Welcome to God’s Family!

Welcome to God’s family!  Yes, that’s the whole sermon in one sentence – welcome to God’s family. Everything else that follows is detail on what that means. Specifically, we’re looking at these six verses from Romans 8, which are like a welcome letter to all Christians, welcoming them into their new family. It tells us theology – who God is, and how He brings us into his family; it tells us the law, and how we are supposed to act as part of this family; it tell us the Gospel, what God has done for us that we could never have done for ourselves.

By way of a useful coincidence, July 26th is also an optional minor saint’s day, commemorating Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary. Normally, minor feast days cannot be celebrated in place of the regular Sunday lessons and themes, and I’m not breaking that rule today. Instead, since this Sunday’s themes speak so wonderfully to welcoming us into God’s family, we’re giving a nod to the grandparents of Jesus as a side point along the way.

Introducing Sts. Joachim & Anne

Many of you may not be familiar with Joachim and Anne, so I’ll give you a quick introduction to them. Two different genealogies of Jesus are given in the New Testament – one by St. Matthew and one by St. Luke. Many scholars, both ancient and modern, both Catholic and Protestant, have surmised that the differences between them are accounted for by the fact that Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus through Mary, rather than through Joseph. Thus, the father of Mary according to Luke 3:23 is Eli (or Heli), which is usually the shortened version of a longer name. As far as how his name has been remembered in the Church, he has been known as Joachim, and his wife (not mentioned in Scripture) is called Anne.

The story goes that Joachim and Anne were both old and childless. And, like several stories throughout the Bible, they were visited by angels who informed them that God was going to provide them with a child. But, unlike all those other stories, they were promised a daughter rather than a son. Normally this would be a little disappointing, since the role of a firstborn son was critical in carrying on the family name, but rather than preserving an earthly heritage, they were promised a spiritual one: this daughter would grow up to become the mother of the long-awaited Messiah! How many of these details are historically precise, we don’t know. As far as we can tell, Joachim and Anne lived in Jerusalem, and it was probably with them that the young Jesus stayed overnight when his parents accidentally left him behind after one of the great feasts of the year.

Sometimes Christians from other traditions accuse us of idolatry when we remember saints such as these, especially concerning the Virgin Mary, or in this case, her parents. But what must be remembered when we think about Mary and Joachim and Anne, is that all theological and devotional remembrances of them are reminders that Jesus is human. When we get too high-in-the-sky distant from Jesus, it is a powerful reminder to think about the fact that he had a mother, and grandparents, and that we know their names, and even some little tid-bits about their lives. Jesus was a real person in real history. And, as we are taught by Saint Paul, we are all part of Jesus’ own family.

Theology: God is our Father

The most important lesson that we learn about God from this welcome into God’s family is that God is our father. Many of our prayers, both in public liturgy and in private devotions, address God as father. Jesus himself taught us to do that when he gave us the Lord’s Prayer. Romans 8:15 tells us “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” This is one of the most profound things about becoming a Christian: we are adopted by God into his family. Just think how much love must be behind such an act! Normally, parents don’t get to choose what children they get; we’re stuck with whoever we get, and sometimes that’s easy, and sometimes that’s hard. But in adoption, a prospective parent gets to preview that child – evaluate the merits and the flaws – and decide whether or not to go through with the adoption. God looked upon each of us, in all our glory and all our sin, and decided “mine.”

Specifically, we “have received the Spirit of adoption as sons.” We’re shown that it is in the sending of the Holy Spirit that adoption takes place. Normally, this event is expressed through Holy Baptism. By “water and the Spirit” we are united to Christ in both his death and his resurrection. This union with Christ makes us “one with him,” as many of our prayers say. As far as this image of family is concerned, this union with him makes Jesus our brother. Have you ever thought of that? His Father has become our father – that means Jesus is our brother!

But we must be clear, even though this heavenly adoption is a full and complete adoption into God’s family, and even though Jesus is now our brother, there is still a difference between Jesus and us. Jesus is the “only begotten son” of God, as John 3:16 describes. Jesus is the only Son of the Father naturally. He is, therefore, God. Our adoption makes his Father our father, but does not make us into gods ourselves. So we cannot drag Jesus down to our level entirely; he is still the oldest brother, the primary heir, the one who sits on the throne. He shares with us because he loves his adopted brothers and sisters, not because we have any rights to his glory and power.

Law: We are to be obedient like the Son

Now we turn to the law – what does being a part of God’s family put upon us in terms of requirements for how we live our lives? Our reading from Romans 8 begins with a very straight-forward answer: “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” Because we’ve received that adoption through the Spirit, we are in debt to God. That debt is one of obedience. Even a quick glance at the life of Jesus reveals that he lived a life of perfect attentive obedience to God the Father; our calling as adopted sons and daughters is the same. As Jesus himself said in today’s Gospel reading, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Our simply claiming adoption is not enough to be saved. We can’t just say we’re in the family, we have to be in the family.

Our debt of obedience to God goes even further. At the end of our passage from Romans, we are told “we [must] suffer with [Christ] in order that we may also be glorified with him. This is an echo of Jesus’ own words that we must take up our own cross and follow him. Our reading from Jeremiah (23:16-17) also speaks into this reality, reminding us that it is the voice of a false prophet that says “It shall be well with you” and “No disaster shall come upon you.” Sorry, following Christ is a path of hardship and toil.

As tough as that can be for us to swallow, the alternative is far worse. As Romans 8:13 says, “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Obedience to God is tough, but disobedience and following the whims of this world will definitely destroy us. As today’s Collect prays, “O God, put away from us all hurtful things!”

Gospel: The Holy Spirit leads us into a glorious inheritance

Thankfully, there’s more to the story than that. First of all, Romans 8:15 tells us that we “did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.” Slaves do not receive a reward for their work. Other religions, such as Islam, essentially preach the message that we are slaves of Allah, and that’s that; obey or perish. But the Christian gospel is that we are no longer slaves under the Law, but are now sons under grace! And as sons, as verse 17 continues, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” which means we have the exciting prospect of an inheritance at the end of this often-difficult life!

For many of Paul’s original readers, it was hard to see how this promised blessing of an inheritance for God’s family could apply to non-Jews. The Jews, after all, were the people of promise. Only the descendants of Abraham could be considered God’s family. So Paul added the point, when writing to the Galatians (3:7) that “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” Your earthly family is no hindrance to God saving you. If you are a believer and follower of Christ, and baptized into his body, the Church, you are a child and heir of Abraham, and have an inheritance of eternal life with God to look forward to!

Similarly, Romans 8:14 says “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Notice: all who are led by the Spirit are God’s children. So when you hear those chilling words of Jesus “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” and those impossible demands of the law, requiring us to be perfectly obedient to God, to suffer with Christ, and renounce all the things of this world in order to follow him, you must take refuge in the grace of God. He has laid this impossible burden upon you, precisely so you might learn that you cannot live up to his holiness, and teaching you to trust completely in his mercy, love, and grace. Yes we are called to good works, and woe to the one who neglects them! But those works do not save us; to be a child of God is to be “led by the Spirit of God.” God himself provides the strength and power to follow him. We cannot do it alone, we must lean on his help every step of the way.

Doxology: We celebrate in and with our whole family

Now, having examined the theology of God as our adoptive father, having been confronted with the law of obedience and suffering with Christ, and having heard the gospel of being led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we turn to doxology: our fourth and final lesson about being in God’s family. “Doxology” means praise. All true teaching ought to lead to doxology – what we know about God and his creation and ourselves all together shape how we praise him return. In light of God’s act of adopting us into his family, our appropriate response is twofold: to praise him with his family members, and to praise him in his family members.

Praising God with his family members is exciting. We’ve got to remember that his family is made up of everyone who has ever believed and trusted in God, everyone who does now, and everyone who ever will. Our “church family” is visibly a small gathering in this room, but invisibly it is a crowd of uncountable billions of people, not to mention all the angels and archangels also gathered around God’s throne. That’s why in our tradition of worship we preserve ancient forms, dialogues, hymns, and statements. First, it reminds us that the Church is bigger than we can see, and second, it actually unites us across the ages by worshiping God with one voice.

And then there’s praising God in his family members. By this I mean that we praise God by honoring others who are in his family. When we honor people, we declare their worth. We identify who they are and proclaim the good work that God has done in their lives. And we do this both with our visible church family and our invisible church family. Visibly, we encourage and build one another up; we support each other through prayer and other means; we help one another to stay on the narrow path of Christ. Honoring our invisible church family is only a little different. Those who have gone before us no longer need our earthly assistance to continue in their lives of discipleship, but they can still be honored by being remembered and having their goodness proclaimed as examples and encouragements and testimonies to the power of God. The 11th chapter of Hebrews is a great example of this, listing hero after hero of the faith from the Old Testament, and testifying to their great faith in God.  That is why we celebrate Saints’ days from time to time. In the lives of the Church’s “founding fathers,” so to speak, we find powerful testimonies and lessons. Saints Joachim and Anne are not people whose works we know much about, but we do know some of God’s works in them. They were in that special line of that carefully-preserved genealogy throughout the Bible from which the Son of God would emerge.  The hymn that we sang earlier, about Saint Anne, illustrates this very poetically. Verses 2 and 3 form a three-part chiasm –a poetic structure that repeats itself in reverse. Verse 2 begins with identifying Jesus, “the Sun of justice, Christ, true light,” then describes his mother “Mary, grace’s dawning bright,” and then his grandmother, “Anna, reddening the sky.” Verse 3 then moves in reverse order: “Anna, fruitful root,” who bears Mary “the flowering rod,” who in turn “bore for us the Christ of God.”

Notice how Mary and Anne are honored in these verses: it’s all centered on Jesus. Jesus is the light of the world that has dawned, Jesus is the flower of Jesse that has bloomed. Anna and Mary were his earthly forebears according to the flesh, and so their glory and honor derives from Jesus accordingly. The same is true for all the Saints, and for you and me: everything good, everything noble, everything beautiful about us comes from God. God created us in his image, and God is forming us into the image of his Son. O, to grace, how great a debtor! May God continue to put away from us all hurtful things, and give us those things which are profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Frequently Misused Verses: “You are a royal priesthood”

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. – 1 Peter 2:9

Frequent Misuse: This verse has been appealed to by many Christians (generally just by Protestants) to argue that every Christian is a priest, and that there is no such thing as a special ordained priestly office anymore.

But this seems pretty clear.  What’s wrong with this interpretation?  First and foremost, this is not just a New Testament statement; St. Peter is actually quoting from the Old Testament:

you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. – Exodus 19:6

Israel was a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” and the Church is “a royal priesthood and a holy nation.”  Minor wording difference aside, we’re finding that Israel and the Church are exactly the same thing: the Body of God’s People in the world.  Similar expressions are also found in Revelation 1:6 and 5:10.  The point is, though, that despite this “royal priesthood” description for all of Israel, they still had a particular ordained priesthood from among them.  Thus, these words from 1 Peter 2 cannot be used to argue that there can be no specific priesthood within the Church.  Such a theological argument would have to be drawn from other parts of Scripture (and in my view, such an argument cannot be rightly drawn from Scripture, because there is an ordained priesthood in the Church).

Furthermore, there’s a lot more in this verse that deserves our attention.  Not only is the whole Church a “royal priesthood” in that we share in the identity of Christ our Great High Priest, but we’re also a “chosen race” and a “holy nation.”  The priesthood idea is all very interesting, but being a particular race and nation are even more radical assertions.  Imagine if more Christians actually said “I don’t identify as white or black, but as a Christian.”  Or “the USA is just my home away from home; my real homeland is the Kingdom of God.”  Sure, these are realities that Christians do talk about from time to time, but we don’t make as big a deal of them as we probably should.  Especially when we’re too distracted over what a “royal priesthood” is or is not.

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Frequently Misused Verses: God so loved the world

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16

What?  The favorite memory verse of Evangelical Christianity has been misunderstood all this time!  What are we to do!?  Thankfully, the error and misuse involved here is actually mostly harmless, so take a deep breath, have a beer or whatever, and continue reading once that initial panic has subsided :-)

The first mistake: awkward grammar

I’ve heard this mostly from music team leaders during worship services at non-liturgical churches.  You know the drill, the band has to change the music on their stands or something, so the leader half-preaches-half-prays for a minute to buy them some time.  And then out comes some strangely paraphrased Scripture quotes that sound real nice but actually misinterpret them: “God loved the world so much, that he gave his one and only Son…” Actually, that’s not what the word “so” means here.  Rather than “so much” it actually means “thus” or “how.”  A few translations (like the NET) render this more understandably “This is the way God loved the world…” It’s not about the quantity of God’s love, but the method of God’s love. As I said, it’s not a huge mistake; this shouldn’t rock anyone’s world.  But do please try to get it right!

The second mistake: theological imprecision

There’s actually a second issue in how this verse is often translated.  Many Bibles describe Jesus here as God’s “one and only Son.”  A more accurate translation is “only begotten Son” (kudos to the NASB, KJV, Douay-Rheims, and Young’s for getting this right).  Again, the difference between “one and only” and “only begotten” is minimal in terms of English language clarity. The reason “only begotten” is better is because “begotten” is a key term in Christian theology, describing the relationship between Jesus and the Father.  Jesus is not just any ole’ human, part of creation, he’s also the eternally-begotten Son of the Father.  His sonship is one of being begotten – he shares the same substance as the Father.  In other words, Jesus is God too.  This is a different kind of sonship than what we have; we’re adopted into God’s family.  Jesus has always been a part of it.

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Purging Our Hearts of Despair

This is my sermon for Grace Anglican Church upon 5 July 2015, Trinity 5

What is Despair? Despair is a form of sadness and discouragement that has descended to such a point that it is sinful. It denotes a lack of trust in God and a disregard for His goodness.

IMPORTANT TO NOTE:  Despair (as a sin) has nothing to do with emotional disorders such as depression, bipolar, etc.  That’s a whole different ballgame which can not (and must not) be oversimplified.  What I’m treating here is a disposition of the heart that we fallen humans wrongly allow ourselves to fall in to from time to time.  Chemical imbalances, past traumas, and the like, are not sins, but wounds, and thus are to be considered differently.

Why do we despair? We despair because of sin, internal and external – the world isn’t all as it should be.

How can we deal with it? We can best fight despair by meditating on the good blessings of God, and rejoicing in the moments in which the Kingdom of God shines forth.

Example #1: the Ordination of Elisha  (1 Kings 19:19-21)

This is a picture of the Church’s ministry prospering, despite the world being in a catastrophically bad state.

  • Israel has been worshiping foreign gods for years, with no sign of repentance.
  • Elijah has been on the run from King Ahab & Jezebel, who seek to kill him.
  • Despite all that, God directs Elijah to focus on building up a faithful people by ordaining Elisha to continue his ministry (casting the cloak is a like a “passing of the mantel”).
  • Elisha sacrifices the oxen (celebration meal) and the yoke (severing ties from his worldly life) and follows Elijah as his assistant.

Example #2: the Lord’s Prayer

We pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

  • What’s going on in heaven? Angels & Saints respond to God in perfect willing obedience and perfect worship.
  • What is God’s will? God’s will is identified in the Decalogue, and the whole of Scripture, culminating in the Law of Christ – to love God and neighbor.
  • How is God’s will done on earth? Note the course of the Lord’s Prayer: Hallow God’s name, seek God’s Kingdom, and then God’s will is done. As God’s Name is hallowed by the Church, obedience to God in Christ follows.
  • Additionally, once we’ve centered our focus on seeking God’s kingdom, we may turn to countering evil in our hearts and in the world, and extend God’s grace to others.

Example #3: our Christian Identity

In order to live out the prayer “Thy will be done,” we need to shift our self-image from “American Christianity” to “Catholic Christianity.”  This is a shift from segregating ourselves off to recognizing that we are part of the one Church throughout the world and throughout history.

  • Social action needs to make room for prayer. The Enemy is not winning because we aren’t fighting, voting, and pressing our cause enough in the public square; the Enemy is winning because we have been lazy, contemptuous, irreverent, and worldly. Jesus calls us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33), and this begins in prayer and worship. Social action can and should flow from that grounding in prayer and worship, otherwise our action easily becomes a legalistic idol.
  • Our American citizenship needs to make room for our citizenship in heaven. Yes we are Americans, and yes the Bible commands us to be good and faithful citizens of our earthly homelands. But we also need to remember that our spiritual rebirth and heavenly destiny reminds us that we have in this life no abiding city, but we seek one that is to come (Hebrews 13:14).
  • Engaging with the culture needs to make room for putting our own house in order. If we think about evangelism and fighting the culture wars as our most important calling, then we miss things that are just as important: discipleship and the building up of the Body of Christ. Also, if our first cause is fighting culture wars, then all we’ll see is combat and loss. Too easily, we’ll miss the fact that times of unfaithfulness and persecution serve as times of purification and refining of God’s people! And then, of course, as we get ourselves sorted out amidst our own collection of problems, we will then be able to shine the light of Christ more clearly, and be able to engage with the culture around us.

Example #4: our Christian priority

You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. – Haggai 1:9

  • Haggai describes a mixed-up sense of priorities as the cause that his people are not flourishing. They’re caught up focusing on their worldly homes to the extent that they’re neglecting the spiritual home of God’s house, the Temple.
  • We are called to right worship (orthodoxy) – to build up the Body of Christ into a robust and living community. That is where we draw upon the power of God’s Spirit to engage with a hostile world around us.

Who will do this? Luke 5:1-11 & the Collect of the Day remind us that God will do the work of transforming this world; we just need to be faithful to who He has called us to be.

  • Luke 5: They had been fishing all day and caught nothing, until Jesus told them to fish.
  • Collect: May God order “the course of this world” so that we can serve Him peacefully.
  • We can and must serve Him regardless of peacefulness, but it’s always good to ask!

Do not despair! So even though the world around may seem like everything’s getting worse, whether it’s in your personal lives or the life our country or culture, remember that there is no cause for despair. As I said last week, God knows what he’s doing. If life just seems too depressing these days, then perhaps you’re paying too much attention to the world, to sin, or to yourself. Instead, turn to Christ anew this day (and every day), and re-orient your heart and mind around the work God is doing with his people in the midst of this world. You and I are not going to band together and change the world. The power and spirit of the Lord will change the world. Let us focus on getting our house in order, removing the logs from our eyes, so that we can see clearly to deal with the specks in the eyes of others. Let us be attentive not to labor in vain, but be ready to cast our nets the moment Christ bids us to do so; for he is not just the Savior whom we preach, but the Lord whom we lovingly and obediently serve.  Amen.

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Frequently Misused Verses: I know the plans I have for you

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. – Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV)

What’s the issue?

This is one of those heart-warming verses that people like to put onto wall-hangings, internet graphics, and use as words of encouragement when people are feeling down.  I’ve heard people quote this to assure friends that God will find them the right spouse at the right time, or that will God will provide them with a job, or otherwise.

Although these are indeed words of comfort to God’s people in distress, we have a tendency to stretch their application far beyond what they’re meant to cover.  Consider Jesus; he died on the Cross.  Was that God’s wonderful plan to prosper him and not harm him?  Consider the twelve apostles (besides St. John) – they all died martyr’s deaths.  Perhaps a picture will speak louder than words:


Spoiler alert: all the Christian hostages in this picture died.

Exploring the context of this verse

As usual, the best way to understand these words is to look at the passage in which they are found.  Jeremiah 29:1-23 is a letter that was sent to the Judeans in captivity in Babylon.  In this letter, he’s telling them that God wants them to invest in their new lives in captivity.  They’ll be away from Jerusalem for a long time, so they are to build homes, have families, plant fields, and pray for their oppressive overlords.  After 70 years, God promises to bring them back to their homeland: that is the “plan to prosper you” or the “plan for your welfare” that our famous verse 11 is talking about.  It’s an affirmation that life stinks at the moment, and an assurance that God will bring them home in due time.

Our popular misuse of this verse reduces it into a short-sighted “prosperity gospel” mantra that falls flat the moment you hold up the Cross next to it.  Instead of looking for earthly prosperity and welfare as God’s great promises to us, we are supposed to see the same thing Jeremiah’s audience saw: God’s great promise to bring us home.  Where is our home?  The new heaven and new earth, where we’ll be living in perfect peace, without sin, in perfect fellowship with one another, and finally seeing and worshiping God face to face.

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Frequently Misused Verses: “Judge Not”

This is my sermon for the 4th Sunday after Trinity at Grace Anglican Church, examining Luke 6:36-42.

America’s Favorite Bible Quote in the 21st Century: “Judge Not”

This brief quote has been used by many people lately, both by Christians and by non-Christians, to argue that Jesus does not want us to be judgmental. We are told that calling out sins in other people is rude, unloving, hypocritical, and unchristian. This individualistic attitude of “mind your own business” has begun to permeate our cultural mindset, and has severely weakened the ministry of many churches along the way.

However, if you read on to see what Jesus says next, you will find that he is not exactly telling us simply to “mind our own business.” Certainly there are some strong warnings against being hypocrites, but there are also instructions as to how to judge people properly. He begins with some teaching, and follows it up with a parable.

Examining Jesus’ Instruction (v36-38)

“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

This verse begins us off with the context of mercy. In some ways this statement is finishing the previous teaching on loving your enemies, but it’s also acting as a transition into the topic of judging and forgiving. We are instructed by Jesus to be merciful just as God the Father is merciful. That doesn’t mean we never punish and ignore sin, but that we don’t use the full extent of the law against people. God, after all, held back punishment upon Israel for a very long time, making enormous allowances for the possibility of repentance. We would do well to imitate that mindset in our own interactions with others.

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.”

These two statements form a pair which literary scholars call “synonymous parallelism.” That means that two phrases are used to say the same thing in slightly different ways. You’ll find this style a lot in the Bible, especially in the poetry of the Psalms, the Wisdom books, and the Prophets. Here, Jesus is making this nifty little statement about judging and condemning, and how we’re not supposed to do them. The first word, judge, is the normal generic word of judge: κρινετε. The second word, condemn, is a very particular word in Greek: καταδικαζετε. It means to “declare guilty or innocent,” and is based on the word δικαιος, which means “righteous.” By putting these two terms in parallel with each other, Jesus is specifying that we are forbidden from a specific type of judgment: we are not allowed to make ultimate pronouncements on peoples’ guilt or innocence before God for their sins. We do not the power nor the authority to decide or declare who is righteous before God; God alone makes that decision.

Instead, we have power and authority to forgive and to give. Jesus gives us another synonymous parallel statement here:

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”

Again we have a lovely poetic teaching here, beautifully reflecting the previous line: “no judgment and no condemnation” gives way to “forgive and give.” Already we’re given a hint that the statements “judge not” and “condemn not” aren’t quite as simple as they seem, because we’re now being told to forgive. How can we forgive unless we recognize that we’ve been sinned against? And if we do recognize that we’ve been sinned against, haven’t we just made a judgment in our minds? Yes, we have made a type of judgment, and Jesus teaches us more about that in the brief parable which follows.

Before we get there, however, we should pay attention to the dynamic of forgiveness Jesus describes here. Genuine repentance & faith leads us to forgive others. We should not think of God’s forgiveness of us as a reward for our forgiving others. Rather, we forgive because we are forgiven. Think back to the first verse of this passage: we are to be merciful because God first shown us mercy. It is the same with forgiveness; we forgive because we are forgiven. We pray this also in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses (sins), as we forgive those who trespass (sin) against us!”

“Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.
For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

Jesus describes how we are to give and to forgive with this interesting string of expressions which don’t even form a proper sentence in the English language. Imagine measuring a cup of flour: you could just pour the flour into a cup and leave it at that. Or you could pour it in, being sure to make a good measure, and press it down, shaking it together so there are no hidden gaps inside the cup, and then top it off so it’s running over. It’s a picture of generosity: don’t be stingy in how you forgive people, or how you give to others; be abundantly generous! For, just as passing condemning judgment on others gets us in great trouble with God, being abundantly generous toward others makes us more like God.

A prominent 18th-century Bible commentator, Adam Clarke, wrote about this. To paraphrase him: “We live a sort of society that makes mutual help necessary. And since self-interest, pride, and other corrupt passions always end up in our interactions, we can’t help but to offend one another at times. In civil society we must, in order to have some peace, resolve to bear with our neighbors; we must suffer, pardon, and give up many things. Without this giving and forgiving spirit, both our civil society and even our church congregations will end up with nothing but divisions, evil assumptions, hateful arguments, outrages, anger, vengeance, and, in a word, a total break-down of the mystical body of Christ. Thus our loud calling both in society and in the Church is to GIVE and to FORGIVE.”

Examining Jesus’ Parable (v39-42)

Now we turn to the brief parables that Jesus used to elaborate on this teaching.

“Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?

The same commentator, Adam Clarke, wrote about the blind leading the blind: “[One] who is not illuminated from above is utterly incapable of judging concerning spiritual things, and wholly unfit to guide others.” Just as someone who is blind cannot be a guide to another as they walk down a rocky path, so too is it impossible for an unspiritual person to lead other Christians without ending in disaster.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”

Jesus gives us the important reminder that a disciple is not above his teacher – we are all taught by Jesus through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and no human teacher will ever surpass that. This is why good preaching is always drawn from the Bible, not from the pastor’s personal experience or wisdom. Nevertheless, we human disciples can be taught to be good leaders and teachers. The phrase “fully trained” here is a rich word in Greek also meaning “put together,” “mended,” “instructed,” or even “united” to God. Someone who is fully trained in this sense “will be like his teacher” and able to guide others in the Church accordingly.

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”

The speck, or mote, or splinter, is a tiny piece of dust that disrupts your vision a little bit. A log, or beam, is like a tree branch. Imagine a branch as big as your arm sticking out of your face! Not only would it be very difficult for you to see with that in the way, but it’d also be nearly impossible to get near other people without slapping them in the face! When we have unresolved sin in our lives that we haven’t recognized, and sought repentance for, we’re under a form of spiritual blindness. It’s a compromise that makes it very difficult for us to minister to others in their sinful conditions without doing more damage of our own along the way. If we are to minister to others effectively, and with integrity, we need to be living lives of active self-examination and repentance ourselves. Otherwise we’re hypocrites, and Jesus has a lot of strong words against hypocrites.

This is where today’s culture’s misuse of the verse “judge not” is actually right: we’re not supposed to be hypocrites who try to fix the sins of others while ignoring our own sins. What our culture doesn’t understand, however, is the solution: they say that the solution is to ignore all sin as if it doesn’t exist, and simply mind your own business. Jesus’ solution is quite different: examine yourself, identify your sins, address them, and repent of them. Then, you’ll grow in spiritual maturity, and become more able to help others do the same.

Judging & Discernment in the Church

As I said earlier on, we are not allowed judge in the condemning fashion in which we decide who is righteous or unrighteous before God. The final judgment of salvation or condemnation is entirely in God’s hands. What we are allowed to do, and are actually commanded to do, is to carry out a different kind of judgment, also called discernment. We do this first by taking the logs out of our own eyes. The Prayer of Confession that we use here in the Communion service is just one example of how we can examine and express our sinfulness before God in a spirit of repentance. The more often and the more carefully we judge ourselves, the more deeply we discover how sinful we are. This accomplishes two things: first it helps us to be more humble before a holy God who himself is utterly sinless; and second, it helps us to act more loving toward others in their sins, just as our loving God acts toward us.

Then we will be in a better position to be merciful, as our heavenly Father is merciful. We will be in a better position to forgive others, as we have been forgiven, and to be generous as God has been generous to us. And finally, we will be in a better position to be discerning, able to recognize when others sin, and help them to overcome them. The world already has enough angry hellfire preachers telling everyone to repent. But we always need more discerning, loving witnesses who recognize sin for what it is, call it for what it is, and offer their love and tangible support in overcoming that sin. That is who God is; that is who we are called to be also. Amen.

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Gender and the Image of God

What with all the media hubbub raging across the internet these days in the wake of Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenners, it seemed like an appropriate time to revisit what gender is, in the Bible, and see how Christians ought to respond to this marvel of scientific achievement and courageous challenge to a culture only on the brink of accepting such an action as a gender change.

For those who have mercifully avoided the hype (both supportive and critical of Jenner’s life choices), I point you to Wikipedia as a handy starting point from where you can branch out to other sources as desired.  In short:

“VanityFairJuly2015″ by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

From a theological perspective, Jenner’s relational history is a tale of contradiction and turmoil: three serial marriages to three different women, a self-identification as asexual, a self-perception to be a woman in a man’s body… and despite all this is “a professed Christian, leans politically conservative, and is a Republican.”  Both the religious and political declarations seem surprising.  Clearly, William Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner has faced a great deal of conflict throughout his life, bouncing between women, and uncertain of his own identity (sexually or otherwise).  Regardless of where one stands on this, morally speaking, it must be recognized that he must have gone through a lot of pain.  And though I can neither delve into Jenner’s personal feelings, beliefs, and views, I can speak from where I know – the teachings of the Church as founded in the Scriptures.

The earliest teaching in the Bible that we find concerning gender is in Genesis 1:27.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (ESV – English Standard Version)

Let it be understood that “man” in the first phrase is a genderless term, meaning mankind, or humanity.  God created the human race to be a reflection of the divine, and that reflection (or imaging) is found in both male and female.  What I’m seeing Western culture doing now, however, is rewriting this verse:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female and created them, but sometimes he got them mixed up. (WCV – Western Culture Version)

For, as many transgender folks have said (and as a documentary on the subject has been entitled), I was “born in the wrong body.”  Now, in many world-views, maybe even most world-views today, that’s a perfectly acceptable quote.  But in a Christian worldview, where the perfection and sovereignty of God is a theological given, this phrase is rather blasphemous.  Taken seriously, the claim to have been “born in the wrong body” is essentially a declaration that God made a mistake in assigning that person’s gender, be it physically or dispositionally.  Granted, there are cases in which people are born with unusual combinations of reproductive organs that defy the classic definitions of gender, but that’s a another scenario for another time.

Rather, the biblical information we start with is that God created the human race in his own image, using the genders of male and female.  The basic application and understanding of this, both among Jews and Christians, has been that marriage is an institution created by God to be between a man and a woman.  But the deeper theological reason behind that wasn’t explicitly explained until the New Testament was written.  Ephesians 5:31-32 says:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Basically, the union of male and female as husband and wife is an image of God because it is a profound mysterious (or sacramental) demonstration of the life union of Christ and the Church.  Jesus, the bridegroom, and his people, the bride, are united in a marital union.  When husband and wife are joined together, a picture of that heavenly marriage is made manifest in our world.  Marriage is a picture of salvation!  Or, as Christopher West puts it, our bodies proclaim the Gospel!  When we tamper with gender, and earthly marriage, we re-write the theological picture of our salvation through union with Christ.  The complementary differences between male and female are significant pictures of the complementary differences between Christ and us.  Salvation cannot be portrayed as a union of humanity with humanity, or deity with deity, but only as deity with humanity.

How do we respond to this case of Bruce-become-Caitlyn (and the many other cases of gender reassignment that have taken place over the past few decades)?  In some countries (like Iran and Thailand) the procedure has become relatively common for various reasons.  Some people, especially on the right-wing extreme, have declared that they will never call Jenner by the new name, Caitlyn, asserting “that’s not his name and I’m not going to refer to him as a she. He’s a he. He’s a he in every single solitary cell of his body, he will be until the day that God calls him home.”

Theologically, this response is on the right track, but in terms of human relations it is not.  First of all, I’m pretty sure that William Bruce Jenner’s name has been legally changed to Caitlyn, so there’s no reason not to call him Caitlyn.  To make a sticking point of that is to be needlessly combative, not to mention rude.  But do we as Christians have the right to call Caitlyn a woman?  Apart from the myriad social issues possibly involved considering his unrepentant divorces and multiple marriages, his exposure to the famously-dysfunctional Kardashian family, and the obvious social and emotional pressure of self-identifying as the opposite gender despite his body, there’s still the biblical bottom line to face up to: did God make a mistake when he made Caitlyn a male at birth?

Seriously, was that a divine “oops” moment, or is Caitlyn really supposed to be a man after all?

I do not believe that God makes mistakes.  I do believe, however, that we sinful humans make mistakes.  We even make mistakes about our identity.  I know a few people who thought they were called to the celibate priesthood, but eventually realized that they were called to marriage.  I’ve known people who thought they were called to one job, but ended up in a completely different career direction.  I, myself, associate having long hair with my own identity, which is probably insignificant to who I really am; I’m just caught up on this fiddly detail and am too afraid to change it.

So rather than taking the easy way out and claiming that Caitlyn was born in the wrong body, biblical Christian theology frames the issue for us such that we must conclude that Caitlyn has made a mistake (or perhaps a series of mistakes) that lead him to the erroneous conclusion that he’s supposed to be a woman.

But before we get all uppity about how terrible a sinner he is, let us remember how difficult this type of situation is.  Identity is a very precious thing.  When people are interested in Christ and the Gospel, self-identification is often the last thing we want to let go of.  Even for myself, growing up in the faith my entire life, there was a point at which I finally realized that I had to set my desires and self-perceptions aside in order to acknowledge Christ’s utter lordship in my life.  Repentance and turning to Christ in true faith is a complete and total surrender, and that’s really scary and difficult.  I would imagine that many non-christians who read that statement would find it horrifically self-abasing.  But, between the depths of human sin and the perfection of God, there is no alternative: we need God to be the definer of our lives and identities… even over our self-perceived sexual identification.

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