The Three Temptations of the Affirming Church

A Sermon Delivered at the opening of the Reformation Project’s 2014 Washington, D.C. Regional Conference

November 7, 2014

I. This Moment

I’m honored to join you tonight and especially honored to share this moment with you. I’m speaking this moment when we gather together around the sacred words, yes, but even more so this cultural moment – this historic moment when everything is changing fast and when that which seemed impossible just a few short years ago looks, well, inevitable.

I called it, and I might have been the first – if so, I want to make sure I get credit for that – in an article I wrote recently for The Narthex: the culture war is, finally, at long last, coming to a close. Now, wars have a certain momentum, and the culture war is no different. There will be a few, final battles and, sadly, more casualties to go with them. But the outcome is no longer in question. Marriage equality for same-sex couples nationwide is inevitable. Courts and commissions regularly find in favor of transgender plaintiffs in cases of workplace discrimination. More companies, more hospitals, more universities, and yes, more churches are making it clear: LGBT inclusion and equal opportunity are among their core values. Even in the most entrenched sectors of our society resistance is giving way to resignation. Our time in the wilderness is almost over.

Photo courtesy Matthew Vines (@VinesMatthew)

II. “Sent by the Spirit”

And it has been just that, hasn’t it – a wandering in the wilderness, for so many of us. I recall with razor sharp clarity the night in 2006 when my wife Danyelle and I, having set our hearts together on a course toward my gender transition, realized the heart-rending truth: that we might never be welcome in a church of our Baptist tradition again. Our choice to “seek peace and pursue it” – to seek health and pursue wholeness – would lead to denouncement, disavowal, rejection, wandering. The Spirit, it seemed, was leading us off the beaten path, away from the safety of community and the comforts of conformity into the trackless wilderness. It was cold comfort to know that the Spirit had once led Jesus himself to the same place in the same way.

Many of you have stories just like ours. We have ourselves, many of us, spent long, hard years in this wilderness. We have ourselves known hunger, having been deprived of the sustenance of the Bread and the Cup; we have ourselves known the aching emptiness of enforced solitude. We have known the scorching heat of our loved ones’ wrath; we have, ourselves, known naked vulnerability in a barren and desolate land.

And now, in the fullness of time, as our own 40 days draws near to its end, we ourselves must face the Tempter. We must face the Test.

III. The Text: Luke 4:1–14

Would you please stand with me as you are able, as Christians have for nearly two thousand years, to honor the Gospel as it is read? I’ll be reading this evening from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4, verses 1–14.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan [where he had been baptized] and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written. ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

This is the gospel of Christ; thanks be to God.

IV. Bread from Stones: the Temptation to Self-Reliance

The church has interpreted this text in many different ways across the ages. It has been seen, first and nearly always, as an historical report of the Messiah’s first encounter with the Adversary. It has at times been interpreted metaphorically – the early Christians’ way of describing a Messiah who was, in the words of the author of Hebrews, “tempted in every way, but without sin.” Christians throughout the years have found in this text a moral example, and have sought to follow Jesus by responding to Satan’s lies with the Spirit’s power and Scripture’s truth.

Tonight, I’d like to take another page from our great tradition and interpret this text allegorically – in other words, as describing a spiritual reality beyond the mere events. I believe that people like us and churches like ours – churches that affirm the lives, relationships, and ministries of LGBTQ people, and that see in the gospel a call to include us wholly in beloved community – face a great spiritual struggle as our time in the wilderness draws to a close.

In the tests that Jesus faced in the desert I believe we can see the outline of the Three Great Temptations of the Affirming Church – temptations we ourselves face right now; tests, the outcome of which will determine whether we are fit to lead the churches into a new era of fidelity to the gospel and effectiveness in proclaiming it.

The first of these tests, typified by Satan suggesting that Jesus turn stones into bread, is the temptation to self-reliance. Picture the scene: Jesus has been 40 days in the desert; he’s been fasting for almost six weeks. His mouth is parched; his belly aches. He feels like he can think of nothing but food. And at that moment, the Devil appears and says to Jesus, “Look at you. You’re famished. Well, there’s bread right here! It’s been here all along, only a wish away. Jesus, you hold the power to end your hunger, and it is yours to wield as you please. Why not use it?”

That’s really all the Devil was asking Jesus to do: to utilize his own God-given power to meet his need. What could be more reasonable?

And here, as our wilderness fast draws to a close, many of us find ourselves aching, parched, famished. We’re hungry for fellowship; we thirst for authentic community. We yearn to have our gifts recognized and our vocations affirmed. And we are tired; we are oh so tired of fighting.

And we come to a place like this conference and we think, “There is bread right here! There is bread and wine, the blessed communion of the saints; there is the warm embrace of fellowship and the affirmation of our gifts. Why would I go back to a church that has refused those things to me?” And we come to a moment in history like this, and we think, “Why would I participate in a denomination that still refuses to acknowledge these truths? Why not leave them behind? They are dying anyway; why not leave them to rot in their own graves, and begin anew? Why not use the power of connection and the power of truth God has given us and meet our need for ourselves, and dwell among those who agree?”

This is our test of self-reliance. Just as Jesus was tempted to make use of his own divine power to create what he had so sorely lacked, it is within our power today to abandon the churches of our childhood and the churches of our conviction – the communities that blessed us as babies and taught us as children and encouraged us as adolescents and called us as adults – and to create for ourselves new churches and new denominations to sustain us.

I believe this is the wrong path for us here and now. There was a time, early in our people’s wilderness wanderings, when such a course of action was necessary, life saving, and indeed prophetic. We are inheritors of the blessings gained by those who stepped away from non-affirming churches and denominations in those days and became separate.

Today, however, is a different day. Today is a day when, from the vantage point of our strength, we can look to those rocks from which we were hewn and see them for the good that remains in them. Today we can look at those churches and those denominations and see that change is possible and that the world would be a poorer place without them. We can see that, as Jesus said to his tempter, “we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” and that those words calls us to compassion, to reconciliation, and to unity. God’s words call us to self-sacrifice rather than self-reliance. And that leads us to our second temptation.

V. Authority over the Nations: the Temptation to Power

“Then the devil led Jesus up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. ‘I will give you all of this: all their glory, all this authority. It’s mine, as you know, mine to give to anyone I please. If you’ll just worship me, it will all be yours.”

Interpreters of Scripture throughout the ages have seen this as a temptation to power; for Jesus, it’s a temptation to become a different kind of messiah, to wield a different kind of authority. It’s also a temptation to take a shortcut, to avoid all the miles walked across Palestine, all the resistance from his countrymen, to avoid the scourging and the cross and the darkness of death and jump right to the end: “The kingdoms of the world have become the kingdoms of our God and of God’s Christ.”

And the cost? Not all that high, really: a simple change of allegiance, a shift of loyalties.

We, the Affirming Church, face a similar test. The temptation to power asked Jesus what kind of messiah he would become; it asks us what kind of church we will become. What kind of authority will we wield in the world? Where will our loyalties lie? What will our priorities be?

So much of the work of our wilderness days has been political work, if you’ll excuse the use of such language in this sacred place. What choice did we have, when our co-religionists turned their churches into organizing units, rallied volunteers for hurtful campaigns, placed petitions opposing our rights and even our safety in the narthex for their parishioners to sign? And so we sought our own political allies; we volunteered for their campaigns; we signed our own petitions. And today we have a President who speaks our name and members of Congress who speak at our banquets and council members and school board members who speak on our behalf. And the cost? Only our endorsement, our support. What great power we have gained for this, such a small price!

But what do we do when these same officials refuse to act on behalf of immigrant children because it’s an election year, or when they fail to stop an oil company from digging up our backyards because they got a donation from them in the last election cycle? How can we call them to account when we have hitched the church’s wagon to their rising stars?

None of this is to say that Christians and churches should not engage in the political process; what do you think it means to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” after all? But the marriage of the conservative church to political power in this country has done harm far beyond that done to our own LGBTQ community.

Take the issue of immigration, for example. Did you know that the Southern Baptist Convention and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops hold positions on immigration reform that most of us would call compassionate? Even progressive? I bet many of you didn’t. Why do you think that is? It’s certainly not because the Conference of Bishops and the SBC don’t have some of the most effective PR operations in the business. They do. I believe it is because their allegiance to political power has cost those bodies their prophetic witness – and so their prophetic messages on behalf of immigrant families are muffled and silenced.

If we would preserve our own prophetic voice, then we must face the temptation to power in a different way. We must be very cautious of political power and very circumspect when it offers us its support. We must remember that the gospel is bigger than “our issue,” that the gospel’s application to our city and our nation will by definition be opposed by those who rule in those places. We must eschew shortcuts, and remember that the only way the kingdoms of the world will one day become the kingdom of our Christ is through the church’s practice of self-sacrifice. For whomever would save their life shall lose it; but whomever loses their life for the sake of Christ and Christ’s gospel will find it secure.

VI. Caught by Angels: the Temptation to Presumption

And this leads to the third test Jesus faced in the desert: The temptation to presumption. “Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written. ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’’”

These texts Satan used were there, in the Hebrew Bible – those are real Bible verses he’s quoting. And they had been understood for generations as applying to the Messiah, so he’s right about that as well. The temptation Satan was dangling in front of Jesus here was to presume that he knew precisely when and precisely how these texts would apply to him. Satan was testing Jesus to see if he could get him to assume to know more than he did. (This is the same Jesus who would later say, “No one knows the day or the hour – not the angels in heaven, not even the Son of Man.”)

In a more general sense, the sin of presumption is simply this: the arrogant refusal to acknowledge our own limitations. And of these temptations we the Affirming Church face today, it is the worst. When we yield to the temptation to self-reliance, we turn our backs on God. When we give in to the temptation to power, we usurp or replace God. But when we yield to the temptation to presumption, we show that we believe ourselves to have become like God. It is, quite literally, the oldest temptation in The Book. (Recall Satan’s words to the man and the woman in the garden: “God knows that in the day you eat from [the tree] you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”)

And presumptuousness is all the more dangerous because when it first appears, it’s very subtle, very hard to detect or to nail down. In fact, it can look a great deal like holiness. It masquerades as holiness, and so can become deeply rooted in our practice of discipleship and our practice of community before we’ve even recognized it for what it is.

For that reason, we of the Affirming Church must maintain a keen awareness of ourselves and our life together if we would resist the temptation to presumption. We must turn our ears toward our language, our ways of speaking about those who oppose us. When we mock them, deride them, scorn or disparage them, you can be sure that we’re being tempted to presumption. When we call them sad but feel no sympathy, when we say they’re lost but make no effort to lead them home, we need to check ourselves.

Similarly, when our language implies that we ourselves have it all figured out, or that we have confused being right with being holy, or that we believe that being right makes us superior in any way, we should be warned that we’re in danger of failing the test.

There is a smugness that is born of, and is co-morbid with, presumption. In full bloom it is a foul and ugly thing, turning people away from our humble Christ – and so we must hold one another accountable whenever and wherever it appears in our lives and in our churches.

VII. Christ’s Temptation, Our Temptation

Jesus, near the end of his 40 days, faced the Tempter and faced him down because he was filled with the Spirit before the encounter began and empowered by the Spirit throughout – which allowed him not only to interpret and apply Scripture appropriately (our purpose for being here this weekend) but to recognize temptation when he faced it. And we must rely on the Spirit in all of these ways as the Affirming Church enters its own time of testing.

But there is one final test, one more temptation that could derail the whole thing – and it doesn’t occur in the Scripture. It occurs in mythology, a modern myth of Jesus. I wonder if you’re familiar with it?

VIII. The Last Temptation

Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ tells us a story of Jesus who, initially at least, looks a lot like the Jesus we know. He is baptized, tempted by Satan in the desert, gathers disciples, preaches and heals throughout the land, and performs miracles and acts of power. And, as with our Jesus, his words and his works pit him against the powers that be, the powers of Religion and Empire, and his conflict with them leads inexorably to the cross.

But there on the cross, Jesus is visited by a beautiful angel – his guardian angel, we’re told – who tells him that it doesn’t have to be this way. He doesn’t have to suffer, and he doesn’t have to die. God loves him, and his test has now passed. And so, in the blink of an eye, Jesus comes down from the cross. He returns to his community anonymously, known only to a few old friends. And he begins a normal life.

The Jesus of this story marries and has children; he watches as the conflict between the Jews and their Roman occupiers intensifies. He grows old and experiences the sting of death as first his wife, then his old friends die. And he watches the political situation grow worse and worse for the people around him. Eventually he himself grows weak, and on his deathbed, as the Roman legions sack and burn the city, he realizes the truth: that the “guardian angel” that had appeared to him on the cross was Satan himself, returned at the opportune time of the crucifixion to tempt Jesus one last time.

And this, this is the final temptation of the Affirming Church as well: the temptation to renounce the fullness of our mission on the eve of its accomplishment. And for the Affirming Church this may be the greatest temptation and the most difficult test of all.

Because, you see, it is also the most natural. There is a reason, after all, why hundreds more climbers make it to Camp 4, the final camp before you reach the peak of Everest, than ever make it to the summit. It’s there, within their sight, only steps away, but they never make it. That’s because the hardest part of the climb is right before you reach the top. And the same is true for us. So many of us – so many Christians, so many churches – come this far, only to turn back when the demand for their sacrifice is greatest.

This is a tremendous risk for the Affirming Church right now; it’s a tremendous risk for we who have gathered here for this conference tonight. Because the gospel asks great sacrifices of us. How great? Think about the greatest sacrifice God has ever asked you to make – the one that hurt the most, the one that cost you the greatest. I’m not talking here about false sacrifices the non-affirming churches asked you to make – sacrifices to false gods of pride and presumption. What has God asked you to surrender for the gospel’s sake? Hold that thing in your mind for a moment; feel again the pain of letting it go.

Now hear the truth: the gospel asks you to sacrifice even more than that. It asks you to sacrifice everything – everything but the gospel itself. Because everything is what’s at stake.

That’s what the Jesus of Scorsese’s film learns on his deathbed. There, as his life drains away and the city burns around him and Israel dies, this Jesus sees for the first time that each of the temptations he faced was really just a choice, like the choices we make every day, dozens of times a day. What made them unique was the stakes. And what was at stake when he faced those temptations was everything. And so this Jesus begs his Father God for a second chance, a second chance to choose the way of compassion, self-sacrifice. And, of course, he receives it – and in an instant finds himself back at Calvary and on the cross. He looks to heaven, a mix of agony and joy on his face, and sighs, “It is accomplished.”

Will we of the Affirming Church get a second chance if we choose poorly in our moment of temptation? I don’t know. I do know, however, that moments like this come only once in a dozen generations. And I know that the fate of all the churches – the Affirming Church and the churches of our brothers and sisters who have yet to grasp the truth – are in our hands.

IX. A Prayer

Father, we your people gathered here tonight join our hearts to pray as your son taught us, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

We pray that, by the power of your Spirit, you would strengthen us to face the temptation to self-reliance. Deliver us into a deeper dependence upon you to undertake the hard work of this new age that is dawning – work of forgiveness, work of compassion, work of reconciliation.

We pray that, by the power of your Spirit, you would fortify us against the temptation to power and deliver us into a stronger allegiance to you, over above all earthly powers. Preserve our prophetic voice, O Lord, for a time is coming and has now come when we will need it more than ever.

We pray that, by the power of your Spirit, you would bolster us against the temptation to presumption and deliver us into a more authentic humility. Make us keenly aware of our limitations, and never allow us to imagine that having been right makes us superior to others, or that being right in this one thing means we’re right in all things.

We pray, above all, that you would make us wise to recognize these temptations when we encounter them. We spent so many years as the one lost sheep, and that can make it hard for us to recognize that we now dwell safely among the 99. We have coped with scarcity for so long that it’s hard to know how to deal appropriately with the abundance we now enjoy. We were weak for such a long time that it can be a great challenge to utilize our strength in ways that honor you.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

    Allyson Dylan Robinson

    Written by

    Lead Consultant, @CookRoss. Into: unscrewing the inscrutable, effing the ineffable. ENFJ, Enneagram 7, chaotic good. I can’t tell the future; I just work there.

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