Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
After watching the media coverage of the decisions about the same sex marriage I thought yet again we as a church have found something to argue about. The church always seems to be in the midst of some bitter argument with one side thinking it is on the side of God and the other thinking they are on the side of the angels as well. In fact, it seems sometimes to be easier to argue about same sex marriage or ordaining women or whether divorced people can take communion then to follow Jesus. Why do love to argue with each other so much?
What are the debates that your denomination is focusing all its energy on? What are the big issues? They are questions about "who should be ordained?" and "social justice versus spiritual formation?" not to mention the always present "formulation of budgets?"
What are the topics that your congregation is focusing all its passion toward? Is it the choice of a new carpet color? or maybe traditional worship versus contemporary? or is it all about the selection of church officers?
Throughout the history of the Christian church there have been bitter controversies-and there continue to be bitter controversies-as the church struggles to discern the direction that God wants it to head. In fact, a church that never has any controversy is likely a church that has abandoned the pursuit of God's will in favor of something less challenging and less demanding.
Genuine, earnest disputes are going to arise in the life of the church. Such contention arose among the first Christians, and so we should not be surprised if the same thing happens today. Therefore, the question is not whether controversies are going to arise or not, but how we will deal with them.
In this passage in Philippians, the apostle Paul rather proudly lays out his credentials. He reminds the recipients of his letter that he possesses a pedigree that is beyond compare. As far as the Jewish faith is concerned, Paul proclaims that no one else could ever dream of having a more pure and distinctive lineage. Perhaps the modern equivalent would be that if Paul were trying to assert that he was a true-blue American, he would be able to claim that he was a descendant of George Washington and that his forebears not only came over on the Mayflower, but that his forbears steered the ship and were the first ones to come down the gang plank to set foot on Plymouth Rock..
From reading Paul's letter to the church at Philippi, it becomes obvious that Paul was writing to a church that was facing strife and opposition. Although not too many details of those controversies are named in the letter, Paul's frequent admonishment for the Philippians to take heart and maintain persistence suggests that they were being besieged from a number of directions.
Yet Paul's counsel to the church was not advice about how to retaliate or about how to engage in political maneuvering against their opponents. Paul, with his impressive list of credentials, knew that if he and the Philippian Christians had to do battle with others over religious matters, without a doubt they would prevail. But instead of sinking to the level of their opposition and quite likely remaining stuck there in conflict for quite some time, Paul urged the church to press on to higher matters, namely pressing on in pursuit of Jesus Christ and his resurrection.
At a time when so many of our churches and denominations seem to be stuck in endless conflict, with productive outcomes few and far between, maybe these words from Paul are a message that we need to give heed to. Instead of focusing on the controversies that have embroiled us in the past, might we not be better off moving on and addressing other matters that we have often failed to give any notice to? For example, when was the last time that you heard a passionate debate in the church about our mission to our children? As a church, overall we're doing a substandard job of passing on the faith to the next generation. In many congregations children are baptized and confirmed, but then they disappear, never to be seen again. It has been said that the Christian church is always one generation away from extinction. The church might not be extinct yet, but we're certainly getting closer to being put on the endangered species list. Bringing up our children to have a living faith-that's an issue that we need to press on toward and address.
It's not just the children, however, who need to be nurtured in their faith. Another dire issue before the church is the problem of biblical illiteracy. In many congregations, the quickest way to clear out a church isn't to yell "Fire!" but to yell "Bible study!" That really gets people moving for the exits. There are Christians, who if they were asked to name the twelve apostles, quite likely would list Grumpy, Sneezy, and Doc among the group. As a church, we've forgotten the stories that tell us who we are and what we're supposed to be about, and for the most part we don't seem to care. But how can we grow in our relationship with the God who is revealed through Scriptures if we have forgotten-or if we have never learned-what the Scriptures say about that God? Isn't that a matter that we should press on and deal with?
Another urgent issue in front of the church is racism. Desegregation has been on the books in the United States for about 50 years. Yet desegregation still hasn't filtered into most churches. Are we prepared to press on and face that challenge?
Controversies are going to occur in the life of any church. But as those controversies arise, should we allow ourselves to become bogged down by them to the point where the church is brought to a standstill? Or as those controversies come our way, are we able to keep our vision constantly set upon our ultimate goal-Jesus Christ?
In any church, we are going to have people with whom we disagree. In fact, I think I'd be afraid to be a part of a congregation where everyone thought exactly like I did. But the good news is that God does not expect us to engage in uniformity-to look alike and think alike and act alike in every way. God does not call us to uniformity. Yet God does call us to unity. And the essence of unity is found as we set our sights not on the disputes that are presently in front of us, but as we remain steadfast in seeking the glory of our Lord and Savior.
Paul has just attacked the Jewish teachers and insisted that it is the Christians, not the Jews, who are the truly circumcised and covenant people. His opponents might have attempted to say: ‘But you are a Christian and do not know what you are talking about; you do not know what it is to be a Jew.’ So Paul sets out his credentials, not in order to boast but to show that he had enjoyed every privilege which a Jew could enjoy and had risen to every attainment to which a Jew could rise. He knew what it was to be a Jew in the highest sense of the term, and had deliberately abandoned it all for the sake of Jesus Christ. Every phrase in this catalogue of Paul’s privileges has its special meaning; let us look at each one.
(1) He had been circumcised when he was eight days old. It had been the commandment of God to Abraham: ‘every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old’ (Genesis 17:12); and that commandment had been repeated as a permanent law of Israel (Leviticus 12:3). By this claim, Paul makes it clear that he is not an Ishmaelite—for the Ishmaelites were circumcised in their thirteenth year (Genesis 17:25)—or a convert who had come late into the Jewish faith and been circumcised as an adult. He stresses the fact that he had been born into the Jewish faith and had known its privileges and observed its ceremonies since his birth.
(2) He was of the race of Israel. When the Jews wanted to stress their special relationship to God in its most unique sense, it was the word Israelite that they used. Israel was the name which had been specially given to Jacob by God after his wrestling with him (Genesis 32:28). It was from Israel that they in the most special sense traced their heritage. In point of fact, the Ishmaelites could trace their descent from Abraham, for Ishmael was Abraham’s son by Hagar; the Edomites could trace their descent from Isaac, for Esau, the founder of the Edomite nation, was Isaac’s son; but it was the Israelites alone who could trace their descent from Jacob, whom God had called by the name of Israel. By calling himself an Israelite, Paul stressed the absolute purity of his descent.
(3) He was of the tribe of Benjamin. That is to say, he was not only an Israelite; he belonged to the elite of Israel. The tribe of Benjamin had a special place in the aristocracy of Israel. Benjamin was the child of Rachel, the much-loved wife of Jacob, and of all the twelve patriarchs he alone had been born in the promised land (Genesis 35:17–18). It was from the tribe of Benjamin that the ﬁrst king of Israel had come (1 Samuel 9:1–2), and it was no doubt from that very king that Paul had been given his original name of Saul. When, under Rehoboam, the kingdom had been split up, ten of the tribes went off with Jeroboam, and Benjamin was the only tribe which remained faithful with Judah (1 Kings 12:21). When they returned from the exile, it was from the tribes of Benjamin and Judah that the nucleus of the reborn nation was formed (Ezra 4:1). The tribe of Benjamin had the place of honour in Israel’s battle line, so that it was Benjamin who led the way: ‘the people of the Lord marched down for him against the mighty … following you, Benjamin, with your kin’ (Judges 5:13–14; cf. Hosea 5:8). The feast of Purim, which was observed every year with such rejoicing, commemorated the deliverance of which the Book of Esther tells; and the central ﬁgure of that story was Mordecai, a Benjaminite. When Paul stated that he was of the tribe of Benjamin, it was a claim that he was not simply an Israelite but that he belonged to the highest aristocracy of Israel. It would be the equivalent in England of saying that he came over with the Normans, or in America that he traced his descent from the Pilgrim Fathers.
So, Paul claims that from his birth he was a God-fearing, law-observing Jew, that his lineage was as pure as Jewish lineage could be, and that he belonged to the most aristocratic tribe of the Jews. (Barclay, W. The Letters to Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (3rd ed. Fully rev. and updated [2003, Louisville, KY] p 67–69)
Quite a few years ago a man was brought into the emergency room in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, with a dislocated spine. My father, who was an orthopedic surgeon, was on duty, and he saw at a glance that the man had been partially paralyzed. He had been in a serious accident, and there was much wrong with him. His legs had been broken and there were deep lacerations over much of his body, but he could not feel these things because a nerve had been pinched by the spine. My father began to operate on him using a local anesthetic and occasionally asked if the man could feel anything from his injuries. The questioning went like this: “Do you feel anything?” “No.” “Do you feel anything now?” “No.” At last my father came to a piece of splintered bone that was pressing on the nerves. This time, as he removed the bone and asked, “Can you feel anything?” the answer came back loudly, “Yes, yes, I can feel it!” It was a cry of pain. But it was a pleasing cry, for it was the first step in the man’s complete recovery.
It may be the same for you. God’s verdict upon the human race includes all people—the hedonist, the moralist, the most religious person, and you, whatever you may be. It is one that declares all human righteousness unable to satisfy the righteous standards of God. You are included in that judgment, but you may not be able to feel that the things God is saying about you are true. Are you sensitive to God’s verdict? Do you feel the truth of his statements? If not, there is a spiritual disorder in your life and God must begin to operate on it before you will come to him.
Perhaps he is doing that now! You may be feeling the most acute spiritual pain because of it, but you must know that your new sensitivity is the first step in your spiritual recovery. Your recovery will take place completely as you come to God to receive a righteousness that comes from God himself and is entirely untainted by sin. That righteousness comes by faith in Jesus Christ. You must come to God through him.
(Boice, J. M. Philippians: An Expositional Commentary [2000, Grand Rapids, MI] p177)
I am an Israelite by birth (literally, “out of the race of Israel”) indicates that Paul possessed by birth all the privileges of the chosen people. Israel is the covenant name of the people of God (Rom 9:4; 11:1; 2 Cor 11:22). I am an Israelite by birth may be expressed as “I have been an Israelite from the time I was born,” but it would be more natural in many languages to say, “both my parents were Israelites.”
Paul claims adherence to the tribe of Benjamin, a tribe regarded with particular esteem (Judges 5:14; Hos 5:8). The Benjamites had given the nation its first lawful king, whose name was Saul, the same as the apostle’s original Hebrew name. Except for David’s own tribe of Judah, the tribe of Benjamin alone remained loyal to the house of David after the disruption of the monarchy (1 Kgs 12:21). It also had the unique privilege of having within its borders the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Temple (Judges 1:21). Although of the tribe of Benjamin is a reference specifically to Paul, in many languages it would be more natural to speak of the parents of Paul as belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. This would assure Paul’s membership in the same tribe.
A pure-blooded Hebrew is literally “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (JB “a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents”). There was no heathen blood in him. In the Old Testament the word “Hebrew” is a distinctive national term; while in the New Testament it usually designates the Jew who retained his national language and way of life, in contrast to the “Hellenist,” a Jew who generally spoke Greek and conformed to Gentile customs and cultures (Acts 6:1; 22:2). Thus the “Hebrew regarded himself as belonging to the elite of his race. A pure-blooded Hebrew can be best expressed in some languages as “my forefathers were all Hebrews,” or “my lineage has always been Hebrew.”
Thus far Paul has listed his inherited privileges. Now he proceeds to mention his personal attainments.
He says, literally, “with reference to the Law, a Pharisee,” The Pharisees were the strictest sect in Judaism, taking upon themselves the sacred duty of keeping and defending both the Mosaic Law and the tradition of the fathers. Paul’s statement can be rendered more explicitly as far as keeping the Jewish Law is concerned, I was a Pharisee. Notice that, instead of the more restricted term “Mosaic Law,” TEV has Jewish Law (so also Brc). This term is more inclusive, since it covers the twofold duties of keeping the Mosaic Law and the interpretive traditions of the scribes. In saying I was a Pharisee, Paul claims faithfulness and sincerity in fulfilling the duties prescribed in the Jewish Law. For him Pharisee is not a name for reproach, but a title of honor (Acts 23:6; 26:5).
As far as keeping the Jewish Law is concerned may be expressed as “in my keeping the Jewish Law,” Or one can shift the relation between the clauses in the final sentence and say “I kept the Jewish Law as a Pharisee.” In a number of languages, however, one cannot speak of “keeping the Law” except in the sense of preserving a book of the Law in one’s house. What is meant here, of course, is that Paul faithfully obeyed all the commandments in the Law. Therefore, one may translate as “I did everything that the Jewish Law said I should do.” The phrase the Jewish Law may be translated as “the Law which the Jews followed,” or “the laws which the Jews obeyed,” or “… were supposed to obey.” (Loh, I.-J., & Nida, E. A. A handbook on Paul’s letter to the Philippians [1995, New York] p96–97)
In a number of languages, it is quite impossible to speak of “having righteousness.” It is often possible to say, “to be right,” “to be in a right relationship with God,” or “to be rightly related to God.” But frequently “righteousness” is not something one may possess. Accordingly, I no longer have a righteousness of my own may be rendered as “no longer am I rightly related to God because of what I myself have done,” or “no longer am I right in God’s eyes just because of what I have done.” The following appositional and explanatory phrase, the kind that is gained by obeying the Law, may then be rendered as “that is, being right because I have obeyed the Law,” or “… have done what the Law said I should do.”
Paul makes clear that the principle of law is not the means by which he received true righteousness. He insists, literally, “but which is through faith in Christ.” It is the principle of faith that really works. The relative pronoun “which” refers to righteousness, and TEV makes this explicit, I now have the righteousness. As is evident from the next clause, the initiative is with God; and it is best to make this fact explicit, that is given, with “God” as the implied subject. The genitive construction “faith of Christ” is formally ambiguous, but most commentators agree that we have here an objective genitive with “Christ” as the object of “faith.” “Faith” is an event word, and “Paul is the implied subject of the event. The unambiguous meaning of this construction, then, is faith in Christ (Knox “believing in Christ”). In biblical understanding, faith is basically, not a matter of intellectual assent, but of personal trust. It is an attitude of constant and total dependence on God, a response to the trustworthiness of God.
The apostle further defines the new righteousness by describing more precisely its source and its basis. This is the righteousness that comes from God and is based on faith (literally, “the righteousness from God upon the faith”). It is not advisable to take the preposition rendered based on as equivalent to the preceding preposition rendered through (Gpd “through faith … through faith”), since “faith” is explained in one instance as the means and in the other as the basis for receiving the true righteousness. It has been suggested that the preposition here carries the sense of “on the condition of” (Knox), but Paul stresses the essential character of the new righteousness, rather than the conditions on which it is received. Furthermore, for Paul faith is primarily a response, not a condition (NEB “given by God in response to faith”).
According to the Pharisaic concept of piety, righteousness for man consists in the minute and precise fulfillment of all the requirements of the Law. This was thought to be the only way to communion with God, the only guarantee of man’s right relationship with God. According to Paul as a Christian, faith alone is able to insure for him such a relation. It is clear, then, that righteousness as used in the present context is not understood as ethical. It is not a result of one’s moral attainment or quality. The significance is basically relational, that is, denoting a right relationship with God.
Since the righteousness that comes from God is an amplification and qualification of the righteousness that is given through faith in Christ, it may be preferable in some languages to begin a new sentence here and to make God the agent of the relationship of righteousness, for example, “God is the one who causes me to be put right with himself,” “God is the one who puts me right with himself,” or “God is the one who causes me to be right.” The final phrase of this verse, is based on faith, serves to reinforce what has already been said about the righteousness that is given through faith in Christ. In a number of languages, faith must be understood in this context as the reason, or cause, for this righteousness. Therefore, one may translate “I am thus put right with God because of my trust,” or “… by means of my trusting in Christ.” (Loh, I.-J., & Nida, E. A. A Handbook on Paul’s Letter To The Philippians [1995, New York] p103–104)
If we drive straight into the constant turmoil the church always seems to be undergoing we might discover the underlying reasons. Often controversy is more fun than agreement. Both sides can pretend they are upholding a righteous cause. But what it really does is split the church. We seem to be incredibly good at inventing ways to disagree with one another. Often it has been marriage and sex for the last one hundred years. Everything from divorce to same sex marriage or whether women can be ordained. Again and again it is the same story.
So, Paul’s answer still rings down through the ages. Let us unite in Christ. Let us easily admit we never get things totally right, that we are sinners. That means both sides not one or the other. Once we get past the self-righteous arguments it is easy to combine in our love of Jesus and our membership in the family of Christ. That solution applies to differences about carpet color to deep and abiding questions about human sexuality.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
The United Methodist Church on Tuesday voted to strengthen its ban on gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex marriages, a decision that could split the nation’s second-largest Protestant church.
After three days of intense debate at a conference in St. Louis, the vote by church officials and lay members from around the world doubled down on current church policy, which states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The vote served as a rejection of a push by progressive members and leaders to open the church to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Now, a divide of the United Methodist Church, which has 12 million members worldwide, appears imminent. Some pastors and bishops in the United States are already talking about leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.
“It is time for another movement,” the Rev. Mike Slaughter, pastor emeritus of Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio, said in a phone interview from the floor of the conference. “We don’t even know what that is yet, but it is something new.”
The decision, passed in a 53 percent to 47 percent vote, is the latest eruption in the fight over the future of American Christianity and over whose views of human sexuality are enshrined as Christian.
Conservatives have left the Episcopal Church over gay rights, Presbyterians have split, and many young evangelicals are leaving their churches over the lack of inclusion of L.G.B.T. people.
The seven million members of the United Methodist Church in the United States often do not fit within easy political categories. Second only to the Southern Baptist Convention in size, the church includes high-profile figures with a range of political beliefs, from Hillary Clinton to Jeff Sessions, the Republican former attorney general.
Just over half of Methodists say they are Republican, compared with 35 percent who say they are Democrats. The majority of adherents believe abortion should be legal, and more than half are in favor of stricter regulations to protect the environment.
But the issue of gay rights has proved uniquely divisive in the church, and Tuesday’s vote reflected the growing clout of Methodists from outside the United States. The tightening of enforcement of church law was backed by a coalition of members from African nations, the Philippines and European and American evangelicals.
While membership has steadily declined in the United States over the past 25 years — a trend that is true for most mainline Protestant denominations — it has been growing in Africa. About 30 percent of the church’s members are now from African nations, which typically have conservative Christian views; in many of them, homosexuality is a crime.
But in the United States, the vote poses a significant risk for a denomination that struggles to attract young people. United Methodists have one of the oldest religious populations in the country, with a median age of 57.
Some leaders of Methodist seminaries like Duke Divinity School or Candler School of Theology at Emory worry that this week’s move will dissuade young Americans, who increasingly support gay rights, from going into ministry with the church.
“This feels like one generation locking down the church for the next,” said William H. Willimon, a retired bishop of the United Methodist Church and a professor at Duke Divinity School. “That’s a death sentence.”
In recent years, progressive American members, including gays and lesbians, have been hopeful about greater inclusion. Six in 10 United Methodists in the United States believe homosexuality should be accepted.
Some congregations have celebrated same-sex weddings and had gay, lesbian and transgender pastors, at times receiving church approval to do so even though it technically violated church policy. Punishment of those who violated the rules has been uneven, and church trials for the few who were sanctioned have been unpopular.
The new rules would tighten enforcement and increase punishment for violations. For instance, clergy who officiate at same-sex weddings could receive a minimum one-year, unpaid suspension, and a second offense could result in removal from the clergy. Some items in the plan need to be reviewed by the Methodists’ judicial council.
The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, who leads one of the church’s prominent administrative agencies, called the plan “punitive” in a statement, and said that the conference had brought “unbearable pain” to the denomination. “The wound may one day be healed by the grace of God,” she said, “but the scar left behind will be visible forever.”
For many, the church’s slogan, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors,” now feels shattered.
Soon after the vote, protests erupted in the center of the arena where the conference had been held — a former football stadium known as The Dome. Some delegates began singing church songs and chanting, “We’re queer,” and “This is our church!”
“My kids’ friends are not going to come into the church unless I can tell them about the love part of our church, not just the judgment part,” said David Livingston, 45, a pastor from Kansas.
At the same time, conservatives celebrated their narrow victory. Tom Lambrecht, 64, an ordained elder from Texas, said the denomination must uphold its traditions if it is to survive. If progressives are ultimately unable to agree with that approach, he said it would be best for them to leave the denomination so that Methodists could devote more time on ministry and less on what he called “social issues.”
“We need to be faithful to the traditional standard of marriage,” he said. “No organization allows its members to consistently disobey the rules.”
Marina Yugay, a member from Russia, said that her concerns about same-sex marriage had made her uncomfortable with the more progressive direction of many American Methodists.
“We do need to praise God and multiply and same-sex marriage will not allow us to multiply,” she said. “If you do not agree with this, you are violating the law of the creator.”
What happens next hinges on questions that are not just theological, but financial. For entire congregations to leave, they would most likely need to reach settlement agreements related to the potential transfer of church property, and liabilities related to the church’s $23 billion pension fund.
Major seminaries at universities like Emory and Duke, which have supported their gay, lesbian, and transgender students, risk losing grants and funding from more influential, and conservative, churches.
Methodism has been a major force in American life since before the Revolutionary War, and eventually grew to include a significant African-American membership in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The denomination has split about a dozen times in its history, notably over slavery and race.
As the Methodist conference ended, truckloads of dirt were being readied outside the arena for a monster truck event. The hundreds of Methodist pastors began to leave, wondering how to move forward.
Matt Miofsky, 41, leads one of the fastest growing United Methodist churches in the country, called The Gathering in St. Louis.
“I want people to know that The Gathering, and a lot of churches like it all over the country, want to welcome L.G.B.T.Q. people,” he said. “We are going to pursue a fully inclusive vision for ministry.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/26/us/united-methodists-vote.html)
As reports began to leak Tuesday evening that gender would no longer be a barrier to marriage in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), social media began to light up. Soon Facebook and Twitter were filled with press releases, blogs, and secular news articles. Cell phones beamed with a New York Times alert, saying, “Largest Presbyterian denomination gives final approval for same-sex marriage.” Then came the phone calls, pastors’ letters to their congregations, and the hum of Presbyterians—anxiously, joyously, painfully—whispering, sometimes shouting, that a monumental day had arrived for the church.
The church, they all said, would never be the same. On that at least all could agree.
Earlier that day, the Presbytery of the Palisades had cast its vote in favor of an amendment to the PC(USA) Constitution that would change the description of marriage from being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.” In doing so, it had become the 86th presbytery to cast an affirmative vote, providing the majority needed among 171 presbyteries to approve the change. (Read more about the passage of the marriage amendment here.)
In Chicago, the news came sporadically. Gathered at the NEXT Church National Gathering, hundreds of Presbyterian leaders sat crammed into the pews of Fourth Presbyterian Church, listening to author Diana Butler Bass. She was speaking of a spiritual awakening, of a movement beyond fear and walls, when a few began to notice the violent jar of cell phones beeping and beaming. As more and more participants began feverishly texting and tweeting, one of them stood up and asked if they could acknowledge what was happening.
At first, there was silence. It was, Alex Patchin McNeill says, a “very Presbyterian” moment. Many of the gathered leaders, after a pause, rose from their pews and began to applaud, some cheering, their faces visible with celebration as well as a deep consciousness of those for whom this may be either a hello or a goodbye.
“It was hard not to be swept up in that moment,” says Daniel Vigilante, pastor of Grace-Trinity Community Church in Minneapolis. “Here we were at the NEXT Church conference, envisioning the next church, and then suddenly we realized . . . this is it.”
Meanwhile, on Twitter, the Religion News Service announced that with the PC(USA) change “mainline Protestants have solidified their support for gay marriage.” The tweet masked deeper divisions, however. While some tweeted, using a rainbow-bedazzled PC(USA) seal, “I love my denomination” or “It’s official—love wins!,” others (some of whom admittedly were not from the denomination) had more disparaging comments to make: “Exodus will continue from PCUSA,” “PCUSA demonstrates what happens when the church does not get right the question of Christ and culture,” and “For some reason, the church thinks it has the authority to overrule the Bible.” Celebrants were quick to respond in equal numbers and vehemence.
One tweeter responded, “There are always disagreements on issues but we can all rally around an unequivocal faith in Christ.” Another message included an image, saying:
Not a redefinition, but a celebration
In October, Daniel Vigilante, a Presbyterian pastor, will marry the love of his life, a man.
“I love the church. I have grown up in the church. And I want the church to be with me in all aspects of my life. Ordination was a huge part of that. And now that I am on the journey toward being married, the church’s support means the world to me,” Vigilante says, choking back tears.
The authors of the amendment to the PC(USA) Constitution that will make it possible for Vigilante to covenant in marriage with his soon-to-be husband were very intentional in avoiding the phrase “redefinition of marriage.”
“I think that’s what makes this ruling so remarkable—that my wedding and marriage won’t be different than anyone else’s,” Vigilante says. “What makes it so special is that it’s so ordinary. It’s a service of Christian marriage just like everyone else’s.”
The amendment is not a redefinition but a celebration of marriage, says Brian Ellison, executive director of Covenant Network. “It celebrates what marriage has been all along—the love, the sacrifice, the mutuality, the respect, the faithfulness. What has not changed is the definition of marriage. What has changed is who is invited to participate.”
For Vigilante, this means he can bring his whole self to the church once again. “Here’s someone who loves the church, waited a long time to be ordained in it, and is now in a relationship where he wants to demonstrate faithfulness and love for the rest of his life,” Ellison says. “Why would the church not honor that?”
This denomination has strong global infrastructure for missionary coworkers, disaster relief, and self-development programs for afflicted people internationally and domestically. And there is a tremendous and effective witness for our Lord entrained in this vital work! . . . Stay at your post. Serve your missions and communities for Christ. Don’t be a quitter.
In Moncks Corner, South Carolina, however, Timothy Scoonover, a young pastor, talked with an 80-year-old member about a different kind of quitting. As they sat together, over lunch, she told him that she felt like it was the denomination that had quit her. Trembling, she said that when she had read the headline, she had cried. “She felt betrayed by the denomination,” Scoonover says. “She felt like she knows her Bible and how she was taught to read the Bible and couldn't imagine how the PC(USA) could make this decision.”
The experiences in Chicago and Moncks Corner and across the Twitter-sphere exemplify tensions felt across the denomination.
What is perceived by one to be a shining example of democracy at work, for instance, is to another the tyranny of an out-of-touch leadership. “Even though many knew this was coming, reaching this number was cathartic for a lot of people,” says Brian Ellison, executive director of Covenant Network of Presbyterians. “There is a difference between General Assembly making a decision and a vote that involves every teaching elder and ruling elder from every congregation across the country. It feels very significant.” The picture, though, looks very different to the members of Scoonover’s congregation, First Presbyterian. “I think they feel like the clergy have become more progressive and left behind the lay people. In many churches, there’s a chasm between the views in the pulpit and the views in the pew.”
To some, these disagreements seem insurmountable. “I feel like I’ve lost my home. No matter how hard we try to keep the tent as big as possible, this is a wedge that is going to drive the church apart,” says Scoonover. “I think the divisions we’ve found in the denomination are deeper than sexuality. It’s how we read Scripture and how we understand who Christ is. Will we need to look across the table and say, ‘I love you, and it’s better for our mission if we go our separate ways’?”
“It’s a sad day,” says Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, which, she says, is going to continue to call for repentance and reform. “How is it that God has to become the one to change, not us? This is a gospel issue—the question of whether or not we stand in need of salvation, whether there are things we can fix ourselves or [which] are irredeemable without Christ.”
Though the new language added to the PC(USA) Constitution clearly states that no pastor or congregation can be forced to officiate a same-sex marriage, fear of that eventuality weighs heavily on pastors like Scoonover. “If progressives believe this is a justice issue, I fear for the future of pastors like me being welcomed in the PC(USA).”
Paul Detterman, executive director of the Fellowship Community, shares this concern. “The tragedy will come if there is ever a move to mandate this. Coercion has no place.”
Many advocates for marriage equality are conscious of these concerns. “I am deeply aware of the Presbyterians who feel differently about this position and am very conscious of the work we need to do toward reconciliation,” says Ellison. “No minister has ever been compelled to perform a wedding he or she didn’t think appropriate. This is merely permission.”
Others are quick to explain that cultural bias works both ways. “Some will say that we have turned our back on the ‘clear teaching of Scripture,’” says Todd Freeman, pastor of College Hill Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “It appears that many Presbyterians now consider that this is not the case. We recognize that our cultural biases and prejudices were woven throughout the biblical witness. This recognition has helped lead the Presbyterian Church to change its traditional stance on a number of issues, including slavery, racial equality, and the right of women to be ordained into positions of church leadership. Many of us also recognize that the biblical passages that condemn same-gender sexual acts are not in reference to couples in a loving mutual relationship, but rather address relationships that are controlling, abusive, and exploitative.”
Many Presbyterians, however, want to be clear that this is a time for celebration, not explanation, for all those who have felt shut out by the church. “Celebrating this moment is important,” says Vigilante, who wants to emphasize reconciliation and compassion but not at the expense of this cathartic, elated moment. “Living into this joyful news is first.”
Patrick D. Heery is the editor of Presbyterians Today. Paul Seebeck is a Mission Communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Both are ordained teaching elders in the PC(USA). (https://www.pcusa.org/news/2015/3/20/what-same-sex-marriage-means-presbyterians/)
Many of the divisions in the world today occur because they perpetuate divisions from previous generations. Examples of that include the hostilities between the English and Irish, between Jews and Palestinians, and between Serbs and Croats. In The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, Francis Fukuyama observes that such evil persists because we find it easier to continue on the trajectory that history has passed on to us, instead of altering that course in the direction of peace. In this regard, sociologists speak of "path dependence." The metaphor speaks of the way that a path through the woods will have certain twists and turns in it that are there because of various problems the original trailblazers encountered. For example, maybe the trail goes around a lake, because originally there was no bridge over the lake. If that trail were built now, it would probably be built differently, making use of current knowledge and technology. But usually we leave the paths we come across untouched. Even though they are less than perfect, it is easier and less costly to leave them as they are, rather than re-building them and making them better.
Abraham Lincoln had the boldness to recognize that it is impossible for two sides in a conflict to both call upon God to grant them victory. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln pointed out that God is not a mere tribal deity, one who can be invoked by one people to aid in the destruction of another people. Rather Lincoln advocated a vision of an inclusive God. In response to those who claimed that the Union's victory over the South was a sign that God had shown divine favor to the North and had rejected the South, Lincoln spoke of a God who would judge both North and South, and a God who sought the reconciliation of both North and South.
As we press on toward the future that God intends for us, where do we have our eyes fixed? Are they lifted up toward that great hope, or are they set upon something lower? In A Brief History of Heaven, Alister McGrath relates an illustration that John R. W. Stott liked to use. Stott explained that some years ago there was a young man who found a five-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk. From that time on he always kept his eyes fixed downward whenever he walked anywhere. In the course of his lifetime, he ended up accumulating 29,516 buttons, 54,712 pins, 12 cents, a bent back and a miserly disposition. But during that time, Stott observes, consider what he lost. He lost the opportunity to see the radiance of the sunlight, the shine of the stars, the smiles on the faces of his friends, and the blossoms of springtime. He missed out on all that because his eyes were always in the gutter.
When William Tyndale was preparing his translation of the New Testament in 1526, he had particular difficulty in finding an appropriate English word to convey the idea that we express with the word "reconciliation" today. Tyndale didn't use "reconciliation" because in his day that word did not exist in the English language. As a result, Tyndale employed a word that dated back to the fourteenth century-"atonement." Quite literally the word was meant to convey a sense of "at-one-ment." Tyndale believed that word was the best option he had to signify the concept of reconciliation.
Some people seem to be more interested in escalating disputes rather than solving them. NBC affiliate WKYC (8/30/03) reported on a McDonald's customer who called 911 when she wasn't given extra sauce for her meal. The incident occurred in Avon, Ohio. Apparently the customer demanded more barbecue sauce but was informed by the McDonald's employee that there was a charge for extra sauce. The police did respond to the 911 call. Despite the foolish nature of the call to the police, the customer was not charged with any offense, even though pranks and unnecessary calls to 911 can be considered a crime. The McDonald's noted that they offer a wide variety of free condiments to customers. After the incident, though, the store put up a sign clearly indicating that extra barbecue sauce comes with a cost.
To what extent are you willing to make a lifetime commitment to unity? That is a question that is now being pondered by couples in Chile who are thinking about getting married. Prospective brides and grooms must now decide which kind of marriage license they want to apply for-one that provides for the possibility of divorce or one that does not. The two-license system is largely the result of the Roman Catholic Church's push for Chile to refrain from legalizing divorce. The new law provides for a right to divorce, but it also allows the couples to renounce that right at the time they get married.
Controversies centering around racism have been a long-standing problem in the United States. As a result, racism is one issue that prevents the church from pressing on to the higher work to which God is calling it. In Hellfire Nation, James A. Morone describes the racial prejudice that was observed by Gustave de Beaumont in the early 1830s as he traveled through the nation with Alexis de Tocqueville. Upon his return to France, Beaumont commented on his surprise at how people were seated in the theater based on their race. The first balcony, he observed, was reserved solely for the whites. The second balcony was for mulattoes, and Negroes were banished to the third balcony. Yet at one point, Beaumont noticed a "young woman of dazzling beauty, whose complexion, of perfect whiteness, proclaimed her the purest European blood," yet she was seated among the outcasts. Beaumont's host responded by saying, "That woman is colored....Local tradition has established her ancestry and everyone knows that she has a mulatto among her forbears." Then Beaumont spied a very dark woman seated in the section that was reserved for whites. The host explained, "She is white. Local tradition affirms that the blood which flows in her veins is Spanish."
When it comes to our faith, are we pressing on to higher things or are remaining in place where we are? In The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, Alan Wolfe notes a study that found that while many Christians are engaged in small group activities, those small groups tend to do little to improve the participants' knowledge of the faith. Those who are actively involved in small group Bible studies are just as likely as non-participants to incorrectly think that Jesus was born in Jerusalem or that the Book of Acts can be found in the Old Testament. Small group studies do not even seem to put a dent in the fact that 80% of Americans believe that "God helps those who help themselves" is found in the Bible, when in fact it is a saying formulated by Benjamin Franklin. Wolfe implies that while we might enjoy our small groups for the opportunity they afford us to be with people of similar interests, those groups tend to reinforce us in the patterns we currently hold and often do not spur us to press on to greater Christian maturity.
"If we could but observe unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, charity in all things, our affairs would certainly be in the best possible situation" (Robert Maldenius)
During the 2003 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong, the returning champion, was upset in a crash, and temporarily out of commission. Instead of taking advantage of this fortuitous event, his chief opponent slowed down the lead pack until Lance was back in the race. Though they were opponents, these two men were one in the sport of cycling, and believed that winning honorably was more important than just winning.
Having spoken out vehemently against the recent war in Iraq, I was heartened to be defended by a fellow Presbyterian pastor, who, while he differed strongly with my position, felt he must defend my right, even my obligation, to speak my conscience on this issue. While our positions differ politically, we are brothers in Christ.
Whenever I read this passage from Paul, I think of the film Chariots of Fire, filled with athletes straining to press on toward their goal, all to the stirring strains of the music by Vangelis. Eric Liddell was probably one of the most unusual of all the men who ever ran on the track field, certainly in the Paris Olympics of 1924. Known as "The Flying Scotsman" because of his speed and unorthodox gait, victory in the sport of running was not his supreme goal, as it was for most other runners. Not only had he been in training to be a runner, but he also was in training to become a medical missionary to China. In the film we see him and the other runners using every ounce of their energy and determination as they burst down the track, straining forward to be the first to pass the goal. Eric, as most everyone knows by now, almost did not make it to the track because the race he had been entered in was run on a Sunday, a day set aside by his strong Christian faith as to be devoted wholly unto God. This caused an uproar and intense pressure upon him to change his mind, but he would not budge. A teammate saved the day for the British team by letting Eric run in his race, set for another day. Today, many Christians would probably rationalize their decision to compromise, but Eric believed too strongly to do so. Such faith and determination would stand him in good stead during his trying ministry in China, especially when the Japanese troops invaded and controlled the area he was in. Eric would not survive his internment by his captors, but the example of his faith, upon the track field and in the hospitals and prison camps of China continues to live on and inspire millions.
The second stanza of John Samuel Bewley Monsell's hymn "Fight the Good Fight" uses the race imagery, which the apostle Paul employs in this Philippians passage and elsewhere:
Run the straight race through God's good grace,
Lift up thine eyes and seek Christ's face;
Life with its way before us lies,
Christ is the path, and Christ the prize. (Public domain)
Are we prepared to press on to the lofty goals that God has for us, or do we set our expectations somewhat lower. In Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, Peter Gomes of Harvard University tells about a story that the Washington Post did back during the height of the Cold War. A reporter from the newspaper paid a visit to the British ambassador to the United States, Sir Nicholas Henderson. The reporter posed the following question: "Mr. Ambassador, what do you want for Christmas?" Sir Nicholas replied that all he wanted was a particular kind of fruit that was preserved with ginger flavoring. He said that if he received that, he would be quite satisfied. In the following days that reporter proceeded to interview other diplomats and asked them the same question. The Russian ambassador said that his wish was for peace and goodwill. The Swiss ambassador expressed hope for genuine disarmament. The Israeli ambassador spoke of hope for peace in the Middle East. Although Sir Nicholas's wish was probably the only one that was completely fulfilled that Christmas, in comparison to the hopes expressed by the other diplomats, his hope seemed rather small and silly. Sir Nicholas hoped for what was easily obtainable. But God encourages us to hope for even grander things.
Sometimes it is the most petty things that hold us back and keep us from pressing on the future that God wants for us. This past fall India and Pakistan agreed to a cease-fire in the disputed region of Kashmir. Both sides consented to an end of hostilities at midnight on a particular day. Yet before the cease-fire could go into effect, they had a bitter argument about when midnight occurs. The Pakastani army said it would start the cease-fire at midnight Pakistan Standard Time, while India's Foreign Ministry indicated it would start at midnight Indian time-30 minutes earlier. Pakistan gained independence from Great Britain at midnight on April 14, 1947, and India became independent the following night. Since then, however, the two nations have become bitter enemies, with hostilities often coming to a head over the disputed Kashmir territory.
Are our lives oriented toward pressing on to what God wants us to accomplish with our lives, or do we simply seek to achieve the goals we set for ourselves? In If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat, John Ortberg narrates an event from the life of Parker Palmer. When Palmer was first growing in popularity in educational circles, a certain institution offered to make him president. Palmer was thrilled, but following Quaker tradition when faced with an important decision, he called together six friends to serve as a "clearness committee." Palmer later admitted that his real purpose for assembling that group was not for spiritual discernment, but to brag to them. At first the group posed what seemed to be rather easy questions about his decision. They asked what his vision for the school would be, what mission it would serve in society, and so on. Then someone asked him what should have been an easy question to answer, "Parker, what would you like about being president?" Palmer began by naming the various things about the job that he was not looking forward to: the political struggles with the faculty and administration, having less time for personal study and teaching, being responsible for raising funds. Again his friend asked him what he would like about the job. But again Palmer began to name negative things, "I wouldn't like to have to give up my summer vacations." For a third time the friend asked him to identify what he would like about the job. Finally Palmer blurted out, "I guess what I'd like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word 'president' under it." When Palmer said that, the clearness committee sat in silence for the longest time. At last one of the friends asked, "Can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?"
In dealing with the conflicts that hold us back, most of the time people resort to one of two approaches. Some launch into an attack of the opponent. The Arabic word jihad has entered our vocabulary to signify that approach to conflict resolution. The other tack that some people take is illustrated by the Hebrew word hafrada, which means "separation" or "withdrawal." The concept of hafrada has been enacted in Israel in recent times as more and more walls and fences have been erected to separate and partition the Palestinian territories from the rest of Israel. Yet neither approach-jihad nor hafrada-ultimately brings about lasting peace. Neither approach serves as a foundation from which groups are able to press on toward a new future.
Religion not only is often the locus of hostility, but all too often it is the environment from which killing arises. In The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World, Douglas John Hall observes that in the days after September 11, 2001, someone wrote the words "Religion Kills!" on a wall at the Presbyterian College of Montreat. Hall looked at that and concluded that "most of the violence, death-dealing, and terrorizing afoot in our world is inspired-if not initiated-by some religion or other, and the question that is being put to all world religions today is whether they are, at base, life-affirming or agencies or death."
The town of Pandhurna, India, has a custom where all work comes to a halt after the first full moon in September. All the males divide themselves into two groups and pelt rocks at each other all day long until sunset. Then they return home, nurse their wounds, and return to normal life. In August of 2002, the government encouraged the village men to use rubber balls, instead of rocks, to reduce the number of injuries. The villagers rejected the proposal and continued with the tradition as usual, resulting in at least 550 people being wounded, some seriously.
In Rumors of Another World: What On Earth Are We Missing?, Philip Yancey recals that when he worked for Campus Life magazine, his assistant kept a plaque on her desk that said: "Only one life, 'twill soon be past / Only what's done for Christ will last."
"Division has done more to hide Christ from the view of men than all the infidelity that has ever been spoken" (George MacDonald)
"Church unity is like peace, we are all for it, but we are not willing to pay the price" (Willem Adolf Visser't Hooft)
"It's hard enough resisting the real enemy. That's a full-time job. If we start fighting other Christians we're fighting two wars-and one of them is suicidal" (John Wimber)
In reflecting on his battle with HMO guidelines to deliver timely care, Dr. Stephen L. Cohen reports, "it came down to a simple choice-we could provide either appropriate care or sloppy care to the Watts community. The choice was his." He continues, "the HMO ultimately decided to uphold the sanctity of ear exams." Frequently our health and redemption turns on doing something very small but right in the face of someone very large but very wrong. (My Turn, "Fighting the Battle of The Bulging Eardrums" [New York, Newsweek, June 23, 2003], pg. 18)
"Sometimes if you want to change things for the better, you have to take things into your own hands." (Clint Eastwood)
"You can't have a better tomorrow if you're always thinking about yesterday." (Charles Kettering)
Those who regularly run in the Boston Marathon will tell you that the beginning of the race is exciting, with cheeBe Part of the ring crowds and a flat and open road ahead. But over halfway through the race, they hit "Heartbreak Hill." By this point, their bodies are beginning to object to being punished and the ground moves uphill to punish them even more. Those who complete the marathon do so simply by putting one foot in front of the other with only the goal of getting up that hill, knowing they can go downhill on the other side.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Consider all that God has done for you! Ponder all the ways that the Lord has been with you throughout your life!
People: Let us rejoice and sing for joy! God has done great things for us!
Leader: The Lord has indeed done great things for us, so let us worship and celebrate!
People: God turns our tears into happiness! The Lord turns our darkness into light! Come, let us worship God!
O Lord our God, You call us to be Your disciples and to minister to the many needs in the world around us. But instead of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, instead of visiting the sick and welcoming the friendless, we find ourselves being diverted by lesser matters. We permit minor disagreements to paralyze us at times. We allow our own personal agendas to overshadow the agenda that You have established for us. Eternal God, forgive our sinful ways. Lead us to press on toward the high calling which you have set before us in Jesus Christ. In His name we pray. Amen.
God of goodness and light, we thank You for the way that You invite us to labor with You in accomplishing Your work here on earth. Keep us always faithful to the calling that You have set before us. Receive now our gifts as a sign of our commitment to fulfill that most holy vocation. In the name of Christ the Lord we pray. Amen.
God of power and glory, as we look to You this day we are excited, yet at the same time overwhelmed, by the mission that You set before us. There are so many needs in the world, yet we feel lacking in the ability to do much about them. So we pray and ask for You to fill us with the gifts and talents that are needed to accomplish the high goals that You place before us. Guide us to minister to those in need-to give of the abundance that we have in our cupboards to feed the hungry, to share the clothing we have in our overflowing closets with those who do not have enough, to donate our time to visit with those whose hearts ache from loneliness. Inspire us to teach the Bible to those who have never learned it before. Encourage us to be at work in our communities to protect the neglected children, the abused women, and all those who are not able to stand up for themselves.
O Lord, as we pursue the ministry that You lay before us, keep us from becoming consumed with lesser matters. Prevent us from allowing petty quarrels to divide us. Bind us together as one church, setting aside our own personal wants and preferences, so that we may focus entirely on You. Be with us when times of testing come. Amid all the storms that may rage against us and attempt to drive us off course, enable us to keep our eyes fixed upon You alone, for You are the source and the goal of all that we do. In the name of God's Son, our Lord, we pray. Amen.