Why are we here? Why does it matter? And how do we care for one another in changing times, so that we can live into our God commissioned purpose as the church of Jesus Christ?
Earlier this summer, I was commissioned as an elder in the United Methodist Church. For all practical purposes, this really doesn’t change all that much in terms of who I am and my day-to-day call to ministry. The mission is still the same, as it should be. Having served as a licensed pastor since 2013, while simultaneously working to complete a Masters in Divinity degree, this next step toward full ordination in the institutional church is simply a goal; but not the goal.
The goal, of course, is to make disciples of Jesus Church and lead the church in this particular day and time, and my particular context. The goal of ordination in the institutional church, as I see it, is in many ways similar to earning tenure in academia. It gives you the credibility of man and institutional structures, and provides you with a pool of like-focused peers.
But then again, backbones and skeletons and shared identity are necessary when we seek to make the invisible, visible, which is one purpose of the church.
As such, we must learn to live within many tensions and function in less than ideal environments. We must wrestle. We must be willing to have our preconceived notions and biases challenged. We must be willing to allow new learning to drive us forward toward more compassionate, connected, humble, and interdependent living.
Welcome to life on earth. The gospel actually speaks directly into this process of God ordering chaos, uniting division, and overcoming evil with good, but I often wonder if we have stopped listening.
Because above all else, we must be willing to recognize and live into our collective purpose as the church of Jesus Christ, a purpose given by Jesus which should trump any and all divisions and disagreements.
Have we forgotten who we are or why we are here?
I can’t help but wonder.
Would we rather continue majoring in the minors as we argue and divide ourselves further into the grave…a grave we have essentially dug and keep digging for ourselves? Or maybe, just maybe, can we rally around our commission first and foremost?
Because the Way Forward is not exactly about “human sexuality,” as all the discussions are leading us to believe. And if we continue to take the approach that it is, and allow the conversation around human sexuality to determine who we are as the church, and how we proceed, we are walking ourselves toward death. Last time I checked, God certainly cares about and created us in bodies, as both both relational and sexual beings, but that neither our gender identity nor our sexual identity seem to dictate the mission of the church; nor are either the end all or be all of our existence here on earth.
…we are all One in Christ Jesus, the apostle Paul reminds us today in the letter to the Galatians, Chapter 3 Verse 28. A letter, ironically, where Paul is arguing that Gentile Christians do not need to adhere to Mosaic law in order to be true converts.
We are all One in Christ Jesus. What else is there? That’s our core. No?
Also, if the Way Forward were really about human sexuality, and we were to discuss human sexuality through the lens of marriage alone, we would need to discuss divorce, which Jesus both mentions for what we still understand it as today and clearly opposes (Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18). Not only does Jesus oppose divorce, but says that anyone who divorces and remarries commits and causes the other commit (if she too remarries) adultery. And Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that adulterers, along with men who sleep with other men, will not inherit in the Kingdom of God.
And lest anyone thinks they are getting off the hook, Jesus reminds us in Matthew 5:27-28 that adultery is a matter or the heart first and foremost and that simply looking at another with lust constitutes adultery. Furthermore, we know where adulterers are sent, per our Bibles.
Who’s still standing?
And that’s kinda just the tip of the iceberg if we were truly talking about human sexuality. There are many more questions that would require answers and alignment should we truly desire to talk about human sexuality.
We could chase this line of thought down further into a rabbit hole, but to do so would miss the point, I think. We all need Jesus. Jesus did for us what none of us could do for ourselves. Also, Jesus was doing something new. Can we please quit trying to make it back into the old?
Through Jesus fulfilling the law, being the fulfillment of the law, and making us right in him and through him, and now through’s God’s spirit poured out, we, church, are all supposed to be One. Not just invisibly, but visibly in the world.
…I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. -John 17:20-21
Jesus not only transformed the law through his incarnation, life, death, and defeat of death, but broke it down for us in way that at our core we are called to two things: to be one and to be love.
So far, we’ve made a hot mess out of both. Moving in any direction away from our unity in Christ and away from the love of God and neighbor that Jesus commands of us will take us further and further away from our true purpose.
Which is why I believe the Way Forward is really about Missio Dei, Leadership, and Purpose above all else. What did Jesus do? Why are we here? Why does it matter? What now?
Yes, it is imperative that we, church, commit to growing in understanding and learning about human sexuality and gender identity, which both involve complex interactions between brain and body. This is one call for the church in our time. We have marginalized, hated, and attempted to play the role of judge when what has been most needed is education, understanding, and compassion. Genesis 1:27 reminds us: “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
And I imagine that some may use that text to essentially say, “See, God made male and female. Male and female are different and supposed to be that way.” Yet, to simplify it as such does not account for our reality. A reality in which, from a strict physical body and biological standpoint, as many as 1 in 1,500-2000 children are born “atypical in terms of genitalia” according to the Intersex Society of North America, which often requires that a specialist in sex differentiation is needed to help determine the sex of a newly born baby. Medical science shows that many more children are “born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations, some of which won’t show up until later in life.” Said another way, babies are both each and every day that are simultaneously male and female.
What does that say about God? About Genesis 1:27? About our response as disciples of Jesus?
And this is the just the physical body! I would hope we can agree that we are all more complex beings than just our sex organs.
So yes, many of us, myself included, have a lot to learn. And unlearn. And still, as this learning and unlearning happens, as we listen to one another with love, we must continue to ask, “Why, church, are we here?” We must continue to remember that we are called to be one and to be love.
Because our purpose is so much greater than penises and vaginas and all the other internal wiring. The more we major in everything except what Christ has asked, the greater chance evil has to continue to divide our already brutally fractured Body.
The United Methodist Church, like many other large denominations, is currently at a major crossroads in our existence. But human sexuality is really just a small piece of this discussion. If we continue to focus solely on this, we will not have the energy or resources to engage a world and culture that is changing faster than at any other time in modern history. If we continue to focus solely on sexuality, we will not have the mental bandwidth to see that the sun is setting on the institutional church, but that the church is actually being distributed into the world. And it’s exciting! If we continue to focus only on human sexuality, we are missing the boat on the exact work God is calling ALL of the church to in this day and time.
With 13,000,000 members worldwide, a global polity, and a weighthy, centralized organizational leadership structure in a world where decentralized models are most needed, we are not going to agree on any one thing. Do we need to agree to be One? Do we need to agree to be Love? Is it possible, Way Forward gods, to shift the conversation and with it begin to shift the culture of the church?
THAT is the way forward, I believe.
And so earlier this year, as I prayed, planned, and prepared to go before our church body’s Board of Ordained Ministry, the one question that played over and over in my mind is, “Where on earth is this road going?” The question resounded so loudly and so often that it impeded my focus.
If I’m being honest, I continue to ask myself this same question at least once per day. I know I’m not alone. It looms overhead and I often find myself wondering if our current leadership hierarchy, where many of the those in top leadership positions are nearing retirement, are willing to both engage and yet see beyond the current conversation. Will our leaders identify and carve a Way Forward that not only answers the questions posed to the church in this day and time, but seeks to answer to most critical questions for the church in any day and time, recognizing simultaneously that the church is called to unity and to love?
What did Jesus do? Why does it matter? Why are we-church-here? Why does it matter? What now?