Monday, June 29, 2015

What is Christian love?

Last Friday the Supreme Court made its ruling on the case related to gay marriage.  The internet has been abuzz with responses and emotions run high on both sides of the issue.  I have read a number of articles in an attempt to understand the decision and its implications, particularly in regard to my role as the pastor of the Jicarilla Apache Reformed Church. 

Two weeks ago it was my privilege to attend the annual meeting of my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, where issues around homosexuality have been primary points of discussion for many years.  This year was no exception.  While gay marriage may now be a decided matter as a civil concern, within the church issues related to homosexuality are not so clearly settled.  At least not within my denomination.  Many other denominations have reached settled positions, on each side of the issue.

So at our meetings this year we talked openly about the fact that we have an "elephant in the closet," freely identifying what that elephant was and recognizing that, for better or for worse, as a denomination we should make a decision about the elephant.  We need a decision, one way or the other.  And we set forth on a process to reach a decision.

I could go on about the process we are going to use and some of the things that will come up in the discussions and decision-making process.  But not today. For the sake of this post I would say that the two sides of this issue have fundamentally different understandings of the idea of "Christian love."  The issue of gay marriage has been framed in society and the church as being all about love.  But what is love?  More specifically, what is Christian love? 

Before going farther I want to quote what my wife, Robin, posted to her blog on Sunday about Jesus and love.  She said:

Jesus told us to love one another. 
John 13:34 says that we are to love one another as Christ first loved us. Jesus didn't hate sinners! He loved us. And then he told us to love each other. He didn't say, "Love your neighbor as yourself, unless he's ___________." ANY word can go in that blank because Jesus didn't exclude anyone. And neither should we.

At our denominational meeting one thing that everyone seemed to agree on was that no one should be excluded from the church.  No one said anything like, "Those people don’t belong in the church.  If we let them in then I am leaving."  I never heard anything like that.  And the reality of our day is that it is very possible that gay men and women are in nearly every congregation of our denomination. 

The issue isn't a matter of if these people are present, but how do we show Christian love towards them?  And to this question I see two possible answers.

The first is that we welcome them for who they are, meaning that we accept them as homosexual because they were created that way.  Humans are created in God's image, these people are created in God's image and they are gay, therefore there is nothing that we might say is right or wrong about their sexual identity. 

The loving thing is to welcome them, to celebrate them and their relationships, as much as we would celebrate any heterosexual relationship.  Jesus loved everyone.  God is love. We practice Christian love by welcoming and celebrating gays as fellow sisters and brothers in Christ.  

Again, that is one possible way of defining and practicing Christian love.  This is my understanding of the application of Christian love by one side of this discussion.

But there is another way, a perhaps more radical way, to show Christian love.  It, too, recognizes that all women and men are created in the image of God, but also acknowledges that all women and men come into the world under the curse of sin. 

We don’t get to choose which particular sins we are most susceptible too, or the sins we seem most enmeshed in.  We don’t get to choose the sins that in our internal conversations, and even our prayers to God, we continually try to deny, explain away, or pretend don’t exist. 

If you call yourself a Christian then that means, nearly universally, as a minimum definition, that you are a sinner who has been saved from the eternal consequences of your sin by the work accomplished by Jesus on the cross and at the empty tomb.  Saved from the consequences of your sin, but still living as a sinner in a fallen world.    

And this is where the second understanding of expressing Christian love comes in.  The reality of the eternal consequences of sin, as described in the Bible, are horrible.  The Bible never soft-peddles the wrath of God that is directed towards sin. 

Is it loving to allow what the Bible calls sin to just go on within the lives of people in the church, to even celebrate those things, and not to say a single word about repentance and the need for every sinner to seek God's help in living a life that looks more and more like the life of their Savior?

I don’t think so.

Salvation in Jesus is a sweet and beautiful thing.  And receiving those eternal promises changes the way I have to live in the world.  As His beloved child, one that He loved so much that He gave His very life for as the payment for my sin, means that I need to change the ways I live.  I need to change them each and every day.  I need to search out those things in my life that are contrary to His will and sincerely seek to deal with them.  And sincerely dealing with them means, at a minimum, that I have to acknowledge that these things, these sins, are present, and seek God's help in changing my attitude and behavior towards them. 

My guide in doing all this is God's word.  He defines what a sin is, and I have no say in the decision-making process.  I may be deeply in love with something that He calls sin.  My feelings about it don’t matter.  The culture may exalt a particular thing His word says is wrong.  His will does not yield to the culture. 

If I truly belong to Jesus then living according to His guidelines is part-and-parcel of my identity.  A changed life is not optional, and He drives the changes. 

As a pastor I won’t, I can't, deny that dealing from a Christian perspective with matters of sexual identity and behavior, in the culture of our day, is a very complex matter.  When the culture virtually screams that so many different things of human sexuality, heterosexual and well as homosexual, are morally neutral and to be celebrated, that is a hard force to resist.  But the loving thing is not to join in the celebration.  The loving thing is to speak God's truth to it.  As a Christian the loving thing is to call sin what it is, and to walk with that brother or sister to a closer place to their Savior.  To our Savior.

In 1 Timothy 1:15 Paul writes,

"The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost."

Those words apply to me.  The foremost of sinners.  They apply to me as fully as they apply to Paul or to any other sister of brother in Christ.

Christian love does not celebrate sin. It cannot celebrate sin.  But it does help sinners see who they really are and then leads them towards a life that is shaped more and more like their Savior's.

To Him be glory, now and forever.  Amen.   

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Always willing to save

I was reading Psalm 130 as I was working on planning for worship on the last Sunday of June and something just seemed to jump out at me towards the end of the psalm.  In the Good News translation, the version of the Bible we have in our pews, the last two verses read like this:

"Israel, trust in the Lord, because his love is constant and he is always willing to save.  He will save his people Israel from all their sins."

"He is always willing to save."  Just a few words, one phrase in the midst of a psalm, but they are words that carried great meaning to the people that they were first written for.  These words reminded the Israelites that whenever they turned from their sin and turned towards God they would find Him waiting for them, willing to forgive their sin.   The Lord is a God who is always willing to save His people, and as the following sentence makes clear, when the Lord saves He does not save in part but in whole.  He saves His people from all of their sins.

No matter how many sins there are.  No matter how bad those sins may look from the viewpoint of the sinner.  No matter how unforgivable any person may think that their sins make them.  When they turn to the Lord in repentance, with a heart and mind that want to live with the Lord, the Lord forgives their sins.  This was His promise, and God keeps His promises. 

These words were first written for the Israelites, but they remain true today for all who call on the Lord.  The psalm was a cry for help and it was written long before the life of Jesus but these words point forward and anticipate what God would be doing in His Son Jesus.  They anticipate the grace and mercy that God would give to sinners through Jesus. 

I know that I am writing this primarily for people who are inside the church.  The people who read this in the church newsletter or on my blog are most likely Christians already.  If that describes you then I am glad to be able to give you a reminder of the deep and wonderful grace that God has given you.

But…if you are a bit uncertain of your place with God, then I want to encourage you to turn toward Him and embrace Him.  The promise of God in the psalm is a sure and certain promise.  He will forgive your sin.  Every last bit of it.

And for both groups I invite you to prayerfully seek God and ask Him whom you might share the precious word of His grace and mercy with.  For God's desire to save sinners is news that is much too good to keep to ourselves.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Forsaking all others

Last Saturday I conducted my first wedding.  In meeting with the bride and groom to plan their wedding there were several options as far as the vows they would make to each other.  The different options said the same basic things, but in differing ways.  One of the options included this phrase:

"Will you love her, comfort her, honor and protect her, and forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?"

Those were words for the groom to speak to his bride, and there was a parallel option for the bride to speak to the groom.  Within those words of promise is a phrase that makes it an exclusive promise, "forsaking all others."  The bride and groom promise that the faithfulness they have to each other will by its very nature exclude anyone else from entering into the closeness that they will share with each other.

For Christians that commitment to forsake all others doesn't just apply to marriage.  More importantly, it applies to our relationship with God.  In Deuteronomy 5:6-7, God speaks these words in the first of the Ten Commandments:

"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me."

We are told to "have no other gods" but it seems as if other gods are continually in front of us.  They may take the form of relationships, or habits, or pastimes.  They may look completely innocent to people seeing us from the outside, people who may even applaud our commitment to some aspect of our life.  But what those other people don’t see, what sometimes we don’t even see, is that those other things have a place in our lives that bumps God from His place. 

Sometimes it seems as if dealing with "other gods" is a never-ending struggle.  But is it too important of an issue to ignore.  And God is full of grace and mercy.  There is never a time when we can’t come to Him, confess our pursuit of other gods, and take comfort in His embrace. 

So take a look at your life, and take a look at the Lord, and then do what it takes to make sure each is in their proper place.  For God alone deserves our praise and glory.  All day, every day.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Conscience, courage, contentment and Christ

I have found myself pondering a few words the last day or so, all of which start with the letter 'c'.  They are conscience, courage, contentment and Christ. 

It began shortly after seeing that there was story online glorifying the latest news about Bruce Jenner.  I didn't read the main story but I did read several pieces of commentary on the story.  And it made me think about conscience, particularly in the sense that we all have a conscience and it gives us guidance about what is morally right and wrong in our thinking and behavior.  And I write this knowing that there are many people in our day who would call into question the validity of the entire idea of a moral right/wrong, either individually or collectively.  So be it. 

How far has Jenner's thinking shifted over the course of a lifetime in order to reach the point where the actions currently taken have come to be perceived as right, as not just being morally neutral, but as something inherently good and in need of celebrating?  I don't think that question is as rhetorical as it may sound, for all of us, myself included, are confronted by questions of conscience each day.  Sometimes we respond according to our conscience and sometimes the orientation of our conscience changes.  Frankly, I am baffled by the changes in our culture that allow something as seemingly clear as one's gender, something that was at one time a boundary, and a fairly fixed one, now being toppled and the new normal, whatever that is, being celebrated.

Which takes me to courage, and a related news story, where President Obama said that Jenner's action showed courage.  I'm not so sure that is the right use of the word courage.  I did look in a dictionary and, to my chagrin, many of the terms associated with courage could fairly apply to Jenner's actions, such as tenacity, resolution and firmness of mind and will.

I will assume that at minimum you will have stumbled across a picture of Jenner's new look.  So I will offer another image for contrast, as an example of courage.  In the above picture the tall man on the right is my oldest son.  He served in the US Navy as a medic attached to a US Marine unit.  The picture was taken while he was stationed in Ramadi, Iraq in 2007, and he is changing the bandage on the arm of an Iraqi girl.  Looking at the picture of my son I am reminded of one thing, which is that whatever courage may be, it acts to serve others, and not to serve and glorify self.

A few days ago I read an article about contentment, which came back to mind as I saw the stories about Jenner.  How far does one travel on the road towards contentment to think that the actions Jenner is taking will really be the balm that heals what is clearly a deep hurt? 

Which brings me to the last of the 'C' words, and the best one.  Christ.  We all struggle with contentment, seeking to find it in one place or another.  But at the end of the day, as a Christian, I believe that the only place we find true peace and rest, true contentment, is in the arms of Christ.  We wrestle with our conscience, but in Him we find our conscience's true guide.  And He is the truest example of courage, saying in the garden,

"Father, if you are willing remove this cup from me.  Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done."

Not my will, but yours. 

Not the will of my conscience, unless it be guided by Christ.  Not courage that glorifies myself, but courage that points towards Christ.  Not any contentment for myself, unless it is rooted in Christ.    

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.