Navigating Difficult Waters: A sermon based on Romans 1:18-32
There are undoubtedly two verses that stood out for all of us as we heard this passage — verses 26-27, what Paul says about homosexual intercourse. I think that I can safely speak for nearly everyone here and say that these verses raise concerns. Yet the challenge is that the concerns each of us have about this passage are likely to be quite different from one another. Some here may experience same-sex attraction and be concerned that God is condemning you. Some know and care about others with same-sex attraction and don’t want them to feel condemned. Some know and care about others with same-sex attraction, believe that their behaviour is not God’s best, and want them to turn away from those relationships. Some of us are deeply embarrassed and disturbed by the way Christians have been violently homophobic and want to reassure those outside the church we are not like that. Some of us resent the way Christians have been portrayed in the media as homophobic and bigoted as a whole. Some of us are deeply concerned that the church will adopt our culture’s sexual ethic, which seems quite far from biblical ethics. Some want to safeguard the church as a place of welcome for all people, including people with different sexual orientation. Some of us want to see the church as a place of transformation for all people to be more Christ-like, including people of different sexual orientation. Some of us, like me, hold many of these concerns simultaneously.
Because there is tension between many of these concerns, holding these concerns together is tiring. On top of that, holding different concerns than the people around you is tiring. But on the bright side, there is one concern all of you share; all of you are probably concerned that I won’t say what you think I should say. Don’t worry, I’ve written a sermon that won’t make anyone uncomfortable, addresses each of our concerns, unites us in all our differences while still being biblically faithful, culturally sensitive, and provides a way forward we all can agree upon. Of course we know that sermon doesn’t exist, and its times like this that I often hear people say, “I’m really glad I don’t have your job.” I’ve been quite anxious about this sermon, so please take it easy on me as I work through the whole passage.
I want to say one more thing by way of preamble. We all have people that come to mind when we hear a passage like this. I’ve got (at least) four people that have been on my mind throughout the process of writing. One person is my best-friend in high school, Chandler. He was openly gay the whole time I knew him, suffered from bipolar disorder, and he took his life at age 21. When he died, that was the first time I experienced real grief. The second person I’ll introduce is Craig, who was also a really good friend. We went to church together and were housemates in my early twenties. He wanted badly to walk away from a gay lifestyle, but he is now married to a man in Texas. The third person is Toni, he gave a testimony at Regent about the way God worked with him to walk away from a gay lifestyle. He’s been married to a woman for at least two decades and has children. The final person is a CRC colleague in ministry. She’s openly gay but has been living a celibate lifestyle for several decades. In my head, I ran what I’m about to preach past these four people. I wanted to make sure I could preach it with those four in the front row — they are here in my imagination.
Now to the passage. Let me first describe my approach — I’m not simply going to look at those two verses and say what they say. Instead, I’m going to teach the whole passage, verses 18-32. I want to show how the parts fit together not only within the whole chapter, but within the whole letter. And in light of that, we’ll see how some of our concerns are addressed. (Slide 2)
Paul starts out saying, “For the anger of God is unveiled against all the ungodliness and injustice performed by people who use injustice to suppress the truth.” In the verse before, Paul said, “I’m not ashamed of the Gospel; it’s God’s power bringing salvation to everyone who believes—to the Jew first, and also equally to the Greek.” This is the main point that Paul is trying to make throughout the whole letter. Paul is telling the Romans about the Gospel, the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ, bringing salvation to everyone who believes. If you had never heard about the Gospel you might be wondering, “salvation? Salvation from what?” That’s the question Paul is answering in chapters 1-3. Paul is explaining what kind of predicament humankind has gotten itself into — and hence our need for salvation. You’ll notice I said humankind. In the first three chapters of this letter, Paul is making the case that all humans are in the predicament of needing salvation. So, what’s the predicament? Humans need salvation because humankind has grown rotten to the core. Think of a tree that on the outside looks good, but the inside is infested with rot — the tree needs to come down because it can no longer support its own weight. The tree is dangerous. That is a picture of what Paul says has happened to humankind and he’s about to explain how we got there.
We get the first glimpse as to how humankind got to this place when he says, “As a result they have no excuse: they knew God, but didn’t honour him as God or thank him. Instead, they learned to think in useless ways, and their unwise hearts grew dark. They declared themselves to be wise, but in fact they became foolish. They swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans—and of birds, animals and reptiles.” Paul is speaking on several levels at the same time. On one level, Paul is describing the worship practices of the nations outside Judaism that are not about worshipping the one true God. These worship practices were in many ways dehumanizing. On another level, Paul is describing Israel’s history of idol worship, especially in the Exodus story, where they worshipped the golden calf. On still another, level, Paul is describing what happened in Genesis 3, when the first humans made the choice to distrust God. Their motive behind listening to the serpent and eating the forbidden fruit was so that they could attain a wisdom that God was withholding from them. Genesis 3:6 says, “Eve looked at the fruit and saw that it was desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” Paul is alluding to this passage when he says, “they declared themselves to be wise, but in fact they became foolish.” The human predicament happened in that first shift from allegiance to God to allegiance to creature. The human predicament began with the attempt to dethrone God. Paul describes the result of breaking relationship with God as resulting in useless and foolish thinking, suppression of truth, a darkening of the heart. In short, a general confusion about what is good and what is bad. In removing God from the core of their life, humans became perpetually self-deceived. Significantly, Patricia Keith-Spiegel, an expert in the area of psychology and ethics, says, “We humans have a remarkable ability to deceive ourselves.”
Pauls says this state of self-deception happened when humankind (slide 4) “swapped God’s truth for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever, Amen.” Let me pause here and say that it is concerning when we adopt a view of ethics that is shaped outside of biblical revelation. “We humans have a remarkable ability to deceive ourselves.” Of course we can learn much from becoming educated about the world around us, our relationships, scientific experiments, thoughtful individuals, experience and reason. Yet, due to our profound ability to deceive ourselves, wisdom needs to sit comfortably alongside God’s self-revelation in Scripture.
Back to the passage — Paul is making the point that humankind is infected with a sickness that began when humankind swapped God’s truth for a lie. This is not a sickness that individuals contract when they individually choose to swap God’s truth for a lie, worshipping the creation instead of the Creator. According to Paul, this is a sickness common to humanity, which resulted in a wholesale darkening of the heart. Nobody is left out.
Have you noticed how the theme of Creator and creation has been present throughout everything Paul has been saying? Throughout these verses Paul has been taking up a theme that you’ll find repeated throughout Scripture. (Slide 5) The theme is that the wellness of creation is directly dependent on the relationship between humankind and the Creator. (Slide 6) When humankind broke relationship with God, everything began to unravel and be disordered. Our relationship to God began to unravel and be disordered, and as a result so did our nature as God’s image-bearers. (Slide 7) This impacted relationships between neighbours, which also began to unravel in disorder. (Slide 8) This in turn impacts our relationship with creation, which also began to unravel in disorder. When relationship with God is broken, God’s created order unravels. That’s the premise of the flood story of Noah, that’s the premise of the 10 Plagues in Egypt, and that’s the premise of what Paul is saying in Romans. Creation is disordered because of the choice of humankind to dethrone God, swap God’s truth for a lie, and worship the creation apart from the Creator.
This brings us to Pauls next point in his argument, He says because humankind swapped God’s truth for a lie, “God gave them up to shameful desires. Even the women, you see, swapped natural sexual practice for unnatural; and the men, too, abandoned natural sexual relations with women, and were inflamed with their lust for one another.” Please stay with me, I know these verses are difficult, but I want desperately for you to see why Paul brings up homosexual intercourse here — it serves a very specific function in his argument. Tom Wright notes that Paul doesn’t bring this up because as a Jew he was especially disgusted with this behaviour (although Judaism had always banned homosexual practice). Paul doesn’t bring this up to point his finger at the Emperor Nero, who was involved in homosexual relationships. Paul doesn’t bring this up because in the ancient world homosexual relationships were either part of cult prostitution or were about older people exploiting younger ones (although both happened). Homosexual marriages took place in Paul’s day. Nero himself was married as a homosexual. The marriage was celebrated separately and publicly in both Greece and Rome. In his early writings Plato talks about the love that can take place between two men as an ideal, better than heterosexual love. I bring this up just to note that our culture’s shifting views did not begin in the 21st Century.
So why does Paul bring up homosexual intercourse now? Remember, Paul is working under the assumption that when human relationship with God is broken, the created order unravels. Paul brings up homosexual intercourse as an example of the created order being in disarray. Drawing on his understanding in Genesis one, God designed male and female to come together, like a hand in glove. His point is that homosexual behaviour is an unraveling of God’s design. The glove is not used for the hand. Paul emphasizes this when he uses the contrasting words ‘natural and unnatural.’ Paul is saying homosexual practice is one example of how God’s design unraveled when humans broke relationship with God.
In our culture, we are prone to think individualistically. So we read this passage and think Paul is saying, “if a person practices homosexual intercourse, Paul is saying they’ve engaged in idol worship, or they’ve made a personal decision to break relationship with the creator.” Paul does not come from an individualistic culture. Paul is not saying a person is gay because they’ve committed idolatry, or swapped God’s truth for a lie. Paul comes from a culture that is much more communal in nature. In that context, his argument reads like this: homosexual intercourse is one symptom of the unraveling of the created order, God’s design. Homosexual behaviour is one symptom of what happened when humankind turned from God. But there are other symptoms as well, and that is Paul’s next point.
(Slide 10) He says, “Moreover, just as they did not see fit to hold on to knowledge of God, God gave them up to an unfit mind, so that they would behave inappropriately. They were filled with all kinds of injustice, wickedness, greed, and evil’ they were full of envy, murder, enmity, deceit, and cunning. They became gossips, slanderers, God-haters, arrogant, self-important, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, unwise, unfaithful, unfeeling, uncaring. They know that God has rightly decreed that people who do things like that deserve death. But not only do they do them; they give their approval to people who practice them”. These are more symptoms of the unraveling of our identity as people created in God’s image. These are more symptoms pointing to the sickness of humanity as a whole. Genesis 3 teaches that the result of this sickness is death, and that’s what Paul affirms in this passage. It’s interesting to note that we can be often more concerned about focussing on the sexual sins in others, rather than facing some of these other dimensions addressed in this passage. What if, with equal fervour, we worked on our own penchant for gossip, or slander, or greed, or arrogance?
But the heart behind the whole book of Romans is not simply to describe sinful behaviour. Remember, we need to understand how this passage fits within the whole book of Romans. Often times we can separate passages like these from the rest of the book, as if the Gospel that Paul was preaching sounded something like this, “Good News! I’ve got an updated list of what’s wrong! It’s very similar to what we had before!” Paul’s Gospel proclamation is not a list of rules. Paul’s Gospel proclamation is that God has done what these lists of rules were powerless to do. God has brought about forgiveness of these sins in King Jesus, and God is bringing about renewal and transformation by His Spirit. Through the Spirit of Jesus, our future resurrection life is breaking into our lives here and now. All of that is powerful Good News, and when we read this first chapter apart from the Good News that Paul explains later on, the result is a legalistic and hopeless distortion of the Gospel. The purpose Paul writes chapter one is to establish the predicament God is saving us from! Any proclamations of these rules that drives people away, makes them think, “I’m too sinful”, is a distortion of the Gospel. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. But another distortion of the Gospel is any proclamation that makes us think that God doesn’t care about transformation. God cares about and empowers the renewal of mind and body through the power of the Holy Spirit . The unique Christian contribution to this conversation is not that homosexual behaviours (or any of these items Paul talks about) are wrong. The unique Christian contribution is that God has done something incomparably powerful through our King Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This power is to impact every aspect of our life — our sexuality, our use of money, our pride, our humility, our thoughts, our enjoyment or abuse of alcohol, our participation or abstinence from war, our engagement or avoidance of politics. To each of these we must ask how does the Gospel speak into this area of my life. And we won’t always agree with each other about how the Gospel does impact these areas. Sometimes Christians arrive at different conclusions.
Let me give you an example that comes from Paul’s list. Murder and Just War Theory. Just War Theory says that while war is terrible, its not always the worst option. But, you might think, Paul is talking about “murder,” not military service. The Greek word is φόνος. φόνος is what the Joshua and his army did when they defeated the King Amalek and his people. φόνος is what Barnabas did when he staged a rebellion against Rome and killed people in the process. φόνος is what Paul was intent to do to Christians when he was a Pharisee. You could make a strong argument that that murder does include what happens when soldiers kill. So, as Christians, can we kill or not? Just war theorists say yes, under the right circumstances. Christian pacifists say “no, we cannot kill. Jesus prohibits it, and so does Paul.” Yet other Christians disagree. We can’t take the easy way out and say it just doesn’t matter. You can’t just say, some Christians think you can kill, and some say we can’t. Or, as a Just War Theorist would prefer to say — Some Christians say that we need to defend the defenceless, and some pacifists stand on the sidelines. Or as a Christian Pacifist would say — Some Christians develop peaceful practices of mediation and reconciliation among warring people groups while others fund political parties that build peace keeping missiles. There is serious disagreement around this issue, and the disagreement matters.
Whatever side we land on cannot be, “I don’t know what the Gospel has to say about this issue.” Of course each issue has its own complexities and relevant scriptures, but we must work hard to develop a full understanding about how the power Gospel works in and through and upon these issues. We cannot emphasize God’s love at the expense of his Holiness — or emphasize God’s holiness at the expense of his grace — or emphasize God’s grace at the expense of his power to transform. God’s power to love, to forgive, to transform, to make holy, to give grace — all of these must all be brought together as we navigate through all aspects of our lives together. We need to be saturated with a conviction that the Gospel contains real power as we navigate through these difficult ethical issues. In that, we need to understand how God’s Gospel works, not simply in an ideal world, but in this world. We need to understand how the love, forgiveness and transformation of God works in the gritty, messiness and fallenness of this world. In this world, where things are simply not as they should be, we need to cry out desperately for God to show His power and help us discern His good and pleasing we will. Wherever we land, however we choose to navigate through these ethical issues, we need to be utterly dependent on the power of the Gospel. That, I hope, is the journey we are on as a church.