My Reflections on the Supreme Court Ruling re: Same Sex Marriage

In a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court has struck down all state bans regarding same sex marriage. This makes same sex marriage the law of the land in all fifty states. Most of us were not surprised by the decision since the trajectory of this, as noted in Justice Kennedy’s decision, was driven by a substantial shift in public opinion over the last six years. It seems like a long time ago that Barack Obama stated as a Presidential candidate that he believed that marriage was between a man and a woman because he was a Christian and he “had to believe that God was in the mix.” In 2012 when the President changed his position, it seemed that it was only a matter of a few years before public sentiment had clearly shifted among most Americans.

From a Christian perspective, this ruling may be the clearest signal yet that we as a nation have finally passed into post-Christendom. We can no longer expect that our country will either embrace, or even comprehend, Christian values. For the Christian, morality can never be market driven and delivered through a majority vote decision of the Supreme Court, any more than it could be by a state legislature. As Christians, we draw our understanding of morality from the authority of God’s Word. Yet, increasingly, biblical revelation will sound foreign and insensible to many contemporary people. Scripture does not take as its starting point that marriage is a social arrangement which is culturally accommodated to provide personal fulfillment and sexual intimacy. Judge Kennedy, in his decision, clearly made that a centerpiece of his landmark ruling. In Scripture, marriage is an institution designed by God at creation because God created us “male and female.” Jesus echoes this when he says that a man shall leave his mother and father and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. Marriage is designed to reflect the Trinity, share in God’s plan for reproducibility and, ultimately to reflect the relationship between Christ and His Church. It is a first and foremost a sacred sacrament, declaring a great mystery, not merely a social contract of convenience, tax benefits and social accommodations.

We would be mistaken if we thought that this ruling marks the ‘end of something.’ This is, in particular, what makes the capitulation of many mainline Protestants over this issue so baffling. The failure of many mainline churches to appreciate the larger theological context of this is troubling. This is actually just the front edge of something with has profound implications. A recent writer who is part of the LGBT “community” said it best when he said that those who speak of only “gay” and “lesbian” are living in the “dark ages.” His point was that the real issue today is not about sexual attraction between men and men, or women and women, but, more fundamentally, about the freedom for gender non-conformity and the full disassociation of gender with any physiological markers. In other words, theologically speaking, this movement is not merely about sex or marriage, it is a discussion about the elimination of all gender boundaries and assumptions about gender identity, even those markers physiologically given to us through creation. This is, therefore, fundamentally about the Christian view of the body. This will become even more evident with the next cultural wave which will focus on bi-sexuality and transgenderism (the B and T of LGBT). Once the gender line in marriage has been abandoned, then it is exceedingly difficult to establish a line of defense against other challenges which we will encounter over the next decade. There is probably no better example of this than Facebook which only a few years ago had two identity choices: male and female. Today, Facebook has 51. This is precisely why a rejection of homosexual practice and sexual misconduct occurs in a disproportionate number of the “sin lists” in the Scriptures. This is a clear defiance of the historic Christian teaching concerning the body. The reason the church so forcibly rejected the teachings of the early gnostics is because the gnostics did not believe the body could be trusted. The church regarded it as nothing less than a rejection or erosion of the doctrines of creation, the incarnation, the bodily resurrection and even our own bodily resurrections at the end of time.

I am thankful that the United Methodist church’s official position is that “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This resonates with historic Christian teaching and is held by Christians all over the world, whether Roman Catholic, evangelical or Pentecostal. When the UMC gathers in Portland in May of 2016, it would be powerful if the UMC were to continue to side with Christian doctrine on this issue and not capitulate to the surrounding culture. It would mark a powerful example of a mainline denomination’s willingness to accept its new status as occupying the prophetic margins, not the cultural center. It would be our own acknowledgement that we must learn (and teach our congregations) how to reorient ourselves as the people of God in a culture which is, and will be, increasingly hostile to Christian identity.

Moving forward from this decision, we, as the people of God, have to find our own voice again. We are currently failing the “cultural test” because we are only known for what we are against, rather than what we are for. We must learn to articulate the Christian vision for the mystery of marriage and joyfully embody it in our lives and homes. I am very hopeful about this period of history. The church has never really prospered under the Christendom arrangement because, even at its best, Christendom could only give us a civil religion highly domesticated from the actual teachings of the New Testament. This is our opportunity to more fully embrace and embody distinctive Christian identity. Our final authority is never any human court, however esteemed. The final authority for the Christian is always Christ himself. We are the church, and the true church of Jesus Christ is indestructible because Christ has promised to build it, and be the head of it. And we enjoy the wonderful promise that the “gates of hades shall not prevail against it.” Thanks be to God.

What the Church Can Do During Exile

One of the most remarkable, and often overlooked, passages in the Old Testament is the letter Jeremiah wrote to his fellow Israelites who had been carried off into Babylonian exile (See Jeremiah 29). He told them (contra the false prophets of his day) to settle down, accept the judgment of God, plant crops, have children and hope for a better day – which will be 70 years down the road when they will be restored to their land.

They were now captives in a foreign land. The Babylonians were as cruel then as ISIS is today. It would be difficult to erase from your mind the picture of your enemy coming and ripping open the wombs of mothers, destroying your homes, stripping the gold off of the Temple and then burning it to the ground. The anguish and pain is beyond description. This is why it is astonishing when Jeremiah goes on to say something which is unprecedented in the ancient world: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it” (Jeremiah 29:7). This is the Old Testament equivalent of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). When Jesus said, “You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemies” he was not quoting the Old Testament, but the popular distorted ethic of his time. When Jesus said, “love your enemies” he was actually re-stating what Jeremiah had said in his letter centuries earlier. This is because the same God who revealed himself to Jeremiah was walking among us in Jesus Christ.

We are all indebted to N. T. Wright for his tremendous work in helping us to reframe our perspective from “those who have passed through the Red Sea and are dwelling in the Promised Land” to “those who have been taken into exile and are awaiting our future promises.” We all grew up singing songs like “I’m dwelling in Beulah Land!” and “We’re marching to Zion!” We are still awaiting the new songs of lament which will guide us as we dwell in our own version of Babylonian exile. Our captors will demand that we “sing the songs of joy; sing for us one of the songs of Zion” (Psalm 137:3). But, we cannot sing the songs of Zion when we are in exile.

But Jeremiah reminds us that we do not respond with hatred or anger to those who have plotted our demise. We pray for the peace and prosperity of the country. We pray for the well-being of a church which celebrates false prophets (Jeremiah 28).  We realize – and this is the real lesson of Jeremiah – that judgement is actually a “means of grace.” The historic churches in the western world are under God’s judgment. I do not want to add to anyone’s weariness by repeating all the signs of this. But I do think we need to remember that Jeremiah promised that in 70 years their exile would come to an end and that God would, once again, bless them.

In other words, sometimes we have to trust God to do his work in the lives of our grandchildren. We may not see it in our lifetime. But, in time, God will show us that even this time of judgment was because of His love for us. He purges us and prunes us so we will, once again, bear fruit. I am now preparing for exile. I am asking God to help me to settle down and even prosper during this time. I want to learn new songs of lament. In the process, we will be deepened in our love, enlivened in our witness, and fruitful in our faith.

I Came, I Saw, I Loved: My Charge to the Asbury Theological Seminary Spring Graduating Class of 2015

Julius Caesar famously wrote to the Roman Senate in 46 B.C. in the wake of his stunning victory in the east: veni, vidi, vici—I came, I saw, I conquered.   That famous phrase veni, vidi, vici has become almost the summarizing motto of the confident, unbridled triumphalism of the Roman era.  If their motto was “I came, I saw, I conquered” what would be the 21st century counterpart?  I think the 21st century counterpart would be, “I came, I saw, and I tweeted.”  Think about it, Twitter only allows 140 characters—everything must be said in 140 letters or you can’t say it.  What an apt metaphor for today!  We live in a reductionistic world with little patience for serious reflection.  The whole glorious gospel has been reduced to simplistic phrases, bumper stickers, a Twitter feed or a Facebook wall post.

We live in a “googlized” world which is inundated with information, but most of it trivial.  We live in a day which resists serious, long-term, reflection.  We live in a time when Coptic Christians are being beheaded and the next morning’s headline are still about the Kardashians.  The trivialization of information, the reductionism of all things sacred, and the shockingly short attention span, all confront you as bearers of the sacred gospel in the 21st century.  But, in any age, and whatever the challenges, the gospel is still good news!

I charge you, graduates of the 2015 class of Asbury Theological Seminary to go forth and inhabit a robust, muscular, deeply rooted apostolic gospel.  Go forth with renewed confidence in the Word of God, the supremacy of Christ, the glorious witness of the church through the ages, and the ongoing power of the gospel!  It will not be quick or easy—discipleship never is.  It will take sacrifice and some long nights of holy lamenting.  You must be prepared to occupy not the long enjoyed cultural center, but the more perilous prophetic margins.  You must wake up to the new reality that to be a Christian is to be despised and hated, not lauded and revered.  Jesus, by the way, did promise that to us (Matt. 10:22).

But, through it all, never forget that the true church of Jesus Christ is indestructible!  Christ has promised to build His Church and it is being embraced by men and women from every tribe, tongue and language.  The various organizational manifestations of the church may crumble, but the true church of Jesus Christ always reasserts itself.  This challenge we face today cannot be met by a business-as-usual approach.  This challenge cannot be met by a pastor-as-comfortable-career-option approach.  This challenge cannot be met by a “climb the denominational ladder” strategy.  Those days are over as we finally enter the sunset of Christendom, but we must not forsake our post.

If you lose your courage and start entertaining people and not faithfully preaching God’s Word, then, like Toyota, I will declare a “class of 2015” recall for Asbury putting out a defective product which could be dangerous to the health of the church!  Instead, you are called to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world!  Never forget that.  We proclaim the gospel even though the world is topsy-turvy, calling evil good and good evil, but Wesley once said, “Vice does not lose its character by becoming fashionable.”  If you maintain your missional footing, and stay Spirit-filled, and loving Christ first, then he will teach you how to love this world in a way that it has never been loved.  We win the world not through an exercise of power, but through humility, patience and love.  In the eschaton, when God’s people have been vindicated and we are reigning with Christ, and all things are under his feet, even then, our motto will not be veni, vedi, vici—I came, I saw, I conquered; but, through the gospel it has always been veni, vedi, amavi:  I came, I saw, I loved.  So, class of 2015, you may be reviled and misunderstood, but be prayerful and faithful and keep on loving! The night is far spent, the day is at hand when all things will be revealed and God will set all things right.  In the meantime, God is at work in your lives and in the world, so let’s roll up our sleeves, go out into the world, and get on with the hard work of loving.  Amen.