Today we continue our series of “Our Story of God and Us”, and I would like to share with you my personal journey of what I am learning. I hope it will help you on your own faith journey, especially around who God is to you and what your relationship with God is like.
If you are joining us live this morning, I would like to invite you to share your reflections on menti.com or in the YouTube chat window as I share what I am learning and as we reflect on God’s Word together today.
Do remember that all responses that you share are completely anonymous, so I hope that encourages you to contribute actively and honestly.
I would like to begin our time together by asking you to share your thoughts about:
“What words would you use to describe God?”
So take out your phones or go to your web browser and enter the code 59 06 582 to share your responses.
Today we are going to explore important questions about faith.
Whether you consider yourself a Christian or not, whether we care to admit it or not, all of us have faith.
How we live our lives is based out of what we believe about God, what we believe about people, about the world, about ourselves, and about the relationship between us and all these things.
So today we are going to begin looking at one core part of faith – and that is how we see God.
So before I start share my words I use to describe God, let’s have a look at the words you have used.
For me, and maybe for some of you, the words I use to understand God was formed by what I was taught in the tradition I grew up in.
I was brought up in a Christian family and every Sunday I would go mostly unwillingly to attend our family Presbyterian church. Every Sunday, whether it was in the main adult service or the children’s church, there was a continual narrative that told me that it was sin that separated me from God, and that Adam and Eve began this whole destructive process and they were kicked out of the garden because God could not be with sinful people because God was too holy – so I understood God as a God who was righteous and holy.
I also learnt that we needed a bridge through Jesus’ death and resurrection to get us back into a right relationship with God. Some of us may remember this as the “four spiritual laws”. So I understood God in the person of Jesus as my saviour.
If you grew up in church, you probably would have had be taught a very similar teaching and very similar experience. Evangelism in many Christian circles was a call for us to try and introduce these “four spiritual laws” to as many people as possible.
Looking back at the church I grew up in, I realized it made us very exclusive because this understanding made us insecure about our relationship with God; if we had any chance of making it to heaven in the face of this righteous, holy God, we needed to make sure we keep repenting for our sins, keep professing Jesus Christ as saviour, and so we lived with this unconditional eternal insecurity. Nobody wanted to risk being in the “out” group. My parents and the people in church I grew with were a sincere group of people, and they did their best from the place of this understanding.
When we first started FCC 18 years ago, I brought this understanding of God with me. My first experience in leading worship and preaching from this pulpit was to “cut and paste” what I had learnt before. That was the worldview I was taught, and the one that I had held since I was young.
When we started FCC, we invited different people to preach at FCC, including people like the late Bishop Yap Kim Hao who was the first Methodist Bishop of Singapore and Malaysia and who served as FCC’s pastoral advisor for many years.
Rev Yap held very different views about Christianity and the nature of God from me. At that time, I felt it was my duty to help to reinforce the version of the “truth” that I knew. I thought that he was a heretic and each time he preached, I took note of where I would disagree, and used my next sermon to try to disprove it. So the pulpit was a place where we did battle in.
While I deeply appreciated his ministry and loved his courage for how he stood with the LGBTQ community, I didn’t like him very much, because he had impatience with me as my theological worldview was very different from his. He always made it a point to stand with the marginalized, to build bridges to other faiths and was critical of the church and the institution, and I felt that I needed to defend the foundations of the Christian faith, or rather the foundations of my faith.
For many of us who come to this church, we are not new Christians. And what we naturally try to do is to recreate the experience of the tradition we had come from, from what we had lost. I know some of us still attend our previous church even while being apart of FCC because there are things from that experience that give us comfort.
At the core of it for me was my understanding that while I knew God loved me, I didn’t think God liked me very much because of all my sin, of all the things that I did wrong, and that this holy God was angry at me.
As part of my development and developing the leaders around me, some of you might know that I attended Hillsong Church’s annual conference in July every year for 15 years. That was my retreat. For one week, I would go and hear from God and experience God together with 30,000 other people. I would always go back each year to be inspired and comforted by the speakers they invited who mostly came from a similar way of understanding God, and they shared how to lead, organize, teach and care from that place of understanding.
I stopped attending the conference in 2017 after going for 15 years. It got to a point where theologically I was filtering more and more the parts that I could no longer agree with and I was finding less and less I could learn from them. I realized something had happened – they didn’t change – I had changed.
It was not that I was no longer believing in the Christian God, it was because the way I see God, myself, the people and the world around me had changed.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said a mind once stretched by a better idea or better experience, can never shrink back to its original dimensions.
And my stretching came about being a part of this community and different communities, having an opportunity to attend seminary and these gave me important opportunities to be exposed to new people, new conversations, and new experiences with God that has stretched me and helped me grow in the way I understand God, myself, people, the world and the relationships between all of these things.
At this time I would like to invite you input into Menti if your understanding of God has changed over the years?
MENTI: “Has the way you understand God changed over time?”
Stretching and change was very uncomfortable for me in the beginning, but I learned that growth only happens when we allow ourselves to be stretched. When I allow myself to step out of the comfort zone of familiarity, even things that I might have been very certain about.
So I needed to find a new retreat. A new conference to attend, a new place to learn. In 2019, on the invitation of one of my friends, I decided to attend the “Wild Goose Festival” in the US. I had been reading many theologians who had been shaping my understanding of the Bible and God in the recent years – people like Brian McLaren, Barbara Brown Taylor, Nadia Bolz Weber, Stan Mitchell, Bishop Yvette Flunder, Pete Enns and they were all going to be speaking at this very different type of conference.
Many of the sermons that you have experienced and heard from me in the recent years are a direct result of what I have learnt from these people.
These were people who began to introduce me to the possibility that there was a better way to understand the God presented in Christianity, and once you see God differently, that will change everything for you.
The “Wild Goose Festival” was a very different type of conference from what I was used to – instead of being conducted in a church or a stadium like Hillsong Conference was held at, we were in the great outdoors, and many of the people who attended stayed in camper vans and slept in tents. And what I found was deeply inspiring, and deeply reassuring in a whole new way. What used to be inspiring for me in the past was to belong to something larger and find meaning, but as the meaning changed, being at Wild Goose allowed me to be with a group of people who I could be authentic with, as an gay Christian, to share my ideas and explore my questions, and I found that deeply safe and assuring in a very different way.
I want to invite you to one most important decisions that you will make. Are you here to hear something to be reassured of what you already know, or are you willing to let go of the familiar so learn and grow and encounter something bigger and better in the mystery of God together?
Today I wished that I had embraced a growth mindset earlier, and be a part of an community that I could be authentic in really exploring my faith and doing life together. You are already in the right place, but will you come with the right spirit today?
If you are, get ready, because once you allow yourself to be exposed to a better idea, your mind can never go back to what you were before. You cannot unsee what you have seen, but you will only see if you are willing to open the eyes of your heart. That is what a “reformation” is – a shift, a renewal, a revolution of thinking and being.
With that, we are going to start right at the beginning where it all happens at the Creation story in Genesis.
I remember as a young preacher in FCC one of the first sermons I ever preached was to defend the literal accuracy of the Genesis story – how the world was created in 7 days, how Adam and Eve were the first two humans that were created by God, and how it was the two of them that began this whole destructive process for all humanity, how they were kicked out of Eden because God cannot look upon their sin because He was too holy and as a result of their sin, it separates us from God today and now we need a bridge to get us back into right relationship with God.
I want to read to us that passage in Genesis 3 again that shaped all that and we are going to take some time to explore this together today –
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Today when I read this, I do get annoyed with myself that I one time I was actually reading this as a factual historical account, rather than a story. Firstly, we need to deal with an issue of a talking serpent. Which even children can clearly differentiate a story versus a historical account.
I used to pride myself at my ability to defend the literal interpretation of the Bible, instead of learning how to read and interpret it literately.
This story is a very important one for us to explore, because right here in the interaction with the serpent the woman had to deal with 3 important questions that we all deal with –
1/ How we understand about God
2/ How we understand God see us
3/ How we understand the relationship between God and ourselves
In the story, the serpent essentially looked at a woman who thought God was love and said God was not love. The serpent looked at a woman who thought she was the beloved and said no you’re not, you do not have the relationship with God that you thought you had. The serpent looked at a woman who was made in the image of God and said that you were not made in the likeness of God.
The Bible says it when then that she saw that the fruit was good. She never saw the fruit that way until she saw herself and God differently. How you see God changes everything. The serpent told her she had a sickness she did not have, gave her a cure that she did not need, and entered her into the sickness of unbelovedness, leading to shame. And as a result of what they had done, they felt ashamed and they created a covering for themselves and went to hide.
Think about it – the first covering they created was not a covering for sin – the woman saw the fruit with her eyes, picked it with her hands, ate it with their mouths, digested it with their stomach and yet the covering that they made had nothing to do with eating or the fruit.
The covering they made was in response to shame, they covered their sexuality even though they had not sinned sexually.
Then I saw something that I couldn’t unsee.
I saw that the human condition is not one that is inherently separate from God as a result of the Fall. All human beings have union with God.
But in the Christian tradition I grew up with I was taught that people are born separated from God and unless you are reunited with God, you will go to hell.
While we can’t be separated from God, we can certainly feel estrangement or distant from God or be uncomfortable with God.
When Adam and Eve hears God coming they hide behind the trees. Who went to hide? Was it God or was it Adam and Eve?
We think that when we mess up that God is no longer going to be with us. Is that who God is? They sinned but God still came.
But the model that I was taught is that when people sin God separates and hides because the holiness of God is defined by God’s incapacity of sin and then you have to have sacrifices to allow God the capacity to be back with sinful people and that’s the salvation process.
That’s not the story in the garden. Eve sinned, Adam sinned and God still came, and they hid so there was distance now, but it was an emotional distance caused by the shame they carried. They were estranged from God; they were uncomfortable being in God’s presence.
I think it’s one of the saddest aspects of human history is that we think we are somehow separated from God, and supposed to be separated from one another, and separate from creation in the way that we exploit it.
And that’s where I learnt that the fall was not because of the inherent disconnected we have as a result of Adam’s sin. The fall is really the departure from the state of “shalom”. This is commonly translated in our Bibles as “peace” but shalom is the original intention of the way things ought to be, the way relationships were created to be – us and God, us and one another, us and creation.
It’s this illusion of separateness that creates very destructive things in our planet, like hate, war, discrimination, inequality, slavery, poverty, low self-esteem, pollution and climate change.
But if you only get one thing from this sermon I hope it would be this: if you are feeling distant from God, know that God has never forsaken you. You are inherently connected and united with all things – whether that be God or others or creation or even yourself.
At the most foundational level of existence is this connection, and this union is called love. Pauline will be exploring more about this next week but this love that lives in you is ready to be awakened and experienced, if you are willing let go of your ideas of separation and fall in to arms of a God that is waiting to receive you.
A big part of Christian tradition is built on the assumption of innate separation. Our product has been pursuing salvation, and not following Jesus. So missions, is often more about conversion than it is about restoration of shalom.
I had to ask myself if the way I focused my ministry was offering a cure to an illness that doesn’t exist, or being a part of the solution to one that does?
The serpent didn’t come to Eve and first tempt her to disobey God. The serpent first came to Eve and tempted her with shame and estrangement. He tried to convince her that she was not the beloved of God. He tried to convince her that God was not caring for her. He tried to convince her that she lacked something by not eating the fruit. The serpent said not only will you not die, you’ll live like you’ve never lived before because you’re lacking something today. So the serpent came to a woman that was fully whole, a woman who had full union with God and tried to convince her that she was not.
The serpent is saying to Eve you’re running around out here thinking you and God are great but you are really not. That’s striking at her core identity of belovedness. That’s a shame strike.
The mirror of this story is the second time when we see the devil do the very same thing to Jesus right after his baptism in the wilderness. Here’s a familiar passage that we read during the season of Lent that we are in. We are in intentional time in the church calendar for us to draw close to God and reflect on the life of Jesus.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Can you see the parallels with the Genesis story here?
Jesus’ test in the wilderness was not a test if He would sin, it was a shame temptation. Think about it, turning stone into bread is not a sin. Jesus did miracles like turning water into wine. He defied the laws of gravity. He walked on water.
Just before this, Jesus had just been baptized and filled with the power of the spirit and the words ringing in his ears “you are my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased.” Jesus is our “second Adam” and he finds Himself in the same place as the first Adam, knowing, “You are my beloved son. I am not pleased BY you, I am pleased IN you. Before one miracle, before you walk on the water, hang on a cross or rise from the dead, I am pleased in you.”
And with that ringing in his ears he is immediately driven into the wilderness and the first thing the serpent said to him is a repeat of the Eden garden story: if you are the beloved son of God turn that stone into bread prove it. Perform the miracle and justify your belovedness — that is a shame temptation, not a sin temptation. That’s a temptation to believe less about yourself than you need to believe; to lose your identity, and Jesus would go on to do many miracles but he refused the temptation to have to do that to justify who he was.
So I’m saying the creation story and the fall, all of these stories in Scripture, they don’t actually reveal a sin-separation-salvation model they reveal a shame-estrangement-restoration model.
But the church has been so obsessed with sin, especially sexual sin. And this has had a profound effect on LGBTQ people. The first human experience of sexuality was naked and not ashamed; the second experience was naked and ashamed, not naked and sinful. But as the church we are so obsessed by sexual “sin”.
We jump straight to sin when me, this little 13-year-old boy is found to be keeping a journal about the boys in his class as they go through changes during puberty, gets into fights with other boys, touches himself looking at the underwear catalog with men in it, we think he’s got a sin problem.
But if you trace that little boy’s sin back, it’s a nerdy six year old boy who was laughed at because he didn’t behave in the same way as other boys did, it was a shy six-year-old boy who was told he wasn’t good enough, a skinny six year old boy who couldn’t coordinate himself at sports. That’s shame… and we’re gonna instead tell him about sin and how he needs Jesus because he is separated from God?
God takes the fig leaves off Adam and Eve, and they are embarrassed, not God. And then God takes animal skins and covers them.
So often we think that we need to cover our sins though sacrifice so that a holy God could be comfortable with us, but really it is God who comes to cover our shame so that we could be comfortable with God. The gods never have been angry and our God is not angry.
I want to finish with this third story – the parable of the prodigal son or the lost son.
I love the story of the parable and I see the heart of all this playing out in the story. This is a story that is not new to any of us, but the power of the story is still so fresh for me in giving me a picture of the heart of God.
The younger son did not take a straight path from child of the devil to child of the Father. The beautiful reality of the younger son’s journey was a circular journey – his salvation was to come home to whom he always was.
The son had union with the father, he lost sight of his identity in his mind, goes to a far away country. In that far country his moment of revelation is not that he came to God. It didn’t even say he came to the father. The text says that he came to himself.
He said wait a minute, what am I doing here? I’m a son, I have a father, I will go home. But he still didn’t fully understand the heart of his father because he said, “I know what’s gonna happen. I’m gonna go up on that porch and I’m gonna stick my foot in the door and he’s gonna open the door, the chain still gonna be on he’s gonna say what are you doing here and I’m gonna have about 15 seconds to make my speech before he kicks me off the porch and I’m gonna tell him “I’m not worthy”, “you don’t need to love me”, “please just make me a slave”, “I don’t deserve any of this”, “just take me back as a farm hand””.
And he rehearses that all the way home and then down the road comes an old man comes half hobbling, half running and as the old man throws himself on the boy. The boy covers himself because he thinks he’s about to get beaten but instead love covers a multitude of sin, not blood. Love does. And love covered the boy.
And instead of receiving the father’s love that covered his shame, what did the prodigal son say? “I am not worthy of this. I do not deserve this. You are wrong doing this, father, just make me a servant.”
The father’s first word out of his mouth was “quickly”! He shouted it. “Quickly!” Kill a fatted calf. Reminding us about how people had continually sacrificed the best animals so they could be made acceptable to God. So here an animal has to die again but the question is did the son have to sacrifice the animal to cover his sins so that the father could come out and be comfortable with him? Or did the father kill the animal to cover the boy’s shame to throw a party for him so the son could remember who he is and be comfortable with the father?
The story of the lost son is also the story of the elder brother. The elder brother wouldn’t come to the younger son’s party because he told the father, “you’ve never thrown one of these for me and I’ve been here slaving my whole life.” So while the younger brother was a slave in a faraway country, the elder brother was a slave on the front row of the church. And both of them were lost – not lost because of a Fall, not because the Father was so holy, but because they had both lost their identities of who they were and their relationship to the Father.
As we close our time together, I would like to ask you “What is a change today that God is inviting you to see?”
A mind once stretched by a better idea or better experience, can never shrink back to its original dimensions.
Jesus put it this way in Matthew 2:22
And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins.
Like new wineskins, we need to have the strength and flexibility to contain the potency of new wine.
We’re not rewriting the story. We see stories differently when the basis of our understanding changes. We remember the stories in a certain way but when our lenses change and we re-watch or review the actual event, we realize that there are key moments where we had the story completely wrong. We remember things differently than what had happened and we transpose that onto the story of what actually happened, what we thought happened.
What new wine is God pouring into you today? What change is God inviting you to see? Let’s have a look at some of the responses that you have shared.
One common invitation that unites us all as Christians is that Jesus invites us to see the heart of God through the life of Jesus.
In John 14:9, Jesus says to one of the disciples, Philip,
Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Jesus coming was not to change God’s mind about us, Jesus came so that we could have our minds changed about who God is like.”
We often hear that the good news of the Gospel is that we can be reunited with God through Jesus Christ, but today I see that the Great News is that we have never been separated and God comes to meet each one of us right where we are.
My prayer for all of us listening to this is that the eyes of our hearts will be open to experience the God who is with you, for you and who goes ahead of you in this season of Lent.