On Sunday, I was highly critical of Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas, as well as others of his ilk that are famous for their criticism of homosexuality. You can read my comments here, but the main point was that any ethical stance must risk something. This follows from Jesus’ claim in John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” My claim was that, in saying that “gay is not okay,” Mr. Jeffress risks nothing and, therefore, finds nothing and gives nothing. Mind you, this is not an apology; I stand by that statement. However, my intention was to hold myself and our church to the same standard and I think I failed in that.
I did ask the question in our conversation, but, being a conversation, it didn’t go exactly where I thought it would. As we used to say about software design: This is not a bug, but a feature. Some tremendous insights were given, as well as some difficult and important questions. However, I don’t want to let the questions I started with slip by: What do we risk as a church? What are we willing to risk?
Valen suggested that we risk a certain kind of alienation. Because we hold certain positions on social issues, such as being open and affirming of all kinds of queerness, and because we take practices to be more important than beliefs, we often find ourselves on the margins of the dominant Christian tradition. (I say “dominant,” not because that tradition is necessarily the largest, but because it is currently the loudest.) I agree that we risk this kind of alienation, whether that means outright rejection by family and friends, criticism by other Christians, or just the awkwardness of trying to explain what the hell we are doing. However, I wonder if that is enough. It strikes me that Robert Jeffress and others often claim, not just alienation, but victimization by a larger culture that is hostile to their values, values that they take to be from God. It also strikes me that some of us enjoy alienation; it feeds my need to be special. So, while our alienation is very real and, at times, uncomfortable – painful even – I want more, for myself and for our church.
I’m not sure what I’m asking. Often, the greatest risks are surprises. (Thanks, God!) But I want to continue pushing this question as a church. We often struggle with issues of identity, but often that question is focused around beliefs, how we understand ourselves as Christians and as a church. What if, instead, we focused our identity around action?
Our next series, starting in July, will be on social justice issues. My hope is to lift up the things we are already doing and to ask what more we can do. Do our actions match our values? Is there an identity we can claim? What would anyone outside our church recognize as Church in the Cliff? If we disappeared, would it make a difference to anyone but us?
I also wanted to address some of the questions highlighted by a visitor. Like many of us, it seemed that she is moving away from a more conservative tradition, but is unsure of what faith looks like outside of that. She was looking for a bottom line, a set of beliefs on which to ground herself. As many expressed in the conversation, our faith tends to be organized around practices more than beliefs. Although the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus appear to be important to all of us, we probably all understand those things a little differently. Our task is to love one another as we negotiate their meaning. However, I would like to provide my version of what those things might mean as succinctly as I can.
In the traditional view, Jesus was both human and divine and his death on the cross is payment for our sin. In the church of my youth, and probably what is now the dominant view in American Protestantism, the critical thing is to accept this fact in order to be saved. I can say clearly that I no longer understand things this way.
I do think Jesus is both human and divine, but not in a way that is substantially different from any of us. In a difference of degree, Jesus was so clear about the task of his life and so faithful in pursuing it, that the divine part was in complete control. He was not under the sway of fear, controlled by the limitations of being human in a finite world. And he did die for our sins. That is, he died because of the sins of those who were – and are; as Pope John Paul II suggested, Christ is crucified all day every day – controlled by fear. Fear of loss, of death, of rejection, of pain, all drive us to control others, to isolate ourselves, to insulate ourselves. Jesus stood up to that fear and lived through it unto death. Our task as Christians is to live into that story, stand with those who suffer even unto death.
This means that salvation is not one moment. Yes, a big decision is helpful as a milestone, a marker of the day we decided to turn toward God and live into that story. But we must make that decision every day, every moment we are beset by fear and loss and death. We must look for salvation every day because sin persists every day.
This also means that salvation is not for us; it is for the world. If walking in the Way of Christ and the Wisdom of Sophia is just entering heaven and avoiding hell, you’re missing the point. In fact, it lives into precisely the fear that drives the world into sin. Instead, we as Christians can live into God’s dreams for the world, a world beyond fear of loss and limitation and death, a world of faith, love, and hope.
This, to me, is the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Others in Church in the Cliff may see it differently. I look forward to continuing to discuss it and to sharing life together through it all.