This is the first of two sermons in which I look at the issue that threatens to split our denomination in two: homosexuality, or same-sex sexual behavior. In this sermon I begin examining some popular, though tragically misguided, arguments for changing our church’s doctrine in light of Paul’s words on the subject in 1 Corinthians 6.
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
No video this week, but click the playhead below to listen to the audio. To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3.
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
“Deflate-gate” was back in the news last week. An NFL commission determined that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady knew that the footballs he used in the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts last January were inflated below the league minimum for air pressure: he knew they were under-inflated. So, the commission determined, Brady cheated—and he lied about about cheating. For one thing, in his smartphone contacts, the assistant equipment manager who deflated the footballs was nicknamed the “Deflator.” The NFL didn’t buy Brady’s explanation that he nicknamed him that because the man was trying to lose weight!
In the minds of many, however, the NFL came down with a surprisingly steep penalty: a four game suspension of Brady without pay; a fine; and a loss of future draft picks for the team.
Was this penalty too harsh? Many people thought so, including Donald Trump, who tweeted: “People are so jealous of Tom Brady and the Patriots… They can’t beat him on the field, so this!”
A few, like basketball commentator Dick Vitale, however, thought the penalty was too lenient. Vitale said that since Brady flat-out cheated, he should get a six-game suspension. And besides, if being suspended means spending more time with his supermodel wife Gisele, how bad can the punishment be?
But the question underneath all the arguing about Brady’s sentence is this: Is the NFL wrong to have the rule about air pressure in the first place? Is it wrong to enforce the rule? Is it wrong to make a big deal about it? After all, some quarterbacks, like Aaron Rodgers, prefer balls with more air pressure, not less. Is there really any harm in breaking this particular rule?
Like it or not, this is what many in our culture, in the church, and certainly in our United Methodist Church are asking right now about the rules, or laws, or commands that God gives us in his Word about sex and sexuality. Are we wrong about these commands? Have we misunderstood them? Are we making too big of a deal out of them?
Popular and influential United Methodist pastor and author Adam Hamilton thinks so. Last year, he said that there are three “buckets” into which all scriptures fall. In the first bucket were those scriptures that “express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.” In the second bucket were those scriptures that “expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.” These would include, for example, Jewish dietary laws and circumcision, which Christians are no longer obligated to follow.
So far, so good. But then he has a third bucket: this is for those scriptures that, Hamilton says, “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.” Into this bucket he places everything the Bible teaches about homosexuality. So it isn’t simply that we’ve misunderstood what the Bible says about the issue; it’s that what the Bible says is simply wrong.
How does he know all this? And who gets to decide what bucket these scriptures fit into?
And here’s what’s at stake in the question: Can God’s Word be trusted—not only when it comes to this issue—but to everything else it teaches?
A United Methodist pastor in Birmingham named Wade Griffith made headlines recently when he preached a sermon in which he announced his support for changing our church doctrine on sexuality. He offered an argument in support of his position, which I had never heard before. He talked about Jesus’ silence on the subject of homosexuality. I’ll say more about that topic next week.
But Rev. Griffith’s point was that Jesus was silent on the topic because he understood that his culture wasn’t ready to accept that two men or two women could be married in a lifelong, monogamous, committed relationship, and so Jesus waited, and the Holy Spirit waited… until our present time, after the sexual revolution of the late twentieth century, to tell us that homosexual practice isn’t a sin, after all.
There’s only one problem with that argument… Jesus didn’t wait. Not if we understand the Trinity and the work of the Holy Spirit. Because within twenty years of his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit—the very spirit of Christ himself—inspired Paul to write words about homosexual practice such as we have in today’s scripture, Romans 1, and 1 Timothy 1. This is what the inspiration of scripture means: God-breathed, the Holy Spirit didn’t dictate but guided the biblical authors, infallibly, to write what they wrote. The very words of scripture are there because God wants them to be there. We can be confident, then, that the words we have in the Bible are the words that God the Father and his Son Jesus wanted to communicate.
Or does Rev. Griffith not believe that about the inspiration of scripture? How can he, if he says this?
A couple of weeks ago on Facebook, a fellow pastor in the North Georgia Conference thought she was being clever in posting this meme. This man says, “I was born a sinner too. My sin is mentioned in the Bible 25 times. I tried to change but couldn’t… Luckily, society learned to accept us left-handed people.” You see the point. With heavy sarcasm, I nearly commented: “Yeah, the Bible is so dumb. Why do people believe it!” But I didn’t want to be misunderstood. But where does that even come from? Where does the Bible say that being left-handed is a sin? Of course it doesn’t—doesn’t even hint at it.
My point is, for a minister of the gospel to hold this kind of flippant attitude toward scripture—it angers me! These are the words of eternal life. I’ve devoted my life and livelihood to believing that God gave us these words, speaks to us through these words—that they are truthful. If they aren’t, if the Bible isn’t inspired the way we say it is, then I need to pick a new line of work because I’m obviously wasting my life.
I’m sure that my colleague from North Georgia would say, as many do, that it’s not the Bible that’s the Word of God; it’s Jesus who’s the Word of God. And, yes, Jesus is the Word, as John’s gospel teaches us. Jesus, fully God and fully human, perfectly reveals God to us. But how do we receive this revelation? A warm feeling in the pit of our stomach? A hunch? A gut feeling? An intuition? No… We learn about Jesus the Word from God’s written-down Word, the Bible. If we can’t trust that God’s Word is telling us the truth in so many other parts of scripture, how do we trust what it says about Jesus?
Let me share another thought about the United Methodist Church before diving into today’s text: While people are arguing about changing our Book of Discipline on questions related to sexuality—it needs to be said that many people who call themselves Methodists aren’t paying close attention to the Discipline when it comes to other doctrines!
I’ve probably done, say, 40 weddings in my eleven years of pastoral ministry. In all but maybe five of them—I’m not exaggerating—not only were the couple already having sex with one another, they were, in most cases, also living together before marriage. And many of these were “good Methodists”! Some weren’t, but many were. So clearly, our church’s message about sex and sexuality isn’t being heard. And how can it be heard if we pastors never, ever talk about it. So it’s a great gift to us that Paul does talk about it head-on in chapter 6 of 1 Corinthians.
And I’m going to be talking about it this week and next as we look at chapter 6.
And the first thing we ought to learn from Paul is that we shouldn’t single out homosexuality or even sexual sin as the worst kind of sin. Why do I say that? Because of what Paul says in verses 9 through 11: Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Of course, given our cultural debate, Paul’s words about homosexuality stand out to us, but are any of us off the hook? Do Paul’s words here not step on all of our toes? By the way, the Greek word translated “reviler” or “slanderer” is someone who gossips and says hurtful things about other people. Does anyone struggle with that? Are any of us greedy? Do any of us commit idolatry—even if we don’t bow down to a statue and worship it? Have any of us committed adultery—and remember Jesus warned against lust as “adultery of the heart.” And the Bible frequently portrays unfaithfulness to God, in general, as a kind of spiritual adultery. My point is, when we read this list, can any of us say that we’re off the hook?
No… We’re all in the same boat of engaging in behavior that Paul warns can potentially exclude us from God’s kingdom.
But let’s notice something else about this list: We can often speak about two different kinds of Christians: theologically liberal or progressive Christians on the one hand, and theologically conservative Christians on the other. In general, theologically liberal Christians tend to think that “public” or social sins—sins related to how we treat or mistreat to our neighbor—including greed, economic exploitation, oppression, and neglect of the poor—are the really important sins. Whereas, conservative Christians tend to think “private” personal sins—especially sins related to sex and personal morality—are the really big sins.
According to Paul, both these groups are wrong! Paul says that both types of sin are deadly serious!
My point is, you can be a good Democrat and be excluded from God’s kingdom. And you can be a good Republican and be excluded from God’s kingdom! So I hope none of us reads verses 9 to 11 and feels very comfortable.
We often hear that the Bible teaches that “gay people are going to hell.” This is a slander often directed at those of us who believe in church’s traditional teaching on sexuality. How to respond?
Well, first, lets concede that it’s true in one sense—the Bible teaches that gay people are going to hell in the same way that it teaches that straight people are going to hell. In other words, all of us, gay or straight, are bound for hell, which is eternal separation from God, unless or until we repent and receive the saving grace made available to us through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ! Second, no one is going to hell because they experience same-sex attraction. The fact that you might be attracted to someone of the same sex isn’t any more sinful than that you’re attracted to someone of the opposite sex. Attraction itself is neutral. It’s the acting on it that’s the problem—through lust or outward behavior.
Third, it it helps reassure you, Paul is writing these words to people whom he has earlier identified to as “saints,” to people who have been “washed,” sanctified, and justified—i.e., people who are currently saved—and to people who currently possess the Holy Spirit as a seal and sign of their salvation. There’s no getting around the fact that many of these very same Corinthians are still committing these sins, yet the fact that they commit these sins doesn’t mean that they are already excluded from God’s kingdom.
But there’s also no getting around the warning: Paul does say that these sinful behaviors are completely inconsistent with our call as Christians. And indeed, if we persist in living a life characterized by these sins, without repentance, without bearing fruit of regeneration or inward change by the Spirit, then, Paul warns us, this could be a sign that we are not saved or that we are no longer saved. Whether we believe this represents losing our salvation, or backsliding, or falling from grace—as we Methodists believe is possible—or whether it means we never truly received God’s gift of salvation in the first place, our sinful behavior can be a sign that we are not saved, and that we still need to repent and ask for God’s mercy and grace in Christ.
As Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”
Now I need to be clear: I’ve been preaching salvation by faith alone, by grace alone, week in and week out. Am I contradicting myself now—or is Paul contradicting himself. Does Paul mean to say that it’s not just salvation by grace through faith, but that it requires good works in order to be saved? No, what he’s saying is, how we behave matters. Our good works are always a response to grace that has already been given. And our works play no role in saving us. It’s all grace. But John Wesley believed that we can stop responding to grace until we lose the ability to respond—almost the way a muscle atrophies over time, from inactivity, until we find that we can no longer do what we used to be able to do.
Sin is deadly serious. If pastors like me seem to be singling out homosexual sin these days, it’s only because that’s the behavior that so many of my fellow clergy are saying isn’t really sin after all. Are they sure they’re right? Because nothing less than our eternal destiny is at stake in the question.
A few years ago, when Adam Hamilton preached a sermon in which he said that he, too, was leaning toward “full inclusion” of gays and lesbians in the life of the church, he shared a heartbreaking story, some years earlier, of parents who came to his office in tears because their teenager “came out” to them as gay. “What do we do, pastor?” And he said, “What do you think you do? You love them. They’re your kid.”
And I agree. They’re our kids and we do love them. But his response begs the question: What does love look like in this case? If God’s Word is right that homosexual practice is a sin—and that this behavior is so spiritually harmful that it risks excluding us from God’s kingdom—it would be the opposite of loving to say otherwise.
I’ll say more next week in Part 2. But I want to leave us with of hope: Despite what you’ve heard, change is possible when it comes to sexuality. And I don’t mean by that that every gay and lesbian person will rid themselves of unwanted same-sex attraction if they only have enough faith. Not at all. There are very faithful Christians who may struggle with this all their lives, just as Paul himself struggled with what he described as a “thorn in his flesh”—whatever that was. Despite Paul’s urgent prayers and exemplary faith, the Lord never took away his thorn. He suffered with it all his life. But you know what the Lord did do? He gave him the sufficient amount of grace he needed to live with that thorn. And the Lord transformed this otherwise painful thing into something good for him.
Brothers and sisters, God can and will do the same for us—whatever our struggles, whatever our thorn—if we’ll only surrender to him and trust his Word.
Wesley Hill is a self-identified gay Christian and theologian, who prayed earnestly that the Lord would take away his attraction to people of his own sex. As with Paul and his thorn in the flesh, Jesus said no. But Hill, because he trusts that God’s Word is telling the truth, has chosen to be faithful in his sex life and remain celibate—the way every Christian who’s single is called to be faithful and celibate. In his book about his experience, Washed and Waiting, he writes these beautiful words about his struggle, which could apply to all of us:
Christianity’s good news provides—amply so—for the forgiveness of sins and the wiping away of guilt and the removal of any and all divine wrath through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Seen in this light, the demand that we say no to [the sinful impulses we all struggle with] need not seem impossible. If we have failed in the past, we can receive grace—a clean slate, a fresh start. If we fail today or tomorrow in our struggle to be faithful to God’s commands, that, too, may be forgiven. Feeling that the guilt of our past sins or present failures is beyond the scope of God’s grace should never be a barrier preventing anyone from embracing the demands of the gospel. God has already anticipated our objection and extravagantly answered it with the mercy of the cross.
 1 Corinthians 1:2
 1 Corinthians 6:19
 Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 64.