Scripture: Colossians 1:15-20
Caroline and I will be celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary this September. Thirty 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. When it came time for the “reveal,” it turned out we both had the same couple in mind.
Thirty 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 towards those in 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 denomination. 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.
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.” It 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 tackle it. This is where we find ourselves today. General Conference will be February 23-26 in St. Louis, MO.
The challenges our denomination faces are many. One of the biggest challenges is just talking about it. That is, talking with people who share a different perspective than you, or with whom you outright disagree. 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 difficult to just leave it there and not then take the opportunity to say what I think.
Now, it’s one thing if there’s an understanding that you get to say what you believe and I get to say what I believe, and the purpose is to better understand each other’s position even we continue to disagree to disagree with each other. That kind of back-and-forth is generally helpful. But it’s another thing when the back-and-forth takes on the nature of a heated contest in which the unspoken goals is to convince the other that your position is the correct one. 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 important issues, as long as everybody involved understands that’s what they’re doing.
The problem is, when it comes to talking about whether or not to maintain our current positions on the matter at-hand, 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, you nevertheless probably believe they’re wrong.
Guess what? That’s a two-way street. You believe you’re right just as much as I believe I’m right. If someone who’s truly neutral on the matter listens to both sides of this particular 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.
But here’s what I want you to know: whatever may come Wednesday, February 27, Jesus Christ will still be Lord of his Church. Jesus is Lord. Always has been, and always will be.
This 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. Please 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: This first part 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. (Colossians 1:15-17)
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He’s God in the flesh, God-who-can-be-seen. Because he’s part of the triune Godhead, as Christ the Son he existed before the creation [described in Genesis 1] unfolded. And as such, everything that’s ever been created—from solar systems to angels—was created through him and for him. He is Lord over all creation.
The second half of this creed-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. (Colossians 1:18-20)
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. Through Christ God reconciled everything to himself. That is, through the blood of Jesus Christ 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 am a United Methodist cleric, 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 The United Methodist Church. I’ve asked myself many times over the past few years what I would do in the event a split in The United Methodist Church meant aligning myself with an organization 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 part of this denomination?
Keeping in mind who is Lord of my life keeps things in proper perspective. Jesus is Lord, not the Church, and definitely not any denomination within the Church. My call in life as well as your call in life is to follow Jesus wherever he leads, knowing that wherever he leads is best. It certainly may not always be easy, and 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.
Again, this is not to say that I necessarily believe The United Methodist Church is heading down an ungodly path; I’m neither saying nor suggesting that to be the case. But I am consciously reminding myself that it’s through Jesus Christ that I’ve been reconciled to God and made right in his eyes. And my ultimate commitment is to him, whatever that may look like. If my ultimate commitment is to Jesus, then I should look to him for guidance for what I should do and say and believe.
At the heart of the debate over marriage 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).
- Hebrews 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 can’t agree on what being holy looks like.
Back when God’s people were first getting their sea legs while wandering the desert, they came up with a whole bunch of laws that would make it very clear what holiness looked 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 verse from Leviticus 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” (Leviticus 20:7-14).
Did you notice the penalty for these different sexual offenses? Death. In the last case, being burned to death!
Jump ahead 1400 years. Jesus is in the Temple courtyard teaching a group of people who have gathered around him. Suddenly, right in the middle of a sentence, some religious leaders barge in with a woman in tow, and force her to stand up in front of the crowd and announce that she’s 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?”
At some point Jesus says, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone,” after which everyone slowly walks away, leaving only Jesus and the woman. He 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.”
Here’s what makes being holy so difficult. We erect rules to help guide us. We 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. 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 as the consequence/punishment. This is our predicament; because we sin we deserve death. God knows this about this predicament, 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.
And yet…and yet, God still calls us to be holy. 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 who was just as guilty of adultery)
- But before he lets her go, he tells her to stop sinning.
A short while ago I stated that if my ultimate commitment is to Jesus,then I should look to him for guidance for what I should do and say and believe.If I look to Jesus in this particular story for guidance, what jumps off the page for me is holy grace. It’s being pardoned of my guilt, which is grace – but also 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 it comes to pass that my belief is right, I’m still guilty if sinning and falling short of God’s purpose for me. I still fall short of the holiness to which I’ve been called.
So, what would Jesus do and say to our beloved United Methodist Church if he 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.