This is the second in a 4-part sermon series called “Living Faithfully.” In this series, Pastor Drew will be addressing some of the deeper truths by which we profess our faith in and commitment to following Jesus Christ, even as our denomination faces the likelihood of separation later this coming summer. The theme for today’s message is the power of Jesus Christ to keep Christians connected despite our differences and disagreements.
- Sermon #1 – January 30: “God’s Still in Charge!”
- Sermon #3 – February 13: “Called and Equipped“
- Sermon #4 – February 20: “What Doesn’t Change“
Scripture: Colossians 1:15-20
In September, Caroline and I will celebrate our 33rd wedding anniversary. Thirty-three years ago, in one of our pre-marriage counseling sessions, our pastor asked each of us to write down the name of a married couple we admired and would like to emulate in our own marriage. As it turned, without knowing what the other wrote down, we both had the same couple in mind.
Thirty-three years ago, naming a married couple meant naming a man and a woman, because by law marriage was between a man and a woman. That has since changed in The United States. Same-sex marriage is now legal in every state.
This legalization created a new tension between the Church and the State. Though for years there have been individuals and organizations within the Church who’ve been calling for more inclusive internal church policies in regard the LGBTQ+ community, it’s only been since 2015 that this call can include making marriage an option for all, regardless of sexual orientation. Since then, a few Christian denominations have officially removed all prohibitions against same-sex marriage. In doing so, it gives clergy who support same-sex marriage the option to perform such weddings without fear of reprisal or being brought up on charges by the powers that be within their denomination. At the same time, it also gives clergy who support a traditional view of marriage the right to refrain from performing such marriages. That’s how some denominations have addressed that tension between the Church and the State.
Today, The United Methodist Church is facing that same crossroads. With same-sex marriage now legal from the perspective of the State, petitions were brought to the 2016 General Conference to change our official denominational position on this issue. Currently, our Book of Discipline states that marriage is “the union between one man and woman,” prohibits clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings and unions, and prohibits the use of United Methodist buildings for same-sex weddings and unions. The 2016 General Conference became a literal hotbed of debates and maneuverings, some calling for change, some calling for holding the line, and some calling for something in between—a kind of let’s agree to disagree kind of position. It was quickly determined that there wasn’t enough time to fully address this one issue, so they tabled it and set a date for a special 2019 session of General Conference in order to settle it once and for all. But as many of us are aware, the exact opposite is what ultimately happened. Instead of settling it once and for all—in retrospect, probably more than a bit naïve on everyone’s part—the decision reached at the 2019 General Conference had the effect of increasing the divide within our denomination. And so, today we find ourselves no longer in a place of trying to find a way forward through unity, but a way forward through amicable separation. General Conference 2022↗️, scheduled for late August, will determine how this process of separation will take place.
The challenges we face these days are many. One of the biggest challenges is just talking about it this issue. Sure, it’s relatively easy to talk about it with people who share our views and opinions; those conversations amount to being echo chambers. The challenge is finding a way to talk with people who share a different perspective or with whom we outright disagree in a healthy, respectable manner. Wouldn’t you agree that by and large, we’re better at saying what we think and believe than we are in hearing what someone else thinks and believes? And even if we do manage to listen and hear what someone else thinks, it’s incredibly difficult to just leave it there and not then take the opportunity to say what I think. Why is that so difficult? Because we tend to live by the mistaken notion that silence on the matter equals agreement. But that’s simply not always true. And yet, it’s kind of how we operate. The thinking is If I don’t agree, then I have to say so.
Now, with that said, if there’s an understanding that 1) you get to say what you believe and I get to say what I believe, and 2) the purpose of the conversation is to better understand each other’s position, the end result could in fact be that we agree to disagree with each other, and then we leave it at that. That kind of back-and-forth is generally helpful. If I can disagree with you and yet understand your reasons your beliefs and perspectives, that’s helpful and healthy. But it’s altogether different when the back-and-forth takes on the nature of a heated contest of who can make the most convincing argument with the intended result being one or the other person changing their mind on the matter. That’s called a debate, and it’s what happens on the floor of Senate and General Conference alike. There’s nothing wrong with debating something, as long as everybody involved understands that’s what they’re doing.
The problem is that when it comes to talking about whether or not it’s right and OK for persons of the same sex to marry, or whether or not it’s right and OK to ordain someone who’s in a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex, anyone who has strong convictions about it is most likely coming at it from the perspective of I’m right and you’re wrong. Even if you’re a good listener and can articulate the reasons those on the other side believe what they believe, my guess is that you quietly believe they’re wrong. And that’s a two-way street. I believe I’m right just as much as you believe you’re right. And if someone who’s truly neutral on the matter listens to both sides of the debate, they’ll tell you that both sides make good arguments. It’s not that the evidence and reasoning is clearly solid on the one side and clearly insubstantial on the other side.
For example, both sides in the debate about marriage equality can point to certain Bible verses and theological realities which support their position. If you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, it’s possible to see and understand why they believe what they believe. The problem is, you believe just as strongly that what you believe is correct. You think you’re correct, and they think they’re correct. It really is a kind of stalemate in which we find ourselves as a denomination. And it’s finally gotten to the point where almost everyone agrees that we’re no longer able to find a unified way forward.
But here’s what I want you to know: whatever may come in August, Jesus Christ will still be Lord of his Church. Jesus is Lord. Always has been, and always will be. This truly is good news, because we’ve proven again and again that our human actions inevitably lead to division. In 2000+ years of Christendom, we’ve managed to divide ourselves thousands of times. But the good news is that no split in the Church has ever knocked the Lord Jesus Christ from his throne. Always remember the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord of his Church no matter what happens within the Church or to the Church.
Listen again to this important early creed of the 1st century Church, which forms today’s reading from the book of Colossians. This first part of this creed highlights Christ’s role in Creation.
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. (Col 1:15-17)
So, let’s quickly break this down. Jesus Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He’s God in human flesh. God-who-can-be-seen. That makes him pretty important!
He existed before anything was created. How so? Jesus Christ is part of the triune Godhead; he’s the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. Christ Jesus the Son was in eternal existence prior the unfolding of creation as described in Genesis chapter 1. And as such, everything that’s ever been created—from solar systems to angels—was created through him and for him. In other words, Jesus Christ is Lord over all creation.
So that’s the first half of the creed; it highlights his role in creation. The second half of this hymn highlights his role in God’s acts of Redemption.
Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So, he is first in everything. For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross. (vv. 18-20)
Again, let’s quickly break this down. Christ is the head of the Church, his body on earth. You and I are the arms and legs and hands and feet of Jesus. He is the head. And as such, he’s supreme over all of us.
God, in every way possible—‘God in all his fullness’—was present in the human being named Jesus, the son of Mary, born in Nazareth. Think about that! Jesus the human fully embodied the God who called all creation into being!!!
Through Christ, God reconciled everything to himself. That is, through the blood which he himself shed on the cross, everything in this broken world that’s been tainted by sin has been emancipated from death and decay. When Christ returns, what we now know and call death and decay—whether of human bodies or trees in the forest—will be no more. In its place will be pure light and love and life and peace. He is Lord over all creation, and he is Lord of his Church.
What makes this truth so significant is that it helps keeps things in proper perspective. For example, speaking for myself, I may be a United Methodist clergyperson, which means that many of my worldly assets, including my salary, retirement pension, and health insurance, are closely linked with The United Methodist Church, but nowhere is it written that my ability to live a holy life in line with God’s purposes for me can only happen within entity The United Methodist Church. Through the years, even before the 2019 General Conference, I’ve often asked myself what I would do in the event of a split if remaining connected to The United Methodist Church meant aligning myself with an organization which I believed to be heading in a direction that failed to glorify God. I’m not saying that’s what’s happening, but I’ve asked myself, IF that were ever the case, would I be willing to forgo the many worldly accoutrements and comforts that come with being a clergyperson of this denomination?
You see, keeping in mind who’s ultimately Lord of my life keeps things in proper perspective. Jesus is Lord, not the church, and definitely not any denomination within the church. My life call as well as your life call is to follow Jesus Christ wherever he leads, knowing that wherever he leads is best. It certainly may not always be easy, and it may in fact be difficult. But in the grand scheme of God’s plan and purposes, following Jesus wherever he leads is always the best way forward. It’s imperative that we always bear in mind that it’s through Jesus Christ that we’ve been reconciled to God and made right in his eyes. Our ultimate commitment is to him, whatever that may look like. If our ultimate commitment is to Jesus, then we should look to him for guidance for what we should do and say and believe.
At the heart of our denominational debate over marriage and ordination is the question about what it means to be holy and to live a holy life. Scripture commands us be holy.
- Paul writes, “He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4).
- Hebrew 12:14 says, “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”
- Peter writes, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:15, quoting Leviticus 11:44).
The problem is, we’re not always in agreement on what holiness looks like.
After God’s people crossed through the Red Sea and began their desert wanderings, they encoded a whole bunch of laws intended to make it clear what holiness looks like. In fact, it’s even referred to as “the holiness code,” which is Leviticus chapters 17-27. Here’s one brief example, a few verses from Leviticus chapter 20, and note that it begins with a reminder to be holy, to be a people set apart from the world for God.
Set yourselves apart to be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep all my decrees by putting them into practice, for I am the Lord who makes you holy. Anyone who dishonors a father or mother must be put to death. Such a person is guilty of a capital offense. If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the man and the woman who have committed adultery must be put to death. If a man violates his father by having sex with one of his father’s wives, both the man and the woman must be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense. If a man has sex with his daughter-in-law, both must be put to death. They have committed a perverse act and are guilty of a capital offense. If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense. If a man marries both a woman and her mother, he has committed a wicked act. The man and both women must be burned to death to wipe out such wickedness from among you” (vv. 7-14).
Did you notice the penalty for these different sexual offenses? It’s death.
Jump ahead about 1400 years. Jesus is in the middle of a teaching when suddenly some religious leaders barge in with a woman in tow and force her to stand up in front of the crowd as they announce that she’d just been caught in the act of adultery. They quote the holiness code, chapter and verse, reminding everyone present that the just penalty is death. “Teacher,” they ask, “what do you say?” What was his response? OK, no problem. But let’s be sure that the first one to throw a stone at her is without sin. At that, everyone slowly walks away, leaving only Jesus and the woman. Jesus stands up and asks her, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she says. He responds, “Then neither do I. Go and sin no more.” (see John 8:1-11)
Here’s what makes being holy so difficult. We erect rules to help guide us, and to give ourselves boundaries, because we know that without them, we’re apt to do whatever we want—and that certainly doesn’t result in holiness! But at the same time, we also know that as much as we may want to follow the rules and stay within the boundaries, we don’t. And more truthfully, we can’t. We’re rule-breakers and boundary-breakers. We make ‘em, AND we break ‘em. The problem is, from God’s perspective sin is so bad that his justice demands death for it. This is our predicament. And God knows this about us. Which is exactly why he sent his Son into our world–so that he would take upon himself the just penalty for our sin. In God’s mercy, he paid the price. Because of this, in Christ we no longer stand condemned. In fact, in Christ, we are holy in God’s eyes!!
And yet…and yet, God still calls us to live a holy life, to live outwardly the holiness that he’s granted us inwardly. That call did not stop with Jesus’ death and resurrection. At the end of the story we’re left with two actions of Jesus that are in tension with each other. He refuses to apply the law to her despite her guilt (and, of course there’s the guilt of the man as well), but before he lets her go, he tells her to stop sinning.
A moment ago I stated that if our ultimate commitment is to Jesus, then we should look to him for guidance for what we should do and say and believe. If we look to Jesus in this particular story for guidance, what jumps off the page for us is holy grace. It’s us being pardoned of our guilt, which is grace…but told to keep striving in the power of the Holy Spirit to live right.Holiness and grace, wrapped into one.
For me, it means that even though I have my own beliefs and convictions about what is right and wrong when it comes to marriage, I will nevertheless do my best to not condemn or judge those who believe differently than me.In discussion and even debates, I may say, “I believe I’m right,” but I’m asking you to hold me accountable to my commitment to never say, “You are wrong.”Because the fact is, even if I’m right in my belief, I’m still guilty of sinning and falling short of God’s purpose for me.I still fall short of the holiness to which I’ve been called.And that’s true for all of us.
What would Jesus do and say to our beloved United Methodist Church if her were here today? I have no idea. But I do know what he did do and say to someone who, like all of us here, struggled with doing the right thing. He didn’t condemn her. And he charged her to repent of the ways her current lifestyle and choices were failing to glorify God. Is there anyone here to whom Jesus couldn’t give the same charge? That’s what Jesus did do.