Heaven’s Disturbing Trust in the Church
Sunday, August 21, 2005
Romans 12: 1-8
Rev. Dean Snyder
Twenty years ago I got a phone call from a friend who was disturbed and agitated. He was an older man. He was about as old then as I am now. He was upset because he just found out that his pastor was getting a divorce. This did not upset him as much as the fact that, apparently, his pastor was going to be allowed to continue to serve as pastor of the church after getting the divorce.
really, it wasn’t this that disturbed him so much as it was that when he was
a teenager years earlier, he had had a pastor whom he loved, whom he admired
more than anyone else in the world. That pastor had divorced. The rules of
This was his question to me: “Why, if it’s O.K. now, wasn’t it O.K. then? Are right and wrong fickle? Are good and bad changeable? Can we just change our minds about things whenever we want to.”
Well, I have been thinking about his question for twenty years. I didn’t do a very good job about answering it twenty years ago, but I’ve been thinking about it for twenty years, and I want to try to respond to it now. Maybe he doesn’t care about it any more, but it has been bothering me for twenty years. It’s a question I hear more and more. Are there no absolutes? Can things that the church has taught for centuries – can we just change our minds about them? Are right and wrong malleable? Are there no things or truths that we can depend upon?
I would like us to consider this question in light of the gospel lesson of the morning. Let me review with you what happened in the gospel lesson. Jesus has taken his disciples away. He is giving them their oral exams. Those of you who have taken oral exams know what the questions are like. The first question he asks them, like in all oral exams, is: “What do other people say about me? Who do other people say that I am?” They answered that question. Then the next question in the oral exam is: “Well, then, who do you say that I am? What do you think?”
gets the answer right. Peter says: “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
Jesus says: “Peter, you got it right. Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah,
for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father, my parent,
who is in heaven.” Then Jesus says to Simon Peter: “You are Rock.” Before
this, Peter was not a name. “Peter” is the word that Jesus would have used in
his language for “rock.” So he says to him (this is the way that it should be
translated): “You are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church and the
gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Then Jesus says to Peter this
absolutely amazing, and perhaps even disturbing thing. Jesus says to Peter:
“I give you the keys of the kingdom. What you bind on earth will be bound in
heaven. What you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This totally
amazing and maybe even disturbing thing – what you, the
Now the terms “bind” and “loose” were Hebraic terms for determining what behavior was acceptable and what behavior wasn’t. What was clean and what was unclean. What was kosher and thus allowed and what wasn’t kosher and therefore forbidden. It meant deciding what was O.K. and what wasn’t.
This is what Jesus says to Peter: that you, the church, those who have discerned the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, are given the responsibility to determine what is kosher and what isn’t kosher. What you decide will apply not only on earth, but will be accepted in heaven. What an amazing kind of thing. That God has enough confidence in us that God lets us decide.
Once we have discerned and learned this one absolute truth, it is our responsibility to figure out the implications for our living out that truth in the world. Heaven has chosen not to micromanage our lives. Heaven has chosen to share with us the greatest truth it knows and then has instructed us to figure out what is means for the way we live. Two thousand years after Jesus the Christ, we are still doing that. We are still trying to figure out what this truth about God that we have seen in Jesus means for the way that we should live and love one another.
I am not a Calvinist. I am not one who believes in predestination. I don’t believe that what’s going to happen tomorrow was written centuries ago and we’re just going through the motions. I had a friend once who was a strong believer in predestination, believing that the future had been decided already in God’s eyes and God’s mind. One day he had an accident, and after the accident I gave him a call and asked him how he was feeling. He said: “Whew! I am glad that’s over with!”
I don’t believe that tomorrow is set. I believe that we are in a relationship with God. Once you are in a relationship with someone else, what you do and think affects them. How I begin my day and the mood I’m in affects Jane’s experience of how she begins her day and her mood and vice versa. We are in a relationship with God. How we relate to God affects God. I believe that when we are full of praise for God, that God is empowered and strengthened to do what God is seeking to do in our world. When we are full of the lack of faith, discouragement, complaining and violence toward one another, I believe that it drains God. It dis-empowers God because God has entered into that kind of relationship with us. God has determined that what we do helps to shape heaven.
Now, let me say a couple of clarifications about that.
First, this discernment / decision-making process is entrusted not to each of us individually, but to us as a church, to us as a community. Jesus doesn’t tell us, he doesn’t tell Peter and the disciples, to just believe and then do whatever they want. He tells them to discern. He gives them the keys of the kingdom to discern what should be bound and what should be loosed.
Each of us has to read the Bible for ourselves. Each of us has to determine for ourselves what we believe and how we should live. But this needs to happen within community. This is why the life of Christian education and formation is so important. When we are in Sunday school classes and in Disciple Bible studies and ChristCare groups and adult forums, we are trying to figure out what the implications of what we have seen and learned in Jesus the Christ are for the way that we should live. We are helping to shape the understanding of the church. Over time, these things make their way into the church’s catechisms and Books of Discipline and order. More important, they make their way into the church’s culture and common understanding of what is good and not so good, what is right and what is a mistake.
Apparently, what we come up with when we begin with this one absolute truth that Jesus is the absolute revelation of the heart of God toward us, what we come up with, what we bind or loose on earth, is ratified, accepted, bound or loosed in heaven.
So Jesus does not invite us to become individualistic. Jesus invites us into community to discuss and learn and discern together. When you participate in a Disciple Bible study or an adult forum or a ChristCare group and wrestle with others about what the implications of who Jesus are for our lives today, you are helping to shape heaven.
The other thing is that our understanding of what is loosed and what is bound changes over time. Two thousand years after Jesus the Christ, we are still learning and trying to discern what the implications are of what we have seen of God’s heart in Jesus. This is what my friend was struggling with twenty years ago. Nothing in life is absolute except for the love of God that we have seen in Jesus the Christ. The rest of us need to figure out what the meaning is of this great revelation.
I have become impatient, sometimes, with the church. There are things that seem so clear to me – what the heart of God tells us that we should do about certain issues that the church and the society is facing. But the church seems so slow to get it. Well, as impatient as I get, maybe this is not all bad.
We as the church need to discern and to wrestle together to understand the implications of this great gospel that we have received. It is a slow process. Change is slow within the church because the church is a conserving institution. We need to engage in conversation with our brothers and sisters. I confess that I spend much less time in ecumenical circles today than I did ten years ago. There are no Catholic priests any more that I meet with on a regular basis. I used to. There were priests, Episcopalians and Pentecostals that I used to hang out with. I don’t do that any more. All of us need to be in ecumenical conversations throughout the church because it is this conversation that helps the whole church move closer to the vision that lived among us in Jesus the Christ.
Change is slow. We are still discerning and discovering. We need to not grow tired or weary because the church does not change as quickly as we might want it to. We have been given our lifetime. We have been given this lifetime, but the church has a long history, a long story and a long future. Our job is to help discern the movement of the Spirit of God in the church for our time so that the generations that are yet to come may move even deeper into the love and the grace of God.
I think that in our lifetime, there are three big issues that we are facing, where we are called to discern what the implications of the revelation of God through Jesus Christ are for our time.
The first of those three big issues is the place and role of women in the church and in society. More than half of Christianity still does not ordain women. Even some of us, like the United Methodist Church who do ordain women and who say that we are committed to the full participation of women in the life of the church, aren’t really doing as good a job of making what we say we are committed to real.
The second issue that we need to discern and the church needs to wrestle with in our time is the affirmation and inclusion of people of differing sexual orientations within the life of the church. This is an issue that we have been given in our generation and in our time to discern what the implications of the revelation of Jesus Christ are for the way that we live with one another as people of differing sexual orientations.
The third big issue (and the one that interestingly enough may actually be harder than the first two) is the question of our relationship with the people of other religions. As I talk to young adults in seminary and other young adults throughout the denomination, I am getting a sense that many young adults have understood the role of women in the church and are coming to understand the importance of us accepting each other even though our sexual orientations may be different. But I think that one of the most difficult issues that we will need to face as a church over the next several decades is the question of what we believe about people in other religions, people of faith in other religions. I think that that will be an area of great wrestling and discernment within the church during the rest of my lifetime.
Jesus says to us, his followers and disciples, what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. What we bind on earth will be bound in heaven. I am disturbed that God so trusts us. But God has placed this trust in us. God has given us the truth of God’s heart in Jesus Christ and now trusts us to figure out what it means about the way we should live.
I had a strange dream last night. In the dream I was back in the rural community where I grew up. I found a bucket full of money, a big bucket. It was stuffed full of rolls of money. I was given the instructions that I was to set this money out in a grove of trees where someone might find it. This instruction upset me because I didn’t know who would find it and how they would use the money. I didn’t know if they would use it for good or not. You know how time gets mixed up in dreams. What happened next in the dream was that I went to Foundry’s Treasurer, Larry Slagle. I said: “Larry, I found this bucket of money and I was instructed to just put it out in a grove of trees and let whoever found it use it in whatever way they want to. But I don’t want to do that. I want to give you this money so that you can process it into Foundry’s treasury.” Larry said to me: “Oh no, if you were given instructions to leave it somewhere where someone might find it, that’s what you need to do.” The dream ended before I discovered whether I followed instructions or insisted that Larry take it.
Well, this is what I think has happened. I think that in Jesus Christ, God has left us a great treasure where we could find it. Then God has decided to trust us, to do with this treasure what we decide to do. God has had confidence in us that we will use this treasure well to increase love and justice within our world. God has taken this bucket of treasure and let us use it the way we will.