Watch Your Step

In Uncategorized on January 24, 2006 at 6:29 am

Good morning. Before I was married, my apartment mate was a man named Roger. Roger loved God deeply, attended seminary, and is now married and the father of six. Roger continues to walk with Jesus, and I am glad he is still my friend and brother in the Lord.

However, when I lived with Roger, I learned that he had some very, how shall I say, “curious” ideas about Christianity. For example, Roger believed that slavery was not a bad thing. The apostle Paul never condemned slavery, so neither should we. Roger believed, therefore, that the American Civil War was a tragically unnecessary conflict, because North and South sacrificed over five hundred thousand young men for something that God had no problem with. Curious.

Roger also believed women should never speak in church, and that women should never teach men or have authority over them. This was, in Roger’s opinion, the apostle Paul’s rule in the New Testament church, and if it was good enough for the New Testament, it is good enough for us. Again, curious.

In addition to these beliefs, Roger was convinced that those who believed slavery was wrong, and those who believed that women could speak in church and teach men, needed to repent. Roger didn’t seem so curious to me anymore. Now he was getting personal. Roger was not aggressive. He honestly thought I was wrong, and that if the church were to be an effective witness in the world, then people like me needed to get our act together, and return to the Bible. Needless to say, my discussions with Roger about these issues were “spirited”, and sometimes we “spirited” at the top of our lungs!

Our readings this morning deal with the same issues Roger and I discussed: repentance, slavery, how we relate to our culture, and how the people of God can be a light to the world. When dealing with repentance, the most important thing is, we have to watch our step.

Our gospel reading gives us the theme for all our readings, and this theme is something that Roger and I would both agree on. After John the Baptist was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee preaching the same message that John had preached: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the good news.” Then Jesus saw Simon and Andrew, and he told them, “follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Repentance, and being fishers of men, go together. If we are going to attract others to Christ, then first, we must repent. We must return to God before we can lead others to God. On one hand, it is just that simple. If we are going to be a light to the world, then we must be sure our light is clean and shining. On the other hand, it is not quite so simple. What is sin? What precisely do we need to repent from? What does it mean to walk in the light? This is where Roger and I began to disagree.

Our scripture from Jeremiah gives us a good idea of what sin is. Israel had been unfaithful to God and needed to repent. Why? Jeremiah tells us the people of God had perverted their ways, and had forgotten the Lord their God, by what they did on the High Places. What were the High Places? The High Places were spiritual sanctuaries, on mountain and hilltops, where the nations surrounding Israel practiced their religion. The religion of the High Places was not the religion of Israel. The religion of the High Places was an abomination to God.

For example, sacred prostitution, both male and female, was practiced on the High Places. Here is a quotation that gives a good sense of what female sacred prostitution meant to the religions surrounding Israel: “Every woman, at least once in her life, received in the goddess’s name a man who was a stranger to her who himself represented an incarnate god. Sexual intercourse, through sympathetic magic, assured fertility of the land, of the flocks, and of the family. Here female equals blood, milk, body, fertility, and continuity of life. She is not yet an individual person, but a primordial natural force, awesome in its power to bring life, to convey the transcendent through sexual ecstacy. In this sense her body is not just a vehicle, but a presence, divine energy housed in the flesh. Through it she opens a man to the penetration of the divine and opens herself to the encompassing of it.”

Besides sacred prostitution, infants were sacrificed on the High Places. Infant sacrifice, again through sympathetic magic, offered innocence and potential to assure fertility of the land, the flocks, and the family. An infant was not yet an individual person, but a primordial force of nature whose sacrifice could alter the course of nature.

Clearly, the spirituality of the High Places was not the spirituality of Yahweh and the Bible. The key point is this: In Jewish spirituality, men, women, infants, and God, were fully persons. This was a tremendous step forward in religious thought. Men and women were not just primordial forces of nature, who could be used to manipulate nature. They were individuals. Persons. Infants were not just primordial forces of nature, who could be used to manipulate nature. They were individuals. Persons. Sexuality was not just a participation in the primordial forces of nature. Sexuality was a sacred relationship between individual persons. Most important of all, God was not just the greatest primordial force of nature. God was a person, His name was Yahweh, He could not be manipulated, and He was extremely ticked off that His people kept backsliding into High Place spirituality.

Why was Yahweh so angry? Because to treat men, women, infants, and God as less than individual persons was a tremendous step backwards for the Jewish people. At the time, they were the only people who understood that God was a person, and that because He was a person, all people were persons too. If they lost this, they lost everything. The Jewish people kept stepping backwards into High Places spirituality. God through His prophets called them to repent. They could not be a light to the Gentiles, and fishers of men, if they kept stepping backwards.

Though we have come a long way, we “modern” people still have our High Places. There are four areas where we can step backwards into High Places spirituality if we are not careful. First, sometimes it is tempting to reduce our spirituality to something less than personal. I know we all love Star Wars, but as Christians, we just don’t do the Force. Sorry Judy. The Force is great fun, interesting psychology, and great mythology, but its just not good theology. Our God is a person who is all good. He is not a force who can be used for good or evil. Careful we must be. Strong is the dark side. The Force, nature, psychology, science; any of these can become a less than personal substitute for God.

Second, we can seek guidance in life in ways that resemble High Places spirituality. Psychic readings, astrology, ouija boards, and other occultic practices promise to provide guidance for important decisions we make in life. The problem is, it is guidance without a Guide. In Christian spirituality, when it comes to guidance, we are, unfortunately, promised nothing. We get no looks up ahead, and we get few clues about what might be coming. All we are promised is that the Guide, Jesus, will walk with us no matter what comes. If we seek guidance without a personal Guide, then we are slipping into High Places spirituality.

Third, sometimes our “modern” sexuality resembles High Places spirituality. When a man looks at Internet pornography, is he not saying that that woman is a primordial force of nature and sexuality, and not a person? In many ways, the computer screen has become an entrance and initiation into High Place temples of sacred prostitution. Also, when sexual attraction overwhelms us to the point that we leave our marriages and families for someone else, haven’t we allowed the primordial forces of sexuality to overcome our personal commitments to other persons and to God? Isn’t this High Places spirituality?

Finally, when we reduce any group of people to a category only, then we are practicing High Places spirituality. I was guilty of this last summer. When gangs of thugs were looting New Orleans and shooting at medical helicopters after hurricane Katrina, I mentioned to Andrea that these people had gone sub-human, and should just be shot on sight. My feelings were understandable, but my thinking was wrong. No human being that God created ever goes into the category of sub-human. No matter how despicably they are acting. They are still persons. Whenever we categorize, we are in danger of making people less than persons. The poor and the homeless are persons, they are not a category. Even terrorists are persons. Terrorists are individual persons who do what they do for very specific political reasons. With all human beings, we must move beyond the categories, and see the real people.

Up to this point, Roger would agree that when we take a step backwards, we need to repent, or we will not be fishers of men. But when we move to our New Testament reading, Roger and I quickly go in opposite directions.

In Corinthians Paul gives one of his rules for the church, and that rule is that each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. Are you uncircumcised? Don’t get circumcised, don’t become Jewish. Are you a slave? Don’t seek to be free. Wherever you are in life, stay there. This is an interesting approach to church life. Why did Paul say this?

As Christianity was beginning to spread through the Roman Empire, apparently Christians were not remaining in the life situation in which they found themselves. Christianity was a mighty wind that was moving and energizing Christians, and this was causing problems. Paul’s great principle, found in Galatians 3:28, was that in Jesus Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. All are one in Christ Jesus. Christians were taking Paul seriously. If there is neither Jew nor Greek, maybe I am free to stop being Jewish. If there is neither slave nor free, maybe I am free to leave my yoke of slavery. If there is neither male nor female, maybe I am free to do things that women could never do before. Clearly, the social implications of all Christians being one in Christ Jesus were explosive.

Paul had to make a decision. The revolutionary and socially explosive power of Christianity could easily shatter the young church and destroy the gospel. If Jewish Christians started renouncing their Jewish heritage, then Christianity could easily come to be seen as some bizarre anti-country movement. If non-Christians saw Christianity that way, then the gospel would be destroyed. If Christian slaves started walking away from their owners in the name of Christ, then Christianity could easily come to be seen as an anti-slavery revolt like the revolt of Spartacus. If non-Christians saw Christianity that way, then the gospel would be destroyed. If Christian women started speaking in church, and teaching and leading men, then Christianity could easily come to be seen, in the eyes of an extremely patriarchial culture, as some crazy Greek mystery religion, where women did all kinds of crazy things, and if non-Christians saw Christianity that way, then the gospel would be destroyed.

Paul decided that, for the sake of the gospel, Christians in the Roman Empire must limit their freedom in Christ. Everyone was to stay where they were. If Jewish, remain Jewish. If Greek, remain Greek. If a slave, remain a slave. If a woman, remain silent. If, in this culture, walking in all the freedom of Christ would destroy the gospel, then we won’t do it. To step forward in freedom when the culture isn’t ready, is wrong. If we step forward at this time, then we need to repent. If we step forward now, we will never be fishers of men.

For Jeremiah, if we step backwards away from a personal God of the universe, and if we step backwards by seeing men, women and infants as less than persons, then we must repent. For Paul, if we step forward, and our freedom destroys a person’s chance to know the personal God of the universe, then we must repent. For both Jeremiah and Paul, it is all about knowing God, being a light to the nations, and being fishers of men.

Roger, unfortunately, never bought any of this. The stuff about Jeremiah was okay, but he thought I was absolutely, totally wrong about Paul. In Roger’s view, which is the view of many, Paul was saying that what happened in this world was not important compared to what happened in heaven. Because we are all one in Christ Jesus, it really doesn’t matter if we are Jew or Greek. Because we are all one in Christ Jesus, it really doesn’t matter if some people are masters and some people are slaves.

Roger thought that because we are all one in Christ Jesus, it doesn’t matter if women can’t teach or have authority over men. A slave-owning culture is not important. A strongly patriarchal culture is not important. What is important is heaven. What is important is that we are all saved. Christians should stay in the situations they are in because these situations really don’t matter. Knowing God no matter your situation is what counts. If we try to change culture to more perfectly conform to Christian ideals, then we confuse heaven and earth, and from this confusion we must repent.

On this subject Roger and I were on totally opposite shores. In my view, what we believe about heaven has EVERYTHING to do with how we behave on earth. All situations matter. But, I had one more weapon in my arsenal, and with this weapon I could get personal too. When I did, oh boy did Roger ever get “spirited.” My secret weapon was that I told Roger, nicely but assertively, that he needed to repent. Two could play that game. When I told him to repent, watch out.

You see, I believe there is implicit in Paul’s teachings the idea that though there are times when we limit our freedoms for the sake of the gospel, there are other times when we demand our freedoms in Christ, also for the sake of the gospel.

In the Roman Empire, the full implications and freedoms of Galatians 3:28 could not be implemented without destroying the gospel. But cultures change. The hope and the promise of Galatians 3:28 percolated through Western culture, over many many centuries, until in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds people in England and America began to see that slavery just wasn’t a very good idea. And a little bit later people began to see that women should have the same rights and freedoms as men.

At this crucial point, when culture has caught up to Christianity, if the church doesn’t stand up and say now is the time, and if the church doesn’t demand that slavery end, and if the church doesn’t demand that women be fully equal with men, then we greatly damage the gospel. If the world has figured out that slavery is wrong, and Christians insist on defending it, then we undermine the gospel, and we must repent. If the world has figured out that women should be equal in every way to men, and Christians insist that women cannot do what men can do, then we undermine the gospel, and we must repent.

One of the most tragic ironies in church history is that when one of Christianity’s most sacred treasures, Paul’s idea that we are all one in Christ Jesus, finally begins to transform culture in a truly wonderful way, what is the one institution in society that is most resistant and most opposed to these changes? THE CHURCH!!!!! AAAAAHHHHH!!!!! What is up with that? What are we thinking?

If we are going to be a light to the nations, and fishers of men, then we must repent. If we step backwards away from a personal God, then we must repent. If we step forward in freedom when we shouldn’t, and keep others from seeing our personal God, then we must repent. And if we fail to step forward when we should, if we fail to insist on those things that God is bringing forth in the world to make all people more fully human, then we must repent. It’s just that simple.

As all of us at Christ The King strive to be faithful fishers of men, let us help each other to watch our steps. Like the people of Israel, we are surrounded by a foreign culture and foreign gods. It isn’t easy to see the ways we have stepped backwards, and it isn’t easy to know how and when we should step forward. May we help one another as we keep pressing on to know our personal God more deeply, and may we help one another as we strive to introduce our personal God to the world.


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