Reflections on John 6:60-69
Copyright 2003 Mark Thomas. Published with permission.   Ý

"...[H]is disciples ... said, 'This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?' ... Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, '...It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.' ...And he said, 'For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.'

"Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, 'Do you also wish to go away?' Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.'"

A wise man will recognize the truth when he hears it. A wise man will say, "Difficult as this teaching is, it is true. There is no other choice. I've looked high and low and I have nowhere else to go."

And a wise man will not turn away.

Today we are compelled to ask ourselves which teaching?

Which teaching is 'spirit and life'?

And then we must decide which one am I? Am I the one who finds this teaching difficult and turns away? Or the one who knows it's difficult but still follows?

So too, we are compelled to ask, which one is the Episcopal Church? Does it follow the Spirit? Or does it turn away because what God requires is too difficult?

Which teaching?

Which one am I?

Which one is my church?

No reasonable person can deny that the Episcopal Church has turned in a new direction. Indeed, it can be fairly said that it has reversed direction when it decided that it is acceptable to ordain a practicing homosexual as a bishop and to bless same-sex unions.

This change in course poses three related questions: Was the Episcopal Church wrong in the past, or is it wrong now? Is morality, God's law, something which changes over time? These three seem to encompass the possible inferences. Are there others?

They ask us to follow, yet some of us are skeptical. Has our Church found the historic teaching difficult and abandoned it, or are those of us who find this "new" teaching difficult the ones who would turn back?

I have the luxury of not having been born an Episcopalian. One of the reasons I chose the Episcopal Church was that it is not fundamentalist. I believe one's interpretation of the Bible can depend upon the translation, one's conscience, how one reconciles its apparent inconsistencies, one's knowledge of its cultural and historical context. And so, while I acknowledge that much in the Bible is metaphor, that it is laden with meanings--some obvious, some subtle; some easy, some hard, I believe that it is presumptuous, indeed, for anyone to claim to perceive the total or ultimate meaning.

In this sense, I think I understand what lies behind our Church's "new" teaching. We are all made by God, in His own image. And so, it is not our place to condemn another simply because he may be different. This may be the good intention behind our church's decision, but the road to hell is paved with such intentions.

On the other hand, although I am not a fundamentalist, neither do I believe we ought to be moral relativists. Our search for, and belief in, the spirit of the law, does not mean we believe that the letter of the law is either elastic or a matter of mere expedience. Jesus did not teach us to reevaluate the letter of the law in order to rob the law of any absolute meaning; he enlightened us so that we would discern within the letter of the law its spirit, its highest meaning.

I had always thought of this discernment as involving a balance of head and heart. I had thought this was what the Episcopal Church, a part of the larger Anglican Church, offered--a place in the middle, a place where the letter and the spirit of the law were in proper balance; a place where the letter of the law did not obscure and suffocate the spirit of the law, but where the letter of the law was still believed, where it expressed a spirit which was timeless, not simply a matter of mores, conventions, superstition and taboo--all of which may and should be sloughed off as they are outgrown, since they obscure the truth it contains.

But now, I find myself alone in this middle ground as our church has reversed course. I feel like an acquaintance of mine who got married, had a son, and whose husband soon thereafter came home and said he had decided that he was gay and would be filing for divorce. Perhaps he thought he knew who he was when he got married but now thinks he was confused. Perhaps he tried to be something he wasn't or couldn't be. Perhaps he simply deceived his wife. Perhaps he deceived himself. Only he and God knows.

But in the end, it was his wife and their toddler who were left behind. They have to live with the consequences of his broken promises.

Was his final act one of selflessness or selfishness? I ask you. Did he live with the consequences of his promises and deeds or did he abandon them?

Did God intend that he marry?  Did God intend that he father a child? And if God so intended, did God also intend that he wake up one morning and decide that he wanted a divorce because he was gay?

So, I have seen what happens in the wake of people like him, people like Bishop Gene Robinson, who followed a similar course. It isn't pretty.

I don't know much about Bishop Robinson, but the objective facts speak for themselves: He chose the priesthood and made promises before God; he chose to marry and made promises before God; he chose to have children and made promises before God; he chose to divorce and then he chose to live in a homosexual relationship and broke his promises before God.

It seems, according to Bishop Ihloff that once Gene Robinson figured out that "God" had made him gay, the slate was wiped clean, and he could start afresh, without consequence. So much for honoring your promises before God. If God made him gay, then it was futile to try to be, or behave, any other way. So much for free will. So much for accepting the consequences of our own choices.

And so, where once I felt for this young woman who was abandoned by her now gay husband, today I feel like her. Her life was ahead of her. She was committed to what she thought was a strong relationship with a significant another, a relationship sanctified by her church and solemnized with an oath before God. Bad as it would have been, she was not left alone at the altar. No, she was abandoned after his promises were made, and then everything that had gone before was treated as just one big mistake, one big misunderstanding, as her husband acquired a new understanding of who he was and no longer felt bound by any of his promises to her or to God.

This is what Gene Robinson did to his wife and his family. This is what the Episcopal Church has done to its members. It woke up one day and decided that everything in the Bible and all of the teachings on human sexuality were only an expression of the times, and the times have changed. Everything it had said before was a mistake, one big misunderstanding; nothing lasting; nothing absolute.

And so, to my way of thinking, the burden of proof therefore lies not with me to prove that my Church is wrong, but with my Church to make the case that homosexuality and same-sex unions are acceptable to God, and as a result, to me and the rest of the church who feels the same as I do.

But since they have already shirked this responsibility, since they have presented us with a fait accompli, since their argument asserts that "snippets" of scripture ought not be cited and taken out of context by their opponents, I will take up the gauntlet!

 As I said, I have been left in the middle.

 Where, exactly, is, or was, this middle?

 The best way to describe it is where it's not.

This middle is not with Christians who worship the Bible itself. Neither is it with those who worship their church or their own denomination. Both of these polar extremes are wrong.

We are meant to worship God and Him alone. God is not the Bible. God is not the church. God is not any one denomination. While God is supposed to be revealed within them, none of them is God.

Let us, then, consider an alarming proposition: that idolatry is alive and well in Christianity.

Let us consider these three idols: the Bible, one's church and one's denomination.

As our leadership would not be deemed fundamentalist, lest you think my opposition to our leadership's decision is born of some radical fundamentalist streak, I will begin with fundamentalists: with their Bible in hand, too many fundamentalists have got "it." They know "it." They carry "it" around with them. They quote "it." Everything is "in there." They believe that, above all others, they know what it means and they will tell you at the drop of a hat. Translation? What's that? Anomalies?  What are they?

Too many fundamentalists argue social and political issues as though the only authority on the subject was their interpretation of Bible. They argue against abortion citing only the Bible, when some of the most convincing arguments against abortion lie in science and philosophy. They dispute evolution without conceiving that it might merely explain how man was made, not who made him, without regard to the fact that some see evolution as uncannily consistent with the story of creation. They get bent out of shape about school prayer, even though most of us might pray very differently from them. They will lash themselves to a monument to the Ten Commandments inside a courthouse, a possible idol in itself, and in doing so scare away more potential converts than they may ever win over. Who are they trying to ingratiate themselves to?  Is it God or are they trying to sanctify themselves to those who already agree with them? One could argue that more harm has been done to Christianity by the idolatry of some fundamentalists than by its persecutors.

And so, there are some fundamentalists who call themselves Christians but do not seem to worship God. They seem to worship the Bible. Worse yet, some worship a particular translation. They have thought and studied little else, for they have no need. It's all in there, in that one translation. It's so easy. And so, too many fundamentalists deceive themselves. They may think that they follow the difficult teaching when, in fact, they have not even perceived the difficult teaching.

It is easy to understand why the Episcopal Church is not an ally of such fundamentalists. I understand why they don't relish the prospect of someone quoting chapter and verse to them, but what I do not understand is why they would throw the baby out with the bath-water!

So, if the shrill legalisms of certain fundamentalists do not appear to offer "spirit and life," "to whom can we go, if on the other side of the aisle our church has abandoned us?"

Shall we curl up here, in our own quiet little backwater, out of the fray, with a live-and-let-live, to-each-his-own philosophy? Shall we sit on the sidelines in our lovely churches where we know and trust one another, and hope the moment never comes when our Bishop insists that a practicing homosexual be among the candidates considered by our next search committee? Shall our church community itself, and those seated next to us, be our refuge?

While many may find this approach tempting, we should consider that just as those who worship the Bible should be considered idolaters, so should those who worship their church, their peaceful little corner of Christendom.

For them, there is really only one church--theirs. It was the church they grew up in, the church their parents and grandparents attended, the church where they were baptized in, married in, the church where their children were baptized, and the church where their family sat in the same pew for generations.

I understand this tendency of worshiping one's church more easily than the idolatry of some fundamentalists, for a church is, at least, filled not with printed words but with living people, with memories, with life histories. It is just this sort of sentiment which keeps so many of us coming to our churches, even if we are occasionally disgruntled with the place, with our leadership, with where we seem to be headed.

But when people who worship their church are disappointed, where do they go? To another? No, for them, their church is "it." And it's "all or nothing." They lapse and come back months or years later. But it's always the same place. The place and the nostalgia it holds is the most important thing. They worship their church. And as this was the church of their cradle, it will be the church of their grave, even if that grave leads not to the resurrection, but to damnation. So if you say that you are a "cradle-to-grave" anything, you worship not God, but your church and your church has become an idol.

Or, is our first loyalty to our denomination, without regard to what it teaches and stands for? If so, we should consider that the Episcopal Church has now become yet another idol to worship, worshiping one's denomination as an institution. Just one more form of idolatry with which the worship of the one true God must compete.

According to Bishop Ihloff, Moses, the prophets, and Jesus misunderstood human sexuality, and today we know better. The ancients thought human sexuality was a matter of choice, and we know that it is not; we argue instead that determinism takes sexuality beyond choice. But in arguing that one important point gets overlooked: the Bible does not prohibit anyone from being gay. Nor does it condemn anyone for being gay. Neither does it prohibit anyone from having gay impulses. The Bible simply prohibits them acting out those gay impulses, either physically, or in fantasy (re: Sermon on the Mount).

But according to Bishop Ihloff, if "God" made you gay, the de facto implication is that you cannot control or discipline yourself. It is argued that if "God" made you gay, He meant for you to act gay. And so, you are entitled to sexual activity just like any heterosexual. Sexual release with another person becomes a legal right. It is no longer a privilege or a responsibility.

Even if, for the sake of argument, one assumes that God made me a heterosexual, does that mean it is inevitable and therefore acceptable for me to sleep with whomever I want? Or can I still be expected not to sleep with someone unless or until I am married to her?

Do you not see what this sort of reasoning means even for heterosexuals? The Bible also condemns fornication consistently and repeatedly. Fornication is sex outside of the bonds of marriage. By asserting that homosexuals were made that way and that they were therefore meant to have sex with members of the same sex, Bishop Ihloff is also saying that heterosexuals, who were also made that way, were meant to have sex and can be expected to do so, even outside of marriage.

And so the Bible's fundamental morality and expectations become meaningless. Its only meaning is what the Episcopal Church wants it to mean.

Originally I had thought that the idolatry of denomination was more common elsewhere, in say, the Roman Catholic Church, or with those who insist upon their own idiosyncratic definition of being "born again", those who condescend to anyone who does not belong to their defined group, those who would claim that theirs is the only way to become or be a Christian. The rest of us may profess by word and deed that Jesus was the Christ, that he was resurrected; we may be baptized and strive to follow him, but this is not enough for them. We are excluded from the communion of the faithful or told that we are wrong.

But now I see that this pernicious sort of idolatry also thrives in the Episcopal Church. It consists of the worship its own "it", of our denomination's history, its liturgy, its music, its prayer book.

As for me, I cannot worship the Episcopal Church any more than I can the text of the Bible, or, much as I love its congregants, my own church–whether my local community or the denomination at large. And I now find that I disagree with this denomination on certain basic propositions, propositions which I think are worthy of being called "truths."

Consider the list: anyone looking at it can note my denomination's plethora of committees focused upon gays and lesbians and its lack of concern for families, children and the unborn. I noted its moral relativism when it defended the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by blaming them on the West's alleged indifference to the suffering of the third world. So, why should I be surprised to find that the leadership of my denomination and my Diocese sees, to quote Bishop Griswold, "no impediment" to ordaining as a practicing homosexual on the theory that if "God" made him a homosexual, who are we to hold that against him?

In the case of abortion, I happen to believe that life begins at conception. My belief is not based just on the clear teaching of the Bible as to the sacredness of life but upon years of studying science and philosophy and years of struggle in my own thinking. But once I formed the belief that a fetus is a human life, and then my faith dictated how such life should be treated. My denomination does not share this conviction, or even when it purports to, it gives it mere lip-service. I argue that their position was, and now manifestly is, a consequence of the Episcopal Church's demonstrated preoccupation with political expediency.

As for homosexuality, I believe that God's intentions and purpose are manifest not merely in the Bible but in His very creation. One doesn't need to idolize the Bible to perceive that homosexuality is not consistent with God's purpose. Indeed, this is a perception that spans every major religion and period of history. The Bible and the church have no monopoly on virtue or what it means to be virtuous. To deem sodomy contrary to God's will does not require that one be a fundamentalist, or a Christian, or a prude, or, as the House of Bishops would sanctimoniously whisper in secret, "a homophobe."

No, as Plato said, the virtue of thing lies in how well it fulfills its purpose. And so, the virtue of a hammer is to hammer and the virtue of a saw is to cut. And so, whether one believes in God or not, as the purpose of a thing is manifest in its design, its virtue lies in the extent to which it fulfills that purpose.

The fundamental purpose of intercourse is to procreate; the reason intercourse is pleasant is to give humanity an incentive to procreate. To deny this is to assert one's own will over the will which is manifest in the human body's very design.

After all, we eat to live; we were not meant to live to eat, eating ourselves to death. Eating is good; we were intended to eat; we have an appetite to get us to eat. But, if eating becomes not a means to an end but an end in itself, we will die from gluttony and all of its complications.

This, then, is how the same act, done in one spirit, in conformity with God's will, bespeaks virtue; while done in another spirit, outside of God's will, bespeaks vice. Is this not, indeed, the very meaning of sin? For when scripture says that "the wages of sin is death," it does not only mean, as the fundamentalists would assert, that death is God's punishment for those who sin, but that sin is also that which causes death.

Can anyone deny that intercourse is primarily a means to an end? Can any one deny that that end is procreation? Can anyone deny that the pleasure of intercourse is part of those means and not its purpose?

Those who make intercourse and sexual pleasure ends in themselves without regard to whether they are an expression of love between those who were intended to procreate, defy the manifest purpose of their very bodies and souls. This would be true even if the Bible didn't explicitly say so; and it is true even though the Episcopal Church now seeks to deny it.

And so, just as it is not God's will that heterosexuals engage in sexual activity outside of marriage, let's stop skirting around this truth that it is not God's will that a man place his penis in another man's orifice. And for the squeamish among us, we ought to consider that this is precisely what it means to be "an avowed homosexual." We are not talking about hugging. We are not talking about "platonic" relationships. We are not talking about celibacy.

And so, as God is the God of nature, as He created all that is, seen and unseen, His purpose is evident in His very creation, it is unnatural for a priest, whose job it is to lead the holy worship of that God, to be an active homosexual. Just as God's purpose is evident, so is the virtue which we are called upon to achieve in fulfilling that purpose. One ought not to have to cite the Bible's many prohibitions against homosexual conduct, even to apostates like the House of Bishops. Logic itself makes the argument.

Why has the House of Bishops gone in this direction and made this an issue? Because they believe God makes people gay, and in the name of tolerance, they would give their imprimatur to an Episcopal Bishop's acquiescence to his "God-given" impulse to sodomize another man. They have proclaimed to the world a new article of faith, "If you can somehow attach the label of love to it, do it!"

But in so elevating sodomy and homosexuality to "the natural order of things," the Episcopal Church demeans one of Christianity's few sacraments—marriage. However, in assailing the sacrament of marriage, it assails the family itself, for one cannot uphold righteousness in one hand and sin in the other. As one is said not to be sin, the other cannot be said not to be righteous.

These are not niceties about private bedroom practices. Do you think that? Do you say, "What business is it of mine what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom?" Think again. These are life-and-death questions. They have implications for all of us!

No, in an era where abortion, teen-pregnancy, unwanted children, fornication, adultery, divorce, single-parent households, and aids are rampant, the practice of sodomy among homosexuals and fornication among heterosexuals should be understood, now more than ever, to be unhealthy for both individuals and society.

As if thousands of years of teaching and taboo were not enough, shouldn't the last few decades' experience have taught us that sexual activity outside of marriage is laden with danger, that it means death, disease, poverty, and divorce? And although the Bible makes this truth perfectly clear, do atheists, agnostics and apostates really need the Bible to comprehend this?

But then the members of the House of Bishops are children of the Sixties. Do you remember the Sixties? You know, that generation whose motto was "If it feels good, do it" and love, really erotic sexual expression, justified everything? Those children of the Sixties now want us to get over our Puritanical qualms about the morality of human sexuality. They got over them a long time ago.

But it was this very sort of license and amorality, born in the Sixties, that has lead to the deaths of millions and wrought havoc in our own inner cities and across the continent of Africa. How many more must die before such leaders will perceive the wisdom of such teachings, of the nature of things? Or is "God's" new law, as propounded by the Episcopal Church, simply a matter of whether one uses a condom or sexually indulges in "a committed relationship"?

And so, I now find that my own church believes that a sodomist in a "committed relationship" is as qualified to represent God, to speak on God's behalf, to exemplify His, holiness, His will, and His calling, as an unmarried priest who is celibate or one who is faithfully married.

I, on the other hand, happen to believe that there remains a place in the world for preserving formerly unambiguous distinctions between virtue and vice, between righteousness and sin, and that those who stand before us as our leaders may in fairness be asked to exemplify that distinction, not by sharing our vices, but by exemplifying the virtues we all should aspire to. This is not merely a luxury for those who are so able. This is the duty of any who would be called to lead us, especially lead us in the name of God.

Do not misunderstand me; I also think the Roman Catholic Church is mistaken. It is unnatural to require all priests to be celibate. This is not what God intended. It is enough that priests live as God intended, not that they exceed His expectations, for His expectations are themselves perfect in their balance.

If God told us to walk on two feet, would we think it better to hop on one? Of course not! God does not demand celibacy as a matter of course. He simply imposes certain prerequisites to sexual activity. God did not have to decree that non-marital sexual activity is sinful; His manifest purpose and the tenor of scripture simply demonstrate that its purpose lies in procreation and in the expression of the love between those whom He made to procreate.

And so, it is enough for God that if our priests are sexually active, their activities be with a spouse in a loving marital relationship and no one else. Making celibacy, even among heterosexuals, a prerequisite to the priesthood can be expected to produce precisely what it has: an enhanced number of homosexuals and pedophiles in the priesthood. And such deviants, for whom the appearance of celibacy is but a cloak, will find celibacy no impediment at all, offering, as it does, enhanced opportunities to prey surreptitiously upon the most naive and innocent among us—those who do not perceive that their priest may well be a wolf in sheep's clothing. This is precisely why the Roman Catholic Church is confronted with all of its current scandals and lawsuits, and why so few normal, yes, normal heterosexual men are willing to become Roman Catholic priests.

As a result, I do not believe that it is God's will that a denomination should hold up, as a leader in the church, a man who is an avowed, practicing homosexual. To do so is to uphold a man who asserts his own will, not God's. Elevating such a man as a priest or a bishop is a denomination asserting its own will, not God's. Is this not the essence of sin?

"Sin" has long been a passé concept in the Episcopal Church. But I need to ask; can one believe in God and not believe in sin? Can one speak of the light without speaking of the dark?

We all have our demons. We all have our vices. Perhaps, for some of us, the best we'll be able to accomplish is to fight those demons to a stalemate like the alcoholic who wakes up and realizes he cannot win the battle by finding moderation and so abstains from drinking for the rest of his life. There is honor and virtue in this stalemate. He does not claim, to paraphrase Bishop Griswold, that "God made me an alcoholic, so let me be honest with the community in acknowledging the reality of my own personhood as an alcoholic. Now, since as an alcoholic I have a right to drink, make me a bishop." No, he knows that such behavior, giving into his impulse, is wrong and not what God intended. He does not blame God for his own failure. He does not redefine virtue so that it will encompass his own impulse. He honors God by recognizing his limitation and then by disciplining himself.

And so, alcoholics who are not "recovering" should be welcome in our pews, but not in our pulpits. Practicing homosexuals should be welcome in our pews, but not in our pulpits. But alas, when sin bit the dust in the Episcopal Church, so did discipline and responsibility.

They have succumbed to the muddle-headedness and spinelessness of our current culture that makes tolerance the supreme virtue that paints anyone who doesn't agree with them as committing their only true sin, intolerance. Apparently they think this tolerance is what everyone wants and needs. Like the fundamentalists they abhor, they deceive themselves. And those who deceive themselves are the most dangerous of all, for in convincing themselves, it is far easier for them to mislead others. They are the blind guides leading the blind.

The fat girl feels bad because she's too fat to be a cheerleader. The boys can't toss her up in the air. The slow boy feels bad because he can't make the track's sprint team. In the real world, they would be forced to realize that they will have to change to become what they aspire to, or aspire to something else. In the Episcopal Church, which has lost touch with the real world, our Bishops change the job's requirements so that anyone can qualify, at least anyone who mirrors their permissive thinking, all in the name of the false virtue they call "tolerance."

And so, when the Episcopal Church voted to ordain an avowed homosexual as a bishop and to move toward blessing same-sex unions, I knew that we would have to part company. The question for me was, "Which one of us turned away? Which one of us found the teaching too difficult?"

I have thought long and hard about this. And I have come to the conclusion that I have not turned away; the Episcopal Church has. It has turned away from the Anglican Communion; it has turned away from the Roman Catholic Church; it has turned away from mainstream Christianity; it has turned away from thousands of years of Judeo-Christian teaching; and it has turned away from God. The arrogance of it! The sanctimony of it! The evil of it!

And now, Bishop Ihloff, who already voted for this outcome, like a circus clown with a bucket and a shovel, is going from parish to parish to clean up the elephant droppings. To quote the pabulum of Bishop Griswold, he is going to "reach out to us," to "engage us in conversation." Where, we may fairly ask, was he before he helped stage this coup d'état? This isn't too little, too late; this is window-dressing of the most hypocritical, disingenuous sort. To those who agree with him, he would appear sensitive and caring; those who don't give a hoot about the issue won't even attend; while those who disagree with a vote already cast are stooges and patsies.

Just as I would not turn away from God and take the easy road; as a road paved with tolerance of homosexuality today may, by the very same analysis, be re-paved tomorrow with a tolerance of fornication, polygamy, pedophilia, and addiction, I will not be seduced by the easy way of staying in the Episcopal Church, which I now see by demanding and condemning nothing, stands for nothing and means nothing.

I could not stay even if I thought they would relent from this course of action. I would still be astonished at their faithlessness. Their actions are not mere lapses in judgment. These transgressions are a sign that our own leadership no longer worships God, no longer believes in evil or sin. They are narcissists who worship themselves and their own pleasures and only show obsequiousness to the denomination that they have made in their own likeness. They think this will "grow" the Church, that this new tolerance will show the culture that it's "enlightened" and free of the petty taboos of human sexuality. Their church would be a politically-correct country club whose motto is "I'm o.k., you're o.k." They have, however, shamed themselves and shamed all who follow them.

I know that my own "teaching is difficult" and that many of you will not "accept it."

And so, I will end by quoting next week's Gospel to you. In it, Jesus says, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition. ... Listen to me, all of you, and understand: it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

And so I will say it one last time: The House of Bishops has defiled itself, and in doing so it has defiled the church it represents. Those who follow them will be led astray.