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.

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