Wesley on Marriage, Divorce, and Singleness (Part four in a series on Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576The term “human sexuality” is often used to characterize the debate before us.  This strikes me as a bit disingenuous.  It seems that we are so focused on one dimension of human sexuality, that we actually neglect our calling to be pastoral and prophetic in many dimensions of human sexuality — marriage, divorce, singleness, equality, roles, expectations, abuse, exploitation, and words in the lists in scripture like fornication and adultery.  I want to explore Wesley’s guidance on some of these issues as they relate to our big debate — specifically looking at the purpose of marriage, the reasons for prohibitions on divorce, and the call to singleness.

First marriage.  What is the purpose of marriage?  In Wesley’s commentary on the scriptures, he gives two purposes.  In the context of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 20, Wesley speaks of the need for marriage because we are subject to “the law of mortality,” and “the species is in need of continuous repair.”  Thus, the first purpose of marriage is reproduction or the “repairing” of the species.

The second reason for marriage is found in Wesley’s commentary on I Thess 4:4, and moves us to think about social and spiritual “repairing.”  Wesley says, “marriage is not designed to inflame, but to conquer, natural desires.”  Marriage is given to “further holiness.”  In other words, marriage is an institution where we can cultivate the virtues of holiness – patience, gentleness, humility, self-control, peace, and joy. To bear these fruits, much attention and intentionality is needed.

While Wesley does not comment on it, there is another reason for marriage in the scriptures. The Apostle Paul says that we should marry if we cannot control ourselves. He says that it is better to marry than to “burn with lust” (I Cor 7:8-9).   Being consumed with passion, where we begin to see others as objects for our pleasure, is not good for the soul or society. (A biblical word for this is “pornia,” usually translated as “fornication.” Wesley uses this term in a much broader, and more inclusive, way than we see elsewhere).

These “reasons” call for several thoughtful and serious questions. How is marriage good for souls and for society as a whole?  Is it possible that other types of unions, beyond traditional views of marriage, could foster true holiness as described by Wesley?  What if the church promoted a strong ethic of monogamy, commitment, faithfulness, and intentional growth in the virtues of faith for all?  Given the moral choice, is it better to be in a relationship where this is possible, or to be told that “burning in lust” is the only option from the church?  Is it possible to reserve the term marriage for traditional purposes, and to still bless other kinds of unions?

What about divorce?  Relying on scripture, Wesley holds the church to a high standard, and “ministers” to a higher standard.  He makes it clear that the prohibitions apply equally to women and to men and speaks against the law that allowed men to write a divorce decree “on any trifling occasion.”  He speaks strongly against the notion of “putting away” a wife to pursuit other desires.  He makes no exceptions accept for adultery.  He speaks of marriage as one man and one woman, and the two becoming “one flesh.” Every time this is mentioned, Wesley makes the connection with the church’s stance against polygamy and divorce.  Such unions of commitment and faithfulness help society guard against these two ills.  From Wesley’s perspective, that is the value behind promoting strong commitment.

As a pastor, I must acknowledge that I have supported many people through divorces.  I have sought the grace to discern circumstances in individual cases, to offer forgiveness, and to affirm the possiblity for new beginnings. I have also tried to be responsive to the fact that divorce often leaves others hurt and broken. My experience is that it is never one sided.  With that said, I feel that the church has become lax on this issue.  There is little stigma.  Even pastors can be divorced and remarried multiple times, with no explanation needed, and continue to serve in leadership.  Often, we even celebrate it.

If we err on the side of grace in divorce, it begs the question:  Could we give this same grace to others seeking to live in faithful, covenant relationships and to grow in God’s love? Why would we withhold that from them and turn them away from the church?

Singleness? In the scriptures singleness is seen as a gift given from God.  With this understanding, the question becomes: can singleness then be imposed on people as an expectation of the church?  Wesley provides some commentary on Matthew 19:12 where, in the context of teaching on marriage, Jesus speaks of eunuchs who choose singleness.  Jesus says that some eunuchs are made this way, some are born this way, and some choose this way. Wesley points out that it is not for everyone, but “only for those few who are able to receive the gift.”  In his commentary on I Cor 7:7 he joins with Paul in wishing that all unmarried “men” would “remain eunuchs for the kingdom,” but acknowledges that all are not gifted in this way.  Throughout history the word “eunuch” has been used as a euphemism for those we might call “gay” today.  Wesley hints at this himself in his commentary on Acts 10:27 and Daniel 1:3 by telling us that we cannot always take the term “eunuch” literally.  There was a time when eunuchs – understood literally or as a euphemism – were put into the same category as gentiles and foreigners.  They were not admitted to worship or into the congregation.  In the New Testament we see this barrier broken.  It begs the question, are there any implications of this issue for our current debate?

Do these understanding of marriage, divorce, and singleness inform our current debate? One way to make some connection is to note the progression in the scriptures towards a more restrictive view of sexuality, especially in matters of monogamy, divorce, and abuse.  This progression comes out of a growing need to protect women and children and provide a secure environment for them.  Is it possible for us to apply this principle to the debate before us? Could we promote a healthy sexual ethic that applies to all, rather than expecting some to live by a higher standard while becoming more lax with others – with divorce for example?  Could we move towards acceptance of people, while at the same time, promote a more restrictive sexual ethic -promoting monogamy, commitment, and faithfulness, with lots of forgiveness and grace as well?  Could that be a part of our way forward?

Wesley and the Sin of Sodom (Part Three in the Series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576In this series, the next word from Wesley is “sodomy.”  Wesley uses this word in several places. While we often associate this word with sexual sin, and even homosexual practice, Wesley takes a much broader and more biblical view.  In Wesley’s commentary, he uses this word to describe abusive and harmful actions against others.  Wesley also uses the word “assault” to describe this sin.  At another point, Wesley expands the meaning by highlighting what is said about the sin of Sodom in Ezekiel 16:49.  In Wesley’s notes, he says that the sin of Sodom was “fullness of bread,” “excess in eating and drinking,” and Sodom’s refusal “to help strangers.”  Arrogance, gluttony, and laziness in helping the poor were the source of Sodom’s fall. That’s straight from the Bible!   In another place, Israel is compared to Sodom for their wickedness. This wickedness is defined as failure to seek justice for the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow (Note on Isaiah 1:9-17).  Following the message of the prophets, Wesley wants to remind us that “Their doings were abominable, but thine have been worse.” (Note on Ezekiel 16:47).   This broad and biblical view of the word gives us all cause to look in the mirror rather than project sin onto others.

In the list of sins found in I Corinthians 6, the original Greek word in question is “arsenkoitos.”  It is translated as “sodomy” by Wesley. (We also see this in the NRSV). There are no known previous usages of this word, so it is assumed by many that Paul coined the term.  The word is a combination of two words meaning “male” and “bed,” probably used with sexual overtones. Since there is no literary context for this word, it has been translated and interpreted in many ways. It has been used for men who use others as prostitutes or who use their strength (masculinity) to exploit others. It has also been defined as masturbation, pervert, abusers of boy or children, and with general words like “abominations.”  In the last century it has been translated with the word “homosexual,” thus associating this word with behaviors listed above. With this association, it is understandable why the word “homosexual” has become offensive to many, and is no longer used as a description of one’s identity.  By associating this term with abusive and exploitive behavior, it is “incompatible” with Christian teachings.

In more recent years some translations have combined this word with the previous word to describe the passive and active male (not female) partners in a same-sex relationship.  This move is problematic in many ways.  It veers from the original meaning of the words. It covers up the biblical and historical precedence for using this word to describe abusive and harmful behavior. It also removes the possibility of such a relationship being moral and life-giving. It makes it possible to use this passage against Christians seeking to live faithfully and to grow in the virtues of Christ through their relationship, perhaps with more commitment than those making the accusations. Is this biblical? Is it right? Is our judgment, and the call to accountability, in the proper place?

In any responsible reading of scripture, this word cannot be used to project sin only on to others or seen only in terms of sexuality.  Wesley would not approve.  When confronted with lists like in I Corinthians 6, the first calling is to self-examination. This list, for example, includes “fornicators.” Wesley uses this word to cover “every kind of [sexual] uncleaniness” and the harm that comes from it. The Greek word is “pornia.” It is sex when another is objectified or used, or when one allows themselves to be objectified or used, thus causing harm. I wonder if this would not be a better cause for us. This list also includes “drunkards.” At one point, Wesley speaks of being “drunk with the blood of the saints” believing we can judge others. The list is long, but the point is clear.  When we are “washed” and “sanctified” in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God, we behave differently.  We learn to live in love.

To avoid the labeling that makes it so easy for us to project sin onto others, I like the paraphrase of these verses found in “The Message.” It reads, “Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom. A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list. Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah, and by our God present in us, the Spirit.”  Praise be to God.

Wesley and the Effeminate (Part two in a Series on Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576In the previous post, I looked at key scriptures used to inform our current debate over same-sex relationships in the church. As a part of that post, another question surfaced for me: Did John Wesley have anything to say about this?  Are there any direct references in this in the Standard Sermons or Notes on the Scriptures (which are part of our doctrine)?  I did discover help here – and shared some of that in the previous post.  With the next few posts, I will focus in more detail on some key words and concepts.  First, I will explore the use of the word “effeminacy.” In following posts, I will explore his understanding of sodomy, marriage/divorce/singleness, the “vilest abominations,” holiness, and we’ll see from there.  First up – the “effeminate.”

On several occasions, Wesley uses the word “effeminate.” He is not above using this word in a culturally-conditioned derogatory way.  He often combines this word with the word “soft” or “weak.” He talks, for example, about how great confusion comes from “weak and effeminate” rulers.  He compares effeminacy in a man to arrogance in a woman. He speaks against wearing clothes that might “confound those sexes which God hath distinguished,” except if one needs to do this to “escape for one’s life.”  In these passages, Wesley is mostly addressing men. He does not appear to have the same concern for women. While ahead of his time, he was still part of a radically paternalistic culture.

The most relevant passage for this topic is his commentary on I Corinthian 6:9. Here the Apostle Paul gives a list of sins. The word translated “effeminate,” by the King James and by Wesley, is one that has caused wide debate among biblical scholars, with little consensus across various languages.  The word literally means “soft” and is used, even in scripture, to describe the weak, luxurious, or self-indulgent (See Matt 11:8, for example).  In Wesley’s day, it might have been used as a euphemism for the “soft” or submissive partner in a same-sex relationship, as oppose to the aggressor or abuser (which is the next word). In this light, it has also been translated as “male prostitution.” (In the NRSV, for example).  Many scholars, however, point to evidence (even in scripture) of it being used more broadly, beyond a sexual context.

In his commentary of this passage from First Corinthians, Wesley seems to have a particular type of person in mind.  He asks, “How is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites!”  He concludes that we are never secure from the greatest sins when we do not guard against those which are thought to be the least.  That’s his assessment of this word in this context.

Looking beyond this usage, Wesley uses the same word to point to sin beyond sexuality. Frequently, he uses this word to speak of those “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross.”  He uses this word to denote spiritual softness or weakness. He calls us to be aware of our temptation “to sloth, indolence, love of ease, softness, delicacy; to hatred of self-denial, and taking up our cross.”  Wesley’s default is to first call us to self-examination.   He clearly sees this word in a broader context, calling all of us to look in the mirror.

In this analysis we are faced with a stereotypical view of women and men that does not match with our modern sensibilities. Wesley’s general attitude towards all thing s“effeminate” was colored by the times in which he lives.  At the same time, there is evident for some struggle with these views, especially when it comes to women being able to provide ministry and even preach.  For example, Wesley notices that women can exhibit “strong faith,” and he see this as evidence for the transforming power of Christ, enabling women to “overcome their natural fearfulness” and “great disadvantage, as having less courage than men.” This illustration would be offensive today, if it were not put in historical and cultural context.

At the same time, we must note the positive way in which Wesley uses the word “soft.” He was a strong advocate of “softness of the right kind” – softness that yields compassion, mercy, and kindness. He calls for a “softening of the heart” and for a “soft, yielding spirit.”  In his commentary of the phrase “Love is kind,” he describes “kindness” with the word “soft.” He also says that peacemakers are those able to “quiet turbulent passions” and “soften the minds of contending parties.”  This kind of softness is a sign of true religion, and we see this word used over and over again in this way.

In our current debate, I wonder what it would mean if we were more committed to “holy softness.”  In a great line, Wesley reminds us that “Love (and only love) can soften and melt and pierce and break an adamantine heart.” I had to look up the word “adamantine.”  It means to be adamant (duh)– inflexible, unyielding, rigid. In contrast to the negative use of the “effeminate,” we might use the word “masculine” here.  What would our witness be if we spent less time on securing our place and power within “contending parties,” and more time being peacemakers in the most holy of senses?  What if we focused first on giving witness to the softer virtues of patience, kindness, gentleness, bearing one another in love and being eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace? (Eph 4:1-3). In the midst of our disagreements, which we will always have, what if our first desire was to learn how to love one another better in the midst of community?  Is this not at the very heart of Christian holiness? A strong case can be made for Wesley shouting “yes.”

Personally, I’m just not willing to throw in the towel and give up on the spiritual strength it would take for us to meet in the middle where true love is possible, where we could truly give witness to the kin-dom of God, where we could hold up the cross together.  Anything other than this is weakness and softness that will never glorify God.

Photo by Julius Silver on Pexels.com

Scripture, Wesley, and the Way Forward (Part One in a Series on Wesley and the Way Forward)

pic- bible and communionWhat about the Bible? What about Wesley?  These are important questions in the midst of our struggles, as a denomination and as a congregation, around issues of sexuality and the future of the church.  As a follow-up resource to our conversations on the “Way Forward,” this paper is an attempt to put my perspective on these questions into written form. While there are other texts, the focus here is on key New Testament passages, with some comments on what Wesley had to say about them, and then followed with some questions to lead us into our next gathering.

Perhaps the most important New Testament passage for the debate on homosexuality is found in the first chapter of Romans, specifically vs.26-27.  From this passage, and others, many claim that same-sex intimacy, in any form, is a distortion of the God’s intended purpose and design for us.  For this argument, we can go back to Genesis 1:27 where we read, “Male and female, God created them.”

At the same time, we must note that these verses in Romans are given within the context of a larger statement about idolatry. We are told that idolatry results in us exchanging the truth of God for a lie and worship the creature rather than the creator. The word Idolatry starts with “I.”  It is the effort to manipulate spiritual forces to get our own way.   In the culture being addressed by Paul, rituals involving sex were common ways to engage in this manipulation.  Paul uses “unnatural” intercourse as an illustration.  And the Paul follows this illustration with a long list of “unnatural” acts that are against the will of God, including envy, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, insolence, and boastfulness (v.28-31). These acts and attitudes point to a disorientation of life and estranged from God.

This list also provokes a critical question: “Is there anyone not on this list?”  The answer must be “no.” We are all in need of grace.  Apart from God’s grace, we will bring despair and destruction. Furthermore, it would be a disservice to Paul, and to the Word of God, to not read this passage to its conclusion.  Paul conclude this passage by saying: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing.” (2:1).

As United Methodists, it is important to note what John Wesley says about this in his “Notes on the New Testament,” which are part of our doctrine.  He speaks of the “heathen Romans” and the “emperors themselves,” being given us to “vile affections” and “unnatural lust.” He points out that this passage is about “abominable idolatries” where God gives us over to the “vilest abominations.” The word abomination literally means to go against our nature as those created in the image of God.  And then he lists these “vilest abominations” — Injustice, Unmercifulness, Fornication – “which includes every species of uncleanliness,” Maliciousness – a temper that delights in hurting others, Whispering – to defame others, and Backbiting – speaking against others behind their backs. In his notes of this passage, Wesley emphasizes the point that Paul is trying to make.  If we judge others we only condemn ourselves.

Here are some inferences to be made regarding the issue at hand. First, same-sex sexual relationships are used as an illustration to make a larger point.  To turn the illustration into the main point is a hasty generalization that dishonors the intent of the passage.   Secondly, the point of Paul’s argument is that we all fall short and should not single some out for judgment.  Thirdly, from the context it seems that what is being opposed is forms of idolatry and acts that lead to “exchanging the truth of creator for the worship of the creature.” It can be argued that it is not a prohibition of intimacy between two committed people wanting to express love in the way that is natural for them, but rather about an insatiable lust that leads to excessive, dangerous, and even abusive sexual behavior, even to the point of (what we would call today) heterosexuals “exchanging” their natural proclivity and engaging in homosexual encounters.

For one more inference here, the tenor of this passage suggests that we focus on the actions that bring harm to us all and provide “means of grace” to address them together, rather than projecting onto others and how they need to change.  In Wesley commentary on this passage, “fornication” is the only one mentioned that involves sexual expression. In other Notes, Wesley uses this term as a cover term for all acts of sexual immorality. The Greek word is “pornia.” It may be defined as sex when another is objectified or objectifies themselves and allows themselves to be abused.  What if we were more focused on providing help with this?

There are two other passages in the New Testament to which people often turn, I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:8-11.  In both of these passages we find a list of vices that do not represent the kingdom.  More specifically, we see a list of certain types of people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” — not apart from God’s amazing grace. The list includes the idolaters, fornicators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers (NRSV, 1 Cor 6:9), along with murderers, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching…(NRSV, I Tim 1:9-10).   Lists like this are common in most cultures, ancient and contemporary, given to motivate people to work at staying off the list. There are also some theological issues around categorizing people by their actions rather than by their “heart.”

Two of the characterizations, male prostitutes and sodomites (NRSV), potentially inform this debate. First, the Greek word, malakoi, translated as male prostitute (NRSV and pre-2011 version of the NIV) literally means “soft.” In other places in Greek literature this word is used to imply cowardice, laziness, weakness, and in some cases, was used to describe a man who is effeminate, which was viewed as a vice by many.  The Gospels use this word to compare the “soft” or “luxurious” clothing worn by those in royal palaces with the cloth worn by John the Baptist (Matthew 11:8; Luke 7:25).  Today, many scholars maintain that, when it is used in relations to sex, the reference is almost certainly to the passive, weak, or feminine partner.  Wesley build upon the King James translation as “effeminate,” which brings another set of issues which I will address more thoroughly in another post.  With all of this, here is the bottom line — we are not exactly sure what Paul had in mind when he included this word in his list.  It may or may not be about sex at all, or sex may be one way this sin can be manifested.

It is worth noting how John Wesley understood this word. He uses this word in a couple of different ways. In the broadest sense, Wesley uses the words “soft,” “weak,” and “effeminate” together to describe those “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship.”  That kind of lifestyle leads to spiritual “softness” or “weakness.” He gives this description so frequently that it becomes impossible to project this “sin” only on to a particular type of person with no implications for us all.  This is a temptation we all face.  At the same time, in his commentary on First Corinthians he does have a particular type of person in mind, although it is not clearly defined.  He asks, “How is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites!”  He concludes that we are never secure from the greatest sins when we do not guard against those which are thought to be the least. For Wesley, this word does point to sin, but without direct or only sexual implications.  To be “too soft” on our own sin is dangerous.  While some scholars narrow this word to a form of sexual vice, Wesley clearly sees this in a broader context, calling all of us to look in the mirror.  To project sin only onto others is, in itself, an act in need of repentance.

The next Greek word, arsenoloitai, is even more problematic.  It is a combination of two words, one meaning “male” and the other meaning “bed,” usually with sexual innuendo. While very rare in ancient literature, it is most seen as a reference to exploitation and abuse – using male “strength,” or “domination” in sexual encounters, being abusive, taking advantage of another, perhaps regardless of gender.  It is also only about “men.” In some contemporary translations, it is used to denote the active partner in a same-sex (male) intercourse. In the history of translation, it has also been associated with pedophile or abuse of boys or children (This is how Luther, for example, translated it).  It has also been translated with general words like abominations, and in recent years, with the word homosexual. In the NRSV, it is translated as “sodomite.”  Sodomy has been associated with same-sex intimacy, but from a scriptural perspective, it is also associated with abusive treatment of the stranger and those who were vulnerable.  We cannot be certain that this word refers to same sex intimacy at all, and even if it does, it most likely refers to specific forms, namely acts that are exploitive, coercive, degrading, and abusive.  Some would argue that it is not about two people, of any orientation, who desire to express love and commitment to one another and grow together in the virtues of faith.

In Wesley’s Notes on the Bible, we find an expanded understanding of the word.  In association with the word, Wesley uses words like “abusive” and “assault.” In Wesley’s notes on Ezekiel 16:49, Wesley says that the sin of Sodom was “fullness of bread,” “excess in eating and drinking,” and Sodom’s refusal “to help strangers.”  Arrogance, gluttony, and laziness in helping the poor and needy was the source of their fall. Following the message of the prophets, Wesley wants to remind us that “Their doings were abominable, but thine have been worse.” (Note on Ezekiel 16:47).  In other words, when we see this word we cannot only think of “those people.”  On this whole, this term is used in the context of exploitive, abusive, neglectful, selfish, and harmful behavior and is not about personal sexual identity.

Beyond these references, there is very little.  It is often noted that Jesus has no direct word on this topic.  Jesus does, however, affirm marriage between one man and one women, and that the two become “one flesh.”  When Wesley mentions this, he interprets it as a clear prohibition against two things: polygamy and divorce.  He says this more than once. On the other side, and in the context of how there is no marriage in heaven, Jesus speaks of “eunuchs” who are born this way, or made this way, or choose this way to glorify God.  Many argue that the term eunuch was used in the ancient world as a euphemism for those we might call “gay” today.  Wesley, in his commentary, tells us that we cannot always take this term literally.  Those are some possible references from the New Testament that add to the richness of the conversation.

In the scriptures it is possible to show a progression of views on various issues. For example, we see an evolution towards inclusion, respect, and value of women.  Corresponding to this progression, we also see an increasingly restrictive view of sexuality, especially in matters of monogamy, divorce, and abuse, in order to provide more protection of women. If this progression is true, then one can ask: Could this be applied here? Could we move towards acceptance of people who claim this as part of their identity and, at the same time, promote a more restrictive sexual ethic -promoting monogamy, commitment, and faithfulness?

Here are some more possible questions: Is it possible for the church to lead the way in promoting a healthy sexual ethic that applies to all, rather than expecting some to live by a higher standard while becoming more and more lax with others – with divorce for example?  Or do we need two different sets of ethical considerations? Do we focus on how a specific group needs to change, or on the transformation needed by all – to be renewed in the image of Christ, to grow in the virtues of faith, and in our love for God and one another?  What if we rallied together around the higher sense of holiness?

How might we place this debate under “master texts” meant to guide our interpretation of all scripture – text like the great summary of all the law and prophets, where we are called to love God and love neighbor. Another possible “master text” could be where Paul begs the church to live up to its calling, and to do so with all humility, patience, and kindness, bearing one another in love, and eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace (Eph 4:1-3).  How does this calling shape the debate before us?

Is it possible for us to be the church together with people having different opinions on this and allow pastors and congregations to serve in ways they deem appropriate, within the larger doctrine of the church?  Does God want us to divide into like-minded camps?  Can we truly practice love in that kind of environment?  Do different voices help us to grow in faithfulness and fruitfulness or hamper this growth?  What virtues are needed for us to be the body of Christ in the world?

And finally, since we are all called to transformation, from one degree of glory to glory, in the image of Christ, we all can ask: Where do I need to be transformed in order to reflect the heart of the gospel in this time and place?  I suspect the church, and thus the world, would be well served if we were all more focused on that.  Can people on each “side” find ways to respect the concerns and hopes of those on the other side? What would that look like for you?

Sources Include:

Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible, (Abingdon Press, 2014)   (And other key resources)

Amy DeLong and Tex Sample, The Loyal Oppostion: Struggling with the Church on Homosexuality (Abingdon Press, 2000).

Bill Arnold, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World (Seedbed, 2014)

Jeffrey Siker, editor, Homosexuality and the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).  (Available for free at Google Books)

N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Westminster /John Knox Press, 2004)

Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teachings of Paul, (Abingdon Press, 1985)

John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Public Domain)

What Are We For?

While watching the news this week, one commentator asked: If our leaders lack a moral compass, then who can we look to for moral guidance? Who will lead us to be a force for good in the world? The implication was that we are lost without such a voice.  My immediate thought was, “the church.”  We are called to be this voice and this witness.  Amid many recent and worthy posts that provide clarity about what we must stand against in this day, I also want to reflect on what we are “for” as the church.  Here are a few thoughts:

We are for peace-making.  Scriptural and spiritual peace is about coming together in harmony, respecting one another, honoring each other’s voice, and working together to create something good between us.  We are for that.

We are for love– and a particular kind of love, love that does not insist on its own way, love that seeks what is good for the other, love that makes connections with those who stand on the other side, even those that some might deem as enemies.  We are for that.

We are for listening.  In our natural state, our minds and hearts become so cluttered with judgement that cloud the way of God’s transforming grace and guidance. As the church, we suspend judgement long enough to listen, long enough to see what is really going on beneath the surface, long enough to build a relationship with those willing to do so.  We are for this hard work.

We are for proclamation.  Yes, we listen first, but we also speak.  We have a word to share — a word of love and life.  We have a prophetic word to share – a word of justice and inclusion. In a word full of hate, bigotry, deep seated prejudices that cause harm, and intentional polarization, this proclamation sometimes takes the form of prophetic protest.  We are for that, as it is rooted in virtues above.

We are for freedom.  We cultivate community where all are free to grow into who God has called them to be, rather than trying to fit each other into a particular box.  In this freedom that comes through Christ, there is no room to claim the superiority of one image over others, or working to subjugate others into that image.

We are for boundaries. True freedom is possible only when there is shared commitment to certain boundaries. Only in this commitment can we be free to be open and honest and to be ourselves.  What is out of bound for us? Here is a start – lying, slander, assault (and bragging about it), justifying bigotry, causing fear and harm with threats, slurs and claims of superiority, building ourselves, and those “like us,” up by putting others down, deflecting to the faults of others.  To allow “isms” to spread like a disease when we have a Word with the power to heal is to be unfaithful to Christ, and a sign that our own body needs healing.

We are for honest history.  A sign of inspiration is that our scriptures were not cleaned up in a monolithic account.    We see ups and downs, successes and failures. We are invited to ponder different perspectives. This does not mean that we have permission to honor or memorialize those who worked against what the larger community deems to be right and good. In the church, we don’t put up a statue of Judas alongside the saints.  We don’t do things that might give people the impression that it is okay to betray the nobler cause. We engage our history to grow into a more faithful and fruitful future.  We must be willing to hear the “woes” of Jesus along with the “blessings.”

We are for multi-partisanship. It is worth noting that the words party, partisan, partner, all contain the word “part.” We are “part” of a larger whole.  For the whole to be healthy, we need people with different perspectives and ideas, within the boundaries of respect, compassion, and wanting to build something good together.  It is so dangerous when a “part” starts to think of themselves as the whole, as the sole owners of truth.  We call that totalitarianism and I dare say that’s not what any of us want.  We are the body of Christ, with many parts, many gifts.

We are for confession. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said, there is no true community where confession of sin is smothered or concealed, where our humanness is not honored, and where we are unwilling to help each other through without judgment and division.  The worst kind of loneliness is to be alone with sin.  To bask in the illusion of our own self-righteousness and superiority is to miss out on true life – which is always “life together” with others who have different gifts and can help us through.

We are for the calling of Christ.  The Apostle Paul begs us to live a life worthy of this calling, with all humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing one another in love, and eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  When John Wesley defined holiness he almost always used these words, as oppose to words that tempt us to “self-righteousness.” I see this calling as highly relevant for our time.  In this age of deep hostility and intentional divisiveness, I believe that this needs to be the witness of the church.  It is not a message of “cheap discipleship.”  In fact, it takes more spiritual courage to cross the aisle, and find new and better answers, then it does to retreat into our camps and comfort zones.

I will stop here for now, and invite you to reflect and perhaps add your own.  Who can we look towards to be our moral compass?  Yes we need this from our leaders, and yes, we also need to look in the mirror as well.

Middle Way Behavior (The Wesleyan Way)

A Mempic- trinity 3e put out by the Wesleyan Covenant Association says, “We actually believe what the UMC says it BELIEVES…and how THAT MAKES us anything but the CENTER, I have no idea.”

It’s a nice soundbite and rings true at a basic level.  If being in the center is equated with being in the majority of the global church, then this is a valid claim. – at least at this time and on specific issues.  Likewise, if being in the center is about beliefs, then this statement is accurate as well.  From this perspective, to be in the center is to affirm the official position on any given issue, and by implication, to also be right.

In the light of this claim, it is important that we, as Wesleyans, acknowledge another perspective on what it means to be in the center.  John Wesley calls us to the middle way.  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or even beliefs.  He is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, Methodists are to BEHAVE in the middle.  We do so because our faith is not centered in doctrines or opinions, but in a relationship with a Living Lord, and in virtues that promote life-giving relationships in the world.  This is not to imply that doctrines and opinions are unimportant, but only that they are resources to support the larger purpose.  To confuse means with ends can easily lead to a betrayal of the Body as a whole.  It is a first step to dividing the body into “us” and “them,” in support of sides or causes.

One important example of this calling to behave in the middle is found in Wesley’s sermon, “The Witness of the Spirit.”  Here Wesley defines the middle way in opposition to both extremism and enthusiasm.  He is concerned about the temptation to mistake our own imaginations for the witness of the Spirit, and thus to become “the worst kind of enthusiasts,” where we are convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense.   When one is “drunk from [this] spirit of error,” it is almost impossible to see that we may be fighting against God rather than for God.

Continuing this thought, Wesley turns to the other extreme where “reasonable people,” who “see the dreadful effects of this delusion,” assert that “the witness of the Spirit” must have only belonged to the apostolic age and that the Spirit does not move among us in the same way.  At this extreme, people are weary of any claim of God’s direct guidance. Here, faith runs the risk of drying up into an intellectual exercise or becoming little more than a resource to help us feel good about ourselves.

In seeing the harm done by these extremes, Wesley asks: “May we not steer a middle course?  Can we not distance ourselves from the extremes of error and enthusiasm without denying the gift of God and giving up the great privilege of being God’s children?”  He is convinced that we can steer this middle way.

To do so, we must see ourselves as people who BEHAVE in the middle.  As Wesleyans, the evidence of the Spirit is not found in our enthusiastic defense of our way as God way, but rather in the opposite; the Spirit is revealed in the “holy tempers” of humility, gentleness, patience, temperance, and “kindly affection for all.”  The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  That is to be our witness to the world.

In a culture that seems to thrive on extremes and divisiveness, on winning and pitting ourselves against one another, what would it look like if we could “steer a middle course?” What if this was the focus of our conversation? Would this not be much more in line with the witness of the Spirit?  For one more quote from this sermon, this witness just might save us all from “the pain of proud wrath.”

Christmas Eve Sermon – “The Reason for the Season”

John 1:1-14  “The Reason for the Season”

I bet you have heard the saying “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  It is true, from our perspective.  From our perspective Jesus can get lost in the midst of our traditions and gatherings, our gift giving and getting.  Remembering Jesus may be the best thing we can do for ourselves.  And that’s what we are doing today.  But all that’s from our perspective.  I began to wonder, what about God’s perspective on this thing we call Christmas?

From God’s perspective, WE are the reason for the season.  God looked upon our condition and saw darkness in need of light, death in need of life, deep loneliness and longing in need of love.  And so, we are the reason for Christmas.  Christmas is all about God coming to us.

The gospel of John starts his version of the Christmas story by saying, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.”  The Word! In the original language, this word is Logos, which means to take chaos and order it into something meaningful.  We get the English word “logic” for this word.  It is translated as “word” because that’s how God creates and gives life, and takes chaos and gives it meaning. God creates by speaking it all into existence, according to first “word” in the Bible.  Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. John makes the connection by saying, “In the beginning” God’s word – God’s creating, life-giving power – was there and all things came into being through him.

Now that kind of fancy theological talk is all well and good, but it still leaves God out-there, in the realm of theory and ideas, not in the realm of relationship.  And so God gives Christmas to us.  John proclaims that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and full of truth.”  It is a reference to Jesus, who from our perspective in the reason for the season, but from God’s perspective is the one sent to us because we need to know that God is with us, and that God will see us through.  From God’s perspective, we are the reason for Christmas.

So, I want to push us a little more into the deep implications of this gift from God. By our logos or logic, we like to divide and compartmentalize.  This means we even like to keep God up-there, so to speak, and out of our daily business.  It’s just more comfortable and easy that way.  We come to church for a dose of spirituality.  Then we go out-there and live our lives.  We see a thread of connection, but by our logic, we can too easily keep these dimensions in separate compartments. By this human logic, we separate sacred and secular, spiritual and worldly, soul and body.

And here’s where this logic can get us in trouble.  When we do feel the need to be more spiritual then we often think that we must be less human, less worldly.  We might think, “If only I could get away from all that worldly stuff, then I might be able to see God.”  That way of thinking, that form of logic, is so engrained in our culture, but then Christmas comes.  God’s logos, God’s logic, breaks in. For Christmas people, spirituality is recognizing that God enters into our lives — into the mess of it all, into the joys of it all, into the pain of it all. God wants to share gifts of light, love, and life right there in the midst of it all. That’s where we need to look for these blessings – right in the very midst of our daily lives.

Here’s the good news of Christmas.  God wants to make a home right here (heart) and fill this home with light, with a light that illuminates true love and life, as John’s Gospel says, a light that will guide us into the world to shine and to share these same blessings.  This light is so powerful that no form of darkness or no form of death can overcome it.  That’s the blessing of Christmas.

At Christmas, from our perspective, we love to shine the spotlight on Jesus and say look, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  Today (Tonight) let us know that God shines the light of heaven on us and says, “Oh how I love you.”  “You are the reason for it all.”  Amen.