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FCC Sunday Sermon

Date: 03/06/2012/Speaker: Matthew Phan

Reading of the passages: Isaiah 6: 1-8, and John 3: 1-17.

So today I’m going to share about two rather separate things and try to tie them together. On the one hand I’m given this set of passages, which are rather difficult. The Isaiah passage is grand and miraculous, but also somewhat esoteric and it was hard to feel a personal response to it. The John passage is so famous that it is challenging to think of something new to say. On the other hand, I was asked to share a few thoughts about why Steph and I are here at this church, and why we continue to come, despite being rather in the demographic minority. Fortunately, somehow this week the two things managed to come together.

I thought I’d start by sharing our story. Why are we here? I was raised in a Bible Presbytarian church in Serangoon/Bishan; some of my best friends still attend there. I learnt Bible verses and Sunday school songs, but I sort of never really fully internalized it. When I went to college in New York I tried attending church for a while, but without the social comfort of going to a church where I had good friends, the church – incidentally a very good church, Emmanuel, a daughter church of Redeemer — felt a bit stale and I left. I sort of tossed around for a bit. But leaving church gave me the chance to wear a different philosophy and see if it fit. It also gave me the time and space to read other things and find out what I believed in. I started reading more of CS Lewis – not so much the Narnia books or even his explicitly Christian meditations, but his fiction: the Perelandra trilogy, the wonderful novella The Great Divorce, his biographies Surprised by Joy and A Grief Observed. A friend led me on to Chesterton, whose book Orthodoxy I happily devoured and which I consider a significant milestone in my understanding of God. Chesterton also wrote a series of short stories called Paradoxes of Mr Pond, which like Lewis’ fiction I consider possibly a better portrait of the faith than his straight-serve theology. After 5 to 6 years of distance I realised that I would never be able to entirely forget my upbringing, but perhaps it was time to revisit the Bible and see if I could read it with fresh eyes. So I started doing that and taking it from there. And I started to see what it means to be touched by the Word, to be moved by the verses, to feel power and truth in them, as opposed to just remembering what your teacher taught you to say. Although I definitely struggle with that sometimes; I remember how Dali late in life returned to the Catholic faith he was brought up in and I wonder if it is possible for us to escape our upbringing. It remains an open question for me.

Steph is rather different. She was brought up atheist, I should say fiercely atheist! When I visited her parents for the first time I was warned against saying anything about God! But I suppose I introduced her to God, or rather, God to her.

In that sense FCC is quite important to us because it gave us a middle ground. I wasn’t, and I’m not really, a gay activist. I don’t think I had any seriously strong convictions one way or other on the issue of sexuality and whether it was right or wrong – going to college in New York, I had gay friends, and I had my faith, and they were sort of separate. I wasn’t, like many of you are, forced to confront the disjoint between these two sides of my life. In a way Steph forced me to confront it, because she refused to attend a conventional church where homosexuality is frowned upon. In a way I was also afraid to rejoin a traditional church as I didn’t want to get sucked back into a routine which I was so familiar with and where it was so easy to just go through the motions.

Let me digress for a moment here on one of my pet peeves: I didn’t sing hymns for several years, and I still very often hesitate to sing: to sing, really sing, requires you to emotionally commit yourself to the lyrics, and I am very often ambivalent about lyrics, especially contemporary lyrics, because they are often about how much I love God and am willing to dedicate my life 100% to him – and I’ve said that before and I know it’s not true. I much prefer songs where there is a certain ambiguity about the human, but by God’s grace we are still able to come before him, not because we love Him but because He loves us. But singing remains one of the things I miss the most about what you could call a young and innocent faith!

Coming back to it, the reason we joined FCC was because we were looking for a church where we could fit. It might seem odd to you but I suspect that at that stage we would have found it very tough to fit into a regular church. In a way FCC was a very good fit. I was slightly unsure, and to be honest still remain unsure (remember I was brought up conservative), about what the church’s core beliefs are regarding the nature of God – I am reassured by the public declaration of faith using the Nicene Creed but sometimes someone will say something that makes me go “Erm…”, but on the whole I thought it was a good place where Steph as a non-Christian would be willing to come to at least learn more about God. Sulin was very kind and conducted a sort of baptism class, so Steph was baptised here last year. I’ve been blessed too – I’ve learnt a lot from hearing leaders and members of this church describe how you walk with God, your thoughts and experiences of God.

Having said that I don’t think we, or at least I — Steph should speak for herself, of course — feel entirely at home. Theology is one issue but it’s not at present a huge issue – to live in community is, as the speaker Mark said last week, to live in tension. Part of it is sexuality: we can empathise but we can never fully appreciate what it feels like to be gay and walking with God. I can’t really say that we are close friends with anyone here. And that is partly our fault – we haven’t really committed to attending a cell group. To be honest I also like to spend my time doing other things, I’m a bit of a jiu-jitsu and MMA junkie and I don’t suppose that’s something that LGBT folk are too interested in.

So why are we still here?

I think this is where today’s Bible passages come into play. What was Nicodemus looking for?

“He came to Jesus at night and said Rabbi we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Nicodemus was looking for integrity. He was seeking integrity between his past and his present, his upbringing, and what his experience and reason made him feel was the right response to Jesus. He couldn’t reconcile it himself, so he came to Jesus and asked him what was going on. He wanted reconciliation between what he was taught and what his friends and associates believed, and what he saw with his eyes. That’s why he came to Jesus.

That’s one big reason why we are here, and I think it is one big reason why you all are here too. We all want integrity – we want reconciliation between two parts of our lives that appeared to be saying different things. We want to learn to live as a single person. The issues are different: for many of you, the issue is to reconcile your sexuality with your faith. But don’t imagine that for straight people there is any less need for reconciliation between different selves. We are in as much a search for integrity. When I was attending Emmanuel in NY, a huge issue for the church – which was composed largely of college graduates and professionals – was the reconciliation between their intellect and cultural awareness, and a faith that seems monolithic, conformist, almost anti-intellectual (especially in the US may I add). I think this remains a very big challenge for the wider church.

For me, I need to reconcile my secular self and liberal leanings, with the self that believes there is a God and that He is omniscient and omnipotent and also loving. As an example, I have just finished a book called the Memoirs of Hadrian – it is written by a Frenchwoman in the 1950s, but it is the diary of the Roman emperor Hadrian, one of the greatest administrators of the Empire. It is a compelling and poignant portrait of man at the height of his powers, an almost godlike emperor, living out a philosophy that is sharply humanistic, conscious of death and dreaming of immortality — the author’s note states that she imagined it as a time “Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, when man stood alone”. It’s a poignant book but challenging because it represents a different value system. We believe man is not alone. But the question I have to ask as a believer is how do I reconcile my admiration and empathy for this man Hadrian, with my faith?

So I think that’s one big thing that is common between us. Everyone here is sensitive to the disjoint between what the Bible appears to say about God, or what the common interpretation is, and what they believe God is really like, or should be like. We may not come to the same answer. But we are individually and collectively struggling to reconcile those two parts of our lives. And so I think the spirit of inquiry at FCC – the desire to be a questioning church, built on the pillars of scripture, tradition, reason and experience – is a big reason why we continue to attend.

The other thing that is common to us is the centrality of the Lord Jesus and the importance, in our faith, of this personal walk with God.

We know from John 6:41 that Isaiah saw the Lord Jesus, in his pre-incarnate glory, and the passage for today describes this. “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple”. And there is a consciousness of his own state of unworthiness – “Woe to me, for I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” And then a gesture from Christ – “one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand… With it he touched my mouth and said, See this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for”.

We know also that Isaiah’s message was essentially about putting your faith in God, rather than in secular alliances or man-made things. “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (Is 7:9).

And indeed, in the John passage, too, we have Jesus saying that God so loved the world, that He gave his only son, that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life. Invert Jesus’ statement – Whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life => Whoever does not believe in Him shall perish and not have eternal life – you have the near equivalent of Isaiah’s statement. And if you invert Isaiah’s statement, you very nearly obtain Jesus’ statement – If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand => If you do stand firm in your faith, you will stand.

So Jesus sent Isaiah to Judah with a message, and this message was the same as what the incarnated Jesus himself said to Nicodemus. The believer is the person who puts his faith in God. And the mark of it is the Spirit – a verse from our 3rd passage today: Romans 8:14 – because those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. There are at least two things here, that a non-believer will not fully understand – on the one hand, the intimacy and joyfulness of the walk, and on the other hand, the constant challenge of staying close to God.

This relationship is something that is quite difficult an to explain. As Jesus says in John 3:8, the Spirit is like the wind, you can’t see where it comes from. I can describe the milestones, but I can’t trace for you the exact path I took. On the flip side I don’t think you could bring a person to faith in God by solely rational argument, or miraculous spectacle, or warm fellowship – it is through the work of the Spirit and who know how it works, but like the wind, you can feel it. Only a fellow believer will understand what another means when they say they feel close to God, hear God’s voice or feel his presence, or conversely, are concsious of his silence or absence – and for that to matter. So that is something that I think I share with people in FCC, and another reason why I keep coming back.

As an illustration of this: Recently, with Obama coming out in support of gay marriage in the US, and some churches condoning and some condemning the action, some old church friends and I had a WhatsApp conversation about the issue. I haven’t done Living Waters, so I haven’t studied all the six or seven passages. But I did attend one of Clarence’s study sessions which focused on a passage in Paul. If I understand Clarence’s position, he dismisses the OT passages because we cannot fully understand the context. But the passage in Paul is stronger, and I think he has come to think that you cannot so easily dismiss that Paul’s description of what is unnatural is specific to temple prostitution or etc. You have to come out and say that Paul is wrong, or as our group decided, to say that Paul was un-informed. Anyhow my point is that I am not certain about the theology. But what did say to my friends was that – and I’ll quote word for word – “I’ve come across gay men, and women, who seem to me to really have a walk with God, with Christ, from whom I have learnt spiritually. Is it for me to deny that their walk is genuine? It may be so, but they seem to be better Christians than I am so I hesitate to write them off like that based on a sexuality that I cannot understand since I am not gay myself.”

toLet me end with a challenging question. The implication of our faith is that as children of God born of the Spirit, we have more in common with a fellow Christian than with someone who shares many of our cultural or sexual leanings but who is non-Christian.

To take that to its extreme – in the broader church, the community of fellow believers, you have more in common with an anti-gay believer than with a non-believer who is gay. Of course, you might argue that the believer who is vehemently anti-gay is not really a Christian. But that’s a bit of a cop-out argument. Let’s take it at face value – let’s say you happen to meet and have a chart with a person, who is genuinely a follower of Jesus but who also believes that homosexuality is wrong – do you truly feel you have more in common with that person? It’s a tough question for me as well because I’ve met – and we’ve all met – some Christians that you just don’t get along with. I don’t think there’s a right answer, but I think it’s a question worth asking, and trying to understand our emotional response.

To conclude, perhaps let’s read through the John passage together: John 3:1-17