Monday, March 09, 2015

From evangelical to Episcopal, Part 3

I recently found myself in a conversation on facebook with a friend of mine from my evangelical days.  I was a youth minister at a particular church, and this friend was a recent high school graduate from the church when I knew her.  She messaged me to ask a number of questions about being Episcopalian and about my views on certain Christian themes in general.  In this series, I'll simply restate the questions I was asked and then my reply.  These are pretty off-the-cuff responses, but precisely the kind of thing a blog is for.  In other words, they're pretty rough around the edges.   

3. Round three:  What are my thoughts on premarital sex?  Do all roads lead to heaven (e.g. a Buddhist who displays Christian virtues)?  How does a Christian determine his or her ethics, since the Bible can be interpreted in different ways?  And here she mentioned wanting to be able to answer her daughter's questions when she asks why she is or is not allowed to do certain things--why some things are right and others wrong.

My reply:

Let's start with the broad question of ethics. The Bible certainly can be (and is) interpreted in various ways. Even within evangelical camps. I don't know too many evangelicals who follow the 613 laws of the books of Moses. I don't even know too many who follow the Ten Commandments for that matter. So which part of the Bible is supposed to supply our ethics? There is a popular saying amongst evangelicals: the Spirit never speaks against the Scriptures. I prefer, the Scriptures never speak against the Spirit. Or better, the Spirit and the Scriptures speak together. The Bible is not self-interpreting. But it is easy to suppose our own voice to be that of the Spirit. So we need a community of the faithful who can be attentive to both the Holy Spirit and to the Scriptures and makes decisions together. In my last message, I indicated that Paul's writings on ethics are important--not so much because he tells us what is wrong, but because he tells us what is right. The fruit of the Spirit is right, the law of Christ is right, indulging the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life (in the words of James) is wrong. Why? Because the Spirit and the Scriptures agree on this.

I'm not really very interested in what is wrong or avoiding evil. I'm interested in pursuing good. Luther's famous phrase: "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly." We can do better. In pursuing the good we may sin boldly, but by believing and rejoicing in Christ even more boldly we are being transformed into the image of God's son. And that tells us right from wrong. If we walk in the Spirit, we will do the works of the Spirit.

In short, if Jesus really is alive, then it is Jesus to whom I am accountable and Jesus who will teach me right from wrong. He will do this through Scripture by the power of his Spirit, but he doesn't ONLY teach me that way. He also teaches me in prayer and in the transforming of my heart to love as he loves.

So the answer I hope I am wise enough to give my son when he starts asking such questions is "because Jesus wants you to/doesn't want you to." That's the place to start, I think. We don't pray to someone up in the sky who left us a book of rules. He left us inspired writings that lead us to him. And who is he? We pray to someone who is up in the sky, but also all around and in our hearts and in our minds and in our bones and in the tears of the suffering and even in the joys of lovers.

So, good segue to premarital sex. I like what a theology professor of mine told his children: no mingling of bodily fluids before mingling of bank accounts. Why? Because sex is more than a fun time. Sex is a covenant. Sex is not two bodies enjoying one another (which is what our culture tends to tell us), but two persons embracing a mystery, which is a sacramental sign of God's love for us if we are not too dim to perceive it. Sex is as serious as it is delightful. Premature sex stifles our ability to see that and to take it for the sign of God's love that it is--or should/can be.

As for the Buddhist who displays Christian virtues. Perhaps we should go with the Hindu, since there is nothing in Buddhism that really prevents a practitioner from believing everything Christianity teaches. A Hindu, on the other hand, may worship Vishnu or Siva. So does this Hindu get to heaven? Will this Hindu be saved? Will an atheist be saved if they display the fruits of the Spirit? It's a good question--a God-sized question, actually. In other words, I have no idea. I'm not even entirely sure what heaven is, truth be told. I know two things. 1. The God I have experienced in Jesus Christ does not lose anything or anyone that belongs to him. God is not in the habit of losing sheep or coins; he's in the habit of finding them. 2. God desires that all be saved. God has something wonderful reserved beyond the grave. Death is a door, in a manner of speaking. But to what that door leads, I do not know.

Now, if we take those two convictions together, it is hard to imagine that God will let a little thing like praying to the wrong God or not understanding Christianity very well stand in the way of God's desire to redeem. In other words, as Christians we must dare to hope that all be saved (or we have not understood the depth of God's love or the breadth of God's mercy), even if we know that the opposite must always remain a possibility. As Paul says, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess--in heaven, on the earth, and BELOW the earth--that Jesus is Lord. And as John tells us, whoever confesses Jesus as Lord will be saved. And yet, I suppose there may be some who do not wish to be saved. What God in his surpassing wisdom will do with those, I have only a ghost of a whisper. And I do not presume to know.

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