Sunday, August 29, 2021

A Love That Keeps Faith

It was 1632, and Robert Barker was brought into court at the Palace of Westminster. He was on trial, and things were serious. All for printing a Bible. Oh, don't get me wrong: Barker had every right to print a Bible. He was, in fact, the only authorized publisher of Bibles in the realm of England; he had the very coveted exclusive rights to do that. This time, however, neither bishop nor king were happy with his work. It was William Laud, bishop of London, who first caught what he'd done, and brought it to the attention of King Charles. By the end of the year, Barker would see this particular run of Bibles recalled as a defective and dangerous product to be burnt, and he himself would face a fine the equivalent of about $70,000 today. All for a typographical blunder.

Now what typo could so scandalize church and crown? Early printed Bibles were always riddled with typos. But this typo, however simple, was important. It's made the few surviving copies that escaped the recall into collectors' items. In the Ten Commandments, the last word you want to leave out is 'not.' Robert Barker's crime, for which he'd eventually go to prison and have to sell off his rights to publish Bibles at all? Releasing into circulation a Bible that read, “Thou shalt commit adultery!” Is it any wonder the courts stepped in?

These days, there are a few places you can visit to see Barker's blunder – the Museum of the Bible down in DC has a copy, and I've seen that perilous page. But why's it such a big deal? Because marriage, which adultery violates, is a big deal. So what is marriage, exactly? One recent definition is that marriage is, at its natural minimum, “a union between one man and one woman which is exclusive, permanent, and open to life.”1 And that's simple, short, and sweet. I also like this longer definition: Marriage is “a comprehensive union... joining spouses in body as well as in mind..., begun by consent and sealed by sexual intercourse..., especially apt for and deepened by procreation,” calling for “that broad sharing of domestic life uniquely fit for family life,” which therefore “objectively calls for all-encompassing commitment: permanent and exclusive.”2

Even more could be said, but either works as a starting point. This thing called 'marriage' is a reality created and instituted by none other than God. And what God decreed was a structured kind of relationship in which a man and a woman were to 'cleave' to one another – they glue together, become one another's other self, nearest kin, the other's highest earthly loyalty, commanded by God himself to put one another first among all creation (Genesis 2:24). Physically, emotionally, socially, they're to be bonded tighter than any other two things you can find. Such it was in Eden, and the life of Eden is our model for holy and healthy sex and sexuality even now.

At its best, marriage is free, total, faithful, and fruitful – that is, the husband and wife freely chose each other and freely choose to grow together; the husband and wife share themselves unreservedly with each other; the husband and wife reserve themselves always for each other exclusively; and the husband and wife are open and welcoming to God's gift of new life in his time and in his way.3 These are the things that make marriage the only appropriate outlet for our sexual activity. And they call for our sexual behavior to accord with and respect what marriage is, and the holiness of the One who built that marriage bed for us. That's why it's written for us in the Scriptures: “Let the marriage bed be undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4), uncontaminated by what's unethical and impure, preserved from being a scene of sexual sin against or even within the marriage.

The New Testament talks often of what we usually translate as 'sexual immorality,' what the King James Version called by the good Latin word 'fornication.' It's just one word in Greek: porneia. And in classical Greek, porneia literally meant 'prostitution.' But the New Testament lumps all kinds of sexual misbehavior as porneia. Last Sunday, we covered some kinds of porneia, like bestiality, homosexuality, and incest. But it also covers promiscuity, premarital sex, and more. All get thrown in the basket labeled 'porneia,' 'sexual immorality.'

That's why the Apostle Paul warns, “Don't you know that he who cleaves to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” (1 Corinthians 6:16). That is, sexually uniting with someone outside the marriage covenant still has that gluing effect, and still (however temporarily) identifies your body (which, if you're a Christian, is a temple of the Holy Spirit [1 Corinthians 6:19]) with the other person's body. And therefore, Paul adds, “the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). The more sexual partners a person has before getting married, the higher the statistical likelihood of adultery after marriage.4 “The body is not meant for sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:13). So all these things are in view when Paul says, “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you possess his own vessel in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who don't know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things..., for God has not called us in impurity but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7).

Now, marriage isn't for everyone. It might be hard to get that through our heads, even though Paul told the Corinthians that “he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better,” if that refraining is for the sake of the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 7:3-8). And yet that isn't to diminish the value of marriage in God's plan for us. The Bible calls marriage a “covenant” (Malachi 2:14), a family-creating bond built on solemn oaths. In Hebrews, we read, “Let marriage be held in honor among all” (Hebrews 13:4). Since man and woman become one body in marriage, neither keeps the right to do with his or her sexual life just whatever he or she sees fit: “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:4). In marriage, we're called to learn together what it means to show love and to be satisfied by and in one another: “Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well” (Proverbs 5:15).

So one of the people discipled by the apostles declared that “it is proper for those men and women who are marrying to form their union with the consent of the bishop,” their local pastor, “so that their marriage may be in accordance with the Lord and not out of desire. Let everything be done for the honor of God. … Instruct my sisters to love the Lord and to be satisfied with their spouses in flesh and spirit. Similarly, charge my brothers, in the name of Jesus Christ, to love their spouses as the Lord loves the Church.”5 The early Christians wrote that when Christ returned, he'd bring a special reward for his people “who love marriage and refrain from adultery” (Sibylline Oracles 2.53). There's that word again: 'Adultery.'

Adultery, at its core meaning, is sexual misbehavior that bursts outside of an existing marriage covenant, disrupting or intruding into at least one marriage relationship. A husband is supposed to be sexually faithful to his marriage covenant with his wife, but he finds himself acting sexually with somebody else: his sexuality has leaked outside the marriage covenant, and that's adultery. A wife's sexuality leaks outside the marriage covenant with someone else, and that's adultery too. Ancient Israel, blessed with God's Law through Moses, recognized adultery as especially evil: a kind of treason against a sacred oath, a rupture in a solemn covenant, a betrayal of an intimate trust, a true injustice and a crime. Not even consent or acquiescence of the spouse could remove the immorality of adultery. No, the law was simple and plain: “You shall not commit adultery!” (Exodus 20:14).

Israel found it, first of all, to be unwise. Toying with it is like trying to hug a fire: “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? … So is he who goes in to his neighbor's wife: none who touches her will go unpunished” (Proverbs 6:27-29). Adultery is costly: “A man's wife hunts down a precious life” (Proverbs 6:26). If adultery goes public, it destroys reputations: “He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself. He will get wounds and dishonor, and his disgrace will not be wiped away” (Proverbs 6:32-33). Adultery, because it was so serious, was treated more absolutely in God's Law than in the laws of the nations. In Israel, an offended spouse had no right to pardon after conviction: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10).

And yet, in darker seasons in Israel's history, adultery became a commonplace sin. Hosea complains, “They are all adulterers” (Hosea 7:4). Jeremiah complains, “The land is full of adulterers” (Jeremiah 23:10). Even after the exile and return, Malachi has to warn his people: “The LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless though she's your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make you one, with a portion of the Spirit belonging to it? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring! Therefore watch out for your lives, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (Malachi 2:14-15). After Malachi, one Jewish writer gave four reasons for calling adultery “the greatest of crimes.” First, it flows from excessive love of pleasure, which ruins body and soul and wastes God's gifts. Second, not only is adultery evil, but since it 'takes two to tango,' it lures another body and soul into that evil. Third, it “makes havoc of three families,” because each person impacted – the two spouses and the intruder – comes from his or her own family that's deeply harmed by the shockwaves of the adultery. And fourth, not only does adultery weaken trust between spouses, but between generations when there's secrecy or suspicion over who someone's parents actually were.6 And so Jews of the era prayed for a Savior who'd bring righteousness, that in his kingdom there'd be “no adulteries” and no other sexual sins to be found (Sibylline Oracles 5.430).

For Christians, or even just humans who have feeling hearts, all we've said so far should hardly need saying. We should know it. We should live it. None has an excuse for regarding our marriages, or the marriages of our neighbors, as things to treat with contempt. But the sad thing to say is, many professing Christians do pretend they have an excuse. I've seen churches wrecked by it. I've been part of a church where adultery ran rampant. Between pastors and church workers. Between members of the worship team. The devastation was profound. It left long scars on the life of the church, to say nothing of the individual lives involved. It isn't for no reason that the Apostle Paul tells us “not to associate” with a Christian “if he is guilty of sexual immorality” and won't repent (1 Corinthians 5:11). These are such serious sins that they exclude the unrepentant from fellowship.

And let's be clear. The Apostle leaves no wiggle room here. “Whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God” (1 Thessalonians 4:8). Catch that? Whoever embraces sexual sin, lives by lustful passions, dishonors his or her own body and the spouse's body he or she is one flesh with – whoever does that is mistreating God. The author of Hebrews warns that “God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4). Paul urges us, “Don't be deceived!” Oh, people will try to deceive you, tell you it's no big deal, but don't listen. “Neither sexual sinners... nor adulterers... will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). “For you may be sure of this: that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure... has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5). Even if your spouse never finds out, God sees. Unless you get that stain off your soul with repentance, it pits you against his kingdom. John sees “the faithless..., the sexually immoral..., their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur..., the second death” (Revelation 21:8).

And that's hard news today. A few years ago, a general social survey found that here in the United States, 20% of all husbands and 13% of all wives admitted to having committed at least one act of adultery while married.7 It's even more common among Americans born – guess when? The 1940s and 1950s. Americans born in those decades are increasingly adulterous. Of those who've ever been married, one in four has been guilty of adultery. And in the past decades, the percentage of older Americans who still agree that sex outside marriage is always wrong has been dropping.8 Don't just blame those 'kids these days'! It's their elders leading the way.

As if that weren't challenge enough, Jesus raises the bar. “It was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart!” (Matthew 5:27-28). A later rabbi echoed him, that “even he who visualizes himself in the act of adultery is called 'adulterer.'”9 A righteous man should be able to say, “I have not had intercourse with any woman other than my wife, nor was I sexually immoral by lustful look.”10 And what is lust? It's sexual desire treated or pursued as a good in itself, cut off from the desire to unite a whole life in marriage.

What Jesus makes clear is that adultery doesn't start between the legs or on the lips. It doesn't even start with the caressing hand or the ogling eye. It begins with a dirty heart. “For out of the heart come... adultery [and] sexual immorality” (Matthew 15:19). Where Jesus breaks new ground isn't in deeming lustful looks sexual sin, not even quite in calling lustful looks 'adultery,' but in his uncompromising insistence that the real battle is fought in the heart, and must be fought to the death. Even the dearest things in our lives, a hand or an eye, would be better to lose than to lose this fight against lust. Heaven and hell hang in the balance (Matthew 5:29-30). But it's a battle that can be won. As an early Christian said: “Lust is nurtured and vitalized if we minister to its enjoyment. On the other hand, it fades away if it's kept in check.”11 We must cut lust from our hearts.

Jesus' teaching about lust is why early Christians, hoping to help their neighbors, campaigned so vigorously against popular entertainments that aimed to stoke lust (since, as we say today, 'sex sells'). One said that in the Roman world, there were so many plays that “offer classes in corruption, teaching adultery even as they present it... What are boys and girls to do when they see all these shows being put on without shame and being watched with pleasure by all? Frankly, they're being told what to do. They're being inflamed with lust, and lust is most excited visually. According to their sex, they can see themselves in the acts. In laughing at them, they're accepting them. And they go back home to bed all the more corrupted, with the vices clinging close – and I don't mean just boys (who ought to be kept out of vice early on) but even old men (who ought to be beyond such misbehavior by now).”12 Sound at all familiar? Today's popular entertainment rivals all the Roman stage offered. In ever-more graphic terms, it presents sexual sins as positive virtues – even adultery, so long as the spouse being cheated on is made out to be dull enough, inconsiderate enough, or even just off-screen enough.

As Paul tells us, “put to death what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire” (Colossians 3:5). Following where he's pointing, the early church would tell those coming for baptism, those who wanted to be born again, that here's the deal: “The way of death is... adulteries, lusts, sexual immoralities” (Didache 5.1). “You shall not commit adultery..., you shall not be sexually immoral...” (Didache 2.2). “My child, do not be given over to passion, for lust leads to sexual immorality; nor be a speaker of base words, nor immodestly curious, for from all these, adulteries are begotten” (Didache 3.3). The earliest Christian preachers to follow the apostles said that the life of holiness requires “fleeing from... abominable and impure embraces, from... detestable lusts and foul adultery.”13 They commanded “to keep chastity and not let anything enter your heart about someone else's wife or about sexual immorality..., for if you do, you commit a great sin; but if you remember your own wife” or your own husband, “you will never sin.”14 Early Christians were reminded that to be self-controlled and not commit adultery was one way of confessing Jesus with our lives (2 Clement 4.3).

Even the pagans could see that Christian worship regularly included a binding oath not to commit adultery.15 It was an oath that early Christians were confident they kept. In the earliest days, defenders of Christians could honestly say that “Christians... don't commit adultery, nor sexual immorality... Their wives are pure as virgins, their daughters are modest, and their men keep themselves from every unlawful union and from all uncleanness, in the hope of a reward to come in the other world.”16 “We're so far from promiscuity that it isn't even allowed for us to look with lust.”17 “Of our own free will, we cleave to the bond of single marriage. In desire of procreation, we're content with one wife or with none.”18 Christians, they said, “take care not to corrupt the temple of God by unlawful sexual indulgence, and practice self-control as an act of piety towards God.”19

To the early Christians, these things had spiritual meanings. They knew that the prophets had accused Israel of “adultery” in chasing other gods (Hosea 2:2). Judah “polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree” (Jeremiah 3:9). God denounced Jerusalem as an “adulterous wife” (Ezekiel 16:32), with his prophets graphically describing her political and religious contact with foreign powers in lurid terms as “the deeds of a brazen prostitute” (Ezekiel 16:30). And yet amid Israel's adulteries, her Lord's love kept faith with her.

And each Christian realized that his or her soul was espoused to Christ, finding in him its spiritual Bridegroom. And so James is especially sharp in warning us not to seek Christ's gifts only to spend them on our lusts for our own lives. “You adulteresses!” he accuses us. “Don't you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:3-4). In other words, when we become so enamored with the affairs of life and our attachment to society that it divides our affections from Christ, our souls are cheating on their Savior. That's adultery on the spiritual level. And that brings home this law to the heart, if nothing else does.

But there's hope for the wounded and the unfaithful who repent. There's a story told – it's in most but not all manuscripts of John's Gospel – and I bet you know it (John 7:53—8:11). The scribes and the Pharisees enter the temple courts, where Jesus is teaching, and they have a woman in tow. They say she's been caught in the act of adultery. With whom? They don't say. They treat the man as blameless, accusing only the woman. If it's a trial they want, there must be multiple eyewitnesses to the act itself (Deuteronomy 19:15), but they bring none. Yet she's left to face a judgmental mob in her vulnerability and shame. With no eyewitnesses, no co-defendant, not even a clear sign her husband's aware of the situation, the scribes and Pharisees terrorize this woman as their pawn. They have no interest in justice, only in trapping Jesus. So they've exposed her in the temple courts – hardly a suitable place for an execution! But it was the place where, with appropriate offerings and sacrifices, an Israelite man might bring a wife he suspected of adultery, to have the priest ritually leave the matter in God's hands by an oath. The dust from the tabernacle floor would settle such questions (Numbers 5:17, 24).

So Jesus touches his finger to that temple-floor dust. And in that holy dust, he wrote with his finger, just as God wrote the Ten Commandments in stone with his finger (Exodus 31:18). Laying out the Law in its fullness, Jesus invites judgment to begin, coming from anyone who carries no weight of sin. In a stoning, the eyewitnesses of the crime were supposed to cast the first stones (Deuteronomy 17:7). But here, there are no eyewitnesses, only culprits – no one stands outside the sin they seek to unload on this woman's head as upon a scapegoat. For it was they, even more than she, who stood there guilty of adultery against the Lord God who was sitting in front of them – they were indeed an “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mark 8:38). So, one by one, they leave her with Jesus. He was sinless enough to throw the stone. But no: he saw her fear, her regret, her willingness to repent. So in mercy he set her free to return to her husband. He calls her to be an adulteress no longer.

And then Jesus died for adulterers, for the immoral, for sexual sinners of every stripe. He calls to repentance, offers forgiveness, washes clean; he gives them the grace to treat marriage with honor and their spouses with justice. And the early church carried forgiveness forward. In the second century, one teacher, celebrating that Jesus came to save “the irreligious and licentious and unjust,” knew an “innumerable multitude of those who've changed from licentiousness and have learned these things” in Jesus' teaching about marriage.20 A century later, another preacher said that “among Christians, if adultery has been committed..., cleansing from sin isn't established through bodily punishments but through repentance. See that, if one person performs a worthy penance, he can earn mercy for it! … Let that person flee to the aid of repentance, so that, if caught once, he doesn't do it a second time; or, if he's committed it a second or even a third time, he doesn't add any more.”21

Here's the beauty of it: Christ is risen! Our Bridegroom is “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Our Bridegroom is faithful even when we're faithless, all love even when we're loveless (2 Timothy 2:13). So long as we live, it's never too late to repent, not even for sins a year past, a decade gone by... even be they sixty years behind us, time cannot free us from them, but Jesus can and will, if we now repent and turn ourselves over to him!

Jesus calls us back to, and models for us, a love that truly keeps faith. We owe the same to our spouses. We have to relatively 'leave' other ties for their sake, including the ties of sexuality leaking beyond marriage. We have to 'cleave' to them only, accept him or her as our highest earthly priority. And we have to see ourselves as 'one flesh' with them, with all its radical implications of love, “for no one ever hated his own flesh,” says Paul, “but nourishes and cherishes it” (Ephesians 5:29).

And this is all meant as a witness to the faith-keeping love that God shows us and that we owe back to him in Jesus Christ. We're called to 'leave' worldly ties for his sake – to turn down what James called “friendship with the world” (James 4:4), to say no to conflicting allegiances and allures that aim to seduce us. We have to 'cling' or 'cleave' only to Christ, accept him as our highest priority, period: “You shall cleave to the LORD your God,” as Joshua said (Joshua 23:8). And whereas you and your husband or wife are made one flesh, Paul adds that “he who cleaves to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Corinthians 6:17) – and that's even better. Amen.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Male and Female Created He Them

Sleepy. That's how the man of dust was starting to feel. Sleepy. It had been a long and lonely day's work, and disappointingly little to show for it. High and low for most his life, he'd been scouring the animal kingdom to find a helper. He couldn't handle this mission by himself. He needed someone, needed something, that was enough like him to rise to the challenge, enough like him to share a history and a future, enough like him to... to... Well, it had been a frustrating day. Thing after thing had paraded past him through the foliage, but none of the fauna met his needs. None of them were what he was. He knelt next to a serene pond, a pool in the garden, and looked in. Reflection. Staring back was a picture. Eyes, lips, hands. That's closer – that was like him. If only he had a twin! But on second thought, that might get dull in a different way. Duplicating everything all over again. Something didn't feel right about the thought. That just wouldn't work, another self like that – no, he needed a helper who was like him, and he needed a helper who was his opposite. He gave up. There came a rustling in the branches, a cooling breeze in the day. The sunlight seemed to get faster, stronger. It was peaceful, it was soothing. The Maker was near, and the sleepy man of dust felt reassured as he drifted off...

Slowly he began to come to himself. His eyelids had felt like stones at the bottom of a river, slowly floating to the surface. Groggy. Something felt... not as it had before. His eyes weren't all the way open as he started feeling around beneath his arm. There was a hollowness near his heart. His eyes fluttered, adjusted to the light. He lifted his head – and shouted in awed surprise. He was not alone. But it was not the Maker there, in the cool of the day. It was another. It was his reflection, brought to life – but not his reflection. Like him, but the opposite. His opposite, but the same. He recognized his kind. This one stared back with two eyes, smiled with lips like his, beckoned with five fingers like his – but no, not just like his, not as the reflection had been his. This was a new way to be what he was. It was an opposite way. A body like his, but very unlike his. His mind strained to grasp how it could be both.

Suddenly he understood the hollowness within, and he delighted in it. This body before him, this other self, had been built up out of his very own flesh, out of his own bone, transformed and differentiated and rearranged and glorified to be his equal. Like him, the perfect image and likeness of God. They both bore it, but not the same – no, in two different and complementary ways. And it was together that they would display the inner richness of God, together that the Maker's creativity would find its image, when this way and that way united for fruitful multiplication. Such were they designed to do – to fit together, to be at each other's side, to fuse and attach.

No sooner had the booming breath escaped his lungs in astonishment than the Maker approached, the Almighty, listening in delight to the dust-man's reaction. He and this other one turned to face him together, their fingers intertwined. Together saw they the light, together felt the rush of wind, together breathed in the aroma of the garden, together heard the voice of the Lord bless them and join them and call them by one name. Their hearts beat in time. Their eyes locked again, and each could see reflected in the other's eyes not only him- or herself, but the light of the Almighty shining bright. The human male, sculpted of dust and mud by the Divine Potter. This shapely female counterpart, built and constructed by the Master Architect and Crafter. They needed no words to say it. They were one flesh, they were a continuous unity, one made to receive the other. Together, they could act as a single organism, a single body, fruitfully united for multiplication and increase; and the committed union of the whole of their lives would extend that oneness beyond an event, beyond one act, into a saga of beauty. They heard their Maker call it marriage. There would sexuality belong. And Adam's sex as man, and Eve's sex as woman, made it all astonishingly and strikingly possible.1 Everything was obvious, plain as the leaves on the tree of life, clear as the crystalline streams. God's handiwork had declared itself and himself evidently since the very hour of creation (cf. Romans 1:20). And it was all very, very good.

But, with the passage of time, stole the shadow upon their souls. A bite of proudly seized fruit, passed from one body to the other; and with that, this flesh was poisoned in both its places by shame and confusion. Their body, their mind, infected. Like demons exorcised from a holy temple, like tender flowers ripped up from their roots, they tumbled to a world of withering east of Eden, where they roamed far from home. Thrown back into the calloused hands of an impoverished nature, they did increase, they did multiply. But not everything continued as clear as it once was. In Eden, there were no chromosomal abnormalities, no developmental anomalies, no psychiatric illnesses. But east of Eden, all these things slowly crept in. Down through the generations from this Adam and this Eve, some would indeed – in the Lord's words – be “eunuchs who from their mother's womb were born that way” – those physically or psychologically incapable of joining into one flesh with a helper like and opposite them (Matthew 19:12a). East of Eden, some would be born with birth defects that caused their maleness or femaleness to seem less than obvious at first. East of Eden, others would be born with a feeling of disconnection between the sex of they saw in reflection and the sense of self they carried inside – men ill at ease as men, women ill at ease as women. Also east of Eden, some would be born and raised, desiring impossible unions with helpers only alike, not opposite – sons of Adam yearning for sons of Adam, daughters of Eve for daughters of Eve. All creation was groaning in agony to be set free from the chains of corruption, laboring under perplexity and pain (Romans 8:21-23).

East of Eden, God was suddenly not so obvious. The fruit had opened their eyes, alright – opened them too wide, too wide to retain the focus that had once been theirs (cf. Genesis 3:7). The world seemed a jumble of mismatched pieces, a cacophony of voices crying out for their devotion. Obsessing in the mud and dust whence they came, nations of Adam's sons, of Eve's daughters, couldn't keep their bearings fixed on the light handed down to them. “Although they knew God” by inference from what he'd made, “they didn't honor him as God or give thanks to him,” didn't recognize him for what he'd done, didn't appreciate, didn't acknowledge his authority as the Author. So “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). And as the light faded from their minds, occluded by the clutter and the fog, obvious truths seemed no longer true or even good any more. Boasting they knew better than the God of nature, determined to bend the skies above and earth beneath to their will, heeding the many voices calling them this way and that (cf. Romans 1:22), they fell madly in love with all the unsuitable things brought before Adam that sleepy day, the creepy-crawlies, the four-foots, the winged things, even their own decaying reflections (Romans 1:23). So God mournfully let them chase these lesser loves, generation by generation reconfiguring their hearts after passions (Romans 1:24-26), offending as much against their own bodies as against their Creator (1 Corinthians 6:18).

Ages rolled on, and one day, some of Adam's sons, some of Eve's daughters, stood beneath a mountain, where they heard the sweet-courting Voice that once blessed their first parents. The mountain burned between Egypt behind them and Canaan before them. But both were lands of confusion, where these foundational truths of the creation were muddled, where the people gave themselves up to impurity, shame, passion, abusing God's gift of difference and union. When Israel lived in Egypt, they labored under the eyes of many pharaohs who routinely set the example of marrying their own sisters and siring children by them.2 Some pharaohs of ages past had even been rumored to sneak out at night for sexual contact with some of their military officers – men with men.

Leaving that world, Israel was marching to inherit the land of Canaan, whose various nations worshipped devious gods of whom they celebrated revolting tales. To hear the Canaanites tell it, their high god El was not only a hopeless drunk but a senile sex fiend; while his son, the rain-giving god Ba'al, lusted after his very own daughters and then mated, in more than one myth, with cows and heifers in the field.3 And if that's what these nations worshipped, their lives could hardly lag behind. Nor did they.4

And so to this fragile people caught between, God from the mountain thundered forth first a simple word: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). But how to know what that is, without the truths it rests on? And so God unpacked that word in many words for his yet-blind people, who often were led astray from their Maker's designs for sex and sexuality. God elaborated so as to retrain them away from the recklessness of their perplexed eyes, their darkened minds, their uncircumcised hearts, all of which lusted after the chaos all around.

Thus God spelled out laws to govern their appreciation and use of his gifts of sex and sexuality. “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you lived,” the Lord said, “and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan to which I'm bringing you” (Leviticus 18:3), “for by all these things the nations I'm driving out before you have become unclean” (Leviticus 18:24), “but you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations” (Leviticus 18:26). For as God would one day make clear in the Bible's closing chapters, those who surrender their gifts of sex and sexuality into what the Law abominates will be unable, for just so long, to enter into the New and Everlasting Jerusalem (Revelation 21:27; cf. 21:8).

So, with Canaan up ahead, God reminded his people that, just as Adam quickly discovered, no animal could be a suitable mate, even for a moment: “You shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion” (Leviticus 18:23). They were to be like Adam, not like Ba'al. Sex begins with being human, and at the very outermost limit, a minimum requirement for sexuality is that it be shared only among humans.

Then, God reminded his people that, as Adam opened his eyes to find, humans come in two kinds. Some are male. Others are female. And none of the trouble that's entered east of Eden – abnormalities and anomalies, disorders and diseases, desires and disorientations – none of that trouble can eradicate these two fixed ways of being human. Each is a distinctive gift from the Creator, which cannot be exchanged or erased, only abused and harmed. They are good gifts, and neither is better than the other. This God reminded them when he said that “a woman shall not wear a man's garment, nor shall a man put on a woman's cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 22:5). That is to say, a human gifted with being a man is called to receive that gift with gratitude, to accept it and acknowledge it, and to live accordingly – to put himself forth into the world as a man. And a human gifted with being a woman is to do the same with her gift. She isn't to assert herself as a man, because she isn't and can't be. He isn't to assert himself as a woman, because he isn't and can't be. No change of clothes can make it so. Neither can chemicals bought at a price or even surgical prowess manufacture this gift of God, but only simulate it. God knew that some would try, so he warned his people, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD (Deuteronomy 23:1). For some were eunuchs not by birth but by self-determination, “eunuchs who were made eunuchs by human beings” (Matthew 19:12b). Whatever burdens any Israelite bore, such practices were to have no place among God's holy nation of old.5

Having thus summoned his people to each receive their sex as man or woman as a gift, he called them first to never use that gift to unite sexually to those who were already one flesh with them. They were not to imitate any longer the incestuous Egyptians. God had higher standards. Marriage was no longer to be an affair of a single family. “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness,” God insisted (Leviticus 18:6). A man wasn't to have sexual contact or marriage with his mother or stepmother (18:7-8), his sister or half-sister (18:9), his granddaughter (18:10), his step-sister (18:11), his aunt on either side (18:12-14), his daughter-in-law or sister-in-law (18:15-16), his stepdaughter (18:17) – none of that. For these Israelites brought up in Egypt, this was a hard word to hear. Some standing beneath the mountain had their supposed marriages unravel before their eyes. It was a hard word for Moses, for by this even his parents' marriage was undone – his mother was also his father's aunt (Exodus 6:20). But, however painful, all these things were exposed as sexual confusion, the impurities of abused sexuality.

Furthermore, God commanded them to use sexuality only with those who are opposite, complementary. For good reason do humans come in more than one type: both are needed for true sexual union to occur, without which there can be no reproductive fruitfulness. Two humans both gifted with maleness can't unite that way – it isn't possible, so no marriage can arise from it. Two humans both gifted with femaleness can't unite that way – not possible, and no marriage can arise from it.6 And the gift of sexuality was only meant for true, full, organic unions that are true marriages. All else is sacrilege. And as Paul would later describe, that's exactly what the pagan world got: “Their females exchanged the natural use for that which is contrary to nature, and the males likewise gave up the natural use of females and were inflamed with passion for one another, men committing indecency with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26-27). For that reason, God thundered from the mountain through Moses, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman: it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). In other words, it simply isn't what sexuality is for.7

Every body, mind, and life that “does not submit to God's Law” is “hostile to God,” we're told (Romans 8:7). But all these different rules of the Law are really just boundary-markers around a few simple truths, lit up to stand out to our hazy vision: Sex, being a man or being a woman, is a gift from God, each being one of the two unique ways to be human. To be a man is just to be the same kind of human as Adam. To be a woman is just to be the same kind of human as Eve. Sexuality is a gift for uniting the two kinds of human as a single new flesh, a union structurally designed for the prospect of procreation, with pleasure and partnership and parable coming with it. All other applications of sexuality are abuses of, or even rejections of, the gift itself. And well-ordered sexuality takes its cues from Eden, and nowhere else. To be a man the right way, or a woman the right way, and then to live that out sexually the right way, is to imitate the life of Eden. And that is exactly what God wanted Israel to see – and to teach the nations, as his national priesthood in the world (cf. Exodus 19:5-6).

The nations still need to be taught. For today, as much as in Egypt or Canaan, modern-day America and plenty other nations have been sliding back into a shadowy confusion when it comes to living out healthy sex and sexuality as God gave it. Asked what a man is or a woman is, many of our neighbors and leaders will skirt the question, having renounced the answer. What America has come to believe, effectively, is that male and female are two of many genders one could have; that each is a complex reality emerging from many factors, the most important of which are thought or felt, not observed by mirror or microscope; that a man can choose to become a woman or to reveal himself as having inwardly always been a woman, or vice versa; that sexuality is ours to employ in any way we choose, inside or outside marriage, so long as everyone involved is on board; and that justice is only done when every person is free to express themself sexually as they please, and no relationship structure infused with romantic love can be excluded from the definition of marriage, which is ours to write and rewrite until all are satisfied. So now America believes. What America increasingly disbelieves is that “in the image of God he created him: male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:27), that only a man and a woman can cleave to one another and become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). A modern American may be less certain to believe that than any Egyptian or Canaanite ever was.8

Faced with the new America, we can't shelter ourselves in a bubble, pretending that most people still secretly agree with us about the things they've learned to forget. The era when most Americans at least made a show of nodding when the church taught and spoke is over. Nor will it be helpful for us to just be angry and dismissive all the time – although we are grieved when today's revolt against reality victimizes real bodies and real souls. Instead, we're called to give a truthful answer. God has not left himself without witness (Acts 14:17). To be a human being is to be fundamentally embodied: you're not a soul stuck in the wrong spot; your body is you. Each of us still has our sex, as either a man or a woman, as a gift from God's hand, however distorted or misunderstood sin makes it. The capacity for sexual union is still God's very good gift, too. These gifts can't be exchanged or erased, and must not be abused. Your body once had and still has a meaning and a purpose; and misdirected sexuality, out-of-place sexuality, isn't it (1 Corinthians 6:13).

We have the task, in today's world, of insisting on these forgotten truths. These truths were the consistent awareness of God's ancient people Israel and their heirs.9 The same truths have also been the consistent witness of the New Israel, the Church, from the very beginning and through the ages.10 But these aren't easy or popular truths to speak today. They're getting harder by the year, and more necessary by the year. About 42% of Americans now personally know someone who identifies as transgender (that is, other than as the sex God gave them).11 The vast majority of Americans personally know someone who identifies as homosexual. You'll find them in your community, and maybe in your family – and if you haven't, your grandchildren definitely have and will. When I was in college, one of my closer friends for a while was a woman who was mainly attracted to other women. When I was in seminary, one of my best friends there was a man who, by God's grace, refused to surrender to his same-sex temptations. I have a male cousin who's mainly attracted to other men, and a half-sister raising a child with a woman whom American law regards as her spouse. I have a sister-in-law who takes hormone treatments to assist her in her effort to live as if she were a man. People have – and care deeply for – friends and family in those shoes. It's not for no reason that so many Christians in our country try to affirm those friends and family in what they think and desire. Whole church bodies have been led to do likewise, in spite of the Apostle Paul's warning that those who “give approval to those who practice” these things are in the same mortal or eternal danger as those who do them (Romans 1:32). And that isn't kind or compassionate.

We have to speak the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help us God – but only, ever, and always in love (Ephesians 4:15). Because this isn't about abstract issues. It's about real people, real individuals made in God's image, broken and disordered east of Eden, confused and barraged and sometimes led astray by the loud voices of social encouragement and inner wrestling and the craving for self-pride. And that describes all of us. Each of us has been inflamed by desire, urged on by the flesh. Each of us has found fierce warfare within, as we aim for the good but do the evil we didn't want to do (Romans 7:19, 22). But all of us are called by the Lord to discipline ourselves – including our sexual thoughts, attitudes, actions, and sense of self – for his sake, expressing them joyfully only as he decrees good. And in this, none of us have room to boast over another.

For those whose burdens take certain forms (such as gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction), this call can seem especially challenging. Some burdens are laid upon some by chemical influences encountered in the womb, or by psychiatric conditions, or by the pressures and temptations of a culture that knows just which levers to pull to unleash social contagion. But such burdens, non-culpable effects of the Fall, aren't chosen. It's little wonder it's so prevalent to surrender instead of struggle to tame this area of life beneath the will of God.

And too often, we who claim to be truthful, we who claim to love, have made these burdens all the heavier on those around us. We've piled on added cultural expectations of what's masculine and what's feminine, and so have substituted our man-made traditions for the less burdensome commands of God (Mark 7:8). We've cast stones like the maddest Pharisee out to justify ourselves by trampling the 'sinner' into the dust at our feet, too afraid to admit our own fellowship of weakness and need with him or her. We've excluded as forever unclean those whom God is ready to cleanse and claim. And we've neglected the awesome hope brought into the open as the Lord dignifies the state of life that surrenders the gift of sexuality on his altar, and instead we choose to make marriage the one-size-fits-all idol, as though life without it were incomplete. Lord, help us repent!

But Jesus Christ was born into the world – born as a man, born of a woman, born under the Law (Galatians 4:4) – to call us all to take our burdens and temptations, of whatever form they come, and to nail them to his cross. And then he bids us lift that cross and carry it in his footsteps, laying claim to him by denying ourselves (Mark 8:34). Oh, it's deeply self-denying to crucify your own thoughts about your God-given sex. It's deeply self-denying to crucify your deep-seated passions, your sole desired outlets for romantic or erotic intimacy.12 But to sacrifice visions and passions and intimacies for Jesus is to be heir to his promise of hundredfold reward (Mark 10:29-31). Some will sacrifice these things so as to, in effect, “make eunuchs of themselves for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12c) – that is, anticipating life like angels, wedded now to God and no other, offering their sexuality to him in celibacy. Others come to Christ, having been born not by choice but yearning to be born again, maybe having undergone treatment to efface God's gift in them, crying out in pained longing – and where once the Law bore a word of exclusion, the Prophet relays God's word of welcome in Christ: “Let not the eunuch say, 'I am a dry tree,' for thus says the LORD: 'To the eunuchs who... choose things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters..., an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. … These I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer. … Their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar'” (Isaiah 56:3-7).

And such things aren't only theoretical. Paul mentions that the early church had members who were formerly sexually immoral, formerly adulterers, formerly involved in same-sex sexual encounters (1 Corinthians 6:9). But Paul says they've now surrendered that life to Jesus: “Such were some of you, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Jesus Christ, perfect Image of God, died on his cross to reprint his image on them and make them shine with it. And that made them every bit as worthy of being part of God's temple as you are or I am (1 Peter 2:5), even if life were to be a struggle against temptations and doubts each and every day.

But along the way, Christians (then and now) could hope for the Holy Spirit to be the new focus of their minds, rather than dwelling on their own impulses or perceptions (Romans 8:5). They could now be “transformed by the renewal of [their] minds,” learning to “discern what is the will of God” (Romans 12:2). Where the old self had been “corrupt through deceitful desires,” a mind- and heart-renewal by the Holy Spirit would more and more clothe them with a new identity, with “the new human,” which was “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). And that's true for all of us.

Best of all, Jesus Christ rose from the grave to give us new hope – hope of a glorified body, brain, heart, and soul no longer at odds among themselves, no longer burdened or fallen, no longer vulnerable to temptations and lusts and confusions. We all now “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for... the redemption of our bodies” in the resurrection that's to come, “for in this hope we were saved” (Romans 8:23-24). In the resurrection, each one who follows Jesus now will then perfectly shine with the image of God, unmistakable and fabulous. In the resurrection, each one who has the gift of being a man, and each one who has the gift of being a woman, will know what his or her gift means, and will see new and glorious ways to live it out, better than this passing age can ever know, for “what we will be has not yet appeared” (1 John 3:2). In the resurrection, every body and every mind will be unchained into the harmony of freedom (Romans 8:21). And in the resurrection, in the new creation, in the kingdom of God, we will have a life that “nothing unclean will ever enter” (Revelation 21:27).

Now that's good news! Until that blessed hope comes, let us all love and speak the truth in love – for God is the Truth, and God is Love, and God finds no gap between them. Let us openly cherish and thank God for his good gifts, for “every good gift and every perfect gift” – including male and female, including sex and sexuality, and including the guidelines to exercise them in healthy and joyful ways – “is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). And let us carry the cross, groaning all the way, waiting in hopeful patience and with the Holy Spirit's help (Romans 8:25-26) for the day when everything about us, including sex and sexuality, will be as Christ is creating it to be. Amen.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Fury Once Kindled

It started with suspicion. In the years and decades before it happened, it was often the case that Hutu children were told by their elders how to think of the Tutsis: how the Tutsis were arrogant, how Tutsis were weak, how Tutsis hoarded too many cattle, how Tutsis didn't play fair, how Tutsis were always up to something. Those are the sorts of things the Hutu elders said (and the Hutu youth overheard) when they were drinking. So the Hutu kids might have had Tutsi friends, might play soccer on the same team, but they were trained from childhood to instinctively connect 'Tutsi' and 'untrustworthy.' They were always alert to the possibility that any friendship with a Tutsi was one-sided, that their Tutsi friend was really a trap waiting to spring.1

And so working and drinking with Tutsis was interspersed with unsavory Hutu jokes about just getting rid of the Tutsis and being done with it. Hutus mumbled how the land was too small, resources too scarce, they didn't want to live with these too-tall Tutsis any more. Gradually, Hutus took in talk radio talking about Tutsis, calling them names like 'cockroaches' and 'snakes.' A civil war revisited the painful past, and all the old political and class divisions collapsed into this one thing, this one area of focus, this one fault line for each to understand himself by being not that other thing. No wonder one admitted, “The Hutu infant was swaddled with hatred for the Tutsis before first opening his eyes to the world.” No wonder another Hutu described his generation being “raised in hatred, stuffed with slogans. … We became contaminated by ethnic racism without noticing it.”

Then, three days after Easter 1994, an airplane was shot out of the sky over the capital. On board was the late Rwandan president – a Hutu. Suspicion surged into fury. Having become comfortable joking about 'cockroach' and 'snake,' many Hutus were easily organized into obedient teams of exterminators – even of those they used to call 'neighbor' or 'friend.' In the moment, such memories would seldom cross their minds – not 'til the deed was done. To look at a Tutsi was no longer to recognize a person with thoughts or feelings like Hutus had. As one explained his attitude at the time, “We no longer considered the Tutsis as humans or even as creatures of God. … That is why it was easy for us to wipe them out.”

All it took was a word from some local leader, and machetes began to swing. One remarked, “Rule #1 was to kill. There was no Rule #2.” No questions asked. Over the next couple months, about ten thousand Tutsis were butchered daily by neighbors who knew them on sight. Credit where credit is due: tens of thousands of Hutus refused to join the violence, and frequently were themselves cut down in response. And yet wielding those machetes were church stewards, church trustees, church choir leaders. After all, before the civil war, Rwanda had been pointed to as one of the great evangelistic success stories, had been officially decreed as a 'Christian nation.' And yet, beneath the surface, something was going on. And when it boiled over, even one Hutu had to reflect how “in the marshes, pious Christians became ferocious killers.” In fact, sometimes the Tutsis they were killing had, just days before, been singing with them in the same church choir to the same risen Jesus. But then in a heartbeat, worship crumbled and the cutting began, sometimes even inside the very churches where they'd formerly paid lip-service to loving one another. Yes, something was going on beneath the surface – something dangerous. Long before there was blood on machetes, there was murder in their hearts. And even if no blood had ever been shed, there were already plenty of murderers walking the dirt roads. They just didn't know it yet.

One Rwandan woman, in the wake of all that happened, commented that “the history of the Hutus and Tutsis is like the story of Cain and Abel, brothers who no longer understand each other because of mere nothings.” It's worth remembering that story. The story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam born beyond Eden's locked gates – it doesn't begin with violence. It begins with a pair of brothers, each of whom is a living image of God in a broken world. And when Cain's lackluster offering fails to get the same response from God as Abel's best, anger moves in. God warns him of sin crouching on his doorstep, like a lust-eyed beast – and Cain lets it have its way with him. He lures his brother into the field under a false pretense, and then he strikes. In the New Testament, the Apostle John walks us through what it means. “Cain... was of the Evil One,” John says. Cain was in league with Satan, anchored his behavior in the legacy of a dragon, proved to be the spawn of a serpent. How do we know? Just look at what he did: he “murdered his brother.” That much we know. But John dares to ask, Why did he murder him?” Why did Cain do what he did? “Because his own deeds were evil, and his brother's deeds were righteous” (1 John 3:12). It was an underlying moral gap in the way they lived. The one who wanted to give in to sin, he couldn't stand living in the shadow of someone who was a living testimony that Cain's way wasn't inevitable. So Cain, consumed by anger and envy and hate, nurtured those dark impulses, he nursed those bad feelings. Then he turned over not just his mind and heart, not even just his mouth, but his feet and hands and will to those inner attitudes, to the lurking beast. And so he lashed out and murdered his brother.

But, John says, Cain was a murderer before he turned over his hands and feet and will. He was even a murderer before he turned over his mouth. He was, in fact, a murderer from the moment he turned over his mind and his heart – from the moment he didn't refuse those bad feelings, the moment he watered his darker impulses. When he stopped thinking of Abel as being like himself, when he reduced Abel to an existential threat that had to be handled, when he hardened his heart against Abel, when he distanced himself from the brotherly relationship and washed his hands of responsibility to be his brother's keeper, then and there Cain was a murderer already, fist or no fist, rock or no rock. For John tells us, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15).

But John learned how to read scripture like that from listening to his Teacher. Jesus was not shy when it came to talking about this commandment against murder (Matthew 5:21). But Jesus said it wasn't enough to follow its letter if we're just ignoring its spirit. No, to resist a commandment's spirit, to stab a commandment in its heart, is to break it all the same, even if its letter should stay inviolate. And the heart of this commandment is life, is love, is esteem, is peace, is brotherhood. And so Jesus announces, “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” in the light of this commandment (Matthew 5:22). Anger – unjust anger, the anger of Cain, the anger that demeans and holds in contempt, the anger that innately wants to lash out, the anger that bangs at the door of the will – yes, to harbor that anger against a brother or a sister is to harbor a wanted fugitive from divine justice within your heart. Evict it quick. Show it no hospitality. Eternal life's at stake.

Following Jesus, the early church used to say, “You shall not hate any person, but some you shall rebuke, for some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life. … Don't be quick-tempered, for anger leads to murder; nor be jealous nor quarrelsome nor aggressive, for murder is begotten from these” (Didache 2.7; 3.2). So what is it to hate our brother and sister and neighbor? If it's enough to make you a murderer, enough to set you against the command of the Most High, enough to steal eternal life from you, then it's mightily important for you to steer as far clear of it as you can. And fundamentally, hatred is an attitude of detachment. It cultivates that fear and suspicion and anger. Think about how, even before the genocide, many Hutus treated their Tutsi brothers, not what they did outwardly but what they did inwardly, in their hearts. They exaggerated the differences. Hutu is us, Tutsi is them; Cain is me, Abel is him. They stereotyped them like villains. Hutu trust, Tutsi suspect; Cain is safe, Abel is threat. They withdrew recognition of God's image. Hutu is human, Tutsi is cockroach. Cain is son of Adam, Abel is beyond family. Then they stoked that anger, that impulse to self-justify through unleashing wrath and inflicting pain. If Cain kills Abel, Cain's sacrifice moves to top of the class. If Hutu kills Tutsi, the land can be kept in peace. So they came to wish the other person, or other group, ill. They opposed their hearts to them with pleasure. That mindset is anger, is hatred. And it doesn't just happen 'back then' and 'over there.' It happens around here.... and in here.

First, we might think of racial hatred. Thanks to decades of German and Belgian propaganda, the Hutus and the Tutsis had been taught to see themselves as different races – even though they looked just the same. But on that flimsy basis arose suspicion, fear, aversion, hate. We can't honestly say there's no such thing in our history like that. Mistrust between colonists and native tribes. Arguments about racial superiority that underpinned the slave trade. Signs and songs declaring “no Irish need apply.” Internment camps for Japanese-Americans. Jim Crow laws in the South, plenty of prejudice in the North. And our county saw protest marches in '64 just like anywhere else. Nor can we honestly say there's no such thing in our national present. Domestic terrorism striking out at minorities is just the tip of that iceberg. A survey this past March found that 95% of Black Americans see at least some discrimination against Blacks, 87% of Asian Americans see at least some discrimination against Asians, 83% of Hispanic Americans see at least some discrimination against Hispanics, and 48% of White Americans see at least some discrimination against Whites.2 That's no recipe for a healthy society. Surveys in the early 2000s suggested that about one in three Americans admitted to harboring at least “some racist feelings.”3 Even here, as I listen to people in the neighborhood, I can catch undercurrents of resentment about having to co-exist with people of other ethnicities and subcultures – especially immigrants.

And friends, these are the building blocks from which hatred is built. The stories we tell about 'real Americans' versus outsiders who need to prove themselves; the instinctive suspicion and mistrust; the anger over having to make room for those who don't look like us or talk like us – those are the same seeds that sprouted blood in Rwanda. Planted in people's hearts, they're already of the murder species before they ever bloom. If we want to take God's commandment seriously, Jesus' teaching seriously, then we have to dig up those seeds, no matter which ethnic or racial group we're failing to see as carrying God's image just as fully as another. Because racial resentment, these attitudes toward 'those people,' this group or that group, is enough to put us in Cain's sandals.

Second, we might think of political hatred. That was certainly at play in Rwanda, with its civil war pitting the established republic against the Rwandan Patriotic Front. And if anyone thinks there's no political hatred in our America today, then I don't even know where to begin.4 It's stoked in the population by political grandstanders and pundits. It comes out in insults and slurs, in sweeping pronouncements about “the Left” or “the Right.” But these things are anchored deep in our hearts. Let's face it, if you're a Democrat today, you may or may not have a problem with the Republican next door, but you're likely to have very harsh overall thoughts about “the Republicans.” And if you're a Republican, you're likely these days to harbor pretty intemperate notions about “the Democrats.” There are lots of Americans today who hate liberals, and lots who hate conservatives. These past few years have seen people break friendship and even family ties over voting habits and political instincts, because people assume the worst of anything – even a soul – attached to the 'wrong' partisan label. Some come to talk, feel, and think that the very existence of the other voters is a serious threat. We treat each other – our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors – with contempt and disdain, casting them as hordes of villains instead of as real people who have reasons and motives, who have feelings and other interests, and most of all, who were put here to represent God by the very fact that they live and move and breathe.

Once again, if we want to take God's commandment and Jesus' teaching seriously, we've got to repent. Every Republican must see a Democrat as his brother or sister, and vice versa. We have to disown the divisive power of hating each other, have to refuse to heed voices that serve only to stoke the flames of outrage, have to drop the jokes and attitudes that deny dignity to the other side. For if we don't, then in our hearts we risk becoming murderers, even if we somehow never say a word about it.

And third, we might think of personal hatred. It's easy to lose the trees for the forest. But I'm sure all of us have had hurt in our families, hurt among friends, hurt in our neighborhoods. Offense has been given or taken. Relationships strained or broken. And the words of Jesus are for here just as much as for any place else. When we distance ourselves, caricature, resent, vilify, fume at, and hate – when the personal slight looms larger in our sight than does God's image – then hate becomes our idol. And we've all known what that's like. Some of you might even have somebody pop to mind – somebody you'd really like to unload on, like to see shrivel up small, like to see humbled not because humility would be healthy for them but because it'd give you satisfaction. You wouldn't mind their coming to harm for the sake of harm. You may not take things into your own hands, may not even say a word against them, but you nurse those bad feelings inside, you feed those dark impulses. You may think you're Abel, but there's more than a touch of Cain in it when you'd prefer to be neither brother nor keeper – not of that one. And in that, our hearts can all too easily play-act murder – there's little mystery there.

To all these things, God's Law already taught the answer through Moses: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart … You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:17-18). And now every person is our neighbor, everyone is our brother or our sister, everybody is a child of our own people. And living this alternative begins with reversing the detachment. We instead need to attach – need to identify, need to unite, need to serve the best interest of the other. We have to intentionally cultivate an awareness of the other person or other people as a living image of the God whom we've been claiming to serve. We have to ask God to pour out his love in our hearts, to let us see people as he sees them, think of people as he thinks of them, feel about people as he feels about them.

And so Jesus ranks reconciliation as so important that it takes precedence over worship, even in the middle of worship. “If you're offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Learning from Jesus, one sixth-century preacher said, “Let no one keep in his heart hatred for his neighbor, but love instead, for if a man feels hatred toward even one person, he can't be at peace with God. A man's prayer isn't heard by God as long as anger is stored up in his soul.”5 That's why overcoming anger and hatred – ours or theirs – is so important it can come before worship. If you remember that there's a person out there you need to make peace with, Jesus is telling you to stand up, get out of your seat, and go deal with it right now – you've heard enough of the sermon if that's the one thing you get out of it, you don't need the rest, just go and call them or drive to them and set things right, and then you can get back to worship later, but first be reconciled, first quell anger, first overcome hate. Seriously, if you can think of such a present situation, go – Jesus is telling you to. Then you can come back and hear a sermon; then you can come back and sing a hymn; then you can come fellowship. But this comes first. Without routing resentment, we cannot worship.

Christians are people who renounce hate, who overcome anger. In the second-century, one Christian writer tells us about the church in his day. He says that before becoming Christians, “we hated one another and murdered one another and, because of custom, wouldn't even live under the same roof as those who weren't of the same race. Now, after the appearing of Christ, we eat at the same table, and we pray for our enemies and try to persuade those who unjustly hate...”6 And I tell you, that's a picture of the church as it needs to be today: a community where all the old hatreds, all the old resentments, all the murder attitudes of the world outside, are drowned in communion; where the dividing lines of the dying age become scrambled in Christ; where the barriers are shattered and reconfigured; where the living image of God is lifted high and embraced in each one.

And out of that attachment, we prove what's in our hearts by showing help in time of need. An early Jewish writing before the coming of Jesus draws the link, saying that “the bread of charity is life itself for the needy: whoever withholds it is a murderer” (Sirach 34:25). The Apostle John seems to agree, telling us: “We ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has this world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let's not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth!” (1 John 3:16-18). So “if” even “your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he's thirsty, give him water to drink” (Proverbs 25:21). “Overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Often, the early church managed to live this out. One second-century believer told the emperor, “Christians... comfort their oppressors and make them their friends. They do good to their enemies.”7 And that means giving life to everyone when the need arises. That kind of love will drain murder from your heart.

And finally, we show love by praying for people and guiding them toward the greatest good, which is the God who saves, because we want them to enjoy that good with us. So John advises us that “if anyone sees his brother committing a sin..., he shall ask” God in prayer, “and he will give him life” (1 John 5:16). James adds that “whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). Like the early church said, “Some you shall rebuke, for some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life” (Didache 2.7).

One of the most loving things we can do is to help others get closer to God – not by blindly badgering them or loudly lecturing them, but by loving them and praying for them and walking with them, not just in lip-service but in reality. That's the opposite of hate and the opposite of prejudice. It's yearning for the best for them, for life for them, for abundant life and eternal life for them. It's not always a comfortable thing to seek – it isn't for nothing that John told us not to be “surprised... that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13) – but it's as much a help in need as any bodily work of mercy. We love by giving life however and wherever we can.

In all these things, we have Jesus as our power and Jesus as our example. The sins of racial, political, personal hate – they're too crafty for us to dodge on our own, to master on our own. We need his help – not to justify them but to get rid of them. For Jesus lived on earth as one with no hate in his heart – ever. Jesus refused to share anyone's prejudices against Samaritans or Greeks or Romans. Jesus refused to lose humanity in the partisan politics of the Herodians or the zealots, to say nothing of the political squabbles of far-off Rome. Even the Pharisees made him angry at their sin, angry in justice, but it wasn't the kind of anger that could ever be stretched into hatred. Jesus never harbored resentment, never gave way to fear, never failed to see and recognize his image carried by every human life. Every person he saw, he loved and sought the best for. Jesus was all love, perfect love – not in a milksop 'good vibes' way, not in a pandering way, but in a daring way, a truthful way, a challenging and confusing way. And that love led him to lay down his life on the cross for a world full of his chosen brothers and sisters. That's why John can tell us to lay down our lives for them too.

And because his Father bid him take up his life again, Jesus lives to share his love through us – to overpower our temptations, to drown out our hate and our anger, to heal our resentments and our prejudices. Jesus lives to set us free, fully free, to live this commandment, to fulfill it in him. He gives us his Spirit. And if we will let his Spirit fill us with fruit, if we will let his Church train and shape us, if we will let him feed and guide us, then even in our hearts, murder will find no foothold. May Jesus purify our hearts to be like his!

God of Surpassing Love, Fountain of Life, we come to you with repentant hearts.  We come from the world's turmoil that stokes our anger.  We come with our prejudices and our passions.  We come having lost control of ourselves.  But we come to you.  From our fears and sins release us.  Forgive us where we have raged.  Forgive us where we have resented.  Forgive us where we have envied.  Forgive us where we have hated.  By your touch, make us clean.  Correct our wrong thinking.  Soothe our wrong feeling.  Heal our wrong being.  Douse our anger with your mercy.  Keep our hearts and minds as far from murder as the east is from the west.  Open our eyes to your living image in every person, no matter their look, no matter their language, no matter their legacy, no matter their leaning.  Let us see our brothers and sisters, let us feel for them as dear family worth our all, let us be their keepers and their life-givers.  For thus did Jesus Christ treat us in his heart, and so you bid us behave toward all in our hearts.  By your Spirit, make us all love as you are all Love.  Enliven the world through your church, that we might live with unstained hearts before you, we ask in Jesus' name.  Amen.