then— in our post-Will and Grace culture, 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 STILL IS 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 Special Sex Conference, 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, the Church’s primary mission remains unchanged even if our denomination— and, as a consequence, our church— changes. Our mission is to proclaim to sinners that God in Jesus Christ loves ungodly them.

To the grave and back. 

On Tuesday a 30-something journalist from Redskins country, Danica Roem, defeated, soon-to-be-octogenarian, Robert Marshall for a seat in the Virginia General Assembly. Marshall has served as a Delegate for decades and has done so, in his own self-indicting words, as “Virginia’s Chief Homophobe.”

As with male pattern baldness- apparently there’s a club of which he’s not only a member but it’s president.

Marshall represents a district of the Northern Virginia exurbs sufficiently conservative as to make the Ayatollah seem middle of the road; nonetheless, on Tuesday they handed Marshall an embarrassing drubbing at the hands of Danica Roem who, it’s not incidental, is transgender.

Take it from me, Gainesville, Va is not San Francisco.

Turns out, regardless of their views on sexuality and identity most ordinary voters don’t care all that much about issues of sexuality and identity. They care more about the concrete, literally; as in, tolls and transportation.

Caveat Ecclesia 

As Gainesville, Virginia goes likely so will go the Church of Jesus Christ in all but the flyover states.

My United Methodist tradition stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed, butt-cheeks-tight- and-nervous impasse over the issue of sexuality, awaiting a recommendation from a special 30-person commission on a “way forward” that will inaugurate what may be the United Methodist Church’s final debate over the issue. The result will either be peace amidst difference, agreeing to unity generally amidst our disunity particularly on this topic, or the result will be for us to contribute (at least) two new denominations to the carnage created by the Reformation’s rupture with Rome (40K+ denominations since Martin Luther’s 95 Theses).

The election of Danica Roem, I suspect and fear, reveals how the very fact we’re even having this all-consuming argument is evidence that we’ve already wandered too far down the mineshaft holding hands with the likes of Robert Marshall.

Look- I get it.

I really do.

I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. 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 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 meant by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Jesus as the God-Man,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the kerygma about Christ and him crucified. And I concur with them that if, as progressives like to say, “God is still speaking…,” then whatever God is saying must conform to what God has already said to us in the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.

On the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, I too want to hold onto sola scriptura and secure the Bible’s role as sole arbiter in matters of belief.

I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, the election of Danica Roem grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such conservatism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

Like those NOVA voters who cared more about public works than Danica Roem’s privates, as much as I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate, I find other 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 issue-

I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news:

everything has already been done in Jesus Christ.

I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel 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 us 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. The Gospel, as Jesus freaking says, is good news. It’s for sinners not saints. It’s for the sick not the show-offs. As with any family on the brink of divorce, I worry that the family’s core story has gotten muddled in the midst of our fighting.

As much as I worry with my conservative friends about the status of sola scriptura in the Church and as much as I concur with them that any culture that produces Snapchat and Tinder shouldn’t be trusted in matters of sex, I worry more that in fighting so much over the “right” position on sexuality we’ve turned having the right position (either on the issue or in the bedroom) into a work of righteousness by which (we think) we merit God’s favor.

In fighting over who has the righteous position, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of works righteousness that prompted Luther’s protest 500 years ago.

Like those voters this Tuesday who cared more about the tolls and transportation of their daily lives than transgenderism, I care about the proclamation of the Gospel more than I do protecting the Law.

And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture- they’re the Law.

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 sex debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

But I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to die for them.

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 his perfect righteousness.

I care more about them knowing that any of us measuring our vice and virtue relative to each other is to miss the freaking huge point that our collective situation is such that God had to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree.

Every last one of us.

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 their 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. It’s expensive, paid in the tender of your right-living and right-believing.

If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone unlike them, then the fighting isn’t worth it.

If our leveraged-future 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 the election of Danica Roem is any indication, to say nothing of the confused look on my 15 year old son’s face that I’m even writing this post, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this debate.

Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Daphne was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. The culture has moved on whether we like it or not. This isn’t a hill the Apostle Paul would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel.

So, given the missional context of the culture in which we find ourselves, I offer this modest proposal for the Way Forward. 

I’ve read reports that the UMC’s Special Worldwide Sex Conference (my name for it) in 2019 will cost the UMC approximately $11 million dollars. 

Given that this issue of sexuality was already settled for most potential converts to Jesus Christ  back in 1996 when Robin Williams starred in the Bird Cage, I propose:

We, the United Methodist Church, instead invest that $11 MILLION DOLLARS until the day, say, when my son is my age, 2050.

On that day, sex will be even less the issue for his children as it is for his peers, but- I’m betting, broken world as this is- they’ll still be hungry for grace.

And- unless the Donald or Skynet screws things up-

At 3% interest that $11,000,000 will be worth close to $24 MILLION DOLLARS.

I know, like Solomon and the baby, it’s an incredibly difficult choice to weigh.

Do we spend $11M now for the same people who couldn’t reach a decision 2 years ago to argue it again and hope for different results?

Or, do we invest for the future so that we have 24 million dollars to proclaim the good news that God in Jesus Christ is for sinners?

With the denomination seemingly on the precipice over sexuality and creaking under the weight of institutional decline, we talked with Christy Thomas about her recent article “It’s Time to Pull the Plug on the UMC.”

Christy is a writer and retired United Methodist Elder. She blogs at the Thoughtful Pastor. She writes the weekly religion column (Ask the Thoughtful Pastor) for the Denton Record-Chronicle newspaper. She also does film reviews, opinion pieces, and has completed one book (An Ordinary Death) with others in the works.

Next up: conversations with man Stanley Hauerwas says is the best theologian in America, Robert Jenson, and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame as well as Carol Howard Merritt about her new book.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

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When the other guys on the podcast posse found out Jason’s guest, Melissa Febos, had written a memoir about her time as a dominatrix in NYC, they all got gun shy.

Their loss. I’m grateful to consider Melissa an (e) friend now.

Not gonna lie- and you can give us your feedback- but I think this conversation with Melissa is the best we’ve had yet on the podcast, ranging from writing, bodies as objects and bodies as sacraments, Woody Allen, grace, shame, mercy, and the eucharist as an erotic act.

Melissa Febos is the author of the acclaimed Whip Smart and the new memoir Abandon Me.

Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including Tin House, Granta, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Guernica, Post Road, Salon, The New York Times, Hunger Mountain, Portland Review, Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Bitch Magazine, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Drunken Boat, and Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.

She has been featured on NPR’s Fresh Air, CNN, Anderson Cooper Live, and elsewhere. Her essays have twice received special mention from the Best American Essays anthology and have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and The MacDowell Colony.

The recipient of an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, she is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University.

Next week – Scot McKnight talks to us about angels. Week after – Martin Doblmeier of Journey Films. Followed by Robert Jenson and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame. Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

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It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. 

r662738_4757386Perhaps not surprisingly, my sermon 2 weeks on (homo)sexuality in the Church prompted quite a few people to ask me for names and titles of reading on the matter, readings with substance and depth. My first answer is always Rowan Williams‘ 10 page essay ‘The Body’s Grace.’ It’s the best theological reflection on sexuality, marriage and grace out there. The nuance of Williams’ argument points out Stanley Hauerwas‘ contention that the Church should stop arguing about homosexuality until it figures out what we mean by ‘marriage.’

Here, Williams’ examination of sexuality through the lens of grace reveals how little popular, ‘biblical’ books on sex and marriage like Mark Driscoll‘s Real Marriage pay attention that most central of Christian doctrines.

imagesHere’s a snippet. You’ll have to click over to read the rest. It’s worth it.

But is should be clear that the discovery of joy means something rather more than the bare facts of sexual intimacy. I can only fully discover the body’s grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures.

There is more to expose, and a sustaining of the will to let oneself be formed by the perceptions of another. Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perception of another.

The worst thing we can do with the notion of sexual fidelity, though, is to “legalise” it in such a way that it stands quite apart from the ventures and dangers of growth and is simply a public bond, enforceable by religious sanctions.

When we bless sexual unions, we give them a life, a reality, not dependent on the contingent thoughts and feelings of the people involved, true; but we do this so that they may have a certain freedom to “take time,” to mature and become as profoundly nurturing as they can.

We should not do it in order to create a wholly impersonal and enforceable “bond”; if we do, we risk turning blessing into curse, grace into law, art into rule-keeping. In other words, I believe that the promise of faithfulness, the giving of unlimited time to each other, remains central for understanding the full “resourcefulness” and grace of sexual union.

I simply don’t think we’d grasp all that was involved in the mutual transformation of sexually linked persons without the reality of unconditional public commitments: more perilous, more demanding, more promising.

Yet the realities of our experience in looking for such possibilities suggest pretty clearly that an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly.

Decisions about sexual lifestyle are about how much we want our bodily selves to mean rather than what emotional needs we’re meeting or what laws we’re satisfying. “Does this mean that we are using faith to undermine law? By no means: we are placing law itself on a firmer footing” (Romans 3.31): happily there is more to Paul than the (much quoted in this context) first chapter of Romans!

I have suggested that the presence or absence of the body’s grace has a good deal to do with matters other than the small scale personal. It has often been said, especially by feminist writers, that the making of my body into a distant and dangerous object, to be either subdued or placated with rapid gratification is the root of sexual oppression.

I cannot make sense of myself without others, cannot speak until I’ve listened, cannot love myself without being the object of love or enjoy myself without being the cause of joy.

Thinking about sexuality in its fullest implications involves thinking about entering into a sense of oneself beyond the customary imagined barrier between the “inner” and the “outer” the private and the shared.

We are led into the knowledge that our identity is being made in the relations of bodies, not by the private exercise of will or fantasy: we belong with and to each other, not to our “private” selves (as Paul said of mutual sexual commitment), and yet are not instruments for each other’s gratification.

There is something basic, then as Freud intuited, about how we make sense sexually, basic for the fabric of corporate human life. But beyond the whole question of how the body’s grace is discovered is a further, very elusive question.

Sex is risky and grace is not discovered by all; and there is something frightening and damaging about the kind of sexual mutuality on which everything comes to depend – that is why it matters to locate sexual union in a context that gives it both time and space, that allows it not to be everything.

But, as I hinted earlier, the body’s grace itself only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption.

To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child.

lt is perhaps because of our need to keep that perspective clear before us that the community needs some who are called beyond or aside from the ordinary patterns of sexual relation to put their identities direct into the hands of God in the single life. This is not an alternative to the discovery of the body’s grace.

All those taking up the single vocation – whether or not they are, in the disagreeable clinical idiom, genitally intact – must know something about desiring and being desired if their single vocation is not to be sterile and evasive.

Their decision (as risky as the commitment to sexual fidelity) is to see if they can find themselves, their bodily selves, in a life dependent simply upon trust in the generous delight of God – that other who, by definition, cannot want us to supply deficiencies in the bliss of a divine ego, but whose whole life is a “being-for,” a movement of gift.

There is the great freedom of the celibate mystic in deploying the rhetoric of erotic love in speaking of God; and, even more importantly, there is that easy acceptance of the body, its needs and limitations, which we find in mature celibates, like Teresa of Avila in her last years.

Whatever the cost, this vocation stands as an essential part of the background to understanding the body’s grace: paradoxical as it sounds, the celibate calling has, as one aspect of its role in the Christian community, the nourishing and enlarging of Christian sexuality.

It’s worth wondering why so little of the agitation about sexual morality and the status of homosexual men and women in the Church in recent years has come from members of our religious orders. I strongly suspect that a lot of celibates do indeed have a keener sensitivity about these matters than some of their married fellow Christians.

And anyone who knows the complexities of the true celibate vocation would be the last to have any sympathy with the extraordinary idea that sexual orientation is an automatic pointer to the celibate life; almost as if celibacy before God is less costly, even less risky, for the homosexual than the heterosexual.

It is impossible, when we’re trying to reflect on sexuality, not to ask just where the massive cultural and religious anxiety about same-sex relationships that is so prevalent at the moment comes from; and in this final part I want to offer some thoughts about this problem.

I wonder whether it is to do with the fact that same-sex relations oblige us to think directly about bodiliness and sexuality in a way that socially and religiously sanctioned heterosexual unions don’t. When we’re thinking about the latter, there are other issued involved notably what one neo-Marxist sociologist called the ownership of the means of production of human beings.

Married sex has, in principle, an openness to the more tangible goals of producing children; its “justification” is more concrete than what I’ve been suggesting as the inner logic and process of the sexual relation itself.

If we can set the movement of sexual desire within this larger purpose, we can perhaps more easily accommodate the embarrassment and insecurity of desire: it’s all in a good cause, and a good cause that can be visibly and plainly evaluated in its usefulness and success.

Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world); and this immediately brings us up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff’, but – just as worryingly – of non-functional joy: or, to put it less starkly, joy whose material “production” is an embodied person aware of grace.

It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. lf the creator were quite so instrumentalist in “his” attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy… ?

The odd thing is that this sense of meaning for sexuality beyond biological reproduction is the one foremost in the biblical use of sexual metaphors for God’s relation to humanity.

closeup1 2We just wrapped our winter sermon series on marriage and love.
Too often when it comes to love, sex and passion people presume that the Christian tradition only has list of ‘thou shalt nots.’ On the contrary, the only Puritanical Christians were the Puritans. From the earliest of the rabbinic traditions to the earliest of the ancient Church Fathers, sexual ecstasy- and its preceding mutual vulnerability- have long been considered something like a parable for how God loves us.
God sees us completely as we are…naked…and loves us.
I asked my friend Janet Laisch to write a post showing how this has been reflected in Christian art:
PHD968While plenty of artists portray love, and only a few artists identify their inspiration as Song of Songs, only Bernini achieved in sculpture what Song of Songs achieved in writing: the physical expression of love is a gift from God which connects us with the divine and with what it means to be fully human. Similar to how the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem, is found in the bible, this erotic sculpture is found in a church. Both share an explanation of our union with God through the metaphor of erotic love. In 1645, Cardinal Cornaro commissioned Bernini to sculpt the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa for the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome. Like all Baroque art, Bernini sculpted it to trigger a religious response in the viewer; though not all artists who created religious art were as deeply religious as Bernini.
The first time I visited the Cornaro Chapel, I was stunned by what I saw. At first glance, a holy light emanated from gilded heavenly rays above the sculpture and the entire sculpture floated so that the figures levitated on the cloud below them. Walking close enough to touch the sculpture and looking up, a secret window, hidden behind the wall revealed the actual light source. Touching the cloud, it felt like cold stone rather than billowy cotton which had been reinforced with concrete below and behind it to make this stone appear to be floating. Bernini achieved a masterful installation where the event appears in action like a scene in a play rather than stagnant stone. It will not surprise you that Bernini was not only the most celebrated sculptor in all of Rome, but also a set designer, painter, architect, gilder, glassmaker and playwright and he married “one of most beautiful women in all of Rome” who became the model for Saint Theresa. Combining these art forms, Bernini hoped to elicit a religious response in each of us.
IMG_15291
By looking, we too become voyeurs to Saint Theresa’s vision. Two theater boxes flank the sculpture on the left and right and realistic, portrait-like sculptures of the wealthy donor–Cardinal Frederico Carnaro–on the right side react to what we see together. It is important when defining this work to mention what it is not, this art is not pornography; it is inside a church. We are experiencing a holy vision first-hand. It parallels the Song of Songs 6:13, when people watch the woman lover, “Dance, dance girl of Shulam. Let us watch you as you dance. She responds, “Why do you want to watch me as I dance between the rows of onlookers?”
teresapeepers
In the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Bernini expertly conveys different materials from a billowy cloud to feathery angel wings; the differences in texture make the image appear more real and more immediate as if it is taking place in front of our eyes. Bernini sculpted, in white marble, Saint Teresa and the angel. He cut away marble to reveal flesh–stone that appears alive rather than cold.  Bernini chiseled away from a block of marble to reveal flesh underneath. Bernini’s work characteristically captures a moment in time and appears kinetic: hair and drapery sweeping in the wind. His marble becomes flesh malleable and reactive to other marble. A marble hand depresses a marble body, clearly indenting the marble where the two stones meet. The difference between these two sculptures illustrates just how effectively Bernini made marble appear to react like flesh; below Bernini’s sculpture– a love scene from a pagan story, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which church fathers glossed in Christian terms starting in the Renaissance– is shown first while Rodin’s, from 1882, The Kiss, is shown second.

The Kiss 1901-4 by Auguste Rodin 1840-1917

Like the Song of Songs, the theme of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa is how erotic love and passion are analogous to what union with God must be like.  Theresa’s vision represents from Song of Songs, ” Asleep on my bed, night after night I dreamed of the one I love; I was looking for him, but couldn’t find him. ” For Theresa, who is a sainted nun, her union with the divine happened through a vision which she recounted in graphic physical detail. Saint Theresa wrote, “It pleased our Lord that I should see the following vision a number of times. I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not wont to see, save very rarely…. In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it thus. He was not tall, but short, marvellously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim…. I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.”
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The male angel is indeed stunningly beautiful and he smiles, clearly deriving his own pleasure, as he looks at the nun’s beautiful face and lifts her robe slightly. With the angel’s other hand he holds an arrow, which he  points not at her heart as St. Theresa had written, but lower on her body.  St. Theresa’s head is thrown back, her eyes are closed and her lips are parted. Her drapery hangs in a kinetic frenzy mirroring her physical experience. The floating cloud references the intensity of her pleasure.  The obvious reference to a physical, erotic union cannot be ignored. She experiences ecstasy through divine union in her mind, soul and body. Her faith in God only increases the intensity of her vision.
Remembering that the model for Saint Theresa is Bernini’s own wife adds to its meaning; he portrays his wife’s ecstasy resulting from this divine union. Bernini is both a passionate artist and a deeply religious man. When he married his beloved wife, he experienced a spiritual awakening, he changed, and he forever deepened his faith. Here he not only portrays Saint Theresa’s Ecstasy then, but also his own wife’s ecstasy. Here he invites God into every aspect of his marriage.  When we recognize this truth as well, when we too invite God into our own marriage, our love only intensifies and brings us closer to each other and to God’s plan for us.