So there I was, a whopping twenty-eight years old, putting together the first sermon I had ever heard, much less preached, on the most controversial topic of our generation.
On the morning of the parade, my dad announced to the church that I would be preaching the evening service on the topic of homosexuality. In our church you never heard sermons on any kind of sexuality. So you can imagine the response.
The evening service started at 6:30. By 5:45 the sanctuary was full. We had a lot of “guests.”
As I prepared my outline, the issue I found myself wrestling with was not, “What does the Bible have to say about homosexuality?” That’s easy. The same thing it says about greedy people, people who drink too much, and “wrongdoers.” Wrongdoers? Hmmm. The real issue was the same issue Christians have wrestled with since the beginning. Who is the church for? Who gets to participate? How good do you have to be? Which sins, if any, disqualify a person? Can the church welcome sinners? What about unrepentant sinners? How much baggage does a person have to leave at the door before being admitted? Can someone participate in church if he or she is still working things out? Should we sneak out the back or serve water and hold up posters?
Ironically, the answers to those questions were contained in the pages of my Broadman Hymnal. More specifically, in the lyrics of the song we sang at the close of just about every worship service: “Just As I Am.” We loved the first, second, and fifth verses. I don’t remember singing verses three and four. Or as our music director would say, “The third and fourth stanzas.”
Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
sight, riches, healing of the mind,
yea, all I need in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Sounds more like come worship with us than sneak out the back, doesn’t it?
Grace and Truth
As I mentioned earlier, the tension around who is the church for is not new. The first-century church wrestled with this question as well. There’s a lot to learn from the way they managed that tension. Perhaps the most important lesson is to acknowledge that this is in fact a tension to manage and not a problem to solve or really even a question to answer. When you slow down long enough in your reading of Paul’s epistles to consider the kinds of issues the early church wrestled with, you begin to realize just how messy the whole thing really was. When we choose to engage with culture at the level the apostle Paul was forced to engage, it gets messy for us as well. It’s the messy middle ground that makes some of us uncomfortable. Actually, I think it makes all of us uncomfortable to some extent. There is something in us that would like a definitive answer on every nuance of every issue. But based on my experience, I would argue that when we attempt to eliminate all the gray, all the messy middle ground, we end up with a poor caricature of what Christ originally intended when he announced his ekklesia. Actually, we end up with multiple caricatures. And then we argue with each other over whose caricature is the true church. We stand on opposite sides of the street responding in completely opposite ways to the same group of people.
I grew up around people who believed the church was for saved people who acted like saved people. I’m all too familiar with that church brand. The catch was that they were the ones who decided what act like a saved person meant. They got to determine which sins saved people could commit and which ones were evidence of being unsaved. Oddly enough, the lists changed every few years. Worse, the lists never coincided with any of the sin lists in the New Testament.
For a long time, divorce was on the list. But that one began mysteriously disappearing in the 1970s. Interracial marriage was on there for a while as well. Greed was never included. Nor was slander or gossip. So those who were actually “tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without” didn’t feel free to talk about their fightings and fears in those churches. Instead, they covered everything up. Which, of course, made everything worse. Covering up may keep a person in the good graces of the church, but it only fuels the power of whatever sin one is covering up. Churches designed for saved people are full of hypocrites. You pretty much have to be a hypocrite to participate. Transparency and honesty are dangerous in a church created for church people. Consequently, the casualty in a church for church people is grace. It’s hard to extend grace to people who don’t seem to need it. And it’s hard to admit you need it when you aren’t sure you will receive it.