A Repentant Church

As a pastor, sometimes events overtake your prepared sermon, as happened to me at the end of June when the US Supreme Court released its ruling that basically recognizes the right of same-sex couples to marry in every state of this Union. This happened on a Friday, so I took the opportunity on the Sunday to talk about this issue openly and honestly.

What follows is a basically that talk, using the Word of God as our guide for it. A pastor is called to tell the truth, and I strive do so every Sunday, as on every day. And to the reader, I ask your forgiveness and forbearance in advance when I fail to proclaim the Word of God as lovingly and truthfully as I should, due to my own sins as a fallen human being. And one thing to note in what I’m going to say: when I refer to the Church, I’m referring to the wider Church, particularly in this country (i.e. not any particular congregation or denomination).

First, what do we as Christians of the Lutheran confression believe about marriage? We base our belief on the witness of the Scriptures, particularly the marriage passages in Genesis, Ephesians, and Matthew. Based on this witness, we therefore believe, teach, and confess that God Himself instituted marriage in the very beginning, before Adam and Eve fell into sin. Marriage was in paradise. God created Adam from the dust, created Eve from Adam, and then gave them to each other in marriage to be a blessing to each other and to be the image of the union between God and His people. And out of this marriage, the fruit of children was expected to be produced, just as the union of Christ and His Church produces the fruit of faith.

This was all instituted before the Fall, so as yet there was no real Church or government. That is to say that there was no left hand realm of civil government and no right hand realm of the Church, since God ruled and lived directly with His people. It was just He and His people in paradise.

Yet, Adam and Eve’s fall introduced sin and decay and death into this world, and paradise was lost. Things would no longer be as they should, and humanity was alienated from God, from each other, and from creation itself.

So, after the fall, God created the Church. It was the people who were brought together by him in faith in the Christ, the Savior, who was to come. This Savior would atone for the sins of all people. The Church therefore began with Adam and Eve and their son Seth, after the Fall.

God also instituted civil government in order to help make and keep order in the world. Civil government was given the power of the sword to make order, enforce contracts, and by doing so, create room for the Church to grow in peace.

The point here is that God rules over all things, both his left-hand realm of civil government, and his right-hand realm of the Church, and both realms have their proper place and callings.

Throughout history, though, both realms have failed in their callings. Particularly during the time of Noah, there was immense disorder in the world due to the failings of civil government and there were only 8 people in the entire church on earth, due to the failings of the Church to bear witness to the Word of God and to continue to give birth to new believers.

So, God destroyed the world in a flood, yet for the sake of his Church – those few 8 people – he preserved them and the world from total destruction. Then, after the flood, He again commissioned them as His people to be His witnesses on earth.

Eventually, God took Shem, the descendant of Noah, and his descendant Abraham, and formed a people through him. Abraham gave birth to Isaac, and Isaac gave birth to Jacob, and Jacob’s descendants would be called Israel. Israel is the Old Testament Church, composed of all who had faith in Yahweh and His promises. Thus, the Church included people like Ruth, who was a Moabite, and Rahab, a prostitute of Canaan. Real sinners, these people, born of the wrong people and doing the wrong things. And these sinners, along with many more sinners, were ancestors of Jesus the Christ, our Savior; and, they were and still are a part of the Church.

At first, the people of Israel were one people, with God himself as their king. They were just the Church. Soon, though, they demanded an earthly king for themselves, so that they could be like the other nations. So, there began a separation in Israel between the two realms. There was Israel the state – the left hand realm – and then there was Israel the Church, the right hand realm.

Over time, the gulf between the state of Israel and the Church of Israel widened and there were less and less people in the Church, even though the state itself remained strong – at least on the surface. But, eventually the northern tribes were defeated by Assyria and dispersed throughout the world. God had sent prophets to them to call them to repentance, to save them, but they did not listen.

Then, in Jeremiah’s time, the state of Judah was threatened by the empire of Babylon. Jeremiah is the prophet who wrote both the book of Jeremiah, which leads up to Judah’s defeat by Babylon, and the book of Lamentations, which follows the defeat and laments the captivity of Judah and the Church who shared in her fate.

Jeremiah was not a popular guy. He had foretold the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians in order to try to bring the people back to God in repentance. Yet, for speaking the Word of God he was ostracized and eventually thrown in jail. Yet, he always had hope and he had love for his people. While in jail he even bought a plot of land in Judah, land which would soon be taken over by the Babylonians; yet by buying that plot, he showed his faith in the Lord who would restore Judah and the Church.

And in their captivity in Babylon, the people of the Church learned that there is a distinction between the church and the state. They learned that there are two realms. They learned that even if the state is no more, even if the state falls away from God, that there is still the Church and that God is with her. It’s not the state’s job to bear witness to the Word of God, that’s the Church’s job.

Now, how many people do you know in the last few years who have basically identified this country with the Church? It really actually goes back to the first European settlers who came here who viewed America as the promised land. It is reflected in some of the things we say and do when we seem to treat America as if she were the people of God, rather than the Church which is spread throughout the world as the people of God. We see it reflected when we have more affinity with this country than with the one holy, apostolic, universal Church.

We see it reflected in the abnormal separation of people with different skin tones into “white churches” or “black churches.” How sad that we, as the Church, people who believe that there is only one race – the human race – and that all people come from Adam and Eve – fall into the trap of talking about “races” and “race issues” as if there were more than one race. How sad that we talk about “ethnic ministry” when what we really mean is ministry to those who don’t look like us. We use the language of those who seek to divide us and separate us from Christ and each other and don’t even realize what we’re doing.

So, what happened in June at the Court, and indeed, what’s been happening the last couple decades in this country, should not be a surprise to us. The Church in this country has, from the very beginning of the country, grown used to the idea that everyone agreed with us. We took too much for granted. We didn’t need to bear much witness to the Word of God, because we took it for granted that civil government was supportive of what we believed. We didn’t need to call the left hand realm to account, because it was basically in line with our thinking. And so we grew too comfortable with civil government and even began to try to use it for our purposes. Things
which the Church should be doing we ceded over to the government, and things which should be handled through the Word of God we sought to achieve through law. Rather than proclaim God’s Word to let the Holy Spirit do the work of converting and creating unity, we tried to use the sword of civil government to accomplish.

So, the Church didn’t bear witness and so people stopped listening to us, because we didn’t have anything to say anyway, we were just a club doing community service. And now we are in a position where the state has just re-defined marriage to be a union of any two people, not the union of a man and a woman, because we spoke up too late.

And from the perspective of the left hand realm, June’s court ruling was completely expected and, many would argue, completely in line with the US constitution. One of the central roles of government is to enforce contracts and see that all states in this federal republic of ours respect the contracts formed in other states. As soon as one state began marrying same-sex couples, it was only a matter of time until the Supreme Court stepped in and told every other state that they had to respect these marriage contracts, and that’s what happened in June.

Yet, we as the Church disagree with the idea that God-ordained marriage is anything but the union of man and woman. The state may have redefined marriage, and yet we hold to the God-given definition of Biblical marriage. There is a gulf then, between the state’s idea of marriage, and our God-given idea of marriage. We’ll have to see how that plays out in the future and what it means for the Church in America.

So, we disagree with those who have redefined marriage. Yet, we can disagree even as we love those with whom we disagree. We can bear witness to what God intends for marriage to be, even as we love those who do not hold to that definition. Look, the fact is that we probably all have homosexual family and friends, and we want them to be happy, and we want them to know that we love them and that Christ loves them. And that’s ok and good; it says a lot about you as a people that you want others to be happy and to not act contrary to their consciences; we ask the same from them as well.

The point is that you can love people even as you disagree with them about things; that’s part of being an adult, even though children often do this better than we do. You know, in my freshman year in college, I had three roommates; one each quarter. The first two were Christians and were the worst roommates I ever had. The third, in the Spring quarter, was an atheist. He had grown up Catholic and so knew a lot of the Scriptures. He and I became friends and we could debate and disagree stridently with each other, and yet we never got angry or hated one another. If only those within the Church could do the same with each other and with those outside the Church.

In fact, even within the Church we will have people who disagree with us, and that’s ok too. We are here in the Church not because we necessarily all agree, but because this is where Christ has called us, where He has brought us to receive His gifts. And so we need to keep our eyes focused on Christ and pray that the Holy Spirit brings unity, because we can not force unity, nor can we force others to agree with us. Yet, we can still bear witness to what we believe in a loving and faithful way. And my calling as a pastor is to tell people what the Scriptures say.

So, we uphold the Scriptural definition of marriage since it reflects God’s design and it reflects the union of Christ and his Church. Even taking God out of it for a moment, the union of man and woman is natural – it’s something readily apparent through natural law – that’s why all people throughout history have had marriage – it’s obvious.

Yet, sometimes we take obvious things for granted and we end up losing them. We of all people, the Church, should know and appreciate the joy and importance and specialness of marriage, yet we – within the Church – have fornication, adultery, pornography, divorce, and other sexual sins. No wonder those outside the Church don’t listen to what we have to say – they see what we do and that our deeds do not match our words.

How ironic is it then, that even while same-sex couples have been fighting for the right to marry, we have neglected it. They see the importance and joy in marriage and want it for themselves, while we have thrown it away. No wonder then, that the gift that was given to us has been taken and given to another, because we didn’t recognize the joy of the gift and the uniqueness of it, so now the left-hand realm has claimed the right to define what it is.

So, what do we do? We repent, first of all. We repent that we have failed to witness to the Word of God. We repent that we have failed to uphold the value of marriage in our own actions. We repent that through our callous actions we have often driven those away who need Christ most. We repent that we have not spoken the Gospel to those who are hurting, to those who need the forgiveness and love of Christ. I include myself in all these sins. I too am guilty.

Because, what you see in the Gospels is Jesus associating with sinners and with those who have no hope. He associates with Jairus who had no hope for his daughter, yet Jesus gave him hope and his daughter life. He associates with the woman with the issue of blood, who had no hope and who was ceremonially unclean and who was ostracized from society, and he gave her healing. These two people, so different in their social situations, would never have associated with each other, yet here with Jesus they are united.

Jesus also ate with Matthew the tax collector, the symbol of all that was wrong in the left hand realm. And he ate and associated with sinners, because it is sinners he came to save, and in order to save sinners you have to be where they are so that they can hear the Word of God. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

And Christ came to save us also, because we are sinners. Paul says to us in Romans 13: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy” (Romans 13:13). We tend to focus on the sexual part of verses like this and rail against same-sex couples, while forgetting that we too are guilty of the same sin of sexual immorality, and of drunkenness, and sensuality, and quarreling, and jealousy. See how Paul lumps all those together in there? We are all sinners, every last one of us, myself included. It’s always been interesting to me that St. Augustine was converted by this verse; he recognized that God was speaking to him in this verse and he repented of his sins. We likewise are called to repent and to receive the forgiveness of sins and love of Christ, and we are called to proclaim this Gospel to all people, even those with whom we disagree, even to those who disagree with us.

And we are likely to disagree with more and more people in the future. We’re seeing the separation of the state from our values, the gulf between the left hand realm and the right hand realm is widening. And maybe in this process we will re-learn who the Church is and what her role is. And maybe we will re-learn how to be the Church who bears witness to the Word of God even when it is not comfortable or popular to do so.

And also the answer is not to run away from those with whom we disagree, the answer is to run towards them. And the answer is not to yell at them, to rail against them; the answer is to love them as Christ has also loved us sinners. First, be a friend to them, because they will know Christ through you. The answer is to show them that the Church is where they may find love and healing, even if the Church disagrees with their actions. The answer is that the Ch
urch is where Christ is, and Christ congregates with sinners, even dirty sinners like us who do not deserve his love and mercy, yet receive it anyway, because our Lord is a loving and merciful God whose blood covers all our sins.

So, we can bear witness to the Word of God while also loving those who will not hear it or who will disagree with us. And at times, we may be like Jeremiah, hated and despised even as he proclaimed God’s Word to a people he loves. Let us strive to be like our Good Shepherd, who even as he condemned sin brought love and forgiveness also, even to us fallen sinners. Let the Church be a place where all sinners may come to receive the Lord’s love and care even as we faithfully proclaim the Word of God. Amen.


(Image is “Myasoyedov Prayer in time of drought” by Grigoriy Myasoyedov – bibliotekar.ru. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Myasoyedov_Prayer_in_time_of_drought.jpg#/media/File:Myasoyedov_Prayer_in_time_of_drought.jpg