I am a follower of Jesus, an Executive Director of a national ministry, a student of theology, and an occasional pastor. For the last two decades my underlying motivations and curiosities have revolved around two biblical ideas. The first, Jesus’ prayer that the Kingdom of God could be a reality on earth as it is in heaven. And second, that God so loved the world. As it turns out these are attractive ideas and passages for most Christians. It could be argued that the Lord’s Prayer and John 3:16 are the most universally recognized parts of scripture.
The attractiveness of these ideas begins to fall apart once we start asking questions. What does the world, and particularly the church, look like when it lives in such a way that heaven and earth are the same? Who is all included in this world that God so loved?
I doubt that it is possible to fully answer these questions in one blog, especially when the church has been trying for 2,000 years. The journey towards loving the world that God loves and living on earth as in heaven can be painful and upsetting, mostly because God doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of respect for our values, rules, or theology.
One of the ways that people of faith have dealt with these passages is to “help” God with the definitions and procedures. It usually goes something like this: yes, God sent God’s Son for the whole world, but if you really want to be included then you need to pray the right prayer, believe like we do, and follow our rules for being a Christian. Living on earth as in heaven means you have to accept “our” understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
I understand why we create rules for living and statements of faith. It helps us to make God more palatable and manageable. Quite frankly it is simpler to be together and worship together if we are all the same. This need to define and contain God is an ancient practice. In John 8 the religious leaders bring a women caught in adultery to Jesus for judgment. Their motives were pure, they wanted a faith that honored God and followed the rules. Jesus just didn’t have the same need for rules designed to control God. For the most part fundamentalism grows out of an honest desire to do right by God. The problem with fundamentalism is that it quickly leads to a “my way or the highway” mentality.
I am part of a denomination that is working through its understanding of sexual orientation. There are those who say if you don’t agree with me, then you are wrong. This is just another way of someone saying I have figured out the box that God belongs in and if you don’t agree with me than you clearly don’t know who God is.
This brings me back to the Kingdom of God on earth and the world that God loves. Whenever people of faith have attempted to define and limit what this is they have gotten themselves in trouble. The truth is that the image of God that we all reflect presents a pretty diverse portrait. Like the apostle Paul, all of us are looking at the Kingdom of God through a glass dimly.
I make no claims to fully understanding who is and is not included, but I suspect that living on earth as it is in heaven means that I need to be open to including, worshipping with, and loving even those with whom I disagree.
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Have you ever found yourself passionately believing something to be true, but unable to convince others of your truth? Frustrating, isn’t it? I have found that the frustration level dramatically increases when talking about faith issues.
Faith convictions and beliefs tend to be sacred. Changing or adjusting these beliefs is often seen as back-sliding or drifting from the truth. Encountering people of faith who hold different positions while at the same time claiming to be “Christian” can be stressful. Why can’t they read the bible correctly?
Right now the denomination I am part of is in a fierce debate about ordaining gay and lesbian persons. There are entire churches and conferences talking about leaving the denomination. From their perspective a clearly discernable line of sin has been crossed. There is scripture to back this all up.
Equally as fascinating is the other side. The church is finally figuring out that all people should be included in the full life of the church. For them a clear line has also been crossed. Interestingly it is in the exact opposite direction, the church is moving from sin to righteousness. Like the other side they have scripture to back up their position.
What I have discovered in the various debates, discussions, and arguments I have been part of is the first person to say something like “Scripture clearly says…” wins the debate. To my embarrassment I need to own that I have used this tactic myself.
I think we use this tactic because as people of faith we desperately want Scripture to speak clearly to the big issues of the day. I am just old enough to remember when people of faith were convinced that rock ‘n’ roll was Satan’s music, or when drums in church, drinking, and smoking. I live in Colorado; currently there is a whole lot of conversation about marijuana. Believe it or not Jesus never addressed the subject of legal pot. What was he thinking?
Framing theological arguments in such a way that those who don’t agree with us are wrong is probably something people of faith need to avoid. It embarrasses me that church leaders so quickly move to absolute positions.
Learning to live with difference, even when that difference is seen as sin by some, might just be a sign of Christian maturity.
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As a teen I remember overhearing a conversation between two elders at our church. They were questioning whether or not they should allow a divorced person to teach a Sunday school class. Apparently being divorced was really bad and it meant that you had committed a sin that would prevent complete forgiveness and restoration. It was almost, but not quite an unpardonable sin. Today, almost 30 years later, that conversation seems uniformed, ignorant and judgmental.
Is the church less pure?
I suspect that the church as grown in its understanding of grace.
In the case of my church (denomination), we became more graceful about divorce when those closest to us experienced divorce.
Our faith, our convictions and our understanding of God are shaped by life. When life gets messy, grace becomes more important.
In John 8, there is this fascinating story of a woman caught in adultery – having sex outside the marriage relationship. If you read the passage carefully, you will discover that both the Pharisees and Jesus want the same thing – purity. The Pharisees thought the best way to achieve this was through judgment – the law was clear, she needed to die. Jesus understood that life is messy and rules without grace don’t accomplish much.
There is a whole segment of the church that believes life is experienced in only two categories – right and wrong. I feel sorry for people who live within these constraints. There is a truckload of guilt that comes along with living this way.
Grace grows as we learn to embrace the mess of life. Life does not easily divide into right and wrong.
I am in no way saying that we should live without rules and laws. When these rules and laws are broken, we need to move slowly and carefully towards judgment and we need to create lots of space for exceptions.
It is in this space that grace happens.