How early did Jesus know?
One conventional answer is that he was born to die, and as God incarnate he knew this all along. Even if we wait for explicit biblical references, though, it is clear that Jesus saw the cross looming up a long time before he got there.
And yet he kept walking forward. He kept teaching. He kept healing. He kept praying. He kept on doing what he was here to do.
This is the way life responds to death and fear.
A word to myself today.
Say not then in your heart, “I was once baptized, therefore I am now a child of God.” Alas, that consequence will by no means hold. How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers, the baptized railers and evil-speakers, the baptized whoremongers, thieves, extortioners? What think you? Are these now the children of God? Verily, I say unto you, whosoever you are, unto whom any one of the preceding characters belongs, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the works of your father ye do.” Unto you I call, in the name of Him whom you crucify afresh, and in his words to your circumcised predecessors, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”
– John Wesley, The Marks of the New Birth
It was one of the first things that hit me between the eyes when reading John Wesley’s works the first time: The man was not playing around. His faith was not a nice little thing he kept off to the side. It was all consuming and it was serious. He also was not out to win friends.
George Whitefield defending the doctrine that all Christians can experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in his sermon “The Common Privilege of All Believers.”
Indeed, I will not say our letter-learned preachers deny this doctrine in express words. But, however, they do it in effect. For they talk professedly against inward feelings and say we may have God’s Spirit without feeling it, which is in reality to deny the thing itself. And had I a mind to hinder the progress of the gospel and establish the kingdom of darkness, I would go about telling people they might have the Spirit of God and yet not feel it.
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:15-20, NRSV)
I wonder how this passage informs the ways Christians talk about prostitution today.
When I read a passage like the one above, I assume that what Paul had to say to the Corinthian church has something to teach us as well. The central point appears to me to be about our bodies and our relationship to Christ. Our bodies are not our own. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.
Paul finds sex with a prostitute objectionable because it unites one who belongs to Jesus Christ with someone unholy. It almost feels like we are reading Leviticus when we take a moment to look at what Paul is actually saying to the Corinthians.
No where in Paul’s analysis do questions of consent or oppression or power come into play, although that does not mean he would approve of the institution. As with slavery, Paul appears more interested in teaching the church how to live in the light of a institution existence. Whether he would eliminate the institution is not a question he openly addresses in either case. In the case of prostitution, it is a uniting what belongs to God with one who stands in de facto rebellion against God. It does not matter that in certain counties in Nevada prostitution is legal. It does not matter that countries in Europe sex work is a regulated business, as it was in ancient Rome. It does not matter that Hollywood glamorizes the degrading and brutal exploitation of women. What matters is that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. We were bought with a price, and we are not now to unite what Christ has bought with the bodies of those who are still enslaved by sin.
That reading may not make much sense in public debate about the rights of sex workers. But it is my best effort to understand Paul’s teaching and how it still speaks to the church today.
At the end of his explanation of the General Rules of the United Societies — rules which we still hold as binding on ourselves — John Wesley wrote this:
These are the General Rules of our societies; all which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written word, the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these, we know, his Spirit writes on every truly awakened heart. If there be any among us who habitually break any of them, let it be made known unto them who watch over that soul as they that must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways; we will bear with him for a season: But then if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.
I notice several things here.
First, Wesley takes very seriously the notion that pastors and lay leaders are on the hook if they do not actively look to the salvation and preservation of souls. I was in a class once in which another pastor told me that his job was not to be anyone’s sin police. That got a lot of nods of agreement, and I was right there with the others. But Wesley would not have agreed. He would not have used the phrase “sin police,” not least of which because it is cute rather than instructive, but he would have reminded us that those who watch over the souls of others will be held to account by Jesus for what we do and what we fail to do.
Second, I notice again the rock solid commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture to guide our faith and practice. Such an idea would not get even a moment of indulgence from many pastors and most seminary professors today.
Finally, just imagine that last portion being read at Annual Conference. Indeed, I wonder what would happen at General Conference if the text of the General Rules were up for a vote. Perhaps that is why it wise that the General Rules are protected by our Constitution.
As a church that protects and preserves these rules, though, I wonder how we live them. How do we — within local congregational settings — get to the point where such a text could be read and embraced? How do we be the church in light of what we hold as our general rules?
This summer working at the hospital, I’ve had several visits with people in isolation rooms. To go visit them, I have to put on a gown and rubber gloves and sometimes a mask. When I leave the room, I throw all these things away and wash my hands again.
I do all this because the person is infected and diseased and cannot be let out of the room.
Now, by one way of thinking, the doctor’s work is to kill off the infection, so the patient will be saved. But thought of another way, the real problem the patient has here is that he is dangerous to everyone around him and can’t leave that room. The ultimate bad result is that he will die and never leave that room again. What he needs to be liberated from is that isolated room and freed to be back in the world again. In order to do that, his infection has to be purged from him. Killing the infection is a means by which his liberation from isolation is made possible.
By way of analogy, sin is a contamination and disease. So long as we are so infected, we cannot get out of the isolation cell know as the world, both because we are too weak to do it but not inconsequentially because we are dangerous to those on the outside. Granted, it is a spacious and often comfortable isolation room, but we are trapped and unable to enter the world that is without sin and corruption so long as we are tainted.
Jesus came to usher us into that holy, pure, and beautiful kingdom. But first, our sins must be purged by the means of cross and forgiveness. Our sin must be dealt with as a necessary step to salvation, but that is not salvation itself. Salvation is getting out of the room.
Like all analogies, this is clumsy and limited, but I think there is something useful here.