Monday, 25 January 2016

Thoughts on Sexuality

I have been asked by a number of people about what I think about same sex relationships. It has come up in diocesan talks. The Primate’s meeting has put restrictions on the Episcopal Church (USA) for changing their marriage canon. So it has been in the news. I also recently came from a diocese that allowed our bishop to grant permission to clergy to bless civilly married same sex couples, and I was present for many of those discussions. One thing needs to be said on the front- love is always to define us as Christians. Regardless of what “side” we land on, our decision has to come from a place of love.
The following is not my attempt to solve anything. What you will find are questions that I’m asking and some of the ways I’m trying to seek a way forward. I want to always be open to what God might be saying and so that means also listening to what others are saying. So this is a growing and morphing thought process. In some ways I’d rather not say anything. This is such a divisive issue that it can define you in some peoples’ eyes. Not making your position known is sometimes a valid place to be.  

The Anglican Church is continuing its discussions regarding same sex sexuality and is considering whether or how to bless such unions. On this issue the church is in a crucible of desire and Scripture. The church is in the heat trying to find a way to bring union between the two.
  
Origins of Desire:
What is the place of personal experience in ethics? Most of us have experiences with people who are attracted to the same sex. For many of us these are friends and family members we love very much. We experience them to be good people that make positive contributions to our lives and to society in general. What place do these experiences have in the ethics of sexuality? In what way might we consider same sex relationships wrong? On what basis, and why? Some things seem wrong for obvious reasons. Theft, for example, causes damage to people’s lives. In what way could these relationships be considered wrong? And what role does Scripture play in all this? 

It has become obvious that some people are attracted to people of the same sex in a way that is difficult for them to deny or control. In general, most do not feel called to celibacy and want to have a committed relationship.  Many desire validation from society and the church by recognizing this relationship as equally as valid as heterosexual marriage.
 For more information about the causes of sexual orientation see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_orientation#Causes
It should be said that the scientific research on this topic has not revealed a “gay gene”. For example, there have been studies on identical twins who share the same DNA. One twin can be gay and the other straight. Sociological and psychological factors also play a major role in determining if a person will be sexually attracted to the same sex. Researchers at the moment are leaning towards biological factors as being the stronger cause. Regardless of how this desire arises within an individual, they find it very difficult to deny this side of themselves once this desire has been formed in them. Programs designed to “make gay people straight” are notoriously unsuccessful.
See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversion_therapy

Because this sexual desire is viewed as such an established and permanent sexuality it is sometimes spoken about as analogous to an ethnicity. This has brought in language of social justice and comparisons have been made to the Civil Rights movement, where African Americans struggled to be viewed as equally valued in a segregated society. The issue has become framed in an absolute moral way as a minority people group desiring freedom and equality in the midst of an oppressive system.

Desire is often more complicated than we want to admit. Our culture tends to divide people into gay-bi-straight. The diversity of sexuality is broadened a bit by the acronym LGBTQ, which recognizes not only same sex attraction, but also the felt conflict between one’s biological sex and the gender one identifies with. I think that this is complicated more by anecdotal experiences of many of us who know people who transition from one form of sexuality to another- straight to gay, and gay to straight. There is also a “polyfam” movement that includes more than just two people in a long term committed relationship that involves sexual relations between all members in the relationship. Needless to say, the issue of sexuality in our culture is much more complicated than “are you gay or straight?”       


There are reasons this question is at the forefront of our minds at this point in time and primarily in North America and Europe. We have had cultural shifts that have moved the sources of authority. (For more on this cultural shifting see the work of the philosopher Charles Taylor, especially “A Secular Age”). Our culture has given minorities greater moral authority and voice and has become much more sensitive to the pain of minorities who have often been mistreated. Our postmodern culture has also given personal experience a greater amount of authority. “This is true for me” is an almost unquestionable authoritative phrase in our culture. The sexual revolution of the 1960’s and the advancement of contraceptive technologies has led to our view of sexuality being drastically altered. No longer do we view sex as a means of procreation. Sex is now recreation. Pregnancy can be considered a negative and unwanted consequence of such recreational activity- Like a sprained ankle as a consequence of playing basketball. Sexuality has become about personal recreation. The main sexual ethics come from consent. Does your sexual partner act willingly, and are they at an age that we believe they are mature enough to give consent? We also value exclusive commitments. If you are in an exclusive relationship you should not have a sexual relationship outside of that relationship without your partner’s consent. But, the violation of the exclusive relationship through adultery doesn’t deem one a criminal. It is considered a private (rather than social) matter. So we should recognize that the conversation we are having has a historical momentum, without which we would not be having the conversation. Other areas of the world do not have this historical momentum, so we should be careful about labeling people with a different history and worldview as “less enlightened” or “less evolved”.

How are we to make any sense of this? With the quickly shifting culture, and uncertainty around how sexuality works, and deconstructionism making us question what we think we know (especially around the history of relationships, and what “gender” is), it can be fairly overwhelming to try to understand this. It can be difficult to figure out what it true. What is at the very heart of the matter? What are the assumptions we bring into the discussion? By what method do we determine what is true? What is truth (Jn 18:38)?

Some (like the theologian James Allison) would say that we have discovered something new about humanity. There is a majority sexuality, but also a minority sexuality. In the past our culture assumed the majority sexuality (heterosexuality) was also the moral sexuality. It considered the minority sexuality to be deviant and immoral. But, says Allison, we have now discovered that there is variety among us, which is not about morality. Morality is a factor within heterosexuality and homosexuality (i.e. Gender is irrelevant. What matters is are we faithful and loving to our partner with whom we are in relationship).

Others wonder about putting personal desire on such a pedestal. How do we determine which desires are to be recognized and blessed? For example, what about a married man that finds it very difficult to be faithful to one woman, and still desires to have a family. Might we say that his desire is a natural biological one that should not be restrained? Might we say that there is a “polygamous sexuality”? Why is monogamy more important than gender? Our tendency at the moment would be to say that such a man has psychological or relational problems, but isn’t that what was said of LGBTQ people when it was considered an illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders a little over 40 years ago? On what do we base our sexual ethics? How do we determine which desires are to be blessed? I can’t imagine mere biology to be enough. Surely we see all kinds of behaviors in creation that we would not encourage others to “go and do likewise”. How do we recognize a genuine moral minority sexuality? There are plenty of desires that should not be indulged in. Who gets to decide which desires should be blessed and which are to be resisted? And, on what basis?

 
Understanding Scripture:
The other factor in the crucible is Scripture. People can sometimes think that Christians are obsessed with sex because they seem to be constantly (and passionately) talking about it. I want to suggest that the present issue really exposes an underlying issue, which is how we understand Scripture as Christians. How is it authoritative?  

While there is some disagreement about the details, whenever same sex sexuality is mentioned in scripture is it in a negative light.  
See a great article on this by a former professor of mine, Terry Donaldson: http://www.anglican.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/donaldson-edmonton.pdf

Some will then say, “Well the Bible says a lot of things that we no longer take seriously”. How can we take it to be authoritative?  This is when we get into what is called “hermeneutics”, which is the method we use to interpret Scripture.

Some will ignore these verses entirely as part of a by-gone era and culture. They will instead rely on general scriptural principals of justice, love, and a trajectory of the Bible that pointed towards greater equality and generosity towards all people. But that is only one hermeneutical understanding. Others will agree with an emphasis on justice, love and liberation for the oppressed, but they will hold a different stance on the present issue of sexuality.  How do we determine a good and true hermeneutic from a bad and false hermeneutic?

There are a variety of kinds of hermeneutics. Below I’ll describe the way I tend to interpret Scripture. For those who use a more traditional hermeneutic they continue to see scripture as being the word of God and as being foundational to who we are as Christians and also want to genuinely seek to live faithfully to it. Those factors aren’t necessarily exclusive to a traditional hermeneutic- all Christians want to be faithful. All want to have some relationship with Scripture (though they may disagree about its authority and interpretation). A traditional hermeneutic will attempt to allow the historic church to have some say in our understanding of Scripture. The ‘plain sense’ of Scripture is often given greater weight. And a desire to be shaped by Scripture as the Word of God is present. A traditional interpretation may invoke the “three-legged stool”, whereby Scripture is given primary place as the first leg. If something is said plainly in the canon of Scripture then our job is to shape our lives accordingly. If something is unclear in the Bible, then we invoke the second leg of the stool which is “Tradition”. Our spiritual ancestors (especially the saints) tried to shape their lives according to Scripture by the leading of the Holy Spirit. So, while Scripture might be silent (or unclear) on a matter it is likely that the Tradition has some wisdom to give the community. If Scripture is silent (or unclear) and the Tradition is silent (or unclear), then we move on to the third leg of the stool, which is “reason”. This is a specific understanding of reason. This is the reason of a mind that has been shaped by being immersed in Scripture and formed by the spiritual Traditions of the church. Through prayer and by the invocation of the wisdom of the Holy Spirit we attempt to discern an answer on the issue that stands before the community. This isn’t always as easy or clear as it might sound.       

Another important issue in Hermeneutics is to help us to put the piece of Scripture into the broader frame of the Bible and theology. A traditional hermeneutic will recognize that the Bible is a story that progresses through time with Jesus Christ being the pinnacle of God’s revelation of who God is and what it means to live a faithful life (see Article 20 or the 39 Articles of Religion in the BCP: http://www.anglican.ca/about/beliefs/39-articles/ ). If Jesus is the pinnacle, then Jesus also becomes the lens by which we read the rest of the Bible. In a sense, we put on “Jesus glasses” as we read the Bible and are always seeking to understand the Bible in relation to his words and character. This means we cannot “proof text” by taking a piece of scripture out of context to prove our point. That piece of scripture has to be understood and interpreted by its place in the bigger story and based on the bigger theological and ethical principles. This means that we don’t throw out pieces of scripture as a part of a by-gone era, nor do we read it as if it has no context. We read it as a part of the story, while recognizing we are a people of this story. How does that part of the story speak to us in our part of the story?   

(There are other issues as well, but I would like to keep this somewhat brief. For example, we take care to read it according to its genre, so we don't read poetry as if it was a newspaper article.)  

For some they will try to “look behind” the plain meaning of the scripture towards the divine motivation that brought about the text. For example, marriage was extremely important in ancient Israel. It was the means by which one produced children which would inherit the land. To not produce children was a shameful thing. The expectation was that everyone would marry and have children. Perhaps homosexuality was viewed as an extramarital issue. A man or woman was having a sexual relationship outside of the marriage, which was adultery. Could it be that biblical warnings about homosexuality are really warning against adultery? If this is true then monogamous life-long same sex sexual relationships are really not what the Bible is talking about. Presumably what lies "behind" the commands of Scripture is God's safeguarding of His people. What is God protecting His people from? The lack of clarity around the motivation for the prohibition regarding same sex sexuality makes this very puzzling.  This is a dangerous game in some ways. It is speculation. It can be that we have already arrived at our conclusion before we ever begin seeking the Divine will on the topic and then try to interpret the scripture in a way to agree with the conclusion we have already brought to the text. It may be that the Bible is universally negative towards same sex sexuality because it is considered to be contrary to the created order. Sexual organs are meant to fit with other sexual organs. Sperm and egg are joined to produce children (often this is called Natural Theology). It is not a culturally popular interpretation, but are we prepared to accept it if it is the most honest understanding of Scripture within the best hermeneutic? How do we determine the ‘best’ and ‘most faithful’ hermeneutic?

This issue is complicated by past controversial decisions. For example, remarriage of divorced people. The Bible plainly condemns divorce and remarriage (with a few exceptions made for sexual unfaithfulness). In our culture we have a massive divorce rate. Often clergy don’t blink when asked to marry people who have been divorced. If a question arises in their mind it usually has more to do with psychological factors relating to the potential success of the proposed marriage, rather than the biblical ethics of such an action. The church felt it was unfair to “condemn” divorced people to a life of celibacy, and that divorce was a “forgivable sin”. Concession was made for that population in the face of the Biblical text (the plain sense of Scripture makes divorce and remarriage very difficult- Matt 19:1-10). Of course hermeneutics allowed for a reinterpretation of the text. Our culture is different from that of the Bible’s. If we “look behind” the plain reading of the text we might see Jesus’ desire to protect women who could be divorced for any reason and were often then doomed to live in poverty. Condemning divorce in Jesus’ culture was good for women. In our culture, divorce is sometimes good for women, especially if they are living in an abusive relationship. Again, we are on shaky ground here because we are looking “behind the text” and making assumptions about motives. It is speculation.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship refers to the text where Jesus tells the rich young man to go and sell all he has and give it away to the poor and then to follow him (Mark 10). In referring to the way in which we try to wiggle out of obeying a command he says,
            "When orders are issued in other spheres of life there is no doubt whatever of their meaning. If a father sends his child to bed, the boy knows at once what he has to do. But suppose he has picked up a smattering of pseudo-theology. In that case he would argue more or less like this: 'Father tells me to go to bed, but he really means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome my tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though my father tells me to go to bed, he really means: 'Go out and play'".

So while we might cleverly come up with a motivation behind the plain words of the Bible, we should also be careful that we are not attempting to merely make the Bible submit to our will. We need to think seriously about our basis for making ethical decisions. In this particular case we are often trying to argue backwards from a gut feeling (positive or negative) regarding the experiences we have had with people attracted to the same sex. Shouldn’t we, rather, argue from a holistic sexual theology that can help us make decisions not only on this issue, but on other sexual and relational issues as well?  

We should recognize that we are called to be countercultural. We are people of the kingdom rather than people of “the world” (Jn 17:16; Rom 12:2). So there are times when we will stand against the decisions of the broader culture. There are also times when the people of God walked off the path set by God and prophets were sent to call them back before disaster fell on them.    

            We should also recognize that the Holy Spirit can guide us into unexpected places. It would have seemed obvious that for Gentiles to become Christians that they should also become, in a sense, Jewish. Gentiles should be circumcised (as Jesus and all his disciples were). To be welcomed into the covenant of Abraham meant to receive the mark of that covenant, and also to follow the guidance of the Law of Moses. Surprisingly, Gentiles were invited into the church without requiring them to receive the mark of circumcision, or following much of the Law (Acts 15). So the Holy Spirit often can act in unexpected ways.     

We should also recognize that the Bible says we are in a “fallen” state. We are not as we should be. Our hearts can deceive us (Jer 17:9). John Calvin once said, “Man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” In some ways, from a Christian point of view, we should be highly suspicious of our desires. However, we have to be careful with this too. What do we do with our desire for God? Or a desire to read the Bible? Or a desire to help those in need? Surely not all human desires are wicked, though we should be discerning and suspicious of our desires at times.         
         
That being said, all are agreed that there are people in pain. People who feel same sex attraction have been mistreated. It is painful to be rejected. It is painful to try to resist such desires, especially in our sex saturated culture. The response of the church needs to be a loving response, even if disagreeing with particulars of sexuality. Christian truth cannot be spoken in a hateful voice. Having this discussion means we are talking about people not abstract concepts. We should take it seriously that this feels like an established fact about their identity that is not deniable nor changeable.     
 

My hope would be that what I’ve written will provide some talking points. Of course everyone and anyone is welcome to disagree with what I’ve said. I hope that doesn’t get in the way of our relationship.  

Transgender Rights

So interesting issue:
http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/gender-bill-passage-historic-event-for-alberta-transgender-woman-says-1.3354856

It is a classic case of the rights of the individual versus the rights of the many. "Gender", I leaned in my university anthropology class, is socially determined, not biologically determined. A person's "sex" is their biology- it's what their DNA says about them. I have met quite a number of transgender folks, especially while living in Toronto. Those I met who feel so inclined were lovely, thoughtful, and insightful people. I'm sure that was born by years of intense internal struggle and suffering. In Alberta there is all kinds of talk about this issue at the moment as a bill is being brought forward to allow folks to use whatever bathroom/change room they wish (based on which "gender" they identify with).

I just thought I would pass on a couple articles:
http://www.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=582075
One about a young 7 year old person and their conflict with their school.

A friend of mine posted this in response:
"Back in May, a mother wanted her daughter to be treated like every other little girl in the school. Based from a conversation I had with a friend who's been supporting this family, the Edmonton Catholic Trustees handled this situation in an embarrassingly deplorable manner. What could have been a fair and civil discussion on something so important turned instead into an ugly confrontation of bully tactics and manipulative gestures aimed at shutting down the discussion. Things got so severe that David Eggen was called in to settle the matter on behalf of the government. However, Eggen dragged his feet to actually do anything in hopes that the Trustees running the Catholic School Board would come up with a comprehensive policy that was fair and protective of human rights for future students who might face the same obstacles. When that didn't happen, the government presented a set of "guidelines" for the ECSB to follow. For some, this was not strong enough while others claimed it was "totalitarianism". Since then, many questions have risen: Why does an entire separate religious school board even exist? Is it time to rethink that? Why weren't parents consulted on the guidelines? Can children exploit these guidelines for their own sexual desires? How does a school support parents with transgender children? Do transgender kids become bigger targets for bullies?
There are so many questions and concerns that have arisen from many sides of this discussion. As I try to navigate through all this, I have to remember the humanity of the children we are talking about. Gender Dysphoria is new to me. I don't fully understand it but I don't dismiss it. Regardless of what we believe or think, I'm convinced it's still important to consider the dignity, worth, and courage of these children who are at the very centre of our debates and to put ourselves in the shoes of the parents who are also trying to figure things out. Here is a very brief story of a boy in Saskatoon that brings me back to a place of understanding and compassion."
And someone responded with this article and the following:
http://thefederalist.com/2015/11/23/a-rape-survivor-speaks-out-about-transgender-bathrooms/

"Thanks for sharing, ... It is a complex issue indeed. I too was moved with compassion when I watched your link. I feel though that I need to appeal to that same sense of compassion towards women who feel uncomfortable with this new law, many for very justifiable reasons (please read my link). Of course this could apply to men as well but I feel women are more vulnerable.
When watching the story you posted it is very easy to think, what's the big deal? Why can't we be compassionate and just let this poor kid use whichever washroom he wants? This is what the new regulations are all about, right?
Except that this little child is 7 years old. Though he may be gender confused, he isn't a sexual being yet. Junior high and high school things start to change. Now, I am in no way saying that transgender people are all sexual predators. However I believe these new guidelines suddenly make it very easy for a male who IS a sexual predator to gain access. (case in point Christopher Hambrook in Toronto posing as a transgender and then sexually assaulting two women).
So anyways, all I'm saying is, please look at the other side of the coin as well. Women who feel vulnerable in this world, parent's who are concerned about their daughter's safety, also have a right to compassion."

Some are proposing individual change rooms/bathrooms for those who wish to use them. As a shy teenager that was sometimes the target of bullies, I personally would have appreciated this. I witnessed the worst kinds of bullying in change rooms. In my experience I didn't see this in response to gender confusion, but I can imagine it happening.

What about bathrooms based on "sex" rather than "gender". Instead of bathrooms for "men" there are bathrooms for "penises". That's wouldn't solve the issue, but "penis" is more clear in our culture than "men". 

Others are wondering about what kind of door this opens up in terms of who is desiring whom in the change rooms and how does everyone stay safe?

Do 11 year old girls in the change room at the swimming pool have the right to not see adult male genitals? How does that interact with the individual rights of transsexuals? Sometimes I wish I had the right to not see some of the things I've seen in a change room at the pool (some dudes are way too comfortable in there). If someone is transsexual, but still heterosexual by desire, does that change the story (identifies as female, but still sexually attracted to women)?

No doubt those who are confused about their gender suffer in ways I'm not aware of, and for that reason alone we need to listen, care for, and protect them. It is never a question for a Christian as to should we love or not? Yes, we are always to love. I'm not sure that always means "getting things your way". Love for my children sure doesn't mean they get things their way. 

More thought and prayer required....        



Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Body of Christ- 1 Cor 12






Before we talk about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it might be helpful to say something about the city of Corinth. The city had been almost completely destroyed at one point, but by Paul’s day the city had been rebuilt for about 100 years as a Roman colony. So it had the feel of a new city. There wasn’t really any aristocracy because it was a recently rebuilt city that was populated mostly with Roman soldier, freedmen (which were a step above slaves on the social ladder), and slaves. It was now an important city with lots of things going on. Don’t think of a sleepy backwater. This town was buzzing. There was tourism, with people coming to watch athletic competitions. There was lots of trade, which brought in lots of different people traveling from all over to do business. It had the feel of a boom town. It also had a reputation in ancient literature- to “act like a Corinthian” became a phrase meaning “to commit fornication” (see Aristophanes (430-385 BC) who coined the term “korinthiazethai”). Plato used the phrase “Corinthian girl” to mean “prostitute”. It was a melting pot of all kinds of cultures, philosophies, and religions.

The people who made up the church brought some of this cultural baggage with them into the church. There were some strong egos in the church. There was competition and self-promotion. Some had the attitude that they could function quite fine without the rest of the community. There were some in the church who seemed to value some people’s contributions and gifts, but not others.

In lots of ways the letter to the Corinthian church has a lot to say to our culture. We are in a culture that encourages narcissism. It’s all about me, and what I deserve. That’s what the advertising we are bombarded with tells me anyway. We live in a culture that is mostly determined by economics and the markets. We are competitive, especially when it comes to toys, vacations, and houses. We are confronted by a mixture of all kinds of cultures and life styles. We are bombarded by images of sexuality and messages that tell us to follow our every desire. So, we aren’t that far off from Corinth.

In this particular part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians Paul is trying to teach them about what it means to be the body of Christ, which is the church. There is diversity within the body of Christ, but there is a stronger unity. There is diversity based on ethnicity (Jew and gentile) and diversity based on social standing (slave and free). But, the diversity Paul is primarily concerned with here is diversity based on spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit has granted gifts to his people to both show God’s power in their midst, but also to build up the church. He gives a number of examples of these gifts throughout this chapter (1 Cor 12).

As a side note, I just want to point out that he is giving examples here, so there are more gifts than are in this list. We know this because he seems to add to the list and gives different lists in other letters. So he’s just giving examples. It’s also important to be careful to not try to put these gifts into “supernatural” or “natural” categories. Paul didn’t think in those terms and there are probably a “natural” and “supernatural” side to the gifts he mentions.

Okay, back to diversity. Given the diversity in the church in Corinth, he wants them to avoid two temptations. One is to look down on people as not valuable to the community, the other is to look up to someone (besides Christ) to be the savior of the community. To personalize it, one is to say, “You don’t need me”, and the other is to say, “I don’t need you”.

Paul speaks about the community as the body of Christ. When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, he doesn’t say, “Why are you persecuting my people?” or “my disciples?” He says, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 8:4). As far as Paul knew, until that moment he never met Jesus. But here Jesus is telling Paul that not only have they met, but he has been being abused at the hands of Paul. This should give us pause. When we talk about the church we are not talking about a social club. It is deeper than that. If we think of the church like a club then we will act like a club. We will jockey for position. And decide who should belong and who shouldn’t. And try to get things our way, if we can. The church is not a social club. There is a deeper mystery here. When Paul mistreated a Christian he was mistreating Christ. That’s true for us as well. If we mistreat a member of the church- if we make them feel like second class Christians- if we alienate them and make them feel like they don’t belong- then we are doing that to Christ. To sin against a fellow Christian is to sin against Christ himself. So first, it’s not just a body of Christians that we are talking about. It is the body of Christ.

A body is made up of parts (obviously). The parts have different functions. The eye is different from the ear, which is different from the foot. Sometimes we can look at a particular gift and think “wouldn’t it be great if the church was full of that kind of person”. Or, sometimes we can be envious of the kinds of gifts a person has and we can wish we had that gift too. Paul says that is like wishing for a body made up of eyeballs and no ears or hands. Each Christian has a gift, and is to use that gift to build up the body of Christ. We need all the gifts of the members of the body if we are going to be healthy.

There are medical experts now and in ancient Greece (like Hippocrates and Galen) who taught that pain or disability in a specific part of the body can have a detrimental effect on the whole body. The 4th century preacher John Chrysostom points out the effect on the whole body if you get a thorn in your foot. It effects the whole person. Each member of the church has an ability to effect the whole. In a similar way, the body working together harmoniously can accomplish great things and the whole body gets the credit. Imagine a runner who wins a race. They don’t give the trophy to the legs, as if the heart and lungs and eyes didn’t have anything to do with it. Each member of the church has an effect on all the others. When one of us suffers, we should all suffer. When one of us accomplishes something we should all join in the joy of that accomplishment. We carry one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2). We weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom 12:15).

We need all the gifts. We need preachers, teachers, givers, administrators, healers, and leaders. But, we also need the more subtle gifts. There is a theologian, J├╝rgen Moltmann, who says that those Christians who bring with them particular disabilities and experiences of suffering may be particularly gifted parts of the body of Christ because the church needs them to fully live out and teach the character of the gospel that has the suffering and rejected Christ at the center of it. Paul says, “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour” (1 Cor 12:22-23). So every part matters to God. You all matter to God. So much so, that to feel you leave the church would feel like dismemberment to God. Like a limb getting pulled off, or an eye removed.

This is true of us as an individual church- St. Mary’s and St. Timothy’s. Each one of you brings gifts that are needed to build us up and make this church healthy. For any one of you to be mistreated means Christ feels that as if it was personally done to him.

I also think this is true as we draw the circle a bit wider. It is true of “the church in Sylvan Lake”. In a sense it is more true to talk about “the church” in Sylvan Lake rather that the “churches” of Sylvan Lake. We are all a part of the same body, and we should be careful about speaking negatively of other churches or suggesting that their voice is not necessary. For the church to be healthy we need the Pentecostal voice, and the Roman Catholic voice, and all the others. In a sense we live in a state of disobedience that we are not more unified than we are (Jn 17).

This also goes for our diocese, our denomination, and our ecumenical relationships. The worldwide church is the body of Christ, and it transcends geography and denomination. We dare not dismiss members of Christ’s body and say they aren’t valuable. We should especially not mistreat them. To do so is to mistreat Christ.

Fully participating in the body of Christ with this attitude is also preparation for living life in creation. If, in the church, we can recognize Christ in one another, then perhaps in the world we can see other people as made in the image of God. If we can see people this way, we learn to value everyone regardless of what society thinks of them, or what we think they have to offer us. Perhaps we can learn to see God’s fingerprints on the trees and the stones and the deer. If we can learn to see Christ in one another, and learn to see God’s image in other people, and learn to see the world as the work of our loving creator, then maybe the world can become a kind of sacrament where we can encounter God as we walk down the street, or look at the sky. If we can learn not to reject another member of the church, perhaps we can see everything and everyone as belonging in the world in some mysterious way. Maybe we can learn to be thankful for whatever comes to us as being not only from God, but maybe even meant for our good.

I think Fyodor Dostoyevsky captures this when he writes, “Love people even in their sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love” (the Brothers Karamazov).


If we can learn to love within the body of Christ (seeing each other as belonging and having something valuable to offer), then perhaps that is a step towards learning this broader love. AMEN

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Gifts for building up the community 1 Cor 12


We live in a culture that has become more and more obsessed about the self. It is teaching us to be narcissistic. Social media is often used for advertising the self. In the desire for self-esteem we can become self-absorbed and entitled believing we deserve more- we are special. The advertising we see continuously presents us with the message that we deserve better than we have. John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. We are being trained by our culture to think in terms of what our country can do for us. Paul might say, “Ask not what Christ can do for you, but what you can do for the body of Christ”.

The Corinthian church seemed to be dealing with a lot of the same issues that are present in our culture. Some seemed to have succumbed to spiritual pride. They were competitive. Some were puffed-up by their spiritual ability. They prided themselves in being “spiritual” people over and against the regular Christians. This was disturbing to the community and led to division and strife as egos rubbed against each other.

Paul writes to the community to correct their spiritual pride. He says that they have been given gifts by the Holy Spirit not to puff up their own egos, but to build up and serve the body of Christ- the church. These gifts are not for building up their own individual status. A person is considered touched by the Holy Spirit not because of the ability to perform dramatic or powerful acts, rather someone is considered touched by the Holy Spirit based on their Christ-likeness which means a willingness to serve and build up others. If you want to know if the Holy Spirit is present then look for Christ-likeness.

Paul says that you know the Holy Spirit is present when someone confesses that “Jesus is Lord”, which is not just the verbal statement, but the reality of a life completely submitted to the lordship of Jesus. It means to recognize that Jesus is master in all areas of the person’s life. It is totally allegiance. Absolute loyalty. And complete obedience. It is to recognize as the Collect for Peace says in the BCP, that to be in his “service is perfect freedom” (BCP, p11, second collect for peace, Morning Prayer). It means to live a self-sacrificial life, in imitation of Jesus. Rather than put spiritual gifts to service for one’s self, they are put to service to build up and encourage the Body of Christ.

In our reading it says that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ (12:3). This could mean a couple things. First, it could be in reference to spiritual persecution. Some might have been trying to get them to deny their faith by denying Christ. For example, they might have been trying to get them to say “Caesar is Lord” and not Jesus, and a part of that denial might have been to curse Jesus. But there is another possibility. The Greek can also refer to someone trying to ask Jesus to curse someone. All around Corinth archeologists have found curse tablets, which are tablets that call various pagan deities to curse competitors or rivals. It is like a magic spell that seeks to control supernatural forces to do your will. Some might have brought this practice into the church and may have been calling curses on people using Jesus’s name. Paul recognizes this as the height of self-centeredness. Instead of seeking to submit yourself to Jesus’ will you actually attempt to twist Jesus to do your will to destroy an opponent. Such selfishness is evidence of the absence of the Holy Spirit.

I thought it might be helpful to actually look at the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are mentioned. They can be a little confusing, and we have to be careful about imposing our modern ideas onto these gifts. For example, we can tend to think in terms of “supernatural” and “natural”. Those are pretty recent categories. Paul wouldn’t have thought in those categories. God is active throughout our lives, not just in what we think of as “supernatural” events. If we say something is “supernatural” then that can also imply that what is natural has nothing to do with God. For example, God can heal using the medical system. What we consider a “supernatural” healing doesn’t necessarily mean God is any more involved than in a natural healing. God is just working differently. So those categories aren’t necessarily helpful.

Paul’s teaching here is primarily about Spiritual Gifts as being in service to the community rather than the individual. Later Paul will use the analogy of a body. The parts of the body are for the benefit of the whole. For example, sight isn’t just for the benefit of the eye. Sight helps the eye to direct the body. The eyes serve the body. The Holy Spirit gives the gifts necessary to build up the church and no individual has all the gifts- they are distributed among the body of Christ. I should also say that this is not a complete list of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit- they are examples of gifts, but there are many more. (See also 1 Cor 12:28-30; 14:1-5; Rom 12:6-8; Eph 4:7-13).

In verse 8 he mentions the gift of wise speech, or the “utterance of wisdom”. “Wisdom” was a bit of a catchword in the Corinthian church. This is not just clever human speech, but it is speech empowered by the Spirit. It is probably the gift of communicating deep truths.

Immediately following this is the “utterance of knowledge”. It isn’t completely clear how this is different from wisdom. “Knowledge” was also a Corinthian catchphrase. The difference might be that wisdom is more holistic as in the application of truth to life. Knowledge might be more about information or maybe even a teaching gift. We sometimes make the same distinction. I’m sure we all know people who are smart but not wise. They have lots of information in their head, they can do calculus, but their relationships are a mess. They don’t know how to apply knowledge to their life.

"Faith" is mentioned next. This is probably different from the faith that every Christian has. It is probably extraordinary faith to support and encourage the community, especially in times of trouble or uncertainty. For example, at this moment our church is being troubled regarding decisions about same sex blessings. Some feel like the church is acting prejudicially towards people attracted to the same sex. They see this as a human rights issue. Others see this as an issue of Biblical ethics and that blessing same sex relationships is a violation of the Bible’s guidance in how to live life. So, at the world-wide Anglican primates’ meeting we can have national leaders walk out of the meeting, and others being censured. This kind of issue can really shake the church. Those with the gift of faith can encourage the church and remind us that Christ is still Lord over the church and the world. They can remind the church that we have dealt with difficult issues before and the church is still here. They boost the morale of the community by reminding us that God is in control and that this one issue doesn’t have to define us.

Next, Paul mentions the gift of various kinds of healings (more plurals than our reading). Again, we have to be careful about imposing the category of the “supernatural”. Surely, miraculous healings are included here, but we shouldn’t exclude more natural and medical healing of body, mind, and soul. We should also be careful about an overly simplistic view of healing and sickness. For example, when Paul prayed for the removal of his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7) God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Paul was being taught something in the midst of his illness, so we should beware of thinking overly simplistic about sickness and healing in our spiritual life.

Then Paul mentions deeds of power, or workings of power (our translation says “working of miracles”, but that’s a little misleading since the word for miracle isn’t present in the Greek). There may be some implied miraculous activity here, but not exclusively. This could also include effective leadership, which can help the community to accomplish amazing things. Martin Luther King Jr. may have had this gift of the Spirit and accomplished what many people said wasn’t possible. It’s not necessarily miraculous.

Prophecy is a bit of a controversial gift. There are a number of ideas of what it means to be a prophet. In general prophecy is about speaking God’s words to the people. It’s not really about telling the future, though it may include a warning about consequences. In the Bible prophecy is about calling people back to the Law. Usually the people have strayed off the path God has set and the prophet is the sheep dog that calls the sheep back to the path. Sometimes we have this sense of prophets in some sort of trance, and speaking in riddles, but that isn’t necessarily a biblical view of prophecy. The ecstatic prophet in a trance is more of a pagan Greek of Roman idea of a prophet. The Corinthians might have brought some of these ideas into the church when they were converted and were being disruptive to the worshipping community, so Paul emphasizes ordered and controlled speech (1 Cor 14:29-33). In the book of Amos prophecy is pretty much identical to biblical preaching- edifying, exhorting, and encouraging God’s people.

“Discernment of spirits” or maybe a better translation is, “discernment of what is of the Spirit”, probably indicates a gift where a person can distinguish whether something is from the Holy Spirit, or if it is merely human generated, or maybe inspired by some other less-than-holy spirit. People can sometimes claim to be speaking for God and use that authority to be manipulative. As a priest I’ve bumped into these people. They will sometimes come to you with a full plan supposedly given to them by God, and you are not allowed to comment on it or critique it or question it, and it usually includes you giving them lots of money. So the gift to discern what is of the Holy Spirit is an important one for the community, to prevent it from being manipulated by the delusional or dishonest.

Paul speaks a lot about the gift of tongues, and that is another controversial gift. Paul here implies a plural- there are various kinds of tongues. So this is more than just one kind of phenomena. In the book of Acts when the Spirit falls on the disciples on Pentecost they miraculously speak in foreign languages they didn’t know. There is also reference to an angelic language (1 Cor 13:1). Tongues might also refer to a sporadic release of longing or praise. Paul might refer to this in the letter to the Romans when he talks about sighs too deep for words (Rom 8:26-27). It could be inarticulate outpourings of the heart. Tongues might be the flipside of prophecy. Prophecy is articulate and intelligible and directed towards the people, whereas tongues are inarticulate and unintelligible and seem to be directed to God. Paul says the use of tongues are for private devotional use, otherwise they can disrupt the community (14:5-25).

In order to be used in public the tongues speaker is to have an additional gift which is the gift of the articulation of tongues speech. There has to be an articulation of what would otherwise not be understood by the community. Tongues expresses a release of praise to God, but then it can be articulated so the community can join in with it or at least understand it. This might be the gift of people who write hymns or write prayers.

I know that was a lot of information. What I’m hoping you will walk away with is two things. One is that you have a gift, or even multiple gifts, from the Holy Spirit. You don’t have to be continuously surrounded by “supernatural” activity to have God’s Spirit manifesting in your life. You have gifts from the Holy Spirit, even if you aren’t conscious of them, and even if they aren’t in the list we just discussed. Secondly, and this is Paul’s main point, I want us all to ask ourselves, how are our gifts being used to build up God’s people so they can be more effective in serving the world? Are we using our gifts to serve ourselves? To build up our own reputation? To build up earthly treasure? Or, are we building up the church? … We are invited to resist the culture of “me” and instead, by following Christ, think about “we”. AMEN
   

Sunday, 10 January 2016

the wise follow the star- Matt 2


It is a strange and mysterious passage that is only mentioned by the Gospel of Matthew. Men came to Palestine from somewhere in the East- perhaps Persia, or Arabia, or maybe somewhere else, we don’t know.

The men who come are equally mysterious (were they all men?). They were not kings according to Matthew. We think of them as kings because this passage made people think of passages of the Bible like Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 that talk about the kings of the nations coming to Israel to give gifts and pay homage. They were not Jews. They were probably gentiles (which just means "not Jewish"). They are called “Magi” in the plural, but “Magus” in the singular. It is a word that that has a few definitions and can refer to a practitioner of occult magic arts, to someone who would divine the future, to an interpreter of dreams (like the prophet Daniel, or Joseph), or to those who study the night sky. A magus was a mysterious person, with mysterious knowledge of things hidden to ordinary people. It is from the Greek word magus that we get the word “Magician”. Magus can also be correctly translated as ‘sorcerer’, or as ‘wise man’. In the world of the Magi the universe was an interconnected whole. If something important was happening on earth that would be reflected in the heavens. If an important king died or was born, they would expect to see some sign of it in the stars (if you know where to look). Adding to the mystery, the Bible warns about consulting astrologers, diviners, and magicians. Dream interpreters seem to be the exception. And yet we find the magi in a positive light here.

The star itself is also mysterious. We really don’t know what the Magi were looking at when they saw the star. Craig Chester, an astronomer for the Montaray Institute of Geophysics and Astrophysics, has stated that it is safe to say that every astrophysical event between 7 and 1 BC has been proposed to be the Bethlehem star (a fact I learned from Darrel Johnson, a prof at Regent College). We don’t know if they were looking at a supernova, or a comet, or at some configuration of the planet Jupiter and Saturn. The star seems to move and then stops. It also seems to point. Have you ever gave direction to someone by saying "it's the house right under Jupiter"? This led some early church commentators to say that it was actually an angel that led the Magi.

The Magi go to find the one born King of the Jews and so they naturally are led to Jerusalem and cruel King Herod. Herod was actually a descendant of the people of Edom, and was placed in power by the Romans (hardly the rightful heir to the throne of David). We also know that he was so paranoid about protecting his throne that at the end of his days he had three of his own children executed for treason. Mysteriously, the Magi found no newly born king in the palaces of Jerusalem. Instead 6 miles away, in the town of Bethlehem, in humble conditions, they found the child they were looking for.

Because this passage is so mysterious and intriguing many commentators have used their imaginations to fill in the gaps. “Three” Magi have been imagined because there were three gifts, but Matthew says nothing about how many there were except that there was more than one. The three Magi were even given names by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century. One was “Melchior”, an old man with white hair and long beard. “Gaspar” was young and beardless with a ruddy complexion. “Balthasar” had dark colored skin and a big beard. The multi-ethnic group was believed to represent the Gentile world that would also benefit from Jesus’ saving action, as they were welcomed into the family of Abraham.

Early commentators also put theological weight on the gifts given to the baby Jesus. Gold, they said, was a gift worthy of a king. Frankincense was a kind of incense offered in worship and so was a gift worthy of a god. Myrrh was a spice used for embalming a dead body and prophetically points to Jesus’ death on the cross. This isn’t wrong, however, Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, were valuable gifts that might be given to any king, especially if the Magi were from Arabia where the gifts would be more easily obtained.

Here we have these mysterious strangers drawn to the baby Jesus by something they called a star. After meeting the cruel and paranoid Herod greedily clutching at his throne, they are led by the scriptures to an unexpected place to meet the child born king of the Jews. With exceedingly great joy they recognize him as the one they are looking for, and worship him (an action not unusual for polytheistic gentiles meeting an important king, though worship of a king would be an unusual action for a Jew). They then open their treasure chests to give little Jesus gifts fit for a king. Finally, they are warned by a dream to avoid Herod on their return journey.

This must have been a strange experience for the Magi. They go to another part of the world where what you do for a living is considered illegal, the language is different, and the beliefs are strange, and you are going there to worship a child no one else seems to be making a big deal about.

I have to say that I find this passage mystifying, but I think it touches me on level that makes it hard for me not to see myself in the story. I had pretty much rejected Christianity by the time I became a teenager. Like the magi I felt the need to search for some sort of spiritual truth. I imagined that there was some sort of power in the moon, sun, and stars. There was a time that I considered myself a Wiccan. I Wiccan would probably love to be considered a "Magus". I was looking for some kind of power that would bring me happiness. I was looking for a spiritual path that was exciting, but that also gave me some control over my own life. I wanted to feel at home in my skin. I wanted to feel at home on the earth. I wanted to feel content and like my life had meaning. But, it was always illusive.  This meant that I drifted always looking for another path- Another theory- Another philosophy. Another something that would bring me a new epiphany and would help me see my life in a new way.

Like the Magi, I once saw something like a star. My star was an experience I had in a bar. I had just arrived with a few friends when I was overwhelmed by a feeling I can only describe as love, but it was so intense that I want to capitalize it. I felt it rush over me from out of nowhere. I looked around at the people dancing and I felt an intense love towards all of them. It was a love that was equally intense towards everyone. It didn’t matter if I knew the person or not, at that moment I felt love towards each person that was more intense than I have ever felt towards anyone.

I’m not sure how long I was standing there. Time seemed irrelevant. As I reflected on the experience I believed that I would have felt the same love towards someone at that moment even if they were attacking me with a knife. The love would have remained because it came from outside both of us.

That experience was my star. Somehow I knew that that love was the meaning of life. To live in that love would be heaven on earth. I chased that star trying to understand it. I wanted to experience it again. I eventually left a lot of the beliefs I had behind me as I started to read about Buddhism, It wasn’t long before I decided that I wanted to become a Buddhist. A short time later I had a dream. It was a very realistic dream. It was the kind of dream that stuck with me and left me thinking ‘that was more than a dream’.

In the dream I was in a car. It was an old Model-T. The Dalai Lama was driving, and we were driving through a garden on a walking path. I remember turning to the Dalai Lama and saying, “I want to become a Buddhist”. He laughed and said, “You are not a Buddhist. You are a Christian”. I woke up confused and annoyed. At this point I had become quite angry at Christianity. The Dalai Lama might as well have called me a four-letter word. I was not pleased. But, something about this left me shaken. I couldn’t ignore it.

Like the Magi I continued chasing the star, and it was leading me to unexpected places. Like the Magi I was led to Palestine- not literally, but in terms of the literature I began reading. I picked up the Bible and opened it to the Gospel of Matthew. Herod was there in my mind as well- hoping to find the child to kill him. Originally, I hoped that I would find all sorts of offensive and contradictory material so that I could leave Jesus behind me as I followed the star. But Herod didn’t have his way. The child lived. I read through Matthew and when I hit the Sermon on the Mount I was blown away by Jesus. The words were engraving themselves on my soul as I read and I had no ability to resist. Jesus spoke about not judging, about turning the other cheek, about putting away anger, and about loving your enemies. I read about Jesus forgiving those who were unlovable and even loving those who were killing him by asking God to forgive them. Then I reached the first letter of John (4:7-8) where it says, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

The star I was chasing was my unexplainable and overwhelming experience of love- and Jesus made sense of that love. Like the magi I had followed the star and it led me to a little child in his mother’s arms- Love incarnate.

This room is filled with magi. You have been called from strange places. You have sought happiness in many places. When the pursuit of happiness failed you turned to dulling the pain or boredom. But, there was something that pulled at you- telling you that there is meaning to life. You have felt the pull of the star. Perhaps it was late at night and you had the overwhelming urge to pray. It might have been joy that overwhelmed you and filled your eyes with tears while watching the sun set. You might have been walking somewhere, or reading a book, or listening to music, when suddenly that something swept over you from out of nowhere. Suddenly the veil is pulled away and the everyday ordinary reality reveals the deeper and more meaningful reality that lives under it. There is meaning. There is truth. And words can barely touch it. You realize that this world is haunted (as the philosopher Charles Taylor would say). It is haunted by another reality.  

Maybe you are feeling the familiar tug yet again and it fills you with joy to respond. Maybe you have ignored the tug for a long time. Or, Maybe you are feeling that pull for the first time. Don’t ignore it. Follow it. Do anything you possibly can to follow it. Or maybe the better way to say it is, ‘give in’. Let go of whatever is preventing you from follow that star. Let its gravity pull you. If you have followed it before but have been distracted, let go and let yourself be drawn. Be drawn to that calm place, where you can be still with that child, leave the worries, leave the work that has to be done, leave the ‘just one more thing’, Leave your homeland and travel to the baby. Find peace there.


Sunday, 3 January 2016

Jesus, Light from Light, true God from true God- Jn 1



Watching a ball bounce across a room is very different than hearing a physicist explain the same event. The physicist would describe gravity, the density of the floor, the rubber’s ability to bounce (called the “Coefficient of Restitution”), the force at which the ball was thrown or the height it was dropped from, maybe even variables like the temperature of the room, etc. All of that would be communicated through a swirl of numbers and letters drawn into mathematical formulas that explain what we watched happen with our eyes. It doesn’t mean that watching the ball bounce across the room is less true, they are just different ways of explaining the same event. The physicist’s explanation is more abstract, but also provides a kind of truth that isn’t available to us by simple observation.

The opening of the Gospel according to John is a bit like this. Most of us know the Christmas story. The images sit easily in our minds- Mary and Joseph next to a baby in a manger; Angels; and Shepherds. It is a story that is grasped fairly easily even by children, who can even repeat it after they hear it. That story is accessible to just about everyone- From the young and simple to the mature and very educated. It’s like watching a ball bounce across the room. Children will throw the ball and chase after it, but they have no clue of the deeper reality behind what they are doing. There is a layer of reality they aren’t aware of.

In the first chapter of John it’s as if the physicist comes in and begins to describe to the children what they are doing and begins to describe the forces that are behind the ball’s behavior. That maybe sounds a bit cold and boring, so maybe mix the physicist with a poet and Gandalf the wizard. That maybe gets us a bit closer to John. John’s Gospel was written after the other Gospels and that means John had more time to understand and unpack his experience with Jesus. (Hobberman sphere).

John brings us right back to the beginning. Not the pregnant woman on her way to Bethlehem, but back to the very beginning. John’s opening words are “In the beginning” (1:1) which brings to mind the book of Genesis- “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). John begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God” (1:1). The “Word” John is speaking about is the creative and organizing principle of the universe. God created through His “Word”. “All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being” (1:3). … God’s Word is one with Him, but it also emanates from Him. John equates Jesus with the “Word”.

John can be abstract, which can make him hard to understand. It’s easier to think of Mary and the child in the manger. It is an image that ignites the imagination. John can be confusing. How can the Word be both with God and be God? It’s a complicated statement. And to help us understand it the Church eventually came to describe God as a Trinity. There is one God. There is one nature, but there are three persons. Each person is both with God and is God. They have unity, but in their persons there is a distinction- The Father is not the Son; The Son is not the Holy Spirit; and so on.

And as we start to describe the Trinity you might feel like the physicist/poet/magician has entered into the room where the children are playing. Some feel like the children’s game is being unnecessarily interrupted. It can feel like confusion is being introduced to a very simple story. Why not keep it simple? … I want to suggest that if we want to love God not only with all our heart, soul, and strength, but also love God with all our mind that we should pay close attention to what John is saying here about the Christmas story. Understanding what John is saying is not easy, but if we want to understand God deeply I think we need to follow John into the abstraction. Just as if we want to understand what is happening with the bouncing ball on a deeper level, then we will need to follow the physicist into the abstraction of mathematical formulas. As John reflected on his experience with Jesus he came to understand that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14).

One of the most difficult things John says about Jesus is that in a unique way, to meet Jesus is to meet God. “The Word is God” (1:1) and the “Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). John isn’t unique in saying this. There are hints all over the New Testament, and Christians have worshipped Jesus of Nazareth as God right from the very beginning. What I would like to do is just to run through some of the reasons Christians believe Jesus is also, in some mysterious way, God. This isn’t just difficult to understand, but there are also some who challenge this belief, so It’s good for us to understand why Christians say this.

For example, in the Bible, when Jesus forgave a man’s sins there were scribes who said, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Another time Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58) and people picked up stones to kill him. (“I AM” is the name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush). In the letter to the Colossians we read, “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). In the letter written to the Hebrews we read, “[Jesus] is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:1-3). There are lots of other examples I could give from Scripture.

I want to also say that from the very beginning Christians worshipped Jesus as God. If any of you have read Dan Brown’s novel the Da Vinci Code you’ll know that he thinks that Christians didn’t think Jesus was God until much later. He thinks it didn’t happen until the 300’s. There may be some of you that think this is just irrelevant to you, but I guarantee there are people in your life who believe Dan Brown’s novel (or someone else’s) and may even use it as a reason to disbelieve Christianity, so it’s important for us to be aware of the reasons this just isn’t true. I want us to look at the early Christians, so we can see their belief in Jesus as God.

Early Christians in their writing began treating Jesus’ name with the same reverence as their Jewish counterparts treated Yahweh’s name (YHWH). There was a particular way of writing it where it was abbreviated. Usually the first and last letter was kept and the rest of the word was replaced with a dash and a line was drawn above the word to indicate it referred to a holy name (Nomina Sacra). Early Christians did this with words like “God”, and “Lord”, but also “Christ”, and “Jesus”.

There was a really early example of this found in the 1990’s. In Palestine in the city of Megiddo they uncovered what is probably the oldest Christian building that we know of. They dated this building to the 200’s AD (as early as 235). In it they found a broken table that was probably used for communion. Around the table there is a mosaic in the floor. The writing indicates that the table and mosaic were donated by a woman named Akeptous. Part of the mosaic says this, "The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial." And the writing uses the same method for referring to holy names of God, as well as blatantly referring to Jesus as God.




Another example is from a less friendly source. It is anti-Christian graffiti that was found in Rome near the Coliseum that also dates to the 200’s. It makes fun of a Christian named Alexamenos. It is a picture of a man worshipping in front of a man on a cross. The man on the cross is drawn with a donkey head. It also has the words “Alexamenos worships his God”. So not only were Christians worshipping Jesus as God, but even those hostile to Christianity understood Christians to be worshipping Jesus as God.

There was a later challenge to Jesus’ divinity in the 300’s that came from within the church. There was a priest that began teaching that Jesus wasn’t God. His teaching was starting to have a big effect so bishops from all over met to discuss the issue. This meeting was the Council of Nicea (325 AD). We say the Nicene Creed that attempts to corrects Arius’ thought by referring to Jesus as “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God”. It was their way of saying that looking at Jesus was seeing the face of God. While they may have formulated the thought is a precise way, it was not a new thought for the church.

C.S. Lewis once famously reflected on the idea that Jesus Christ was a good teacher, but merely a man, and definitely not God. In his book Mere Christianity Lewis said,

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God."

We are left with the option to see Jesus as a liar, fool, or lunatic, and all those early Christians who followed him as liars, fools, or lunatics for telling us to worship Jesus as God, or we see him as Pope Benedict XVI (J. Ratzinger) describes him- "This God shows himself to us; he looks out from eternity into time and puts himself into relationship with us. We cannot define him in whatever way we like. He has 'defined' himself and stands now before us as our Lord, over us and in our midst”.

If we are going to understand what it means to be Christians, then we had also better understand what it means for Jesus to be the Christ. If we get it wrong there we have no hope of understanding what it means to be Christians. And that doesn’t mean we have to have perfect understanding, but we had better try our best to love God not only with all our heart, and strength, and soul, but with all our mind as well. To miss out on the divinity of Jesus is to make a very fundamental error. As children of God we receive Jesus as the true light that has come into the world. We receive him, and believe in him, as he is presented by our spiritual ancestors.
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