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Maturing in Love

Date: 16/02/2014/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-37
These past two weeks have been challenging in some ways, right? With all the debate regarding the Health Promotion Board’s FAQ on Sexuality, I’m sure you have been impacted in some way. Whether you are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or questioning, whether you are Christian or not, I’m sure there are many thoughts and emotions running through you. Maybe you are feeling hurt, angry or indignant at the blatant untruths that some have put forward. Maybe a small part of you feels confused or afraid and you wonder when our society will finally get it. This is understandable and I wonder what questions have been going through your mind? I’m not sure about you but a question that has been lingering in my mind these past two weeks is: “How can people who claim to follow Christ ever justify hate and fear mongering?” Perhaps you have questions too. Maybe you are wondering why Christians who claim to base their faith on the same Bible can have such divergent views on so many issues?

I’m not sure about you but as a younger Christian, I struggled tremendously with my faith and sexuality. Based on my very basic understanding of the Bible, I honestly thought being gay was a sin and I figured I must be a terrible contradiction to God. Of course, over time my views have evolved as I studied the Bible more carefully and wisely.  Perhaps for some of you, you have struggled with certain aspects of the Bible, like how the tone and content of the Old Testament seems to contrast greatly with that of the New Testament and you don’t understand why they seem so different. I have heard some people say they have problems with the wrathful and just God of the Old Testament and prefer the message of love and grace in the New Testament. Does that sound familiar?

The point I want to make is that our understanding of the Bible affects our understanding of God and therefore, it has a significant impact on our relationship with God and people. I’m sure that is something you are well aware of. After all, many of us have been hurt or experienced discrimination because of the way some people choose to understand and apply the Bible. Perhaps you have struggled with your own understanding and application of the Bible at some point and that has had a huge impact on you spiritually and emotionally. This morning, I do not presume to be able to fully answer the question, “How can we understand and apply the Bible more accurately?” I don’t think I will be able to do justice to this big topic or address this question adequately in the next 20 minutes. What I hope to do instead is to invite you to ponder along with me as we explore some points that may help us shed light on how we can deepen and broaden our understanding of God’s Word. And perhaps this process might encourage you as we seek to grow in our relationship with God and with others.

So, it was with careful consideration that I chose two of the lectionary passages today –one from the Old Testament and the other from the New Testament.
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Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (NIV)
15  “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.

 16  If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you this day, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it.     
 17  But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them,     
 18  I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.     
 19  I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live,     
 20  loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”   
 
Matthew 5:21-37 (NIV)
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be subject tojudgment.’

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be subject to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be answerable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar,
and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,
leave your gift there before the altar and go;
first be reconciled to your brother or sister,
and then come and offer your gift.

Settle things quickly with your adversary  who is taking you to  court.
Do it while you are still togther on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the vows you have made.’
But I say to you, do not swear an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is God’s throne,
or by the earth, for it is his footstool,
or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.

And do not swear by your head,
for you cannot make even one hair white or black.
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’;
Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

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The reason I chose the Old Testament passage as well as the New Testament passage today is because I thought it might be interesting to let Jesus himself teach us how to interpret Scripture. You see, when we read Matthew 5:21-37, you would notice that Jesus was addressing a series of specific issues in the interpretation of the Mosaic Law, specifically his thoughts regarding murder, adultery, divorce, and oaths. The Deuteronomy passage we read earlier is a good summary of the Mosaic Law. Obviously like us, the people in Jesus’ time also had a lot of questions about the interpretation and application of Scripture. So let’s see how Jesus reinterprets and explains the Old Testament law to his followers.

Do you notice the pattern that Jesus uses when addressing the four issues? He introduces each issue by saying, “You have heard that it was said….But I tell you…” What does this pattern tell us? In the way he challenged the conventional beliefs of that time, Jesus was showing us that we can perhaps aspire towards a broader and deeper understanding of God’s Word.  As Jesus addressed the issues of murder, adultery, divorce and oaths, the general principle underlying his teachings is that true obedience to the law requires observing the spirit of the law, rather than simply the letter of the law. What this means is that Jesus is shifting our attention from our external behaviours to our internal motivations. The spotlight is on our hearts.

What does that mean? Let me say this is both good news and “bad” news. Let’s start with the “bad” news, okay? The “bad” news is that there is nothing we can do that will ever be enough to fulfil the law! Has anyone here ever been angry with a brother or sister or said, “You stupid fool!”? Jesus says that is tantamount to murder. Has anyone here fantasized about someone else that is not your spouse or partner? Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to put up your hands. 🙂 Jesus says that is tantamount to committing adultery. Jesus uses very exaggerated language here, what we call hyperbole, to make a simple point. He is not actually advocating for us to literally gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands. He is making the point that sin is a serious matter and we are ALL sinners in need of God’s grace. All of us have had sinful thoughts even if we have not acted them out in behaviour. No one is immune. No one is better than anyone else. No one is more holy or righteous than someone else. We all ALL sinners in need of God’s grace. What Jesus is trying to illustrate is that nothing we can do in our human strength will ever be enough to fulfil the law. That’s why in verse 17, Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfil it. Jesus came so that he could fulfil the law on our behalf. That’s the good news.

So how did we come to this conclusion? Did we do so just by reading this specific passage in Matthew? No, we didn’t. We didn’t come to this conclusion just by reading Matthew 5:21-37. We came to this conclusion based on our understanding of the meta-narrative of the Bible. Do you know what meta-narrative means? It basically means the big picture. You see, when you want to get to know someone better, you don’t just base your understanding on one thing she says in a particular context, right? You take into consideration his or her background, the culture she comes from, what he likes to talk about and the tone she uses. You also take note of what she says most frequently because that must matter a lot to her! It is the same with God and the Bible. We want to know what God talks about most frequently, the tone used, the historical context.

There are many principles that we can highlight with regards to understanding and applying the Bible better but I just want to focus on two this morning:

  1. The meta-narrative of the Bible is crucial to our understanding of God’s heart and intention. That’s why we seek to interpret a particular passage of the Bible in light of the whole Bible, as well as in its historical context.
  2. Jesus himself distilled the most important law and that is the law of love, the two-fold commandment to love God and to love our neighbor. Love is the consistent message throughout the Bible, from the Old Testament to the New. Even in the Deuteronomy passage we read earlier, it frames obedience in the context of love. In the beginning and at the end of that passage, it talks about obedience as an act of love towards God.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul also says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

The greatest of these is love.

So how do we understand and apply the Bible more accurately? Firstly, we seek to understand the meta-narrative of the Bible because that gives us a glimpse into God’s heart and intention. Secondly, we understand and apply the Bible based on the law of love –– love for God and neighbor.

As a true-life example, I want to share with you a story of how one man sought to understand and apply the Bible better with regards to the hot button issue of homosexuality. His name is Lewis Smedes and he was a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and an ethics professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, as well as the author of a dozen bestselling books. I was doing research and found his article many years ago when I was in Bible school doing a module on Christian ethics. At that time, I chose to present on the topic of homosexuality for that class because it was something personal to me. I was not out at that time as I was in a conservative bible school but I figured this might be the only opportunity that my fellow classmates would have their conventional wisdom about homosexuality challenged. So it was important to me as some of them would become pastors in time to come. What surprised and moved me about this article was the radical compassion this conservative theologian was advocating. It made me realize that there really is a wide range of Christian views, even among conservative Christians, with regards to same-sex relationships. And that was instrumental in helping me reconcile my faith and sexuality.

I recalled this article while I was preparing for this sermon because Lewis Smedes explained how the church changed its mind on the issue of divorce and compared this process of deliberation and growth with how things are changing on the issue of homosexuality. In the Matthew 5 passage that we read today, we saw how Jesus spoke strongly on the issue of divorce. In the context of that time, Jesus was trying to protect the rights of women who could be divorced very easily by their husbands. But in general, it’s pretty clear how Jesus felt about divorce. The thing is I don’t recall hearing any sermons about divorce all these years that I have been attending church. Have you? Yet, there are some pastors who continually preach on the evils of homosexuality. Isn’t that strange? 🙂

So I was very intrigued as to how the church evolved on the issue of divorce because it will give us an idea as to how things might change with regards to the issue of homosexuality. Allow me to quote extensively from Smedes’ article as he explains it so well.

Like The Wideness of the Sea? (Lewis B. Smedes)

I remember the first time that I watched the General Synod of my (Christian Reformed) church in action…..On the table that day was the church’s long standing policy of excluding a certain class of Christian people from its inner circle. These were people who confessed their love for God and their faith in Jesus as their Savior and lived exemplary Christian lives in every way. Except one. And that one exception was serious enough to disqualify them for membership. It had to do with their marriages. They had been married once, then divorced, married again to someone else, and were committed to keeping their covenant with each other this time. That was the rub. Odd as it may have seemed to an outsider, precisely because these people stayed faithful to their marriages, they were, in the church’s eyes, implicitly committed to sin and for that reason alone were excluded from the circle of grace.

The church believed that by excluding them it was simply obeying the word of the Lord. For the Lord had said, in terms that seemed as clear as mineral water, that people who stayed married to anyone other than their first spouse (if, to be sure, he or she were still living) were devoted to a life of continuous adultery…..

Harsh as it seemed, the church believed that its exclusion of such people was nothing else but obedience to the clear teaching of the Bible. The Bible said that adulterers cannot be members of the Kingdom of God. Jesus said that divorced and remarried people are adulterers. And so any Bible believing church had to exclude the remarried from the Kingdom of God and the Body of Christ.

The only way they could clean their slate with God and the church, then, was to break up their marriages. The ideal solution would be for them to have gone back to their previous spouses. But in the event that their previous spouses had also remarried, maybe bred a nest full of young ones, and had no intention of breaking up their families, the next best thing was to live as celibates. Either way, go back to their first spouses or stay celibate, their only entrance into the church’s inner life was to break up their present marriage.

What their exclusion always came down to, outwardly, was banishment from the Lord’s Supper. They may have been welcomed at its Sunday services, invited to its scalloped potato suppers, permitted to put money in the offering plates, and quite possibly been well liked by everyone in the congregation. But banishment from the Supper signed and sealed the church’s judgment that they were banished from the circle of grace and the fellowship of Christ.

The church could keep the matter this clear and this simple, however, only as long it leaped directly from the Lord’s blunt statement about divorce and remarriage to its own banishment of divorced and remarried people. No pausing to consider any special circumstances that might have made their divorce necessary. No pausing to discern the love and devotion that the remarried people had for each other in their second marriage. No stopping to consider how bitter and cruel the consequences of its policy were for all the people it affected. As long as it read Jesus’ words with no regard for the devastation that its policy inflicted on the human families involved, especially their children, the church could go on believing that it was only following Jesus’ own instructions.

But once it factored human reality into its reading of the Lord’s words, it was bound to ask: Could Jesus have actually meant the church to cast away people who were committed to him, on grounds that they were committed to each other too? It was thus, on that early June day a half century ago a new breed of church leaders pleaded for the church to change its policy of exclusion to a policy of embrace.

In what must have been one of the better debates in the history of churchly Synods, they pleaded with the Synod to consider the fact that these people wanted to be faithful to their spouses and to their Lord. They asked the Synod to consider the tragic consequences of compelling them to divorce again. They asked the church to consider how spiritually betrayed such devoted Christian people felt when they heard the church’s door slam in their faces over and over again.

The ministers who challenged the tradition of exclusion lost the debate the year I heard it. But they had put it on the church’s agenda, and no one could take it off again. Finally, in the middle 1950’s, the church did reverse its policy of exclusion and began embracing divorced and remarried couples into its family circle. The grace of Jesus Christ, it decided, could bless and support remarried people in their second marriage. The result is that today, rather than requiring them to break up their second marriages and families, it devotes itself to helping them keep those marriages alive and well.

How did the church come to such an amazing reversal of its age old exclusionary practice? Was it because the champions of embrace argued more persuasively? Was it because the party of embrace just happened to have the majority at a given Synod? Was it because the Spirit moved the hearts and minds of delegates in a new direction? All of these factors, human and divine, were doubtlessly at work. But congregations paved the way for the reversal by a change in their personal experiences with divorced and remarried people.

First, more sons and daughters of the faithful were getting divorced and were marrying again. Before World War II, the church could comfortably exclude such people on the assumption that they would very rarely turn up among their own loved ones. After the war, however, local congregations discovered that persons whom they loved as brothers and sisters in Christ – and, yes, their own children – were doing it. And it was very hard to look their own sons and daughters in the eyes and say to them: “You will go to hell unless you leave your present spouse.”

Also, the church came to see that it had to factor the consequences of its policy into its discernment of what the Lord required. When it had seen the cruel consequences of its practice of exclusion, it also came to see that Jesus simply could not have meant to lay down a hard fisted rule for excluding remarried people from the family of faith. Instead, it concluded, the Lord must have been witnessing to God’s original intention for married people, an intention that included keeping our covenants to each other as long as we lived. But if, in our broken life, people did get divorces and did marry again, surely God would want them to keep their covenants the second time around.

In these ways the way was being paved for a new policy of embrace; the hearts of the people were ready for it.

Smedes explains that the process whereby the Church changed its mind on embracing its divorced members is a good precedent on which we should consider the embrace of gay Christians living faithfully in covenanted relationships. He goes on to argue that the church needs to reexamine its stance on monogamous same-sex relationships that are based on love and commitment and he encouraged the church to recognize that if God’s mercy is as wide as the sea, then it is wide enough for everyone.

Smedes’ article was written in 1999 and his views evolved even more over the years, as did mine. I used to think I was an anomaly, a contradiction that God tolerates. But now, I am convinced my gayness is a gift, not an anomaly. A gift that God celebrates! What about you? How do you think God sees you? Growing in my understanding of God’s heart has led to a deepening relationship with God and others. Because I have been at various points of the spectrum, I understand where the fear, the hate, the ignorance is coming from. But it cannot just stop there with understanding. I have to take what I’ve learnt on my journey to help others understand God’s heart in a deeper way.

What about you? What can you do to understand and apply God’s Word better in your life? How can you grow in faith and mature in your love for God and others, even in the most challenging of times?