homosexuality

Sinners, Part Two

Romans 2:1-16 (NLT)

You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?

But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.

When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it. For merely listening to the law doesn’t make us right with God. It is obeying the law that makes us right in his sight. Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. And this is the message I proclaim—that the day is coming when God, through Christ Jesus, will judge everyone’s secret life.


Well, I warned you last week that Paul’s discussion of sinners, including some very specific descriptions of particular sins, was a set-up. It’s easy to think of sinners as “them,” as in “those sinners,” those people we like to pretend are somehow worse.

We should never get too big for our britches, though, no matter how good we may think we are. We are the sinners. And sinners shouldn’t be in the business of judging other sinners.

When we judge, we are doing something even angels fear to do. If you don’t believe me, look at Jude 1:9. It references a story we find nowhere else in established Scripture, a story about the archangel Michael contending with Satan for Moses’ body. Why Satan wanted Moses’ body, we don’t know—Jude likely is quoting from a story in Jewish tradition. But for whatever reason, Satan was after the body, and Michael was sent to claim it for God.

Jude says, however, that “even Michael, one of the mightiest angels, did not dare accuse the devil of blasphemy, but simply said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”

Only the perfect Creator, the being who makes the rules, is qualified to judge. Others who attempt to say certain people are unworthy of God have crossed a dangerous line, assuming we believe God’s loyal angels are generally wise, prudent beings.

Clean up your own house, Paul is saying. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

I will long remember the man and woman in a Sunday school class several years ago who asked me what could be done about homosexuality and its effect on the larger church. She was a young single woman; he was an older married man. They were quite worked up about the issue.

I did not find out until more than a year later that they were having an extramarital affair at the time they asked me the question. I walked around for a couple of days thinking, “Really? In their minds, the homosexuals were the problem? Really?”

Again, clean up your own house.

I also once witnessed the terrible effect large-scale judgment can have on a church. A church about the size of Luminary had two women visitors who began to attend regularly. Word quickly spread the women were known to be lesbians.

The pastor told me how matters developed from there. He said the women simply sat in church, never showing any displays of affection for each other. They just wanted to worship, to pray, to hear from God. But because of the allegations about their sexuality, people became more and more incensed at their presence.

The pastor, I think, did everything right. He stuck to the current, doctrinally sound Methodist line: Everyone is welcome in worship. Everyone. It doesn’t matter what your sins are, you are welcome.

And certainly, he did not ask the women to leave. After all, if we start throwing out everyone suspected of sin, churches will be empty pretty fast.

His gracious manner didn’t help, though. People were too worked up, too—judgmental. A significant number of members upped and left, saying they wouldn’t be in the same room with those sinners. The angry exodus of people and money soon prevented the church from being able to employ a full-time ordained elder as pastor.

As I am prone to say when dealing with touchy subjects, I do have to be careful here. As Paul makes clear in last week’s text, there are specific sins listed in the Bible. Homosexuality is one of them, although it is hardly the only one listed. We are called to faithfully teach and preach what Scripture reveals.

Sometimes, when we teach and preach regarding what the Bible calls sin, we are accused of being judgmental. That label is terribly unfair to people who simply are using Scripture as the basis for understanding God’s will, continuing the work the church has done for almost 1,984 years.

Our need to preach and teach truth as revealed in the Holy Bible and our simultaneous biblically based need to avoid being judgmental place preachers and teachers in a difficult position. We must constantly balance the two requirements.

I think the United Methodist Church is a special place right now in the kingdom of God. In our Book of Discipline, the place where we state our doctrine and practices, how we achieve that balance is clearly defined.

The Discipline prohibits clergy from officiating homosexual marriages, and it prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” These prohibitions exist for a simple reason: The church cannot affirm ongoing, unrepentant sin.

These prohibitions are balanced with a large measure of grace, however. Here is a portion of what the Discipline says about sexuality in the section on Social Principles:

We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.

I like these words. In them, we have already achieved a middle ground so desperately needed in other parts of the global church. In this statement, we see a rejection of sin combined with a clear declaration of the power of grace.

Unfortunately, like people in so many other places in our world, we in church are increasingly polarized.

At one extreme, some people want church without Scripture, or without the more difficult portions of the Bible, anyway. They find God’s call to holiness too demanding. Let me ask you this: If we don’t have the Bible, or if we chip away at the parts we don’t like, what is the basis for our beliefs? In time, church would become little more than a civic club with a nice steeple.

At the other extreme, some are quick to condemn those they see as lesser followers of God. In their hands church becomes an unpleasant, mean place, a poor location for experiencing God’s grace.

Neither kind of church is fully God’s church. We can do better. In fact, I would argue we have already done better. We as United Methodists simply need to learn to live out what is already written in the Bible and reflected in our Discipline.

Perhaps when the real judgment comes—the judgment meted out by God—our ability to pursue holiness while offering grace will help identify us as followers of the risen Christ.

Sinners, Part One

Romans 1:18-32 (NLT)

But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.

So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.

Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.


We now move into a part of Romans where Paul, having described his desire to visit the church in Rome and his love of the Good News, turns to a darker subject. This is a meditation on the nature of sin.

In some ways, we also are being set up, just as Paul’s first audience was set up.

Paul begins with a simple assertion. Speaking of sinners in the third person, he says even they should be able to see evidence of God, which is revealed in God’s creation. You Luminary UMC folks know what Paul is talking about. When I ask during prayer time, “Where have you seen God,” you regularly praise the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, or the glory you have seen while hiking or boating.

Because sinners on some level can sense God’s presence, they have no excuse, Paul is saying. If you sense the presence of the one who is divine and eternal, then you should worship the Great Being, period.

It fascinates me that Paul easily could have used the story of Adam and Eve’s fall in Paradise as a backdrop for his discussion of sin, but that he chose not to do so. Certainly, Paul would have agreed we are born broken because sin entered the world long ago—that our minds are clouded. This is, after all, the same man who wrote, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Here in Romans, however, Paul seems more interested in describing the pattern sinners follow as they fall deeper into sin.

The pattern begins with a breakdown in worship. In their arrogance, sinners begin to define God from their own clouded minds rather than from the great revelations about God we have been given over thousands of years. They may think they worship, but they instead commit acts of idolatry, the worship of lesser gods.

In Paul’s day, he would have been thinking specifically of the idol worshipers all around him in the dominant Greco-Roman culture. It’s not hard to modernize the example, however. I’ve already done that here in sermons on more than one occasion. Anything that is ranked in a person’s heart as more important than God is an idol.

A sinner’s career can certainly take precedence over God, as can the pursuit of security and possessions, which of course require money. Logic and reason are sharp, useful tools God has given us, but sinners abuse those tools if they use them to stab at the heart of faith.

Sometimes, even noble, beautiful ideas can become idols. For example, many people find it easy to elevate nation or family to the same level as God, and perhaps even above God. I have had to learn over time that the things of this earth we most cherish are best kept under God.

Much of the rest of Paul’s text today is dedicated to the repercussions of turning away from God. And yes, he talks very specifically about sexual sins at the heart of debates we are having in both church and state today.

He also moves from those very specific examples of sexual sins to other, more generalized sins, most of them striking at the root of how we treat one another. And in all of this, Paul seems to be indicating that sinners spiral more deeply into sin, unless, of course, they somehow embrace the Good News of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the topic in Romans so important to the apostle.

This is a straightforward text. Paul is communicating clearly. Let me be clear regarding what I know is the more controversial part of the text, Paul’s discussion of homosexuality. Paul is calling this particular sexual behavior a sin. Also, he is not talking about a behavior occurring in some past context, a setting that is no longer relevant today.

He very specifically describes the acts and links them not to the specific events of first-century Rome, but to the general tendency of people who have taken their eyes off God to do ungodly things. He says these sinners even will teach others to commit those sins, sin begetting sin. Paul’s words serve as a lesson for today.

I also must emphasize that we are talking about statements made by a man who fully encountered the grace of Jesus Christ before making them. The man was all about grace—as we have seen already, he had a passion for the redemptive work of Jesus Christ that we seldom can match. And yet, in love, he continued to call a sin a sin.

At this point, I think I know most of Luminary UMC’s regulars well enough to know where we are right now. Having asserted homosexuality is, according to New Testament teaching, a sin, I have stirred emotions in many of you.

Some of you have friends or loved ones who call themselves gay or lesbian. It is likely that among this congregation there are people who have faced or are facing their own homosexual desires. Some of you may even be angry with me.

Others of you are inwardly rejoicing I said it. “Yay! Finally!” you’re thinking, although you perhaps also long for a time when such things were not discussed publicly.

I will close today by saying this to all of you who are part of this beloved church I pastor. Hang in there with me one more week. Hear me out one more Sunday. As I said at the first of this sermon, we are, in a way, being set up by Paul.

Next week, we will go to the slightly complicated place Paul is taking us, a place where we will stop talking about sinners in the third person. In other words, this will get even more personal.

God’s Big Secret

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

As we move further into 1 Corinthians this week, Paul begins to talk about spiritual maturity and mystery. He has been talking about the message of Christ crucified, but we begin to understand there is deeper knowledge to pursue.

I’ll begin with a word of caution. The idea that there are deeper mysteries to be explored in our faith is true, but it’s also an idea that has been severely abused throughout history. One of the earliest heresies of the church was the gnostic movement, which claimed there were secret mysteries available to only a select few.

We’re not talking about spiritual elitism, however. The deeper aspects of our faith spoken of by Paul are available to any thinking person tuned in to what the Holy Spirit is constantly trying to reveal to us. Your baptism initially opened you to these deeper revelations, and your continual faithfulness to God opens you further and further.

Let’s go back to the basics for just a minute. Salvation is relatively simple. Through Jesus Christ, God intervened so our sins cannot destroy us. Jesus’ death on the cross cancels out the power sin has over us. All we have to do is believe the story is true.

We don’t even have to fathom how the cross works—we just have to believe that it does. This is why children are able to understand the message well enough to have a renewed relationship with God.

We’re called to go beyond the basics, however. In fact, once the Spirit is at work within us, I don’t see how we cannot want to go deeper. We are invited to take on the mind of Christ, at least as much as humanly possible.

Here’s what I believe is the key to going deeper. We develop our understanding of the meaning of the word “grace,” and then we begin to apply that understanding to every situation we encounter.

The definition of grace is pretty simple. Grace is love you receive even though you don’t deserve it. We talked about the cross just a few minutes ago; it is the great act of grace. We are sinners, but despite not deserving eternal life in the presence of God, the cross provides this glorious joy to us.

Eternal life is just the first gift, though. There are other gifts we receive in this life. We simply have to accept them, holding out our hands through prayer and worship. The Natural Church Development program lists 30 gifts available to Christ’s followers; it’s a thorough, useful, biblical list. And of course, there are the fruits of the Spirit, a new outlook on life we can receive.

You would think that after the first experience of grace, we would receive those other gifts with open arms. Grace can frighten us, though. First of all, it implies a need to change, and a lot of us don’t like the idea of change.

Grace also complicates life by interfering with strict systems of rules. Grace is wonderful wherever it appears, but it also brings us into conflict with the comfort we find in rules. Christianity, properly understood, is subversive, constantly asking, “Yeah, that’s the rule, but what about grace?”

Rules can be important, of course. God spent thousands of years interacting with the Jews through the law for a reason. Sin blurs our view of right and wrong. God’s laws are the corrective lenses.

But we’re also a people saved by grace and called to show grace toward others, especially sinners. One of my favorite biblical examples is the story of the woman caught in adultery.

A more modern example would be the issue of homosexuals in the church. Some denominations have what is essentially a “do not enter” policy for homosexuals. On the other end of the spectrum, there are denominations who do not call homosexuality a sin, ordaining and marrying people in active homosexual relationships.

My denomination’s position is nuanced and takes a moment to explain. We follow the Bible, saying “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” but at the same time we welcome all people into worship and fellowship, believing the life-changing and sustaining grace of God should be available to anyone seeking it.

Certainly, we don’t want to condone sin, but at the same time, we never want to stand in the way of God’s powerful grace. And when we balance the two, we find ourselves occupying some difficult middle ground.

It’s also simply not in our best interests to help the church or any other institution act as if certain sinners are cut off from God’s grace. If any of you are, to use an old Methodist term, “perfected,” I’ll apologize in advance, but the odds are that the vast majority of you struggle with some kind of sin from time to time.

Which sin are we next going to condemn as unforgivable, as unrepairable by God? Lust? Dishonesty? Greed? Pride? If we start erecting barriers for sinners, the church will soon be an empty place, and useless as a wellspring of God’s life-changing grace.

Next week, I’m going to explore further what it means for your life if you choose to dwell in the deeper mysteries of faith.

Gimme Three Steps

However you’re tempted to sin, there’s a way out.

That’s Paul’s promise in the 10th chapter of his first letter to the early church in Corinth. He begins with a reminder of the early history of the Israelites, evoking images of them fleeing Egypt, escaping Pharaoh’s army, crossing the Red Sea, and wandering in the desert for 40 years.

He highlights particular sins they committed during that time: idolatry, sexual immorality and complaining. These are just three items on a very long list of sins potentially separating us from God, but Paul makes a point of connecting these three sins to death.

It’s not difficult to see how these ancient temptations remain relevant today. We don’t make little idols out of wood or metal too often, but we live in a culture that offers us many alternatives to God. I would define an idol as anything that becomes more important to us than our relationship with God. Some examples might be sports, celebrities, work, or the acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake.

Sexual immorality has become so rampant that we now live in a culture trying to redefine what God has clearly defined as sin. Many of your minds went to homosexuality when you read that previous sentence, but it’s important we keep that particular sin in context with other sexual sins. Frankly, within the church we have a more visible problem, if we’re just willing to see it. It is sex outside of marriage—premarital sex and adultery.

I’ve actually known people who railed against homosexuality while they were at the same time involved in adulterous or extramarital relationships. But in God’s eyes, they are all grievous sins. And the readily available, addictive nature of pornography only makes matters worse as people engage in behaviors that actually change the chemical structure of their brains, damaging their ability to participate in present and future holy relationships.

The sin of complaining also is not hard to find in modern times. It’s the sin of negativity, an unwillingness to trust that God is at work in the world. The early Israelites failed to trust God when he was visibly before them. We fail to trust God despite his full revelation to us through Jesus Christ and the promise he is changing the world now through the resurrection.

At a minimum, these sins can bring about the death of dreams and plans. At worst, they can separate us from God in ways that lead to eternal death.

So how do we escape? If we trust the Bible, we have to believe what Paul tells us: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

As I was working on this sermon, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Gimme Three Steps” kept coming to mind. It tells the story of a man in a bar who has gotten a little too friendly with another man’s girlfriend, and he ends up “staring straight down a forty-four.”

When you’re looking down the barrel of a very large gun, you’re facing death. The frightened man asks for one thing, “three steps toward the door,” a way out.

When we’re facing sin and the death sin brings, we need three steps away from where we’ve found ourselves. Here are the three best steps I know to take:

Prayer. Yeah, I know, preachers are always telling you to pray. But I mean it. When you realize you’re about to cross a line, stop and reconnect with God. Temptation arises when the connection is broken. It doesn’t have to be a fancy prayer. A good start would be, “Lord, help me out of this situation where you and I both know I’m weak.”

Scripture. The Bible isn’t just any book. Believers understand there is life-changing power from God flowing through it as we study its words and absorb their meaning. Learn where the Bible talks about your temptation. Learn also where the Bible offers you words of comfort and grace in difficult times.

Accountability. Here’s the step most American Christians don’t like to consider. This involves a relationship with another strong Christian who can talk with you in confidence when you’re struggling. Maybe it’s a one-on-one accountability partner who has faced similar temptations. Maybe it’s a small group of people you can trust. This third step is so important—it is your accountability partner or partners who act as the presence of Christ. They allow the Holy Spirit to fill them so God is visibly with you as you struggle.

By the way, if you’re in the Kingsport, Tenn., area, there’s a new Friday night worship opportunity that should result in the formation of such accountability groups.

Finally, remember that we’re doing more than just avoiding death. We’re accepting the life God continually offers us. As Paul tells the story of the Israelites in the desert, he speaks of the water that sustained them, water flowing from a rock as needed. “And the rock was Christ,” he says.

It’s a startling reminder. The redemptive aspect of God has always been with us; Christ simply was most visible on the cross. He remains with us today, continuing to heal us from sin.

The Heart of the Matter

Matthew 22:34-40

During October, we’ve been listening to what the Bible has to say about God’s law, given to us so we may better understand who God is.

We heard how poorly the Israelites responded to the law, despite the powerful revelation they received at Mount Sinai. And last Sunday, we explored how Jesus’ answer to a law-related question puts all of us in a quandary.

The law’s demand that we worship only God and let nothing come between us and God seems to be a hopelessly high hurdle. When faced with God’s high standards, humans throughout history have often chosen one of two options: throwing up their hands in despair and turning from God, or attempting a kind of hyper-obedience, trying to outdo others in observance of the law.

Certainly, turning away doesn’t help. And because sinless perfection is not humanly possible, I’ve never understood how hyper-obedience is supposed to save anyone from the separation from God brought on by sin. I assume that practitioners of extreme legalism think that God will save the best of the bad, like a teacher grading a failing class on a curve so that a few students receive A’s.

There is a better way to understand how we are to relate to God under the law. In fact, that’s the whole point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And by listening to Jesus and understanding his story, we can follow this path to reunion with God.

Matthew’s gospel records in chapter 22 a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer. (This lawyer also was a Pharisee, one of those groups that strove for hyper-obedience.) The lawyer tested Jesus by asking him, “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?”

Jesus gave a highly orthodox answer, quoting the Shema,  a Jewish liturgical prayer rooted in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus said. “This is the greatest and first commandment.”

He added that there is a second like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” quoting from Leviticus 19:18. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In Luke’s version of this conversation, Jesus’ assertion is followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we learn that we are to define even our traditional enemies as our neighbors, showing them mercy.

Jesus was affirming that nothing about the law had changed. After all, the law as given to Moses is a revelation of the unchanging God. But Jesus also was clarifying the law’s purpose: to teach humanity that love is the core behavior for those who follow God.

The need for obedience doesn’t go away; Jesus proved that later in Matthew when he was obedient to the point of going to the cross, even after asking God the Father, “Let this cup pass from me.”

Love, however, shapes everything, even our obedience. Jesus went to the cross to save us from the punishments we are due for our sins, out of love for all of creation.

Love as the primary driver behind everything we do sounds nice. I get visions of a television show from my childhood where a giraffe, a chipmunk and some other puppet critters sang, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love … .”

We should never forget, however, that love complicates a religious life. Legalism is in some ways the easier path to choose, at least if you’re the kind of person who’s inclined to say, “Just tell me the rules so I can follow them.”

Love forces us to think, to analyze our actions, to check our motives.

I’ll give you the toughest example I know right now in the Christian community. It is what many simply call “the homosexual issue,” a catch-all phrase covering debates about the ordination of homosexuals, whether homosexuals should be able to marry each other, and whether pastors should bless such marriages.

Working from the Bible—which I take very seriously as being inspired and shaped by the Holy Spirit—I find it nearly impossible to justify homosexual acts. It is possible to contextualize the Old Testament prohibitions, something Christians do all the time with other Old Testament rules. But I cannot get around the first chapter of the New Testament’s Book of Romans.

Its author, the Apostle Paul, clearly understood the impact of God’s grace and love being poured out on the world through Jesus Christ. Paul still, however, deliberately linked homosexual acts (and several other sins) to a general turning away from God by humanity.

And yet, I am troubled by my own desire to say to homosexuals, “There’s the rule, get over it.”

I know followers of Christ who struggle with their homosexuality. I care for them. Love forces me to think beyond simple assertions, acknowledging the powerful feelings they live with day after day, their pain, their craving for acceptance and community.

I love God, I trust God’s Word, and I desperately want to better love my neighbors, but love sometimes leaves me a little stumped. All I can do is pray that the love that resulted in the cross and the resurrection will eventually provide complete answers.