The following is the basic text of a sermon that was preached at Grace Community Church in 2014:
Living with Grace and Truth: Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church
Michael Sam’s being drafted into the NFL and the Pulaski County judge’s declaration that the Arkansas law prohibiting same sex marriage as unconstitutional, have certainly put the issue of homosexuality in the news in the past week. The trend in our culture today is undoubtedly toward a greater acceptance of homosexuality. People have asked me time and again about our church’s stance on this issue. Honestly, while I have had most of this sermon written for over a year, I have been hesitant to address the issue because there are a great number of dangers on all sides of this and I don’t want to do more harm than good.
Let’s begin with a verse of central truth to as Christ followers:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
These words have been in my mind quite a lot lately. Jesus was full of grace and truth. He wasn’t fifty percent grace and fifty percent truth, but one hundred percent grace and one hundred percent truth. Many of us in the church find this a hard balance to keep. There are many Christians who are strong on truth. Truth oriented Christians love theology and studying the bible, and yet can sometimes be quick to judge and condemn and slow to remember what the bible teaches all of us–all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They can be strong on truth and weak on grace.
Grace oriented Christians embrace forgiveness, love, and freedom, and yet can neglect the importance of bible study and the reality of sin. Any declaration of absolute truth or honestly held conviction of a God ordained life is seen as mean, hateful, legalistic, and unloving. Grace becomes devoid of truth and gains a meaning that is totally foreign to the biblical concept. They can be strong on grace and weak on truth. A life full of grace and truth is not easy.
To add to the difficulty, we tend to gravitate towards people who are like us. This means that truth oriented churches tend to attract truth oriented Christians. Grace oriented churches tend to attract grace oriented Christians. In these “pure” churches, everyone’s opinion is supported by the fact that they have surrounded themselves by people who already agree with them (kind of like the conservative who only watches Fox News or the liberal who only watches CNN.)
But what happens to a church that tries to embrace grace and truth. It will be attacked by the truth oriented Christians and churches as liberal and compromising on biblical truths. It will also be attacked by grace oriented Christians and churches as mean, uncompromising, and legalistic. I don’t simply know this intellectually, I have experienced this numerous times in the churches I have led.
A church that is full of grace and truth will also attract a broad spectrum of people into its life together. Rather than the purity of the church that is either truth or grace, a grace and truth church will be a much messier place containing people with positions on the left, right, and in the middle who are being called to love one another amidst great diversity.
This tendency toward grace or truth can be very clearly seen in the debate around homosexuality. I have had a number of calls about this issue asking our church’s stance on this topic. I have had the opportunity to speak to several of our small groups and been asked at each, “What is our church’s position on this issue?” I have even received some calls from people who say they cannot attend our church because of our position. Interestingly enough, it comes from both sides. There is great confusion around this and I hope to give some clarity.
As part of the United Methodist Church, we get regularly criticized from both the truth Christians and the grace Christians. The United Methodist Church has stated clearly our position on the topic of homosexual behavior. The church’s position is “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” We will not conduct homosexual weddings in our churches nor are our pastors allowed to officiate at homosexual weddings. This is an increasingly unpopular position in our culture today and is condemned by some as mean and legalistic. The church has historically come to this understanding not because it is popular in our culture or because we are mean, hateful, or homophobic but because it reflects the biblical witness on the topic of sexual relations.
At the same time, our church has expressed a position towards welcoming people into our church that draws the condemnation of those on the other side. The United Methodist Church states: “We also believe that homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth and that all persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.” We believe that all people should be welcomed into the life of the church before they clean up or straighten up. We don’t believe that there are special categories of sins that are worse than others. We believe that we are all in need of divine grace and mercy.
We believe that people don’t care much about what truth we believe in until they feel the unconditional love that comes from God through His church. We believe that people are healed inside the church family where they can be honest about who they are and not fear rejection and condemnation and not outside the loving, caring, supportive environment where people can be free to unmask and be truthful about where they are on their spiritual journey.
The greatest example of the fullness of grace and truth is Jesus. The bible says that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. The truth is that we were sinners who were turned away from God and rebelling against him. The bible is uncompromising in this truth. Grace means that Christ died for us. He loved us and gave himself for us to meet our deepest need. He came not to condemn us, but that we might be saved through him (John 3:17). One hundred percent grace and one hundred percent truth, he lived his life as a model for us all.
Jesus did not shy away from speaking truth. In light of the truth, Jesus then reached out to love, serve, minister, and bless those he sought to draw close to God. His commitment to love us sacrificially and invite us to the table with him in no way compromised his commitment to the truth. It was his way of responding to the truth. Here’s the deal, in our culture truth is often not a reason to reach out in love, it is a reason to knock someone over the head with a bat. Truth is an excuse to exclude, demean, judge, hate, and dismiss. Jesus’ strongest criticisms were not for the sinners of his day but for the religious leaders who used truth to condemn rather than a motivation to reach out. The church has a bad reputation over all in much of the homosexual community for just this reason. It is rightly deserved and we should as a people repent of this for this is in no way like Jesus.
What does this mean for us at Grace. First, it means that we always lead with grace. People sometimes ask me if their friend will be “accepted” here. Their friend may be a different race, religion, a drug addict, ex con, hippie, yuppie or some other label that someone has slapped on somebody else that in no way truly characterizes who they are. The answer is a resounding “Yes.” I don’t have to agree with your actions to love you. To love someone and care for them does not in any way compromise anyone’s convictions. We love God because he first loved us. As the old Methodist hymn goes, “Freely, freely you have received, freely, freely give.” Only when people are convinced that we love them regardless of whether they change or not do we earn the right to speak truth into their lives.
I have had a number of people tell me that they have been warned not to go to our church because we are a “gay friendly” church. I will welcome that label. One of the things that makes Grace the place that it is, and this has been a part of who we are from the very beginning, is that we are friendly to everybody. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie and pretend to be something you are not to walk through our doors and be loved and welcomed. We do not have a special list of sins that we check before letting people in the door. To those who would label us “gay friendly”, I would also let them know that we are also divorce friendly, greedy friendly, rape the planet friendly, sex before marriage friendly, drug addict friendly, pride friendly–pick one and we are friendly.
Second, we must speak the truth in love. We do not love others when we fail to speak truth. The church does not preach hatred when we teach the truth of how God has called us to order our lives. We don’t do anyone any favors when we justify, dismiss, or deny sin. The church is called to preach a number of uncomfortable truths about greed, divorce, gluttony, sex before marriage, etc. Almost every week when I preach I am aware that someone is going to be offended by some biblical truth that I am trying to lift up. In a culture increasingly confused about sex and sexuality, our church’s message is that there are two biblical options when it comes to sexual intercourse: we can live a celibate single life or we can choose to engage in sexual intercourse in a marriage between a husband and a wife.
We must not be afraid to lift up truth, but too often the truth has been spoken in anger and not love. It’s been given as an ultimatum and carried with it the implicit understanding of judgement and condemnation for those who don’t straighten up. When truth is spoken in love there is a kindness, a gentleness, and a humility that presents truth not as condemnation but as love. Speaking truth is not trading insults via facebook or making demands of others. We offer truth to others, we do not beat them over the head with it or attempt to stuff it down their throats. To speak truth is to address issues or behaviors and not the motives, value, spiritual state, or intellectual ability of the individual. Our culture has almost totally lost the ability to have a civil discussion and the church can model how to speak truth in love without hatred and name calling.
Speaking truth also means that we are clear that the bible doesn’t really say anything about homosexual orientation. What the bible prohibits directly and indirectly is same sex sexual activity. The issue in the bible is behavior and not inclination. Stigmatizing and fearing people because of their orientation, whether genetic or learned, is sin. A person who has a homosexual orientation may be a candidate for ministry in our church and be ordained as a pastor. They must, however, be celibate in singleness or faithful in a heterosexual marriage.
We must be clear that in our country there is a separation between the church’s theology and the state’s politics. It is not about what the state chooses to do. We live in a democracy and the laws and statutes of our city, state, and country will eventually reflect the values of the majority in our culture. Very little good has ever come from Christians forcing their beliefs upon others by the power of the state. The Christian crusades of our past where we forced others to adhere to our beliefs were neither successful nor representative of how God revealed himself in Christ.
Last, it means that Grace will always be a messy place. There are a diversity of opinions on this subject within our church. Those who disagree with our church’s stance on this issue are not evil people out to destroy the church. Those who support the church’s position are not hateful fear mongerers out to destroy the church. Our battle is not against flesh and blood and it is time to cease from name calling in the church. In love, we are called to search the Scriptures together and to daily die to ourselves until the Holy Spirit brings us to complete unity in Christ. To love one another doesn’t demand anyone to compromise their beliefs and opens the door for the Holy Spirit to work in powerful ways among us all.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13