Famous Last Words

We have long had the notion that the last words someone speaks before death–especially, someone famous–are of particular and lasting significance.  We hold this to be true, despite counter-examples, such as the last words of Socrates.  According to his student Plato, Socrates’ last words were,”Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

Certainly, last words can be moving and inspiring–like those of John Wesley:  “The best of all is, God is with us.”

Last words can also be mysterious and evocative, like those of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson: “Let us cross over the river, and rest in the shade of the trees.”

My own favorite last words were spoken by Union General John Sedgwick, at the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse: “I’m ashamed of you men, dodging that way.  They couldn’t hit an elephant at this range!”

Sunday’s lesson from Acts also dealt with famous last words: those spoken by Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  Stephen was one of the first seven people to be named deacons: specially appointed to serve under the leadership of the apostles (Acts 6:1-7).

Stephen was a very effective preacher and teacher; he angered the religious leadership, however, and so was tried on trumped-up charges of blasphemy and condemned to death.

Among the last words he spoke, as the stones were raining down on him, were, Kyrie ‘Iesou, dexai to pneuma mou: “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” (CEB), or more literally, “Receive my spirit” (NRSV).  Praying in this way, Stephen follows the example of his Lord Jesus, who he asks to receive his spirit.  In Luke, Jesus’ last words are, Pater, eis cheiras sou paratithemai to pneuma mou: “Father, into your hands I entrust my life” (CEB), or more familiarly, “I commend my spirit” (NRSV).

Both Jesus’ and Stephen’s last words refer to Psalm 31:5 (in the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, Ps 31:6): “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”  The Greek of that first phrase is eis cheiras sou parathesomai [a different form of the same verb Luke uses in Lk 23:46] to pneuma mou.

These words may remind you of the prayer we pray beside the grave of a loved one–a prayer our family prayed in a snowy cemetery in Michigan this past February, as we committed Mom’s ashes to the ground, and entrusted her life into the hands of God:

Almighty God, into your hands we commend your daughter Gerry, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This is what we believers do for those we love: with words of confident assurance, we entrust them into God’s loving hands.

But in Psalm 31, these words are not spoken at the end of life.  The Psalmist expresses trust in God in the midst of life, out of turmoil, conflict, and struggle:

My life is consumed with sadness;
    my years are consumed with groaning.
Strength fails me because of my suffering;
    my bones dry up.
I’m a joke to all my enemies,
    still worse to my neighbors.
    I scare my friends,
    and whoever sees me in the street runs away!
I am forgotten, like I’m dead,
    completely out of mind;
    I am like a piece of pottery, destroyed.
Yes, I’ve heard all the gossiping,
    terror all around;
    so many gang up together against me,
        they plan to take my life!

But me? I trust you, Lord!
    I affirm, “You are my God.”
My future is in your hands.
    Don’t hand me over to my enemies,
    to all who are out to get me!
Shine your face on your servant;
    save me by your faithful love! (Ps 31:10-16)

What could it mean to commit ourselves, and those we love, to God–not at the end of life, but right here, right now?


In one sense, it really doesn’t mean anything.  After all, God is Lord of the universe, whether we recognize it or not; our lives are already in God’s hands, whether we acknowledge it or not.  To commit ourselves and those we love to God is only to recognize the way that things actually are.

To pray this prayer, however, says a good deal about who we believe God to be!  The psalmist prays,

Listen closely to me!
    Deliver me quickly;
        be a rock that protects me;
        be a strong fortress that saves me!
You are definitely my rock and my fortress.
    Guide me and lead me for the sake of your good name! (Ps 31:2-3).

Entrusting ourselves into God’s hands, we avow that God is our rock, our fortress.  We confess that God is for us, not against us–and that confession changes everything!

First, commending our lives into the hands of a loving God changes the way that we see our own lives and circumstances.  We can face struggle, hardship, and trouble with confidence, knowing that we are not alone.  We need not be anxious about the future, because we know that, whatever comes, that future is securely in God’s hands.

Commending ourselves and those we love into God’s hands also changes way that we see one another.  We don’t need to be fearful and anxious about those whom we love.  We can let them go–trusting them into the hands of God.

We can also let go of those whom we do not particularly love, and who do not love us–those with whom we are angry, perhaps for very good reasons.  The psalmist, who has experienced oppression and violence from his enemies, is very angry, and calls for vengeance on his enemies:

Lord, don’t let me be put to shame
    because I have cried out to you.
Let the wicked be put to shame;
    let them be silenced in death’s domain!
Let their lying lips be shut up
    whenever they speak arrogantly
    against the righteous with pride and contempt!  (Ps 31:17-18)

But not Stephen!  The very last words that Stephen speaks are, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60).  In this, he once more follows the example of his Lord.

Luke records that Jesus prayed for his torturers and executioners, who had nailed him to the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” How did Jesus and Stephen let go of resentment and anger, and forgive their enemies?  Perhaps they could do so because they trusted even their foes into God’s hands, believing that God was at work in them, bringing transformation.

Certainly, that was the case among Stephen’s persecutors.  Luke tells us, almost in passing, that before they began to stone Stephen, “The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58).  Later in the story Acts unfolds, this young man becomes first, an avid persecutor of the church (Acts 8:1-3), and then, its most ardent defender–better known as Paul (Acts 9:1-21).

We need to be careful here.  Commending our lives into God’s hands is no guarantee that all will turn out well: it certainly didn’t for Stephen, who was stoned to death, or for Jesus, who was crucified!  Faced with tragedy, or failure, or frustration, we may be brought to the point of giving up.  What difference does faith make, anyway?

In his book The Irony of American History (1952, p. 63), the great twentieth century public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reflected upon this mystery.  He wrote:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however, virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Commending ourselves into God’s hands, we can face whatever comes, even the worst, with courage, knowing that God is at work in us, through us, and in spite of us!  As Paul–who, recall, had been one of Stephen’s executioners–acclaimed, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).  Trusting that God is at work in our lives and in our world, may we–with Jesus, Stephen, and believers in all times and places–say this day and every day, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”





Recently, on my Facebook page, I used the term “Anti-Christian” to describe a statement made by a controversial political figure (more on that below).  I did not do this to be myself controversial, or to claim that this person is the Antichrist.  I did use the term deliberately, in reference not to its popular, but to its biblical meaning.

Popularly, the term Antichrist is thought to refer to a future world ruler, predicted in the book of Revelation, who will force everyone to wear his “mark of the Beast.”  Some go so far as to identify the mark with, say UPC codes, or to identify a current world leader  or the United Nations with the Antichrist.

The term “antichrist” (Greek antichristos), however, does not appear in the book of Revelation at all.  It is found only four times in Scripture, in 1 John 2:18, 22 and 4:3, and 2 John 7.  The word may have been coined by the author of these short works, who identifies himself simply as the Elder.

In 1 and 2 John, the term refers not to one person, but to many: indeed, the Elder warns of  a spirit of antichrist.  According to the Elder, this spirit tragically comes out of the community of faith:

They went out from us, but they were not really part of us. If they had been part of us, they would have stayed with us. But by going out from us, they showed they all are not part of us (1 John 2:19).

But the Elder expresses confidence in the community: they know the truth and so will not be mislead by lies (1 Jn 2:20-21).  In fact, the distinguishing mark of antichristos IS the Lie: the denial of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.

The Elder addresses antichristos particularly in his teaching regarding spiritual discernment (1 Jn 4:1-6):

Dear friends, don’t believe every spirit. Test the spirits to see if they are from God because many false prophets have gone into the world. This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world. You are from God, little children, and you have defeated these people because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world. So they speak from the world’s point of view and the world listens to them. We are from God. The person who knows God listens to us. Whoever is not from God doesn’t listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

The term “false prophets” (pseudoprophetai) is sometimes used in the Septuagint where the Hebrew simply has “prophet.”  For example, in Zechariah 13:2:

On that day, says the Lord of heavenly forces,
        I will eliminate the names of the idols from the land;
            they will no longer be remembered.
Moreover, I will remove the prophets [Greek pseudoprophetas, or “false prophets”] and the sinful spirit from the land.

This word, which may have been invented by the Septuagint’s translators, is used by later Jewish writers such as the historian Josephus and the philosopher Philo.

In the New Testament, however, the rise of false prophets can be used as a sign of the last days (so Matt 24:11, 24:24//Mark 13:22; and Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10).  That is the position of the Elder in 1 John.  But for this Christian teacher, discerning true prophecy from false is straightforward: as in 1 John 2:22, the denial of Jesus is the evidence of antichrist.  In 1 John 4, however, antichristos specifically denies the Incarnation:

This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God,and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world (1 Jn 4:2-3; see also Jn 1:14)

Conversely, the confession of Christ is the means to victory over sin and evil, “because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4).  This leads to a test in practice: the true spirit of Christ rather than antichristos is shown in Christlike love for one another and for God (1 Jn 4:7—5:5).  1 John 4:7-8 is the Golden Text of the entire Bible:

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.

What an extraordinary confession: the greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  This affirmation parallels the most famous text in Scripture, John 3:16-17:

 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Jesus is the demonstration and proof of God’s love (see also Rom 5:8).

In 2 John, drawing directly from 1 John, the Elder follows Jesus’ example in proclaiming the new commandment of love (2 Jn 5-6; 1 Jn 2:7-8).  It is in connection with the love commandment that the Elder warns about antichristos, which denies “that Jesus Christ came as a human being” (2 Jn 7).  Rejecting Christ means more than rejecting a religious doctrine.  It means rejecting Christlikeness: the way of love followed, enabled and empowered by Jesus.

So, where is antichristos manifest in our world?  Not, to be sure, in peace signs, or UPC codes, or the United Nations, or Harry Potter!  Wherever professing Christians speak violence and hatred, yet claim to speak in God’s name, there is the spirit of antichrist.

When Governor Sarah Palin said, in a speech to the National Rifle Association, “Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we’d baptize terrorists”–that is the spirit of antichristos.

When Ugandan bishop Charles Wamika, in his Easter message at St. Charles Lwanga Catholic Church “called for a blessing for Uganda’s Christians who worked so hard to ‘free the land of gays’”  and “asked for parents to hand over their gay children to authorities, so they would be rewarded in heaven,” that is the spirit of antichrist.

We cannot let such abominable speech stand.  When it occurs, wherever it occurs, we need to name it for what it is, and reject any implication that these words are in any way compatible with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God grant us the courage to condemn the antichristian language of hatred and violence, and to pursue the language and practice of love.


While This Liquid Tomb Surveying

A little over a year ago, I shared this baptismal hymn on one of my first blogs, after hearing it sung by Michael Wallace in our seminary chapel that Holy Week.  I thought of it again, today, as student preachers shared excellent sermons on Genesis 1:1-5, reflecting on this ancient confession of God’s creative ordering of watery chaos and its significance to this season of resurrection.  Today, I share it again as a powerful statement of our resurrection faith.  Sisters and brothers, Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

“Baptism Hymn”

Hast thou said, exalted Jesus,

Take thy cross and follow Me?

Shall the word with terror seize us?

Shall we from the burden flee?

Lord, I’ll take it, Lord, I’ll take it,

And rejoicing, follow Thee.

Sweet the sign that thus reminds me,

Savior, of Thy love to me;

Sweeter still the love that binds me

In its deathless bond to Thee.

Oh, what pleasure, oh, what pleasure,

Buried with my Lord to be!

While this liquid tomb surveying,

Can I run from mercy’s wave?

Shall I shun its brink, betraying

Feelings worthy of a slave?

No! I’ll enter, No! I’ll enter;

Jesus enter’d Jordan’s wave.

Should it rend some fond connection,

Should I suffer shame or loss,

Yet the fragrant, blest reflection:

I have been where Jesus was,

Will revive me, will revive me,

When I faint beneath the cross.

Then baptized in love and glory,

Lamb of God, Thy praise I’ll sing,

Loudly with the immortal story

All the harps of heaven shall ring.

Saints and seraphs, Saints and seraphs

Love and worship then will bring!

-John Eustace Giles (1805-1875)


There will be a celebration of the life of Gerry Rodan on Saturday, April 26, at St. Paul’s UMC in Allison Park , PA, at 11:oo.  We thank all of you for your thoughts and prayers.  May light perpetual shine upon you, Mom!


You Keep Using That Word…

In “Princess Bride,” one of my favorite films, a continuing shtick involves Wallace Shawn’s character, Vazzini, who uses the word  “Inconceivable!” over and over again.  Eventually, this prompts Vazzini’s henchman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), to say, “You keep using that word.  I do not think that it means what you think it means.”

Sometimes, we use words without thinking what they mean, just because they seem to fit a context: think of how astonished we are when we say, “How are you?,” and someone actually starts to tell us!  We didn’t mean, really, “Tell me how you are.”  All we meant was, “I see you there, I recognize and acknowledge you, and now I am off to do something  else.”

Or consider the word “Hosanna.”   Hosanna is a church word, like “amen” and “Alleluia”—in fact, I would bet that you have never used or heard that word outside of a church.  Hosanna pops up in hymns, particularly the Palm Sunday standards, and in prayers–particularly in the Great Thanksgiving, every time we celebrate communion.

In the gospel lesson for Palm Sunday this year, the shout seems to be taken up spontaneously by the crowd as a parade takes shape, and word spreads that the one on the donkey is David’s descendant, who has come to Jerusalem to claim a throne. They use Hosanna as a festival shout–the way we might cheer at a ball game:

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt 21:9).

But unlike “Yahoo!” or “Hurray!” in English, “Hosanna” is a real word in Hebrew.  It comes from Psalm 118—part of the Hallel (Pss 113—118). These psalms are sung in Jewish festivals, particularly at Pesach, or Passover: the feast that brought these crowds on pilgrimage from across the Roman world to Jerusalem.  The first two psalms in the Hallel are sung before the Passover meal, and the last four are sung after.

Just as around Christmastime, “Jingle Bells” is everywhere–in our ears and in the air!–the Hallel would have been in the air, for any Jewish community, surrounding Pesach.  Little wonder the words of the Hallel come so readily to the lips of the crowd.

To be more specific, “Hosanna” comes from Psalm 118:25, which in Hebrew reads

‘ana’ YHWH hoshi’ah na’

‘ana’ YHWH hatslikhah na’.  

Though the Hallel would have been learned, and sung, in Hebrew, most ordinary Judeans didn’t actually speak Hebrew: in Jesus’ day, the everyday language of Palestinian Jews would have been Aramaic.  So, while the crowds know the words to the song, they don’t necessarily know what they mean. So, while they shout “Hosannah!” as though it meant “Hurray!,” what it really means is “Save us, please!”  The CEB translates this verse,

Lord, please save us!
    Lord, please let us succeed!

Whether the crowd knows it or not, then, they are calling to Jesus for help.  

Do they need help? Indeed, they do!  In Jesus’ time, Judea was under the heel of Roman military occupation.  Taxes were high, prices were high, and popular unrest was high—which is probably why the crowds were spoiling for a fight, just waiting for someone to lead them.  This ferment would explode into disastrous revolts against Rome that will result, first, in the destruction of the temple, and then, in the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem itself for generations.

But that is not why Jesus has come to Jerusalem.  We know the story that unfolds in this next week very well.  Jesus has come, not to claim a throne, but to take a stand against the religious and political establishments that will result in his execution.  He has come to suffer, and to die.

From the first, Christians have confessed that somehow, all of our suffering and death is caught up in Jesus’ suffering and death.  Jesus will die for us—communicating at once the depth of human sin and depravity, and the extent of God’s love for us.

In Matthew’s gospel in particular, Jesus’ death is connected to our sinfulness: our rebellion against God.   At Jesus’ birth, the angel had said, “you will call him Jesus [that is, Yeshua, or “Savior”], because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  

As we will remember this Thursday, Jesus shared the Passover meal in Jerusalem with his followers.  Then, Jesus took a loaf, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.” Then, pouring out the wine, he shared the cup, saying “Drink from this, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven” (Matt 26:27-28).  

Somehow, it is in his death that Jesus becomes “Jesus”–Yeshua, Savior.  Somehow, he takes upon himself the ugliness and horror of human life, human evil, human sin–and takes it away.

It is well, then, that we should shout “Hosanna,” brothers and sisters–“Save us, please!”  For Jesus has come to save, not just those ignorant crowds at the gate, who were crying for help but didn’t know it, but you, and me, and all of us, for all of time.  

Friend, whatever your need is this day, in this Holy Week, whatever your sorrow, whatever your pain, you are not alone!  Christ has come to be with you right where you are, in the center of your darkness– to bring you home.  We can join the Palm Sunday crowds, and call, not in ignorance but in earnest, “Hosanna”–“Save  us, Lord!”—knowing that Christ will answer.


Have a blessed Holy Week, and a joyfilled, triumphant Easter!


Where Is God?

In the first chapter of Exodus, God is not mentioned at all until the seventeenth verse–nearly the end of the chapter.   Through the account of Israel’s explosive growth in Egypt, God does not appear.

Through the changing of power in Egypt, as a new Pharaoh comes to the throne “who didn’t know Joseph” (1:8), God is apparently absent.

Even as this new Pharaoh, in hatred and fear, subjects Israel to unjust enslavement, even as the escalating scale of abuse leads to the first stage of genocide, God does not appear.

To carry out Pharaoh’s racist campaign, born of hatred and fear, to eliminate Israel, he enlists the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, as his agents:

When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live (Exod 1:16).


But the midwives disobey, and in their disobedience, we encounter God for the first time in this book.  This first mention of God is indirect: God is experienced through the faith of the midwives, who would not do as Pharaoh commanded because they “respected [the Hebrew might be better translated “feared”] God” (Exod 1:17).  Given God’s absence in the narrative to this point, we might think that they should better fear Pharaoh–but no!  Shiphrah and Puah revere God, despite God’s apparent absence.

Of course, even as dim a bulb as Pharaoh appears to be in this story is bound to notice that more and more Hebrew boys keep turning up!  He summons the midwives to explain themselves:

The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them” (Exod 1:19).

Cleverly playing off of Pharaoh’s prejudices, Shiphrah and Puah tell him a lie they know he will be likely to accept: those Hebrews breed like animals; their brutish women don’t even need midwives.  Foolish Pharaoh believes them, and Israel’s baby boys are saved.

Now, for the first time in Exodus, God is said to do something!  God performs a double act of blessing.  First, this initial attempt of Pharaoh to eliminate Israel is not only routed, but reversed: “So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong” (Exod 1:20). Pharaoh will find another solution, and God will provide a more lasting counter–one that liberates his people completely from Egyptian oppression. But for now, because of the midwives’ courage and cleverness, people Israel continue to flourish.

Second, as for Shiphrah and Puah, “because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own” (Exod 1:21).  The Hebrew is waya’as lahem batim: literally, “he made for them houses.”  The implication is not simply that, as the NRSV reads, God “gave them families.” Rather, God has made these two Hebrew women the heads of clans!  There were families in Israel, this story claims, who traced themselves back, not to a man, but to a woman: to Shiphrah, and to Puah.

Why retell this ancient story today?  In part, because today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a day of savagery that left 800,000 people slaughtered–many hacked to death with machetes.  Today, Rwandans gathered to remember, to mourn, and to declare that the world must never let this happen again.

Events like the slaughter in Rwanda, like the ongoing slaughter today in Syria, force any believer in a loving God to ask where God is to be found in such horrors.  Yet the first chapter of Exodus reveals that this is not by any means a new question.  Surely it is no accident that, through the story of the beginning of Israel’s oppression, enslavement, and attempted genocide at Pharaoh’s hand, God is nowhere to be found.  Nowhere, that is, except in the faith of the midwives, who choose to live as though God, not Pharaoh, is in command.  Somehow, for Shiphrah and Puah, God’s presence is experienced precisely at the point of God’s absence.

Another reason to tell this story today is that we are approaching the end of Lent, and the beginning of Holy Week–the remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, suffering and death that culminates, for believers, in the celebration of Christ’s victory over death on Easter morning.  In the oldest of the gospels, the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ identity is acclaimed in the very first verse: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son”  But the reader waits in vain for someone within the story to catch on, and echo this confession.

Even when Peter confesses, at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29), the following verses make plain how little he understands his own confession:

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.”  He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him.  Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Mark 8:31-33).

Only at the end of Mark, when Jesus is hanging dead from the cross, does anyone at last understand who he is: “When the centurion [the Roman officer who oversaw Jesus’ execution], who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘This man was certainly God’s Son’” (Mark 15:39).  In Mark, the seal of God’s presence in Christ is not Jesus’ miracles, or his authoritative teaching, but his cross–where God seems most absent, where the dying Jesus himself cries, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Mark 15:34).

In his haunting memoir Night, Elie Wiesel, remembers his youth in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where his mother, father and sister died.  Wiesel tells of the execution of a young boy, beloved by everyone in the camp.  The boy was hanged, and as he struggled and died the inmates were forced to file by and watch.  Behind him, Wiesel heard a man ask again and again, “Where is God now?”  Wiesel writes, “And I heard a voice within me answer him:   ‘Where is He?  Here he is—He is hanging here on this gallows’” (Night [Avon, 1960], p. 76).

Christian writer François Mauriac writes, in his forward to this memoir, of meeting Wiesel:

 And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day on the face of the hanged child?  What did I say to him?  Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother, who may have resembled him—the  Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world?  Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? . . . All is grace.  If the Eternal is the Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to him.  This is what I should have told this Jewish child.  But I could only embrace him, weeping (Night, pp. 10-11).

In his anguish, Wiesel was more right than he knew.  God was there, on the gallows.  The good news of Scripture is that God is most present where God seems most absent: in the slave pens of Egypt, on the gallows at Auschwitz, in the killing fields of Rwanda—or on the cross of Calvary.





What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Not the Right Question

It occurs to me now, at the end of this series, that the title I have given to these blogs is probably misleading.  After all, if the question was, simply, “What does the Bible say about homosexuality,” this would have been a very short conversation:  “Are there passages in the Bible that condemn homosexuality?”  “Yes, there are.”

But what the Bible says and what those passages mean for our life of faith are two different questions.  “Because the Bible says so” has never been enough–not for any of us.  All of us, without exception, are selective in our application of Scripture.  If we worship on Sunday and do yard work on Saturday, we violate Sabbath law.  If we enjoy ham and crab cakes, we violate dietary law.  If we accept or charge interest, we violate the economic principles of the Scriptures.  Should we Christians say that that is all Old Testament stuff, and that we live by the New Testament, we are even more caught in a bind!  The Gospels advocate a lifestyle of radical renunciation of the world–how many of us are prepared to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matt 19:21)?  Jesus explicitly condemns divorce and re-marriage. But how many of us truly believe that all divorced and remarried people are living in sin?

United Methodist preacher and author Adam Hamilton advocates a “three buckets” approach to reading Scripture:

  1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
  2. Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
  3. Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.

Into the first bucket go “passages like the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor. . . passages that call us to ‘do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God,’ and to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'”  Hamilton is persuaded that  “Most of the Bible fits into this category.”

Into the second bucket go, for example, the ritual laws of ancient Israel: “the command that males be circumcised, commands regarding animal sacrifices, clean and unclean foods, and hundreds of other passages in the Law.”

The very idea of a third bucket, Hamilton recognizes, may be threatening.  However, he writes,

Here are a few examples of scripture I don’t believe ever accurately captured God’s heart, character, or will:  Leviticus 21:9 requires that if the daughter of a priest becomes a prostitute she must be burned to death.  In Exodus 21:20-21, God permits slave-owners to beat their slaves with rods provided they don’t die within the first 48 hours after the beating “for the slave is his property.”  God commands the destruction of every man, woman, and child in 31 Canaanite cities and later kills 70,000 Israelites in punishment for David taking a census. These passages seem to me to be completely inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ who cared for prostitutes, commanded that we love our enemies, and gave his life to save sinners.

The problem with Adam Hamilton’s “three buckets” approach is, how are we to know what goes into which bucket?  Further, we might wonder why a God of wisdom and love would even reveal the material in buckets two and three.

Perhaps a better approach is to ask a very fundamental question: what is the Bible?  We may answer, “The Bible is the word of God.”  But what does that confession mean?  Do we mean that God WROTE the Bible?  But then, shouldn’t the Bible be unified, in language, style and theme–in the way that, say, Charles Dickens always sounds like Dickens, or John Steinbeck always sounds like Steinbeck? The Bible, however, does not present itself in a unified style, characteristic vocabulary, or even a common language. Deuteronomy does not sound like Leviticus; Amos does not sound like Isaiah; Matthew does not sound like John; Paul does not sound like James.  Plainly, the various authors of Scripture are not taking dictation from the one Author.  Nor are the individual identities of these persons overwhelmed by the inspiring Spirit–the distinctive personalities of the apostles and prophets still shine through!

If we try to make Scripture into an argument, or a series of logical propositions, then the Bible becomes a book about God rather than an invitation to relationship with God.  Faith becomes, not an orientation of the entire self to God (see Galatians 2:20), but belief: holding the right ideas and opinions about God.  This approach is fraught with problems, however, because the Bible is not uniform or univocal–that is, it does not speak with one voice.  Inevitably, by this reading, we adopt (whether we acknowledge it or not), Adam Hamilton’s “bucket” approach–also sometimes called a “canon within the canon”–prompting us to impose on Scripture the uniformity that it lacks by emphasizing some texts, and de-emphasizing others.

Perhaps the best way to approach the Bible as Scripture is to acknowledge that it is at one and the same time human, historically conditioned word and the Word of God–in the same way that Christians confess Jesus as both fully human and fully Divine. Every word of Scripture is human word, expressing the encounters of women and men with God, in a bewildering variety of circumstances and over an immensely long period of time.  Therefore, every word of Scripture bears the hallmark, and carries the limitations, of its particular context in time and space. However, as every word of Scripture speaks out of an encounter with God, every word also has the potential to become again transparent to God’s presence.  To put this another way, God meets us in the Bible.

Bono, lead singer for U2 and an unapologetic witness for Christ, speaks powerfully on God’s love and grace: 

It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people. . .Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

I propose that the Bible is a love letter from God–an invitation to relationship calling for our commitment, not a list of propositions requiring our assent.  This reading of Scripture has its problems, too–in particular, one might argue that if the Bible is not a rule book, then we have no basis for any rules: the only alternative is an “anything-goes” morality.  I do not accept that conclusion.  As we come into relationship with the God revealed in Scripture, we grow into God’s love, and desire more and more to live in accordance with that love: that is, to love what God loves, and as God loves.  This, as we have seen, is a golden thread woven through the many threads in Scripture, upheld by the Torah, by Jesus, and by Paul.

What would an ethic of love look like?  Poet, theologian, and agrarian reformer Wendell Berry wades boldly into the cultural divide between “liberals” and “conservatives” on the issue of homosexual marriage, with little patience for either “side”:

The Christian or social conservatives who wish for government protection of their version of family values have been seduced by the conservatives of corporate finance who wish for government protection of their religion of personal wealth earned in contempt for families. The liberals, calling for some restraints upon incorporated wealth, wish for government enlargement of their semireligion of personal rights and liberties. One side espouses family values pertaining to homes that are empty all day every day. The other promotes liberation that vouchsafes little actual freedom and no particular responsibility. And so we are talking about a populace in which nearly everybody is needy, greedy, envious, angry and alone. We are talking therefore about a politics of mutual estrangement, in which the two sides go at each other with the fervor of extreme righteousness in defense of rickety absolutes that cannot be compromised.

Berry proposes that we need to take people more seriously than faceless absolutes.

Oversimplified moral certainties—always requiring hostility, always potentially violent—isolate us from mercy, pity, peace and love and leave us lonely and dangerous in our misery. The only perfect laws are absolute, but perfect laws are only approximately fitted to imperfect humans. That is why we have needed to think of mercy, and of the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of the law. 

The challenge is for us to relate to one another, not as categories (white/black, liberal/conservative, male/female, homosexual/heterosexual), but as people:

Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking the heat and even the courage of a personal hatred. Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob, which makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob overflowing with righteousness, as there was at the crucifixion and has been before and since. This mob violence can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal of kindness to heretics, foreigners, enemies, or any other group different from ourselves.

Finally, Berry observes, no marriage is “made” by church or state; rather, any real marriage is forged by the commitment of a couple, each to the other.  The freedom to take and make personal vows of commitment and faithfulness cannot be either enforced or restricted:

No church can make a homosexual marriage, because it cannot make any marriage, nor can it withhold any degree of blessedness or sanctity from any pledged couple striving day by day to be at one. If I were one of a homosexual couple, the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple, I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians.

The commitment to an ethic of love does not mean that “anything goes.”  Indeed, to affirm same-sex marriage is to affirm the virtues of commitment or fidelity at the heart of any marriage.

I hope that these posts have made clear why I, a Bible-believing Christian, urge my church to fully include LGBTQ people.  I have not always thought in this way: I wince and cringe as I replay in my memory jokes I told in college and in seminary–not knowing that some of my dear Christian friends were LGBTQ. My mind was changed by many things, but first and foremost, it was changed by Bible study.  

Early in my ministry, I was approached by an Evangelical Christian brother struggling with same-sex attraction, who asked me what the Bible said on this issue.  I set out to discover what I could learn. I still have those notes–they cover some of the same ground we have covered in these last few weeks.  My study led me to realize that the biblical case against homosexuality was not strong–certainly, not so strong as I had thought that it was.  Still the argument from creation seemed to me sufficiently strong that the most I could then say (reading from those old hand-written notes) was, “Homosexuality not an evil, but not a good.  God has a better plan.”  Later, as I came to know more and more gay and lesbian students and colleagues, some in long term, committed relationships, I realized that I could no longer, on biblical grounds, regard their relationships as intrinsically immoral–any more than heterosexual relationships are intrinsically moral.  My mind had been changed.

To all who have come with me on this pilgrimage: thank you.  Perhaps you have found validation here for your own beliefs; or perhaps your mind has been changed through this study, as mine was.  Then again, perhaps this study leaves you committed to the traditional view of marriage and sexuality.  If so, I ask you to remember that we who think differently on this issue may do so, not despite the Bible, but because of the Bible.

In his sermon “Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley unpacks 2 Kings 10:15: “And when [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him: and he saluted him, and said to him, Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab answered, It is. If it be, give me thine hand. And he gave him his hand; and he took him up to him into the chariot.”  Wesley declared this as his own view with regard to sisters and brothers from other church bodies: 

“If it be, give me thy hand.” I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”

May I extend that same invitation, brothers and sisters?  Can we affirm our fellowship in Christ despite our differences?  “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? . . . If it be, give me thine hand.”




What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Genesis and Natural Law

File:Blake - Creation of Eve 1808.jpg - Wikipedia

Both of the Genesis creation accounts refer not simply to God’s generic creation of humanity, but specifically to the creation of women and men. Genesis 1:27 says,

God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.


Genesis 2 describes the special creation of the woman from the very stuff of the man.  In its climax, this account of creation declares,

This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh (Gen 2:24).

As we have seen, Jesus’ affirmation of marriage quotes both of these passages, grounding God’s intention for marriage in creation itself. Similarly, in his statement of opposition to same-sex relations in Romans 1, Paul makes reference to God’s will manifest in creation, although he does not quote from Genesis in this context.  He does cite Gen 2:24 in reference to sexual immorality, however: “Don’t you know that anyone who is joined to someone who is sleeping around is one body with that person? The scripture says, The two will become one flesh” (1 Cor 6:16; compare Ephesians 5:31-32, which reads this passage as a metaphor for the unity of Christ and the church).

Many interpreters have concluded that Genesis presents the union of male and female as God’s intention for humanity, and indeed for all the natural world.  By this reading, same-sex intercourse, since it does not involve a union of differences, violates God’s will.  New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, who is inclined toward this view, proposes that human sexuality needs to be viewed as a part of “God’s differentiated creation, which nevertheless is designed to work together.”

The official stances of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches on marriage and sexuality further derive from Genesis the foundations of a natural law regarding human sexuality.  Since, as the early Christian theologian and scholar St. Jerome (340-420) observed, “God’s first command” is, “‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth'” (Against Jovinianus, 1.3; see Gen 1:28), this approach holds the purpose of sexual intercourse to be procreation.  Since same-sex intercourse cannot result in children, then, it violates this natural law.

United Methodist pastor and scholar Maxie Dunham has spoken in support of the United Methodist Church’s position rejecting homosexuality, as stated in  The 2012 Book of Discipline (p. 109), on the ground of harmony with this teaching of the whole church. He writes:

This is the corporate, and continuing witness of the Church. We need to keep in mind that how we think must not be restricted to random feelings and even individual interpretation of Scripture; We need to be in harmony with the whole Body of Christ and all the saints now and forever.

The natural law argument, in various forms, is very old.  The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-50 A.D.) objected to the Greco-Roman custom of pederasty in part on this basis:

. . . the man who is devoted to the love of boys [Greek paiderastes] . . . pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature, and since, as far as depends upon him, he would make the cities desolate, and void, and empty of all inhabitants, wasting his power of propagating his species (Special Laws 3.7.39).

So too the Wisdom of Solomon, a first-century B.C. book of Jewish wisdom, not only attributes the sexual immorality of the Gentile world to idolatry (compare Wisd 14:22-26 to Rom 1:18-32), but also defines one aspect of that immorality (see Wisd 14:26) as geneseos enallage, literally “the alteration of generation”–that is, engaging in sexual acts that cannot result in offspring.

Christian ideas of natural law, especially relating to sex and procreation, derive particularly from the work of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-371). Augustine’s Pelagian adversaries, who rejected the doctrine of original sin (the teaching that humans are by nature sinners), argued that accepting the notion of original sin would require one to condemn marriage itself, since sexual intercourse must therefore be held as inherently sinful. Indeed, even Jerome taught,

. . . while we honour marriage we prefer virginity which is the offspring of marriage. Will silver cease to be silver, if gold is more precious than silver? Or is despite done to tree and corn, if we prefer the fruit to root and foliage, or the grain to stalk and ear? Virginity is to marriage what fruit is to the tree, or grain to the straw  (Against Jovinianus, 1.3).

To the implication that the Christian seeking to avoid sin should remain celibate, Augustine replied,

the marriage of believers converts to the use of righteousness that carnal concupiscence by which “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit.” For they entertain the firm purpose of generating offspring to be regenerated—that the children who are born of them as “children of the world” may be born again and become “sons of God” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.5.iv.)

Still, according to Augustine, producing little Christians is all that sex is good for: “The union, then, of male and female for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage. But he makes a bad use of this good who uses it bestially, so that his intention is on the gratification of lust, instead of the desire of offspring” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.5.iv.).  This, of course, means that same-sex relations must be condemned–but that is not all that it means.  By this logic,  heterosexual intercourse simply for pleasure, even with one’s spouse, is also sinful.  Although this sin may be only venial (that is, a sin that damages, but does not break, one’s communion with God), it may become mortal sin:

It is, however, one thing for married persons to have intercourse only for the wish to beget children, which is not sinful: it is another thing for them to desire carnal pleasure in cohabitation, but with the spouse only, which involves venial sin. For although propagation of offspring is not the motive of the intercourse, there is still no attempt to prevent such propagation, either by wrong desire or evil appliance. They who resort to these, although called by the name of spouses, are really not such; they retain no vestige of true matrimony, but pretend the honourable designation as a cloak for criminal conduct (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.17.xv.)

Contraception (“evil appliance”), non-genital intercourse, and any other “wrong desire”–that is, any sex that cannot potentially produce a child–is a mortal sin, leading to damnation.

The natural law argument reached its most developed, closely reasoned form in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274), particularly his massive Summa Theologica.  There, for example, Aquinas reasons that, even if there had been no fall, there would still have been generation by means of sexual intercourse, as “what is natural to man was neither acquired nor forfeited by sin”: therefore sex is not, in itself, sinful (Summa Theologica Part 1, Question 98, “Of the Preservation of the Species,” Article 2).  In the Supplement to Part 3 of the Summa (Question 49, “Of the Marriage Goods,” Article 6) Aquinas poses Augustine’s question, “Whether it is a mortal sin for a man to have knowledge of his wife, with the intention not of a marriage good [according to Augustine, these goods are “offspring, fidelity, the sacramental bond” (On Marriage and Concupiscence1.19.xvii.)] but merely of pleasure?”

Aquinas reaches a somewhat different conclusion than Augustine had, in no small measure because he views pleasure differently.  To understand pleasure, he turns for guidance to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 10:3-4, where the philosopher concludes:

One might think that all men desire pleasure because they all aim at life; life is an activity, and each man is active about those things and with those faculties that he loves most. . . now pleasure completes the activities, and therefore life, which they desire. It is with good reason, then, that they aim at pleasure too, since for every one it completes life, which is desirable. But whether we choose life for the sake of pleasure or pleasure for the sake of life is a question we may dismiss for the present. For they seem to be bound up together and not to admit of separation, since without activity pleasure does not arise, and every activity is completed by the attendant pleasure. 

Since, Aquinas observes, “the same judgment applies to pleasure as to action, because pleasure in a good action is good, and in an evil action, evil; wherefore, as the marriage act is not evil in itself, neither will it be always a mortal sin to seek pleasure therein.”  Still, like Augustine, Aquinas argues that “if pleasure be sought in such a way as to exclude the honesty of marriage, so that, to wit, it is not as a wife but as a woman that a man treats his wife, and that he is ready to use her in the same way if she were not his wife, it is a mortal sin; wherefore such a man is said to be too ardent a lover of his wife, because his ardor carries him away from the goods of marriage.”  Once more, sexual activity is held to be mortally sinful if divorced from its purpose, namely procreation.

The positions of Augustine and Aquinas on human sexuality are still, in large measure, the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, reaffirmed by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Casti Connubii (“On Chaste Marriage,” 1930), by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life,” 1968), and by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life,” 1995).  But the effectiveness of the Church in persuading its followers to embrace and live by this teaching is another matter.  A recent poll of Roman Catholics worldwide, conducted by the American Spanish-speaking television network Univision, found that 78% of respondents support the use of contraceptives–ranging from 91% in Latin America to 31% in the Philippines.  So too, a majority  (58%) disagreed with the statement, “An individual who has divorced and remarried outside of the Catholic Church, is living in sin which prevents them from receiving Communion.”

The natural law argument, followed consistently, takes us to places most of us would rather not go. But given our proclivity for self-deception and sin, that need not mean that the argument is invalid.  The notion that sexual pleasure for its own sake is inherently sinful is, however, scarcely compatible with the goodness of the physical world and of embodied existence emphasized throughout the Hebrew Bible.

Repeatedly, the first creation account (Gen 1:1–2:4a), tells us what God thinks of the world God is calling into being: “God saw how good it was” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 25)!  Then, after the work is done and before God’s sabbath rest, the text declares, “God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good” (1:31).  In Proverbs 8:30-31, God’s Wisdom declares her delight in God’s creation, and particularly, in humanity:

I was beside [God] as a master of crafts.
    I was having fun,
    smiling before him all the time,
     frolicking with his inhabited earth
    and delighting in the human race.

In the Song of Songs, there is a frank recognition and celebration of human sexual passion that is certainly about more than child-bearing!

Set me as a seal over your heart,
        as a seal upon your arm,
for love is as strong as death,
        passionate love unrelenting as the grave.
Its darts are darts of fire—
        divine flame!
Rushing waters can’t quench love;
        rivers can’t wash it away.
If someone gave
        all his estate in exchange for love,
        he would be laughed to utter shame (Song 8:6-7)

The apostle Paul too affirms the inherent goodness of sexual intimacy in marriage:

The husband should meet his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should do the same for her husband.  The wife doesn’t have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband doesn’t have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  Don’t refuse to meet each other’s needs unless you both agree for a short period of time to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come back together again so that Satan might not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Cor 7:3-5).

When we read the opening chapters of Genesis, it is important for us to remember that they are neither history, nor science, nor law.  They are confessions, made by communities of faith–grounded not only in universal, timeless ideas but also in the particular circumstances of their authors.  The affirmation in Gen 1:27 that maleness and femaleness alike reflect the image of God hits like a thunderbolt: it can scarcely be ascribed to the typical attitudes of its patriarchal culture!  This extraordinary valuation of the feminine need not be read, however, as restricting God’s intention for humanity to the union of male and female.  Certainly Jerome, with his eloquent defense of celibacy, did not regard singleness as condemned by this passage!

On the other hand, the call to “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it” (Gen 1:28) is no surprise: it fits neatly into the flow of the narrative from Genesis through Joshua.

As God’s people endure threat after threat, seeming always on the edge of extinction, the imperative to be fertile is essential for their survival.  In particular, Gen 1:28 prefigures the growth of the people into a great nation, despite Egyptian persecution (see Exod 1:6-7, 20) and despite the faithlessness of the wilderness generation (see Num 22:3-4),  in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (see Gen 15:5-6).  We may question, then, whether this “first commandment” is intended as a universal imperative.

Similarly, as an etiological narrative, Genesis 2 seeks to make sense of the world that Israel inhabited.  Specifically, this account of man and woman as parts of an original whole is an attempt to come to terms with both the generative and the potentially disruptive power of sexual attraction in Israel’s clan-based culture: “This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).

This verse, then, is an explanation, not a commandment; it is descriptive, not prescriptive–just as Jesus’ quotation of this passage is an affirmation, not a prohibition.  That Genesis 2 deals with the dominant (and, in its Israelite context, the only officially sanctioned) mode of sexuality in human culture  is scarcely surprising: after all, the survival of the culture through the birth of children, as well as the threat posed to the culture by a force stronger than loyalty to one’s clan, are alike in the background of this passage. But again, Genesis 2 is a narrative, not a law code.

While we must of course recognize and honor the power of tradition to give shape to our experience of God and the world, it is God, not tradition, that we worship.  Dr. Dunham does not acknowledge that many faith communions have indeed already departed from traditional views of marriage and sexuality.  The United Methodist Church, for example, permits remarriage after divorce, offers no objection to contraception, and practices the ordination of women.  Churches with which we are in full communion, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, ordain LGBTQ persons.

A final word must be spoken.   While sexual intimacy is an important part of any healthy marriage, it is far from the only part.  LGBTQ people seeking marriage do not do so simply out of sexual desire, any more than heterosexual couples do.  They want to proclaim their love for one another before God and before their sisters and brothers in faith–embracing, in Augustine’s terms, the “marriage good” of fidelity.  What is more, LGBTQ couples seeking marriage long to declare their covenantal commitment to one another: in the ancient words of the liturgy, to pledge to one another their faith–embracing the “marriage good” of lifelong commitment, if not, in Catholic terms, “the sacramental bond.”  I see no barrier to that commitment in the Genesis accounts of creation.



Wendy, her brother Mark, and all our family thank all of you for your thoughts, prayers, calls, emails, cards, and gifts.  Your support has meant the world to us: we have felt loved, lifted up in our sorrow by the body of Christ.  We thank God for Mom, and give thanks for her life that in Christ will never end.  May light perpetual shine upon you, Gerry!

Lux Perpetua

My mother-in-law Gerry Rodan died Thursday. Wendy and our son Mark were with her at the end; she passed quietly and peacefully, surrounded by people who love her.  This week’s post is in memory of her.

This passage from Wisdom 3:1-9 keeps coming back to me:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be an affliction,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of men they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them for ever.
Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his elect,
and he watches over his holy ones.

Here is Mom’s obituary (also here, with a link for remembrances) from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Geraldine (Gerry) Baer Rodan

April 26, 1925-February 13, 2014

Teacher, home economist, and mother Geraldine (Gerry) Rodan of McCandless died peacefully in her apartment Thursday afternoon, with her family by her side. A woman of firm faith, Gerry had made clear to her family that she was ready to go and be with her Lord.

A celebration of her life will be held in April at her church, St. Paul’s United Methodist, 1965 Ferguson Road, Allison Park, PA.  Her cremated remains will be interred with her husband of forty-nine years, WWII veteran John (Jack) Gifford Rodan, in Monroe, Michigan.

Born in Hummelstown, PA on April 26, 1925 to Irwin and Maude Baer, Gerry had two younger brothers who survive her, Richard (Dick) Baer of Middletown, PA and John (Jack) Baer of Los Altos, CA.  She married Jack Rodan on May 13, 1950 in a hometown ceremony.

Prior to her marriage, she attended Juniata College and put a degree in Home Economics to good work in that field for both Westinghouse and Public Service of New Jersey.  Later in life, she pursued a master’s degree in education at Glassboro State College and taught Language Arts to sixth and seventh graders for more than 20 years in Haddonfield, NJ.  Gerry volunteered with Haddon Fortnightly and Girl Scouts in Haddonfield, at Mercy Memorial Hospital in Monroe, MI, and was an active church member throughout her life.

She is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, Wendy and Steve Tuell of McCandless, PA; her son and daughter-in-law, Mark and Lois Rodan of Ypsilanti, MI; three grandsons, Sean, Anthony, and Mark Tuell; and great-grandchildren Samantha and Katlin Dillon.

Gerry’s family expresses their deep appreciation to the caring staff of Sunrise of McCandless, and to AseraCare Hospice for making Gerry’s final days more fulfilling and comfortable. Memorials may be made to St. Paul’s United Methodist Church or to Juniata College.


I have sung many settings of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, and have always loved the lines (Faure’s setting is here), Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis: “May everlasting light shine upon them, O Lord, with thy saints in eternity, for thou art merciful. Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may everlasting light shine upon them.”  This week that is my prayer for Gerry: May light perpetual shine on you, Mom, as you enter into the glory of our Lord!


Our thanks to the many who have sent messages of love and support.  This blog will resume next week.




What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Jesus in the Gospels

Jesus, it is often claimed, said nothing about homosexuality.  This is true so far as it goes. However, Jesus does say very important things about human sexuality, and particularly about marriage:

Haven’t you read that at the beginning the creator made them male and female[see Gen 1:27]  And God said, ‘Because of this a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.’ [see Gen 2:24]   So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, humans must not pull apart what God has put together (Matt 19:4-6).

Sometimes, this passage is understood as a rejection of LGBTQ attraction, and certainly of homosexual marriage.  Doesn’t Jesus explicitly say here that marriage is between a man and a woman?

Jesus’ words in context, however, are not restrictive and prohibitive (only this), but permissive and affirmative (yes to this).  In Matthew 19, the Pharisees want to talk in negative terms, about divorce and the circumstances in which divorce is allowed. But Jesus wants to talk positively, about mutual commitment and marriage!  He vigorously affirms the goodness of marriage between women and men.  But that affirmation does not imply a prohibition: it is Jesus’ stated intent here to bolster marriage, not to define it by restriction to “one man and one woman.”  After all, Jesus does not make this statement in response to a question about homosexuality, or polygamy, or sexual practice generally, but specifically in response to a question about divorce.

Next week, we will consider whether, as some have argued, Jesus’ reference to the creation accounts in Genesis 12 may imply an argument against homosexuality based upon the proper order of creation.  But this week, we will consider the way that the debate concerning divorce unfolded in Scripture and in Jewish tradition, and what Jesus’ response to this debate tells us about Jesus’ approach to Scripture and tradition.

In the Hebrew Bible, divorce is accepted, with no shame implied to the woman who is divorced (in that patriarchal culture, nothing is ever said of wives divorcing their husbands).  The divorced daughter of a priest can return to her father’s house and eat from the offerings restricted to the priests and their families (Lev 22:13), and oaths sworn by divorced women have legal standing (Num 30:9). True, according to Leviticus 21:7, 13-14, no priest may marry a divorced woman. But this restriction on priestly marriages clearly implies that other Israelite men could marry divorced women.  The law concerning divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) assumes this, though it places a restriction on remarriage:

Let’s say a man marries a woman, but she isn’t pleasing to him because he’s discovered something inappropriate about her. So he writes up divorce papers, hands them to her, and sends her out of his house.  She leaves his house and ends up marrying someone else.  But this new husband also dislikes her, writes up divorce papers, hands them to her, and sends her out of his house (or suppose the second husband dies).  In this case, the first husband who originally divorced this woman is not allowed to take her back and marry her again after she has been polluted in this way because the LORD detests that. Don’t pollute the land the LORD your God is giving to you as an inheritance.

The prophets use this law metaphorically to condemn Israel for worshipping other gods, then thinking that they can return to the LORD as though nothing had happened (see Isa 50:1; Jer 3:1, 8).


The Old Testament takes marriage very seriously: after all, according to Gen 2:24, man and woman were created for one another, and are drawn to become “one flesh.”  Malachi 2:15-16 reads:

Don’t cheat on the wife of your youth
because he hates divorce,
says the Lord God of Israel

From the context, this may be meant symbolically, as a rejection of idol worship (like Isa 50:1 and Jer 3:1, 8).  But this passage is often understood as urging faithfulness in actual marriages.

We can imagine that divorce was intended to be rare.  But no statement of the acceptable grounds for divorce is ever given in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 24:1 only says that a man can divorce his wife (again, no provision is made for a woman divorcing her husband!) if he finds “something inappropriate about her.”  The Hebrew word translated “something inappropriate” is ‘erwah: literally “nakedness;” or “something shameful.”  But what does that mean?  Since the Hebrew Bible doesn’t clearly specify the conditions under which divorce is permissible, the rabbis debated the issue intensely.

The Jewish sage Ben Sirach taught,

Do you have a wife who is a soul mate?
    Don’t divorce her,
    and don’t trust yourself to a woman
    whom you hate (Sir 7:26).

Ben Sirach believed that a good marriage was cause for celebration and lifelong commitment. But he infers that divorce could be pursued for incompatibility.

Two Jewish teachers who lived roughly at the time as Jesus, Hillel and Shammai, were famous for their disputations.  Rabbi Shammai held that divorce could be permitted only in cases of adultery—where the commitment had already been broken by unfaithfulness.  But Rabbi Hillel taught, “If she burns the meat in the pan, you may divorce her”! Presumably, as a human contract, marriage could be dissolved for any reason, not just in cases of unfaithfulness.

In contrast to these views, Jesus’ teaching rejects divorce and remarriage altogether: “Any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and a man who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18; compare Matt 5:31-32).  As we saw above, in Mark 10:1-12//Matthew 19:3-9, this teaching is placed in a context: Jesus is approached by the Pharisees, and asked to weigh in on the ongoing rabbinic debate concerning divorce. But as we have seen, Jesus doesn’t want to talk about divorce—he wants to talk about marriage!

To understand Jesus’ teaching, we should note that in Palestine in Jesus’ day, women could not independently own property.  Divorce meant that the woman would be dependent upon her family or community to support her, and could therefore be made homeless and destitute by her husband’s rejection.

The Law regarding divorce, in Jesus’ view, reflects not God’s good will, but rather a concession to human failing.  “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,” Jesus says, “because your hearts are unyielding. But it wasn’t that way from the beginning” (Matt 19:8).  Jesus sets the Law aside and rejects divorce in order to protect women from being set aside at their husbands’ whims.  He bases this action on Gen 2:24—God’s original intention for women and men expressed in Genesis is a higher principle than Deuteronomy’s permission for men and women to separate.  In fact, Jesus’ opposition to remarriage suggests that he understood marriage to be permanent.

Notice, though, that already within the New Testament, this teaching was being rethought.  In Matthew (19:9 and 5:31-32), divorce is permitted in cases of adultery, just as Shammai had argued– though remarriage is rejected.   In the gospel of Mark, which may have been written in Rome, the saying reads, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;   and if a wife divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). This differs from the Old Testament and traditional Jewish position, and places Jesus’ teaching in the context of Roman law, which permitted a woman to initiate a divorce. Likewise Paul (see 1 Cor 7:10-16), who cites Jesus’ teaching on divorce (one of the few places where the words of Jesus are cited in Paul’s letters), recognizes that in the Roman world a wife could divorce her husband.

Paul forbade divorce because he was convinced that the world would end soon, making any attempt to change one’s present status a waste of time:

This is what I’m saying, brothers and sisters: The time has drawn short. From now on, those who have wives should be like people who don’t have them.  Those who are sad should be like people who aren’t crying. Those who are happy should be like people who aren’t happy. Those who buy something should be like people who don’t have possessions. Those who use the world should be like people who aren’t preoccupied with it, because this world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:29-31).

Clearly Paul was wrong: the world did not end in the first century.  Can we, then, take Paul’s teaching on divorce and remarriage out of that context, and treat it as directly applicable to our time and situation?  I do not believe that we can, or should, do so.

The varying forms and contexts in which Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage is found across the New Testament indicate that the debate about how to apply that teaching continued in the earliest church. Indeed, Matthew 19:10-12 implies that the high standard Jesus sets for marriage is meant as an ideal, not as a law: “Not everybody can accept this teaching, but only those who have received the ability to accept it. . . . Those who can accept it should accept it.” 

For Jesus, marriage deserves our highest respect and regard.  Is that affirmation of marriage a condemnation of same-sex relationships?  I see no reason to think so.  Jesus’ point is a call for the partners in marriage to be radically committed to one another, which may prove a model for same-sex marriages as well as for heterosexual marriages.

Jesus opposed divorce, likely because he did not want women to be abused by easy divorces that left them, in his day, facing poverty and starvation.  Is it then the case that all divorced and remarried people today are living in sin?  Few of us would want to say this.  Nor, I would argue, should we. Despite the Law (Deut 24:1), as we have seen, Jesus stands up for women in his day by condemning divorce and re-marriage.  Clearly Jesus did not read his own traditions, even the Torah, uncritically and legalistically.  Why, then, should we think that Jesus would expect us to read Scripture in a way that he did not?

Given the radical commitment to one another that Christian marriage involves, neither marriage nor divorce should ever be casual decisions! But perhaps in our day, respect for the rights and happiness of all people requires a different approach to marriage, remarriage, and divorce, faithful to the living spirit rather than the rigid letter of Jesus’ words.





What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Romans and Idolatry

In Romans 1:23-27, Paul writes:

They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images that look like mortal humans: birds, animals, and reptiles.  So God abandoned them to their hearts’ desires, which led to the moral corruption of degrading their own bodies with each other.  They traded God’s truth for a lie, and they worshipped and served the creation instead of the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations.  Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other. Males performed shameful actions with males, and they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies.

Same-sex relations, the Apostle argues, are a consequence of idolatry: because the gentile world worshipped idols, “God abandoned them to their hearts’ desires, which led to the moral corruption of degrading their own bodies with each other” (Rom 1:24).  Although homosexuality is for Paul the symptom of that deeper disorder, he unequivocally opposes all same-sex relations–not only male homosexuals (compare Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13), but lesbians too are condemned (this is, by the way, the only mention of lesbians in the Bible). There is no way around Paul’s clear condemnation of homosexuality.  If we want to take the Bible seriously, we must deal seriously with his perspective.

What brings Paul to this conclusion?  To understand his point, we need to understand the line of argument Paul pursues in Romans.  Usually, Paul wrote to churches he had established himself or had already visited, responding directly to the circumstances and concerns of each particular community.  But at the time he wrote to the Romans, Paul had never been to Rome (see Rom 1:8-15). Why then did he write this letter?

Robert Jewett proposes that Paul wrote Romans as an ambassador for Christ, seeking to reconcile the estranged gentile (non-Jewish) and Jewish Christian communities in Rome (see Robert Jewett, “Romans as an Ambassadorial Letter,” Interpretation 36 [1982]: 13).  Jewett is persuaded that we too must hear this message of reconciliation:  “The Pauline hope of unification of all peoples through the gospel of transforming love that produces respect between groups as diverse as the Jews and Gentiles urgently needs to be placed on our agenda” (Robert Jewett, “The Law and the Coexistence of Jews and Gentiles in Romans,” Interpretation 39 [1985]: 341).

The gospel Paul proclaims is not for either Jews or gentiles alone, but for all who have faith in Christ:

I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek [that is, the gentile].  God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith [alluding to Hab 2:4] (Rom 1:16-17).

Therefore, Paul writes,

There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.  But there will be glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does what is good, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. God does not have favorites (Rom 2:9-11).


The commonality of all humanity before God–first regarding our sinfulness, then regarding our salvation–is the major theme in Romans.  Paul famously asserts the need of all people for God’s deliverance through Christ:

But now God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the Law [that is, to the gentiles], which is confirmed by the Law and the Prophets [that is, the Jewish Scriptures]. God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There’s no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus (Rom 3:21-24).

Of course, it makes sense for Paul to say that he and his fellow Jews have sinned and are in need of God’s grace–God had given them the Law, but they had not followed it.  But the gentiles could well ask, “How can we be blamed for failing to follow a Law that was never revealed to us?”


Paul’s answer is an appeal to creation.

This is because what is known about God should be plain to them because God made it plain to them.  Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—God’s eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through the things God has made. So humans are without excuse  (Rom 1:19-20).

Because nature itself serves to reveal God to all humanity, Paul can even argue for an innate sense of morality in human beings, serving as “the proof of the Law written in their hearts” (see Rom 2:12-16).  Idolatry, then, is not an error born out of human ignorance.  It is a deliberate and perverse betrayal of what we ourselves know to be true!

The consequence of this betrayal, for Paul, is that the gentiles have not only lost sight of who God is, they have forgotten who they are.  As we are made in God’s image, our humanity is compromised and distorted when we fail to recognize God (see Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics [Nashville: Abingdon, 2001], 229-303).  Same-sex attraction and relations are the result of that distortion.

In his commentary on Romans, N.T. Wright argues, “We cannot isolate these verses from Paul’s larger argument, both in this paragraph and in Romans as a whole” (N. T. Wright, “Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 10, ed. Leander Keck [Nashville: Abingdon, 2002], 435). He also, however, makes an intriguing observation:

It is quite logical to say that we disagree with Paul or that in light of our greater knowledge of human psychology we need to reassess the matter.  That can be argued either way (Wright, “Romans,” 435).

Can we really disagree with Paul?  I suggest that we can.  One of Paul’s deepest insights into the relationship between God and humanity is his realization that we cannot earn God’s favor by following rules.  Why, then, should we think that we must turn Paul into a rule-maker, and follow his teachings legalistically?  In Romans 4:13-16, Paul reflects on Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people who, through his faithful example, is also the “ancestor” of gentiles who have faith:

The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come through the Law [since the Law was revealed to Moses, and Abraham was Moses’ ancestor] but through the righteousness that comes from faith.  If they inherit because of the Law, then faith has no effect and the promise has been canceled.  The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law.  That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us.  

This does not, of course, mean that it doesn’t matter how we live our lives.  In Romans 13:8-10 Paul, like Jesus and the Holiness Code in Leviticus, presents love for the other as the primary ethical principle:

Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have [the Ten Commandments: see Exod 20:1-17 and Deut 5:6-21], and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself [Lev 19:18].  Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.

Elsewhere (see Gal 5:16-25), Paul affirms that this very lifestyle of love is itself a gift of God’s grace–the fruit of God’s Spirit.  We are not saved by right doctrine–even Paul’s own doctrine!–but by God’s grace, and called to live lives of love guided by God’s Spirit.

Not only can we disagree with Paul, it is clear that we do–indeed, sometimes that we must–disagree.  For example, in 1 Cor 15, Paul sets forth his passionate confession of the resurrection of Jesus, and the promise that through faith in Christ we share in that resurrection life.  But bodily resurrection is such a strange notion: after all, we know that dead bodies decay and dissolve. How then can they be raised?  Paul answers with an analogy from the natural world:

All flesh isn’t alike. Humans have one kind of flesh, animals have another kind of flesh, birds have another kind of flesh, and fish have another kind.  There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. The heavenly bodies have one kind of glory, and the earthly bodies have another kind of glory.  The sun has one kind of glory, the moon has another kind of glory, and the stars have another kind of glory (but one star is different from another star in its glory).

Just so, Paul says our “resurrection body” will be a different sort of body–a  spiritual body:

It’s the same with the resurrection of the dead: a rotting body is put into the ground, but what is raised won’t ever decay.  It’s degraded when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised in glory. It’s weak when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised in power.  It’s a physical body when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised as a spiritual body (1 Cor 15:39-44).

Paul’s illustration is based on the best natural philosophy of his day.   We know, however, that our human bodies are not fundamentally different from the bodies of animals, birds, and fish (for this division of living things, see Gen 1:20-25) .  All life on earth today is related: derived fundamentally from the same biochemical root, the DNA molecule.


This, by the way, is a biblical as well as a biological insight.  Genesis 2 affirms that humans and animals are made of the same stuff, and fundamentally linked.

So too, we know that the atoms that make up our terrestrial bodies are no different than the atoms found in the heavenly bodies: the sun, the moon, and the stars.

The elements of our universe are forged in those stars, and scattered through the cosmos when they explode in supernovae (like the massive stellar explosion that created the Crab Nebula, pictured above).  Carl Sagan said it very well:


None of this means, of course, that there is no resurrection of the dead!  We do not need to accept Paul’s physics or biology to follow his illustration, and understand his point: resurrection is not resuscitation or reanimation, but a miracle of re-creation.  Similarly, I would argue, we can follow Paul’s logic, and understand his statement of the human condition–“All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Rom 3:23)–without accepting his views on human sexuality.

As Wright concludes in his commentary:

It is, of course, important to remind ourselves that Romans 1 is followed at once by Romans 2, with its emphatic warning against a moral superiority complex.  As the argument goes on its way, Paul’s most damning condemnation is reserved, not for those who engage in what he sees as dehumanizing practices, but for those who adopt a posture of innate moral virtue while themselves failing in their most basic vocation, to be the light of the world (Wright, “Romans.” 435).

The condemnation of homosexuality is not, after all, Paul’s major point.  It is a stage on the way: a demonstration of the (to his mind) inherently perverse and sinful gentile world which, like the rebellious and faithless Jewish world, Jesus Christ had come to save.  We do not need to accept his views on human sexuality to affirm, with Paul, that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace, who through Christ may now be reconciled to God: “all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).