Mature Theology (A Sermon on Jude 1:1-7)

It is Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Upstate New York where Marvin A. McMickle serves as president,[1] however, it was during his years as a pastor in Cleveland, Ohio that Pilgrim Press published his book Where Have All the Prophets Gone?: Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching in America.[2] In it he argues relentlessly that a certain segment of preachers and their congregations today have rigidly and passionately addressed hot-button issues of sexual morality--namely abortion and same-sex marriage--but that this has been to the shameful neglect of issues like war, police misconduct, the school-to-prison pipeline, gun control, poverty, nuclear disarmament, and the like. He doesn't shy away from describing America as a hypocritical global bully quick to point fingers at other oppressive regimes while excusing its many transgressions at home and abroad. In virtually every chapter McMickle argues that many the theology of many American Christians is skewed to moralize spirituality and yet functionally do very little to serve, advocate and sacrifice for, and protect "the least of these." Hence, the proposition his book's title offers. Our generation's prophets are out-to-lunch, on vacation taking selfies, in one way or another off course and compromised. They have abandoned their calling, he would say.

I can appreciate McMickle's rebuke. It clearly emanates from a place of profound love for God, his word, and his people, and there's a ton of truth in what he writes. The ideological camp he's referring to in broad strokes undoubtedly has a tendency to speak out only against that which carries a particular political weight or payoff. They aren't alone in this approach, but there's no denying that they do engage in it full tilt. It's theology for the sake of policy, policy that's often self-serving, not theology as "faith seeking understanding." Often enough it's about condemning for the sake of condemning, not pointing people to what breaks the heart of God as a means to offer the grace of intervention. McMickle is right that churches tend to emphasize some sins and deemphasize other sins. He's right that we don't always handle sexual morality with care and clarity in order that the Holy Spirit can convict us. We drop the ball, yes, and McMickle is wise to alert us to these failures that deserve our earnest, prayerful attention. But we still need to talk about sexuality in the church. We can't throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak, for we know that two wrongs don't make a right.

The truth is that the Bible contains a lot of sexual activity and it talks a lot about sex. Particularly, there are a bounty of examples of what not to do sexually. It seems to me that this is so at least partly because how we understand sexuality and how we live sexually matters to God a great deal. Our sexual lives are a huge witness to one another, as believers, and also to unbelievers as to what ultimately matters to us.

Jude would rather not be in a position to speak to believers during his day a word of warning and admonition, a prophetic message articulating that 'a good defense is the best offense', but the evidence in front of him demands the gritty, straightforward letter that he pens. He writes, "Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints." Godly leadership, I've learned, isn't all party favors, pleasantries, and Piña Coladas. Time and again it involves you being a bit isolated by virtue of needing to make unpopular decisions. That's where Jude was; determined to be faithful to the sacredness of the moment, but definitely bummed at the need to be so blunt and piercing with his friends.

He is a practical theologian addressing error that stems from "certain intruders" who infiltrated the community and began a movement to authorize or excuse sin. After all, through Jesus grace abounds, right? Jesus' blood covers all transgressions, right? God is all about second and third chances, right? While all of this is true, Jude presents an argument (as do other biblical writers and characters) that it's one thing to genuinely struggle for congruence between what you believe and how you behave, but it's a different ballgame altogether when you begin distorting God's mercy to sanitize and sanction sin. With this damaging spiritual outlook, these outsiders even deny Jesus as "the way and the truth and the life." Jesus is okay, they think, but he isn't the exclusive cradle of salvation, the one and only divine judge of the living and the dead. We're not talking about different denominations, different theological emphases, or different traditions that still maintain an exclusivist understanding of Jesus as Lord of all. We're talking about people who in some way take a pinch of Buddha, a smidgen of Jesus, and two ounces of Confucius or Noble Drew Ali, and maybe roll it all in the breadcrumbs of materialism just for good measure, and then call the cockamamie concoction "God." As far as Jude is concerned, the Scriptures label these people doomed.

This is the prelude to Jude then illustrating the consequences that rebellion towards God brings. He uses three, explicitly. In verse 5 he cites the Israelites whom God recused from bondage in Egypt. "...the Lord, who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe." In Numbers 14:26-38 we read of the Israelites' persistent complaining, in this case they feared the people of Canaan more than they believed in God's power to fulfil his declaration of a promised land for them. Their unbelief resulted in the Lord telling Moses and Arron to share a sobering message with the people:

As I live I will do to you the very things I heard you say: your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness; and of all your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upward, who have complained against me, not one of you shall come in to the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.

It is clear that in Jude's understanding of God there's a considerable, distinct difference between simply sometimes struggling with the responsibilities of faith, and outright doubting God, and murmuring about God, and defying God at every turn, in fact relishing in every sin. It's a tough pill to swallow, but the saying is true that you can't walk with God and hold hands with anything or anyone else at the same time. Our loyalties in this life will determine our destination in the next. The second illustration is found in verse 6 of Jude. "And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgement of the great day" This likely refers to Genesis 6:1-4 when angels became so love-struck with human women that they left heaven in order to marry them. As inconceivable as it sounds, these angels actually fled God's presence merely to partake of lips, hips, fingertips, and other curvaceous assets of the female frame. Godlessness like this had spread everywhere, which is what led the Lord to destroy the earth with a flood, leaving only Noah and his family as a remnant.

The third illustration comes in verse 7 of Jude with the mention of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities whose fate is Genesis 19 describes. The way verse 7 of Jude is structured tells us that this is the archetype, climactic evidence that Jude is pointing to of rebellion towards God can be. Lot took in guests who were in need of shelter. Unknown to him, however, they were angels in disguise. While hosting his new friends, "the men of the city, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them."" They weren't looking for men to play an impromptu, pickup game of basketball with. They were trying to gang rape the men in question. Sadly, Lot offered to let the men have their way with his two virgin daughters, but the mob refused. The men assembled wanted the two male guests, specifically.

The angels went on to save Lot and his family from harm, telling him, "...we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it." Once Lot's family was safe in nearby Zoar, God obliterated Sodom and Gomorrah to the degree that in the aftermath the land looked "like a flaming furnace." If you read through the end of Genesis 19:30-36 though, you'll see that sexual immorality continued with Lot's daughters getting him drunk in his old age, so they could trick him into fathering their children. Again, we can do a better job at it, but the church must talk about sex because sexually we're askew. All of us. In all generations we've been this way, which is why we need to be regularly reminded that God's love never implies an immoral free-for-all. Holiness is the only right response to grace.

In the April 9, 1982 edition of The Washington Post, essayist Clare Boothe Luce wrote this well-known line: "I was wondering today what the religion of the country is--and all I could come up with was sex." Arguably, even today, some 34 years later, her statement rings true, really now more than ever. Our society is more sexually risqué and impaired and so are our churches. There's a problem when those who are supposed to be having sex are not and those who aren't supposed to be having sex are doing it like rabbits in heat. And all of this has become quite normative, much to our collective shame. But it goes beyond married couples and single people. We so happen to exist in a sexually deviant, disturbing time. If it isn't pre-marital sex then its marital infidelity, or pornography--even child pornography--which along with child prostitution has become a vile, global juggernaut. But the list doesn't stop there. It's homosexuality, beastiality, incest, rape, sexual slavery and human trafficking, molestation, sexual assault. Pastors, parents, parishioners-as people of God we must handle sexuality much better than we have. We can't be two-faced, living one way but saying that God's way is too hard. We can't pervert God's ways, but rather with the Holy Spirit's equipping and the benefit of real Christian community, we should mature into having a constant commitment to God's truth even when, especially when it cuts across our fleshly preferences to consider only what we want to do. We serve God, God doesn't serve us. We submit to God, God doesn't submit to us. We are saved by God and God alone, and that act of definitive love comes with responsibility.

Jude begins his letter with these words: "Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and the brother of James. To those who are called, who are beloved in God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ: May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance." What an opening? If we are chosen and loved by God, kept safe by Jesus's blood and his intersession on our behalf, then we too must identify as his servants. In doing so, we must hold each another accountable to mature theology. We can't afford false teachers leading astray back into the 'Wild Wild West' of self-reliance and mutiny to God. If we see a sister or brother in Christ drifting in this direction, hopefully we'll already have a genuine relationship established that enables us to swiftly and lovingly point them back to truth. With community comes accountability. This is the idea that we're all connected, and so my unaddressed sin can negatively impact you and your unaddressed sin can impact me. The false teaching that I allow in my life--through friends, through the media, through my own brokenness--is probable to find its way into your heart, and yours will find its way into mine. But the opposite is true also. If our theology is sound and mature, then it likewise can spread to the entire group. Our children will feel it. Our youth will see its nuances. Our neighbors will notice. Our community will be impacted. And God will be glorified.

[1] This sermon was preached by yours truly, The Rev. James Ellis III, on April 3, 2016 at Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, DC where I serve as senior pastor. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible is referenced throughout.

[2] See Marvin A. McMickle, Where Have All the Prophets Gone?: Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching in America (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2010).