Monday, March 2, 2009

Biblical Sexuality: The Peace, Unity, & Purity of the Church

SERMON Dennis Evans 3-1-2009

“Biblical Sexuality: The Challenge of the Peace, Unity, & Purity of the Church”
Readings: 1 Kings 11:26-40; 1 Corinthians 3:1-15; John 13:1-17, 34-35

A man fell overboard from a cruise ship, in the middle of a storm, and he found himself alone, on a deserted tropical island in the Pacific. The good luck was that he was very handy and resourceful. And even luckier, he found the remains of an old military camp and some hand tools.
A few years later, the man was discovered, and he showed his rescuers what he had done to survive, and how he passed the time. He was a carpenter and, to keep himself sane, he constantly built things. He showed them his house. He showed them his post office, and his bank, and his grocery store.
He showed them a building, with a steeple and a cross on top, and he said, “And here is my church.” One member of the rescue party pointed to another building with a steeple and a cross. What is that, over there? And the man said, “Oh, that’s the church I used to go to.”
Anyone who has been part of the church for any length of time knows that the church is not a building: the church is a people. And, where you have people, you will have the church that someone used to go to. You have frustrations, and disagreements, and conflicts, and faithfulness, and patience, and encouragement, and judgment, and grace, and expectations, and love.
Some of these things don’t go well together: for instance judgment and grace. For instance, I see good judgment as the ability to not only see when something may be going wrong, but also as the ability to stop what is wrong, in a timely manner, and make things go right, and not let innocent people get hurt.
That is a tall order. It is not easy. And there are gracious ways to do this, and ungracious ways. There are ways to exercise judgment that show the glory of the gospel, and there are ways that show the ugliness in our own holy hearts, and violate the very grace of God. This is why Jesus warned us about judging others.
One of the ordination questions for elders, and ministers (and deacons) is about things that are not always easy to fit together. The question is this: “Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?” This is not an organizational question. It is a biblical question. Peace, unity, and purity are biblical things.
Unity is biblical in this way. Jesus prays for the unity of the church. In the seventeenth chapter of John (17:21), Jesus prays this for us, with these words: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” Jesus prays that you and I, and all Christians in all times and places, possess a powerful oneness that is just as real as the oneness between the Father and the Son.
There is belonging in that oneness. There is unbroken and unbreakable fellowship, and appreciation, and communication in that oneness between the Father and the Son. There should be unbroken and unbreakable fellowship, and appreciation, and communication between Christians, and congregations, and organizations of congregations, and denominations of congregations.
There should be.
But there isn’t.
But there should be; because Jesus wants it, and expects us to live it out in our Christian lives. Jesus tells us this. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
“As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” How does Jesus love you? He loves you enough to call you his friend and die for you. (John 15:13) But he doesn’t call you, alone, friend. Jesus’ friends are plural. Jesus has a people (plural) (1 Peter 2:9), a body of many members (1 Corinthians 12), a family (Ephesians 2:19).
Jesus died for the whole family, for the whole gang of friends, and for all. It killed Jesus to love us, and we complain because it just about kills us to love one another.
We want a warm fuzzy love, but we are often not warm and fuzzy ourselves. We get mad. Other people deserve for us to get mad at them. And we deserve it too; right back. Jesus often looked at that huddle of his disciples and was just so angry at them.
Love is not all about understanding, and having substantial agreement about things, and getting along. The disciples of Jesus had very little of that between themselves. And they often disagreed with Jesus, himself
In a way, the dying part of love is what Jesus took upon himself; and he gave us the foot washing part of love. Jesus talks about having given his disciples a complete bath, already, and, by this, he means that he is dying for them. Since Jesus bathes us with his blood on the cross (that strange blood that mysteriously makes us clean), our job is to be foot washers.
Now, in the ancient Middle Eastern world, feet were dirty, and feet were obscene. People wore open sandals as they walked on dirt roads that got plenty of traffic from donkeys, and camels, and horses, and goats, and sheep, and chickens. When people came into a house, they took off their sandals and washed their feet: because they were really dirty. They could be just plain foul and rank.
Wealthy people might have a servant, or a slave, to wash the feet of worthy guests. But a foot washer would be, in the pecking order of a house, the lowest of the low. That is why Peter wanted Jesus to wash more than his feet, so that Jesus wouldn’t bear the shame of being nothing more than a foot washer.
Feet were considered an obscenity. To point the sole of your foot in the direction of another human being was the same as any obscene gesture.
So for us to love one another, as Jesus loves us, means that we have been called to the sort of ministry in which we are to gently, kindly, humbly face human stink, and dirt, and even obscenity (the outrageous).
Foot washing is not just for people who have the same priorities and are going in the same direction. Foot washing is not just for those who are faithful. Jesus washed the feet of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him to death.
This ministry does not degrade us, and it does not require us to be victims, or to allow others to be victimized. This ministry requires us to be prepared to face hard, awkward, embarrassing, complicated issues with other people as if we were equipped and ready to go at it with spiritual water and spiritual towels.
It requires us to be always ready to deal with things; and be ready to wash them. It requires us to restore things, and make them clean, and sweet, and fair.
Love requires us to deal with feet all the time. We make others face our feet every day.
Families do this. Feet are an inevitable part of life. Feet are diapers to be changed, and children squalling and screaming, “I hate you!” Feet are lovers’ quarrels, and old bad habits, and insensitivity lived with for decade after decade.
The church has to do this. Feet are an inevitable part of life in the church. Even thankful hearts become feet, when they give credit to the service of others, only to give that credit to the wrong people, or to neglect to give it to the right people. Feet are different visions for the mission of the church, and how to carry it out. Feet are styles of music, and the manner of worship. Feet are how we use the English language, and what translation of the Bible we read from. Feet are what someone said or did thirty years ago, or only yesterday. Are these little feet or are they big feet? It depends on who is looking at them and who is doing the washing.
And there are the feet of how we describe our faith and the work of God in our lives, because God works in each person in a different way; or does he? When we differ on this, we experience feet in the church.
We see feet in the church when Christians want to decide between who is right on the basis of what the Bible says about grace and what the Bible says about holiness. And, just like feet, this argument can be stinky, especially when it goes on, and on, and on.
We should not have to argue about such things. We should just all agree because the answer is so obvious. But the other side says that their side is obvious. Gosh, the church is such a feety or footy place.
To me, it is obvious that some of the stinkiest feet in the church are the debates over the boundaries of sexual identity and orientation, and the issue of whether to ordain practicing homosexual people to ministries in the church. I believe that homosexuality is not God’s design for human life. I believe that celebrating homosexuality within the church is not the way to help people find God’s truth for human life, or marriage, or family, or even God’s truth for our individual identity.
The current standard of the Presbyterian Church USA, related to sexuality and marriage and leadership, is as follows: “Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” (Book of Order, G-6.0106 b.)
There has been a change proposed that would eliminate this standard.
The presbyteries of the church are voting on this change. Our own presbytery, the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest, has voted against change in order to support the present standard. The vote was 76 to 44 to leave the standard unchanged. So far 92 out of 173 presbyteries have voted, and the vote to keep the present standard stands at 56 to 36 presbyteries.
This issue has come up for a vote by the presbyteries twice before. If the remainder of the presbyteries votes as they did the last time, we will preserve our standards by a vote of 112 to 61 presbyteries. The vote may well be narrower than that, this time. Still, the standard will surely not be changed this time around.
For me, the mere fact that we have to debate this at all is a stinky thing. It is the stinky feet of the church.
Some people advocate splitting the church over this controversy. Some people will try to work for what you might call an “amicable separation”. Some people will try to separate at any cost.
To me, this separation is wrong and unbiblical. In the New Testament, it is not strange to find doctrinal error in the church. It is not strange to find a mixture of moral integrity and the condoning of immorality. Where there is such a mixture the apostles never tell the people who are right to leave. John, in one of his letters, observes that the way you can tell someone is teaching what is false is that they inevitably split off, and go their separate ways. (1 John 2:19)
In the Old Testament, we can read that God stepped in to divide his people. However that division was not a blessing to either side. It was God’s judgment upon both sides. Their division was part of a long, slow, sad, violent decline.
Not that good things didn’t happen, too, as a result of it. The irony is that the northern tribes became even more corrupt than the kingdom of the tribe of Judah that they sought to leave because of its corruption and injustice. But they had great things happen among them, too; like the stories of prophets, Elijah and Elisha; like the 7,000 who never bent their knee to the false god Baal; like the healing of the enemy general of his leprosy (2 Kings 5); like the chariots of fire that protected the city of Samaria (2 Kings 6:17).
Because our particular church was founded as a Presbyterian mission, we have our roots in the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century. We have our roots in a divided church. But Luther and Calvin (the reformers who helped us come into existence) did not set out do divide the church.
They said, in any number of ways, that they did not separate from the Church of Rome, but that Rome separated itself from them. After all, Luther and Calvin didn’t try to kill the Pope. But the Popes used their power to try to destroy them.
Luther and Calvin wanted to reform the church, which means to transform it from the heart. The truth is that, with the Protestant tradition emphasizing salvation by grace, our tradition is about transformation and not separation.
Much good came from the Reformation. But so did more than a hundred years of savage warfare, which tore Europe apart. And there was the war between the Protestants and the Catholics, in Ireland, just a few decades ago. Separation is not the blessing some people make it out to be.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that teachers and leaders in the church can build on the one foundation of Jesus Christ with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw. (1 Corinthians 3: 11-15) This means that, in the family of God, in the church, the body of Christ, we can teach and do good things, and we can do junk and garbage.
In the end God will judge it all, and either reward it or burn it to the ground. But it is all part of one thing. It is all part of one inescapable thing. It is all part of the story of the Lord’s people. It is all part of your story and mine, whether you or I actually to the good stuff or the junk.
Some people say that there is nothing wrong with making a new denomination, or changing allegiance to another denomination, or separating into something that is so-called non-denominational, because denominations are not the church; because the church is spiritual, and organizations are not spiritual. But those organizations are made of people, and the divisions are divisions between people, many of whom are just as genuine (as Christians) as anyone you know. It doesn’t matter if they are misguided, or if you are.
It is the same as saying, “We are not going to deal with you any more. And we can justify our division from you because the church is a spiritual thing.” It is the same as saying, “Because our real relationship with you is spiritual, we can distance ourselves from you.”
This doesn’t make sense. Even when Paul told people in the church to discipline members who had gone astray, he never let them forget that they had an enduring obligation to those people that they could not put to an end. (2 Corinthians 2:5-11)
As far as denominations go, the only reason that I have ever been glad to be a Presbyterian is that I know, with all my heart, that it would be just as hard, and just as stinky, or worse, in the long run, to be anything else.
The other thing I know is that Jesus has put me where he has. He made me first a Methodist, and then a Presbyterian. And I have seen the grace of God where he planted me.
Since God did not disdain to teach me, and discipline me, and sufficiently humiliate me, and abundantly bless me in the setting where he did, I will not disdain it either. And I will not turn my back on it: and neither should you.
This faithfulness is part of our mission to serve the peace, unity, and purity of the church. This faithfulness is our mission as feet washers for Jesus.

Some extra notes, used and unused:
The Bible teaches us the discipline of the oneness of the people of God.
Physical division is not an expression of love. Members of a family who get up and leave the room in disagreement may make a bigger gap than members of a family who are united but go to live at opposite sides of the earth.
Love is expressed in faithful persistence and not in withdrawal. (Example: my mom’s role in her family)
Love is expressed in faithfulness, even to the unfaithful. Jesus washed Judas’ feet.

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