Halloween – just a bit of harmless fun, right?

Halloween: Kids love it, the whole family gets involved, and it brings the community together. Too bad that while everyone’s having fun on Halloween in our Western culture that children aren’t having fun elsewhere in the world. They’re dying of starvation because their countries’ leaders are siphoning off the riches for themselves, they’re fleeing as refugees from war zones, dying as slaves in factories, as the prey of sexual predators, and as victims of Aids, infanticide and abortion. But ignore all that. Let’s make light of evil at Halloween, kids, as if evil isn’t real.

But evil is real, as all children find out in school, when bullies make their lives miserable, and every weakness and blemish is exploited. Our kids are never safe from those who wish to hurt them, and some resort to suicide to escape the pain. And that’s just school. At work they’ll be up against sexual harassment, destructive gossip and weird people who think only of their own appetites, none of which is fun. Evil is real, weird and brutal, and it’s not going away, but Halloween somehow makes it fun instead.

But God is merciful, as he revealed through Jesus on the cross, when Jesus cried out, “Forgive them for they have no idea what they’re doing.” So God doesn’t condemn us for being blind and stupid. Instead, he feels a great sympathy for us, which he shows by sending some into the darkness – where people are stumbling around – to “open their eyes,” Acts 26:18, and “turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.”

God’s great desire for us is that we “come to our senses and escape the devil’s trap,” 2 Timothy 2:26. So God doesn’t ridicule us for what we’re doing, but he does reason with us – just like a parent reasons with a child who’s blind to danger – in the hope that we’ll see how easily trapped we are into doing really dumb things, like warning our children all year to “never take candy off a stranger,” but at Halloween we encourage it, as though Halloween makes our children immune to evil.

But they’re not immune to evil the rest of the year, are they? Not when they’re being bullied, or worse still, they turn into bullies and get pleasure out of wrecking other people’s lives. Monsters aren’t so much fun when you see your own child turning into one. And when you see your child’s face blaze with anger and hatred, evil becomes real and very frightening. Why would anyone in his right mind, then, make fun of it?

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How do we share in Jesus’ sufferings?

Paul shared in Jesus’ sufferings by “becoming like him in his death,” Philippians 3:10. It can’t mean we die on a cross like Jesus did, so what did Paul mean instead?

He gives us a clue in Philippians 2:8. In describing Jesus’ death, the point Paul emphasizes is: Jesus “humbled himself.” Jesus not only gave up everything he had to become human (7), he also gave himself entirely to being “obedient to death” (8). His entire focus as a human was on total obedience to God’s purpose and a life of selfless service until he died, and he humbled himself to that.

So should we, said Paul in verse 5, because “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” It meant, verse 3, “Doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.” A life of selfless service to God and neighbour with no gain to ourselves – and we are willing to humble ourselves to that until we die, just as Jesus was.

So was Paul. He’d been a top-ranking Pharisee with admirable credentials and an impressive record of faultless obedience to the Law (3:5-6), but “whatever was to my profit (before) I now consider loss….I consider them rubbish” (3:7, 8).

It must’ve been humbling, though, giving all that up and “in humility considering others better than” himself (2:3). Never again could Paul resort to any tactic that would elevate himself above others. Despite what people said about him or did to him, he could not retaliate in kind, or make snide remarks behind people’s backs to make himself feel better. Nor could he use religion or his faultless obedience to the Law, or even his intelligence anymore, to make himself feel superior. He couldn’t even be offended if people hurt him or wrongly accused him. And never again could he focus on polishing his image or making a name for himself to become more noticeable and admired among his peers. All that dreadful rubbish had to die.

But in dying to it Paul would share in the suffering of Christ, in the humbling experience of living with selfish people but never reacting to them selfishly, and never being competitive. It was tough, yes, but Paul willingly humbled himself to such a life because more than anything he wanted to become like Christ, and in this way he could. It was by humbly squashing his pride, hurt and ambitions, and dying to them daily, just as Jesus died to them daily too.

And it’s in that daily death we become like Christ in his death. We die with him in the same things he died to. Tough, yes, but for Paul there was also “the power of Jesus’ resurrection” to help him (3:10).

The conflicting response of the church to sexual orientation

On one end of the spectrum are Christians who believe all sexual orientation outside the scriptural bounds of male and female is wrong and must be cured by the church through prayer, counselling and conversion therapy.

On the other end of the spectrum are Christians who believe the church should welcome the LGBTQ community as fellow humans made in God’s image. It’s not their fault the way they are, they were born with different sexual and gender orientation, and God made provision, therefore, for sexual relationships other than heterosexual husband and wife.

The result, unfortunately, is yet another source of division and conflict in the Christian church, not only on what God’s word says on sexual orientation, but also on what the church is for. Is the church a curing house or a safe house?

How, for instance, would each group of Christians run an AA meeting? Would the first group only invite alcoholics who want to be cured? But isn’t that what the church is for, the first group asks, to cure people of their ailments? What’s the point of the church if it doesn’t encourage and promote repentance and change? You don’t create a hospital for sick people to remain sick, you create it to make them well. And isn’t that what Christ came for, to “turn each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26)?

But, the second group says, people aren’t wicked if they have a problem with alcohol; it’s something they’re born with. It’s not the church’s job, therefore, to cure them, it’s to provide an environment where they feel loved, accepted and safe as they are. The primary purpose of a hospital is not to make sick people well, it’s to make sick people comfortable. And isn’t that what Jesus made people feel when they came to him? He didn’t condemn prostitutes, for instance, or insist that they stop being prostitutes to be accepted by him. They felt safe and comfortable in his presence as they were, which made it so much easier for them to approach him.

Does the church exist, then, to cure people or to make them feel safe? And what’s an AA meeting for? Is it to cure alcoholics of their alcoholism, or to make them feel safe and accepted as alcoholics?

Well, it’s both, isn’t it? Don’t hospitals do both too? They exist to make sick people well – and make them feel comfortable. So, what if the church did both, where it never stops preaching repentance and cure, but it also makes people feel safe and accepted? It’s a tricky balance, but surely worth seeking to ease the conflict in the church’s approach.

What a pity homosexuality is such a big deal

Like it or not, homosexuality is a big deal in our culture, and even without bringing religion into it it’s causing all sorts of rifts and problems. People are either deeply for or against homosexuality, and debates in social and scientific circles rage over the cause of it, whether it’s congenital or genetic, a choice or an illness, and what part nature or nurture play in the forming of sexual identity – in things like womb environment, sexual abuse, lack of parental love, poor gender models, inability to relate to the opposite sex, or just plain peer pressure.

What a pity, because in reality does it matter what causes homosexuality, or what science comes up with to prove homosexuality is normal, or what a Sex Ed curriculum states as acceptable and healthy sexual relationships, when one day, all humans, straight or gay, die, and our sexual identity dies with us? People struggle all their lives to have their views on sexuality accepted both culturally and legally, but when a person is dead what does it matter if he or she was heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual or transgender?

To many Christians, however, it matters a great deal, because in their minds homosexuals go to hell after they die, based on scriptures like Romans 1:16, which says, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all godlessness and wickedness.” Many Christians, therefore, feel a deep responsibility to speak out strongly on God’s behalf against the teaching and practice of alternative lifestyles – to prevent people going to hell. But this creates friction with other equally dedicated Christians who quote 2 Corinthians 5:19, “that God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them,” meaning no one is going to hell for being homosexual, and Christians should only be speaking the good news of God’s amazing grace and reconciling love to the LGBTQ community, not condemning them.

So now Christians have made homosexuality a big deal, which is such a pity because Jesus didn’t have much to say about our sexual identity, other than remind the religious folks of his day in Matthew 19:4 that “He who made them at the beginning made them male and female.” The big deal to Jesus was God making us male and female, and going back to the book of Genesis to remember why.

Jesus takes us back to the beginning, because that’s where God explains his purpose for humanity, and why the interaction of male and female was so important. What a tragedy it is, then, when big deals are made of things like homosexuality that have no connection or relevance to God’s purpose for us.

The great news God has for homosexuals

The great news that God has for homosexuals, and for anybody else for that matter, is 2 Corinthians 5:19, “that God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” So, no one is going to hell for being homosexual, which is amazing, because we also know how God views homosexuality in Romans 1:16, which says, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all godlessness and wickedness,” and it noticeably includes homosexuality in verses 24-27.

So God is deeply upset by homosexuality, because it knocks in the head what he created male and female for, which in turn blinds people to his marvellous purpose for humanity, which in turn hides “his eternal power and divine nature” (verse 20), which in turn has led to all sorts of mental problems for us humans, listed in sad and devastating detail in verses 21-22 and 28-32. It is not a pretty picture, but notice in Romans 2:1-3, that even though it’s clear what God thinks of homosexuality, he does not give us the right to judge or condemn homosexuals.

Why not, though? Surely, condemnation is exactly what homosexuals need for not only practicing what God highly disapproves of, but also for blatantly promoting it. But in Paul’s mind that would be “showing contempt for the riches of God’s kindness, tolerance and patience,” which would be a huge pity because the means by which God is leading humanity to repentance is the good news of how immensely kind and patient he is (2:4).

Does that mean we ignore what homosexuals are doing? No, because Paul makes it clear in Romans 3:23, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Paul does not dilute the shattering influence of evil on humans, resulting in diversions like homosexuality, but right alongside that he immediately includes the equally important fact that all humans, no matter how depraved or misguided we’ve become, “are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus,” verse 24. Because of Christ, God not only totally forgives us, he’s also in the process of restoring us too, back to his original and wonderful purpose for us.

The best way Christians can serve the LGBTQ community, therefore, is by painting the correct picture of God, which includes two things: That God does not condone what we do, but neither does he condemn us. Yes, he’s deeply upset by humans falling desperately short of his purpose for us, which clearly includes homosexuality, but look how great that makes his kindness, tolerance and patience for us, because even in his anger he doesn’t hold anything we’ve done against us.

Does sexual identity matter?

Sexual identity matters a great deal in our culture, creating all sorts of problems. It polarizes communities into “straight” and “gay,” it stirs up opposing camps that either condemn or condone alternative sexual lifestyles, it marginalizes those with homosexual, bisexual and transgender orientation, and it brands those in opposition to different sexual orientation as hate mongers. It worries parents who fear the peer pressure of the LGBTQ community on their children, especially in schools where teaching alternative lifestyles is a required part of the curriculum, but it also makes life difficult for those who believe they have no control over their sexual orientation because it was decided for them at birth or by their genes, but are accused by others of choosing it.

It’s not a pretty picture, especially for children growing up in such a culture, where the media, entertainment, education, law, and even religious folk are claiming alternative sexual lifestyles and identities are healthy and normal. How many children will now be worrying about their sexual identity, as something crucial and necessary?

But in the great scheme of things, does sexual identity really matter? Jesus did say that when we’re resurrected there’ll be no more need for marriage (Matthew 22:30), so male and female sexuality will eventually become a non-issue. But what about now, before we’re resurrected? Surely sexual identity is very important, because the human race has always depended on the creation of children by male and female sexual reproduction.

So, yes, sexual identity does matter now, because that’s how children are produced. The marriage of male and female also pictures the relationship of Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:25-32), but what does one make of Galatians 3:28 that says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”?

That really changes things for Christians, because Paul takes the focus right off our racial, social and sexual identity, and places it fairly and squarely on our identity being totally wrapped up in Christ. As humans the only identity that really matters is that, because it’s what Christ accomplished for us that makes us “all sons of God” (verse 26). Our sexual identity doesn’t make us sons of God; Jesus does. And it’s because we’re “baptized into Christ” and “clothed with Christ” (verse 27) that we “belong to Christ” and become “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (verse 29).

And what is that promise? It’s the promise of the Spirit (3:14) who transforms us into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). That’s the identity that matters to God, because that’s the identity we’re now born with, are growing into in this life, and will have forever.

Taking on a totally new identity

Paul’s message birthed something totally new in people. It was like giving them a new identity.

He described that new identity too, in Galatians 4:19. “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.”

I think of all those movies where a detective or an informer goes underground to seek out and reveal the cause of some awful corruption going on. To survive without being detected he must be given a new name and a new identity, and then go through the laborious process of practice and testing until that new identity “is formed” – or comes naturally – to him.

To Paul that process was like the pains of childbirth. It was hard work getting those Galatians to understand and grasp the new identity they’d been given as Christians. He tried to explain it from his own experience in Galatians 2:20 that he’d been “crucified with Christ and I no longer live.” Paul came to realize he was no longer the person he was. He couldn’t even think like the person he was either, because that wasn’t him anymore. He had a totally new identity now that “Christ lives in me,” and it was his job to live that new identity, and to help other Christians realize and live their new identity too, until it came to them naturally.

The meaning of the word identity makes that come alive. It means “the individual characteristics by which a thing or person is recognized or known,” so what is it that Christians are recognized and known by?

It is their clear similarities to Christ in every aspect of their lives. And it has to be that way for us if we’re truly taking on our new identity. Just like informers who go underground, we must act and think our new identity in every situation, or as Paul phrased it in 2 Corinthians 10:5, we cannot let any thought loose that isn’t “obedient to Christ.” And this is what the Father and Jesus send us the Holy Spirit for, to enable us through practice and testing to do just that, so that we “are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (3:18). We take on our new identity more and more, until it truly becomes who we are.

And the means by which the Spirit does that is to give us gifts that enable us to share in what Christ is doing, which is always for the benefit of others in some way (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). We can, therefore, practice our new identity and be tested in very practical situations, so that more and more our new identity is becoming second nature to us.