What Comes Next?

The Last JudgmentI’ve had a number of requests for this sermon on Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife.  Apparently one of the things that drives people away from the Christian faith is the idea of God’s judgment and the notion that God could or would send people to Hell.  But is that what God does?  Read on.

This is the last sermon in a series called “Christianity 101,” and, appropriately enough, it is about “last things.” The technical term is eschatology, from a Greek word that means “last” or “end.” Eschatology is the study of what comes at the end of human life and the end of human history. It seeks to answer the question that is the title of today’s sermon:

“What comes next?”

Back in 2011 I did a Wednesday night series called “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife,” and I began by talking about bodies and souls. There seems to be a common assumption that while bodies die, souls do not; that our bodies are buried in the ground while our souls fly off to heaven. Maybe that’s what you’ve always believed, but it is not the biblical view. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “the biblical understanding of human beings is not that they have bodies, but that they are bodies. When God made Adam he did it by slapping some mud together to make a body and then breathing some breath into it to make a living soul. Thus the body and soul which make up human beings are as inextricably part of parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up a bonfire. When you kick the bucket, you kick it one hundred percent.”

I realize this may come as a shock to some of you. You may have taken it for granted that when your mortal body dies your immortal soul will float off to heaven. You may be wondering, “If I am an inseparable combination of body and soul, then what’s going to happen to me when that combination no longer exists?” Let me be blunt: someday (unless Jesus comes back first) you’re going to die. As Tony Campolo’s old pastor used to say to young people, “One of these days they’re going to take you out to the cemetery, drop your body in a hole, and go back to the church and eat fried chicken.” All the more reason then to put your life into God’s hands now and trust him—not with the immortality of your soul (an idea that comes from Greek philosophy), but with the resurrection of your body (a truth that comes from Holy Scripture).

Think about it: the only person who has ever come back from the dead to tell us what it’s like is Jesus, and he came back because God raised him up. He had a resurrection body that was enough like his old body for people to recognize him. In the garden Mary says, “Rabbouni!” In the boat John says, “It is the Lord!” At first his disciples thought he was a ghost, but he wasn’t. In Luke 24 he invites them, “touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bone as you see that I have.” He ate a piece of broiled fish in their presence. His resurrection body was physical, tangible, and yet he was able to enter a room through locked doors (John 20) and to disappear from his disciples’ sight (Luke 24). Whatever a resurrection body is like, it isn’t exactly like this earthly body. Paul says it’s as different as a flower is from the dry, brown seed you plant in the ground (1 Cor. 15). The Bible tells us that Jesus was raised from the dead and it promises us that someday, “on that great gettin’ up morning,” we will be raised from the dead, too.

Sometimes, when I talk like this, someone will get a troubled look on his face. He’ll say, “But if our souls don’t go to heaven right away then what becomes of us in the meantime? I mean…where’s my saintly grandmother right now? Is she in a hole in the ground, or in heaven with Jesus?” That’s a fair question, and here’s what I usually say in response: “Because she put her life in God’s hands, because she put her faith and trust in Christ, I believe that God has already raised her from the dead, and that she is with him now, looking as young and beautiful as she did on her wedding day.” “But she was cremated,” he adds. “How can God raise up a pile of ashes?” “Listen,” I say, “God made the first man from a handful of dust. Ashes are not a problem!” And you can see the relief on his face. “So, tell me,” he asks, “what does her mansion look like? Are the streets really gold? Is there a crystal sea? Is heaven ‘up there’ somewhere? What about the ‘other place’? Did Grandpa make it? Are there any dogs there?” And that’s when I laugh and say, “Whoa! Easy there, big fellah! Let’s talk about how to ask the right questions.” First of all:

1. We must not want to know too much. Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” The biblical writers do not and cannot tell us everything we would like to know. On most things, our best response is to say, “We don’t know and we don’t need to know.”

2. Biblical language about the future is metaphorical or symbolic. Over and over again, Jesus said “the Kingdom of Heaven is like so and so.” He was trying to help his hearers imagine something they had never seen or experienced. It’s the same with all talk about heaven and hell in the Bible. In Revelation John says, “The one seated on the throne looked like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald” (Rev. 4:3). The biblical writers didn’t have enough words or enough of the right kind of words to describe such things. The best they could do is point and stammer.

3. Scripture offers us not one but several hopes for the future. In the Old Testament, it is the hope of a perfect earthly kingdom, like the Golden Age of King David. Near the end of the OT, it is a cosmic battle that will end in resurrection of the dead—some to eternal life, others to eternal shame. In the New Testament it is the good news that “the Kingdom of the world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” So, which one of these is right? Shirley Guthrie says, “The many different biblical visions of the future agree that God stands at the end of history in general and at the end of the life of every individual person. The New Testament insists that he does all this in and through Christ Jesus. In the final analysis, that is all we know and all we need to know.”

4. The best insight we have into what God will do is found by looking into what God has done. If that’s true, then the future-oriented book of Revelation may not be our best source. When we look back through the acts of God in the past we find that he has been working constantly to redeem us and the world he loves so much. I believe that’s what he will do in the future (these four principles are derived from Shirley Guthrie’s theology textbook: Christian Doctrine).

Having said all that, let’s turn our attention away from ourselves and toward others, and the world, and especially on a day when the world is still reeling from the attacks in Paris. Will it always be like it is now, with every day’s newspaper full of bad news? Will we human beings continue to disobey God, hate one another, and destroy the planet? No! We Christians believe that one day God in Christ will “judge the living and the dead,” and “create a new heaven and a new earth.” What does that mean? Let’s look at both of those things, beginning with God’s judgment:

When I did that Wednesday night series back in 2011 I showed a slide of a 15th century painting where Jesus is sitting on a rainbow, separating the righteous from the unrighteous like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The righteous were being ushered into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, while the unrighteous were being dragged into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. It was a frightening picture, and it was meant to be. There were demons with leathery wings flying around, snatching up victims in their claws, while others with pitchforks prodded naked sinners closer and closer to the fire. It asked in the most vivid way imaginable, “Where will you spend eternity?” But is that really the way it’s going to be? The great theologian Karl Barth once said, “In the biblical world of thought the judge is not primarily the one who rewards some and punishes others; [but the one] who creates order and restores what has been destroyed.”

Let’s pause right there for a moment. If order could be created in this crazy world, if what has been destroyed could be restored, wouldn’t that be good news? Friends, it is good news! Shirley Guthrie (one of my favorite theologians) reminds us that, in the end, the biblical view of judgment is this: “Evil will be condemned and rooted out of God’s good creation once and for all!” That’s good news, but there’s more: the judge is Jesus! He is the only one who can be trusted with the job of judging the world, the only one who knows what it truly means to “make things right.” He is the one who was sent because God loved the sinful world so much, and who died for us while we were yet sinners. He judges us not out of anger, but out of love, and if there is any penalty to be paid, he willingly offers to take it on himself. This is good news, not bad, and if this is what God’s judgment looks like then I say bring it on!

But when will it happen? When will the Judgment Day come? Aristotle said that every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. God’s good story had a beginning, it has a middle, and some day it will have an end. We don’t know when that day will come, but we do know that someday our own story will come to an end. It came to an end for some people in Paris on Friday night. There they were, sitting in a concert hall when terrorists opened fire and killed them. They died—body and soul. But, here’s what I believe: I believe that we live our earthly lives on the time line, with one second ticking into the next relentlessly. We can’t stop time, hard as we try. We can’t go back and correct our mistakes. We are bound by time until…the moment of our death. Then we are set free. We step off the time line into eternity, into the realm of God, because God is bigger than time. If the only thing separating the day of our death from the day of our resurrection is time, then when time drops out of the equation those two come together—our last breath on earth is followed by our next breath in heaven—and there we stand, shaking the dirt off our grave clothes, wondering what comes next.

What does come next?

The New Testament teaches there are two kinds of future life: life in heaven and life in hell. But remember: 1) We must not want to know too much, and 2) The clearest clue to what is going to happen in the future is what God has been doing in the past. So, what is heaven? According to Shirley Guthrie it is “Not a place located somewhere in outer space where we will escape from our humanity to become angels or disembodied spirits. Heaven is an eternal life of genuine, completely free realization of our humanity in a new heaven and a new earth. It is the life we were made for.” And what is hell? Dr. Guthrie says, “It is not a fiery or dark place of eternal torment located somewhere underground between the United States and China. It is living apart from or in hostility toward God and other people, and therefore denying one’s own true humanity—forever. It is not eternal life, but eternal death.”

Now, you are free to accept or reject Dr. Guthrie’s definitions. Maybe you think of heaven and hell in a different way, and if you do, that’s OK. There is only so much we can know; most of this is speculation. So, can I tell you what I’ve been thinking lately? This is not the word of God; these are just the words of Jim. But I love that biblical vision of a new heaven and a new earth. I love it because it suggests that the world is not going to be destroyed, but made new again. Can you imagine? This beautiful blue-green planet as pure and pristine as it was on the day of creation, so you could scoop up a bucket of water from the East River in New York and drink out of it? I love that, because I love the world God made the first time.

And I love that vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. Imagine it settling down somewhere on that new earth, maybe where the Garden of Eden was. And then imagine everybody who has ever lived standing there, watching it come down, and hearing a voice that says, “Now the dwelling of God is with people. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning, and crying, and pain will be no more,” and watching as those pearly gates swing open and we are invited in.

But then imagine this: that some people don’t want to go in, that if that’s where God is then it’s the last place on this new earth they want to be. So instead of streaming forward toward the New Jerusalem they skulk off in the other direction, away from it, as far away from it and the presence of God as they can get. So, there’s heaven, which is wanting to stand in the presence of God and feel him wipe the tears from your eyes, and there’s hell, which is wanting to be as far away from God as possible. The difference between the two may have much more to do with how things stand with you and God than where the two are located.

So, how do things stand with you and God? Where will you spend eternity? And where would you want to spend it: with God, or without him? Your answer to that question may be the best indication of whether or not you are headed in the right direction, and if you are not this may be your best opportunity to change your course, to step out of your pew, to walk down the aisle, as if you were walking toward the wide-open gates of the New Jerusalem.

—Jim Somerville ©2015

Learning to Float

learn-to-floatJesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).

If I were making a list of all the things I wish Jesus had never said, this saying would certainly be on the list. Not because it’s so bad, or so hard, but because it makes people think of faith as a quantity, as something you can have more or less of.  Usually people assume they have less and wish they had more. If they had more they could move mountains, right?

And sometimes there are mountains to be moved.

In Luke 17 the disciples beg Jesus, “Increase our faith!” but he says to them there essentially what he says to them here: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” And I don’t know that I’ve heard it this way before but when I read that passage this time around it almost sounded as if Jesus were saying, “Increase your faith? You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”

And that’s what I want to talk about today.

In a book called The Heart of Christianity New Testament scholar Marcus Borg devotes an entire chapter to faith. He claims that in Western Christianity faith has come to mean holding a certain set of “beliefs,” or “believing” a set of statements to be true. For most people, being a Christian means believing that there is a God, believing that the Bible is the revelation of God, and believing that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died for our sins.

Borg (who grew up Lutheran in North Dakota) acknowledges that “for some Christians the list would be longer: believing that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God; believing in Genesis rather than evolution; believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, that he raised the dead, that he himself was raised from the dead in a physical bodily form, and that he will come again someday. Sometimes the beliefs become very specific, Borg writes: believing in infant baptism instead of adult baptism (or vice versa); believing in “the Rapture”; believing (or not believing) in Purgatory. The list goes on and on, but as you have probably experienced for yourself believing “the right things” is very important to Christians.

But here’s the problem:

All this emphasis on belief can quickly turn faith into a matter of the head rather than the heart. And Marcus Borg would insist that it has happened rather quickly.

Back in the Middle Ages the word orthodoxy meant “right worship” (in fact, that is the literal meaning of the word). But during the Protestant Reformation it came to mean “right belief,” partly because all those Baptists, and Methodists, and Presbyterians were still figuring out what they believed. Should we baptize infants or adults? Is communion a sacrament or an ordinance?

And then there was this other thing, the Enlightenment, that changed the way we understood truth. In the Middle Ages no one questioned the story of Jonah and the Whale. It was in the Bible: of course it was true! But during the Enlightenment people began to ask: Could there really be a fish big enough to swallow a man? And could a man really live after three days in its belly? The only truth that counted was that which could be verified scientifically; in other words, truth was replaced with fact (which is a much smaller word).

And so, after being run through the wringer of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, faith has come to mean believing the right things, and believing them no matter what, even if they are not scientifically verifiable.  But it was not always so.  Marcus Borg helps us by looking back to the Middle Ages, and four different Latin words for faith:

1. The first is assensus, from which we get the English word assent, and it means pretty much what you would expect it to mean: giving one’s intellectual assent to a claim or proposition, that is, believing that it is true. The opposite of this kind of faith is “doubt” in its milder form and “disbelief” in its stronger form. For example: you might go from doubting that a fish could swallow a man to disbelieving it altogether. Marcus Borg says that when he was a teenager he had those kinds of doubts and prayed, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” Since then he has wondered, “Is this really what God wants from us: our intellectual assent to a long list of theological propositions? Our heads rather than our hearts?” He also notes that you can believe all the right things and still be in bondage, still be miserable, still be unchanged—that faith as assensus doesn’t have much transformative power. And yet there are some things we can and should affirm. At the bare minimum being Christian means a) affirming the reality of God, b) the utter centrality of Jesus, and c) the centrality of the Bible.

2. The second Latin word for faith is fiducia, and the closest English equivalent is fiduciary, which may mean something to the bankers and lawyers in the room, but doesn’t mean much to me. A better word would be trust, or the phrase “radical trust.” As Soren Kierkegaard might have said, “Fiducia is like floating in an ocean of God’s grace.” Borg says that once, when his wife was teaching an adult Sunday school class, she asked if anyone had ever tried to teach a child to swim. Several hands went up. She asked, “What was the hardest thing about it?” And they all agreed: getting the child to relax and float, to trust the buoyancy of the water. Fiducia is learning to trust the buoyancy of God, and the opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt but anxiety, or worry. In the middle of that storm on the Sea of Galilee, when they were afraid their boat was going to sink, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Where is your faith?” A few chapters later he says, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not clothe you, you of little faith?” In both cases he is talking about faith as fiducia: radical trust.

3. The third Latin word is fidelitas, which can be translated as fidelity, or faithfulness, specifically, faithfulness in our relationship to God. It means what faithfulness does in a marriage—being faithful to God in the same way you might be faithful to a spouse. The opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt or disbelief, but unfaithfulness or adultery. Another biblical word for this kind of unfaithfulness is idolatry—giving one’s ultimate loyalty and allegiance to something other than God. Borg says, “As the opposite of idolatry, [this kind of] faith means being loyal to God and not to the many would-be gods that present themselves to us. Christian faith means loyalty to Jesus as Lord, and not to the seductive would-be lords of our lives, whether the nation, or affluence, or achievement, or family, or desire.”

4. The fourth Latin word for faith is visio, and this one is fascinating. As you might guess, visio is a way of seeing “the whole,” a way of seeing “what is.” And there are three ways of seeing it.

a. One is to see reality as essentially hostile, as if everyone and everything really were out to get you. It may not surprise you to learn that there have been some forms of popular Christianity through the centuries that have viewed reality this way, as if God himself were out to get us, and that—unless we offered the right sacrifices, or said the right prayers, or did the right things—he would.

b. In the second way of looking at reality it is essentially indifferent. Someone with this view might say, “The universe is made up of swirling force fields of matter and energy, but is neither hostile to nor supportive of our lives and dreams.” And if God is the one who brought it all into being, he has long since stopped intervening or even caring. If you look at reality this way, you might not be as defensive as in that other view, but you might become rather selfish, looking out only for yourself and those you love, since obviously no one else is.

c. In the third way of looking at reality it is essentially nourishing and life-giving. It has brought us and everything else into existence. It is filled with wonder and beauty. It loves us and cares about us. This is the reality Jesus was talking about when he said, “Look at the birds of the air, the flowers of the field.” God feeds them. God clothes them. God sends his life-giving rain on the just and the unjust.

Can you see what a difference faith as visio could make in your life? What a difference there would be in seeing reality as essentially hostile, essentially indifferent, or essentially nourishing and life-giving? This last way of looking at reality can lead to the radical trust we talked about earlier. As Borg says, “It leads to the kind of life we see in Jesus and the saints, known and unknown. Or, to use words from Paul, it leads to a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love.”

There they are: four Latin words for faith—assensus, fiducia, fidelitas, and visio—and you may have noticed that all but the first are relational words. Fiducia describes a relationship of radical trust. Fidelitas describes a relationship of love and loyalty. Visio describes a relationship of life-giving nurture. Assensus is the only one that means giving our intellectual assent to a set of theological propositions and, as I said, that’s important.

But it may not be the most important thing.

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” And so we try to increase our faith. We try to believe more and doubt less. We try to believe things that are, frankly, unbelievable. And we do it because there are mountains that need to be moved.

But what if that’s not what Jesus meant?

What if he meant, “You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”  Because here is the truth: that little “mustard seed” is found only five times in the Gospels. It’s mentioned twice in reference to faith, as in, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed.” But the other three times Jesus uses it he talks about how, if it’s planted in the ground, this tiny seed can become a huge bush, even a tree, in which the birds of the air can build their nests. A mustard seed, in other words, is something small that can grow big—if you put it in the ground. But if you put it in a Ziploc bag, and bury it in the bottom of your sock drawer?

That mustard seed will always stay the same size.

What if Jesus is trying to tell us this: that we don’t need a lot of faith, we only need the tiniest little speck. But we need to put our faith in the right place—not in ourselves and our ability to believe—but in God, the One who gives us life and nurtures it, the One who loves us like a faithful spouse, the One we can trust completely, and, yes, the One who can and does move mountains. Let us put our mustard seed of faith in him; let us tend it and nourish it; let us water it with worship, study, service, and prayer;

And then watch it grow.

I keep thinking about Marcus Borg’s wife trying to teach her son to swim, helping him as he struggles and thrashes in the water, telling him over and over again to relax. And then I picture him finally listening to her, hearing her, and obeying her—stretching himself out on the surface of the water like you would stretch yourself out on a king size bed, feeling it beneath him lifting him up, holding him, even as his mother’s arms are beneath him, supporting him. I can almost hear him gasp with wonder as he realizes that he can float, and almost see the smile on his face as he lies there on the water with his eyes closed, rocking gently back and forth as his mother chides,

“O, ye of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

—Jim Somerville ©2015

In Light of Recent Events

gay marriageThis is the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 28, setting aside my summer sermon series to address a number of recent events in our nation.  I publish it here by request:

On Thursday Christy and I drove from Richmond, Virginia, to Niagara Falls, Ontario, which means that we waited in line to cross the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of the border. I don’t know why. You can see the falls from the American side. But we love international travel, and it only cost $3.50 to cross the bridge, so we did it. And, besides, we had reservations at a bed and breakfast on the Canadian side. To avoid roaming charges we switched our phones to “airplane mode” and spent a blissful sixteen hours ignoring the news. When we crossed back over the next day it seemed that everything had changed. Christy sat in the passenger seat looking at her Facebook feed and telling me that the Governor of Alabama had taken down the Confederate flag. And then she told me the Supreme Court had upheld the Affordable Care Act and made gay marriage legal everywhere in America. A little later in the day she told me that President Obama had started singing “Amazing Grace” near the end of his eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and that someone here in our own town had spray painted “Black Lives Matter” on the Jefferson Davis Monument just down the street.

Honestly, you leave the country for one day!

But now I’m back, and like most of you I’m trying to discern what these events will mean for America, for the Commonwealth of Virginia, for Metropolitan Richmond, and for First Baptist Church. It’s a complicated question, and I went for a run yesterday morning to sort things out. During that run I stopped at the Jefferson Davis Monument and looked for evidence of the words “Black Lives Matter.” I couldn’t find them anywhere. But I thought about the person whose job it was to remove those words from the monument—James Robertson, a private contractor, a white man. I had seen his picture in the paper before I went for my run. And I wondered: what was he thinking as he scrubbed those words from the stone? Because I wouldn’t be surprised if, even as he was doing it, he was thinking, “But black lives DO matter!”

Every life matters.

I preached in Dallas, Texas, on June 19, at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and I reminded the audience that exactly 150 years earlier Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to spread the word that slavery had been abolished. The Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect some two-and-a-half years earlier, but most Confederate states ignored it until they were forced to free their slaves by advancing Union troops. From the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, General Gordon Granger read the contents of General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor…

Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets after that announcement, but you might imagine that former slave owners did not rejoice. In a single moment they had gone from owning slaves, who worked for free, to having hired hands, who would expect to be paid.

I also reminded the audience that on June 19, 1964, exactly 51 years earlier, the Civil Rights Act had been passed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. On that day I’m sure there was rejoicing in the streets, but again, not everyone was rejoicing. And so it was on Friday, when the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. I saw a picture of a woman holding a sign that read: “I’m not just gay; I’m ecstatic!” Everywhere on Facebook people were putting rainbow stripes over their profile pictures and celebrating this momentous day in our nation’s history, but again…not everyone.

Does it always have to come to this? Big decisions by the government that split the country into two groups: those who are rejoicing and those who are not? Does it always have to divide us as a people? Will this latest decision divide us as a church? I hope and pray that it will not, and to that end I thought it might be helpful to spend a few minutes talking about just what is at stake here.

First of all: marriage.

In the Bible, as far as I can tell, marriage is the creation of a stable social structure in which children can be born and raised. It is the logical outcome of the first commandment ever given in the Bible, Genesis 1:28, in which God says to the people he has just created, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” In the very next chapter the Bible says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” This is how humans multiply. A man and a woman “cleave” to each other. Biologists call it sexual reproduction.

This appears to be the primary purpose of marriage in the Bible, and for that reason it is necessarily between a man and a woman. But not only one woman. Early in the Bible we have the story of Jacob who married first Leah and then Rachel and then had children by their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. Ultimately he produced twelve sons and who knows how many daughters. He was fruitful. He multiplied. He fulfilled the first commandment. But I don’t know many people these days who argue for that kind of biblical marriage. Instead they talk about a lifetime of love and commitment and I agree. That’s a better model than pure procreation. But I’m not sure where we get that. Not from the Bible, certainly, where Jacob may be the only example of someone who wanted to get married because he was in love. Most of those marriages were arranged by parents who made the best matches they could for their children and then waited for the grandchildren to come. It wasn’t about love; it was about multiplication.

But these days we talk about love and commitment. A woman gets married because she falls in love with a man and wants to spend the rest of her life with him. A man gets married for the same reason. And while he may want a family at some point it’s hardly ever the main point. That became clear to me on the day I did a wedding for a couple in their eighties. They were so precious! And each had survived the loss of a spouse after more than fifty years of marriage. When I asked the groom, “Do you take this woman in sickness and in health?” I saw the tears come to his eyes, because he had nursed his wife through a lengthy illness. And when I asked the bride the same question she did the same thing. She had sat by her husband’s bed until he drew his last breath. These two knew what they were getting into! But they weren’t getting into it to start a family. They were lonely, and they had come to love each other, and they longed for human companionship. How could I deny them that?

So, our understanding of marriage has changed since biblical times. It’s not just about multiplication anymore. It’s about love and commitment. And our understanding of human beings has changed since biblical times. We know now that while most people are attracted to members of the opposite sex, some people are attracted to members of the same sex. What we don’t know is why. Is it genetic? Is it something determined at an early age? Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be a choice. I can still remember the day I discovered that I was attracted to the opposite sex: it was in fourth grade, and her name was Bamma Donohue. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. But I didn’t choose to be attracted to her; it just happened. People who are attracted to members of the same sex report precisely that kind of experience.

And so the Supreme Court has decided that, since marriage is no longer strictly about multiplication, but rather a matter of love and commitment, and since people don’t seem to choose whom they are attracted to, but rather discover those attractions at an early age, then who are they to tell two adults that they can’t share their lives with each other? That they can’t have joint ownership of property and joint custody of children? The Supreme Court has decided that marriage is a civil right, and that withholding that right on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin is unconstitutional. But what about us? We are not the Supreme Court. We are, most of us, members of First Baptist Church, and when it comes to marriage the separation of church and state prevails. No one can force me to do a same-sex wedding: all they can do is ask.

And so far, no one has.

But surely, someday, someone will, and so, when same-sex marriage became legal in Virginia a few months ago, I asked our deacons where we stand on the issue of homosexuality. I passed out little slips of paper and put four points on the spectrum: 1) we condemn homosexuality and exclude homosexuals from our church, 2) we tolerate homosexuals under an unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, 3) we welcome homosexuals as members but we do not ordain or marry them, or 4) we extend to our homosexual members the same rights, privileges, and blessings as any other member. I asked the deacons to write down the number that best described First Baptist Church and the average was 2.5—somewhere between tolerance and welcome. And then I passed out more slips of paper and asked them to write down where we should be and this time the average was 3—welcome. We weren’t drafting policy. We weren’t making decisions. We were just finding out where we were on this issue and not everyone was in the same place. There was at least one 1 on those little slips of paper and a few 4’s. As I’ve said before, this church is a big tent. It has all kinds of people in it. The only common denominator is our shared faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

Which brings me back to my first thoughts on this topic.

When I was still wondering whether I should address these recent events in today’s sermon I thought I might just say something during the welcome. I might say, “There have been a lot of changes in our country in the last few days, but as the author of Hebrews says, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever’ (13:8). So, maybe we should spend some time sitting at his feet in the next few weeks, listening to what he has to say about all this.” But then I gave it some more thought. What does Jesus say about gay marriage? Nothing at all. What does he say about the Affordable Care Act? Nothing. What does he say about the Confederate flag? Nothing. What does he say about black lives? Nothing that I can recall. But he does say something that could be extended to all lives. He tells us to love our neighbors, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan he makes it clear that the people or groups of people we have the hardest time loving are also our neighbors. Samaritans were despised by the Jews of Jesus’ time, but the Samaritan in his story stopped and helped a Jew who had been beaten and left for dead.

“If you want to inherit eternal life,” Jesus said, “then go and do likewise.”

What would he say to us in these days when some people have been shot because their skin was black and others have been allowed to marry even though they are gay? I’m fairly sure he would say, “Love your neighbor.” And I think he might add (although I don’t want to put words in his mouth) that the commandment to love applies to everyone with no exceptions, that those of us who follow Jesus must love our black neighbors, our white neighbors, our gay neighbors, our straight neighbors, our Christian neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, and even the neighbors who borrow our tools and forget to return them. Leave the work of judgment up to God and the Supreme Court. Our job is not to judge; it is to love. And it is to love everyone.

Because every life matters.

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The Church and Mr. Coffee

Mr. CoffeeUsually, before I go to bed at night, I make coffee.

Which is to say I get the coffeemaker ready to make coffee first thing in the morning, and set the automatic timer for 4:55 a.m., so that the aroma of brewing coffee will rise to my nostrils on the second floor just before the alarm goes off at 5:00.

And that really helps.

Once I’ve had coffee, I can actually think about how it got here, and it occurs to me that somewhere out there is a factory that makes coffeemakers. Two things seem clear:

1. If there wasn’t a factory to make coffeemakers, I probably wouldn’t have one.
2. If coffeemakers didn’t make coffee, there probably wouldn’t be a factory.

Stay with me.

I heard someone refer to the church as a “disciple-making factory” recently, and I sat up a little straighter because I’ve had that thought myself.

When I came to Richmond seven years ago our mission statement read: “First Baptist Church exists to make disciples…” and, almost immediately, I pictured fully formed, fully functioning disciples rolling off the assembly line.

My question, however, was, “What does a disciple do?”

If coffeemakers didn’t make coffee the factory would go out of business. Is there a corollary in church life? Could it be said, “If disciples don’t ______________ the church will go out of business”? And how would you fill in that blank?

The answer to that question could make all the difference.

Some people answer it by saying that disciples make disciples, and if they don’t the church will go out of business. That seems logical, until I apply that same logic to coffeemakers: coffeemakers aren’t supposed to make coffeemakers; they’re supposed to make coffee. If they do it and do it well people will continue to buy coffeemakers and the factory will stay in business.

So, what are disciples supposed to “make,” if not more disciples?

Here’s one answer:

In Matthew 10 Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the good news of the coming Kingdom and to give people a glimpse of what the world will look like when God, at last, has his way: “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons,” he says, and off they go to do it.

That’s Kingdom coffee, friends, and I believe that if we made more of that the church would have all the business it could handle. That’s what Jesus did, after all, and everywhere he went he drew such crowds that he could hardly breathe. But along the way he was teaching his disciples to do the same things he did, to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out demons, and to do it as a sign of the coming Kingdom.  Is it too much to think that we, in our own way, could do the same?

Maybe if we stopped worrying so much about making coffeemakers, maybe if we put more energy into making coffee, God’s kingdom would come and his will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

How to Keep on Living the Good and Beautiful Life

blue-morpho-butterfly-habitat-1During the Season of Lent, the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church studied a book called The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith. Some of them met in homes, some in Sunday school classes, some came to the Journey to the Cross services, and some did all of the above.  It was a powerful community-building exercise, and I think we all learned a great deal.

So, now what?

The original plan was this: that we would spend the Season of Lent learning about the Good and Beautiful Life, that we would spend the Season of Easter living the Good and Beautiful Life, and then spend the Season of Pentecost sharing the Good and Beautiful Life.

Learning, living, sharing.  Got it?

According to that plan we are now in the Great Fifty Days of the Easter season (April 5 through May 23), the season of living the life.  But how do we do that?  Or, rather, how do we keep on doing it?

Here’s one suggestion:

The Good and Beautiful Life is essentially a study of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  James Bryan Smith’s premise is that in these chapters Jesus explains what life in God’s kingdom looks like and what it would take to live it.  The life of the kingdom is the good and beautiful life, Smith argues, and if we could learn to do what Jesus says we would know that.

So, try this.

In the remainder of this season, all the way up to May 24, the Day of Pentecost, try reading the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of daily devotion.  If you’re reading this on your computer, you can simply click HERE and go to a page that has the whole sermon waiting for you in the New Revised Standard Version.  Click that same link tomorrow and try reading it in a different version, the Message, or the NIV.  Maybe you could read a different version every day, just to keep it fresh.

My hope is this: that if you saturate yourself in that sermon, if you sink down into its message day after day, you will begin to live the life it describes.  You will trust God more.  You will hate others less.  You will pluck up the seed of sin before it can take root.  You will know that you are blessed.  You will be like the one who built his house on a rock.

Try it!  Live it!  And then get ready to share it.

A life like this will be too good and beautiful to keep to yourself.

Why can’t Christians love Lent like Muslims love Ramadan?

Bim-Adewunmi-007Bim Adewunmi says she loves Ramadan.

“I am not a model Muslim,” she admits, “but Ramadan is the one pillar of Islam I do really well. It’s my time to shine.”

In a July, 2012, article Bim writes:

I think I was 11 when I took part in my first Ramadan. I was at boarding school in Nigeria, and the bell prefect sent one of her minions to wake us up for the pre-dawn meal, the sehri. A few hundred sleepy girls got up to walk to the dining hall at 5am to queue up in front of older girls who dished out piping hot rice and stew. Afterwards, we’d trudge back to our dormitories to catch some extra sleep and/or pray. In the evenings, we slipped out of prep to attend the Taraweeh prayers in the assembly hall. During the day, we would go to class as normal, virtuously turning down drinks and food with exaggeratedly pious expressions. The Ramadans of my youth were brilliant – communal pre-dawn meals of cassava, yams, rice or bread, followed by evenings of breaking the fast (iftar) with fruit, cornmeal and bean cakes. There was alms-giving, introspection and a community feeling; moments that have made it my favourite Islamic month.

It is the reason I still fast today. I am not a model Muslim: I swear like a sailor, I’m not often “modestly” dressed and cannot ever see myself wearing a hijab. I fall down on all the other pillars quite regularly – my zakat is sporadic, I have never done the hajj, and I don’t make five prayers a day; I take heart in the Islamic view that sincerity in intention is the foundation of all actions. But Ramadan, I can do. I am good at Ramadan. I love every element of it – the not eating, sure, but also the long tasbih sessions, the contemplation, the meditation, the communal prayers, the hum of anticipation right before iftar. It is a month where the halal butcher puts a little extra into my bag when I’m buying lamb shanks. It is the time when I throw out “Salam alaikum!” to hijabis and they smile back and reply. It is the time where I overhear Yorubas, who have a greeting for every occasion, say “E ku ongbe” empathetically on the bus. Everyone is better during Ramadan, more patient, more kind.

Ramadan makes me feel connected. There’s a network of us all across the globe; more than a billion of us, all doing the same thing at the same time. However disparate our lives, whatever freedoms we enjoy – or otherwise – however different our experiences, someone else is probably feeling exactly the same way I am. I find that incredibly moving and life-affirming. At this point in my life, I’ve documented my various issues with organised religion – and I’m not entirely comfortable with everything I see. But I know I love Ramadan. I fast because I want to, and because I can.  I fast because it makes me feel good.

When I compare Bim Adewunmi’s enthusiasm for Ramadan with the groaning I sometimes hear among Christians who are giving up chocolate for Lent (smile), I feel that we haven’t embraced the rich possibilities of this season.

Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and praying and being tested by the devil.  Why can’t we get a little closer to that in our observance of Lent?

None of us is Jesus, but we could fast a little more seriously, come to church a little more frequently, say our prayers a little more fervently during these 40 days, and, like Bim Adewunmi, we could throw out cheerful greetings to everyone we meet on the street.  Jesus said that when we fast we should anoint our heads and wash our faces (Matt. 6:16-18).  Wasn’t that a way of saying we should look cheerful instead of miserable?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say about Christians during this season: “Everyone is better during Lent, more patient, more kind,” instead of saying, “Those Christians sure do grumble a lot about giving up chocolate!”?

This is your invitation to a holy and happy Lent, one like you’ve never experienced before, and maybe one you will look forward to next year.

–Jim

 

What We Can Do about ISIS

Father NabilAt one point on my recent trip to the Middle East an Army chaplain said to me with tears in his eyes, “We are at the beginning of something like the Protestant Reformation, and Father Nabil Haddad is like Martin Luther.”

Father Nabil Haddad is the Catholic priest who invited six of us to World Interfaith Harmony Week in Amman, February 1-7. For several years now Father Nabil has been working with Episcopal priest Bill Sachs, who convenes our interfaith group in Richmond, and he and Bill agreed that it would be good for us to have this experience. Apparently our group is something of a novelty–Muslims, Christians, and Jews who not only “dialogue” about the serious business of interfaith relations, but who also eat together, travel together, and sometimes, just for fun, bowl together. Father Nabil wanted to see that for himself, and also wanted his colleagues here in Jordan to see it.

And so he invited us to his house for dinner, where we were greeted by his wife and adult children (“Wait a minute. Wife and children? Didn’t you say he was a Catholic priest?” Yes, he is. A Melkite Catholic priest, which is closer to Greek Orthodox than Roman Catholic, and yet in full communion with the worldwide Catholic Church). His children were perfect hosts (I got the feeling they’d had some practice), and his wife had cooked the entire meal we enjoyed, and we enjoyed it entirely.

Along with our delegation Nabil had invited a half-dozen US Army chaplains he’s become acquainted with. This was a surprise to us, but we’re learning that with Father Nabil you have to be ready for almost anything. The chaplains turned out to be terrific guys and one of them identified himself to me as a Southern Baptist pastor from Washington state.

As we were getting to know each other our conversation was interrupted by the news that the Jordanian pilot being held by ISIS had been executed, and in the most horrific way imaginable. Someone asked Father Nabil if he would lead us in prayer, and we all stood and joined hands while he prayed for the family of this pilot, and for the country of Jordan, and for peace in the Middle East.

For the rest of the evening this tragic news was the topic of conversation. We ate dinner with the television on, and at one point Father Nabil got a call asking if he could come and make an appearance on national television. That’s when I got into a conversation with the chaplain who told me that Nabil was like Martin Luther.

It surprised me, coming from him, because in the course of conversation I learned that he was a Mormon, and I felt my spine stiffen just a little bit. I can talk to Muslims and Jews. I can even talk to Episcopalians (smile). But here was someone who was not exactly “orthodox,” if you know what I mean: someone whose religion was just enough different from my own that all I could see were the differences and all I could feel was an urge to distance myself.

But I stayed with it. I kept on talking with him. And then he said that remarkable thing, with tears in his eyes, and it made me look at him in a different way: as a fellow human being, certainly, but as someone who was also looking for peace in the world and between our warring religions.

Like me.

That’s been my experience over and over on this trip, as I ride on the tour bus beside a Muslim imam, and talk with my Jewish rabbi roommate after the lights have gone out at night: I’ve been seeing all the ways in which we are like each other on the human level, but also in our desire to see that day when all of God’s children can live in peace. Father Nabil said, “When my Jordanian friends see you–Muslim, Christian, Jew–eating together, traveling together, laughing together…I think they are very jealous! You are setting an example for us.” That doesn’t mean my interfaith group is trying to create “one world religion.” Not at all. In fact we are finding that the more passionately we embrace our own religious identities–as Christians, Jews, and Muslims–the more we are able to respect and appreciate each other’s religions. And what is central to each of them is a love for God and neighbor.

Which makes it clear that ISIS is not Islamic.

When ISIS killed that Jordanian pilot (a faithful Muslim) it let the world know that its agenda is not Islam vs. Christianity; its agenda is to gain control through fear, and it doesn’t care who it kills in order to achieve that goal.*  But suppose that instead of eyeing each other with suspicion the world’s religions joined hands and prayed–for the end of ISIS, the end of extremism, the end of fear?

That’s what we did in Father Nabil’s living room. I joined hands with a circle of friends that included a rabbi, an imam, a Catholic priest, a Baptist minister, and a Mormon chaplain, and we prayed together for an end to the kind of violence and hatred that could do such a thing to another human being. We did it in part because Father Nabil believes this is the only way to achieve peace in the world–for the many religions to stop arguing with each other and join hands in prayer to the One who would love to see his children come together…

…in peace.

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*When Ammar Amonette, the imam who was traveling with us, heard what ISIS had done to the Jordanian pilot he said, “This is not Islam.  The Quran does not allow this kind of killing.”