(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on June 29, 2014)
For the last couple of years, I have been wrestling with what I am beginning to think is one of the fundamental divides in Christianity.
It comes out in a variety of ways, but I’ve summed it up most recently a couple of weeks ago like this: Do we think God is ultimately and fundamentally dividing/separating/judging the world, or do we think God is ultimately and fundamentally trying to unify/love/redeem the world?
Saying it that way betrays my belief…it makes the second sound better. A more fair way to state the distinction is to talk about who God is and what God is doing. One way would say, “God is holy, and God’s loving actions are to rescue humanity from sinfulness.” Another would say, “God is loving, and God’s sacrificial actions are to bring humanity into right relationship with Jesus Christ.”
These distinctions and differences have come about because when we read the bible, we see both things. We see the self sacrificing love of God, and we see the holiness of God and even God’s wrath against sin and wrong choices. They are both there. Both are biblical. Turn with me to Ephesians 5; I’ll be reading verses 3-13.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for the Lord’s people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure:No immoral, impure or greedy person–such a person is an idolater–has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible–and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.
Focus with me on verses 5-7.
As I read these again, I want you to pay attention because I’m gonna ask you what you think. Who is the “them” in this section? Who is Paul talking about? Is he talking about people who believe in Jesus but mess up? Or is he talking about people outside of a relationship with Jesus? The whole letter is definitely written to Jesus followers in Ephesus…who is it here? [READ 5-7]
So what do you think? Who is the “them” that we aren’t to be partners with, people in the church or outside of it? Is it just the people outside the church, or anyone who is at risk of not having any inheritance in the Kingdom of God? [ASK]
Whatever you answer, how do you figure it out? What clues do you look to? [ASK]
Many scholars think this applies to people outside the church. Andrew Lincoln is one of those, who wrote this: “The writer assumes that his readers are not among such people. To describe [these verses], therefore, as a warning to believers that they can lose their salvation does not do justice to its function in the context.”
Other scholars think this is a warning to those within the church that if they don’t behave correctly, they will lose their inheritance in the kingdom of Christ, they will lose their salvation. F.F. Bruce writes, “But those who persist in such practices-even if, by some mischance, they bear the Christian name-show thereby that they are excluded from eternal life.”
I think these are just specific examples that show that broader difference I talked about earlier, the broader difference about whether God is unifying or bringing judgment.
If you side with Andrew Lincoln and believe Paul assumes his readers are not like this, it may also be true that you fall on the side that sees God’s work not primarily as bringing judgment. Rather, you see God working to create a community that is different from those without a right relationship with God. Don’t be partners with them, rather align yourself with God.
If you side with F.F. Bruce, and think this could even apply to Christians… that it is a warning that too much wrong behavior could exclude you from eternal life, it may also be true that you fall on the side that sees God’s work among people primarily as separating good from evil, judging whether people follow God’s holiness or not.
Does that seem true to you? Do you see that distinction holding up, or do you look at this differently? [ASK]
To me it is clear: to live as a follower of Jesus is to have limits placed on my behavior.
There are things that fit with who I am as a follow of Jesus, and there are things that do not. Living without limits doesn’t fit with this life of obedience. To me at least, that is clear.
But there are several things that I think are still up for debate. At least, people that I know love Jesus disagree on them, so that must mean we need to carefully discuss and wrestle with them. Here are the two I want to bring up today, and there are obviously a lot more:
Which comes first? Which has the priority and focus? Is it the expectations on behavior, or my being in right relationship with God?
And, what is the church’s role in setting those expectations on behavior? Or to put it more bluntly, what role do I have in defining your right behavior as you follow Jesus?
Let’s take the first one: which should have the priority or focus, expectations on behavior, or focusing on being in right relationship with God?
I haven’t come across very many people who, if you sit down and ask this kind of question, say, “Oh, it’s expectations on behavior, without a doubt!” No, if we have the question in black and white, most of us would say it’s most important to focus on being in right relationship with God. Behavior expectations come out of or after being in right relationship with God.
But we sure can put a whole lot of expectations on the behaviors that are needed to be in a right relationship with God, can’t we? Are you reading your bible? Have you spent time praying and listening to God? And when someone shows up wearing or saying or drinking or listening to something we don’t think is appropriate, that thing or behavior often gets a whole lot more of our attention than the person’s relationship with God.
We very often link certain behaviors with that phrase, “relationship with God”. If someone is “close to God”, we think that means they have done certain behaviors (go to church, read the bible, pray, etc) to GET close to God, and because they are “close to God”, there are many behaviors they do or don’t do because of it.
Here’s my big challenge: we’ve done something the bible doesn’t do when we equate “relationship with God” as being “close to God.” In scripture, our relationship with God is a status. When we choose Christ, we ARE “blessed…with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (1:3) We HAVE “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.” (1:7-8a)
We WERE “chosen” (1:11) and “included” (1:13). We WERE “marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance…” (1:13-14). God “made us alive with Christ” (2:5). And the big, famous verses, 2:8-9, say: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Relationship with God is first and primary.
It’s a status that is rock solid and cannot be changed. Our works and actions don’t earn it, so our actions and behavior can’t call it into question or lose it. Expectations on behavior are also real. We are “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (4:1) We are “to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.” (4:22). We are to “follow God’s example” and “walk in the way of love.” (5:1,2).
But our status as an heir with Christ is what leads to a different way of life. I think the unearned gift of God’s grace is what we celebrate and becomes our foundation, and then the expectations on behavior come.
The church as a whole, I think, can do better at modeling that. We can focus and speak about the expectations on behavior more often than the gift of being welcomed into God’s family because of what Christ has done.
I’ll finish by looking at that second question up for debate.
What is the church’s role in setting those expectations on behavior that clearly are there? What role do I have in defining your right behavior as you follow Jesus, and vice-versa?
Honestly, I think this is where we sometimes panic. If we just leave each other to our own devices, well, it’s just gonna get crazy. You know how people are. Give them an inch, they will take a mile. Yes, God gives us the gift of being saved, but…but…but my kid, or my friend, or our church…if we’re not careful they’re all just gonna do something wrong and then what? God’s wrath will come if I don’t tell you how you should behave!
This is the kind of thinking that led people in the church to keep their children from dancing, because you know what that will lead to. This is the kind of thinking that led to Rook cards being invented instead of being allowed to use regular face cards. This is what kept a generation of Christian people out of movie theaters.
I see v. 10 in chapter 5 as key. You were once darkness, now you ARE light in the Lord. Live as children of the light. Live into your calling, live into your status. How? Verse 10: “find out what pleases the Lord.”
If you get nothing else out of today, I would wish three things.
I would hope every one of us leaves knowing that God offers a sure gift of love, acceptance and salvation that can’t be destroyed by anything we do. And I would hope every one of us leaves knowing that God values us enough to put some behavior off limits and encourages us to follow God’s example in how we live. And because of those two things, I would hope every one of us leaves with a commitment to find out what pleases the Lord, to do all that we can to find out what God desires and obey.
The reality is, while I truly have been helped by others, while community really has been beneficial in my life, ultimately when I’ve had behavior, sinful behavior that’s needed to change, the Holy Spirit is the one who has convicted me. The Holy Spirit has broken me. The Holy Spirit has transformed me and enabled me to live differently.
Can I trust that God’s Holy Spirit will do the same with someone else? Or do I think I’ve got to spell it out for them?
Look, I know when I’m trying to justify my own behavior. There is a huge difference between “finding out what pleases the Lord” and “trying to find a way to justify what I want to do.” Of course I mess that up sometimes, and probably you do too.
But can I trust that God’s Holy Spirit is the best vehicle to change you?
This has been one of the radical, scary things Quakers have believed throughout our history. We trust and challenge each other to have our behavior shaped by the Holy Spirit.
Originally Quakers didn’t have creeds and statements of faith-they only had questions, queries designed to challenge each other to “find out what pleases the Lord.” At our best, Friends have pointed people to the living Jesus who still teaches, have prodded people to listen and obey the still small voice of God.
There’s a famous story I now know isn’t true, but it makes the point. It’s told that George Fox, the one who believed Jesus removed the occasion for all war and felt followers of Jesus shouldn’t fight…it’s told that George Fox was asked by William Penn, a military man, how long he could keep wearing his sword. Tell me, George, is this still ok now that I follow Jesus?
And rather than say, “Get rid of it” or explain why pacifism was true, Fox reportedly said, “Where it as long as you can.” Where it as long as the Holy Spirit allows you to. I don’t agree with the military, but I trust you to listen to God on your own. God will show you how to live, it’s not my responsibility.
Can you and I live like that?
It’s not easy. But I parent better when I trust that God knows my kids and loves my kids more than me, when I point them to God for direction. I am a better pastor when I point people to God. I actually find I am more free to share what I think and how I live when I begin with telling someone, “I trust God to guide you, even if it’s different from how I do things. Here’s what I think and why…now you ‘find out what pleases the Lord.’”
This is how I make sense of these expectations on behavior. Not that God is primarily coming to punish people for wrong and pour out wrath. Primarily God has loved us through Jesus Christ and is working to bring us all into right relationship with Jesus. God has given the Holy Spirit as a deposit, something for now that guarantees what is to come. Because I’m loved and accepted, I want to live how God intends, because I know what God intends for me is right. I don’t focus on your behavior and how you should act, but I do everything in my power to find out what pleases the Lord and obey, rather than try and find loopholes to justify what I want to do.
This matters! Our inability to communicate trust to others, our need to always define exactly what God thinks about everything…it sets us up in God’s place. It communicates to others that they do not measure up to God’s standard unless they agree with us. People outside the church, and the youth growing up in it, can feel stigmatized when they don’t measure up or agree. Rather than a beautiful message of love and hope, we communicate something else.
Eric Muhr, our youth pastor, sent me an email after we were talking about this message. He said, “This matters to me.” When our students grow up and have this feeling of being stigmatized, they go to therapists to work this out. Eric quoted a psychologist to give us an idea of what they are told:
“The best thing is to identify the source of the stigma. I tell my patients to think: ‘Who, or what, was it that made me feel this way for the first time?'” Weissman says. “Then go from there. If it’s a certain group that you’re still associated with, leave; if it’s an organization, get out of it.”
We want everyone, young and old, inside or outside, to hear and receive from us the message of God’s good work through Jesus.
May we commit to pointing people to Jesus. May we ourselves commit to finding out what pleases the Lord. May we trust that God’s Holy Spirit does this work of convicting and convincing far better than we do ourselves.