A Return To The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Last year I tried to make the case against the liturgical practice of “ashes to go.” 

It received a lot of backlash.

And I get it. 

But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the community of faith does together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year. 

As the popularity of something like Ashes To Go continues to rise, we lose a connection with the communal liturgical practice that sets the stage for the season of Lent.

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In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon Ashes To Go has become, this is what it typically looks like: On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective local church, and a drive thru line will allow people to wait their turn for a ten second interaction where ashes are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

Or a group of clergy will gather in a public space (like a park or fast food restaurant or a coffee shop) with a simple sign encouraging people to stop in for their “Ashes to Go.” Lines will development during peak hours, people will hear the right words, and they will leave with a reminder of their mortality on their foreheads. 

Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. Moreover, I know people for whom the “Ashes to Go” is a sign of the church’s willingness to catch up with the times and start digging itself out of its ditch of irrelevancy. But offering ashes devoid of a liturgy in which the practice is made intelligible, is the equivalent of clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of Paul’s).

To those who love “Ashes to Go”: I mean no offense. I only want to call into question the faithfulness and the efficacy of doing so. I have heard about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens with “Ashes to Go” but I wonder if there are better occasions to share the gospel without watering down the holiness of Ash Wednesday to fit into other peoples’ schedules.

Two years ago, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge about Ash Wednesday and she had thoughts on the subject of “Ashes to Go” as well. This is what she said: 

 “It’s pathetic. I know people who do it (people I admire), but people don’t know why they’re doing it. There’s no message involved. Christianity is not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not enough; there has to be rectification of evil… When I grew up nobody had ashes, only the Roman Catholics did it, and we all thought it was superstitious. I personally don’t like the ashes very much unless it is done within the context of an entire worship service with a full and faithful homily. Remember: the gospel says wash your face. It’s really weird to listen to that passage on Ash Wednesday and then leave with a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a full liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the occasion is all about. Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.

And I use the term “we” purposely. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. It is a practice of the community we call church. 

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This year, the United Methodist Church (the one I serve) is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of a Special General Conference that resulted in doubling down on the so-called “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching, countless members are threatening to leave or withhold their giving, while others are celebrating the exclusion of LGBTQIA individuals from ordination and the ability to be married in a United Methodist Church. I think there is no better time for the church, together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?” 

We can be marked with the ashes on our forehead and realize that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – thats basically the message of Lent in a sentence.

This Ash Wednesday can then become a marvelous and miraculous opportunity to discover a new way forward for God’s church. 

Outside the fracturing and infighting within the UMC we also live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it our of this life alive, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the world, the individual triumphs. But according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.

Therefore, for me, “Ashes to Go” completely loses its connection with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent because it just becomes another individualized consumer driven model of the church rather than being the incarnational and rooted practice of joining together to remember who we are and whose we are. 

Terms And Conditions May Apply

Luke 9.28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not know what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 

I think honesty is a pretty good thing to strive for in the church.

While we are steeped in a world of deception, when we never quite know who or what to trust, surely in the church we could do for some transparency.

So I’ll start with this: It’s been a long and difficult week.

I traveled to St. Louis with two of my closest friends, who happen to be clergy in the UMC, and with whom I host and produce a number of podcasts. 

We weren’t really sure what to expect. We sat high above the arena in the press section and were witnesses to every moment of the conference. We tried to write about what we saw and what we felt, and we also reached out to people of all sides of LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion debate so that we could share, as well as we could, what was going on and what was at stake.

We put out a conversation we had with a pastor who was fired without trial for presiding over a same-sex union. We talked with a man who leads a conservative lobbying group who was strongly advocating for the Traditional Plan. We interviewed a retired bishop about his experiences throughout his career and how they led to a moment like this one. We spoke with a gay pastor and his partner. And we reached out to a lot of people who simply said they didn’t want to talk.

And all the while we waited. We watched the legislative angling in which people from every side of the spectrum argued for their vision to become reality. We watched as protestors stood up to sing hymns in order to drown out people from an opposing view-point. We watched as bishops struggled to keep the room in order as different proposals were brought to the floor.

And then on Tuesday afternoon, after all the fighting and debating, THE vote came before the delegates of the general conference. They were simply running out of time and needed to get everything settled. 

Incidentally, we were on a time crunch to leave the arena promptly because they needed to dumps tons of dirt on the floor in preparation for the Monster Truck Rally that was scheduled for the evening.

It took exactly 60 seconds for all of the delegates to cast their votes through their electronic devices. And for 60 seconds most of the people in the room were wondering the same things:

Would the global United Methodist Church adopt the Traditional Plan that continues to ban LGBTQIA persons from ordained ministry? Would the church double down on punishments for clergy who preside over same sex weddings? Would the language of incompatibility be reinforced and therefore resonate strongly across the globe?

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God does a lot of ungodly things in the Bible, and in particular through the person of Jesus. 

We could expect that God in the flesh would sit tight in a particular region, waiting for the people to gather, but Jesus goes walking all over the place. 

We might expect that God would share a clear and cogent vision for what it means to live a faithful life, but Jesus tells these strange and bizarre parables that leave people scratching their heads. 

We might imagine that God would command people to tell everyone about the Messiah being in their midst, but Jesus usually order people to keep their mouths shut.

So it comes to pass that Jesus calls Peter, John, and James to go up onto the mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, his face changed, his clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly two men were standing next to him, Moses and Elijah.

Peter and the others don’t know what to make of it. Scripture doesn’t even tell us how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. But ever eager Peter makes the bold claim that they should stay up on the mountain even though the two figures were talking with Jesus about his departure in Jerusalem. In many ways, Peter wanted everything to stay the way it was, he wanted to build houses on top of the mountain, perhaps to avoid the reality of what might happen down in the valley.

And in that precise moment of Peter’s rambling, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified.

I’ve always loved the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. It stands as a high point, both literally and figuratively, in the gospel stories. Whatever the disciples think they know about Jesus takes on a whole new meaning of power and majesty and might, when two of the greatest figures from Israel’s history are flanking him on his left and right. 

Moreover, in these two particular persons, it’s as if the whole of the Old Testament is conferring with Jesus.

Moses is the Law.

Elijah is the Prophets. 

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It’s a great moment for preaching and teaching because everything changes after this divine declaration – all eyes are now aimed toward Jerusalem. The team has huddled together on the mountaintop and there’s no turning back from the cross.

And then the cloud overshadows all of them, and the disciples were terrified.

I imagine that the waiting in that moment was akin to the breathless waiting in the convention center at General Conference. So much would hang one whatever happened next, and yet in that moment of darkness the mind wanders all over the places and through every possibility.

Throughout the arena there were a number of screens that would display the occasional votes, and after the requisite 60 seconds, the results were made available to everyone with eyes to see.

The Traditional Plan passed.

438 to 384

53% to 47%

What happened next was a strange thing to behold. 

At first the room was truly silent, completely unlike it had been in the previous days. And suddenly a group of delegates began to gather in the very center of the room, they embraced one another as the tears began flowing down their faces, and they started to sing. 

This is my story.

This is my song.

Praising my Savior all the day long…

In their singing and in their weeping, the dreams of a different future for the UMC were brought to a halt.

And then something else began to take place. Other delegates rose from their seats, and they made their own circle off to the side, and they started dancing, and clapping, and celebrating the results.

Never in my life have I been witness to such tremendous suffering and such exalted joy only an arm’s length away from each other.

And we call ourselves the church. 

When the disciples cowered in fear as the cloud overshadowed them, they waited for whatever would come next.

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And the disciples kept silent in those days and told no one about what they had seen,.

There were a lot of people at the Special General Conference last week. There was plenty of talking and fighting and arguing. There were quite a few moments where the Bible was weaponized to knock down someone else for trying to make a theological argument.

And though we started the whole thing in prayer, and though we had a cross up at the front of the room, there was one person who was conspicuously absent from the proceedings: Jesus.

Sure, I heard a lot about what it says in Leviticus. I heard a lot about Paul. I heard people quote precisely from John Wesley. But Jesus? 

I honestly don’t know where Jesus was while we were trying to figure out the future of his church. 

In fairness to our Lord, it felt like he had better things to do than witness the devolution of an institution whose motto is “Do No Harm.”

It seems like we’ve spent so much time listening to ourselves, that we’ve forgotten what the voice cried out from the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration.

I don’t know what the future holds for the UMC. I’m not even sure what it means to be a United Methodist right now. Open hearts, open minds, open doors right?

But from the time that Peter quaked in fear on top of the mountain, Christians have always known that what we’ve always been taught and what God is saying today aren’t always exactly the same thing. 

Christians have known since that horrific moment where the crowds chose to save Barabbas instead of Jesus that voting and democratic decision making have plenty of flaws.

Christians have known since that first Easter morning, that resurrection is only possible on the path that includes the cross.

In a few minutes we will gather at the table, as countless Christians have done so before us. We do so as a United Methodist Church, whatever that means, but more importantly we do so as disciples of Jesus. Despite what a Book of Discipline might say, there are no terms and conditions on this moment. Nothing can preclude us from the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

So when we come to the table, when we cling to the cross, listen for the voice crying out from the overshadowing cloud. 

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Amen.

What To Talk About When We No Longer Know What We’re Talking About

I bring you greetings from the final day of the Special General Conference in St. Louis on the subject of human sexuality. I know that many in the church are anxious to find out what’s been happening here and, more importantly, what all this means for the United Methodist church. I have seen articles about the conference in a variety of places from local new papers to the New York Times and I wanted to share where we are as of right now.

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I’ve been fortunate to meet with an interview a lot of people in St. Louis including a retired Bishop, a gay pastor and his partner, a lobbyist involved with the Traditional Plan, and more. You can find those interviews and articles at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com 

There are a lot of perspectives and a lot of things going around, but perhaps the best synopsis came from Bishop Will Willimon while we were talking together: 

“Maybe one good thing that will come out of all this is the realization that General Conference can’t do, decide, or help with anything. I have more faith in your congregations that I have in anything going on here.”

The UMC is very clearly divided on the subject of human sexuality, but we are also divided on the ways in which we understand how we are part of a connectional structure. At the heart of the matter is a question of how certain changes can/should be implemented in the US and abroad.

We are not of one mind on anything, and we’ve been here since Saturday.

Today the General Conference is tasked with finishing all of its work by 6:30pm CT (when dirt has to be dumped on the floor in preparation for a Monster Truck Rally that is happening later; I’m not joking.)

After revisions and debates and arguments (and a few prayers) the Traditional Plan (which maintains the status quo and defines swifter punishments for violations) will be brought to the floor today for a binding vote. The One Church Plan (which advocates for contextual reflection on whether to be LGBTQIA inclusive or not) will still be brought to the floor, but it only received a minority vote of support yesterday which makes it unlikely to pass. 

Of course, other motions and final bits of politicking can still take place, so as of the writing of this letter, nothing has been officially sanctioned.

There have been some very challenging moments over the last few days and people on all sides of the discussion have been hurt. This is a difficult time for the United Methodist Church and what happens today, for better or worse, will determine the course of the church going forward.

Personally, it has been devastating to see and hear people refer to those from the LGBTQIA community as “issues.” It is akin to the way some doctors view their patients not as patients but as problems to be solved. When we begin talking about our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of their sexual orientation, as objects to be fixed, we no longer know what we’re talking about.

It has been a trying experience, and I’ve been struggling to find hope.

I think that most people here would say the same thing regardless of what plan they hope to see adopted.

So I leave you with the hope I’m currently clinging to:

Regardless of the votes and decision, God’s church will still gather for worship on Sunday.

Regardless of the reactions and disagreements, the tomb is still empty.

Regardless of the uncertainty that today holds, we can be certain that God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And The Plan Shall Set You Free

I am in St. Louis with the team from the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast to provide reporting on the UMC’s Special General Conference on Human Sexuality. The denomination has come to an impasse and we are trying to carve a new path forward. And, because we are a global denomination, we are doing so through parliamentary procedures and democratic voting. As it stands currently, the UMC believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are prohibited from becoming ordained clergy, and clergy are prohibited from presiding over same-sex unions.

Here are some of the plans being presented:

The Traditional Plan

This plan will maintain the current prohibitions against self-avowed practicing gay clergy and same-gender weddings. It also broadens the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include person living in same-sex marriage or civil union or persons who publicly state they are homosexuals. It will mandate penalties for disobedience to the Book of Discipline with a suspension of one year without pay for the first violation and a relinquishing of clergy credentials for the second violation. 

The Simple Plan

This plan will remove the incompatibility clause and eliminates all prohibitions that limit the role of homosexual people in the church. It will allow, but not require, same-gender weddings in churches across the denomination.

The Connectional Conference Plan

This plan will replace the current geographic jurisdictions with three new connectional conferences based on perspectives with regard to sexuality: Progressive, Traditional, and Unity. Every single individual church across the connection will have to decide with which new connection to identify, and clergy will have to do the same. Eventually a great re-shuffling will occur so that like-minded churches will be paired with like-minded clergy. 

The One Church Plan

This plan will remove “incompatible with Christian teaching” from paragraphs in the Book of discipline, and removes prohibitions against same-gender weddings and ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. It also adds protections so that no clergy person, nor bishop, will be forced to preside over a wedding, or ordain someone, if they theologically disagree with the change in the Book of Discipline. Bishops would take into consideration the theological positions of clergy and churches when making new appointments. 

And there are more that will be considered at the General Conference.

Rather than going through all the plans one by one to address their theological strengths and weaknesses, it is worth considering the strange task at hand beyond the actual ideological divide: we think we know how to save ourselves.

Or, perhaps even worse, we think we can save ourselves. 

To borrow a line of thought from Robert Farrar Capon, I think one of the reasons we are struggling to find a way forward together, is that we are addicted to the religion of our own creation. Religion, here, defined as the belief that so long as we follow a certain sets of rules, practices, and doctrines that life will properly, and perfectly, fall into order. Religion, here, is evidenced by the church’s constant and unwavering work of attempting to have control over itself. Religion, here, is seen in the never-ending requirements we assume exist in order to be saved.

Religion, as largely practiced in the UMC, is a denial of one of the greatest verses in the entirety of the Bible (and ironically a phrase from the communion liturgy in the United Methodist Hymnal!): While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

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Instead we practice and preach a faith that acts as if God in Christ only meets us after our sins, rather than in them. Or, to put it another way, God only arrives for us when we’ve gotten ourselves figured out. Or, still yet another way to put it, God will only bless our church if we make sure we’ve got all the right rules established.

We love making plans. And I think we love making plans because it convinces us that we are somehow in control of our lives (or our church) when the plain and simple truth is that we are not in control. That’s kind of the whole message of the Bible: God is God, and we are not.

The longer the Book of Discipline becomes for the United Methodist Church, the more we draw lines in the sand about what constitutes incompatibility or not, the more we play into the sin that surrounds us all the time. It creates a version of the church where we will have only proclaimed salvation for a select few who are able to kid themselves into believing they can meet a bunch of requirements that simply aren’t there.

Before we attempt to pave a new way forward for the church, I think it would do us some good to admit, at least, the addiction we have to our own religion. 

Because Jesus was frighteningly honest with his opinion of religion (as defined above) during his life. He ate and drank with sinners, broke the rules of sabbath observance, and was murdered under capital punishment for blasphemy. And he had the gall to break forth from the tomb three days later with a declaration that whatever religion had been attempting to do, was now done once and for all in him, in his life and death and resurrection. 

We cannot save ourselves. And, to be perfectly frank, we cannot save our church.

Only God can do that.

Why else would we call it Good News?

Love Tears Us Apart

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The team behind Crackers & Grape Juice made it safely to St. Louis yesterday in order to observe and report on the United Methodist Church’s Special General Conference on the topic of human sexuality. We sat down yesterday afternoon to gather some of our thoughts about the conference including where we are finding hope, and what rumors were popping up before the Conference started in earnest. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Love Tears Us Apart.

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The Future Is Important

In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Call Special General Conference on human sexuality, I led a three part Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. During our first class I unpacked all of the letter from the LGBTQIA acronym, and in the second class we looked at the five passages in scripture that mention homosexuality. To conclude the class we debated whether or not the UMC should change its current language.

Considering the fact that many people in the room felt strongly about the future of the UMC, I wanted to make some of what I taught and some of what was discussed available to a wider audience via this blog. Below you can find some of my notes and some of the reactions from people in the class. 

This is not meant as an exhaustive theological resource regarding the call to remain the same or change, but merely as a brief and general overview. And, to be clear, the opinions/comments below are not from me alone and represent comments from the entire class. 

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The Future Is Important

The current doctrinal position of the United Methodist Church is that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This manifests itself in a number of ways from self-avowed practicing homosexuals being barred from ordination in the UMC, to clergy being punished for presiding over same-sex unions, to some pastors using the language to prevent members of the LGBTQIA community from becoming members in the churches they serve. 

For decades the denomination has debated our current position and whether or not to enforce our doctrinal position, or to change it.

Why Should The UMC Maintain Its Position?

The witness of the Bible is explicit regarding homosexuality. Though mentioned rather infrequently, the mentions are unified in its being against the perspective of the Law. 

We are a global church and there are vary different opinions about homosexuality throughout the world, but theological and cultural. In order to stay unified, we need to make sure that the language is applicable throughout the globe.

Salvation is at stake. We don’t want to encourage anyone to disobey the commands of God should it remove from them the possibility of their heavenly reward. 

Why Should The UMC Change Its Position?

Though the witness of the Bible is explicit regarding homosexuality, it is often included in a list of laws, some of which were abandoned within the first century of the church. It appear incongruous to emphasize some laws over the others, particularly when homosexuality is mentioned less than other moral/ethical concerns like adultery, divorce, dietary restrictions, etc.

Homosexuality it not a choice. Why then would we tell people they are incompatible if they are unable to change who they are?

Questions about sexuality often lead to despair in young people, particularly those who are involved with a church. If we are a church who believes than some are incompatible, then we are telling people who question their identity that God has abandoned them.

Jesus would not reject homosexuals – he would welcome them with open arms. 

Homosexuals have as many gifts for ministry as heterosexuals do.

Conclusions

The future is important for the United Methodist Church. What happens in the next few weeks will largely determine (for better and worse) what that future will look like. For some there is hope that maintaining the integrity of the Biblical witness will carry the church into the future. For others there is hope that opening the doors for homosexual ordination and marriage will carry us into the future.

No matter what happens, some people will leave the church and some churches will leave the denomination. The sheer fact that we are being compelled to discern and vote on something like this points at the irony of a name like the UNITED Methodist Church. 

If you would like to read more about the plans being presented, and the ramifications of each, you can read about them here: Overview of Plans to 2019 General Conference

If

1 Corinthians 15.12-20

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ – whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 

I worry about the future of our church.

Not just Cokesbury, but also the greater United Methodist Church.

We have been debating for decades about the inclusion or exclusion of gay individuals from the church. And in a week, representatives from the entire denomination will be meeting in St. Louis to discern and decide the future of God’s church.

At the heart of the matter is our church’s doctrine that says the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Some want the language to remain, and others want it gone. 

I worry because I don’t know what’s going to happen next week.

Any accurate reading of the Bible should make it clear that homosexuality goes against the plain truth of the Word of God. As one preacher warns, “In overstepping the boundary lines God has drawn by making special rights for gays and lesbians, we have taken steps in the direction of inviting the judgment of God upon our land.”

This step of gay rights that some are arguing for in the church is but another stepping stone toward the immorality and lawlessness that will be characteristic of the last days. 

Attempts to change our church doctrine represents a denial of all that we believe in, and no one should force it on us.

It’s not that we don’t care about homosexuals, but it’s that our rights will be taken away.

Unchristian views will be forced upon us and our children for we will be forced to go against our personal morals.

There are people who are endeavoring to disturb God’s established order, it is not in line with the Bible, do not let people lead you astray.

Those leading the movement toward change do not believe the Bible any longer, but every good, intelligent, and orthodox Christian can read the Word of God and know what is happening is not of God.

When you run into conflict with God’s established order you have trouble. 

You do not produce harmony.

You produce destruction and devastation.

Our church is in the greatest danger that it has ever been in in its history.

We’ve gotten away from the Bible.

The right of segregation…

Hold on, let me find my spot…

The right of segregation is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures both by precept and by example…

I’m sorry everyone. I brought the wrong sermon with me today.

I’ve borrowed my argument from the wrong century.

Everything I just read to you are quotes from white preachers in the 1950s and 60s who were in support of racial segregation.

All I’ve done is simply taken out racial integration and substituted in with the phrases about homosexuals in the church.

I guess the arguments I’ve been hearing from people in the United Methodist Church have sounded so similar that I got them confused. 

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If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

Paul was worried about his comrades in faith in Corinth – that’s what the whole letter has basically been about. They were apparently drifting away from the path of truth and life he Paul, though his words, attempts to steer those new to the faith back to the way that is Jesus the Christ.

He caught wind that they were no longer sharing the eucharist together and he writes about the body of Christ with many members. He learned that they were engaging in internal competitions about who was the best and he address how Christ alone is the head of the body. 

And now, toward the end, he confronts the real heart of the matter – questions about the resurrection of the dead.

Paul is screaming through the pages of his letter: “This is it you Corinthians! It’s this or nothing. Everything depends upon whether or not this is true.”

As I said last week, for Paul this was of first importance: Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ rose again.

That is the story that captivated much of the Mediterranean world in the decades following the event. It is the story that is still catching hold of new Christians all across the world.

It is a profound announcement about things that happened.

It’s not a collection of generic religious principles and laws.

It’s not a list of things to do.

The very heart of the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

This passage, though known and often quoted by Christian-types, has a finality and punch to it that can come across as rather frightening.

Paul puts it like this: If there is no resurrection from the dead, then we are all fools and we are still in our sins.

The power of Paul’s wisdom is often overlooked in the church today. We are far more captivated by the likes of Noah and his Ark and David fighting Goliath than we are with a first century man who made it his life’s work to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The great heroes of the Bible are more interesting than the letters of correct theology.

And yet, we forget, that Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospel accounts were written down.

We forget that without Paul’s witness and prayers and ministry, Christianity would have stayed among the Jews alone and never spread to the gentiles like us.

We forget that Paul is the one who handed on to us what was of first importance.

And among the things he shares with the Corinthians, this is of the utmost: 

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then the entire foundation of our faith has been destroyed and Christian preaching becomes nothing more than endless delusions that offer lies and empty gestures.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then we mock ourselves with falsehoods and expect people to live into a new world order that doesn’t exist.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then all we can offer the world is a pious lie that veils people from the truth that we are powerless and truly alone.

But, brothers and sisters, be assured: there is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God. 

Death has been defeated in the death of Jesus Christ. 

This is not something we want to be true, or need to be true, or imagine to be true.

It is so far beyond what we could want, need, or imagine.

It is simply the truth of God’s power and majesty and might.

Jesus was raised from the dead.

One of the most incredible aspects of what we call our faith is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not contingent on whether we believe it or not. Even in the days of our greatest doubts, Jesus is still resurrected. 

But what we do, what we stand for, is only intelligible because Christ is raised. 

It is down right foolish to teach our children to turn the other cheek unless the resurrection is real.

It is absurd to give our money to something like a church unless the resurrection is real.

It is truly irresponsible to pray for and love our enemies unless the resurrection is real.

And yet, the church, and to be specific, the United Methodist Church is drawing near to the edge of a cliff about the definition of what is or is not compatible with Christian teaching.

I’ll be the first to admit that Paul mentions a lot of sins throughout his letters, aspects of living that draw us away from God almighty. 

Some of them include not caring for the poor and the foreigners in our midst, others are focused on the sin of letting women speak in church, and some of them are about how we engage with others in a sexual manner.

But here in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul talks about the most important aspect of our faith, the only sins that he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died – all of them.

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It is crazy that our church has the potential of going up (or down) in flames in the next two weeks, all over an argument about what does and what does not count as a sin when every one of our sins has already been up in the cross of Jesus Christ! 

Paul says that if Jesus has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins, which is another way of saying that since Christ has been raised from the grace, we are no longer in our sins. 

Paul, in another letter, is quick to claim that nothing can separate from the love of God in Jesus Christ and that there is nothing we can do, truly nothing, that can negate what Christ has already done for us. 

But we’d rather spend our time arguing about who is living in sin, and who isn’t. We want to know where the line is drawn in the sand and we want to know, for sure, which side we are on, and which side they are on.

We’ve done it before.

Slavery.

Segregation.

Women’s subordination.

All theological positions about what was or wasn’t sin that people fought tooth and nail over.

We’re doing it right now with regard to homosexuality.

And the saddest thing of all is that this isn’t the late debate we will have.

Whether we’re progressive or traditional, whether we lean one way or another, according to Paul it doesn’t matter how correctly we interpret the bible, nor does it matter with whom we share our bed or what we do in it – none of it changes the fact that Christ died and rose for us and we are no longer in our sins.

That doesn’t give us the freedom to go and do whatever we want.

But it does free us from the self-righteous judgments we make against people with whom we disagree.

God’s grace is the unmerited gift that is not dependent on our beliefs or our piety or our moral accomplishments.

But we live in a world of the Law. We so desperately want to know what is right and what is wrong, because we want to know that we’re right so that we can lord it over those who are wrong.

In the end, the only thing the Law shows us is that we all fail to be obedient. 

But the Law isn’t the end – in fact Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law.

That’s the story of the gospel. 

God so loved the world, in spite of the world, that God got down from the throne, and condescended to our miserable existence to rescue us from ourselves through the blood spilled on the cross.

God so loved the world, in spite of the world, that God broke forth from the tomb and free from the chains of death so that death would never be the final word.

God so loved the world, in spite of the world, that God died and lived again so that we would no longer be defined by our sins.

There is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God.

The Law will never do more than condemn us in our sins, until that incredible and truly transformative moment while we were still sinners, grace shows up in the person of Jesus Christ and liberates us from every sin without a single condition attached.

The gospel is not about if we do something or not.

The gospel is not about if we love someone or not.

The gospel is not about if people are compatible or not. 

The gospel is the extravagant, outrageous, and even absurd gift of grace, love, and resurrection.

Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing else. Amen.