[a woman lays in a grassy field at twilight. Someone she loves is holding her tightly. The air is full of fireflies and the sound of innumerable gibbons. She turns her head and speaks]
SHE: Tell me, my love, does god live in the woods? Does his grace extend to dead deer being scavenged by a bear, and what does he think of the bear? What does Christ want of the cool river and the oaks that shroud it? What grace must we have if he chose only species in which to save, and only one to grant the soul. Tell me what kind of man this Jesus is. Apparently, he is a man, everything else in his creation was too filthy or stupid to him to even contemplate incarnating as one. He intervened in Old Egypt but lifts not one finger in Borneo, where burnt orangutans die of hunger and injury. He clothes and comforts outsiders, but what about the ones who wear no clothes? Who walks out alive of the Garden of Eden and which creatures does he keep in his book of life?
First I would say: Welcome to the club! For years now, I have found the Western human rights project to be deeply problematic.
This is not because I think the truth “underneath” human rights is unimportant, but for two related reasons:
Human rights currently lack an adequate philosophical and theological framework. Because it is very difficult to speak about transcendence and universality in an increasingly interconnected and allegedly “secular” world, human rights no longer enjoy (if they ever did) the kind of consensus for which the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were hoping.
Human rights are, functionally, rather more arbitrary than most people like to admit.This is true for two reasons. First, many States just straight-up violate human rights all the time, especially of alleged criminals and terrorists; people who undergo military training also suffer things which, in any other context, would be grievous violations of allegedly universal human rights. Second, the Majority World/Global South has, in the last fifty years, gained their formal, political independence from Western colonial powers; scholars and citizens of these new states have legitimately questioned the extent to which “human rights” is a structure that imposes Western/Global North sensibilities and interpretations upon the postcolonial and anticolonial realities of their lives. (This can become difficult when, for example, many States abuse, torture, and kill LGBTQ+ peoples within their borders, and then frame Western opposition to such treatment as a failure of the alleged pluralism of the West or as a neo-colonial posture.
Rather than trying to find universal “secular” language for the value of human life (and its implied gifts and responsibilities), I prefer instead to turn to the Christian and Jewish spiritual traditions, with their concept of being made in the image of God (Latin: imago Dei).
In the Christian tradition as I understand it, the imago Dei is a mystery. This is a technical term: it does not mean that we can know nothing about it, but rather that its meaning is, perhaps, nearly as inexhaustible as the God who gives a mystery, including Godself, to humanity–there can be many useful, good, beautiful, and true interpretations. I also believe that mystery, for Christians, is tied intimately to life-in-the-body, living-as-a-body, and refers first and foremost to something about the body and ministry of Jesus the Christ.
Setting the Scene
The phrase “image of God” occurs for the first time in the first Creation Story of the book of Genesis, which is a wonderful Hebrew poem with repeated refrains that might have been used in Temple worship. Indeed, the structure of this story, probably written by a priest during or immediately after the return his people from exile in the Babylonian Empire, suggests that Creation itself has the structure of a temple. As we hear and visualize this reality, we hear these words being read:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.” God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:26-27, New English Translation (NET) Bible
The way I understand it, the Hebrew word for image implies something concrete, a statue set up to remind a people under covenant of the sovereign to whom they owe allegiance; the world likeness is more shadowy, hard to pin down. This is the paradox of the imago: we know it when we see it, but damn, is it hard to talk about in some basically adequate way!
But I also find two more things interesting. The image and likeness is for something like rulership; and “male and female” bear the image.
First, the Hebrew word here, when used in other places, can potentially have a very violent connotation–putting your foot on an enemy’s neck. But in this context (especially when supplemented by the second Creation story that takes up most of Genesis 2) the task of ruling is a call to “serve and protect” Creation–serve it so that it fulfils the joy for which it was created, and protect it from God’s Enemy (in the Christian tradition, the Devil), who would like nothing more than to “occupy” this new Temple. (Because I am writing this in the context of a global pandemic “served” with a side of systemic murder-racism, perhaps my readers can appreciate how corrupt human “rule” of the biosphere has become.)
Second, “male and female” bear the image. This not only says explicitly that females are equal bearers of the image, but also implies there is a (mysterious?) spectrum of bodies between and around these two “poles.” Both the Jewish and Christian traditions recognize and affirm bodies that are “not simply male” and “not simply female” (though we have not always lived up to the deeply humane things this recognition implies).
In Genesis 2, I believe that the adam‘s calling to name animals speaks to an important part of the imago Dei. What things and people “mean” is not simply determined by divine fiat, but in conversation between humanity and the Divine. (Thus, though this causes scandal to many political and religious conservatives, the contemporary concept of “social construction” seems to have biblical precedent!) In fact, the human capacity to name, to converse with God, is so important to the Jewish tradition that those humans who argue with God consistently are called God’s friends! Human beings, when we deeply know and trust the love of the Divine, have a responsibility to fight with God about the meaning of our lives and reality until we receive a blessing–the explosive goodness of God that causes everything and everyone it touches to flourish.
I believe that all of these things are aspects of the imago Dei–which is why, in brutal summary, I believe “human rights,” as a secular take on it torn out of its religious narrative and responsibilities, is anemic and woefully inadequate. This is one reason why, in Genesis 9 after Noah and his family survive the Flood in the Ark, the author of Genesis tells his hearers this message from the Divine:
For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.
Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.
And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.
Genesis 9:5-7, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Murder of a human being, even by an animal, is so serious in the Jewish and Christian traditions because of the “image of God” in humankind. The image of God language of Scripture says at least this: Human beings have a value, dignity, and calling that transcends all human or systemic or spiritual attempts to squash it. And the Love that made all things will “require an accounting,” not for violence, but to set things right. Image-bearers who know what we’re about will constantly confer on and require of everyone, in appropriate ways, everything that “human rights” asks us to recognize–and so much more.
That “more” has something to do, I trust, with the long journey of knowing, trusting, and fighting with God until, as God’s friends, we implement all that Love requires as we go. And in my opinion, such implementation requires more than the bare minimum and rigid structure of human rights. It requires the suppleness and wisdom of all of us together at our highest and most adult selves.
If even some of this is true, beautiful, useful, good–“human rights,” by comparison, is entry-level stuff.
As I climbed out of my fighter (it was more like exhausted lurching, truth be told), I could hear them all chanting my callsign, even through my helmet: “Wombat! Wombat! Wombat!”
What had I done to deserve it? Things had been moving so fast…
When my feet touched the deck, I felt hands gripping me, steadying me, pulling my helmet and other gear off. I could hear my best friend and wingman’s voice in my ear, her accent amazed. “I’ve never seen anything like that! How in the Seven Hells…?!”
And then the sound died down, like turning off a tap. “Well done, pilot,” said the voice of the Jedi Master. “Clearly, the Force is strong with you.”
I remember preaching a sermon once in Trinity College [Toronto] Lady chapel. All the Bible readings except the Gospel basically said, “Rejoice!” The Gospel was John the Baptiser calling out, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Afterward, I went to the chaplain and said to her, “I was really uncomfortable preaching that text! I’m a pacifist, and John’s language seems quite violent.”
“It’s true,” she said. “But it seems to me that John’s rhetorical violence displaces physical violence in this text.”
That gave (and still gives) me a lot to ponder. When is it appropriate for my language to be violent? If violence is good for something, it seems to me that displacement rather than damage is a key ethical consideration.
Recently, many queer and Christian friends of mine have waded into questions of sexual ethics. Some of them are reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Shameless, and they are apparently getting a lot out of it. Because I’m prepping to start writing my PhD dissertation on the intersection of Queer and Pentecostal theologies, I’m loving the chance to read Michel Foucault’s three-volume History of Sexuality. These two “conversations” put me in mind of the sex-positive classic that encourages us to recover The Ethical Slut in each of us. And because my theological brain never stops working, I said to myself, I said: “I need to write about this!”
The Short Form (or, TL;DR):
Sexual concern is a form of “doing what love requires.”
The Ethical Slut claims, “Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.”
Nice means “kind and generous”
Good means “conferring or having wholeness, integrity, fittedness-to-the-situation”
The core of sex-positivity is, “Be free to have the ethical sex you want, and also to refrain from sex you don’t want or deem unethical.”
Which means that ace/aro folks and celibates are included, if they want to be!
We often shame people who exercise this freedom by calling them sluts.
Sex-positive disposition is compatible with the Gospel and is a bridge to useful conversations in the broader society.
Mature decision-making requires learning to make sound decisions “from the gut,” as Jesus did.
Ethical sex is (a) good.
Primary focus on misuse or abuse of sex leads to debilitating fear and shame.
God can and does use the ethical sex in my life to teach me about God’s character, and I delight in it thoroughly.
If all this makes me a Christian “ethical slut,” so be it!
The Long Form (or, Strap yourself in, here we go!):
Bolz-Weber is a badass Lutheran pastor who isn’t afraid to challenge religious dysfunction in the service of helping people experience liberation and flourishing. When Christians do our sexual ethics, she argues that we must go beyond the non-negotiables of informed consent and reducing harm to what she calls concern: Looking out for the genuine well-being of self and others in the realm of sexuality and having sex.
In volume three of his History of Sexuality, Foucault discusses how, in Greek and Roman thought, sex could not be wrong or harmful of itself (because it was Nature’s gift to humanity); on the other hand, the practice of sex could give immediate rise to all kinds of problems for “the care of the self.” One should, if possible, have sex only when the need of the soul and the body are in sync. The body, for these folks, is closer to Nature because it cannot be misled by the soul’s potentially distorted belief about how things are. Be careful not to excite yourself beyond the needs of the body, say the ancients, or you will have poor care of the self.
“Well then,” I said to myself, “taking all of this into account, does that mean The Ethical Slut is wrong?” Donnie Easton and Janet Hardy’s cheeky book (I’ve read the first edition) encourages us to have the ethical sex we want and to refrain freely from sex we deem unwanted or unethical.
“Sex is nice and pleasure is good for you” is a core thesis of TES. I’ve appreciated it because it has allowed me to challenge the sticky fundamentalist sexual programming of my youth, which seems more rooted in shame than in beauty, truth, and goodness. But the question sticks with me: Is intense desire in the soul and the body more dangerous than it’s worth? Has our culture, by embracing a belief in the goodness, appropriateness and even necessity of sexual expression across the adult life span, been misguided?
Never mind the wider culture: What about my own life and practice?! I am currently in (by any conscientious contemporary standard) a deeply healthy monogamous relationship, and I offered a first draft of the following in the context of a discussion about concern in sexual ethics:
I think it was Norman Pittinger who said, “The heart of Christian ethics is this: Do what love requires.” I take this memorable quip as the flip side of “do no harm.”
A central plank of my sexual ethics is joy or delight–what I like to call juiciness. It’s when all of me, including my body, seems to shout, “YAAAAAAS!” Sometimes–although this awareness is not necessary for my sexy times to be wonderful–it seems my lover and I bask in God’s own smile of pleasure.
Part of what helps me get to juicy is being concerned about how my partner wants to feel, and not just what he wants to do. In fact, Knowing the core emotions we desire guides the things we do and how we do them. For example: Kissing always happens in every sexual encounter with my partner. But I’ll kiss him differently if he wants to feel “cute and playful” rather than “sexy and assertive,” yes? We might not always “arrive” at the state we thought we wanted, but the effort to be fully present and enthusiastic is worth it, I think!
One thing I appreciate about Pastor Nadia and others is their desire to see Christians become spiritual adults who make insightful and intuitively sound decisions rather than constantly checking, “Am I following the rules?” Having a checklist is appropriate at a certain stage of learning. But if I’m called to be a friend of Jesus, even in my sex life, then I would like to become consciously and unconsciously competent at “do[ing] what love requires.” And being someone Jesus calls “friend” is the same thing as being an ambassador of God’s Kingdom.
Adapted from Facebook
But hold on a second–am I in the wrong about juiciness? For the ancients–and the Christians who read and cited them, shaping Christian theologies of sex and gender–is joy the wrong metric for me to use? Is asking questions about my desires and core emotions unhelpful? And if “doing what love requires” is my Christian conviction, doesn’t “sex is nice and pleasure is good for you” seem rather anemic and superficial? (At this point, I feel the hesitancy of a public speaker: There is no way I can say everything I think all at once. Try to be gracious, please, if you think I miss something important in what follows.)
If I’m truly serious about “concern,” does that mean there is no such thing as a Christian “ethical slut”?
For almost five years in my 20s, I worked for Environics Research Group, conducting opinion polls and social science research over the phone. (Yep, I was one of the phone monkeys calling during your supper, insisting–truthfully!–that I wasn’t selling anything but wanted to pick your brain.) Though the training wasn’t difficult, my supervisors drilled into us the importance of clarifying ambiguous responses.
“Always clarify when someone uses ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ ‘nice,’ or ‘interesting,'” they said. “In our line of work, those are the four least useful words in the English language.”
“Sex is nice, and pleasure is good for you.” Oh, OK. Fair point. So:
“Sex is nice…”
What do you mean by that, Robbie?
For years, until fairly recently, I hated the word nice, as in, “They are a nice person.” A couple tropes were fixed in my mind. “Nice” was:
A slightly pleasant blandness that is easy to dismiss or overlook (“Nice guys finish last”); AND
A scrupulous politeness that could still flay you alive:
like a British bank employee who secretly thinks I’ve asked a stupid question. (To avoid this reaction during my two visits to the UK in the 2010s, I would walk up and say, “Hi. I’m a student from Canada, and I think I’m about to ask a stupid question.” It worked); OR
like a Southern matron who tells you, offering her warmest smile and a plate of treats, “Well, bless yer heart.” Apparently, she means “Fuck off,” “Go to Hell,” or both!
Everything changed for me, one late night in early 2020, while I watched an archive of a self-described “little rich white girl” named Heidi Baker speak to the students of the School for Supernatural Ministry at Bethel Church in Redding, California. This potent woman of God spends half the year in Mozambique running orphanages, “stopping for the one” she encounters on the street, and healing the sick (she has a particular charism for healing blindness caused by malnutrition).
I was in a particularly open state as Heidi told one “Holy Ghost story” after another. I’ll always remember how, after describing a day full of unnecessary and even silly graces from God that made her feel deeply loved, she exclaimed, “God’s just so nice to me!”
Rev. Liz Edman, author of the book Queer Virtue, has recently become a beloved friend and intellectual playmate of mine. When I shared this experience with her, I remember she offered something like this: “I find myself, lately, saying to people, ‘I need you to be nice to me.’ But I’m not looking for something superficial. I’m looking for a deep blend of kindness and generosity.” Something in me started singing; I’m only just beginning to experience nice this way, at the beginning of my fifth decade of life. (That makes me 40, for those who wonder!)
So: “Sex is nice [ie, kind and generous]…” It seems not so superficial after all, because we’re back in the heart of concern and “doing what love requires.” Can I be generous and kind to my partner if I’m solely focused on gratifying myself? Is it nice to dismiss my own desire for juiciness as bland or stupid? Doesn’t something need healing and compassionate attention if I ever hear, within myself (or from my partner, God forbid!), “Fuck off!”?
As an allosexual with a high sex drive (someone with statistically typical sexual desire who loves a consistently high frequency of sexual encounters) I think it’s important that I say this: My asexual, aromantic, and celibate friends and loves have taught me to resist any pressure, from within or without, to engage in behaviours and relationships which I do not want and/or I find unethical. This is also being nice to myself and others. The freedom to choose, and to refrain from, sexual and romantic relationships which are consistent with my conscience–alongside consent, reducing harm, and concern–is the core of sex-positivity as I understand it.
Unfortunately, society often shames people who desire, advocate for, and practice this kind of freedom. We call the sexually actives ones, at least, sluts. (We’re probably just not-so-secretly envious, yes?) Some of my conservative Christian siblings contribute to this shaming by calling sex-positivity a contemporary name for everything the Bible calls sexual sin. Despite this caricature, disagreement about sexual ethics is not the same as culpably resisting God’s desire comprehensive (including sexual) well-being. If the core tenets of sex-positivity are as I’ve described them, they are congruent with the Gospel of the Kingdom, and can lead to fruitful conversations with our neighbours. (In my experience, most Christians and Christian institutions balk at having these further conversations because we don’t like talking about having sex and we’re afraid to find out we might not be at the bottom of the sex-ethical slippery slope. Mores the pity.)
“…and pleasure is good for you.”
Foucault’s History of Sexuality notes repeatedly the ambiguous nature of pleasure and desire for Greek, Roman and early Christian sources (though he argues, quite cogently, that the reasons such ambiguous attitudes arise stem from very different starting points for classical pagans and Christians). Regardless, as I read, I keep thinking of how Greco-Roman even some of our contemporary Western sexual mores feel to me.
When Hellenistic Christians were learning the Gospel, they used the resources of their cultures to struggle with how best to present a truthful picture of the One God and Creator. Emotion for humans, “moving out” from oneself, requires, they thought, a change. The presence of change in a thing means, according to some philosophers, that the thing in question is imperfect.
The ancient church, then, encountered a major barrier to the acceptance of the Gospel for their circumstances. Dozens of Scriptural texts, on a literal reading (especially of the Hebrew Bible) indicate that God changes his mind often enough to keep things spicy. But I can hear an informed ancient Christian protest, saying something like this:
Change means imperfection–what an insult to God’s character! We need to read these texts in the light of our conviction of God’s perfection. Perhaps God accommodates finite creatures like us by giving us what we can understand at the time. Perhaps there really is no good analogy between human emotion and God’s experience of Godself. God is impassible, and does not change. To believe something so ridiculous as “God the Father can suffer” is a grave heresy that we must not allow!
This view of God has implications for belief about the nature of personhood. Humans are most like God when we have an even and rational disposition. Our emotions are highly disciplined: not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
There are some good things about this view of God and humanity, but here I want to highly what I think is a serious problem: Consistent and intense emotions of all types become suspicious and problematic. In white English-Canadian society, if I express myself passionately about politics or religion, many will perceive as an ideologue, a potentially dangerous dogmatist. Over and over in my experience of Christian institutions, leaders look with suspicion upon those who cannot articulate their faith in well-ordered, defensible statements. When leaders craft theology and legislation to shore up Christian community, they often conflate “questioning theology and ethics” with “personal rebellion against God.” Where this occurs, there is a disastrous blow to the safety and appropriate flexibility of Christian communities. It is a devastating mistake.
What I perceive as an undue suspicion of emotion surfaced one day in my World Missions class at Bible College. My prof, who often fired off brilliant one-liners worth the cost of my tuition in themselves, said this: “Theology is a better motivation for mission than compassion.” At the time, I agreed completely.
To his credit, my professor was trying to warn a roomful of newly Evangelical teenagers about the seriousness of burnout and compassion fatigue in the lives of Christians. Better to operate with a settled theological conviction rather than by the vicissitudes of my emotions, I heard him say. Seems clear, reasonable, and good–to a point.
I admit freely that it’s possible that my 18-year-old self misunderstood him. But here’s my problem with his formulation as I remember it: The four biblical Gospels consistently report Jesus (whom I affirm as fully God and fully human) being “moved with compassion” to respond to the needs of those around him! As I understand it, we could translate “compassion” more literally from the Greek: “And Jesus, moved from his bowels…” From the gut, we say today.
My learned professor, I think, was over-emphasizing cognition and mental will: If your feelings don’t agree, remember your rational commitment to Jesus, and do the job anyway. As training wheels on our “faith bike,” as a stop-gap measure in an acute time of crisis, what can I say except, “Amen”? But I suggest it seems perfectly reasonable to track with the implication of Jesus’ experience: It came “up” from his body, not (only?) “down” from his mind!
Here’s my contention: Because he practiced being in God’s presence so consistently, because he met and talked his Abba so often, because he knew the Holy Spirit on him and in him, Jesus could “trust his gut,” knowing how to respond appropriately to everyone who came to him. And he often did it without stopping to pray first! Jesus reached a point–unclouded by sin in a way we aren’t it’s true–where God could trust him with saving the entire cosmos. Though we adopted siblings of Jesus do not yet have sinless maturity and fully-alive humanity, Jesus’ learning process and ours are identical.
As it was taught to me, St. Teresa of Calcutta founded the Missionaries of Charity, and often said something like this to those who asked to volunteer with her order:
If you wish to come and work with us, do not come because you love the poor; there will be days when you do not love the poor. Do not come because you wish to do works of charity; there will be days when you do not wish to do such works. But if you come because you seek Christ, you are most welcome; you may find Him everywhere you look.”
No citation found
St. Teresa, I think, went to the heart of what my professor might have missed. I hear her this way: If you first seek Jesus, everything else will follow. Sure, there will be days when I’ll feel like shit and do the right thing as if on automatic–but is this normal? I think not. Why? Because our best and most integrated experiences come “up” from our bodies and not (first of all) “down” from our rational minds. (I am not blaming people, like Teresa, who did the work in the face of void in her soul–far from it. What I am claiming is that Christians seldom know how to help people reach the place where the conviction “do what love requires” settles into our heads, hearts, guts, hands, feet, and genitals. If someone like Teresa is being tormented, this is wrong. If a believer in Jesus holds to him by mental force without ever feeling and knowing the love of God for them, great is their faith, but the Body of Christ has failed them somehow!
If I could meet my learned friend again, I would say to him, “Sir, the compassion of Jesus is the best motivation for mission there is, and I need to learn it in my body–so thoroughly that it shifts my emotions and bodily dispositions toward his, and not just my intellect.” I hope we would, soon enough, be in happy agreement.
What does this have to do with “pleasure is good for you”? Many Christians fail to consider that our best and most holy responses need to consistently arise from our bodies, including our emotions and feelings, and not just the part that can logically deduce the “right answer.” As difficult as this sometimes is for any number of good reasons (says the boy with cerebral palsy on the autism spectrum!), our bodily nonverbals and gut responses go much deeper than our words.
What if it’s true that (as the Psalms tell us), “At God’s right hand are pleasures forevermore”? What if John Piper, a self-described “Christian hedonist,” is right when he says, “God’s own experience of Godself is joy?” What if, according to the Westminster Catechism, “The chief purpose of humankind is to know God and enjoy God forever?” What if the “Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood?” What if that Word, Jesus, “For the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame”? And what if, like Jesus, we will all eventually experience the resurrection of the body–what if our good bodies are permanent? If, with our whole selves, we want to affirm these things, doesn’t that say something about how the juiciness of the body is a deep, messy, joyful good?
I am increasingly convinced that goodness at its deepest–like truth and beauty–far surpasses a superficial moral evaluation. Good(ness) is not exactly easy to define; it seems a lot more like “I know it when I see it.” (From the gut again!) But I wonder if it means something like this, “Being worthy of, and conferring, fittedness, wholeness, integrity, and sustainable growth in a given situation.”
I don’t know why this should be controversial, but it seems to me that sexual pleasures can confer, and are worthy of recognition as, profound goods. (Focusing only or primarily on the misuse and abuse of these goods leads to shame and paralyzing fear, which never help good discernment.)
Here’s my provocation for you. When:
my partner is making my toes curl…
all I can say, over and over, is, “Fuck, it’s so good!”…
the intensity of sensation and connection becomes so great that my upstairs (queer) neighbours can probably hear my moans…
kissing is breathy and ordinary…
…it is precisely these experiences that can and do reframe reflect, refract, and refocus how nice God is to my love and me in our whole life together. God teaches me, through my sex life, about God’s own character. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
What was I saying? O yeah: Sex is nice, and pleasure is good for you. If giving thanks to God for the juiciest and most consistent sex of my life, wanting (and getting!) it often, and training myself to be a fully present and enthusiastically messy provocateur for the man I love makes me a slut, than so be it.
I guess I can be a Christian “ethical slut,” after all. Soli Deo Gloria!
Revised Common Lectionary Reading: Psalm 107:17-22
A simple thought, but one that goes to the core of my Christian experience. Healing is part of God’s character, part of his “steadfast love” or chesed. Wherever the power called Sin has touched human life with destruction, it is always God’s will to set it right, always God’s will that we sing songs of joy for our deliverance. (Those same songs of joy, it seems, can set others free. This is one of the reasons we still sing this Psalm today!)
As a man who lives with Cerebral Palsy, I know that God wills my healing (and even my cure!) because this is the model I see in the person and ministry of Jesus. And the character and ministry of healing part of the mantle that the Church carries into every age and place.
O faithful, healing God:
Stretch forth your hand to heal,
and to cause your people to minister that healing with joy!
For the sake of Jesus, your Son,
we say: Amen.
Yikes. I have a big gap to fill when I’ve got the chance. But God is good, so let’s get started again…
Revised Common Lectionary Reading: Hebrews 9:23-28
But as it is, he [Jesus the Messiah] has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (emphasis mine!).
I had never noticed this before: “not to deal with sin.” I suppose I believed it anyway, because I have learned from non-violent atonement theologians that Christ’s Cross is God’s decisive dealing with all sin. But (at least according to the author of Hebrews), the Second Coming of Christ is not for smacking sin around again, but to save/liberate (judge? set right?) those eagerly waiting for him–we will be adjusted so that we have the capacity to live in God’s re-creation. This is a staggering thought, to me.
I would just like to note, as an aside, that this passage is the reason why orthodox Christians do not affirm reincarnation; according to this author, human beings die once, and afterward face God, who longs to set us right through the ministry of Christ on the Cross.
I wonder what kind of freedom I would walk in if it rested in my body that Christ’s Second Coming is not about “dealing with sin.” Perhaps I (along with so many others!), would let go of the lie that God (the Father) is out to get us somehow, or needs to make sure we understand how lucky we are that He’s let us join his Kingdom. But O! speaking as a disabled man who has so many questions, may Jesus stir up in me, and in every human heart, an eagerness for his return, and for the liberation of all things!
Revised Common Lectionary Reading: Proverbs 30:1-9
5 Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. 6 Do not add to his words, or else he will rebuke you, and you will be found a liar.
I first learned these words of Scripture in an Evangelical counter-LDS pamphlet, as part of the reason why orthodox Christianity rejects Joseph Smith as a false prophet and sees LDS doctrine as heretical. The way I remember the context, the basis of the argument was that the canon of Scripture is closed, and the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants add to the canon, the word that God has proved true. Unfortunately, the canon is closed only on a technicality–the Christian tradition is so scattered in its expressions that we could no longer add to the canon even if it were possible to call a genuinely ecumenical council that would carry authority across the entire Christian world.
But as I read these words today, I recognize that they are saying something profound and dangerous about prophetic ministry: prophets and sages require deep humility and listening, so that they discern and speak what they hear from God, and no more. There is certainly room for God to speak new things–in Matthew 4:1-11 (another reading for today), Jesus says that “Humanity does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Please notice that the sentence is in the present, and not the past, tense.) But as the oracle who wrote Proverbs 30 knows, along with Jesus, there is a profound temptation to forget or add to God’s goodness in ways that fundamentally compromise the ministry that we are called to carry in the world.
7 Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: 8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, 9 or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, “Who is the Lord?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.
Just as Jesus was tempted to forget God and supply his own needs by the Satan, I must admit that as a poor PhD student and disabled man, it is easy to justify taking (read: stealing because I didn’t ask permission) food that isn’t mine from the communal fridge because I run out of groceries and feel hungry. (Usually, this is poor planning on my part, not dire need.) Both literally and metaphorically, I will ask now for the food and daily materiel I need, so that my life will be in balance, full of gratitude. Those who have what they need, no more and no less, see more clearly the world in which they live and minister, and thus, it seems, are less likely to “deny” God or “add to his words.”
May He grant me the grace to repent, plan better, and discern the word He wants me to carry with balance, skill, gratitude, and clarity. Amen.
Revised Common Lectionary Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
This is one of the passages that some Christians turn to that suggests what some Jewish traditions call “the harrowing of hell,” which implies universal human salvation because of the ministry of Jesus. (That’s a much longer conversation!)
This passage also connects the Flood stories of Genesis to Baptism. I find it interesting that it doesn’t seem to have a typical idea of what “baptismal regeneration” means–almost as though God zaps the water and pow! a new Christian! But baptism is an “appeal to God for a good conscience through Jesus’ resurrection.” Baptism “saves” not because of a property of the water, but based on the authority of God’s faithfulness expressed in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. If God didn’t do that (raise Jesus), baptism as the efficacious sign of salvation doesn’t do anything for us.
There is an ethical dimension to baptism–it is an appeal to God for a “good conscience,” a heart and life shaped in such a way that we will consistently make the thousands of large and small choices that bring us to deep love of God and neighbour, and mature citizenship in the Kingdom/Commonwealth of God.
This Lent, if you want to follow Jesus, to whom his Father has subjected all things, please consider His call to be a baptised citizen of His realm, a visible member of his Church. Baptism is a primary way that we can deliberately make room for Jesus, and display to the world that we intend to give Him all the honour He is due.