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.
There are many great passages that I could use to talk about the Trinity. One of the challenges, however, if anyone has endured a sermon on the Trinity and thought, “the fact that God is like a cloverleaf really isn’t all that reassuring to me,” is that the Trinity is hard to explain with just one passage. The Trinity, as I will say again in this sermon, is not so much a doctrine of Christianity; it is the very structure that all doctrines cohere in. For all intents and purposes today, that is like saying, you know how some people say you don’t see the forest through the trees? Well, with the Trinity, it’s more like we see this vast forest, and now, we have to explain that majestic, complicated forest with just one tree. That’s hard.
Yet, if I had to choose one passage to explain the Trinity, it would be this. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is at the last supper, and he prays for his disciples: Jesus, who is God himself, as John says, the Word of God made flesh, the logic of God’s being dwelling among us personally and fully, this person Jesus is praying to God the Father. Listen to what Jesus says to the Father and what he prayers for his disciples.
17 When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. 2 You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. 3 This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. 4 I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created. 6 “I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 “I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. 10 Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. 11 I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one…
20 “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. 21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. 23 I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me. 24 “Father, I want those you gave me to be with me where I am. Then they can see my glory, which you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world. (John 17:1-NRSV)
A Longing For Oneness
So, Jesus prays as one who is in the Father and the Father in him, one with God, but more than that; he prays that we would be one, share in this oneness as well. This gets to the heart of what the Trinity is all about. There is a band. You may have heard of it. It’s called U2. Bono from U2 has a song called, “One,” that goes like this:
Is it getting better?
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now?
You got someone to blame
You say, one love, one life
When it’s one need in the night
One love, we get to share it
Leaves you baby if you don’t care for it
Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without
Well it’s too late tonight
To drag the past out into the light
We’re one but we’re not the same
We get to carry each other, carry each other
U2 sings a song that speaks to this deep longing of the human heart. We long to affirm that we are one global family of sisters and brothers. We long to be at one with each other. And yet, we are different. And in our differences, we have competed against one another as if the resources of life are a zero-sum game, and in that striving against one another, we have hurt one another. We are not one with each other.
There is a fear that has pointedly inflicted us in this time of the aftermath of the waves of the pandemic. It is this feeling that a time of scarcity is upon us. The pandemic has had a cost in Canada of roughly a billion dollars a day. Last year (this is last year’s, please note), the US estimated the total cost today of somewhere in the ballpark of 16 trillion dollars. People worry: How do we get the economy back up and running? Will it ever get back to what it was before? Will I be able to hold onto what is mine? Will I keep my standard of living? What will happen if I can’t? Behind many political messages is the fear that in a time of scarcity, I am going to lose what is mine, or worse, I will have it taken. And it can be a drive to self-protection and self-preservation against others, whoever that may be, whoever becomes the scapegoat.
Is our freedom and meaning in life only found against others? Is this what it means to be human? Is this the right mentality to have? Worded another way: Is this what we trust about the way the world works and about our future?
I have learned that what we trust, we also worship. The word “worship” comes from the old English word “Worth-ship.” In other words, we worship what we are invested in. Whatever we trust ultimately is what we treat as God to us.
There is a simple fact that whatever we believe God to be, whatever or whoever is divine and ultimate to us, we will act like that God in some way. We become what we worship. And this means that each and every one of us has to ask this, who is God? What is God like? What are God’s character and essence? Do I trust? Because the answer to that question will decide who we are as a church, as a society, how we treat each other, and what our futures will be. So, who is God? Hold that thought for a second.
My son, Asher, is a very curious kid. The other day my son was sitting there at night in his bed. He asks the most random questions. The other day he was drifting off to sleep, then he perked awake and asked me, “Dad, if an earwig goes to your ear, could it get into your brain?” What, how is that the question that popped into your head?
Other times they are more spiritual in nature: “Dad, will we have skin in heaven?” Skin that is what you are worried about? The other day he asked me, “Dad, is Jesus God or is God, God?” To which I could only say, “Well, both…God is a Trinity.” I don’t think he was satisfied with that answer. It was kind of a theologian dad fail moment there.
I think my son’s question is probably pretty common. The Trinity is one of the most difficult and confusing teachings in Christianity. I want to impress upon you that it is also one of the most beautiful and essential. It’s fuzzy but fundamental.
The word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible (but, then again, the word “Bible” never appears in the Bible, either), and so some groups throughout church history have denied the Trinity. My grad student just wrote a great thesis looking at the movement called Oneness Pentecostalism. Anyways, this does not mean the reality of the Trinity is not there in the Bible. The word ‘Trinity” comes from the early church where St. Tertullian coined the term in the second century to explain that when he read Scripture, he saw God have a “tri-unity” of identity. The word names something that goes on in the Bible; it summarizes it and brings a central truth together for us. This is where Christians, especially we, Protestants, can’t be afraid to recognize that while we don’t consider tradition an authority, we don’t deny that it is good advice, that the great saints of the past do have lessons we can learn to help guide us.
So, the recommendation of 2000 years of Christians reflecting on the Bible would say yes. The Trinity is the best way to read the Bible: that God is one being who has revealed God’s self in three persons, each fully God, one but not the same, that the experience of God in the Bible is the experience of God above, God beside us, and God within us. But how does the Bible teach the Trinity? That is the interesting part. And moreover, it gets to what the Trinity means for us today.
It has something to do with what U2 sang there: this profound longing for oneness, the oneness of all things, different things, different peoples, brought together by love, forgiveness, equality, and solidarity, which is all found in the very heart of who God is.
Dorothy Sayers, the great Catholic thinker, once joked that she felt growing up that the Trinity was something theologians thought up one day to make life difficult for the rest of us. Some of my students might be tempted to agree with her. Ya, caught me, Sayers! Just kidding. But Dorothy Sayers also has a great line that helps provide a solution: One reason why I think the Trinity is so confusing and abstract and ultimately feels irrelevant (the theological equivalent of the appendix: it’s there, but we don’t know what it does), is because we forget that the Trinity flows from the experience of God in the narrative of Scripture. Sayers says if you want to understand the doctrine, you need to look at the great drama of Scripture. The drama is the doctrine.
The Drama is the Doctrine
As I said before, one reason why the Trinity is hard to teach is because you have to look at the entire Bible to see the big picture. Obviously, we can’t do that because I suppose you want to get out of here before supper time. So, let me do a few snapshots of the story where hints of God’s character show up.
Snapshot One: You need to look at the beginning in Genesis 1 and see a God who makes this world out of nothing, out of the sheer charity of God’s being. And God makes through God’s eternal word, and it says, God’s breath of life hovers over the depths, bring form out of the formlessness. Here God is this creativity that brings all things into being through an eternal logic of generosity, God’s word, and life itself is animated by the wind of God’s breath resuscitating, refreshing, and restoring. God creates, but he creates with. God creates with breath and word.
Snapshot Two: The narrative continues to Genesis 2. God makes humanity in God’s image, male and female, collectively. God is imaged through relationship. In Genesis chapter two, the story reads how God made the woman from the rib of the first man, and the man, who realizes he is alone and empty by himself, sees this companion and realizes he sees himself in her; he can’t be himself without her: bone of my bone flesh of my flesh, he rejoices. That is a profound statement, a subversive statement, for a time when women were treated as property.
This coming together in love of individuals who are different yet in love become one flesh–one but not the same–shows that already from the very first chapters of the Bible, we see God revealing God’s very self as creator by word and spirit, who are in a oneness, the very essence of which is love and relationship, and God makes us to share in this, to reflect it and to embody it.
Snapshot Three: Eventually, after being ransomed out of Egypt into the promised land, the people want to be governed by a king, and so God concedes and allows Saul and David and Solomon to be kings. However, as time goes on, we see the lines of kings fail. No human king can set right all that has gone wrong, and the people plummet into injustice and self-destructive corruption. But God is this liberating love, promises that one day a new king will come, a perfect king. But in the prophecies that long for this perfect king, there is a kind of hint here: No human king can be perfect. Only God is the perfect king. And so, these prophecies suggest that this messiah, this true king, will bear the presence of God. So, God promises a king that will be the presence of God himself. We read Isaiah 9 in the season of Advent: It says they will call him, “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” God up above promises to be God beside us.
Snapshot Four: As the story shows, Israel has a hard time keeping God’s law. Israel constantly falls away. And each time, there is this force, this imminent presence that comes and helps. This force empowers the judges to act formidably to protect God’s people, endowing them with wisdom and strength. It is like this breath from the original creation that breathed life into everything is resuscitating and re-invigorating God’s people with new life. This breath comes upon prophets to speak God’s word, his pronouncement. The prophet Jeremiah talked about the fire moving within him. So, the Judges and the Prophets sense this breath of God coming in them, moving them, empowering them to do God’s will. This breath is this mysterious agency that allows us to live out the word, the commandments, in the way they ought to be.
As God sees our hearts constantly captive to sin and evil and idolatry, God promises a gift of himself, the Spirit that sustains life will be poured out on human hearts and flesh to renew us from the inside out, bringing to fruition the fullness of life. So, God, who is word and Spirit, God who is relationship, this God above promises not only to come and be God beside us but also God within us.
The Centre Picture: This all sets us up the text we read earlier: Jesus appears on the scene as the Messiah, God Immanuel: God with us, the word from the beginning made flesh.
And Jesus keeps reminding the people that he is at one with the God they worship, who they pray to as the Father. Jesus is the Son that when you look at Jesus, the man who heals the sick, the one who commands love, the one who loves his enemies even to the point of dying for them on the cross, this is who God is. Love itself with us. And Jesus promises to bring us into this love by imparting his Spirit.
And so, he prays here in John 17 that this oneness that the Son has with the Father in their very being, the Son in the Father and the Father in the Son, perfectly equal yet different, perfect love within themselves and perfect love for all–this Jesus prays that all people will experience and participate in, begin with us. The Trinity is this longing to have God above come and be God beside us as well as God within us bringing us into the oneness of God’s love. The Trinity is this movement of love that wants to bring all things, everyone into the loves of God.
How Can God Be Three Yet One?
Now, I have to pause and ask: How can God be above, beside, and within? How can God be the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit without being three Gods? How can God be one being and yet have these relations within him?
Theologians have tried to solve this question for two thousand years, trying to get all the right terminology or the right analogies: God is one being three persons, God is like an egg or water or a cloverleaf. The problem with these pursuits is simply this: God is not like anything in this world. When Moses says, what do I call you?” to God in the book of Exodus, God simply answers, “I am who I Am.” God simply is.
Saint Augustine once said that the God that I can comprehend would not be my God. So, if you find that you have a hard time understanding the Trinity, you find it confusing and hard to wrap your head around, don’t feel bad. I think it is actually a very good thing. If we ask ourselves how God can be three persons in one being, we are simply left with this fumbling: I don’t know; he just is. I don’t know about you, but I find it comforting that there is nothing in the world like God.
We will not be able to understand what God is. However, when we ask, “What is God showing us when he reveals himself as the Trinity?” Here we get a different answer: this God who is ineffable, infinite, incompressible, this God loves us. This God is for us, not against us, and God is showing us that God is love with his very being, and we are invited in.
The Trinity Means God is Love
I did not understand the value of the Trinity until when I was pastoring. I had the privilege of meeting on a weekly basis for coffee with a woman who struggled with addiction.
Often she would describe times when she was failing at managing her addiction, and these were dark times. I would ask her: “Where do you think God was?” Her answer was clear: “God was not near me. H wants nothing to do with me in those moments.” And I would ask, “What makes you think that God was not with you? Who do you think God is?”
“Well, God is holy and just, and he is, I think, full of anger at me because of all the bad choices I have made. God was nowhere near me.”
Her image of God was one where God was not fundamentally love, and so, God was far away because God was primarily something more like a distant parent figure that was always disappointed with her. I wonder where she got that idea.
So, I asked her: “When you look at the cross, Jesus in the place of sinners, where is God there?” She answers, “God is up able, looking away.” I suspect she learned this from that song we always sing on Good Friday, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” which is a beautiful song, but it has a line in it that says about Jesus at the cross that “the Father turns his face away.” Nowhere in the Gospels does it say that. The Gospels are saying something much more profound: When we look at this man, crying out forsaken, bearing the weight of sin, we are staring at the face, the very heart, of God revealed.
If Jesus and God the Father are one, and Jesus at the cross is at one with sinners, you are seeing the truth that God is with us sinners. God was there in our worst moments.
To see the cross with the help of the Trinity is to know that the same love the Father has for the Son, God has for all sinners through Christ dying in our place.
The Triune God came in Jesus to say that I love you with my very self. What happens to you happens to me. We are in it together. That is my choice. However, what happened to me also will happen to you. Whatever darkness your life is stuck in, whatever darkness you have chosen. God is there with you. God has bound God’s very self to our fate to say, “I will never leave you or forsake you, for I cannot forsake myself.” And so, in those dark moments, God brings love and life and light, shining in the darkness of hate and shame and hurt and blame, and John says, “the darkness could not overcome it.” The same love that made and moves the sun, moon and stars, the eternal loves of Father, Son, and Spirit, invaded the corpse of crucifixion with Easter’s hope of new life. This is the hope we are invited into. This is the oneness that God longs for everyone one of us. May they be one as we are one.
The Trinity Means We Were Meant for Love
The Trinity is not just an abstract doctrine; it is a revolutionary truth of how to be human. We were meant for love.
Desmond Tutu, who passed away at the end of last year, was the Anglican Archbishop in South Africa, who opposed the apartheid, enduring threats and violence, terrible racism, bringing a message of forgiveness and reconciliation, receiving a Nobel peace prize for his work on the commission for truth and reconciliation. In his message, he preached the Gospel of God’s love for all, victim and perpetrator, justice and restoration. He used an African proverb to drive this home: Ubuntu.
What is Ubuntu? It is an African saying that people are people through other people. That is essentially what the Trinity is, only perfectly.
Ubuntu. In other words, we are all essentially connected. We cannot succeed ourselves without helping others succeed. If I diminish your dignity and humanity, I will have diminished myself. People are people through other people, reflecting a glimmer of how God is God through Father, Son, and Spirit.
There is a myth we have as westerners of the self-made person. This myth has gotten us in a lot of trouble. We believe as modern western individuals that our autonomy is so fundamental, moral obligations are burdensome, relationships are seen as an affront to our identity, and community is seen as repressive to self-expression and mobility. There is a saying that goes like this: “No person is an island.” Well, I think our assumption as modern people is that we are islands.
But this is where Desmond Tutu’s saying helps us understand the mystery of the Trinity that we are invited into. God is free and equal between Father, Son, and Spirit, through a relationship of perfect, mutual, self-giving, other-empowering love. It is through love that we are free. It is through love that we truly are ourselves.
That is a better account of how we came to be who we are as individuals and what we are as a society. Before we could walk or talk or even feed ourselves, we were nourished by the love of our parents, born into a society we did not choose but greeted our existence with order and stability, basic things we needed to flourish. These relationships, this connectedness, makes us who we are. As I think about it, as a Father and Husband, these roles define who I am. They do not monopolize who I am, but to say that I am less free because of these commitments and obligations, misses what Ubuntu is saying. True love ought not to be co-dependent. It sets boundaries and loves with tough love some days, and it is a love that is not afraid, to be honest. With that in mind, these relationships are freedom in a deeper sense: the relationships of our lives that liberate us into goodness, the freedom of love.
This is what God wants for all society. God wants us to realize that we are never going to succeed as a society if all we ever do is obsess about me and what is mine. We are never going to get through all this unless we learn how interconnected we all are.
What would the world look like if we took to heart these truths? The scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said that society was revolutionized when human beings harnessed the power of fire all those millennia ago: to cook meat, warn homes, sterilize water, see at night, refine and craft metal, to power engines. Civilization was made possible by harnessing the power of fire.
However, he says, the next age of humanity, the next revolution of human social potential–which we may be living on the cusp of–will only be possible when we trust the truth of love. If we accept the true potential of love, the power that is God’s very presence and being, if we are open to living that love out, allow it to permeate all levels of our society and self, he wagers the world we could build with that will make our world today look like the stone age.
That sounds very ambitious, but it begins with simple tasks. It starts with us, the church, the family of God. Mother Teresa once said, “I never tire of saying God loves you,” because she knew that in it, even the smallest act has the power to heal our broken world.
Do we trust this love today? Can we commit ourselves to sharing this love with others today?
Preached at Bethany Memorial Baptist Church, Sunday, January 30th, 2022, for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I, by my works, will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus, the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. (James 2:14-26, NRSV)
When I was young, I attended a little Bible camp for many years. I loved it. Set out in the woods, it was always the highlight of my summer there: the sports, the crafts, the campfire with singing and snacks afterwards.
But most importantly, as a Bible camp, they did bible stories. At the campfire, they would do dramas of different bible stories, and one person always told a story of a famous Christian like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Nickey Cruz. Those stories left a profound impact on my faith as a young person. It was at this camp, really, where my love of the Bible began.
So, when one of the leaders talked about baptism, inviting anyone to be baptized if they professed to believe in Jesus, I naturally came forward, all to have myself abruptly halted. “I would like to be baptized,” I said. However, the leader simply said, “Spencer, I can’t baptize you.”
I said, “Why not?”
He answered, “Because you don’t go to one of our churches. I can’t baptize you in good conscience unless I know for sure that you will go to a biblical church after.”
Now, for the record, I attended a Christian and Missionary Alliance church at the time, one that prided itself with being bible-believing. His words shocked me.
I remember protesting this with him: “Are we not all Christians here? Don’t we all believe in Jesus here?” His response was a bit sheepish, but his answer was, “Sorry, Spencer, that is not enough.”
That experience, as I think of it, was really the first instance where I witnessed exclusion within the body of Christ for myself. It was the first moment I became aware that just because we are all Christians, who believe in Jesus, that does not mean we all treat each other as Christians.
And as you listen here this morning, think about is yourself: what was the first instance where you felt demeaned by another Christian about your Christian beliefs? Or perhaps, can we be challenged to think about how we might have been the ones who did the excluding?
This week has been if you did not know, the week of prayer for Christian unity. It is a week where Christians pray in repentance for how we have so often divided the Body of Christ based on our faith convictions: Catholic against Protestants, and of course, Protestants against other Protestants, even Baptists against other Baptists in our own churches.
It is kind of funny that we put together this preaching schedule, John and I, just going passage by passage. Interestingly enough, this passage takes place on the week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I say “funny,” you might call that providential too.
James challenges us to live our faith, that we are rendered just by what we do. And we will see, the language of this text here is very different from the words of Paul on justification, which he says is by faith. As we will think about this morning, this text challenges us to live our faith but also live out our beliefs in the midst of the diversity of Christianity in a Christ-like way.
1. Seeing Diversity
First, I want to tackle what seems like a point of diversity and tension in the Bible. James calls us to live our faith. He puts it in pretty strong terms. He says, So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead… You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Here a scripture says you are justified by works.
Now, Paul in Galatians says, this: …a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
One says justification by faith, the other justification by works.
Martin Luther used this teaching from Paul to found Protestantism (and we are all Protestants because of him, by the way). Five hundred years ago, he protested the Catholic Church and its corrupt practices. Martin Luther saw how the Church was using sacraments to enforce their power, saying if you comply with this, if you pay money to us, we will give you forgiveness, and you or the loved one you pay for will be saved. Luther called this works righteousness, making salvation conditional on what you do. He saw what Paul was saying in his own day as applicable to his: Jewish Christians in Galatia sought to make Gentiles accept laws like circumcision to be members of God’s people, and so, the Catholic church was making certain things the requirement to receive grace. Luther’s protest against this succeeded, recalling the church to what the Bible taught, sola scriptura, by scripture alone, and the rest is history.
However, there was a kind of flaw in Luther’s argument. He argued for sola scriptura, but there was a scripture that did not quite conform to what he said. James says no one is justified by faith.
Martin Luther saw this passage, and he hated it. He called James the “epistle of straw” and did not think it ought to be in the Bible. It is ironic that a Reformer that wanted things to be biblical oddly did not want to listen to this Bible passage. Have you ever done that? Many of us are guilty of picking and choosing.
Why did he do this? I suspect Martin Luther assumed the Bible to be uniform. The Reformation as a whole certainly believed that if you just trusted God and read the Bible, one biblical view of things would always emerge with the Spirit’s help.
Well, as the years following the Reformation showed, that did not happen. One after another, groups like Anabaptists and Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals all looked at biblical texts with a passion for living out the Bible and came to different conclusions, splitting off from their previous group.
And what happened when they did this? Their tendency was to think, “Aha! I have the Holy Spirit, and I have it right. God revealed to me the true apostolic pattern that has been lost for centuries, and all those other Christians must not have the Holy Spirit, and they need to listen to this discovery I found, or they must be evil.”
Well, when they did not all agree, they fought and, in some cases, killed each other. Reformers hated Baptists and would take Baptists and drown them in rivers, giving them what they felt was their real baptism, terrible things like that.
The result of these religious wars and violence is that Western society saw Christians fighting over doctrine and said, “I don’t think we can build just laws on what they believe.” In other words, if we lament the loss of Christianity in the public sphere, if we lament that we live in a secular society in Canada, I don’t think we need to wonder why. It was our fault.
It all comes down to this tendency that Christians have not known how to manage, this notion that two sincere believers can come to the same text and conclude very different things. We don’t know what to do with that, other than by treating differences as dangerous:
You are either too liberal, too conservative, too traditional, too informal, too emotional, too rational, too this or too that. We are quick to label and dismiss, or worse, exclude.
In my experience, the two primary things Christians have fought about in recent years are styles of worship and ethics of sexuality. And if you cannot come to grips with the fact that there are good believers on either side of a debate, trying to navigate it because they love Jesus, we are only furthering this 500-year-old problem.
We have not been good at dealing with diversity. When we see it, we divide. To date, there is somewhere in the ballpark of 50 000 denominations of Christianity, who have all, more or less followed this tendency.
But what if diversity is not all bad? What if diversity is not always a cause for division? What if there is something about our faith that is naturally diverse? What if there is diversity in the Bible?
I think these texts have something to say about this. Some scholars have suggested that these two passages in Paul and James could reflect two views in what was really the first theological debate of Christianity. What is the role of works? What is the role of faith and the law? James and Paul answer it differently.
It is interesting that James quotes the exact same texts from the Old Testament as Paul does in Galatians, referring to Abraham and Isaac, and they interpret it two different ways. Are we witnessing here the records of two Apostles differing about their faith in Christ?
Of it is, that raises some interesting notions for our faith. We like to think that early Christianity was perfect, that they agreed on everything, that they miraculously never fought, never disagreed, never had to discuss and debate. They all just supernaturally knew what to believe about everything. Well, if we read the book of Acts or other books in the New Testament like these, we just know that is just not the case (and frankly, I for one find it oddly comforting to know just how weirdly messed up the church at Corinth was).
And if you look at a book like John or Mark, in particular, you will see that in the early church, there were different ways to tell the story of Jesus.
The Bible, the inspired Scriptures, contains diversity: different ways of thinking about Jesus and following him that the early church did not ultimately see as bad. Maybe God is trying to give us a hint with that.
And when it comes to a disagreement like the role of Jewish laws for the church that now includes Jews and Gentiles, Paul and James had to come together with the rest of the church, as it shows in Acts 15 and work it out. They had to come to terms with their differences. Now, we don’t know if the book of James was written before the events in Acts 15 or after, but the fact remains: in the Bible are two Apostles speaking quite differently about their faith in two different letters of the early church, which the church today draws inspiration from. Again, I think God might be giving us a hint here. Diversity is to be expected, and what we do with that is really the mark of what it means to follow Christ.
Now, the question is, how far do they actually disagree? For instance, there were groups in the church that did not believe Jesus came in the flesh and did things that harmed fellow Christians, and John says in his first epistle that this is too far. Clearly, there are limits to diversity, and we need to think about those.
When we look at the history of the church, we see the creeds of the faith offering decisions that I think provide helpful standards, classic summaries of what Christians hold as central. That does not solve it all, however. For instance, the Apostle’s Creed says nothing about how the church is to confront modern racism or climate change, but they are all part of the task we have as the church of discerning wisely together.
And, on many matters, there is a kind of range of views being worked out that is well accepted amongst Christians. And on this matter, as it goes with many theological debates with Christians, what sounds like a deep divide between how we talk about our faith, is, in reality, not that big of a difference.
I remember one time in seminary, listening to two students talk about eschatology (the end times) over soup in the cafeteria. One student said that when they looked at the biblical evidence, they just did not see a premillennial rapture. They saw something more like an amillenial kingdom. The other was mortified, and I remember them saying: “If you don’t’ believe in premillennial dispensationalism, I don’t know how you can be in the truth!” (Now, if you don’t know what those terms are, consider yourself spared)The important thing that struck me was just how ridiculous this was: I am pretty sure both still believed that their hope was Jesus.
I think something similar is happening in Paul and James, just in different contexts: Paul is going after Judaizers that believed you need to obey the whole law, including getting circumcised, in order to be one of God’s people. However, Paul very much believes that we need to obey the law of love, love our neighbours as ourselves, and live in a way that manifests the fruit of the Spirit.
And James, here it seems, is not interested in ritual laws like the people in Galatia are worrying about. His concern here is with the poor. If we believe that God loves the poor, if God loves anyone really, we will do something to help. And if you believe something, he says, we ought to live it, namely, just like Paul, by following the “royal law:” the law of love, love your neighbour as yourself.
So, James goes after a faith that does not do anything to help, whereas Paul goes after a view of the actions that make people believe they are better than others.
Yet both, however, are committed at the end of the day to humbly trusting Jesus and following him.
Both are committed that at the centre of the Christian life is living out love.
Ask yourself, if you have had a debate about your beliefs as a Christian with another: what are the things you hold in common? Are you really so different?
An old motto of Christian unity is this: In the essential things, unity; in the non-essential, liberty, but in all things, charity. Let that be your guide.
2. Living Reconciled Faith
So, we need to take James’ point: Faith is something we need to live. And when it comes to diversity, we need to live out Christ’s reconciliation. And if that is the case, we have not done in our works what we often believe.
Paul says in Ephesians 4:4-6 says, There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
James might get us to look at that and ask, “Do you really believe that?”
James says You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. The real difference is that we are willing to act on this.
Do you really believe that we are one?
Do you really believe if someone is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they are your brother or sister in faith? Even if they are a Catholic, even if they are a liberal, or even if they are a fundamentalist? Or whatever group in Christianity is the group you tend to have very little patience for. They share in this oneness, and we need to live accordingly.
It is one thing if we all call ourselves Christians. James might say. It is quite another whether we actually treat each other as Christians.
The opposite is a dark path of believing only people like us are the true believers, and everyone else is wrong, or worse, evil, and living out our days in an ever-shrinking echo chamber of our own making.
This does not mean that we compromise on what we think is true and good. It does not mean that just because someone calls themselves Christians, we give them a free pass to believe anything they want.
I say that as a person that had to leave the Baptist denomination my grandfather helped found because I became convicted that God’s kingdom means equality between men and women and that women should be ordained. After I was given a threat that if I kept speaking about this, I would lose my funding as a church planter, I realized I had to leave for a denomination that did support women’s equality.
And if you have ever had to leave a church family, you will know these moments are painful. We have to be wise on what we take our stands on and be diligent to be healers of the wounds that mar the body of Christ.
There are things we need to take a stand on, but that does not mean seeing those who differ from us as evil or stupid, and hopefully, we can navigate these tensions with gentleness, patience and peace.
Other times, our differences should not get in the way of Gospel work. I remember when I worked at a soup kitchen. This ministry attached Christians from all different strips. And it always struck me that when we centred on the task at hand of helping those who were in need, our differences always felt smaller.
So, I will repeat this, realizing that Christianity is a diverse place does not mean we compromise on the truth, but it does mean we go about the truth a different way.
It might mean giving the benefit of the doubt before judging.
It might mean having some sense that we are just as fallible, and we need to listen.
It might mean taking steps to be patient and forgiving.
It might mean being tolerant and focusing on our shared tasks of caring for others.
All of this speaks again of what James is challenging us with: we need to put our faith into practice. We need to step up and do the work of listening and discerning, confessing and repenting, forgiving and reconciling.
It means treating people like family, knowing that God is bringing together all peoples into one family through what Jesus Christ has done for us.
3. Witnessing the Spirit in Unity
Only then will we welcome differences not as dangerous but as a reflection of what the Spirit started doing at Pentecost, bringing people together as members of many tribes and nations, languages and ways of thinking, into God’s family.
Can we allow ourselves to be open to this?
I remember one event where the Spirit moved in this way. It was at a unity service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity seven years ago. I was pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. Our church participated in the ecumenical service for several years before that, but I suspected we did that as some way of showing the other churches just how much more biblical we were than them. Well, over the years, that didn’t quite work out that way. Members of our church got to know members of the Catholic, United, and Anglican churches, and different members attended each other’s events. In a small town like Garson, that meant we all started saying hi to one another at the grocery store and being neighbourly to one another. We all intuitively started thinking we were not so different after all. Maybe we do have something in common.
Well, that unity service, held at the catholic church that year, it is like this all bubbled up. I remember the one pastor gave a great monologue as if she was the woman from the well. And people were asked to come up in pairs to a pool of water. They were asked to say words of repentance, acknowledging how we have harmed each other, the body of Christ, and then make the sign of the cross with water over the other’s forehead.
I remember sitting there with the other pastors when I looked back and saw people beginning to break down and cry. Others were hugging, saying, “I’m so sorry. I am so sorry.”
I can tell you that I have never seen the Holy Spirit move in a room like I did that service, and it happened by a willingness of those in the room to repent and realize the people in this room, despite different traditions of Christianity – were all family.
Bethany Memorial Baptist Church, how might we see the Spirit move among us today if we are willing to reconcile with other brothers and sisters in our Christian family? What might our witness be in this broken, fragmented world?
What would the Spirit do if we are willing to let go of our arrogance, be willing to listen and learn, but also go forward together to care for one another and serve those who need help in our communities? I am excited to see what the Spirit will do.
God, our Father, who has brought us all together as a family through your son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us for all the ways we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves, and especially have not treated fellow Christians as family.
Let your Spirit move amongst us with a spirit of repentance and humility, a spirit of service and solidarity. Show us ways we can come together and live our faith in the Good News.
In Christ’s name, amen.
Preached Sunday, January 23, 2022, at Bethany Memorial Baptist Church.
2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” No,w if you do not commit adultery, but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.(James 2:1-13, NRSV)
In 2011, while I was studying as a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, I applied to be the coordinator of a soup kitchen one night a week a few blocks from Queen’s Park, if you know the area. It was called the Gathering Spot, a weekly drop-in food ministry that operated in the basement of Walmer Road Baptist Church, an old historic church in the downtown. I applied because I wanted a simple, one-night-a-week gig to earn a few bucks while I did my studies. What I got was a lot more than what I figured for.
That is kind of like what we see here in the book of James. This packed little passage will give us more than what we figured for as well. James is a book that does not let us off the hook when it comes to difficult questions about how we treat others. This passage in James gets us to ask difficult questions like Just who are the poor? What is our responsibility toward them? And have we failed at this? Have we forgotten and shunned those of different status from us? These questions are what we are going to explore today.
Who are “the Poor”?
So the first question: who are the poor? Growing up in a middle-class suburban neighbourhood, I never really saw “the poor” in any tangible way. I was aware that we were not rich and some of my friends had it worse off than me, some were better off, but that was about it. Some of my friends had smaller houses than me, and others had bigger ones. I grew up in a conservative family where common dinner conversation was complaining about taxes and about how poor people were just lazy and didn’t deserve any of our hard-earned money. So, I had an assumption that if you did not have a job, it was because you were lazy and if you were collecting unemployment or a related service, you were essentially a leech on the system. That is who the poor was.
Well, at the Gathering Spot, my job was the program coordinator. I bought groceries and helped prepare a meal. I greeted people once they arrived, and I put together activities after dinner, usually learning seminars on city programs or helpful skills like first aid or price matching. On an average night, we would serve about 30-50 guests, most of which were people who lived in low-income housing in the area, but also people who were homeless and found their way to the Gathering Spot. All of a sudden, every Tuesday night, the “poor” had a human face. It was startling. I soon realized what poverty was. The poor was a gay youth that his parents had kicked out and was now on the streets. The poor was a senile elderly lady, who had a successful career as a nurse, but now in old age started hoarding things and her family stopped caring for her. The poor was an elderly man with the intellectual age of a 12-year-old, but with no family and not “disabled enough” to require more help in the government’s mind, he was left on his own.
Who are the poor? As I got to know a lot of the individuals, what they were going through was mental illness, plus abuse, plus addiction. Inevitably their choices were their own at some point. And yes, there were dishonest people that just wanted to use the system, but even their stories were not just straightforward as I assumed. Everyone had a story. Poverty had layers.
Who are the poor? I realized that poverty is the systemic consequence of the loss of family. A homeless person is “home-less” well before they are found without a roof over their head. Many of the homeless of Toronto were mentally ill individuals that had been deserted by family due to their erratic behaviour, such that they did not have a single person that they could crash on their couch or lend a few bucks or whatever. I had to think to myself: If I had something terrible happen in myself where I lost my home or health, I could still impose on my two siblings or even my uncle and aunt or even a few college buddies that would help me out. I had people to fall back on. They didn’t.
Who are the poor? I think about the fact that I was born into a loving family. I was raised with discipline and responsibility. I went to good schools. I am able-bodied and able-minded. I was financially supported through high school and college. But all of these factors that contributed to me getting where I am, I did not choose. I did have to work hard, but my father modelled that for me. I could have been born into a family that cared nothing for instilling basic virtues. I could have been born into the foster care system, getting bounced around. I could have been born with a mental illness or with a physical disability. Or take the instances where a person acquired a disability: a car crash, developing severe depression later in life or something like that. That could happen to any one of us, and that could mean at any moment we could be without a career or livelihood in the traditional sense, dependent on the care of others. We, as people that prize our achievements and autonomy, don’t ever want to think about the possibility of becoming dependent and unable. If we really understand that many of the people that face poverty were born into the absence of a support system of family and friends or have been stricken with a lack of mental and physical ability, then there is that nagging possibility that this could have been me.
This is why James connects the love of the poor with the love of neighbour as yourself (even if your neighbours aren’t particularly poor): 8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” He calls this the “royal law” (the law that is king over all the others) – it is the criteria Jesus gives as to whether any law of the Bible applies and how it should be applied. Why do we love the poor? The logic is simple: because that could have been us. And if that is the case, we have to ask ourselves, if we can place ourselves in their position, what kind of society, what kind of community, what kind of church would I hope to be there to help me? Whatever our answer is, much like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, we are bound deep down in our conscience to then go and do likewise.
Have We Forgotten the Poor?
Working in a soup kitchen in many ways caused me to reevaluate how we are responsible to others in society how we may have forgotten the poor.
Our society wants to shun the poor. There are all kinds of reasons for this. The biggest, I think, is fear and guilt. There is a simple disgust at looking at a dirty homeless person. We see them and are afraid because they could be dangerous, we tell ourselves. But as I said before, I think the real fear is that their lives are unthinkable to us. The thought of being homeless is so terrifying, and the fact that it could happen to us if we had been born into a situation without family, with a circle of support, with challenges that make housing difficult. That could have been us, and we can’t even think about that. That fact scares people deep down, and so, we have to rationalize their situation to make us feel better: They obviously made bad choices, we tell ourselves. Just as the would-be friends of Job find it easier to blame than to help, it is because we cannot face the truth that calamity could have happened to us. Job replies to his friends, “Now you too have proved to be of no help, for you see something dreadful and are afraid” (Job 6:21).
If we get past the fear, there is usually an unproductive sense of guilt. The guilt of seeing poverty is that intuitive sense of feeling obliged to help but turning a blind eye. We do this often when we see a panhandler begging at a street corner, and we pretend not to see them. Or we give them some small token of money, which is more about appeasing our guilt than actually taking steps to help them often. And what if we did try to help them? Many of us would be overwhelmed at the amount of care many require: housing, medical needs, counselling, education, job placement, etc. The poor are a lasting reminder of the impotence of our civilization, our abilities. Ironically, the homeless make us feel powerless.
Frankly, most cities then decide that they just need to segregate the poor from the rest of us. Take the instance of Orlando, Florida, where it is now illegal to be homeless. If you don’t have a home, cops will just drive you out to the middle of nowhere, dump the person there, and tell them don’t come back. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it is illegal to give food to the poor on the streets. A 90-year old Christian man, Arnold Abbot, in 2014 refused to comply, and he went out to give out food and blankets. Cops arrested him, and he faced either a 500-dollar fine or up to 60 days in prison.
The government of Fort Lauderdale and Arnold Abbot illustrate two very different responses to poverty. One wants to reduce poverty by getting rid of the poor, the other by serving them. But we have to ask ourselves: Why take Arnold Abbot’s way? It can be uncomfortable, frustrating, even dangerous. And many of us know there is a strong likelihood that our attempts might not end with success. In a world that prizes autonomy, helping the poor is seen as too great an expense to oneself and even enabling those who refuse to “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.” In other words, why should I give my hard-earned money and time to those that I think won’t help themselves?
To ask this leads me to conclude that I think to care for the poor is made possible by something like a religious conviction. I say “religious-like” not because all religious people care for the poor – they don’t – or that only religious people care for the poor – which is not the case either. I felt a great kinship of goodwill with the atheists I worked with, sadly a closer kinship than them than with my fellow Christians, who were hard-hearted. I say religious conviction than because the drive towards empathy and service, whether in a religious person or an atheist, is spurned by a conviction that cannot be reduced to the world as it is. If it was, apathy would take over. The poor are just there, and that is just the way the world is: Too bad, so sad. We learn that true loving actions, as C. S. Lewis argues in his book The Four Loves, are “other-worldly” in some sense. Why should I empathize with people I do not know? Why should I experience unnecessary heartache? Why should I give at great expense to myself, not just a feel-good charity as guilt-relief exercise, but to help others that may not even say “thank-you”? The choice to care, to empathize, to serve beyond what we are naturally predisposed to do, what is naturally advantageous to us, beyond what we culturally are obliged to do that has to be in some sense a religious decision: a choice to act in the world in a way that is different than the ways of the world typically run. It runs against the grain.
Yet, sadly, as I said, many Christians have found reasons, couched in religious language, to forget about the poor. The “prosperity Gospel” is very popular in many streams of Christianity, far more popular than what we typically realize. Its central tenet is that if God loves you, you will be blessed, and blessing means health and wealth. Corrupt preachers have capitalized on this where, for instance, in the case of Toronto based preacher at the “Prayer Palace,” the pastors there have manipulated their congregation into thinking they should earn exorbitant salaries, drive fancy cars, and own mansions since this is a sign of God’s blessing. Then the preachers state that if people want to be blessed like they are, they need to give money to the church (to God, but really to them) and trust that God will bless them. While that is manipulative enough, the implication is that if you are not financially well-off, then God does not favour you. This means the rich are loved by God, and the poor are forgotten.
Of course, many of us know that this way of thinking is wrong, and we would never go to a church where a minister owned several mansions, hopefully. Let’s just say if there was a Bethany Memorial Baptist Palace, I would not attend it. But we all know there are subtle ways we forget the poor in our midst. We fall into similar mentalities.
I remember speaking with a church leader. While he was an honest person, he sincerely believed God would never forsake anyone who believes in him, and so, what that meant for him was that if you did not have enough in your life, you just did not have enough faith. I remember saying to them, “But what about the passage that says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…But woe to you who are rich, for you, have already received your comfort’ I remember him turning back to me scoffing, “Oh ya, where is that in the Bible?” And I said, “That is Jesus saying that in Luke chapter 6.”
I remember talking about our responsibility to the poor with a group of pastors, and I talked about what the Prophet Isaiah said: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7). I remember one pastor, not hearing that I was quoting the Prophet Isaiah, getting upset at me that I was promoting socialism. In his mind, that was obviously one of those Old Testament Scriptures that did not apply anymore. That struck me as a very convenient interpretation.
James, similarly, has to contend with congregations who are showing favouritism to the rich, and it sounds like they have created a few excuses for their apathy towards the poor. The example he gives is the treatment of people who look wealthy when they come to a church gathering. The rich are given places of honour. Meanwhile, those who are not being told to sit on the dirty floor. And from a worldly perspective, who’s to blame them? What church doesn’t want to woo some potentially generous tithers? Such wealth obviously means they would be good to serve on a management board or may even be deacon material, we tell ourselves in excitement.
I remember being told by one pastor who did church planting: don’t bother much with the poor of your area. They have way too many problems. They take way too much of your time, and in the end, they don’t have any money. You can’t build a church with people with no money, so let the poor be someone else’s problem.” Frankly, what he said explicitly many believe implicitly.
What is interesting about James is that he says that when we treat people differently based on their wealth, their social-economic status, we do something actually terrible: have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? He says. He calls this evil. He goes on to say this:
10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now, if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
A transgressor of the law? If you notice the way James is talking about the matter here, you will notice his rhetoric is subtle but severe. He talks about the neglect of the poor alongside those that commit adultery and particularly those who commit murder. Ouch. That hits hard.
Have we thought about it that way? I think most of us think of charity work as a kind of the cherry on top of what is required, something that is not expected, but if we do, that’s an extra jewel in our crowns in heaven. Many of us have inherited a kind of checklist spirituality, by which we measure whether we are okay with God. An old Baptist saying is, “I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t chew, and I don’t date girls who do.” That is a bit silly sounding, but many of us have these: I know I am good with God because I don’t sleep around. I don’t use bad language, even at work. I don’t watch HBO. I don’t get wasted on the weekends. Whatever that is for you. We can set a simple bar for ourselves.
That is not how James sees it. If serving the poor, including the poor, is the way that is most in tune with Jesus’ law of love, the way of conscience and empathy, the way that most honestly admits to the fragility of our existence and why we are bound to others in life, then going against that, well James does not mince words: Its not just bad or inappropriate or rude, but evil, he says. He begins the passage by asking: My brothers and sisters, do you, with your acts of favouritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? This is a legitimate question for James.
When you allow God’s word to do its work in you, you wake up to our responsibilities to each other in ways most don’t want to think about. Have we forgotten the poor? The worst night I ever experienced at the Gathering Spot was a night of a deep freeze in January (not unlike what we felt this week). In front of the store where I would get groceries, I saw one indigenous fellow who regularly attended. He had told me previously that he and his sister had been abused in the residential school system. His pain from what happened there was so much that he lived with a constant hatred of God and everyone else for what happened. He could not stand to go to a shelter. It would cause his anxiety to explode, and he would get in a fight. “What are you going to do tonight in the cold?” I asked. “Same I do other cold nights,” he said. He panhandled enough money for a bottle of whiskey. As the night fell, he would down it and sleep behind a dumpster. He would drink to the point that his blood turned to anti-freeze in order to survive in the cold. Can you imagine living like that, drinking yourself half to death just to stay alive?
What is our responsibility as Christians as well as Canadians to right the wrongs of the residential schools? We might be quick to say, “Well, I have never used a racial slur, or thought racist thoughts, or intentionally did harm to an indigenous person.” James might push us further: Ya, but what if that was you?
As I thought about this man, that same night, we had an above-average amount of guests, so the food ran out. One man came in late out of the cold, and you could tell he was hungry. A young man had lost his apartment because he unexpectedly lost his job. We scrounged up something for him, not much. He told me that he had lost his apartment and had nowhere to go. I told him where some of the shelters were, but also, I suspected they would be full by now. He figured he would try anyway. We prayed together, and he left. I remember riding home on the bus back to my home in Bradford. I wanted to go with him, to be honest, but there was a cut-off for the last evening bus from the downtown back to Bradford (which was an hour and a half bus ride away). I could barely sleep that night. I worried about him, and I felt terrible, going to bed in my warm home.
In the morning, I read reports that 35 people were found frozen to death throughout the city. It did not make the papers since the city does not really want to know about this kind of thing. When a homeless person is found dead in an alleyway, no one cares. No one wants to be reminded that the tax breaks they got from the politician they elected were made possible because they cut funding throughout the city to programs that people needed to survive. No one wants to consider that if people are freezing to death in our city, maybe in some way it is our responsibility. The poor are our responsibility, and sadly, we have forgotten them.
So What Do We Do Now?
James says, in verse 12, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
James hints that there is a way of obeying God, doing his will, following his way that is freeing, liberating, the law that brings liberty. Then he says that if we live without mercy, we will be judged accordingly. It is similar to what Jesus says about judging others: by your own standard, you will be judged. Or think of Jesus’ words that on the day of judgment, he will tell us, as you did to the least of these in this world, you did onto me. In other words, if you can live your life with a kind of comfort and apathy about those in need, God wants to prod us a bit, and said, what makes you think I won’t show you apathy then? The lord’s prayer says, Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. God is trying to say something here: If you really believe in God’s grace, forgiveness, and mercy, you have to show it. If you don’t, really saying that you don’t actually understand it.
We might be tempted to think that God is doing this to strong-arm us into being obedient, but the truth is that this is fundamentally a better way to live: the law of liberty, a rule or way that is liberating. When we show grace to others, when we are always ready to forgive, when we make room in our lives for those in need, putting others ahead of ourselves, while it is difficult, potentially dangerous, is fundamentally a better way to live. It is a way of living in clear conscience. It is living in the way that best appreciates that this is how God treats us.
Dwelling with the poor at the gathering spot also gave me some of the best memories that year. I watched people that had very little always be willing to give something, help in some way, or say a kind word. I saw some of the worst of human depravity, but also some of the best of human decency.
James remarks something: Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? I don’t think he has a naïve or too rosy view of the poor here. I remember meeting with a woman who had suffered from severe addiction her whole life long. I asked her, “What does your faith mean for you?” She said, “I know God loves me because he gave himself for me. I know I can’t get up in the morning without acknowledging his grace in my life. Without it, I can’t live.” I remember thinking, I am pretty sure I got out of bed and forgot to pray and got going on my daily grind of stuff. I was too busy that day to acknowledge my need for God when I got up. The thought occurred to me that I was the one, not her, that really needed to think harder about the nature of God’s kingdom. I had it in mind that I was there to help her, but I was the one blessed.
Christmas time was beautiful. Now my mother had died the previous year at Christmas time from cancer, so that season was something I was not looking forward to. I remember going into Christmas thinking the Grinch was really a misunderstood figure. However, having dinner – a feast actually that the kitchen manager, a frugal and stern but gracious Dutch lady named Marijke, made – was one of the best meals I had ever had. I tell you that lady could penny pitch and make the best meals with next to nothing. We ate, and we all got up and sang Christmas carols. Hearing a carol like “Joy to the World” sung by people that have nothing other than the simple thanks for a good meal and good company renewed my love of the season.
There is this wonderful permission to be yourself around people that have accepted they are imperfect. As I began to joke to people who couldn’t understand my work, I would say, “It is amazing how hanging out with mentally ill people each week keeps you sane.” I meant it as a joke, but it was true. “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9).
Loving God, God of the oppressed, the poor, the outcast, reminds us that our lives are fragile. That where we are is made possible by so many privileges. Convict us in the various ways we want to forget these facts and forget those around us.
Do not let us sit and wait for needy people to just show up in our church. Stir us to see the ways we can go out and meet them. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear the ways people cry for help, yet often without words.
Give us the wisdom to serve, to have big hearts, to endure the heartache of the tragedies we see in people’s lives. Allow these all to bring us closer to the mystery of what you endured for us at the cross in Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I got the email wondering if I would be up for speaking at Port Williams for thanksgiving, and I was told that Pastor Don would be away, it caused me to reminisce. This fall marks my fourth year here in Nova Scotia, moving from Sudbury, Ontario. It has been an eventful four years to say the least. Along the way, I am thankful for the friendship Don and Anita have extended to me. They were one of the first who called me up four years ago and said, “Hey you’re new to the area and so are we, come on over for dinner.” So, I am thankful for that gift of friendship.
Can I just say that it has been interesting to see Pastor Don climatize to being Canadian in real time? The culture shock has been a pleasant surprise, or at least that is what it seems like from his Facebook page. Now, I came from living in the hustle and bustle of Toronto, then pastoring in Sudbury where it was winter for a solid six months out of the year, but I think Don and I have both have had this feeling like Nova Scotia has been this refuge that we have both grown to love. Autumn in the valley is simply beautiful. Last weekend, my wife and our five boys – yes we have five boys (we had three and my wife really wanted to try for a girl and then we ended up having twin boys – three are with me today as my wife was also asked to play at Bethany Memorial to relieve their pianist) – but anyway last weekend we went hiking. We went to Noggins to picked apples and got terribly lost in their corn maze. I bought a caramel apple pie from there for later today.
We are so blessed. These are the words that ring in my mind this weekend, and I want to reflect more on what they mean today. I want to reflect on a text that I read this week with my son, Rowan, who we have been trying to read the Bible together every night. The passage, James 1:1-18, is about acknowledging God’s giving. I will read from the beginning of the book in chapter 1 for context, but I want to focus on the last verses.
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. 2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10 and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. 12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved. 17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. (NRSV)
James, who is very likely the brother of Jesus himself, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, one of pillar-leaders of the early church along with Peter and John and Paul, writes a letter to the Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman world to give them important advice about how to live wisely in light of the challenging times they face.
We are facing challenging times today, aren’t we (not that ours is the same)? It looks like they faced issues of division in the church, poverty and persecution, and to all of these, James recommends living out the character of Christ.
He begins this letter with advice on confronting the trials they face, but then he quickly addresses the rich and the poor. And then he makes a point of warning his congregations: “Don’t be deceived,” He says. Well…what are they deceived about? He says, “Make no mistake. Every good and perfect gift comes from God above, whose character does not change. But,” he says, “he has chosen us according to his purposes as first fruits.” If you read the passage quickly, it gives an impression like James is constantly segueing between several subjects, but they are actually all very connected.
People are facing trials where they are tempted to go another way than Jesus’ way. It sounds like staying on the right path will cost them, at least some of them, deeply, financially. Many are facing tough times. Yet others seem untouched by all this misfortune. And they are wondering, where is God, how is God acting in all this?
It kind of sounds like there are people in his congregations who believe God made them fall to temptation or that God brought calamity on them, meanwhile there are those who have made it through pretty good, and they are tempted to think God has done good to them more than others. Perhaps God makes some people rich, because he loves them more, and others poor, because he does not love them quite as much.
For five years I was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. This is a church about four hours north of Toronto. Sudbury was a cold place with very warm people. The church itself back in the late 70’s moved from its old building in the downtown to the area of Garson, which was a sub-urb of the city about ten minutes from the city centre.
The church moved out there thinking this would become the next up and coming affluent neighbourhood in the city. The reality was the opposite. The city built supplemented income housing there in an effort to move the problems of crime and poverty out of the downtown.
As I got to know my neighbourhood, I realized this was an area that struggled. A few moments really reiterated this to me. I remember one summer taking my kids to a playground behind our house. This playground overlooked on several sides a couple of different sub-divisions of the neighbourhood. There was ours, which was a group of semi-detached homes, then down the street were larger ones, a sub-division of newly built two story detached homes, but on the other side there were row homes and small apartment buildings, supplemented income housing and homes like that. My kids began playing with some of the other kids, and I joined in, playing tag. The one boy introduced himself. My son introduced himself pointed to our house. “We live just over there.” The boy turned and said, “Oh, you live there. My mom says that is where all the rich people live.”
I was stunned. My house was smaller than the house I was raised in. I always thought of our home as modest at best. But of course, that was my perspective, being raised in a middle-class family.
A part of me wanted to insist, “What? I am not rich! I work as a pastor! Pastors are not rich!” (Or if they are, let me just say, I have some questions).
I remember walking back home lost in thought. I felt conflicted. You see, I was raised in a fairly strict Dutch Baptist family. My dad was the son of a card-carrying fundamentalist Baptist pastor that came over from Holland. And there was a particular set of values instilled in me, many of them good, but they went like this:
Dutch people believe in hard work and that the life you live reflects that hard work.
A Dutch man is to provide for his family for this is the measure of being a man.
If you were poor, it was because you were lazy or not frugal with your money, pure and simple, and you needed to just man up and work.
To be a Christian is to be honest, have integrity, and to fulfill your obligations at work, church, and home.
If you do these things, these are the kind of things that God blesses.
God’s blessing means among other things, material provision, our daily bread and probably a good career with a pension.
God is sovereign, so God chooses what he wants to happen, and nothing happens that God did not choose. Somehow this strong sense of social mobility was married to this notion of God’s sovereignty, even though they actually don’t really go together that well.
These values have served me incredibly well, and I know as a father to five boys, I will teach them to be men one day that are honest and hardworking and of course to trust God. But when we stroll into the territory of God’s blessing, I never understood passages in the Bible like the one James just lists: “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.“
Well, that seems mean. What does James have against rich people? It is not their fault! That does not seem particularly wise given what the Proverbs say about hard work and everything else. Doesn’t God want us to plan and be frugal and save our money and work hard and through all of that enjoy the fruits of our labor? Those passages are in the Bible too, and I must say, I like those passages much more than this passage here.
But the reason for why James says what he says was illustrated to me one thanksgiving. As our church started doing outreach in the community. When I started pastoring, our church was that summer a dozen people, all easily twice my age. In some cases, three times my age. I worried about the future of the church, but I figured I can’t make this church grow, and I can’t attach young families to our church where there are churches with slick programs and staff in the area. So, I resolved to minister to those least fortunate in the community. We volunteered at food banks. I would drive people to the food bank and then take them out for coffee. I would deliver food to shut ins and we organized a community meal at one of these single-room apartment buildings. That meant over time a hand full of people started attending the church.
One person in particular was a man quite troubled. He faced a lot of mental health issues. He had no family. He lived in a one room apartment around the corner from me. I remember in church that thanksgiving Sunday remarking that I felt very blessed: a good home, good job, good family, health…I said I feel so blessed. Well, this person came up to me after the service. He, a young believer, although he was older than me, often asked those curious questions after the service. So, he came up to me, “Pastor, how do I become blessed like you? I wish God would bless me like that.”
As we talked, he shared with me that deep down, he worried maybe God did not love him all that much at all. Or at least not as much as God did for others. After all, God heals those he loves, and he has struggled with a severe mental illness his whole life. God provides for those he loves, and he could never find work, often he could barely leave his apartment due to his illness, and he struggled on disability payments that barely covered his rent let alone food for the month.
God blesses those he loves, and that implied for him, either he has done something wrong his whole life, his whole faith, or God just didn’t choose to love him as much as others.
My heart sank with those questions. I remember having a very pensive and reflective thanksgiving that year. My wife wondered why I was so quiet, lost in thought. I am always lost in thought by the way (that is an occupational hazard of being a professor), but this time more than usual.
I thought to myself, for instance, I was born able bodied. I didn’t have to be. I couldn’t control that. I was born able minded. I didn’t have to be. I was born into a loving household. I didn’t have to be. I was able to meet a person who has been an exacellent life-partner, my wife, where I know some people, some good people, that the person they married just was not the person they thought they were. We were able to have children, lots of kids (some days I am tempted to think too many kids). They are healthy boys.
It gave me pause, a pause that lasted through the day, of just how many opportunities I had received, that those, who were just as able, smart, and good, in many cases better, did not get. And yes, while there were good choices and hard work along the way, I felt overwhelmed by the fact that so much of the goodness of my life was not because of me, what I could choose and control.
That conversation fundamentally changed how I think about prayer, blessing, what it means to have good things in my life, and what my responsibility to others is.
This is what James is getting at: he says that all good things come from God. If you ever think God wills bad things, or shows favouritism, loving some more than others, that goes against the God who has an unchanging character of love, perfectly for every human being: every human being, without exception.
But we forget this. We have to find ways to adjust, shall we say, this truth in order justify why our lives are materially better than others, why we don’t have to feel bad about that fact, or more importantly, feel obliged to do something for those that have less than us, how we don’t have to do something as churches, as a society, about poverty, about mental health, or about systemic injustices.
That is when days like today, thanksgiving, we engage in that religious talk about being blessed or being thankful, and yet, if we ignore our responsibility to those less fortunate, that God loves all people with the same perfect longing to provide and lift all people into a place of flourishing, if we forget that, I am going to suggest to you we are not truly engaging in thanksgiving.
When we talk this way, thanksgiving ends up meaning something more like self-congratulations: I am thankful I worked hard; I am thankful I got good grades; I am thankful I made good career choices; I am thankful I did not marry someone who does not pull their weight; I am thankful I am such a good parent; I am thankful I have done so well.
This is a part of a mentality in our culture, a cultural myth of sorts that has a long history and endorsement in the church: the myth of the self-made person. You see our culture has this very strong insistence on the worth and power of the individual. This in many ways is a good thing. We believe people have inherent dignity and worth, individual freedom, conscience, and responsibility, but these insistences can have a down-side when made into an extreme: We can turn these values into the notion that all the good things in our lives are our doing. It is not because of privileges we were born into, opportunities we did not choose, all the various ways the starting line in the race of life was a bit further up for us than other people. This breeds a culture of entitlement where those that have less are effectively blamed for their misfortune.
Or we do something even worse: we think to ourselves that God wills this inequity to be the way things ought to be. We end up saying something, implicitly, truly terrible: we say I am thankful for the fact that God loves me a whole lot more than most of the people on this planet. I am thankful God wanted me to be privileged.
But that is not the pattern of Scripture. The deep contours of Scripture show that God chooses no one for ultimate ruin nor does God will evil or tragedy to anyone.
But what God does do is chooses, as James says, those who he will use to be the first fruits of an entire harvest of the goodness done to all people.
This is a pattern that begins in Father Abraham, who was blessed in order, the Book of Genesis says, to be a blessing, so that all the families of the world can be blessed through him.
It goes on to the Book of Exodus where God says he chose the Israelite slaves not because they were so much better or stronger or promising than any other nation, but because God favours the weak and the oppressed. God chooses the least of these in the world. God chooses to liberate them from bondage, not because he loves them and only them, but that through them, God says, they will be a kingdom of priests, firstborn of the family, as if all nations are God’s congregation, all our God’s family, but Israel is God’s paradigm and instrument of doing good to the rest inviting them in.
This continues on to the time of the prophets where, when God’s people grow haughty and disaster comes on them, Isaiah says God will uses a righteous remnant who will live in these difficult times self-sacrificially for the sake of the rest.
This all culminates in Jesus Christ, God himself who came in human form and chose himself to bear rejection itself at the cross, so that if anyone every questions, “Has God chosen me a sinner? Does God love me? Does God want what’s best for me?” All they must do is look at the cross and see the God that was willing to give of his very self for the sake of others, even those who meant him harm.
This is all so, so, so important to keep in mind in this time of a pandemic. We have not seen the disaster living here in Nova Scotia that many have elsewhere. We live in the safety of the Annapolis valley. While this past year was tough for me, teaching online and being stuck at home with my kids, I think my life just not been as bad as those who have faced unemployment, the loss of their business and livelihood, the impact of anxiety or depression.
I have seen how this terrible virus can hit. Some are not affected badly, others fatally. A college classmate of mine back in Ontario got covid, a person my age, went to bed with a cough and did not wake up. A person I know in Toronto got covid and he will now never breath again without a respirator.
Where does all this leave us: Do we pat ourselves on the back for having a government that responded well to the crisis when so many people did not choose where they live nor did they vote for the governments that are not acting responsible? Do we say God has protected us and God has blessed us, when the implication of that might sound like God has refused to protect others? We can very easily fall back into a thanksgiving that is actually self-congratulations and self-thanking. It is thanks-getting not thanks-giving.
Let me tell you the story of an inspiring person that illustrates the attitude we must have. His name is Charles Mully, born in 1949. He is a Kenyan business owner and philanthropist. At age 6, his parents abandoned him on the street. He spent years begging and getting by living on the street. He was able to be enrolled in school, and being exceptionally intelligent, succeeded. At age 16, he walked into a church and heard the Gospel, and he accepted the message of salvation. He did not have any money to go into higher education so, he packed up his things and walked 70 kilometers to Nairobi to find work. He did odd jobs until he eventually worked as a farm assistant and then for a construction company. He met his wife and they had eight kids together. During all this he saved enough money to buy his own truck and began his own trucking company. Within a short amount of time, he procured several other companies. Very quickly he became a multi-millionaire.
One day he was driving by in his car, and he saw a street boy, homeless, and he realized that there was no achievement he had that made God love him any more than those kids on the street. In fact, he concluded that the reason why God brought him from homelessness into such wealth was not for him to keep it but to give it away. And that is what he did. In 1989, he sold all his businesses and properties, opening up his homes to serve as shelters for the many street kids of Kenya. Since 1989, he and his family have helped 23 000 kids out of homelessness.
I tell you this story because If ever there was a self-made person, if ever there was a person that you could say, “That man earned every cent he owns,” if ever there was a person who might be tempted to think God has favoured me from rags to riches, it would be Charles Mully. And yet for him, his faith compelled him to believe that all the good things of his life were from a God that loves all people with that same perfect love. And with the goodness he has been given, with true thanksgiving, he realized he was to be the first fruits of a plan of God to help others with what he has been given.
What does that mean for us, for you and me, Port William Baptist Church? I hope you don’t take anything I have said to be some kind of kill joy on your festivities this weekend. God surely does want us to cherish the good things in our lives. Give thanks for your families with your families, enjoy turkey and pumpkin pie, play with kids and grandkids in the back yard. These are gifts from God that I know I don’t deserve.
But let us not stop there. It can’t stop there. For it to be true thanksgiving, it must be both giving thanks to God, but also giving thankfully to others.
If we acknowledge that all the goodness we have in our lives comes from God above, that God wills tragedy and misfortune to no one, what will we do to make sure we bring this goodness to others, those that don’t family, don’t have work, or don’t have health? How will we be fathers and mothers to the fatherless, the motherless, empowers to the oppressed, comforters to those in despair? How will we be first fruits in the way the Spirit of God might be call us of a harvest of blessing that is intended for all people?
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.
What do you want to be known for?
Interestingly you can take courses online on how to be known for things. They are called personal branding courses. They are marketed to business people, and the theory is just as a company should be known for a motto and a certain style, so you should be too. The course essentially gets people to think in simple terms:
Because I am x, I am known for doing y. Or Since I do y, I am x. Answer that yourself. Think about it.
What do you want to be known for? What does First Baptist want to be known for? It is something I have thought about this week.
A few people have asked me, “Now that it is your last sermon, you get to say whatever you want, because you are leaving.” Like I can now air out a list of grievances that I have kept to myself for five years, like this is Seinfeld’s Festivus: “I got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re gonna hear about it.” [Spoken in Jerry Stiller’s voice, of course].
I have to admit, I really don’t have grievances or axes to grind or anything of that sort.
As I looked through the scriptures, I came to 1 Cor. 2, which actually had Paul reporting to the Corinthians what he resolved to do and be when he was with them, and therefore, I think, what he wanted to be known for.
I think it is the right answer. It is the answer that we should all strive for. He writes:
“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” – 1 Cor. 2:2
I have resolved to know nothing, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Paul wants above all else to be known for the Gospel. I do not want my last sermon to be about me (although I will tell a story or two). As I planned out my final sermon, I have resolved to center it on the most important thing I can be about and First Baptist can be about: who Jesus is, the Gospel.
The Gospel is our salvation, our purpose, our unity, our joy and hope.
1. The Gospel is Our Salvation
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4: 7-10)
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel,” (2 Tim. 2:8)
I admit, 1 John 4 is probably my favourite chapter in the Bible. I had to mention it on my last sermon! God is love because God was found in the person and work of Jesus. That is our Gospel.
Our Gospel is that God is love. God is our creator. He made the world out of his generosity. He has made every human being in his image and likeness, as his children even though we, as prodigal sons and daughters, have failed to realize him as our Father.
We worship a God that made us, loves us, and will not see any of his creation be lost. We do not worship a God that only loves some of his creation or only seeks to save some of his creation, but a God the loves perfectly without limitation.
We know God is love because God is a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an eternal community of love in one being. Before the world began, before creation and sin, God is love.
God came in Jesus Christ, in human form, in sinful flesh, to show the loving solidarity of God with all sinful humanity, and the restoration of God’s people in him.
God in Jesus Christ died on a cross, died a cursed death, the death of a sinner for all sinners, to show us sinners, he has died our death. It is the mystery of our faith that constantly baffles me: God in Christ loved us more than his very bodily self. God is that kind of self-less love.
God our Father raised Jesus from the dead to show a love that is victorious and powerful. As Jesus has taken on our flesh, now in Jesus, we all have the hope that the very worst of this world, the very things that have stolen us away from his love – these things do not have the final say.
As my friend, Brad Jersak was saying this week, “God is love. God is not love but also just or holy or wrathful. God is love period.”
God’s love is holy because it is pure. God is infinite because his love is immeasurable. God’s love is powerful because it is unfailing. God’s love is just because he is in equal measure merciful. God’s love is capable of anger because God’s love passionately cries out to a world gone astray, hoping that we would change and come back to him.
We understand all of God through Jesus. We understand all of God through Jesus’ cross. If there is an idea of God that contradicts the display of a God who would willing give up his very life for us because of his great love for us, we simply have departed from the God of the Gospel.
God’s love is not simple or sentimental, it is complex and mysterious, surprising even uncomfortable, but it always comes back to love. It is always understood through love.
If we can define God in any way other than love, as I have found, we will inevitably find ourselves without a Gospel that offers salvation to us sinners.
We stand on the Gospel that God is love. If God is not a God of consistently personal, perfect, and powerful love, we simply do not have a Gospel. Period.
One pastor told me that preaching is the fine art of being a broken record. If I have been a broken record these past five years, I have also learned that this truth is so counter-intuitive to our limited, sin-soaked minds, that we have to constantly remember it, re-hear it, re-tell it, and re-live it.
Otherwise we simply forget it. Never forget this, First Baptist Church.
2. The Gospel is Our Purpose
“To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21).
The Apostle Paul writes this to the Philippians saying life for him is serving Jesus, walking with Jesus, being willing to die for Jesus, death being nothing in comparison to having Jesus.
When you know what you are about, you have purpose, nothing else matters.
Funny story: I know a person that put that as their high school year book blurb, and the school called the police because they were worried he was suicidal.
We ended up going to college together. He is now a pastor in BC. He is not suicidal, he just believes in something this world does not understand. Although he probably has gone a little nuts since he has a big batch of kids like I do. As long as I have known him, he has lived with purpose.
When we rest in Jesus Christ, when we draw close to him, when we resolve to know nothing but his Gospel, we are captivated by the beauty of what he is, and we want to live that love out to others. That is our purpose: We live to see what the Gospel can do in us and others. That is what gets me up in the morning (other than screaming babies).
Sharing the Gospel can take on implicit and explicit ways. I have gotten to share the Gospel on Sunday mornings, at weddings, at funerals, in times of blessing and in times of tragedy. I have gotten to share the Gospel over coffee and over board games, on the street and in my office. I am always surprised at when people say they are reluctant to share their faith since they are worried about a negative reaction. When we set out to live and speak good news for others, saying and doing something good to them and for them – without an agenda of trying to force them to become a Christian or come to our church or believe this or that, but simply being there for them, to listen, to give hope, and share ourselves, my experience has been overwhelming positive.
Yes, a lot say no thanks. A lot say they want to but there is no follow through. It does require patience.
I think of our McCourt meals and taking people to the food bank on Tuesdays. This simple an act of service and fellowship has openned doors for me to sit and pray with dozens of people, many of whom as shut ins are too sick to come to church, but are precisely the kind of people that God has a special heart for. Or others are people that face terrible mental illness. Many times I have gotten the privilege to be an ambassador of Christ to be the first person that sees them as a person of value and worth, and when they ask, “why do you do this for people?” I get to tell them why.
Sometimes sharing the Gospel is quite explicit and decisive, other times it is a simple act of kindness or service.
Or it can be planting a community garden to promote community and food healthy food in our community. That lead to Alexander Kuthy to start coming here. Remember Alex? He sadly passed away a little while ago, but he shared his testimony with us. An irreligious man that hated the church growing up because a priest tried to sexually assault him. He lived most of his life completely unconcerned with God until he had an accident and he said, “All of a sudden I was aware that I needed God.” Alex would stroll into my office and chat with me. In five years, I can probably count on my one hand how many appointments I had at my office that were actually booked in advance. That’s just fine, my life is far more interesting for it. Alex lived with a new purpose. You saw that in him. He said he lived all his life for himself, now he was making up time living for God. He believed in devoting his life to “spreading peace” as he said it often.
I hope everyone goes home, reads some scripture, meditates, and prays upon it, and asked themselves, “What is my purpose? Is my purpose living the Gospel, completely without reservation? Is my reason for being alive walking in God’s love, worshiping in God’s love, showing others God’s love?”
If it is and the person next to you agrees, that is the church, brothers and sisters. That is what we are doing here together.
3. The Gospel is Our Unity
“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.” (Romans 10:9)
It is such a simple phrase. Jesus is lord, and salvation is in trusting that work of the resurrection. Jesus is our unity. We so often make it Jesus plus a hold lot of other stuff, or Jesus can only mean the way I relate to Jesus.
I have spoken before that I was raised with a very fundamentalist faith. My grandfather was a fundamentalist Baptist pastor, and that is what formed me growing up. Fundamentalism is a lot of things. While many come by it sincerely, as I did, at its very worst, it is an arrogance that all my thoughts and interpretations are the right and infallible ones. It is often obsessed with control and certainty and simple pat answers; that affective sense of certainty in essence shields the reality that since most fundamentalists do not believe God loves all people perfectly, there is a deep sense that God might actually not love them either, unless they do and think a certain way. It is also oddly then obsessed with very specific and convoluted doctrines, whether about creation, the Bible, the atonement, how Jesus will return, you name it, and perfectionist behavior, usually obsessed with sexuality above any other sin. Each doctrine or behavior is then turned into a litmus test of who is truly a Christian and who is not, disregarding the historic creeds of our faith and that our communities must embody grace. It also sees everyone who believes differently and acts differently as dumb, delusional, or dangerous.
I know this not because I look down on fundamentalists, but because I used to think that way. I really did not know any other way to be honest.
I have learned the simple biblical truth that, as James McClendon has put it, “Fundamentalism just isn’t fundamental enough.”
When I came to First Baptist, I did see something different. First Baptist, like many other historic First Baptist Churches in North America, has a long history, enduring all the movements over the last century. Some of our members have been in this church for over 50 years. It has learned to endure diversity. Many of the First Baptist Church family when I came had lived together as a community for so many years they just resolved to keep being a family together, no matter what.
Being committed to being historically Baptist we have upheld the liberty of the conscience of members of this church to interpret the Bible for ourselves in community as our denomination on the whole upholds that our churches are autonomous yet partner together for the Gospel.
For the last five years I have marveled at just how diverse First Baptist is, the different faith backgrounds and experiences, the different doctrines and ideas of faith and how they have functioned in people’s lives, and the sincere commitments to keep learning the Bible together.
That is rare. It is difficult to live out, but it is refreshing in this divided world we live in.
It has been oddly refreshing to lead a Bible study hearing all these perspectives come out, and sometimes quite heatedly, but then have a recognition that we are all sincerely trying to follow Jesus together, and he is our unity.
First Baptist is a diverse place, we all don’t think the same, and we have to reckon with all our diverse backgrounds and experiences and ideas, whether on theology, politics, or on what color the carpet should be.
But if Jesus is our unity, we are bound by blood as family.
As we do this within our walls, we have a vital witness outside our walls. The Gospel has been our unity with all the other churches here in Garson and Coniston. I don’t think you realize the high regard we are held in by the other churches. And it has been an honor working with so many excellent pastors and priests.
One of the most powerful moments in my years here was when we gathered for worship with St. John’s, Trinity United, and the Anglican churches.
I remember the second ecumenical service I participated in here, we went to St. John’s. That year the liturgy called for each person to pair off with a person from another church, and come to a font of water, dip your fingers in it and make the sign of the cross over the other person’s head, asking forgiveness for the sins we have done against each other.
I have never seen the Spirit move so powerfully. People broke down crying in repentance and hugged right there.
That moment was not of ourselves. That was the Spirit moving as we, Christians from very diverse traditions, simply came together to worship Jesus.
The Gospel, the simple Gospel, is our unity. Nothing else should be or can be.
4. The Gospel is Our Hope
“But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.” (Heb. 3:6)
When you are able to be there and see our God working. It is the best thing in the world.
While pastoring can be quite difficult, it is propelled along by the conviction that God never gives up hope on people and neither do we.
One more story: Some of you remember Jered. He does not live around here anymore. A troubled young man, who had been in and out of prison, with so much chaos in him you could immediately tell just from hearing him talk.
The chaos and pain with him was so bad, he once told me he resolved to stop believing in anything because his mind was so unreliable he just had had enough. If you can imagine living like that and being at that point?
I remember coming home that day shook-up by his words. “How can the Gospel reach someone that unstable?” I thought. How can our Gospel mean anything if it can’t bring hope to someone like him?
A few days later, I remember seeing him at the residence. He came up to me: “Spencer, I had a really difficult night. I was in a really dark place…Then he showed up.”
“Who?” I asked. Jered just pointed upwards. “He did. I can’t be an atheist anymore,” he said. God showed up for him in a time of need, far beyond what I or anyone is capable of. In that dark moment God appeared and told him he had worth and that he was loved and that there was hope.
That is the hope of our faith. God does not give up on people. He has not given up on me; he has not given up hope on you; therefore he will not give up hope on anyone. He simply will not give up on this broken world.
Because of this – this good news – we live with purpose, with unity, with joy and hope.
Let us pray…
“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)
We have all heard the Christmas story before.
The Christmas story is the story of a baby born miraculously and mysteriously to a virgin mother.
About a nobody girl named Mary, who saw the announcement that she would be the mother of the messiah to be the greatest privilege of her life, despite its meaning she would be ostracized perhaps the rest of her life, since she was not married
It is the story about a good and merciful man, named joseph, who when he heard that his fiancé was pregnant and he was not the father, he could have subjected her to disgrace and even had her stoned in the culture, but moved with compassion, simple was going to dissolve the marriage quietly.
A man that was reassured by an angel to marry the woman, and that he would be the legal father of the savior of the world.
It is a story set to the back drop of God’s people conquered and oppressed by a massive empire, ruled a tyranny Emperor who claimed himself to be the Son of God.
It about this little unlikely family having to travel miles through storm and sand to the town of Bethlehem to be counted by order of the Emperor Augustus.
It is a story about this family who upon returning to their own hometown found that no one wanted to give them shelter for the night. No family wanted them.
It is a story about the king of heaven being born in the muck and mire of a barn.
It is a story about good news announced by angelic hosts to lowly shepherds, forgotten in the wilderness, tending their sheep.
It is a story about wisemen following stars, fooling a local corrupt ruler and coming to worship the messiah child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It is a story about an escape in the night as Herod sent out guards to kill the children of Jesus’ age, trying to stop the potential usurper.
And so, this is a story about miracles and the messiah, about faithful servants and faithful spouses, unplanned pregnancies and ancient prophecies; it is about shepherds and tyrants, about journey and escape, about humility and royalty, oppression and hope.
This story is the first Christmas. It is the story. It is the most important story. It is the story of all our salvation. Our salvation began to be accomplished in history on that day, in that stable, in that dirty manger, to that poor Middle-eastern couple, two thousand years ago.
It is the truth that God is now with us: the incarnation. The infinite God dwelling with us mortals.
It is the truth about God’s rule. The messiah Jesus shows how God rules: he chooses the lowly; he chooses the poor; he chooses the unworthy, the forgotten, the unlikely. He prefers them to the powerful, the rich, the proud, and the oppressor.
It is the truth about forgiveness. Jesus wasn’t just the king of the righteous. He didn’t just love the deserving. He also loved sinners. In fact, he died for the people trying to kill him. He died for Emperor just as much as the shepherds. He died for King Herod just as much as the wise men. He died for the criminal and the terrorist just as much as he died for you and me.
The Christmas story is the truth about God’s fundamental character of love and compassion, about God being born in our form, identifying with our plight, binding himself to our fate, all to say that nothing can separate us from his love.
Immanuel: God is with us. He is not against us, he is for us. He gave us his son. He gave us himself.
It is also a difficult story to believe, too isn’t it? We live in a world of skepticism. It seems that usually about this time every year someone publishes an article, proclaiming their modern brilliance at just how unbelievable the Christmas story is.
Angels don’t exist. Miracles don’t happen. Virgins don’t have babies. Stars don’t give travelers directions. Gods don’t reveal themselves. It is simply an unbelievable story.
It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing. Things like this just don’t happen.
But our culture’s skepticism over the things of God – whether it is the possibly of miracles or the fact that God could indeed reveal himself – pays a high price.
Skepticism against the Christmas story is skepticism against hope itself.
We live in an apathetic age.
Wars can’t be stopped. Poverty can’t be solved. Politicians always lie. Life is always unfair. Marriages never work. Churches never help. God isn’t there.
There is no life after death, and ultimate no reason for life before it.
Right and wrong, good and evil, hope and tragedy, these are just creations of the human imagination with no real anchor in reality.
The world is not getting better. In fact, it is getting worse and to be honest, most people would think we are not worth saving.
Forgiveness? Hope? Love? Goodness? It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing.
It is unbelievable.
Perhaps the Apostles passed along this story not because they were primitive, but because they were just like us.
They lived in a skeptical age. Tyrants stayed powerful; peasants stayed poor; lepers stayed sick; women and slaves stayed property; the dead stayed in the grave; and there is nothing new under the sun.
…Until Jesus showed up. Perhaps the reason the Apostles passed along this Christmas story is precisely because it was unbelievable. Unbelievable yet true.
This is a watershed moment in history, a game-changer, a paradigm-shifter, an epiphany, an event.
God showed up. Hope showed up. Goodness and mercy and forgiveness showed up. Nothing like this had ever happened in their time. Nothing like it before or after. Prophets had foretold this, but who could expect it happening in this way?
Perhaps this story is true in all its remarkable, exceptional, unbelievable, beauty.
We can ask, just like Mary, “How is this possible?” And the angel’s words are just as true today as they were two thousand years ago: With God all things are possible.
With God all things are possible.
If we grant that, this story starts making sense.
Good does triumph over evil. Love does triumph over hate. Forgiveness does triumph over hurt. Peace does triumph over violence. Faith does triumph over idolatry. Hope does triumph over despair.
These truths are not the delusions of us human bi-pedal ape-species with an overgrown neo-cortex.
The deepest longings of the human heart, the groaning of the soul for a world without hunger, sickness, sin, death, and despair – as unrealistic as that sounds – that yearning knows this story is true the same way our thirsty tongues know that water exists.
Its real. Its possible. It is out there. It is here: in Jesus.
The only left to do with this story, when we are done pondering it and puzzling is to trust it.
Can you tonight trust this unbelievable story? Can you trust that with God all things are possible?
Can you trust that your life is not just there without value, but it is a gift, it was planned and made by a God that sees you as his child?
Can you trust that the wrong in your life, the sins we have committed that no excuse can defend has been forgiven by a God that knows you better than you know yourself and sees with eyes of perfect mercy?
Can you trust that God has come into history, has shown us the way, has died for our sins, and conquered the grave?
Can you trust that God can set right all that has gone wrong as we invite him to renew our hearts, our minds, our souls and strength, our relationships, our job and family, our past and future, our communities and our country?
Can you trust that this Christmas story about God’s miraculous power, his unlimited compassion, his surprising solidarity, can be shown to be true this night just as much as it did then? In you, in the person next to you, in this church, in this town.
We give gifts at Christmas time as a sign of God’s generosity, but do we look forward to God’s gifts to us each Christmas?
Do we look for the gift of renewed spirits?
Do we look for the gift of transformed hearts?
Do we look for the gift of forgiveness of past hurts?
Do we look for the gift of reconciled relationships?
Of new freedom from guilt and shame, from hurt and hatred, from addiction and despair, from materialism and apathy.
What gifts are we going to see given from God’s spirit this Christmas.
Perhaps it will be like what happened to Nelson Mandela (just one story I read about this week about how the truth of Christmas changed someone in remarkable ways). In South Africa where Blacks were segregated off from the privileged of White society, Mandela as a young man advocated armed uprising and was imprisoned for life in 1962.
In prison he faced all the things that would, by any worldly standard, destroy hope, love, joy and peace in any man’s soul. He was beaten by the guards. He recount one day being forced to dig a pit that the guards taunted him saying it would be his own grave. As he dug, they peed on him and spat on him. The prison was so dirty he contracted tuberculosis.
Conditions like that fester the heart not just the body, but the miracle of Christmas reached him. Mandela recovered his Christian faith in prison, and was moved with hope towards a better tomorrow, with love and forgiveness towards even his guards that beat him.
In a sermon he gave later in life, he spoke about the hope he gained knowing that the messiah was born an outcast like him. This unbelievable Christmas story, the story that we recite and remember till it we often take it for granted, restored a man’s heart in one of the darkest of places.
Christ’s name is Immanuel: God with us. God was with the shepherd, with Mary, with Joseph, with the oppressed Israeli people, and so, also with Nelson Mendela.
After 26 years in prison, campaigns to have him pardoned succeeded, and Mandela went from prison to the presidential campaign, running to become president and end apartheid, not through violence but through reconciliation.
He won and he even had the guard that beat him from prison, whom he reconnected with and forgave, at his inauguration, a guest of honor.
Its an unbelievable story isn’t it?
How will God work something unbelievable in you tonight?
We could say that our lives aren’t as fantastic as Mendel’s, but then again, if we say that, we would be selling ourselves and our God short.
You see, a story about angels and a virgin giving birth and about a God found in the form of a baby might be unbelievable, but we Christians take that as part and parcel of what our unbelievable God does.
There is a saying that goes if you are in for a pound, you might as well put in a penny.
If we know that God has done the miraculous, can we trust him now with the mundane?
If we know that God has given us life, can we trust him with our finances and family?
If we know that God has atoned for all sin, can we trust him with our fears and failures?
If we know that God has conquered the grave, can we trust him with the worries of tomorrow?
If we know our God is a God that can do all things, that he has already accomplished everything, perhaps can you trust him with something small now. Let’s do something small right now. Something small but still significant.
Let’s have a moment of silence and stillness. We don’t get enough of those in this busy season. Have a moment right now to say to God whatever you need to say or to listen to God and hear whatever he as been trying to tell you, then we will pray together…
Living God, Father of our lord Jesus Christ.
May the worship we have shared this Christmas lead ro acts of service which transform people’s lives
May the carols we have sung this Christmas help others to sing, even in times of sadness.
May the gifts we exchange this Christmas deepen our spirit of giving throughout the year.
May the candles we have lit this Christmas remind us that you intend no one to live in darkness.
May the new people we have met this Christmas remind us that we meet you in our neighbors.
May the gathering together of family and friends this Christmas make us appreciate anew the gift of love.
May these unbelievable stories we have told again this Christmas be good news of great joy to us and all people, proclaimed on our lips and embodied in our lives.
May the ways you have come close to us this Christmas not be forgotten.
May we remember your unbelievable love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness – that you are our life, our light, and our salvation, this season and always, because of Jesus Christ our Lord.
[End prayer modified from Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for a Community of Disciples by the Baptist Union of Great Britain]
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.