Happy Belated Canada Day, everyone. When I originally signed up to speak with you a few weeks back, my obvious thought for a sermon was to speak on faith and our nation, seeing that it was right after Canada Day. I had that sermon ready to go.
But the events of this week south of the border have been on my heart and mind. It is an oddly Canadian thing to feel connected to the controversies in the United States. Some days Canadians follow politics in the States closer than our own, perhaps because our politics are just so much more respectful, we feel bored listening to it.
The United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and that has us Canadians talking about it, even though it does not directly affect us. It has been all over CBC Radio, which I listen to on the way to work. For many of us, we feel connected to these events. Many of us have American family members. Many of my friends are American Baptist pastors. Many of us wonder whether something like this could happen here. Others of us hear the toxic rhetoric from our own circles.
Over social media, I have seen a disturbing mix of gloating on the part of conservatives and rage on the part of liberals, finger-pointing memes that attempt cute but all too simplistic “gotcha moments” like it is all one big game.
For conservatives, the gloating justifies why they supported Donald Trump, finally coming to fruition. Supporting an immoral man so that republicans could control the Supreme Court was worth it. For others, this marks a terrible victory for bigotry that is taking over the public discourse, where people have climbed into places of power using lies and demagoguery, pushing the United States closer to something like Margaret Atwood’s dystopia, Gilead.
For us, north of the border, I am very thankful that we have a completely independent judiciary, can I just say. I also feel like we are watching our neighbours, our closest ally in the world, pull themselves apart. The rage is palpable as the protests by both sides edge closer and closer to violence. I wonder if the US is on a collision course for another civil war.
And so, I told the organizers of the service this week that I would speak on the topic of abortion today. But let’s be clear about something up front:
This is not a liberal versus conservative issue.
This is a scriptural discernment issue.
This is a truth and compassion issue.
This is an issue that involves people.
When the world wants to shout, I think that is a good indication for us, Christians, that we need to stop and listen, but not to the shouting. We need to listen to the whispers of God’s voice in Scripture; we need to listen to the advice of our Baptist forebearers, but also, we need to listen to each other, especially to the cries of the lives affected, the voices of women.
So, I have entitled this sermon “Learning to Listen: Abortion and Becoming ‘Pro-Voice.’” The term Pro-Voice is based on an excellent book by Aspen Baker that I will reference later.
1. Listening to Scripture
So, first, can we listen to what God might have to tell us in Scripture? I say that knowing that this is a debate where people love citing the Bible as if it is obvious and clear on the matter. However, let me survey some of the Scriptures people cite in these debates, and let me suggest that perhaps the voice of God might not be saying what people try to make it say.
This is a topic that cannot be discussed by just one Scripture. As I thought about it, there is really no other way to handle this than by going through a couple¾there are about half a dozen of them–that people bring up (there are others, but these are the most pertinent ones). So, that is what we are going to do.
Now, there are several scriptures that don’t say much at all about this issue that constantly get quoted. So, let’s start with those:
A. Psalm 139
For instance, Psalm 139:13 says, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” There are similar ones in the books of Job and Jeremiah. I saw this on a billboard driving through the South one time, but it really has nothing to say about the legal status of a fetus. Technically, God knits all life together. So, already, one of the most commonly cited passages in this debate says actually very little.
B. Luke 1
There are other Scriptures that are not as convincing but have some weight to them. One of these is how in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, sees Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus, and it says that the “child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” You see this one often around Christmas time. Some have taken this to imply that, obviously then, all fetuses are children. Well, I don’t think that is really Luke’s point in this passage, but be that as it may, we also don’t know how far along Elizabeth was. To feel a baby leaping is something that would happen well into the second trimester, so if this text does speak to this issue, it does not seem to say anything about the condition of the unborn in the first trimester. In Canada, 90% of abortions happen in the first trimester before movements can be felt. So, this text doesn’t say enough.
C. Genesis 1
A much more important text in this debate is Genesis chapter one, verse 27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
This term “image” is used later in the book of Genesis to speak about how Adam’s son, Seth, is like him in his image. It is a parental term. If you were to look at my sons, you might say they are chips off the old block. They look like me. They are in my image. Genesis 1 is saying that all humans are God’s children; God sees himself in them and them in him. Genesis 1 teaches that human life has inherent dignity and worth in God’s eyes, no matter the gender, the health, the mental ability, which should say something when we are placed in a position to decide what kind of human life is worth living.
However, as important as this passage is, this passage does not tell us when a human person, in the legal sense, begins. It tells us the worth of human life, but not its origin. So, it is important, but it is only one piece of the puzzle.
D. Exodus 21
The only passage in the Bible that deals with the destruction of a fetus is Exodus, chapter 21. It reads as follows:
22 “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
The laws of the Old Testament are made up of different types. You have some, like the ten commandments, that are direct: Do not commit adultery, do not lie, etc. Others, like this one, is a case law that work as applications: if this happens, you should do that.
This situation is a fight where a pregnant woman is struck, and a miscarriage happens, and if the woman is harmed permanently, the offender is harmed in retribution. It is not the case when a woman seeks an abortion. For in the Hebrew mindset, birth control of any kind was just not on their radar because the ideal was to have as many children as you could.
This is the only case where the destruction of a fetus occurs, and according to this passage, a fine is paid. It is paid to the husband because he, in that culture, was considered the patriarch and lord over his wife, who has his property. So, one quickly feels that this is a text written for its own time and place.
Nevertheless, the most important detail of this text is that a fine is paid. According to Old Testament laws, if you murdered a person, you got the death penalty, life for a life. The implication here is that if a miscarriage happens, and we are not told anything about how far along the pregnant woman is, the offender pays a fine. Thus, it implies a legal person has not been killed.
Some more conservative commentators have tried to argue that this is merely referring to a premature birth, that the word for miscarriage could mean something else, but that is not how it was understood in its own time or in later Rabbinical and Christian commentaries.
However, some later Jewish commentators argue that this case only refers to when it happens to a woman in the first half of her pregnancy, before the fetus is formed sufficiently. In the second half, it could be considered murder.
And so, some have argued that just as Scripture pushes God’s people toward equality between men and women as the biblical narrative progresses, so also does Christian tradition become more sensitive with regard to the unborn.
But the question remains, when does a fetus become a person? When does it become a legal person? When should the government protect what it can discern to be human life?
Some have argued, based on this passage, that a person is a person when they take their first breath after birth. When the first human in the Bible, Adam, was made a living soul, this occurs in Genesis 2 when God breathed into him the breath of life. With the first breath after birth, the human person is identifiable. This was the view of Palestinian Jews in ancient times, and in modern times, this argument was made by the Baptist ethicist Paul Simmons.
However, is breath the real mark of life with dignity? After all, there are lots of creatures out there that are alive but don’t have lungs and acquire oxygen in other ways, and we believe in animal rights. A fetus gets oxygen through the blood in the umbilical cord. Does that count?
If the first breath is the mark of personhood, can a pregnant woman have an abortion right up until labour starts? Late-term abortions are very rare, and in Canada, they are really only done when the life of the mother is at stake. In Canada, abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy account for 0.59% of all abortions.
On the other side of the spectrum is the view that a human person begins at conception. This is probably the one we are most familiar with, often called “life at conception,” but that is a misnomer in the debate. No one is debating whether life begins at conception. In fact, the sperm and ovum are also alive before conception. The question is rather does a fertilized zygote, a set of multiplying cells, which does not have thought, a nervous system, or a heart, so small it could fit on the end of a pin, growing to about the size of a lentil as an embryo–should this be considered a legal person? Baptist ethicists like David Gushee and the late Glenn Stassen hold that the sanctity of human life compels them to refuse abortion even at this early stage.
Early Christian writers like Clement and others support a similar view. They held this view because they assumed the philosophy of Plato. What does that mean? Plato believed that humans have souls in the sense that what made the person truly a person was not based on their bodies or brains but was based on an eternal substance of the mind that could be divorced from the body and brain. That is a bit different from the earlier Jewish belief in the soul that would say that while we have a spiritual dimension to ourselves, it is always in connection to our bodies. One writer put it that we don’t so much have a soul. We are a soul, a holistic unity of spirit and flesh. We are enspirited bodies.
So, several early Christian writers adopted this more Platonic notion that separates mind and body, soul and flesh, and by this, a zygote from the beginning of conception has a full soul, the same as a fully developed human. And this position became Catholic dogma and, by extension, the default setting of most of Christianity, including the modern pro-life movement.
Now, as I said, the early church and Judaism had two wings in the spectrum of their views: one was personhood beginning at first breath, the other, beginning at conception. However, there was a diversity in the early church and Judaism.
The most common view was a middle-ground view. Thinkers like the Alexandrian Jewish writers but also important Christian writers like Tertullian, Origen and Augustine (if you don’t recognize these names, let’s just say they are heavy hitters in theology). They believed that a fetus was a person somewhere in the second trimester, corresponding to the degree of the formation of the fetus.
Now, we know today that a fetus’s heart is discernable at six weeks. But does a heartbeat define a human person?
We know that somewhere around the 12th week, the fetus has a formed nervous system and thus, probably can feel pain. Does the ability to feel pain indicate to us that this is a life we need to protect? 80% of abortions in Canada occur before the 12th week.
We know that the fetus becomes viable around the 24th week, which means if it was born then, it’s probable that it would live. Is this the point where the government has the prerogative to say an abortion should not take place unless the life of the mother is at risk? As I said before, late-term abortions are very rare in Canada.
2. Listening to Our Baptist Principles
As you can see, this topic is one that leads to more and more questions. What do we do with that? I have learned that the principles of our Baptist tradition were devised in many ways to aid the believer in walking these difficult paths, where the road ahead comes to a blind crest. So, what might our Baptist principles tell us?
While I don’t think Baptists are automatically the “best” Christians, much less the “only” Christians, I do think our Baptist principles can be virtuous practices that can help us navigate this complex post-Christian, post-modern world we live in.
A. Humans have Rights and Freedoms
One principle that all Christians share is that we believe that because we are all made in God’s image, all human life has dignity and has been bestowed rights and freedoms. Baptists have particularly emphasized rights and freedoms.
Now, someone might pipe up and say then what about the rights of the unborn? Here is a tension between the rights of the pregnant woman and potentially the rights of the unborn.
B. Separation of Church and State
In this case, I believe it is important to keep in mind the second Baptist principle: separation of church and state.
That is to say that if we believe that life begins at conception, and by that a full person because a full soul is imparted at conception if this is a premise based on the beliefs of Christianity, a particular belief about the soul, my Baptist faith cautions me from imposing this view on others who might not share it.
Again, someone might say that imposing this view is necessary when human life is in danger. Many would insist that a fertilized zygote is a potential human being, and by the sanctity of human life in any form, it ought to be protected.
But this conversation must admit that what it means to be a person and when a person begins legally is not clear, both in public discourse and in Jewish and Christian theology. As we have been asking: Is it at conception? An established heartbeat? The development of a nervous system? Fetal viability? Or at first breath after birth? Arguments can and have been made for all of these with no clear winner.
If we cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that one option is the obvious standout, we ought not to be insisting that the government enforce one view, particularly not the earlier ones that impose so much on a woman against her will.
C. Liberty of Conscience
In this case, another Baptist principle is important to keep in mind: we believe in the liberty of all people to decide matters based on their conscience.
Now, this is not an absolute liberty. This does not mean we ought to be free to do anything we want. I did not have the right, as we have seen in the pandemic, to jeopardize the health of my neighbours or co-workers or people I interact with in public spaces but refuse to wear a mask or show vaccination information. Governments and organizations do have the right to regulate spaces based on health and safety.
And if the nature of the unborn was obvious, as some think it is, I can see a better case to say why it ought not to be left up to choice.
While it is not a person’s decision that makes a fetus into a person, it is up to people to recognize another person, and the question is, who has this power? Who has the right to pronounce when a zygote, an embryo, or a fetus becomes a person when the matters are not clear?
If these matters are not obvious, it is appropriate then that the power of this decision lay neither in the hands of the state nor the church nor the biological father, who simply does not have the same bodily risk in the matter, but rather the power of this decision should reside in the hands of the person who will be most affected by that decision, namely the pregnant woman herself.
This does not mean that we have to view a decision always as the right decision. There are lots of bad reasons to have an abortion, but at the end of the day, the responsibility falls on the woman herself to make this difficult choice.
3. Listening to Each Other, especially Women
If we can understand these things, this issue takes on a different character. It is quite possible for Christians to occupy a muddy middle ground that sees abortions as a tragedy but is not interested in imposing our convictions on another person using the laws of our nation.
We can ¾in fact, we must¾resist the either-or of our polarized culture and its toxic, corrosive effects on honesty, decency, and thoughtfulness. We can be profoundly and fervently committed to the dignity of all human life but admit that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about that.
A. Accepting the Diversity of Voices
In the midst of a world that is divided and diverse and even a church that is as well, I know people who take their views and live them out graciously. I know people who are pro-life that have chosen to adopt the babies of unwanted pregnancies. On the other end of the spectrum, I know Christian social workers who are pro-choose that have worked at deep personal expense to help women out of abuse and poverty through education and empowerment. I think the church would be impoverished if we refused to see the good character of either of these people.
I think of the conviction of former US president and evangelical Baptist Jimmy Carter. He writes in his important book, Our Endangered Values, that during his presidency, he believed that the Bible taught the sanctity of all life, so he was and still is, personally, against abortion. However, he also believed in the separation of church and state. He believed it was the right of a nation to choose its values democratically. So, instead, he funded programs to help young women and mothers–things like sex education, birth control, free contraception, testing, funded daycares programs, work programs, etc.–so that if a woman truly wanted to keep her baby, she could feel supported. The result was that abortions were lower doing his presidency than during the two Republican pro-life/anti-abortion presidents that came before him and him after.
The right way to go about this issue involves giving people the space to work out for themselves what quite possibly could be the most difficult, life-altering, haunting decision a woman could make in her life.
The right way is to listen to and support people medically, financially, and emotionally–people who are vulnerable and scared and only then do people feel empowered to make an informed decision because they know they are not alone.
B. Listening and Walking with Women
Aspen Baker formed an organization that is devoted to doing just that. Her philosophy, the title of this sermon, is called “pro-voice.” Look up her Ted Talk on this subject. Her organization is a helpline devoted to listening to the needs of women who have had abortions. She believes that one of the most important things we can do in this debate is to listen to the experiences and needs of women without judgment.
And this does not mean all women will think the same way. What she found was that there were many on the pro-choice side that valorized abortion as liberating. Feminists that when they got pregnant, just could not bring themselves to have an abortion or when they did have one, they found themselves experiencing regret, guilt, and anguish.
On the other side, she handled calls by women, fathers, husbands, and pastors who were adamantly pro-life before, but because of certain complicated circumstances, they ended up considering that abortion might be the necessary path, and they felt deeply unprepared to consider these things.
Aspen Baker, in her book, speaks about navigating life in the areas that are gray, where the questions do not lead to clear and definite answers. The question we have been asking (although there are many other questions in this debate) is when does the fetus become a human person, a person in the legally definable sense? How do we live this out? And when we have surveyed the most pertinent Scriptures, we come up short of complete answers.
Now, I am sure you all want me to solve this issue for you. I could tell you where I feel most comfortable drawing that line. But I am a man that has never experienced anything a pregnant woman might face. It is not my decision, nor is it an obvious decision. Let me just tell you that some issues are not easily solved. In fact, they shouldn’t.
Can I tell you I have so badly wanted these questions to have an easy answer? When I was in my first year of Bible college, I had a friend that knew me as a Christian and as a Christian that always had an answer for things. She came to me quite troubled. She was pregnant. She was pregnant with twins. However, one twin died and became what is called a molar pregnancy, essentially becoming something like a tumour that kept growing. Doctors said it should be removed as it could cause serious health risks (infertility, even cancer, later on), but to do this, the other baby–that is the term she used¾had to be aborted and removed.
What would you do if that were you? What would you say to her if you were me? If you can believe it, in Bible College, I was a member of the pro-life club, and my answer as the plucky and ultra-pious, know-it-all Bible college student was: “Don’t do it. Abortion is wrong. Pray and have faith.”
This woman–fortunately–did not listen to me. She went ahead with the procedure, and because of it, she is healthy today and has gone on to have a family.
That experience impressed me that life and faith might be more complicated than I want them to be. Anyone who says the solution is obviously this or that is usually someone who has not really come to grips with the complexities of life and the intricacies of the Bible. Life and morality are not always an obvious thing.
It can be frighting thinking about just how messy and grey the world can be.
It can feel scary not knowing what to think, especially if you believe that your salvation depends on believing and doing the right things.
This can cause many of us to retreat into easy answers, black and white thinking that permits neither questions nor alternatives.
But it is here in reality, in this messy thing called life, that our humanity is found.
And it is here that God’s grace finds us: not despite our humanity but in it.
C. The Character of Grace
If we can realize this, we must know that to become a mature follower of Christ in this complicated world involves moving from partisan politics and obsessing over having the right position or policy (although these have their place) to simply dwelling with people, hearing their stories, and being a gracious presence there in their midst.
I have learned the difficult lesson as a theologian, who has devoted my life to reading Scripture and the great works of theology, all to strive to synthesize the best answers on doctrinal topics in our pursuit of truth (which I believe is a pursuit we all must do). I have learned that some issues don’t have clear answers–that’s the truth–and sometimes in life, the point of things is not having the answer, but meeting these difficult situations with a certain character, that difficult balance of honesty and empathy, conviction and compassion, and that this is the only way to live with a clear conscience in this corrupted world.
If this is the case, we might listen and hear the voice of God from Scripture say something else beyond the Scriptures we just surveyed. In all the ambiguity of life, the Word of God might simply be saying something like this:
“Let everyone,” says the Apostle James, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
Or it might be what Paul simply advises, that in all the fragmentation and division in this world, he simply says, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph. 4:32)
Or it might be what the Prophet Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). When life gets complex, sometimes the only thing we can do is be fair and forgiving and admit that in all of life’s moments, whether moments of success or failure, joy or tragedy, we need God. We need the grace revealed in Jesus Christ. We need the one who has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6).
No matter what our views on anything, all we can do, all we must do, from beginning to end, is to trust that.
Pew Research, one of the largest sociological research groups in North America, surveyed mothers and fathers. Fifty-seven percent of fathers described being a father as “extremely important,” which was virtually identical to the women surveyed (58%). However, most of the moms surveyed said they did “a very good job” of raising their children; among the dads, just 39 percent said the same.
On the whole, fathers care about being fathers at the same rate as mothers care about being mothers, but a significant gap exists in how fathers feel about how they are doing at being fathers. Most fathers feel like they aren’t great fathers. Why is that?
I read an interesting article coming up to this father’s day by Daniel Engber from the Atlantic (I think the Atlantic writes probably the best articles on social issues out there, in my opinion). The article is entitled, “Why is Dad so Mad?” He writes,
Everybody knew that dads used to earn a living; that they used to love their children from afar; and that when the need arose, they used to be the ones who doled out punishment. But what were dads supposed to do today? In former times, the definition of a man was you went to work every day, you worked with your muscles, you brought home a paycheck, and that was about it… What it is to be a man now is in flux, and I think that’s unsettling to a lot of men. Indeed, modern dads were left to flounder in a half-developed masculinity: Their roles were changing, but their roles hadn’t fully changed.
They are left in a kind of lurch. Fatherhood is in a state of flux, retaining some conventional patterns but scrapping others.
I was reminded of this just this morning. My wife called me into the room. “What is it?” I said. She pointed to a spider on the wall. Apparently, in our marriage, it is the man’s job to kill the spider.
I jest, but many men feel seriously caught: if I work too much, as many jobs are demanding, this is no longer considered virtuous, and I am seen as a workaholic, neglecting my family.
If they work too little, society could perceive them as a deadbeat or lazy, particularly by the older generation that built and achieved so much.
Society used to value a man’s more forceful presence in discipline, but most parenting books have denounced harsher forms of discipline.
Women have made inroads in the workforce, but men have not gravitated the same way to homemaking or childcare, traditionally female roles.
There are increasingly fewer jobs that require physical strength. And increasingly, fewer fields of work are considered male careers.
It has left some men wondering: what do I contribute to my family or in my marriage? And this has many men feeling like they have lost their place in society and in the home. They don’t feel valued. They don’t feel what they do has value, or they don’t feel like they are successful in doing it. Fatherhood feels like it is in a state of flux.
In the wake of this, political groups have attempted to capitalize on this feeling of instability and nostalgia for the good old days. The movements by Jordan Peterson, who dies the existence of systemic sexism, or Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson have tried to say that there is a war against masculinity wagered by feminists and liberals and other monsters under the proverbial bed of culture. These guys have made a lot of money saying what they are saying because this is a message a lot of men want to hear.
However, probably the more accurate explanation is that with the cost of living going up so much compared to what it was decades ago and wages not increasing in proportion, the idea of a single-income household that owns their own property can have a designated stay-home parent, is becoming extinct for the average Canadian, and with it that male role.
Culture is in a state of flux. And when people feel this unease, this displacement of identity, it is very easy to look for someone to blame.
For many Christians, this has caused many to recede into nostalgia, longing for the days when everyone went to church, or when there was prayer in schools, when there was allegedly no divorce, or when, allegedly, everything cost a nickel (why was everythin always a nickel, by the way?).
Nowadays, I’m nostalgic for when gas costs a dollar a litre.
The text I am going to read today is a text that has often been misused by Christians. It is a text we have so often read, wishing to get back to the way things used to be when fathers’ and husbands’ roles were clear and revered.
It is really one of the most important passages on being parents and spouses, as well as being fathers and husbands, in the New Testament, but we often forget that the Biblical writers were writing for matters in their own day. They were writing because their situations were in flux also. We forget that.
It is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5, what is often called the household code. I am going to first read this passage, but then we are going to ask some questions about what this means, both in the ancient context and what it means for us today:
21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 ‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 ‘Honour your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: 3 ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ 4 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. 9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
So, let me pause for a moment. Did some of those words make you uneasy a bit (particularly the submission and slavery parts)? Did some of those words sound agreeable (like the love parts)? I imagine most listeners will have mixed feelings reading this passage.
Perhaps you know this passage well. Maybe a pastor told you this is God’s pattern for marriage for today. Maybe you believe it is.
But, if this passage was giving us an obvious, clear, and timeless definition of marriage and parenting, why does it tell husbands to love their wives in order to make them holy and without blemish? Is Paul saying all women are unclean? Or is that what Jews assumed in that culture? May Paul is speaking in a way his audience would have understood.
It also says that wives should submit in everything. Should wives do that today? Aren’t there stories of women who did listen to their husbands and God was honoured, like Abigail or Rachel or Tamar. Maybe Paul is reacting to a certain circumstance woman in Ephesus face.
Sadly, this passage has been used to say to women that they cannot question or disagree with their husbands. It has been used almost like a club to clobber some people.
Maybe this passage brings up painful memories. I have dealt with women who were told that they had to submit to their abusive spouses because that is what this passage means. Let me be clear and say that whatever this passage means today, it does not mean that.
This passage also mentions slavery. It tells slaves to obey their masters with fear and trembling. I have heard some preachers say that this passage applies to bosses and employees today, but I just don’t think that is the case. There were day-labourers in the ancient world. But more importantly, as an employee with rights living in a country with employment laws, I just don’t think I should obey everything my boss says, let alone with fear and trembling.
But worse still, this passage has been used to justify slavery rather than the good news of God’s kingdom that Jesus announces: “freedom to the captive, that the oppressed can go free” (as he says in Luke 4).
For five years, I pastored the First Baptist Church of Sudbury, which had historic roots in the Social Gospel. The church historically led the charge for the miners of the city to have employment rights, safety standards, and eventually unions. They believe working to improve human life was an aspect of the kingdom of God. I think they were correct.
So, how do we understand this important passage today? How do we understand it as offering words that can build us up?
This will be a bit of a technical sermon (if you have not realized this already). I don’t know if you have met me, but I kinda like to go deep with my sermons. I do this because if we are going to become the fathers and husbands God wants us to be (and of course, this goes for all Christians as well), one vital way we get formed for that purpose is by meditating on God’s word, understanding it rightly, not in facile, careless ways.
Just like navigating what it means to be a man or a father in today’s world, God’s Word takes wisdom and work. So often, the church has assumed that the Bible is always so clear and straightforward it makes us ill-prepared to live in a world that isn’t.
Many want to go to the Bible to escape just how messy the world is, hoping to find a place that is black and white and clear, and there are some passages that are very clear, don’t get me wrong. But often, if you have read through the Bible, you see a lot of passages that cause you to have questions. Some that, at face value, don’t sound all that redemptive. In those cases, the path from what the words on the page say and what it means for us today is not straightforward.
Part of the reason for that is that the Bible was written not as an escape from the flux of history but written in its very midst. It was not written despite our humanity. It was written by humans for our humanity.
The Bible is a complex thing, and it’s complex because life is complex. And if we care about God’s word, we have to be willing to put in the effort to study and think about it in all its depth. It’s only then that its richness is fully appreciated. It’s only then that we realize that God isn’t trying to save us from the complications of life. God is trying to meet us there, in its midst, gently moving us forward in grace.
I sit on the board of an organization called the Atlantic Society for Biblical Equality. It is an organization that was founded by Hugh McNally and Harry Gardner to promote that men and women are made equal in the eyes of God and that when the Scriptures are considered in their fuller context and meaning, it teaches equality in marriage, that women can serve as pastors and things like that. I would encourage you to become members and support the work (perhaps the church could even be a supporting church partner in its mission).
This is one passage that people stumble over. I know people that are content to ignore a passage like this. But as Christians, that is just not a good plan, and so, our work as ASBE is to help Christians understand the Bible better.
My advice is that we need to study the Bible and study the difficult texts: Find the Bible’s meaning in the flux of history because that can really help us understand what it could be saying to us today.
So with that very long introduction, let me ask this: what was going on in Paul’s day that he needed to write this passage?
Well, the Apostle Paul is writing to the Ephesians, a Greek city in modern-day Turkey. It was a very important city both for Greek culture and the church. The Christian church had grown rapidly there, comprising of both Jews and Gentiles coming together, and that had caused some issues. The beginning of the letter speaks about how God’s household is where both Jews and Gentiles come together as one under God in Christ. Later in the letter, here, Paul turns to talk about what individual households could look like through the love of God in Christ. Here, if we do some digging, we find that Ephesus and the church there were experiencing their own state of flux, and Paul had to navigate that.
1. Christianity in Ephesus was in Flux
Christianity came on the scene in the ancient world and caused a profound social change. You see, Christianity preached the individual responsibility of all people to repent and believe in the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ, and this proclamation saw Jews and Gentiles, men and women, adults and children, wealthy individuals as well as slaves seeing the gift of the Holy Spirit, and people trust this and are justified.
In the ancient world, however, if you were a wife, a child, or a slave, your obligation was to worship the god of the head of your family, your father and master. If you were Roman or Greek, you were expected to follow the local gods. Christianity did not uphold this, and it caused friction.
Jesus warns about this in Matthew chapter ten. Jesus says that I have not come to bring peace but the sword, which is kind of a strange thing for Jesus to say. What does he mean? He speaks about how households will be set against one another, and if you are loyal to your family members more than Jesus’ way, this is not taking up Jesus’ cross. In other words, you are not a true disciple. For Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus isn’t saying he is going to cause literal wars, but rather that the way of Jesus is going to cause social upheaval, and any peace that means people can claim loyalty to their families against Jesus to please them is not true peace. It isn’t the peace that Jesus’ way offers.
Well, this insistence soured marriages and split families. Christians were viewed as traitors. Paul notes in his first letter to the Corinthians that spouses were leaving and deserting their partners over their change in religion, but Paul tries to say to Christian spouses to do their best to keep their marriages if they can: if their spouses leave, that’s their decision, but for the Christian spouse, commit to working it through, loving the other, hopefully winning them over. That is a good witness to the Gospel.
This is a thing Paul has to keep reiterating. In his letter to Titus, he says to young women to love their spouses so that “the word of God will not be maligned.” Paul’s letter to the Colossians chapter 4, just before it gives a similar household code, says that Christians need to walk wisely in how non-Christians are seeing them. 1 Peter similarly advises Christians to live in a way that prevents slander.
Christianity in the Greek and Roman world was being perceived as a group of people that were disloyal to their nation, to their marriages and families, and therefore were out to ruin society. There were rumours that Christians were cannibals because they ate flesh and drank blood when they got together for worship. Christians were thought to be atheists because they refused to worship the gods of their communities.
For many, Christianity was perceived as strange and even dangerous. Now, while it was true that Christians opposed the worship of Greek and Roman gods and opposed the ways of the emperors, it wasn’t true that Christians hated their families. Far from.
We have to appreciate the irony: today, we look at Christianity and the way things used to be, and we think it’s our culture that has caused all this disruption and flux. For Ephesians, they believed their culture’s values gave stability, and they saw Christianity as causing the disruption and flux. Our contexts are very different.
And so, this helps us understand the statements in the New Testament, where the Apostles keep telling Christians to honour the Emperor (even though the Emperors were immoral people), submit to authorities (even those that were brutal and corrupt as the Roman powers), leave peaceable lives, and so on. Those are passages that also don’t straightforwardly apply today because we live in democracies where we can choose our government, whereas, in the New Testament, they couldn’t.
The Apostles were doing everything possible to prevent Christianity from being perceived as a threat to the well-being of their home communities. They are trying to walk this tightrope of the faithfulness of Jesus and peaceableness with their families and fellow citizens. What were they worried about? Its something we just aren’t worried about in our country:
The Apostles did not want to be perceived as an insurgent movement as they spread the Gospel. Why? Revolutions ended in violence, with Roman soldiers slaughtering anything that could be perceived as a rebellion or disloyal to the Empire, and so, the Apostles tried to be wise in portraying Christianity as upholding certain social mores that Greeks saw as fundamental to social wellness.
What were those? Well, one of those was the Greek household code.
2. Ephesian Culture Believed Men were the Heads of their Households. Paul believed Jesus was the Head
And so, the second important aspect of Paul’s context was the Greek understanding of marriage. Ephesians believed it was good and proper for the husband and father to be the head of the household. The husband was often the educated one, legally was the one who managed the finances, and he was the one that procured the income for the family. Often the man was the religious representative of the family as well.
Because of this, he was regarded as the authority of the family, and Ephesians felt it was only good and proper to have wives, children, and slaves living in complete submission to the family’s leader.
However, men in Ephesian culture were regarded as the heads of their households, and as such, they were afforded power and privilege. Wives, children, and slaves were their servants, all for the purposes of affording them a better life. Husbands had little to no moral obligation to their wives and could act with a great deal of self-interest.
If the Apostles attacked this teaching too forcefully, a lot of women, children, and servants could find themselves without a roof over their head or worse. It wasn’t that the Apostles were afraid to sacrifice for their faith, but they were trying to be prudent to not pick unnecessary battles. In their judgment, in this context, which is different from ours, they choose a cautious and more subtle path.
Women did not have legal rights, no sources of income; there were no women’s shelters; there was no such thing as unemployment insurance or alimony in a divorce. These are things our culture has created, and if we are tempted to see these as an obstacle to living this passage, we must look to the history of Christian suffrage advocates and Christian abolitionists, Christians that have looked at how humans are made in God’s image and said our laws should reflect justice and equity.
Our culture has been influenced by 2000 years of Christian proclamation; Ephesian culture was not. That does not mean we are always better, but it does mean we are in a very different place.
Paul was dealing with a world that operated under certain conditions, things that the culture took for granted as the norms of how things functioned, while Paul was against things like slavery (he was a Jew, after all, that knew full well the stories of the Exodus, where redemption meant liberation from physical oppression), he also realized that for some people, slavery was their sole means of provision or that to oppose slavery in a revolution could end with Roman legions coming and killing everyone involved with a revolt.
We have to do this in similar ways today: We know, for instance, that our use of fossil fuels is not good for the environment, but for many of us, we still have to own gas-powered cars or have homes that use oil. If we tried to just rid Canada of all fossil fuels right now, that probably would leave a lot of people without transportation and without heat in the winter, so we are trying to transition off fossil fuels. I don’t know if we are doing a good enough job of that, but that is a topic for another sermon.
So, what Paul does then, is try to word the Christian life in as close of terms as possible to the way Ephesians understood marriage and parenting and managing their homes. He meets them where they are at and how they understand things, but he adds a Christian twist to it. He sows a seed of Christ-like transformation in it.
And this is where we really miss the point of the passage when we refuse to read the Bible in its historical context.
Let me read one of the more well-known household codes in Greek culture. Ask yourself, how is Paul’s version different from this? This is from Aristotle’s Politics:
Of household management, we have seen that there are three parts—one is the rule of a master over slaves… another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the older and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature… [W]hen one rules and the other is ruled we endeavour to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect… The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent.
Both Paul and Aristotle talk about husbands and wives, fathers and children, and masters and slaves. That’s how we know that Paul has something like this in mind for the context he is writing in. Did you spot some of the differences?
Aristotle talks about the rulership of all three. Men rule over women. Why? Because men are more intelligent by nature. They are, by nature, superior. They live in permanent inequality, and that inequality is a good thing.
Is that what Paul believed?
Paul is a Jew, and he knows that men and women are both in the image of God. He knows that if women are not equal to men, it is not because of nature but because of sin. The curse of Genesis 3 was that women’s desire would be for their husbands, but men would rule over them.
We have to ask ourselves: is it the church’s job to uphold the curse of sin? Or is it the church’s role to undo the effects of sin in this world with the power of salvation?
Paul says in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, all are one in Christ Jesus.”
If we look at Paul’s writings, we see that he had women leaders spreading the Gospel with him: church leaders like Chloe and Nympha, Pheobe (a deacon from Cenchrea), Eudia and Synteche (apostolic leaders along with Clement), Junia (an apostle listed that the end of Romans). If you have not heard those names before, look them up. Paul very much believed that the Spirit was moving to bring about equality in the world broken by sin.
We need to keep that big picture in mind when we interpret these passages. And when we do, the point of these passages of today becomes clearer:
Ephesians 5 begins with Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. When it gets to the next line, it actually uses the same verb as this sentence: Be subject to one another… wives to your husbands. In other words, wives are doing something all Christians, men, fathers, and husbands included, ought to be doing too. Yet, so often, we preach this passage as if the burden is on women to do something unique to them.
Aristotle’s view of headship in the family emphasizes male rulership; Paul takes that notion of headship in God’s family and emphasizes mutual submission.
The Greek household code said men did not have to care for their wives, children, or slaves beyond food and shelter. Families served the man’s own self-interest. Paul says things like this in his household code:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.
Masters, know that both of you have the same Master in heaven.
Aristotle emphasized authority; Paul introduced accountability. Which one do you think then is the principle that applies to us today?
3. Jesus’s Love is the Pattern for Parents
Jesus told his disciples that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
In speaking to them about the authority, he said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28).
Paul summarizes the pattern of Christ in Philippians chapter two when he says,
4 Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
And so, in a culture where men were assumed to be the heads of the household, Paul, in essence, says, “Okay, men, if you want to be the head of the household, then be one like Jesus. Be ready to give up everything for your family.”
But that is not some new way to reinforce male power. It is consistent with what all Christians are called to do. Notice the principle that Ephesians chapter five begins with: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (v. 1-2).
This is the guiding principle for what Paul says in this entire chapter, and it says all Christians are to live self-sacrificing love towards one another, and when we come to verse 21, the guiding principle for the household code, Paul says all Christians are to submit one to another. The household code is merely applying these to the way Ephesians needed to have it applied in that context. But ultimately, submission, respect, service, and accountability¾these are things all Christians ought to be doing for each other, regardless of gender.
It is funny how we have looked at Ephesians chapter 5, and we have tried to apply it to mean something more like the philosophy of Aristotle than the way of Jesus.
If we defined authority in Jesus’ way, we would give up our authority, not hold onto it.
If we define what it means to be a man through Jesus, we won’t be worried about how we can get power out of our marriages and families, power over our wives and kids. We will ask ourselves: How can I serve them? How can I even submit it to them? What sacrifices do I need to make in order to love them better?
That might mean doing something things that our culture, perhaps even our church cultures, might view as not very manly.
When Meagan and I were first married, we had just bought our first house, a little townhouse in Bradford, one hour north of Toronto. We had our first child, Rowan, soon after moving in.
Meagan was teaching at a Christian school, and the school wanted her to upgrade her teaching degree to a full Bachelor of Education. So, she used her mat-leave to go back to school full-time.
I was also in school, working on my doctorate. I was between work, and I eventually got a contract as a pastoral intern at Bradford Baptist Church, a few hours a week.
But with Meagan in school in an intensive program, I had to pivot to caring for Rowan most mornings as well as do cleaning and some cooking.
Can I confess something to you? I am just not as particular about cleaning as my wife is. If there is a dirty spot on the counter, I don’t notice it. My wife enters a room, and it is like radar detection. But in order to have a household that felt orderly enough that my wife did not feel stressed about, I had to learn how to clean better.
Admitfully, after 13 years of marriage, I still am not there.
Of course, not having a full-time job, I got comments from family members: “So, when are you going to get a real job.” The implication is that my current situation was not what a man, a biblical husband, was to do. And I felt feelings of worthlessness, staying home, and caring for our son.
I had learned to equate my worth as a man and father with work and money.
I had to come to a point and say, but what does my family need? It is not about fulfilling some expectation of what a man or a husband or a father is according to our culture or even our church cultures. It is about asking our families, “what do you need?”
What does that mean for a world that is in such flux? Well, it is going to mean something very different for every couple and family.
It means that whatever life entails, it probably is not going to be easy. It means navigating decision-making, household work, finances, and childcare with fairness, with mutual submission.
And that takes sacrifice, and that is what we are celebrating today on Father’s Day. The ways our fathers have sacrificed to show their wives and children they love them.
For many of our fathers and grandfathers, these sacrifices fulfilled a traditional need, but for the younger generations, these sacrifices might look different.
Whether it is working a tough job away from home or working as a stay-home dad, whether it is mowing the lawn or cooking dinner, driving the kids to soccer or reading to them when they go to bed, there are little acts of service that show your families how much you love them.
The tasks may change, but love does not.
Paul says that when we do this, we are reflecting the reality that God is showing us in Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he came in human form, became a servant, and became obedient even onto death, death on a cross.
Can I just say that Jesus knows a thing or two about changing to love those he cares for in the way they need it?
Fathers, husbands, men in the audience today, sometimes the world tells us that to be a man means relying on no one but yourself, don’t ask for help, don’t be vulnerable. Men don’t talk about love. Real men don’t cry and things like that.
That is just not true. It is not the pattern of Jesus. We can share our needs with our families and friends, but most importantly, we need to share our needs with God.
When we feel frustrated in life, we know that God understands, God is with us, and God is for us. God raised Jesus from the dead in victory over sin and all of life’s struggles.
Ask God, trust him, and he will help.
In all the change and uncertainty of life, God’s love remains constant. God’s love does not change. God’s love is perfect. God’s love is faithful and true. And God loves you.
Fathers, husbands, and men today, can you leave this place trusting that love in a new way today?
Loving and gracious God our Father.
You are our creator, and we are your children, made in your image and likeness.
We praise you today because you are loving and good.
You have shown your love for us in sacrificing your very self.
While we were sinners set against you, you died for us.
God, we are thankful.
And you have called us to reflect this love, this love that is your very being.
Father, teach us how we can do this better.
Many of us feel like we are not all that good at it.
And in a changing world, many of us desire to follow our ways, but the way does not seem all that clear.
God, give us wisdom.
Encourage our hearts: Remind us that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love you have for us.
Show us how we can love our families better.
Thank you so much for all the examples of fathers we have around us. Thank you for the sacrifices they have made, the lessons they have taught, and the fun we have had with them. May we cherish these gifts among us today.
We pray that today the fathers, husbands, and men of this church would know your love in a new way, be able to trust that love, and live that out.
Give us your Spirit, for we know you are faithful.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” – Martin Luther King
From the second book of the Bible, we are given a powerful story.
That God’s people came to the land of Egypt under the protection of Joseph, the long lost son of Jacob, who secured the prosperity of the land against terrible famine, all because he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. But after many years, the Israelites multiplied and the Egyptian Pharaohs grew forgetful of who Joseph was and what he did for the Egyptian people years ago.
So, a tyrant Pharaoh arose, who turned and enslaved the Israelites. He forced them to build its temples and pyramids from bricks, hearkening back to the tower of babel. In Scripture the figure of Babylon, the idolatry of empire itself, has many names: Assyria, Greece, Rome, Egypt.
Empires always put power before people. Empires always but money before humanity. Empires always justify terrible oppression as maintain order.
Pharaoh worried that the Israel were getting too numerous for their Egyptian overloads to contain, and in order to keep Egypt pure and powerful, he ordered the genocide of all the baby boys of Israel.
The narrative tells of one boy, Moses, who survived the genocide by being floated in a reed basket down the river, to be picked up providentially by Pharaohs daughter and raised as her own.
This boy, Moses, grew to be a man, and when he learned of the truth about who he was and what the pharaoh had done, murdered a slave master, and fled into exile.
Moses’ outrage tried to solve oppression with violence, and it did not work. Violence never ends violence.
In exile one day he happened upon a mysterious burning bush. It was ablaze but was not consumed. The mysterious sight spoke to him, identifying himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he had heard the cries of the people in slavery, and was now going to act.
What shall I call you, Moses asks? “I am that I am” the presence answered. The un-nameable, uncontrollable, freedom of being and root of all existence itself, the Great I Am, this being is on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
Moses is commissioned reluctantly to go and tell the new Pharaoh, his half-brother, that God wants him to let his people go. God wants liberty for his people. God want liberation for all people.
Pharaoh, who believes he is god, refuses, and so Ten Plagues rain down to break the tyrant’s resolve. First the sacred Nile turned to blood, then frogs and lice spread, then disease and boils, hail and locusts, then finally darkness covered the land, and then it says that Pharaohs’ resolve was finally broken in the Passover as the angel of death himself descended and visited the death of the firstborn boys back against Egypt.
Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Israel to go. But as they left, however, he recanted.
He assembled his army to re-enslave the people and slaughter them if need be. The people fled and then found themselves pressed up against the sea, nowhere to run. No weapons to fight, no soldiers or chariots. All hope was lost.
But then as the story goes, God opened up the sea, walls on either side, dry land in the middle, so that the Israelites could escape.
The Egyptian army rallied to pursue, but as they made their way into the divide, God let go the walls of water, washing the army away.
The Israelite slaves were now free, free without every picking up a sword on their part, free to live, more importantly, free to worship and follow their God.
So, Exodus 15 recites the praise of the people for God rescuing them.
I will sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea…
The Lord is my strength and my defense;
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him…
The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name…
Who is like you—
majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
Our readings for this unity service looks at the God we worship (Ex. 15, Psalm 118, and Mark 5). God who is strong, majestic, holy, awesome in glory. It is this very God that is on the side of the weak and the oppressed. It is this very God that opposes the proud and will brings down the powerful. It is this very God who has promised to end the presence of evil in this world.
This is important to say that this story is more about who God is than about the spectacle of walls of water crashing down on unsuspecting Egyptian soldiers. Hollywood loves to fixate on the imagery of chariots and walls of water, whether Moses is played by Carleton Heston or Christian Bale, but Hollywood often forgets the theology.
Martin Luther King said it best:
The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being. Rather, this story symbolizes the death of evil and of inhuman oppression and of unjust exploitation. (King, Strength to Love, 78)
This is a narrative that we see through Christ as we look at evil in the world, which reminds us of God’s ultimate victory over evil and how we are invited to live that out in part today and awaiting a final day of God’s liberation.
1. There is real, radical, systemic, and cosmic evil in our world today.
One might think this is an obvious point. Just turn on the news and you are bombarded with messages about corrupt politicians, poverty, wars and disasters.
But why do we think anything is or can be evil at all – and not just merely unfortunate?
Again, this seems obvious but just as God has become a suspect belief today, so with him, also the belief that there is actually good and evil.
One atheist Neuroscientist wrote that empirically there is no good or evil technically, just nature that we prefer and nature that we don’t. The world, disasters and death is neither moral or immoral. It just is. As far as human nature, there isn’t evil or good, so much as proper functioning brains and malfunctioning brains.
Coincidentally, he is not to big on the idea that humans have free will either.
Our culture has placed its trust in the power of the empirical, and as a result, with belief in a transcendent God out of the picture, so also, slowly with that good and evil.
The world as it is is all there is. It is not evil or good, it just is.
Why is there meaning as opposed to meaninglessness?
Why is sacrifice more virtuous than comfort and apathy
Why is compassion preferable to domination?
Why is good preferable to evil?
Why is life preferable to death?
We are learning that these cherished hopes we have as humans and more specifically as Christians, they are not natural givens. They are not sitting there obvious to the disinterested observer. They are seen by faith. They are produced within a particular community that looks to God for what is most true and meaningful, most ultimate and good.
It is faith in a God, who made the world good, that we know that there is a primal innocence and beauty residing in all reality, and that as humans have made the decision to rebel and reject God’s life and goodness, evil and sin has deformed our world.
Some might say God obviously does not exist because of all the evil in this world. I think it is the opposite. We can only see that there is something called evil in this world by believing there is something good beyond the world.
If God exists and God is good, we know is not the way it ought to be.
2. When we consider evil in our world, we have to contend with the evil within us.
When we know God’s will is goodness, truth, beauty, life and hope, then we look at the world and see that it has radical, systemic, and cosmic evil.
But when we say there is something wrong with the world out there, the scriptures us push to turn our attention from the evil out there to the evil in here, in our hearts. The in excusable evil we do.
This evil is found in the capacity of human beings that in light of all our education and knowledge, all our collective wisdom and arts and religion, and all our power and technology we will still choose the path of annihilation, knowing full-well its harm.
When we know the vast waste and depravity of violence, we still go to war.
When we know that more is accomplished in unity, we choose division.
When we know the benefits of facing hard realities, we still choose to cling to our delusions.
In this story of Israel and Egypt, if we are really honest, we must realize that we are more often Egypt than Israel.
So often we read the Exodus story saying we are the Israelites in a spiritual bondage. The reality is we are more accurately the Egyptians. We are more often oppressor than oppressed. We are members of one of the wealthiest nations on the planet.
We sometimes smugly accuse our neighbors to the south of injustice, but we Canadians have to realize our own nations sins.
Our corporations have stripped the resources away from people in South America and Africa.
Our banks have suffocated the economies of many Caribbean Islands.
We have used our military to even overthrow democratically elected leaders and even Christians leaders in other countries, all to secure our wealth.
I am no internet conspiracy theorist. These are all facts in plain sight. The question is do we have eyes to see these realities?
Underneath our facade of a nation of peacekeepers and human rights is a disappointing track record of exploitation that we Canadians turn a blind eye to because we don’t want to know where our products come from or what is ensures our economic comforts.
We are more like the Egyptians then the Israelites. Many good Egyptians of conscience probably sat ideally by as Israelites died building temples and pyramids. They probably did the same thing we are going. Throwing up our arms and saying, “Oh, well,” and turn a blind eye because they did not want to sacrifice their comforts..
To be human from the standpoint of faith is to know we have a primal goodness, but also the terrible capacity to forsake that goodness.
We as Christians know that while our faith pushes us to love more and pursuit truth more and justice more, but we also are aware that our hearts can also contort our religion into instruments of apathy and self-righteousness.
We do this when we offer prayers that we don’t intend to act on.
We do this when refuse to reach out to the broken in our communities.
When we cling to our own comforts rather than living sacrificially.
When we shut out the world so that we don’t have to have compassion on it.
We look out at the world and we condemn its evil, we look at our country and we realize we are living in a modern day Egypt. And they we look at our churches and we have to realize we are no better.
3. God’s answer to evil, our evil, is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ
What happens when we see evil in this world and we realize that we also have that same evil within our hearts? What do we do when we realize we are more like Egypt than Israel?
The book of exodus is a narrative that gets retold, recited, and re-enacted throughout the Bible, particularly the New Testament. If we don’t read the Exodus through the New Testament we are left realizing we belong drowned in that sea rather than safe on that shore. We deserve sorrow not these songs.
But Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures. Jesus is our exodus. Jesus shows us true exodus.
This story of Passover is re-enacted and fulfilled in the last supper and the cross.
This is important because for the exodus story to apply for us, we need to place ourselves in the seats of the disciples. And what did the disciples do? They failed just as we failed. They turned from Jesus. And so often we do to. The disciples that ate with Jesus, knew what was good more than anyone else, they sinned. That is the beginning of the church.
Judas betrayed. Peter denied. The others fled in fear. The people of God were complicit in the murder of their messiah. The law of God was manipulated to execute to their own deliverer. To see radical evil in our world and in our hearts, we need not look any further than what happened to Jesus at the cross by those whom he came to save.
The world denied Jesus, but the more troubling part is that we denied Jesus.
And so, the words are ever more powerful that on the night of the Passover, the night the disciples remembered this exodus event, this was the night Jesus was betrayed, Jesus became our the Passover lamb, to liberate us from our own sins.
His body that we broke, was broken for us.
The blood the people of God shed, he embraced as a path to forgive them of the very sins they were sinning against him. A new covenant.
No vast sea was split the day Jesus was nailed on the cross but the veil was torn, a greater cosmic event occurred: God forgave his enemies, us, God atoned for sins, our sins, even as we murdered him. God embraced death so that we could have life. God chose to suffer as one cursed so that all who cry out forsaken would know they are not.
And as the Gospels say, here the Scripture were fulfilled.
To read exodus through the cross is to know that Jesus died for Pharaoh just as much as Moses. Just as Jesus died for Peter who denied him, he died for you and me that fail to follow him.
To read this narrative of Pharaoh being thrown into the sea with his soldiers through Christ is to realize that Jesus fulfilled this by accepting that punishment for evil on himself not visiting it back on those that deserve it.
To read exodus through the cross is to know that God’s way of dealing with evil is not with bringing disaster on the perpetrators but by bringing healing.
To read the exodus Passover through Jesus shows us a God that does not want to kill his enemies, but rather a God who loves his enemies, overcomes them not with force but with forgiveness, such that even the Roman guards by the cross cried out, “Surely this man was the son of God.”
At the cross the great evils of this world that nailed Jesus to a Roman execution pike did not prevent our Savior from being fully obedient to the Father and fully willing to forgive us. That is how evil was defeated.
And three days later, the Father raised Jesus from the died, overturning histories judgment.
The resurrection was the overturning of death itself. The weapon of evil and fear, empire and tyranny was disarmed that day.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
Jesus overturned our sins that day too. He appeared to those that betrayed him, the disciples, and announced peace to you.
Death, sin, and despair have lost. They destiny is oblivion, and our destiny is liberation.
When we lose hope in ourselves, when we are overwhelmed at the sin in our hearts, we know that we worship a God that would gladly accept the death penalty in order to bring us to him.
When we look at our world, its systems of oppression and corruption, the cogs of death that keep turning, we know we worship the God of life, who raised Jesus from the dead.
Hell reigns, but not forever.
Oppression reigns but its days are numbered.
Death reigns but it realizes now it is the one that is mortal.
Sin is here but it has been defeated.
Christ has had his definitive victory that Easter morning for the tomb was found empty. The grave could not contain him.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
The question then is how to we live this victory?
4. How do we live out the victory of the resurrection?
We are called to sacrifice. When we know that God has given us salvation and the enduring presence of his love, we take our liberation and use our freedom to take up our cross. No one is liberated until everyone is liberated. And the highest freedom is not material mobility but spiritual strength. That is only possible by follow Christ no matter what.
Martin Luther King knew this. Oscar Romero knew this. Maximilian Kolbe knew this. Jim Elliot knew this. All the martyrs that have given their lives for Christ, the Gospel and his kingdom of truth and justice will tell you this.
There can be no path to resurrection without the cross just as there cannot be any path to freedom without sacrifice. And this sacrifice is freedom.
We must be sorry. This freedom begins in repentance. There is no solution to the terrible evil in this world until we take responsibility for our own roles in further it. We are called to acknowledge that we sin and we need forgiveness. We repent because we need restoring.
The Gospel gives us that counter-intuitive truth that humility is liberation. Liberation from ourselves.
We are called to serve. The only way our world will become a better place is by good people acting differently. For use to move out of our culture’s default setting of selfishness and apathy and ignorance.
As Desmond Tutu said, God has no body but ours. God has no hands and feet but ours. God uses our eyes to look upon the oppressed. He uses our ears to listen to those suffering.
Are we, brothers and sisters from different traditions of Christianity, ready to be Christ’s body again?
Lastly, tonight, we are called to sing. That is what we are doing today at this unity service. When we worship a God of perfect goodness and power and love, we see the world differently. If we don’t continue to meet together, to pray together, to recite Scripture together, we will grow weary along the difficult path disciples must way.We need each other.
When we worship together in the unity of Christ, we show a divided world that there is hope beyond the fragments.
And so, please stand with me and let us renew are hearts by praising our God with this inspiring song, “The Right Hand of God.”
This Monday we got to see a solar eclipse. This is just one way that we can look out at the world and see creation.
The Scriptures have a section in it called the Psalms. These are poems of prayer, praise, lament, thanksgiving, and confession, compiled for God’s people to recite in worship to God. At some point, perhaps next summer, I might preach through a number of Psalms.
The Psalms are poems by the people of God, usually king David, that speak inspired truths about who God is, who we are, and in this case, the beautiful universe we live in. It really takes a poet to describe the beauty of God and the world, doesn’t it?
Psalm 19 is a brilliant Psalm. It is brilliant because of the movement of the poetry. It goes from seeing God in the beauty of the universe, then in the laws of morality, and this moves David to humility and repentance. Beauty moves us to responsibility, which moves us to humility and repentance. This is the way this Psalm wants us to experience something beautiful like a solar eclipse.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
The Heavens Tell the Glory of God.
What is glory? That is a term we often use as Christians. Some people after watching the movie Dunkirk referred to that battle as “glorious.” What does that mean? The Hebrew word for “glory” is kavod, and kavod has a rich meaning. It means about three things:
It means splendor, the way a king’s throne and robes and throne room has splendor. Ever come into an old cathedral and feel moved by its beauty? That is splendor. It is beauty kicked up a notch. It is beauty that moves us.
It also means honor. A king is glorious not merely because of his robes, but because of his significance. Think of a king returning from battle, securing stability and safety for his people by risking his life, fighting with courage. That warrants respect and honor.
When we honor someone we recognize their importance for us. When we give God glory in worship, we honor him. We tell God the importance he has. We do this not because God needs it, but because it is good to tell God we love him, to remind ourselves how important God to us, to remind ourselves of all that he has done for us. God has given us life and redemption, if we forget to honor him, that is a step of vast stupidity on our parts.
So, glory can mean splendor and honor and also abundance. That is not the best term. Magnitude would be better.
Have you been in a situation where you realized that this is a moment that could change your life? I remember the birth of my son, Rowan. Holding my first son in my arms reminded me of the weight of responsibility I had but also the privileged and joy. I felt the magnitude of the situation. Glory is the magnitude of God.
When we look up at a starry sky we are reminded of the glory of God: his splendor in its moving beauty, his honor, knowing his importance – that if the universe is so big, and God is bigger and we are so small, so dependent on God, God is important.
We are finite creatures; he is infinite. We are dependent; he is absolute – seeing the universes size, knowing his magnitude, the creator of all this. It leaves us awestruck. It leaves us without words. It takes our breath away.
The heavens tell the glory of God.
Are You Listening?
The next few lines are odd. Day after day the heavens pour our speech, but there are no words. Oh. No voice is heard, but indeed, there is a voice. What is the poet, David, here trying to get at?
At Laurentian University, there is a large library where I go to get out books. I usually go get books when I have a spare moment. I am always pressed for time. Hunting down books can be really annoying.
In front of the Laurentian library there is a Starbucks, and one time, I was feeling in need of a pick-me-up to keep slugging through stuff, so I got a coffee there (I’ll say something blasphemous, but I like Starbucks’ coffee better than Tim Hortons – but I also really like super strong coffee). I sat and sipped a coffee before I headed back to my office. I looked up and there was a massive painting, three panels, taking up the entire wall above me. I had never noticed that there before. I had been so much in a hurry that all the dozens of times I had walked past it, I never noticed it.
Finally, sitting there, I got to just take in the artwork. It was just a beautiful array of color in the shapes of exotic flowers. In ended up being just a delightful moment in my day, enjoying the beauty of this painting.
But I never would have seen it if I did not stop and look.
It is amazing how we can become blind to things around us. It is even more amazing that we can become blind to God’s glory. We can become deaf to this voice.
Our faith has profound answers, but many now, are too distracted with work and pleasure and all the wrong in the world to even bother asking the questions. That includes us Christians too. We have become deaf to the voice. Too caught up in work, too caught up in routine. We fail to see the beauty.
You look up at a beautiful sky, how can you not feel small and ask, “Is there something more to us?” Or look at the sun and moon and stars and ask, “What made all this? What is the purpose of life? Why is there all this rather than nothing?” If you don’t, I suspect you are rushing and missing their full splendor.
When we wonder, we start listening. We beginning listening to that voice that speaks without words, as this psalm tells us. Something made this. Something bigger than them. This all has a purpose. This all has a meaning. Their beauty reminds us of God. The question is, are you listening?
Are we watching for God’s splendor? Are we listening for the traces of God’s honor? Are we a wake to his magnitude all around us?
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
A Flat Earth? God Meets Us Where We Are At…
Notice that it describes the heavens as a tent for thus sun. That warrants a bit of explanation.
The other day I had perhaps one of the most bizarre conversations I have ever had in my life.
I met a person on line (which if there is anything good about the internet, it is for meeting bizarre people).
This person was convinced that the earth was flat. I asked, “why?” I did not even think this perceptive existed, so I really was curious how he came to hold this view. He said the Bible teaches the earth is flat. He used this very psalm. He also gave a set of really bad pseudo-scientific references.
Anyways, for sake of this person, not that many people hear are worried about this kind of thing, but the Bible was indeed written for a people that thought the world was flat, yes.
It is important to say, the Bible assumes that language, but does not teach it.
This is because the ancient world assumed the world was flat with the sky as a hard dome over top, much like this picture here. The earth was flat and rested on pillars.
Here is a picture of the universe how Egyptians believed it was. See how they thought the sky was actually the body of a goddess, Nut, held up by the air god, Shu, resting on the earth god, Ged? They believed that the sky was a surface, a person actually.
Notice that the Bible resists deifying these things. But why does it talk this way? The Bible uses a bit of this language because God means us where we are at. Jesus teaches that faith is like a mustard seed, which he says is the smallest seed. Now, actually in point of fact, the iris seed is smaller, but for that time and place, they knew of no smaller seed. Is Jesus interested in correcting their inaccurate understanding of the size of seeds? No. He is interested in teaching redemptive truths in ways the people at the time would understand.
Other passages of the Bible mention the monsters Rahab, Lilith, Leviathan, and Behemoth. It is not because these things are real, but because the ancient people thought they were real.
It is sort of like how my son the other day was scarred that monsters were going to get him. At first I told him, these things don’t exist, but that did not take the fear out of the situation for my son. So, I got him to pray that God is greater than anything that could ever hurt us. That worked. I think that is what is going on here. God is not interested in saying, “those things don’t exist silly!” but something more like, “whatever you could be afraid of, I am greater than that.”
God meets us where we are at.
We don’t think about the world is flat that way and Christians truth is not bound to that kind of cultural assumption. God was just meeting them there where they are at.
That is just the way a non-scientific culture thought about the world.
It was Greek astronomers in the 3rd century BC that discovered the world might actually be a sphere, and Christians had no problem accepting this.
We still talk that way when we say “sunrise and sunset” even though we know that the sun does not actually move, it is the earth that revolves around the sun.
We know that because Copernicus and Galileo discovered that the earth revolves around the sun, not the sun around the earth. The church originally held that the sun revolves around the earth, but very quickly adopted Galileo’s findings because the church realized that this was not harmful to the essence of Christian faith.
So again, Christians have no problem accepting new legitimate scientific findings, since we know that God is always pleased to talk to us where we are at, as we are in a process of discovery.
This psalm uses the ancient language of the culture around it because God was meeting them where they understanding was and teaching them his beauty in the way they knew.
Some have called the Bible sexist, but again, it is important to keep in mind that the Bible met us where we are at. It assumes a patriarchial culture, but that does not mean we teach that today.
Some have called the Bible too violent, but again, while God met people when they were at their mist brutal, God pulled them deeper into non-violence. The Bible assumes great violence, meets us there, but does not teach it today.
Some have called the Bible oppressive. It has slavery in it. Again, while the world of the Bible has slavery, that does not mean, when we listen to its spirit, that we are to teach slavery today.
The Bible meets us where we are at, then seeks to advance us forward into a more redeemed way of life. It speaks to the young gang-member just as much as to the old missionary. It uses the language we understand to move us from where we are to where God wants us to be.
So where are we at today?
Here is a picture from the Hubble space telescope. It is a picture of hundreds of galaxies. Each dot is not a star, but a galaxy, going off into space. Beautiful is it not? The Hubble, a remarkable piece of technology, is showing us aspects of God’s creation that we never knew existed.
We are but a planet with a sun, in a galaxy of about 300 billion stars, and the milky way galaxy is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe.
The ancient people might not have had the instruments like a Hubble space telescope to understand that figure, so God was not interested in telling them something they did not understand.
And make no mistake, the magnitude of that is beyond our comprehension as well. But does the truth of this ancient poem, inspired by God still ring true?
Yes. The grandeur of this speaks to us again. Its splendor speaks: who made this? What brought this into existence? Who has ordered all these stars and galaxies?
Are we watching for God’s splendor? Are we listening for the traces of God’s honor? Are we awake to his magnitude all around us? The heavens tell the glory of God! Are you listening?
If you are, the next step is realizing our responsibility…
From Beauty to Responsibility
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is pure,
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
When we see parallel statements, I think the poet is trying to make a point. Six times David mentions the law of God six different ways using six different adjectives: law statutes, precepts, commands, reverence, decrees, which are perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, and firm.
It is like he can’t say enough good things about the law of God. He is almost nagging us about its goodness, trying to get it into our heads, the way a parent keeps nagging their children to wash their hands before dinner.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “Two things fill me with wonder and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
These two are connected for Kant and for King David. Beauty moves us to responsibility.
As the stars remind us that there must be something bigger than ourselves physically, it suggests, perhaps, all our ways are accountable to someone bigger than us, spiritually.
When we recognize the grandeur of beauty, we are humbled to responsibility.
If the world is wondrous, life is sacred. If it is sacred, it ought to be protected.
If the world is lovely, life is a gift. If it is a gift, it ought to be cherished.
Here is the jump from “is” to “ought.” If life has value, it demands a responsible way of valuing it.
And so, God did not just give us the world, we have us a way. He did not just give us life, he gave us his law.
God did not give us laws to burden us, but to liberate us. When we understand God’s law through Jesus’ example, through his summary of the law as love, obeying Jesus is a way of cherishing life in the fullness God wants for us. All the commandments, understood through Jesus, do this.
Don’t lie…God knows life is better when we are honest with ourselves and each other.
Don’t kill…God knows life is better when we don’t seek to hurt one another.
And so on and so forth.
But the first law is important for our purposes today: The first law God gave us is I am the Lord your God, you will not have any other God except me.
While there were not many, there were fractions of wiccans that used the solar eclipse as an event to engage in ritual worship of the sun last Monday.
They worship the sun because they believed that the eclipse had the power to bring new life in them. It is important to note that while the ancient people looked to the sun and saw something so powerful it obviously should be a deity, the Hebrew people under God’s guidance knew the true purpose of the sun. It shows the splendor of God and it gives us heat. That’s it.
Nature moves us to awe at it, God’s law stops us from worshiping it.
We do not worship creation, because creation did not make itself. But there is other important thing.
If we worship the way things are, we are saying there is no force out there that can make this world better. That which is, is all there is, and the way things are, are the way things will stay.
But God is a living God, able to make this world new, better. That is why we honor him.
Also, the sun cannot give new life. The stars cannot give us a better future. We do not buy into horoscopes or astrology, why? God gives us a choice to embrace a future that these things cannot predict or predetermine.
Only God can forgive sins. Only God can have a personal, renewing, saving relationship with us. Not the sun. That is why we worship him.
11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
From Responsibility to Humilty
We see the movement. Beauty moves us to responsibility, responsibility to humility. This humility is expressed in repentance and prayer.
We just don’t do the beauty of the world justice if we look at it, without thinking there is something bigger than ourselves. We cannot think of something bigger than ourselves without realizing we are accountable to something more than ourselves. And we can’t realize that we accountable to something more than ourselves without realizing we have failed to live up to that standard.
Discount all this: Even if the only standard we have for morality is ourselves, we do not live up to even our own standard, let alone God’s perfect one.
I commit to being selfless, but I am always selfish.
I commit to loving my wife, but I know I don’t do enough everyday there.
I commit to telling the truth, but I am aware that under pressure I don’t give accurate statements.
I could go on. What is it for you? Even by our own standards of integrity we fail.
This is why there must be more than all this. There must be a God that made us. There must be a God that knowns us. There must be a God that loves us and wants to forgive us.
We know the sun cannot do this. There is nothing in the world that can do this. Forgiving ourselves is too easy. We don’t have the right to forgive ourselves when we are not even faithful to our own standard, let alone if we wrong another.
Where do we find forgiveness? Some people might look at the stars and conclude there is a God, but only the Bible, only its witness to Jesus tells us God is forgiving.
David knows he is forgiven even of his unintentional faults because of who God as revealed himself to be.
God has revealed himself as not only a God that exists, but as a God that forgives.
This revelation came to perfect fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He drew near to us taking on our humanity. He lived a perfect life to show us a perfect moral standard. Yet people put him to death, because they could not stand to be reminded that there was a greater standard than their self-righteousness.
He chose to count his execution as a sacrifice, atoning for the sin of all people, a sign that God himself was willing to die the death penalty on our behalf to show that God forgives us of even our worst sins.
All we need to do is to trust this, to ask forgiveness, to let the light in.
Clear me from hidden faults! Says David. Clean me from the inside out. Then I shall be blameless.
Then he says,
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
God is a rock and redeemer. He is strong, unmovable, secure. He is someone you can build your life on. He is our redeemer, our rescuer, our savior.
Knowing this, it is our joy to live our entire lives devoted to him, walking with him, trusting that the God who loves us enough to die for us, has the best life possible in mind for us.
This leads us to pray, longing for every aspect of our lives to be in conformity to his will: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you. Nothing else matters.
Can I let you in on a secret? The solar eclipse in all its beauty is simply dull in comparison to a heart that has awoken to God’s glory.
Can this be your prayer today?
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
I did a difficult funeral this week. According to the news, a man was found dead in his car, and I was approached to do the funeral. It got me thinking about nature of death. Why do humans die? What is the meaning of that? How is that connected to the meaning of life? How can one of the most fundamental realities of what it means to be human show something of the truth of the Christian faith?
That is what we are going to explore today.
Believe it or not, humans at a genetic level are programed to die.
Believe it or not, there are animals that are not programmed to age and die.
There are animals that are functional immortal. Many turtles don’t age. What they look like at teen-aged years, fully grown, is exactly how they stay. No turtle dies of old age. They just don’t age. Why aren’t we overrun with turtles? Turtles die from disease and from predators. That’s it.
Immortal Jelly fish, aptly named, when injured, tell themselves to reverse age. When a tentacle is bitten off, they revert back to undifferentiated polyp, the goop that they were when they were born, and from there re-mature fully healed. Not only do they not age past maturity, they actually reverse age at will. Amazing isn’t it?
Ocean flatworms have near limitless regenerative capacity. It’s the X-Men’s Wolverine of the ocean world. Remember that scene from that weird Disney movie Fantasia where Mickey Mouse uses magic to cause brooms to become alive and do his house chores? They get out of control, so he starts hacking them to pieces with an axe, only to find that each piece becomes another broom. That’s what flatworms can do. Cut up a flatworm into a dozen little pieces, and it does not die. It regenerates quickly into a dozen clones of that flatworm.
All these animals do not process what is called “senescence” (that is your word of the day), which is the genetic capacity to age.
That’s right, humans, as with most organisms on the planet, are genetically programmed to age and die. This does not make a lot of sense from a purely atheist-materialist point of view. People before they discovered senescence thought that our bodies just wear out like my 2002 Honda Civic is slowly wearing out. They rust; they wear down; they break.
But that rests on the faulty assumption that our bodies are machines. But we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We have somewhere around 37 trillion cells in our bodies. Our cells replenish themselves often. Intestine cells every 4 days; skin cells every few weeks; blood cells every few months. Our bodies are remarkably designed to regenerate itself, but oddly, it is not that these processes wear out against their will as we grow old. Our genes tell themselves to stop.
If physical life is all there is and life is just survival – and more than: that survival of the fittest – the idea that our bodies are designed to age means that humans are essentially a failed species. We could have had the genes of the immortal jellyfish, but we don’t. Too bad for us.
On the other end, consider the tiny organism call a “water bear.” They are only about a few millimeters big, but they are functionally un-killable. They are immune to cold. They can stand minus 270 degrees Celsius (which near absolute zero). It can withstand heat well over boiling point. It can survive in the vacuum of space. It can withstand 6 times more pressure than the bottom of the ocean. It can withstand a dose of radiation several hundred times the lethal dose for a human being.
Yet, water bears ever live past 30. Their bodies, which are otherwise impervious, are designed to stop at 30 years old. Unlike turtles that never die from old age, only from predators, water bears only die from old age, nothing else.
All of this is bring us deeper into the mystery of our own mortality. We were meant to be mortal. God wanted it that way.
“We must all die; we are like water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.” (2 Sam. 14:14)
One of the vital ways we can witness the truth of Jesus Christ in our world is by showing how Christian faith makes sense out of the fundamental realities we face as humans. In other words, by looking to our faith, we learn to be more human. When we look to our mortality, a vital part of our humanity – it is as universal a fact as all of us needed to eat and breath – it is really only best understood be the standpoint of Christian faith.
We live in a world that no longer understands death. Because it no longer understands death, it no longer understands living either. Richard Baxter once said characterized the Christian life as the art of dying well. That is learning our mortality and living that reality out in grace, walking with Christ.
Many of us live unaware of our own mortality. The poet Emily Dickinson wrote about this in her famous poem:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
In moments where death is unexpected, someone close to us, that is when we are reminded that we are finite, mortal people. We don’t like this feeling. We assume we will live on indefinitely, which is of course, not the case.
So, lets do something bizarre this morning, and learn our mortality together.
1. Death as Limit
(a) If humans were created limited, a limited lifespan is good.
The notion that our lives come to an end is not in and of itself a bad thing. As the world was created, day turned to night. Each day ended. That was a good thing. Humans were created. We were created just as limited and finite as creation. Our lives, like the days of the week, were from the start limited.
This is important because there is no biological fact that links mortality to immortality. Plants and animals have been dying well before humans arrived on the scene, these we understand as innocent. God does not punish the leaves of a tree for making them turn and fall in autumn. Life is meant to be limited.
Immortality is found in God alone, this is why the narrative of Genesis chapter two places the Tree of Life alongside of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We don’t have immortality in and of ourselves, we never did. Immortality is our destiny, not our origin. God alone is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16).
In fact, this quest for immortality, any notion of immortality understood apart from God is highly dissuaded in Scripture. The serpent’s temptation was with the allure of immortality apart from God: “Surely you will not die!”
The mythology of the world around Israel is replete with heroes questing to find immortality for themselves by their great prowess whether the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh or the search for the Greek Ambrosia (the fruit that bestows divinity). What is all this but immortality by works, justification by works?
Israel rejected this. Humanity is created by God. We dare not assert ourselves as the Creator. So, the fact that our live have limits calls us deeper into dependence on the one who is unlimited. Our work presupposes God’s provision; our prayer presupposes God’s providence. We are dependent; God is absolute.
In fact, the limited age of humanity is seen as a means God uses to curb sin. As the demi-god-like Nephilim corrupted humanity, God restrains the life of humanity to 120 years (Gen. 6:3).
(b) Living forever in this life is never understood to be an ideal for God’s people.
Yet, we humans are still searching for it, not with religion as we would think of it, but with technology.
Even at the highest of the conception of a “good life” Israel shied away of thinking in terms of immortality. The biblical ideal for this life was a “ripe old age” or “full of day” where one walked with God. Job is granted life to 140 years (Job 42:17- that’s 20 years more than the limit, by the way).
There are efforts to cryogenically freeze individuals. Cryonics Institute charges just $28,000 (that cheaper than some funerals!) at time of death to cryogenically preserve a body, to be revived at some future date when it becomes possible.
Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth believes we will be able to transfer the human mind to a computer by 2110. That kind of feels like a movie starring Johnny Depp. I wonder how that will end up?
Technology has become the god and religion of the modern world: we place our trust in it like cave-people placed their trust in statutes of gold.
It is not a good thing. One thinks of the fiction of Jonathan Swift. In his book Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver discovers strange fantastic world that teaches him profound moral truths. One place he stumbles upon has a group of individual that have discovered a fountain of immortality. Tempted to drink of it, he then surveys the group, realizing that many of them are unthinkably miserable, clinging to the quantity of their lifespan at the expense of all quality. At this point, Gulliver pours out his cup of immortal water and departs.
He concludes that a short and good life is better than an infinite one.
(c) The limited nature of our lives remind us that life is a gift.
If life is a gift, there is a gift giver. Reject the giver, and we will become increasingly unable to recognize all life as a gift.
This notion of the goodness of life is growing increasingly in doubt. We face a culture of death. As I said, in forgetting the meaning of death, we have forgotten the meaning of life.
If life is just survival and pleasure or achievement, than means a lot of our lives are not worth that much. We are seeing suicide at levels that should equate them with pandemic.
According to Statistic Canada, “In Canada, suicide accounts for 24 percent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16 percent among 16-44 year olds. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24. Seventy-three percent of hospital admissions for attempted suicide are for people between the ages of 15 and 44.”
We are facing a pandemic of meaninglessness in life. Worse still, our government as not been diligent to combat this. Our church was one of many that sent petitions that protested the assisted suicide bill, pleaded that at any rate, there needs to be a clause for consciousness objectors in the medical establishment. The Trudeau government did not even allow for that.
Now, anyone that faces suicide, especially in cases of terminal illness, needs compassion and support, but I worry assisted suicide makes a judgment call on the “value” of life. In Holland, which has had euthanasia laws for a while now, reports that some doctors now have recommended suicide to people with mental illness because there conditions are “insufferable.”
Where do we draw the line here? I don’t think we can. Should we see people with exceptional needs as having a lower value than those that are fully able-bodied and able-mined. Is that where we see human value? Christians see human life in the image of God, created with inherent dignity, such that to living in fellowship with people with exceptional needs is a joy, not a burden.
I think these laws for assisted suicide are symptomatic of a growing awareness that apart from God, we don’t know how to understand all life as having value, even in time of pain and difficulty. We care for people because all life as value; we allow ourselves to be cared for (a difficult truth for us autonomous modern individuals) because we cherish the opportunity to live another moment alongside God and God’s children in this life.
Because we have forgotten the meaning of our mortality, how we are designed for something, someone, more, we have lost the ability to live.
2. Death as Sin
Life as merely limited is good, but we are fallen humans. We are all born into a world where sin has had its way. So, we cannot think about death apart from its tragic, fallen state. Why is death sad? It is because of sin. “The wages of sin is death” says Romans 6:23.
This is important. God is concerned with our bodily well being, but there are things more important than the mere physical: seeking the kingdom of heaven is more important that food and clothing says Jesus. The opposite of this pursuit is death, true death.
(a) Sin is understood as death worse that physical dead.
This goes right back to the Garden of Eden. Notice that the warning of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is that you will “surely die” but it is not like Adam and Eve died as soon as they ate it. What did they do? They felt the shame of being distant from God.
God comes down and tells them the consequences of their idolatry: men must toil, but inevitably they will return to the dust, women have lost their primal equality with men, and just as the toil of men remind them of their mortality (their inability to be immortal) so also the reproductive cycles of women (it is a truth that we are less aware of since birth has become so much safer now). Their physical mortality is seen in light of their shame and idolatry. You have tried to be your own gods? You will fail. That’s the consequences.
Like I said, there is nothing wrong with being finite, limited creatures, but when we try to surmount our place as creatures, the true death is to live apart from God. Often the Apostle Paul talks about being “dead in our sins” (ex. Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13). This is important, the Bible considers any moment of physical life lived apart from God to be true death.
In all of this, Adam and Eve lose relationship with God in the Garden, and are exiled. This is an archetypal way of saying we all lose our innocence when we turn from God. We are all born mortal; we are all born into sinful existence, but there is a point that Christ never underwent but we do, a point where we embrace that sin for ourselves, and that is the point when we embrace true death.
This is where physical death and spiritual death are connected. Since we all have fallen and turned from God, the limit of our lives is seen with fear. This fear comes from understanding the limit of our lives through our quest for own immortality (which we will fail at, as our mortality reminds) and through our own disobedience.
The funerals that I have done where the person was not a very good person, have been the most bitter. There is unresolved pain on the part of their loved ones, regret and resentment. Death becomes the terminal reminder of the unfixed brokenness of their relationships.
Understood apart for God, the end point of our lives is anguish. The presence of a loved one’s life is now absent, a vacuum of meaning, propelling all the bizarre emotions of grief. Grief is a weird thing. You can feel happiness over the joyful memories of a loved one’s life, then sadness over them not being around anymore. You can feel gratitude over the gift of their life, then anger and guilt over the “what if’s” of not cherishing them more. The weird thing about grief is that you can feel all these emotions all at once. If you have ever lost a loved one close to you, you know what I am talking about.
(b) It is because of this pain of death that all people, Christian or otherwise, see death as an obstacle.
This is important because from a purely materialist point of view, we humans die and that is it. It is a biological fact, and if science is the only way to see the world, it is a fact that we just need to accept. Why is it preferable to live versus no life if both are biological facts? Why does life have any more value than things that are inanimate? There is no ultimate answer in that scheme. Like Is said, it is only through the lens of faith that the bitterness of death even makes sense.
Christians see death as something that does not belong in this world ultimately. We are mortal, yes, but God wants to bring us into something more than that, after that. It is then that death is seen as an enemy, getting in the way of the fullness of life God wants for us:
The dead do not praise the Lord,
Nor do any that go down into silence.
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
Or your faithfulness in destruction?
Are you wonders known in the darkness
Or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
It is natural for all people, Christian or otherwise, to fear death, but for different reasons. Fear of death has driven humans to do wonderful and terrible things. Wonderful things like build civilizations, organizing ourselves to protect ourselves from disaster, invent medicine, develop structures that ensure common good and well-being, etc.
It has also caused us to do terrible things. We have tried to find immortality apart from God. Men have deified themselves through technology as I just said.
Here is a question: what if scientists do uncover the gene that stops senescence, that stops aging? What if they are able to procure immortality? Does that render what we are thinking about null and void? Does that make God unnecessary?
Sadly, I think some people look to God as their “fire insurance.” They love God not because of who he is, but what they can get out of him. God is the cosmic “get out of jail free card,” the divine equivalent of death insurance. If that is your reason for believing in God, then ya, that would be a crisis.
But consider the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila: “If there were no heaven I would still love you; and if there were no hell, I would still fear you.” In other words, Avila calls us to love God because God is God. We do not love our children for what we “get out of them,” we love because of the goodness of love.
Refusing to love God, for any moment, is death. It is death worse than physical death. The greatest tragedy is not our lives coming to an end (our lives were at some point meant to do that), but the true tragedy is any life spent apart from God. That is death right now.
This is important for us now: Do we know that true life is living every moment with God here and now?
On the flipside, are you ready to get rid of the death in your life, the things that your have been keep from God, the sin in your life, and commit it to God? Are you ready to walk with God in a new way today?
This bring us to my last point..,
3. Death as opportunity
(a) We need God to reveal himself as a God that is with us.
We remind people of this often iat funerals. They might like the idea that God saves us or that there is an afterlife, they probably assume that from their religious upbringing that they have fallen away from. So, I recall them to the need to stand on revelation. We know our loved ones are with God because of how he reveals himself. God reveals himself to be love that is present to us in all the darkness of life and death: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death you are with me!” says Psalm 23. David knew this because he walked with God. David also says in Psalm 139:
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
In Jesus, God is with us in our sin and death. God became flesh, God took on our humanity, even our mortality. He was not born, immortal. That is important as well. Humans were always limited and mortal, even Adam before he fell. How do we know this? Because even the second Adam was mortal. He did this to show us true humanity in the face of mortality. God loves us in all the moments of life.
(b) Jesus has taken on the wages of sin to bring us life.
Jesus gladly bore the curse of the law, the consequences of sin to show that God’s will for us is mercy and grace. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
As physical and spiritual death are connected, Christ gladly bore both at the cross. Whenever we think our lives are worthless, that we have done unforgivable things, that all we deserve is death, God tells us in Jesus Christ “I will gladly die your death to bring you life.” Thus we can say, as paul reminds us,
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
How do we know God loves us? Because he showed us that he would die for us. He loves us more than his very life. How do we know death is not the end? The Father rose Jesus from the grave.
The cross cannot be understood without the resurrection. Death has been defeated in Christ, because the Father raised up the messiah. In Jesus, something amazing has happened on Easter morning. God is present to us, even in our physical deaths, such that death has been disarmed. The cosmic nothingness of death was brought into the being of God and surmounted into the joy of new creation. Resurrection is the vindication of Christ’s life and death.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
(c) This turns physical death into just another moment to walk with God
Do you know God is with you even in your darkest moments? Knowing this, walking with Jesus, knowing we have eternal life, reshapes our perspective on life such that we greet every moment as opportunism to walk with him.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” says Jesus (John 14:6). Nothing else beside that is consider true living.
It is so important that Paul would even say, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Funny thing, I know a friend of mine in high school, who we went on to study together to be pastors. He put that as his quote in his high school yearbook. people were worried that he was suicidal.
That is not literally true, but metaphorically. In Christian life, we “die” to our old selves. “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus,” says Romans 6:11. We die to our sins in baptism, to start living resurrection life, eternal life now.
Every moment you are dying, but I a good way, when you choose to embrace new life in Christ. Paul uses this metaphor, because it is hard. Giving up the past is hard. You have to leave it behind. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” says John 12:24.
(d) Death, the fear of death no longer stops us from doing what is right.
Death was the weapon of fear, used by tyrants to keep people in line. Death was the cause of fear, propelling Israel to seek immortality in idolatry.
In Jesus, death became a path to righteousness and true life. Jesus used the instance of death as a way of being faithful to the Father. Jesus used the instance of the oppressive Romans executing him, the instance of the Jews abandoning him, to show a way greater than hate, violence, and despair. As the murdered him, he prayed for their forgiveness, non-violent, self-sacrificial love for his enemies.
This is a similar calling we must take up.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matt. 16:24-26)
The great martyrs of our faith refused to see the fear of death as obstacle to witnessing for Christ. They became opportunities to be faithful no matter what. God gave his life for us, so how can be give anything less than our entire life for him? As the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier (d. 1528) cried out as authorities burned him alive, “Truth is immortal.” He could have renounced his faith, trying to live on a little longer. Perhaps repent of that later, knowing Christ might forgive him. That would be to miss out, not on physical life, but true life: living completely with Christ, even to the point of the privilege – no other word will do – of bearing our own cross. This is the truth that is immortal. That is, knowing Christ and witnessing his truth, is worth far more than preserving our physical lives at the expense of faithfulness.
This is the truth that we must live. Whether we face physical illness, mental illness, disability, old age, or worse persecution and the threat of martyrdom. Living is for Christ and to die is gain.
Someone asked me whether I like doing weddings more than funerals as a joke. I said, that is not always the case. I funeral for a person who has walked with the Lord their whole life is actually really pretty. There life is so encouraging. It is a celebration of life.
For many people I know, death has already been defeated. They live joyously with the Lord such that whatever life brings them, including the end of life, is just another opportunity to love the Lord. It is here that the truth of the Scripture ring out
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:55)
(e) So, we live in hope for the restoration of all things.
The earliest statement of Christian hope is in Acts 3:21: the disciples await God to return to restore all things. All that has gone wrong in this world, God promises to be put right again and then some. That is the total victory of God over sin that the cross signifies.
God promises to mature this world beyond death, to restore it into the universe he wants it to be. One day, Revelation envisions,
Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev. 21:3-4).
Some doubt whether God will do this, but we know that the God that brought this world into creation, has the capacity to bring it into New Creation. The God that defeated death in the resurrection wants to do something like this with all life. But God does not want to make that happen by just snapping his fingers. He wants to use his children, his way (self-sacrificial love) to bring this world fulling into his kingdom.
So, the question now is how will you live out true life? How will you live out true hope?
May you know the goodness of every moment spent depending on God your Creator
May you know that in Christ, God has defeated sin, death and the devil
May you trust that now, living out the power of the resurrection out now, awaiting the restoration of all things.
Amen, go in peace.
Some of the most important sermons a pastor can preach, as I have learned, are the ones that were written for himself. Today’s sermon was written for me. I needed this sermon this week. Undoubtedly, you might need to hear this word too.
In the 1930s, Hans Selye, an endocrinologist (that’s a doctor that looks at hormones in the body), was the first doctor to name perhaps a term that is sadly a pervasive term in our modern way of life: stress.
He was the first to realize that humans can have physical reactions to emotional worry. We are psychosomatic unities – that’s the technical way of saying that what happens in our minds and hearts effects everything else.
Before Selye, doctors treated people like machines. We are not machines. Selye found that worry can do all sorts of things: cause illness, abdominal pain, insomnia, etc.
I think Selye’s point implies the solution too: If worry over the world can cause physical stress, peace in Christ can bring us out of stress. What’s in our heads affects our bodies and what is in our hearts affects our heads.
As we rest in who Jesus is, we have peace in the face of worry.
What advice does Scripture give for those facing worry? Let’s look at Philippians 4:4–7:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
1. “Rejoice at all times”
I will say it again rejoice! We need to remember that when Paul wrote this he was in prison, awaiting trial. Paul would eventually suffer the death penalty for being a Christian. He was not unaccustomed to difficult circumstances. He had a lot to worry about and nothing but time to worry.
In Acts 16, Paul is recording as being stuck in prison, beaten and threatened with death, and yet, he sang songs of joy. It bewildered the prison guards. Those prison bars could not contain his joy. Being beating for doing the work of the Gospel could not get him down. It brought him up.
Yet he says rejoice at all times. Why? Was it because Paul was such a positive person?
Jesus said to his disciples in Luke, “Rejoice because your names are written in the book of life.”
Paul similarly says, “because Jesus is near.” He is close to us.
For Paul, no matter what has happened or is happening, Jesus Christ has risen from the grave.
Jesus Christ is with his people in his presence and love.
Jesus Christ has given him eternal life.
Knowledge of our salvation means we can greet every moment as the gift that it is, even if it is full of challenges. Every moment, even the worst of moments, are still moments with Christ.
Worry fundamentally detracts from the truth that every moment is a gift.
“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow; it only saps today of its joy” – Leo Buscaglia
2. In times of trouble, be gentle.
It says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.”
Why would Paul go from talking about rejoicing to exhorting gentleness?
Anyone who goes through stress knows why: When you are stressed, when you have worry, you are irritable. You are on edge. Additional problems, even small ones, can push you over the edge. Then you dump your frustration on someone.
And so, Paul encourages us to be gentle. Our world, our lives our messy and unpredictable. That is why we need to trust God’s grace and that is why we need to be gentle with each other.
Perhaps you have a stressful job, so you bring the stress home. Perhaps you have a stressful family life, so you bring it to work. Perhaps you take your stress out on your spouse; perhaps it is on those that work for you. This is why Paul emphasizes having gentleness on everyone. If you have one person you treat as a whipping boy, that is not true gentleness.
Are you gentle to others when your stressed? Or do you use stress as an excuse to treat people worse? People are really irritable when they drive. They also in thought aren’t all that gentle to people that, for instance, cut them off. If I am driving somewhere, and I am running late. If I get cut off, I don’t know what it is, but I automatically assume the person that did that is just the worst human being in the world. Do you do that too?
Here is the thing. I’ve caught himself driving, whether I miss a sign or something, and accidentally cut someone off. I give myself the benefit of the doubt. “I hope they knew I was in a rush or lost or something.” That’s a double standard. Anyone ever thought that?
Our world, our lives our messy and unpredictable. That is why we need to trust God’s grace and that is why we need to be gentle with each other.
Why have grace and gentleness on others? Paul gives another reason: Jesus is near to us. Jesus is our cure for worry, bringing us to joy. Jesus is also our model: in times of worry, be gentle like him.
Why should you be gentle in times of great trial? Because that is how Jesus responded to the anguish of the cross.
The worry of being betrayed, of being tortured, of being put to death by the most excruciating means possible by that day, – all with the possibility that the greatest tragedy would be for him to seek to preserve his life and fail in being obedient to the father’s will.
Jesus sweat tears of blood in the garden. Yet, his response to an unjust arrest was to heal one of his attackers.
His response to false accusations was honesty and even silence.
In the midst of people killing him, he had the gentleness to pray for their forgiveness.
Jesus knows a bit about what worry looks like, and in that chaos he was truly and perfectly gentle.
Gentleness gets portrayed as a vice of the weak in our fast-paced world. Be a shark, a go-getter, not a push-over. Be ruthless and assertive, not humble and selfless. Gentleness is synonymous with the cowardly.
But there is nothing more powerful in the world than gentleness.
3. Don’t Worry…Pray
6 Do not be anxious [or don’t worry] about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God
I remember one of the worst times of worry in my life was just after my father died when I was in college. I felt lost. I could not find a job (he passed right at the beginning of the summer, when you go and hunt for student jobs). I was back on rent. I remember eating just cans of tuna for dinner, because that is all I had to eat.
I remember enrolling in school for the fall at Heritage College, and thinking to myself, if I don’t get OSAP, that is a government student loan, I don’t have a way of paying for my education.
I got a job working at Tim Horton’s night shift. That was kind of depressing too. I had graduated with my undergrad and beginning a master’s degree and the only job I could find was a Tim Horton’s night shift position. Night shift is either busy in all the ways you don’t want it: dealing with drunk people that wander in wanting coffee to sober up or it’s the opposite: It is mind-numbingly quiet. That made me worry about my future.
All of it gave me a terrible sense of worry. I remember working away always having this heavy felling in my chest. I remember not being particularly hungry because my stomach always felt wrenched. This is what stress can do, as I said. We are holistic beings and what happens in our heads effects our bodies.
I learned a few things about financial stress. First is that when you are stressed out about money, you realize just how little in your life is actually necessary.
The opposite of rich is not poor. It is simply enough.
Second, I was reminded of the blessings of community. When I was stuck doing these really lonely nigh shifts, one thing that was really nice was that I had a few other friends that worked nigh shifts at other places: grocery stories and at a hotel. We would get together. He didn’t do much since there is nothing open late at night, but we just had fun together.
We would go for walks and talk. Since I would sleep doing the day and be awake at night our days were nights. We would walk around at 3 or 4 in the morning. It almost felt like you were in an apocalyptic movie scene. The city was so still: not car on the highway. I ended up finding it very peaceful.
Third, oddly when we have nothing, we can have moments where we feel far from God. Where are you God? – but also closeness with Christ. Christ had nothing in this life. He was a traveling preacher that did not own any land. He lived in poverty. He merely trusted his Father.
It is bizarre, but we can greet difficult instances in life with a similar mentality. Oh shucks…now I have to realize that I was always completely dependent on God anyway!
Some situations of worry are merely situations presented to us to emulate Christ.
What do you worry about? What is your biggest worry? Can you accept that as an instance where – just like the rest of life – we are totally dependent on God anyway?
Do not be anxious [don’t worry] about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God
Now, I have learned as a husband that saying to my wife, “Don’t worry” does not really help when my wife is worried. It does not help to say to a sad person, “Be happy!”
Just saying you should stop worrying is often completely unhelpful. You can try to will yourself into not worrying. You can try to distract yourself, which is just suppressing worry that is still there. Or you can do something that dissolves the worry.
Paul recommends prayer.
Have you brought your worries before God in prayer?
Sometimes when I worry I forget to prayer. What is the use of prayer?
“…by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” It can be translated more literally as, “make known your requests to God.” That is an odd way of saying it. God is said to know what we need even before we ask, so why does Paul speak as if God does not know here?
Do you have important news and you realize there is a pecking order to who first should find out and how should hear it directly from you rather than someone else.
If my brother or sister found out Meagan was having twins through the grapevine, they would be insulted. Why? Relationship demands communication.
God knows what we need, but he wants to hear it from us. He loves listening to us. He wants to be close to us. He knows that the very act of committing that thing you are worried about to him in prayer, is itself a solution.
“The answer to prayer is prayer itself” – P.T. Forsyth
Often we come to prayer wanting the world to change, but then we realize prayer changes us.
If you want the world to be at peace, your soul has to be at peace first.
If you want the world to become more loving, your soul has to be filled with love first.
The only way your heart is going to be any different from the world that it is in is if it is in a restored relationship with God.
My dad taught me a saying, “When you start worrying, you stop trusting.” The only way to trust more first begins in praying more.
4. You will have peace
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
I love that image that this peace guards us. Like an umbrella in a rainy day, like a shield against arrows, God’s peace in us guards us.
I remember being stressed out in college about my father passing, about money and not having a job and not knowing what to do for school.
I distinctly remember sitting on the porch of the house I lived at. I remember praying and slowly giving every worry over to God. In the midst of all of it, I remember thinking, one way or another, I know I am good. One way or another, God is still good. One way or another, life is still good. One way or another, I will always keep following Christ’s way of goodness.
I remember feeling that peace that passes all understanding. I remember the heaviness in my chest lifting. It was like a pain killer just kicked in (only better!), it was so dramatic.
Have you experienced the peace of God that surpasses all understanding?
Like I said, it is only thought prayer. Have you given your problems over to God?
Have you committed to following him no matter what? A clear conscience is peace of mind. Paul says this peace will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Paul is talking in the context of serving God here. As you commit to following Christ – knowing that this is better than any other way – I think you will know a certain peace of mind and conscience.
I am going to be a father to twins. Five kids.
There was a couple in my church in Bradford who had twins. I remember thinking, knowing that twins have to usually run in the family: “Jeez, I’m glad that won’t happen to me!”
Or we knew a family of five kids. I remember thinking, “Those people must be crazy.” I am going to be one of those people now.
I was at the house Tuesday, working on the sermon for this Sunday in my study, when Meagan called me from the ultrasound. She was really flustered. “Are you sitting down?” My heart sank. My immediate gut-instinct was that there was something wrong with the baby.
When she said, “we are having twins” I remember my stomach wrenching. I paced around my house bewildered.
I immediately texted my pastor-friend, Jason Tripp. Back in April, just after we found out that we were having a baby, but we had not told anyone yet, he texted me saying that he had a funny dream in which we were having twins. Isn’t that freaky? I had to ask him, “Did you happen to see any winning lottery numbers in the background as well?”
I had to ponder the meaning of all this. I was not so uncritical as to see it as a prophesy at the time, but perhaps God was just trying to warm us up to the idea in advance. God was just trying to remind us that this is apart of God’s plan.
That still does not stop you from worrying though.
Are we going to need a new van? How are we going to fit all these kids in our house? If it wasn’t noisy enough!
How am I going to balance work and home with Meagan?
Meagan had a midwife appointment right after that. Apparently at the midwife, the midwife told stories of woman who decided to have more kids expectantly getting chastised by their friends for not having abortions.
We live in that kind of age. But like I said, if our God is a God of life, then the most peaceful way of living is a way that embraces life. If life is a gift, in the biblical mindset, we cannot help but greet even unexpected instances of human life as something to cherish and celebrate.
It did not take long for my worries to turn to rejoicing. But it was not till later that night where peace really set in. I remember siting on my back deck late at night thinking. The stars were out. I was doing some reading. Reading often calms me down. The whole occasion continuously moved me into conversation in prayer.
I remember sitting there in the peace of the night feeling that peace that passes understanding.
You know what, with God, we are okay.
Father, I know that this gift of life is from you.
Father, I know that it is a blessing.
Father, I know that doing your will is the best way to live.
Father, I know you will take care of us.
That is how I overcame worry this week: Rejoice, be gentle, know that Christ is near, pray, and be at peace.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. – Romans 15:13
So, if you have been tracking with this review, I began by summarizing the story of The Shack and remarking how I simply do not see a lot that people should be upset about. It is robustly trinitarian, Christ-oriented, a free-will theology with forgiveness at the centre. It is a narrative written by a man who obviously does love Jesus, and has an amazing testimony of working to understand that through pain and suffering and brokenness.
In my second part, I noted that The Shack has gotten a lot of bad criticism. I think a lot of this comes from a mentality similar to the fundamentalist one I had, so I offered bits of autobiographical information where I noted the irony that much of what I thought was “conservative” in my more narrow tradition of upbringing, ironically, when I started reading broader in the tradition, was found to be unorthodox. Here we will explore some of the objections to The Shack to point that out.
Here we go… Allow me to put on my theologian hat, since technical objections warrant technical responses.
God as a mother: God appears as a woman named Papa. Some people lost their minds about this. However, the Bible does use motherly imagery, which I argue at length here. And it is important to note that if a mother’s love and femininity are good, they can and should be used to communicate God’s love and goodness. The same God is a shepherd, a warrior, a rock, and a fire. To refuse to use these metaphors undermines the goodness of women and replaces God’s love with patriarchy. Notably, there have been accepted teachers of the church, like St. Julian of Norwich, a gifted mystic, who records theological vision of God as mother in her Revelations of Divine Love. In The Shack, God appears as a woman, but that is because God appears to Mack, who had an abusive father, with the love that he already understood. By the end of the book, after Mack forgives his father, Papa appears as a father as well.
Non-hierarchical nature of the trinity: Some got upset at the idea that the trinity in The Shack is submissive to each other, Father to Son, Son to Spirit, etc. While Scripture does have the Father directing the Son, who in turn responds obediently, that is just one contour. Jesus is the Word of the Father, such that when you look at Jesus, you see the Father. Their identities converge. The Son has no authority but the Father’s, but the Father has no Word but the Son. John 17, one of the most clear passages of trinitarian relations in the New Testament, has Jesus saying that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. They glorify each other. It is reciprocal and reflexive, not one-sided. It is language of mutual possession similar to Song of Songs, “I am my beloved and he is mine,” or the mutual ownership of 1 Cor. 7:4. St. John of Damascus noted that the persons of the trinity are not individuals, but are persons through each other, thus an inherent mutually and equality is implied. Augustine and Athanasius both insisted what the one member of the trinity has and does, they all do together. This is enshrined in the Athanasian Creed. To depict mutual submission in the trinity, I think, is getting at the unity and mutuality of the trinity that the greatest trinitarian thinkers have affirmed.
Constructing a hierarchy between Father and Son is quite dangerous. It is often used to legitimate hierarchy between men and women, which is easily abused. Often, those that support this hierarchy also deny that there are women leaders in the Bible. It is very problematic when it comes to the cross as we will see, but it falls into a kind of sub-ordinationism. If God is God because he is sovereign and has authority, if you define God that way, then the Father has sovereignty and authority over the Son, effectively making him more “God” than the Son, which is why St. Athanasius resisted that so heavily. Does not the submission of Christ in his love, the tenderness of Christ on the cross show God as well? There is nothing the Father has that the Son does not. This also makes the death of Jesus, his weakness of the cross, a scandal to God. That is obviously a problem…
Not penal substitutionary atonement?: As I said, the unity of God in the trinity is very important. It is especially so for the view of the cross. Young wisely depicted the Father as having the marks of the nails. He is reminding us, perhaps unwittingly, of Augustine’s dictum: what one member does, they do together. Obviously not all of God died, or else there would be no resurrection, but the cross was a trinitarian act. The cross shows the entire character of God. If Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, there is no God that can be known apart from the cross. Father, Spirit, and Son are cruciform love.
Young seems critical of what is called penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Now, all Christians hold that the death of Jesus saves us from our sins, but there are many particular theories about how this happens. PSA is complex parsing of the atonement that emerged in the theology of the reformers like John Calvin. At its most basic, it holds that God had to kill a substitute, namely Jesus, in order to atone for sin. It is largely absent in the early church because they used other readings, notably a kind of ransom view. So, historically, there is more than one way to read the work of the cross.
Personally, I resist using language of PSA, not because there aren’t any passages that suggest aspects of it (like Gal. 3:13), but because the cross is understood by several metaphors and strands of logic, each valid: obedience, military , sacrifice, priestly, legal, ransom, economic, kinsman redeemer, etc. They are distinct but overlap, and offering one grand theory often sloppily forces the proverbial circle into the square hole. There is substitution imagery and sacrifice imagery that has nothing to do with punishment. In the OT, it is not commonly understood that the animal sacrifice (or grain for that matter!) is being punished in the person’s stead. If Genesis 22 has anything to say, it speaks more about God already in his mercy providing than God in his wrath needing something to punish. The sacrifice was not for God, but for human conscience (Heb. 9), cleansing guilt. Shedding of blood has everything to do with sealing an new covenant and cleansing, not necessarily punishing something. In Mark 2, Jesus is able to forgive sin by mere pronouncement, no sacrifice necessary, so the logic of crucifixion rests elsewhere.
I find there are a number of scriptural themes that PSA does not incorporate well. No one ever talks about how Jesus lifted up is a means of healing like the bronze serpent (John 3:14). It becomes extraneous. The fact that the cross discloses Jesus as the King of the Jews (God’s messianic identity), the Son of Man and Son of God, the true Prophet and Priest, all in event of the New Exodus, New Passover, the day of the in-breaking kingdom (Daniel 7), all that is shoved off as the husk to be peeled back to get to PSA. If it is skin and not backbone, why are these themes the very substance of the narrative in the four Gospels? The New Testament does not think in “theories.” It thinks in rich figures.
The Gospel of Mark fundamentally understands the cross as something Jesus’ disciples must do as well, which I find PSA often undermines (the cross is something only Jesus as sinless does). In Mark, Jesus is not propitiating God; he is giving a ransom to the dark powers, redeeming people from demonic slavery (Mark 10:45). And if the punishment of sin is merely death, there is no reason why Jesus had to die on a cross or be tortured. He could have died at home in his bed. Jesus is living out his teaching of becoming last for his disciples to follow, forgiving when sinned against in the most ultimate way, against the demonic forces of betrayal (the people/disciples), religious hypocrisy (the temple), and empire (Rome). It showed that God’s character and our character is not one where we inflict eye-for-eye, but turns the other cheek and blesses our enemies (this is central to Peter’s atonement theology in 1 Peter 2:20-25). This kind of love is the in breaking of the kingdom of heaven itself. Many conservatives miss that for the New Testament and the early church, unanimously, the cross was teaching Christians non-violence as the primary response to evil (see Ron Sider’s book).
Perhaps that is too complex for some. Let’s just stick with one reading. Young, I think, helps those that hold to a PSA word the doctrine more carefully (for an excellent modern statement of PSA, people should read Pannenberg’s in his Systematic Theology). Pop PSA too often makes God the problem, and no one should be happy about that. The cross came to heal us, not fix God’s wrath. The cross is not Jesus in his love saving us from the wrath of God the Father. Jesus is providing a way that we are not punished ultimately, yes, but it is not Jesus saving us from the Father. This severs God’s being. All of God is loving, including the Father, and all of God can be wrathful, including Jesus.
The Father did not abandon Jesus on the cross. This misunderstands Psalm 22, which is not about a sinner but about the persecuted righteous, the messiah, crying out to God for vindication (which the resurrection answers). This was important to the martyrs of the early church. The cross is the call to martyrdom (this is why Stephen’s stoning in Acts mirrors Jesus’ crucifixion in Acts), and the martyrs will enter eternal life. The Cross is Jesus’ way, God’s way, and also our way. It is the way to heaven.
God was fully present in Jesus at the cross. God was at one with sinners as the Son is showing the cross-shaped love of the Father for sinners. God in his love, one with Jesus, bore the penalty of the law, which was not functioning according to God’s will for it (so says Galatians – it was hijacked to only create condemnation, not grace). This tangibly shows that our sins were forgiven, that God loves sinners, and Jesus rose from the grace on the third day to show that the curse of death had been beaten. This is why the gospel has everything to do with the resurrection in Acts 13. So, here Young I think invites us all to word our doctrines of atonement better.
Religious inclusivism: The Jesus character in The Shack references how he is using all systems of religion and thought to being people to the Father. Some accused Young of pluralism. I think this is simple missional contextualization. God meets us where we are at, using the concepts we are used to. Think Don Richardson’s Peace Child.
If it is not that, I would insist, that some kind of religious inclusivism (that God’s mercy does extend beyond the bounds of the church) is completely acceptable. I would point out that religious inclusivism is implied in Acts 17, where Paul insists the Athenians are actually worshiping God already as the “unknown god” on one of their altars. Paul then invites them to put away idols and see God more clearly in Christ. He even quotes a pagan poet as evidence of this truth, that all people are God’s children. The Bible has an intuitive awareness that there are those that are outside the covenantal relationship with God that do in fact get it and do in some way participate in the kingdom of God, whether Melchizedek in the OT or the centurion in the NT. This does not undermine the missionary call of the church to make Christ fully known. While Christ is the only way, St. Justin Martyr, a second century apologist, held that if the Logos is eternal, ever-present, he is using all things everywhere to bring people into knowledge of himself. If they do not hear of Jesus explicitly, it makes sense that God, in his mercy, would judge them according to the amount of his truth they were told and accepted. There are, of course, difficulties with this view, but no more than the assertion that those who have never heard the Gospel will perish without any chance of believing. Call it liberalism if you want, but at the end of the day, inclusivism is the oldest view of the church, espoused by a man, one of the first public defenders of the faith, who also gave his life for the faith.
God as universal father: Central to Young’s theodicy is that God is a loving father to all people, trying to bring even Missy’s murderer to repentance. There are some that deny this truth despite it being explicit in Acts 17. Clearly they have never read Athanasius, On the Incarnation, who sees God universal fatherly love as part and parcel with the incarnation. I would argue this truth is the bedrock of Old Testament ethics and central to the Gospel as Paul sees it in Acts 17. I have argued for it at length here.
Universalism: The final objection I saw is that The Shack is universalist. This is true, not going to deny that. Young is a universalist, but I would point out that there are forms of universalism that are considered historically orthodox. Only one form was condemned at the Council of Constantinople. It was highly speculative and relativistic: “God will save everyone, so who cares!” There are noteworthy universalists that were upheld as orthodox like Gregory of Nyssa or Julian of Norwich. Norwich held to a hope that “All will be well.” It was a universalism of mere prayerful hope, which i think most of us do have, particularly at funerals where someone died under tragic circumstances. At the end of the day, we are all in God’s merciful hands, and we pray that the mercy we were shown as sinners will be the same shown to everyone else.
Nyssa is a more important case. Many western believers do not know him, but he was the most important bishop and defender of orthodoxy of his day; the “Flower of Orthodoxy” was his title. He confidently thought that universal salvation was the only logical possibility of God’s total victory over sin. He was not corrected because he was robustly biblical in his views and his doctrine lead him deeper into prayer, mission, and obedience to Christ. If we know a tree by its fruit, this sounds like what good doctrine should do! You might insist that there are passages in the Bible that speak about eternal punishment (he would insist that too), but what cannot be argued against is that Nyssa’s arguments were read and accepted by the community of the faithful. Their decision might be fallbile, of course, but the fact of their decision makes the interpretation plausible, the acceptable range of Christian faith. So entrusted was his judgment that he was a final editor the Nicene Creed (which notably says Christ will “judge the quick and the dead,” it does not say how!). Historical facts are historical facts. If orthodoxy is the historic bounds of what the creeds mean for acceptable reading of Scripture, there are versions of universalism that are and have been accepted.
Now, perhaps you do not agree with these readings, that is fine, Augustine would have probably hated Nyssa, but at the end of the day, both were accepted. That is the bounds of orthodoxy. Those that hold at the possibility that all may be saved and those that hold to the possibility of eternal punishment are both in those bounds. I would argue that both need each other to counter their extremes. We can never take God for granted, and we can never give up hope on sinners.
This is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy: it has forgotten so much of this history and reflection on Scripture. It has forgotten the breath and beauty of what the saints have to teach us.
Sometimes the people pointing the fingers have three fingers pointing right back at them.
For sake of argument, take a hardline Calvinist like John Piper. Now I think this guy has character in spades, and I do think he is a legitimate Christian, a great preacher and teacher, but if we are going to play the heresy hunting game with historic orthodoxy, I often get confused at the free passes Calvinists give themselves.
Piper, like most Calvinists, is an overt double-predestinationist, the idea that God elects some to be saved and others not, without any choice in the matter.. While a type of universalism was condemned (and many may accuse me of splitting hairs when I say only one form was condemned), so also was a form of double-predestinationism. Double predestination was seen as undermining freewill and God’s love, something that all the fathers saw as the supreme characteristic of God. Augustine’s radical follower, Gottschalk, was condemned at a local council for holding this, whose decision was treated as universally acceptable. Calvin was highly influenced by this form of radical Augustinianism. Yet, Calvinists really don’t want to talk about this.
Piper has gone on to insist that since God is fundamentally sovereignty (not love as the church has universally held), God causes evil for his own glory. To me this is a perilous opinion. How is God holy if he causes evil? If God is in Christ and Christ is sinless, I have a hard time thinking God would commit a tragedy humans are bound by the Word of God never to do in order to be holy. Also, I have heard him say that he cannot recite the entire Apostle’s Creed because he does not think Jesus descended into hell. He has reasons for this (a peculiar reading of 1 Peter 3), but the matter rests: he cannot affirm even the most basic statement of Christian orthodoxy, yet all his pals are okay with this.
Why is it okay? Well, the Bible is able to correct what we think is traditionally orthodox, which is what I think he would insist. I would affirm that too, but that means the term “orthodox” can become molded by the wax nose of biblical proof-texts. In principle anyone who argues something with bible verses against a creedal norm cannot in principle be condemned. Arian had biblical reasons for his theology, so again, the definition of orthodox as a historical descriptor must be maintained, even if modestly. Perhaps Piper is biblical, but not orthodox. Is he comfortable with this? Or perhaps orthodoxy is being applied with an uneven standard.
Perhaps orthodoxy is more than words.
I bring this up to remind the reader that I do think both Young and Piper are legitimate Christians, both of which with their respective imperfections. I am merely using them as foils in the naive hope that one day we might all actually have grace on each other. Perhaps a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven would be to have people of each other’s ilk coming together and just saying, “I get where you are coming from. I do see Christ working in you.”
Perhaps propositional orthodoxy is just one tool to gauge and nourish our relationship with God among others. After all, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). The second part is perhaps most important and it is in the heart.
Yes, doctrine is important, but remember that Peter confessed Jesus to be the messiah, yet he was then rebuked because the deeper meaning of that for Peter was a notion where it was a scandal that Jesus had to go to the cross. His correct confession did not save him from denying Jesus. Only Jesus’ grace saved him in the end. Words can only go so far. Good doctrine nourishes relationship with Christ and living out Christ, but it cannot replace it. There is no verbal test for having a heart that follows Christ. Only discernment can see if a person has a heart of humility, love, and forgiveness.
I met Paul Young once at a conference. He is a remarkably down to earth and a genuinely, humble guy. He told us that a speaking engagement of his was protested by other Christians. In the heat of the day, some of them were fainting from the heat. So, he brought out some water to them personally. They did not even know who he was, so he struck up a conversation. He revealed his identity to them, and asked, “Is there a single person here that has read my book?” Not a soul. He kindly asked if they would at least do that. He did not have a problem if they disagreed, but he would hope that they at least listened. They shrugged. As he went inside, he heard them go right back to their angry chanting.
I know some people that have great “theology,” but frankly do not have a relationship with Christ. They honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him. I know some people that have the heart of Christ, following him daily, that frankly believe some pretty erroneous stuff. Personally, if pressed, I would take the later over the former. I’d take a Christ-like heart over a person with Christian ideas.
So, here is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy, (it by no means applies to all evangelicals): a tradition that has often become so narrow and detached from the rest of historic Christianity, members of it anathematize positions that Christianity has long held. The obsession with being correct, its isolating and alienating mode, ironically, can deafen the ear and corrupt the heart, the true source of relationship with Christ and with others.
Don’t like the movie, The Shack? That is fine. It does have its cheesy moments. The book is not fine literature. Young is no Dostoevsky. Condemn it; refuse to read it; refuse to be open to what a fellow believer is trying to show you about Jesus, and frankly, you are missing an opportunity for a movie with a clear depiction of the Gospel to impact people. Your loss and others. But it is worse than that…
When it comes to The Shack, Paul Young might not have all his doctrinal ducks in a row (I wonder who next to God perfectly does), but it should be apparent that he does follow Christ and deserves the decency that implies. So many times Christians shun each other creating fractions in Christ’s body. We bicker while his body bleeds.
If to love a person in part is to listen to them, I know that the close-minded are often the close-hearted. If the summary of the law is love God with your entire being and love your neighbour as yourself, we have a lot of half-Christians.
As Paul tells us, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (Gal. 5:6).
Perhaps the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy is also the scandal of evangelical charity, a scandal we are all implicated in.
I have heard some really vitriolic criticisms of the movie, The Shack.
I am reminded of the parable of the emperor’s new clothes. A foolish emperor commissions new clothes to be made. They were invisible, a deception on the part of the tailors, but they tell the emperor that anyone who thinks they are invisible are foolish. So the emperor pretends he can see the clothes and scorns anyone that does not. On parade, an innocent child points out that he is naked, and the jig is up. The emperor realizes he is in fact naked.
Paul Young is that child, I think. The emperor is evangelicalism; his clothes the pretension to orthodoxy. Our children know our flaws better than anyone, and Paul Young, as a child of evangelical thinking, a pastor’s/missionary kid, is speaking from the inside. He is not an outsider.
Some of Paul Young’s testimony resonated with me. I was raised with a very conservative theological paradigm. I went to seminary, where we liked to joke, “Of course, we are fundamentalists, we just aren’t as angry as those other people.” But the truth was we were angry too. Anyone that held beliefs different from us, if they were significant, were wrong and worse than that, dangerous.
I have learned there is a big difference between “right belief” and “believing in the right way.”
Some of the biggest critics of The Shack have been Reformed Christians. Now, these Christians are our brothers and sisters. They often don’t recognize that, but that is on them not us. I’d prefer to take the high road. We have the same Gospel, just different particulars, but I would point out there are some particulars that I think are deeply problematic.
I do not speak as an outsider on this. In college, I loved listening to John Piper. I read Calvin’s Institutes and I thought Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology was the greatest contemporary work to put theological pen to paper.
Now, I think the only reason I thought that was because I had not read much else. Since then, I have read at least one systematic theology every year. For me I moved beyond some of my more ultra-conservative convictions because they fundamentally could not stand up to either the Bible, historical Christian thinking, or the phenomena of life itself. I’ll explain…
For Calvinism, since God elects some to salvation and others not, and there are those Christians that claim to be “Christians” (like those Catholics and liberals and people that watch HBO) but are not (grace was not enough for them), I had to be hyper-vigilant theologically. I found myself always angry and annoyed at someone’s theology, even disgusted. I did not want them to contaminate me. If there were people that were not Christians but thought they were, the only way I knew I was saved myself was to always keep articulating every question I had theologically, ever more precisely, and to stay away from those that differed (you can read more about my journey in learning to accept other Christians here). Questions over infra-lapsarianism or super-lapsarianism became faith crises as to whether or not I actually believed God was sovereign and therefore whether or not I was saved. Discussions like this all became slippery-slope arguments. Arminians denied God’s sovereignty; open theists God’s impassibility; egalitarians, God’s authority. I was very good a pointing out the proverbial speck in another, ignoring the proverbial log in my own.
I could not reckon with the fact that there were sincere, biblically-minded Christ-followers that did not think the same things as me. See, when I looked at a biblical passage, and had an interpretation I thought was by the Holy Spirit, I could not doubt that. Everything hangs on certainty. I have often said that a fundamentalist cannot ask whether or not they are truly wrong on a core issue of doctrine, because to do is to doubt God and to invite doubt about one’s salvation assurance. Self-fallibility is too risky, even if it is true.
In this scheme, I did not believe in justification by works, but that just meant I was saved by doctrinal works. I was certain of my salvation because of the correct ideas in my head.
This proves potentially fatal if you ever encounter an important yet ambiguous text, which was often in seminary, or change your mind, or just don’t know what to think. The Bible became a scandal to my own theology, whether it was the unsustainable idea of its inerrancy, the refusal to admit the existence of woman leaders, or passages that did not fit an impassible God. As I began to see some of my theological convictions being contradictory, I felt like I was losing my salvation.
In one summer, while that was happening, my “shack” occurred. My father died of cancer; my mother was also suffering from cancer. Several friends of mine went through severe moral and faith crises, which for their sake I will not go into (you can read more about the whole experience here). I was left penniless, working at a Tim Horton’s on night shift, wondering if all this Christianity stuff was even true.
I ended up having a remarkable shift where God encountered me in the abyss of my confusion. I realized that if God is love and God is in Christ, then my ideas of faith can fail, but God will still have me. It was a profoundly mystical experience.
That lead me on a journey to rethink my faith, since I suspected there was more to it than just one tradition that no longer nourished me. This is a hard thing to say to some of my Calvinist friends, who I do consider my brothers and sisters, but I find that this theology is so intellectually and biblically problematic that it induced a faith crises for me, yet still nourishes them.
Nevertheless, that summer I began to I read deeply. I went to the University of Toronto soon after where I got to study under so many different voices. In high school I was a fundamentalist, in college I moved to being a conservative evangelical, in seminary I felt like I was becoming increasingly liberal, in post-grad studies I read deeply in postmodernism and mysticism, by doctoral studies I found myself gravitating to the school sometimes call “post-liberalism,” which lead me to do my dissertation on James McClendon, a Baptist narrative theologian.
Along the way, I started reading church fathers, mothers, and doctors. These are the most esteemed thinkers and saints the church has looked to. I gravitated to the mystics: Dionysius, Nyssa, the Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart, but also Irenaeus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Anselm, and Augustine, etc.
One thing that I started noticing was that what I thought was “unorthodox” was widely held by those who were actively bound by creeds. When I told them about my upbringing, they looked at me recoiling, noting how unorthodox it was.
I found that, ironically, the narrow view of what I considered orthodox was actually not viewed that way by those who had read deeply in the tradition of historic Christianity and had strong conservative commitments to historic orthodoxy. What is “orthodox” here is the bounds of acceptable biblical reflection that the church over 2000 years has developed, using church fathers and doctors, councils and creeds. The sad thing was that the over-protective, arrogant, isolated, and suspicious mode of my past beliefs ironically made me closed to something the greater sweep of Christianity held to be appropriate.
Bonhoeffer once said that those that cannot listen to a brother or sister will soon find themselves unable to hear the word of God also. I think this statement is applicable.
Here lies the irony of those that criticize the “heresy” of The Shack. The notion that Young has moved beyond conservative evangelicalism is not abandoning orthodoxy; it is coming back to it!
I’ll explore this further in my next post.
The other day I got to participate in a showing of The Shack that our church, First Baptist Church of Sudbury, and Valleyview Community Church sponsored.
It happened in the beautiful Imagine Theatre Movie Lounge with its wonderful recliner seating (I am not being paid for that plug by the way – it really is nice!).
The Shack is a movie based on a book where a man, Mack, suffers the loss of his daughter. His daughter, Missy, is murdered, and he hates God for it. His life is beginning to unravel when he gets a card requesting his presence at the shack where his daughter was murdered, signed by “Papa,” the name for God his daughter used.
Mack goes to the shack wondering if the murderer is there, and Mack comes ready to kill him. When he goes there and finds no one, he lets out his anger at God. Shortly after in the woods, a man who we find out is Jesus, invites him back to the shack to have a weekend with the Trinity.
God the Father, “Papa,” is portrayed as female, a big black lady and the Holy Spirit is portrayed as an Asian woman, Sarayu. Mack is invited into fellowship with them. Mack is struck by the warmth of Papa, the relatability of Jesus, and the mysterious wisdom of Sarayu.
Mack learns that the Father is fundamentally love. Rather than seeing God the Father as distant and unforgiving, disconnected from Jesus – essentially being the thing Jesus saves you from – the Father is unified with Jesus, one in the purpose of loving humanity. The cross is the full disclosure of the love of God, all of God. Mack is surprised to see the mark of the nails on Papa’s hands.
Mack goes out to the garden and speaks with Sarayu. They begin digging a hole. Mack wonders why the garden is so messy and wild. The garden, Sarayu indicates, is Mack’s heart. Her work is wild and beautiful and creative and she is working in him, growing something that he does not understand right now.
A pivotal point in the journey is that Mack goes out on a boat. He begins to think about his pain and his loss, and realizes the boat is sinking into the dark waters. The sea is the primordial chaos of satanic sin, seeking to swallow him. The only thing that saves him is that he sees Jesus walking on the water towards him. He grabs a hold of Jesus and does not let go. After that is some, as I call it, “Christian cheese,” where Jesus and Mack goof around walking on the water. The point is theological: Mack admits that Jesus is the most accessible of the members of the Trinity.
Mack is taken to a cave where he is confronted with lady Wisdom. Mack angrily wishes God to smite the killer of his daughter. Wisdom invites him to sit in God’s throne and play God for a moment. Wisdom invites him to give judgment on who will live and who will die. Eagerly Mack sits, ready to pour out his ire on his daughter’s killer. However, Mack’s other two children are placed before him. Their sins are recounted, and Wisdom requests Mack to choose between them, who will be preserved and who will die. Mack is confronted with the fact that if God is a loving Father to all people, God still loves the murderer, despite his brokenness, and is working to save him just as much as all his other children, not wanting any to perish.
At this point, Mack is given a glimpse of heaven, and sees Missy enjoying the fellowship of Jesus. He realizes that God in his love has placed her in a place beyond the pain of her death, and this comforts him to know she is okay.
Mack begins to heal as he learns to forgive as God has forgiven him. In the process, Mack learns he has to forgive his father, who was abusive. Interestingly after he does this, Papa appears to him as a male. Mack needed healing to approach God as Father. Papa previously appeared as a mother to appeal to the love that Mack already knew. Now, Papa is about to teach Mack a new stage of forgiveness. Papa brings him to the place where his daughter’s body was hidden. Along the walk, Mack is confronted with the need to forgive his daughter’s killer. As Mack lets go of his hate, Papa then brings them to the small cave where the body is stashed.
They delicately bring the body back to the shack and Mack realizes that Jesus has been working on a beautiful casket for his daughter. They bring the casket to the garden, and Mack realizes that the hole he was digging with Sarayu was a grave to bury Missy in. Mack realizes the love the Trinity had for Missy is the same as his and that God was with her through all that she went through. They all have a little funeral service there together.
Mack leaves the shack with a new found love at work in him, which he uses to rebuild his fractured marriage and family.
The movie was wonderful: good acting and cinematics. It is a bit of a crier, with many emotional and touching scenes. Admitfully, a movie of this nature is hard to pull off. Depicting God as a character, let alone the Trinity as a black lady, a young middle eastern man, and a weird Asian lady, is hard to do with warmth. We expect either the comical Morgan Freeman of Bruce Almighty or the powerful austerity of the voice coming from the burning bush like in The Ten Commandments. To depict Mack engaging in a friendship with God, and to do so tastefully, is perhaps most difficult because we don’t often want to think about God that way.
The movie presented the love of God, the invitation to trust Jesus, the wisdom of the Spirit, the need to live out God’s forgiveness and love as a response to the problem of evil in perhaps some of the most clear and success ways I have seen in Christian cinema. I look at some of the crap out there in Christian movies, not to name names, but The Shack was frankly refreshing.
Now, some will say that this is just literature and others, the movie’s critics, point out that it is teaching theological convictions. Both are correct. My reaction to the theological themes of the movie, which I will take up next post, are same as the book. Several years ago I read the book curious as to whether it was “heretical” but was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. My reaction is the same: “Am I missing something? Why are people getting angry at this?”
If you want to understand the book you really must listen to Paul Young’s testimony here. People need to walk a mile in Young’s shoes before casting judgment. In deed, as Christians I don’t think they can do that without listening to him. The Shack is a metaphor for his wrestling with God, as a man that was the son of missionaries, thoroughly indoctrinated in evangelical thinking. We would be wise to listen to the views of such an insider. Our children know our flaws better than anyone. His father abused him and taught him a theology of shame. Later in life he was unfaithful to his wife, repented, and sought counseling. The level of vulnerability and emotional insight in his testimony is staggering. The counseling was so intense that he almost committed suicide, but through it, he finally understood God’s love and grace. The book was written as a present to his kids, never intended to be published at the scale it has achieved. For any critic of Young, even if you disagree with his ideas, I would hope they would extend understanding on a person that shows us so much about how to follow Christ through suffering and brokenness.
As someone who is a person that saw abuse in our home (my mother’s husband to her), as someone who did grow up around emotionally toxic Christianity (my father was a pastor’s kid and his father abused him), this movie is highly therapeutic. As someone that has experienced a lot of difficulty, especially in my college years with my parents dying of cancer, while I will get into it more in the next post, this movie has forgiveness and faith at the center.
That is, I think, what the book is about at the end of the day: A man learning about the love of Christ through pain and suffering, propelling a person towards forgiveness. Am I missing something? What is wrong with that?
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:9-12)
Here is another thing about living in Canada. We are obsessed with identifying with our countries of origin.
My grandfather on my dad’s side was a Dutch immigrant. My grandmother on my dad’s side was from Georgia. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a fourth generation Canadian, whose family came over from Scotland over a century ago. My grandmother on my mom’s side was, I believe, born in Canada, but her family was polish immigrants that moved from Poland to England then to Canada.
Yet, for some reason when people ask me, where does your family come from, I say, “I’m Dutch-Canadian.” My last name is “Boersma,” which means “farmer” in Friesian Dutch. I can’t speak that language. I have never been to the Netherlands, let alone to the province of Friesland. I can really only claim this ethnicity in a minimal way at best.
This year my wife and I got the long form census from the government. Personally, I was very excited to get it. I want to be represented in the statistics. Then my wife filled it out without me. I felt cheated. Anyways. If I were to fill that out, I would say: Ethnicity: White or Dutch or something like that; Citizenship: Canadian; Religion: Christian.
This is how our secular-cultural mindset has taught us to think. Religion is just something that effects this small area of your life. It is compartmentalized. It is something that goes on in your head. It only relates to one aspect of your identity.
That is not how the Bible sees it.
There is something powerful about what Peter is saying here. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation… Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
According to Scripture here how would we fill out the census?
What is your citizenship? I am a citizen of God’s holy nation, the kingdom of heaven.
What is your ethnicity? I am a descendant of Abraham. I am a member of his chosen people.
What is your religion? See questions (a) and (b).
What Peter is saying here is that because of the work of the cross, we are not just one religion. We are a new nation, a new people, a new ethnicity, a new family.
There is a fascinating dynamic in the Sikh religion that I think Christians could take a lesson from. When Sikhism as a religion broke off from Hinduism and Islam (it is essentially a kind of hybrid of the two), the began to forge their own identity.
Now if you know anything about Hinduism, it had a strong insistence on the caste system. You were born into a family associated with a particular profession of varying importance: At the top were nobles and priests, then soldiers, then various working classes. These classes were highly prejudicial. If you were born a farmer, you had to be a farmer, and you had to marry a farmer’s daughter. You could not become a priest or marry a priest’s daughter. Of course, priests entailed a level of respect that farmers did not get.
The Sihk religious leaders saw the oppression of the Hindu leaders over the people and tried to liberate their people from the caste system. They believed, similar to Christians, that all people are equal under God. In an effort to do so, they started removing their last names, which indicated what caste you were from, and replaced it all with the same last name. So, today, all Sikh men have the last name Singh (which means “lion”) and all women have the last name Kaur (which means “princess”).
Kind of neat in my opinion. I am not suggesting we all change our last names, but think about it this way:
What if on my driver’s license it did not say, “Spencer Boersma,” but rather “Spencer Redeemed-by-Christ,” (hyphenated of course), or “Spencer Christian.” Or something like that.
It would reiterate that our identity in Christ stands first and foremost.
In Revelation, Christians who preserve, it says, will have the divine name on their foreheads. That is a way of saying those that follow God are at one with his identity; they are extensions of his being, one with him.
Think about our identity that way.
Before I understand myself as Spencer Boersma, I understand that I am at one with the God who calls himself the I Am that I Am.
Before I understand myself as human, I understand myself as God’s creation.
Before I understand myself as male, cis-gendered, I understand myself as one with Christ.
Before I understand myself as White, Dutch, and all the other ethnicities a descend from, I understand myself as a child of the promises of Abraham, incorporated by faith not by works.
Before I understand myself as Canadian, I understand that I am a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
In an early church letter, the Letter to Diognetus, Christians were described this way. “Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.”
Every homeland, a foreign land, and every strange land, a homeland. That is how Christians live.
When you realize that you are first and foremost a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, you take the good parts of our culture and your leave the rest behind. You are ready to do anything, go anywhere, and be anything for the sake of Christ.