Sermon preached on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, at Billtown Baptist Church, NS.
On Thursday, a new national holiday will be observed: the Day of Truth and Reconciliation, a day to remember indigenous peoples and the tragic events that happened to indigenous children in the residential schools.
In June of this year, while we were all trying to get by from the pandemic, we learned of an atrocity that, for many of us, made our problems seem so small. The unmarked graves containing 215 remains of indigenous children were found in Kamloops, BC. Others have been discovered.
While this shocked many of us, indigenous communities have been fighting for awareness of what took place in these schools for decades. To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified 3 200 remains. They listed the names on a long red banner, and it was revealed in October of last year. Here is a picture of it, and as you can see, it goes around the room and out. It is so large. That’s how many. If you saw this as I did, I remember falling back in my chair, overwhelmed with the magnitude of this massacre.
These schools operated for over 150 years, the final ones being shut down in the 1990s. That means it is estimated that about 150 000 indigenous children went through these schools. The survivors face terrible mental health difficulties from these experiences. They estimate that the death toll to be somewhere around 5 000 children. In other words, there are many more graves yet to be discovered.
There were 137 of these schools throughout Canada run by churches. Most were Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United, but there were Baptist ones as well.
How do we wrap our heads around the fact that our nation, our churches, participated in something so cruel? How do we process the fact that these schools were operating in plain sight for over a century? It was not a conspiracy of a few individuals. There were reports, visits by other clergy, politicians, and townspeople. People knew. It was an act of systemic racism and genocide because it took many people, many laws and administrators, a whole culture of prejudice to do it. What words can we muster to talk about something so unspeakable?
I am going to suggest to you that we need to talk about God’s wrath. We cannot help but think about God’s anger, for if we don’t, the possibility that God is okay with these things, people doing these things to others, the alternative is worse: it makes God look uncaring and apathetic.
Many of us, however, have a toxic understanding of God’s wrath inherited from our fundamentalist upbringings. I am going to suggest to you that if we think rightly about the figures of hell and the fact God’s wrath actually flows from God’s love, we have a way of grasping this formidable failure of Christian morality. And yet, there is hope; there is hope for redemption and reconciliation.
In order to do that, I am going to read a text of bitter medicine. It comes from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 7:1-11, 17-20, 30-34 (abridged for time):
7 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord…
17 Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? 18 The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger. 19 Is it I whom they provoke? says the Lord. Is it not themselves, to their own hurt? 20 Therefore thus says the Lord God: My anger and my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on human beings and animals, on the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched…
30 For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. 31 And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. 32 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. 33 The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. 34 And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.
What I have read to you is one of the most important judgment passages in the whole Bible. It is Jeremiah’s judgment sermon on Jerusalem that he delivers in the temple.
Jeremiah is called the “weeping prophet” because he was called by God to give the people the worst news in the whole Old Testament: Because of the sins of the people, Jerusalem will fall.
What could have led them to that point?
Jeremiah, in this temple sermon, says why. The people have become so lax in their walk with God that they turned to idols: the gods Baal, Molech, and Ishtar, whose title was the queen of heaven and was celebrated with ceremonial cakes that Jeremiah mentions.
Idolatry in the ancient world was really an attempt to barter with the gods, to get power and prosperity out of them, forgetting God is the only true God.
The way of God is a sharp rebuke of this: God is already on our side; we now just need to follow his way if we want good things in our lives because the right way is the best way. Goodness begets goodness, and God’s justice is good for everyone. We can’t manipulate God out of doing the right thing. We can’t butter him up with long prayers or church services. God simply says, repent and do good.
Justice is always hard work, especially compared to idols that offer a seductive bargain: if you give this to Baal or Molech, then you will be blessed without having to be a blessing to others. It sounds so much easier.
But the allure of idolatry is fatal: if you are trying to convince false gods of our delusions to do good to you, what is enough? Do you sacrifice more crops? Do you sacrifice more animals, even the ones you need to make it through till next harvest? Do you slash your body and bleed in the act of devotion like the prophets of Baal did in the time of Elijah? Or do you go even further and sacrifice the very thing, the very person you place hope for the future in, your own child, whom you love and care for?
This is what the people did. The idolatrous religions of Canaan demanded you sacrifice your child in the flames. With the growing worry of a new superpower in the east, the Babylonians, the Jews, after they prayed in the temple, took their children secretly outside the city to the valley. It is here, in the valley of Topheth, the valley of Hinnom, that the people did something unthinkable, a crime so terrible, God calls it an abomination. And he says that if the people tolerate the sacrifice of children in the flames, Jerusalem will have an ironically similar fate. Jerusalem will burn.
The people responded mocking Jeremiah: “We are God’s people. Jerusalem is where the temple is. That will never happen. God is on our side. We’re safe.”
The king, Zedekiah, ignores Jeremiah, and in his arrogance, breaks his alliance with Babylon, siding with Egypt, thinking God would protect him. After Jeremiah warns the king not to do this, God’s judgment was simply God saying, “Alright, have it your way.” The same callous hearts that sacrificed children was the same that sealed Jerusalem’s fate. Sin is its own punishment.
The brutal armies of Babylon came and laid siege. As the defences broke, the city was burned, and the people were pulled out of their homes, tortured, and killed. The corpses were set ablaze and left smouldering in the valley.
Jeremiah’s prophecy stated that there would be so much carrion and bitumen produced by the fire that he calls it a permanent, unquenchable fire.
In fact, writers like Philo and Josephus 600 years later speak about how the effects of the flames were still visible in the valley. The scorched soil, Philo says, permanently had sulphur in it, a lasting reminder of the inescapable inferno.
1. Places Reveal
In indigenous spirituality, their culture is not a written culture but an oral culture. For them, places are revelatory, for the land holds memory; the land tells a story, stories that are told and retold down through the generations. In that regard, their culture is closer to ancient Israel than ours, and perhaps we can understand our Bible better if we are willing to learn from them that places reveal things.
When my family and I were on vacation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, we stayed at cottages owned by an indigenous family in the unceded village of Wikwemikong. Each day we would explore a different part of the island. It has beautiful beaches, breathtaking trails, waterfalls, as well as villages with little cafés and shops. One day we drove into Wikwemikong. We were looking for a hiking trail, and as we drove just outside the village, there stood these eerie ruins.
This was the site of one of the residential schools. This was the old building of the Wikwemikong Residential school that operated from 1840 to 1963.
I read an account of these schools by a woman named Ida Embry. She tells of how every fall she would be forced to go to this school, her and her sister. The children were beaten severely with a thick leather strap for things such as simple as trying to talk to another in their native language. The children were referred to by number, not name. The curriculum openly taught them to despise their parents in an attempt to rid them of indigenous thinking.
Why did these schools exist? The first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. MacDonald, was one of the first initiators of the schools and said the schools needed to cut off contact between the child and their family in order to get rid of the “savage” in them. He believed this was his Christian duty to Christianize the world. These actions are a part of a long history of Christian imperialism and colonialism, where Christians felt it was their responsibility to take indigenous land from them and impose a Christian order onto their society no matter the cost. Put another way: it did not matter the sacrifice.
The people of Jeremiah’s time sacrificed children in the flames of the valley of Topheth to idols in order to gain divine favour. I am going to suggest to you that Canadian society has engaged in its own child sacrifice. Only the children were not Canadian children, nor was the land ours to do it on.
But they were sacrificed to idols. These were sacrifices to the idols of power, empire and colonization, cultural superiority and racism, idols that led Christians to believe their faith automatically made them the good no matter what they did, and that the mission of the Gospel could be accomplished by doing very things Jesus was categorically against.
Part of me wondered, why didn’t they level this evil place to the ground? But, this place stood as a reminder. Places reveal if we listen.
I have known a few survivors of these schools. I got to know them in Toronto, where I was the coordinator of a soup kitchen, as well as in Sudbury, where I pastored for five years.
The stories these children of God have told me have kept me up at night. The crimes of these schools are so terrible we don’t even want to think about them. They are so jarring; they are an existential threat to who we think we are as Christians and Canadians, what we believe about ourselves, and our responsibility to each other.
Are Christians always the good guys of history? No, not always. Is it possible that Christians can use the Bible and their beliefs to motivate horrific acts of hate? Yes, we have.
I am going to suggest to you, however, that if we don’t dwell in these painful places, repent, and learn what is necessary to rectify these injustices, we will never display a faithful witness in Canada fully. But more than that, we will never learn to love in a way God wants us to, to love the stranger as ourselves, to love the victims of our foolish beliefs. The God of Scripture loves the forgotten of this world and us also too much to let us get away with this.
We forgot about those unmarked graves. God did not. Those schools, those graves, are our Topheth. Putting it that way is certainly startling, but we must understand something else:
2. God’s Anger Intends to Heal
I apologize if you came this morning with the expectation of a cheerful sermon, but let’s think about these things more today because I have realized that when we understand God’s anger correctly, God is trying to heal us, not hurt us.
What is Topheth? It has many names in the Bible: the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna. Here it is called Topheth. It is a valley that stretches outside the city down to the Dead Sea, which also had a nickname that is a part of this land of judgment: the Lake of Fire. Perhaps you recognize that one from the Book of Revelation.
As I said, the effects of these moments of judgments on Jerusalem linger to this day, and that is why the fire was called the “unquenchable flame” or the “eternal fire.” When we understand the geographic figure of Topheth, of the valley of Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, we also understand what God is doing a bit better with what Christians have called hell.
The word, “hell,” is a European term that does not do a very good job at translating nearly a dozen places of judgment in the Bible. The doctrine of hell has been really one of the most misunderstood and abused ideas in the church. I will suggest to you it is because we have forgotten that it comes out of this history of the land.
I remember as a boy coming home from church being shaken by a sermon a pastor preached that if you don’t stay on the straight and narrow path, I will go to hell for eternity. I remember crying that night, terrified that I just would not be good enough, terrified of the thought friends and family or anyone could be trapped there.
Maybe you have had similar experiences. Perhaps you are like many modern Christians that just choose to ignore hell. Some of us are content to say, God is love, and therefore God never gets angry, and when we come to a passage of the Bible that says differently, we more or less just skip it and go on our merry way.
Many of us are content to think of hell as a place under the ground ruled by cartoonish devils dressed in red and with horns and pitchforks. It looks a lot more like European mythology than Hebrew memory. Many of us modern people are content to think of this version of hell in the same way we think of unicorns or leprechauns.
I did this for a time, but I just could not get around how Jesus uses this language. Jesus uses this figure of Topheth and Gehenna to warn people.
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that when we refuse to reconcile with others, we are in danger of going into Gehenna.
Jesus also says that when we refuse to deal with sin, it would be better to cut off our arms or eyes that cause us to stumble than have our whole bodies go into the unquenchable fire (that’s language from Jeremiah’s Topheth).
The fact that these scriptures exist and are even statements of Jesus breaks through our assumptions about what love is and what judgment means. Love is not about turning a blind eye to how we harm others, but neither is judgment about God giving up hope on us.
I never understood why Jesus, who has died for the sins of the whole world, who is perfect and has self-sacrificial love towards sinners, who reflects the heart of God, who Paul tells us, “desires all people to be saved” – I could never understand why Jesus gives these warnings. Not sweet, gentle, never hurt a fly, Jesus?
Then I became a father. As you already know, Meagan and I have five very busy boys. Being a dad is really the greatest privilege and responsibility one can really have. It is your job to do what is best for them and try to stir them towards the best future. But we all know we can’t control our kids, and sometimes our kids make terrible decisions. Sometimes this fact is exasperating, and it makes us, parents, angry. Angry because we love them so much. I can tell you the things that make me the angriest as a parent is when my kids hurt each other and don’t care. It is in those moments, as parents, we plead for our kids to stop. We word our warnings in the strongest possible terms in some hope our kids will take the consequences of their actions seriously.
One time my one son was about to hit their brother, and I said, “You do that, and you are dead meat.”
Another time they were really rude to one another, and I said, “You keep acting like this, and I am just going to take away TV forever.”
Have you ever said anything like that to your child? These are called hyperboles. A hyperbole is a statement purposely worded so strong it will grab the other person’s attention. Jesus uses hyperboles all the time. God’s wrath is his outcry so loud and so strong that God hopes it will break through our stubbornness and apathy.
Let me suggest to you that the images of hell work something like this. What seems to be happening here is that these memories from Jeremiah’s day, of fire, permeant, and unavoidable destruction, become pictures of the end, and God uses these to warn the people about the course they are on.
He does this, sadly, because we so often use heaven and salvation as a big cop-out. We tell ourselves that God loves us so much he will fix all that when we get to heaven. I don’t have to do what is right; God forgives me; I’m good. When that happens, God, like in the Book of Revelations, holds up this moment of the valley of Topheth (which in that book is called the lake of fire) and says, one way or another, you will have to deal with this. I love you too much to just let you avoid it. If you don’t deal with this evil, this sickness in our soul, what makes you think you can participate in the fullness of eternal life I have for you?
3. But Hope is Real
God’s judgment is often those moments God steps back and allows us to feel and see the consequences of our decisions. When we fixate on these moments, however, we are tempted to believe God gives up hope on us, that God has chosen some to be saved and others not, or that God does not actually love all people and want to save them. But the prophet Jeremiah says this in his book, Lamentations, chapter 3:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness…
31 For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.
Notice that Jeremiah warns the people with the figures of unquenchable fire but also comforts them, saying God’s love never fails, and ultimately God rejects no one. No one is cast off by the Lord forever. It even says that when he does bring punishment, he does so reluctantly, unwillingly. The prophet Ezekiel says God takes no pleasure in punishment. The prophet Isaiah actually depicts God as weeping as he judges the people, feeling their pain. That sounds a lot more like a loving father trying with everything he’s got to turn his children from hurting themselves and each other towards something better.
The images of Topheth, Gehenna, and the Lake of Fire are God mirroring our brutality back at us. But make no mistake, God is not brutal or pleased with torture, nor does he give up hope in us or ever stop loving us. Isaiah depicts God’s judgment fire like it is the fire that purifies polluted ore into precious metal. Malachi imagines the fire judgment of God burning the sickness of sin away like a strong soap cleansing infection.
We often fixate on these dire warnings, but these warnings must always be coupled with the promises of restoration: We can’t understand redemption without both.
Jesus uses these punishment images of Gehenna, but we must never forget that Jesus went on then and accepted Gehenna’s punishment on our behalf.
With these warnings, how do we know there is hope for us with these atrocities in Canada’s past? We can have confidence because God in Jesus Christ was the child of God sacrificed for our sin. He was deemed expendable by the religious authorities, who wanted to keep their power. He was arrested, taken, beaten, and brought outside the city, to a place in the valley of Topheth, a place called Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place of death.
It is there that God counted the murder of his son as a sacrifice for the sins of those murdering him. He died praying for forgiveness for the very people who killed him.
If we have any doubt that God loves sinners, even when we have done the very worst of things, we can look at Jesus and know, he has gladly taken the hells we have made, the ones we are trapped in, and he chooses to bear them on the cross.
But that does not mean we get off the hook for the wrongs done in our world, in our history, and in our society. It does something different. It says there is hope that we can overcome them. The God of second chances forgives us and is now giving us opportunities to make it right, to learn and to repent, to heal and to restore: others and ourselves.
If there is no darkness that cannot be overcome by resurrection light, there is no wrong of the past that cannot be amended with God’s forgiving, reconciling future. But God gives us a choice: confront the hells we have made, unmake them with God’s gracious help, or the hells we have made for others will become our own.
But there is always hope because our God is a God of hope, a God that was pierced with the nails of hopelessness itself on the cross so that all the graves that Death and Sin have scarred God’s earth with might one day be emptied into Jesus’ eternal life.
Jeremiah reflects on the valley of Topheth later in his book, in the light of God’s promises to one day save his people, give them a new covenant, and place the law of love in their hearts, renewing them, and he says this in Jeremiah 31: 38-40:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt for the Lord… The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes… shall be holy to the Lord.”
One day, these places of brutality and judgment will be healed and holy. The places of our greatest failures can be sites of forgiveness.
Let me suggest to you that if these graves of the residential schools are Canada’s Topheth, the hells we have made, it is a place of warning if we forget what happened there. But it will also be a place of hope if we remember the stories these places tell. It will be where we must look for how to repent fully, authentically, where God is sending us to carry out the work of reconciliation, where we as the church in Canada will find a new sense of Christ’s hope, a hope he has for us all.
If we treat these graves of these precious children as holy, letting their family’s laments be our laments, their battles for justice be our battles too, letting go of the idols of power and self-preservation, the arrogance that the face of Christ can only be found in faces that look like ours, these mentalities that centuries of Christians have held on to before us, to our own determent and destruction, if we do this – if we do this, God promises we will see glimpses of nothing short of heaven on earth, holy ground, the inbreaking of what Peter called the hope of the restoration of all things.
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. but when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Galatians 3:23-4:7, NRSV)
The year is 1591 in Scotland, a women named Eufame MacLayne is pregnant with twins and goes into labour. The labour is difficult, physically and emotionally taxing. It is painful. So painful that she pleads with the midwifes for relief. Out of compassion, they give her a strong pain-relief drug. She delivers her babies.
This might seem like a reasonable thing, but in the 16th century it was illegal to use pain-medication for child-birth. The ecclesial authorities learn of this crime, and bring the young mother, still recuperating from child birth before a tribunal.
Her crime: trying to lessen God’s curse on women. God mandated in Genesis 3 that women, due to their sin of eating the fruit, should suffer during childbirth, and how dare Eufame MacLayne be so obsessed with her own freedom and bodily autonomy that she would absolve herself of God’s punishment on her gender.
The church tribunal deemed her guilty. Her punishment was no mere parking ticket: She was burned at the stake. Let that sink in for a second.
Genesis 3 the woman’s pain in child bearing is increased, and this is a sign of the fallenness of our existence. The church in the 1600’s deemed it their duty to enforce the curse, to enforce our fallenness, to enforce the consequences of sin. I find that tragically odd. One would think it is the church’s duty and pleasure to undo the curse. One would think!
Notice also in Genesis 3 that as a result of the man and the woman choosing to go against God, turning in blame towards one another, our lives as gendered individuals are marred by competition, and sadly, but patriarchy: : “your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.” The companionship of one flesh in Genesis 2 is sundered into the barriers of sin: rather than mutuality, hierarchy, rather than reciprocity, domination.
Sadly, many churches to this day deem it their duty, much like the church did to Eufame MacLayne’s day, to enforce the curse, setting up barriers to women in ministry, refusing to recognize women in leadership, whether in the home or church or in business or in educational institutions.
The year is 1860, America stands on the brink of civil war between North and South, largely over the issue of slavery. The Baptist Convention, for those who were listening in Dr. Maxwell’s classes, has already broke asunder, as the North barred Southern Baptist slave-owning candidates for missionary work. Southern Baptist preachers defended the right to own slaves as biblical, and moreover, the right to own black slaves for they are dark skinned and therefore under the curse of Ham. Once again, it is the church’s duty it felt apparently to enforce the consequences of sin, rather than undo them.
The North, lead by Baptists like Francis Wayland, argued scripture must be read through one’s conscience, which deems it unconscionable to own another human being. The South saw this as liberalism. The Bible has slavery. “It says it, that settles it.”
The South, as history shows, looses the civil war, the slaves are freed, but in the wake of this defeat, many Southern leaders flow into the ranks of the KKK, and by night carry out brutal intimidation and lynchings, an estimated 5000 lynchings happened over the next decades.
We like to high-brow our American neighbours, but Halifax tells of its own injustices. In 1960, those who lived in Africville, had their homes and their church bulldozed, forcibly relocated so that the MacKay Bridge could be built.
In the name of economic progress, the land and homes of the marginalized are always a reasonable price.
The year is 2020 we are seeing this today, with the fight of the Wet’suwet’en over whether a pipeline can go over their land. If the Wet’suwet’en were White, would we be so eager to ignore their voice?
The dismissive mentality of many Canadians reflects an old habit of the colonizer who came empowered by the doctrine of discovery, that if explorers found a land not governed by Christian lords, it was their right and duty to take over that land to absorb it into Christendom.
It was their duty to re-culture the natives into Christian culture, the tragic folly of this is evident to us in the estimate 6000 children who dead in the squalor and abuse of the residential school system.
I want to tell you that these horrific things were done by godless people, by those that do not know the Bible. The reality is far more sobering: All these deeds were perpetrated by those who chapter and verse’d their injustice.
This truth makes this message all the more urgent today. It makes the work of your studies, of this college, work of organizations like Atlantic Society of Biblical Equality, the holy fellowship I see in this room, all the more necessary: The Bible must be read through the eyes of equality, which is the eyes lightened by the Holy Spirit.
1. We must read the Word of God with the Wind of God
This is a sermon that cannot stand alone for there is so many passages well-intending Christians have invoked to close down equality: Eph. 5, 1 Cor. 11 and 14, 1 Tim. 2. I can’t treat them here, and why I think there are strong reasons why they are often read out of context.
I would hope to impress upon you the necessity that we must read the Word of God with the Wind of God, Scripture by the Spirit: for “the letter of kills, but the Spirit gives life,” says Paul.
We must read the Word of God with the Wind of God. Words spoken without breath will be nothing but a mute whisper in this world.
Or as William Newton Clarke, one of the first Baptist theologians to consider biblical equality for women’s ordination, writes in his profound little memoir, 60 Years with the Bible, “I used to say the Bible closes me down to this, I now realize the Spirit of Scripture opens me up.” I would hope to impress this on you today.
Why? Because the Holy Spirit opened Paul up, in Damascus first, and then, here in Galatia.
As the early church expanded beyond Judea, the Apostles saw the Spirit’s reach exceed their grasp. The book of Acts shows the wonderful accounts of the Spirit disrupting and unsettling and spurring on and causing the church to reach out.
In Galatia we see Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus Christ and wanting to be apart of existing communities of Jewish Christians. But this created a problem: if Gentiles want to be apart of the people of God, a group called the Judaizers insisted they have to become Jewish.
How do you become Jewish? By submitting yourself to the law, which begins in its epitome, circumcision.
As Markus Barth pointed out, circumcision was the church’s first race issue. Here a religious command becomes a racial issue. Jew: circumcised therefore clean; Gentiles: uncircumcised therefore unclean.
How did the Spirit open up Paul? He realized that the Spirit is without prejudice.
2. Because the Spirit is without prejudice, we are justified by our faith
“Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” Did you do something to make God love you or did God love you and you just had to trust it?
Gentiles who were not circumcised, who were not setting out to live out all 613 some-odd laws of the OT, or to becomes Jews by circumcision, never the less, had the Spirit come upon them.
One should note, Paul does not have a problem with obeying what God has commanded here. People forget that Paul actually tells Timothy to get circumcised in order to be a more effective minister to his Jewish brethren. 1 Tim. 1:8 says, “we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately.” Obedience is not the problem, using the Bible to justify inequality is.
If you are obeying the letter of the law in such away as to delude yourself that this is why God favours you and why you are better than others, why it reinforcers your privilege and superiority against another, you have made the law do something it was never intended to do. And that is what the Judaizers were doing.
Paul responds, “no one is justified before God by the law, the just will live by faith.” He is quoting the Old Testament here. That is what the law is supposed to remind us of. Trust God’s mercy; trust what his Spirit is doing.
That is what qualifies us to be the people of God. This is what makes you a child of God. Period.
Paul then does something profound. Just as Jesus transgresses the letter to fulfill it spirit, Paul says, if that is how you are going to use circumcision. I’m ending it. It’s done.
We often fail to appreciate just how radical this is.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that “The Pauline question whether circumcision is a condition of justification seems to me in present day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation.” That is how radical, progressive, and revolutionary Paul was being.
Circumcision is considered the eternal ordinance in Genesis. But I it got in the way of knowing Jesus. If it got in the way of God’s love. It got in the way of what the Spirit was doing. Well, circumcision just didn’t make the cut no pun intended.
Paul called into question the very centre of his Jewish religion in the name of the love of Jesus Christ. Brothers and sisters, we have to ask ourselves, are we going to follow the Spirit, even if that means forsaking our religion too? I hope so.
3. Because we are justified by the unprejudiced Spirit, we must remove all barriers to equality
At the apex of the epistle to the Galatians, he offers this powerful manifesto: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
Jews and Gentiles are equal in Christ, therefore the physical restriction of circumcision, dividing the two, was removed in the name of what the Spirit was doing.
In Galatians the act of the Spirit is without prejudice in bestowing the gift of salvation, by it we cry out “Abba Father.” In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul lists the same manifesto before listing the gifts of salvation. Verse 12:
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit….
Jump down to verse 28 where he lists the result of drinking of the one Spirit: And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.
Notice that apostleship is in this list, notice that leadership is in this list. If the Spirit is without prejudice in bestowing the gift of salvation, by this same logic the Spirit is without prejudice in giving the gifts of salvation.
Equality of the gift and gifts is part and parcel with the logic of justification by faith. You can’t have one without the other. Because we trust that the Spirit has brought us Gentiles into the people of God, we can’t help but trust the Spirit also calls anyone, regardless of race, gender, or status, to lead his church. You can’t have equality without justification, and you can’t have justification without equality. Gift and gifts are one as the body of Christ is meant to be one.
It would be a gross error in judgment to think that just because Paul is working within society with slavery that Paul is not trying to subvert slavery.
It would be an equally gross error in judgment to think that just because Paul is working within a culture that saw women as subordinate, that his writings are not trying to gently subvert this either.
The church has not done well to notice this, but the Spirit is without prejudice, we are justified in equality, and that is why the physical barriers to this new humanity must come down.
Interpreters from Martin Luther to recent commentators like Ronald Fung have been content to say that this manifesto only pertains to spiritual equality. In faith, slave and free people are spiritually equal, despite one owning the other; men and women are spiritually equal, despite women being subordinate to men. In the words, the barriers to equality in our bodies don’t matter. In other words, dualism.
This does not take into account the bodily nature of circumcision. And if you don’t feel like circumcision has something to do with bodily equality, men, you just have to ask yourself: if a church expected you to be circumcised in order to be a member, imagine if they said that in the bulletin, would you really feel welcomed? The issue of equality is very much a bodily matter.
Women’s equality, racial equality, economic equality, they are all very different and need to be addressed in very different ways, and yet they are connected. We cannot have equality from one without equality for another. Why? We are all human. We did not choose the skin we are in.
I have no control over the circumstances of my birth: I could have been born female; I could have been born native or black; I could have been born in a country ravaged by corruption; I could have been born with a developmental disability or a severe mental illness. Let me push you further: I could have been born with XXY chromosome syndrome and fallen outside the gender binary. I could have been born with testosterone deficiency, and thus been bodily female yet a chromosomal male. That is exceedingly rare and our political discourses have surely marred this discussion, but the fact remains: I did not choose the skin I am in.
If that is the case, with the social barriers out there today, the stereotypes, we must all ask ourselves, if this could have been me, how would I want to be treated? Equality must be our guiding principle, empathy and conscience must guide our interpretation, because Paul says later in Galatians, the whole law is summarized in one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
And if we don’t, as Desmond Tutu once said, “If I diminish you, I diminish myself.” Because I could have been you. “We are a lot more alike than we are different” (Charlie Taylor).
Some see bodily differences as the reason for social barriers, the Bible sees our bodily differences as what necessitates the hard work of physical equality. Our physical differences are what makes the equality of the new humanity all the more beautiful.
4. The cost of equality is worth it
About ten years ago I was pastoring in another Baptist denomination that was founded in part by the rejection of women in ministry. I found myself in seminary zealously against women in ministry. Back before this in seminary, my first year of bible college, I wrote a paper why the egalitarian professor at my Bible college, Dr. Bill Webb, should be fired for his liberalism. A word to the wise, don’t ever write a paper about why your professor should be fired. My professor, a lady named Lisa Onbelet, very graciously asked me to rewrite this paper.
Yet, when I took Dr. Webb’s hermeneutics course, I found him able to give gentle, articulate answers about the scriptures I quoted at him, such that I found myself convinced. And this is good advice for anyone as we have these conversations: be gentle and be patient. Know your Scriptures.
Bill was eventually let go from his position, and we all knew it was due to his convictions.
When this happened, I knew that this would have consequences for me as I began to pastor. As I sat down with the leadership of the association I was apart of to discuss further funding for a church plant in the next town over, talk of ministry turned to talk of theology, and the leader wanted to know if I was in or was I out.
I could have remained silent, our first child, Rowan, had just been born. I was doing full-time doctoral studies, working 10 hours week as a TA, 10 hours a week as a soup-kitchen co-ordinator, 20 hours a week as a church planting intern. Meagan had gone back to school on her mat-leave to upgrade her teaching degree along with life-guarding in the evenings. We were barely scrapping by.
I could have stayed silent, but I knew that I couldn’t. I would not be able to live with myself if I denied my conscience and my convictions.
The association leader gave an ultimatum then: shut up and toe the party line or have your funding cut. I pleaded with this man for several hours over coffee to no avail.
“Why can we not centre our denomination’s unity and how we do the Gospel on something like the Trinity, who God is?” I insisted. His response, which I had to write down because I couldn’t believe it, he said, “No, Spencer, gender roles is more important to the Gospel than the Trinity.” For many Christians that is the case.
That night I said to Meagan I am going to have to fire up my resume and leave the denominational family my grandfather, Fritz Boersma, was a founding pastor. After dozens of resumes were sent out and no call-back, no church wanting to hire a doctoral student, but finally First Baptist Church of Sudbury called.
In hindsight this was a small cost in the end compared to women I knew that studied at this Bible college to realize no church would ever take a chance on them no matter how talented or passionate or godly they were.
There is still work to be done. I just got a message from a woman wishing me luck and she mentioned she was speaking with her church about why they can have women pastors. I realize I will never have to do this. I will never have to justify my profession or my vocation because of my gender. That is precisely why I am saying this now.
But it was a wonderful experience pastoring a church that had long supported women in leadership, cultivating a thoughtful open-minded community, but also I can tell you that while our denomination or congregations as a whole upholds equality in principle, it still has a long way to go in practice.
Whether it is women’s ordination or reciprocity in marriage, racial justice, indigenous reconciliation, hospitality to refugees, dignity rather than disgust for sexual minorities, or seeking to treat those who face poverty with the material support a person made in God’s image deserves, each one of these were weekly struggles in pastoring.
With every new face around the church came the question of what toxic, half-baked, youtube-google-searched theology are they bringing in with them. Many I found have built their entire faith on staying safe. Many love justifying social barriers with scriptures. Many Christians love treating the New Testament as the second Old Testament, shall we say.
There is that option pastoring and in preaching when you know a sermon illustration that the text calls for will upset important members of the church who are set in their ways and each month you know the church’s budget is holding on by the skin of its teeth, it is easy to just not talk about these matters and offer people a comfortable, spiritualized Gospel.
I was pleased and humbled to have First Baptist Sudbury grow well in my five years there, but I know it also came with one sermon after another where so-and-so wasn’t there the next week, all to find out that they didn’t like being “pushed on those issues,” and eventually “moved on” to the next church in town.
I also found pastoring that just as many women were opposed to equality as men were. For some, the notion of being restricted meant they don’t have to be responsible and don’t have to worry. The idea that God might call them to something more risky and vulnerable and messy, well, subordination meant safety.
After all, the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt, didn’t they?
Proclaiming God’s word will cost us. It will cost us in a culture that has fractured into tribes of self-interest. It will cost us pastors even more as we pastor churches that have too often created cultures that cater.
I worry that there are many that want to ignore this conversation on equality let alone our duty to uphold it. And from a worldly perspective, why should I as a Western, English-speaking, white, straight, middle-class, male be asked to give up something for people I don’t know? One might say, “White privilege? Life is hard for me too you know!” If freedom is the point of rights, why would I give up my freedom for another’s rights?
But for Paul, this is not his line of thinking, and it can’t be ours. His equality is founded on the God who took on our flesh, “born of a women, born under the law.” A God who gave up his freedom so that we could be free.
We are equal because the barrier of heaven and earth was broken, because the king became a slave, because the holy one took on our curse, the blessed one took on our cross, because the righteous one became sin, because the first became last, because God removed every barrier between God and sinner with his very body, so that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come… nor anything else in all creation, can to separate us from the love of God; because of this, we are one, we are free, we are saved, we are blessed, we are counted as God’s people, considered God’s children, inheritors of the kingdom of heaven itself. Living this out is our equality.
God bore the cross so we could be free, and now we must bear our crosses so that others can know this freedom.
Equality will cost us, but I also know there is so much more to be gained, when we see churches that embrace all the gifting of the Spirit regardless of race, gender, or status. This is when the kingdom shines through the beautiful mosaic of Christ’s body all the clearer. The cost is worth it.
Because the kingdom is Paul’s equality, he is able to say, I am willing to endure hardship, hunger, persecution, peril, even the sword, to make this equality possible for another, especially those whom this world as forgotten. He is able to say, for him living is for Christ and to die was gain. The cost is worth it.
May we die to self today, and may we embrace new life in Christ.
May it be the case for us today and hereafter.
Let’s pray. [Given the topic of this sermon, I am going to take a different form then the normative pattern of prayer to the Father in the name of Jesus, and actually, pray to the Holy Spirit as the Book of Revelation does]
Holy Spirit, Spirit of Christ addressing us now, Sophia-wisdom of the Father before all creation.
You hover over the deep of our soul with a creativity that formed the heavens and earth.
In you we live and move and have our being. We sense you in our midst; we feel you groan with sighs too deep for words over the state of our broken world.
Forgive us for neglecting you. You are the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. You make the equality and freedom we seek possible.
Forgive us for the ways we have refused to see the image of God in another. Be with the marginalized of this world. Give eyes to see them and ears to hear them.
Be with our female pastors, who face barriers our male pastors do not. Be with our pastors that work for racial equality, indigenous reconciliation and care for those in poverty. Call us all to work for equality in all forms, even if it costs us. No cost compares to the riches of your kingdom.
We thank you that by your love we are justified, by you we cry out “Abba Father!” Teach anew to read scripture with your refreshing breath; breathe upon us the fire of Pentecost to speak your Gospel to the cacophony of this world.
But remind us that the same gentle presence we sense here as we sing is the same that raised our saviour Jesus Christ from the grave. May we never forget it.
By you one day the earth will be filled with the glory of God as water over the sea, by you every knee will bow and tongue confess Christ is Lord in heaven and on earth and under the earth, by you, God in Holy Trinity, will be all in all.
Come, Holy Spirit, Come. We thirst for you.
In Jesus name, amen.