Sermon: Swallowing a Camel

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

4 Responses

  1. Peter Stockman says:

    Hi there, I came across your site and have been enjoying a lot of the content, especially this idea you’ve been exploring about placing unnecessary burdens on one another, a form of legalism. May I ask how you would approach certain scriptures that do seem rather legalistic as face value? A good example would be the set of ‘vice lists’ in 1 Corinthians and in Galatians where it is stated that these people would not inherit the kingdom. These lists seem so long that almost everyone is included and it makes the process of salvation seem like an impossible task.

    • Hi Peter,

      Glad you’re finding something helpful here.

      Alright, this is a really big question and I can only quickly touch on a few of the elements involved. I’ll try to do some justice to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 as a sample:

      9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (NRSV)

      I’m going to ignore the questionable translation of “sodomites” here, since that is an entirely different question.

      First thing I would want to do is add some context. Here’s what comes next:

      12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,”[e] and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 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! 16 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.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple[f] of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

      That section is fairly clear that there is a positive motivation here rather than a negative one. It’s not about avoiding punishment. It is about being made into a new creation in Christ. As you become more Christ-like, there’s going to be less room in your life for those vices. We aren’t bound by the Law, but we are bound by something greater: love. As we pull deeper into Jesus’ love, we love others better. If you love somebody, you’re not going to commit adultery against them, for example.

      That gets to the idea of “inheriting the Kingdom”. Another question we should ask is “what is the Kingdom?” I like to start to answer that with a fairly literal reading of the term Kingdom: it’s where the King has authority. And in this case, Jesus’ authority is “love.” That’s why the earliest and simplest Christian creed – Jesus is Lord – is fantastic news. It’s also important in my opinion to remember that the Kingdom is in place already in the world, not (just) some magical place after we die. So in as much as your life is not embodying Jesus – that ethic of love – that is not the Kingdom of God. On the other side, we might disagree about some of the things in this list with questions of translation and cultural context, but the point is: when we embody Jesus by acting within that love authority, that’s really another way of saying we inherit the Kingdom.

      Not going to touch on Heaven/Hell/afterlife stuff, which is another tangent. I’m probably a purgatorial conditionalist, which I’m sure you can find more about somewhere on this site. That position is really an extension of this idea.

      Getting to this took me a long time because it upends the basic legal framework for how a lot of us talk about theology in the West. Within that framework, we tend to be stuck with a couple of options: you didn’t break the rules so you’re saved, which as you point out would be pretty much nobody if we interpreted it that way; or you broke the rules but God offers some kind of loophole in God’s own rules so that you can be forgiven anyway. The latter makes God somewhat arbitrary – why can’t God just forgive without the loophole? Again, that’s a bigger discussion than I can fit here, but it tends you put you back toward being tempted to throw morality out the window again. You’ve got the loophole anyway, so who cares what else you do? Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians refutes that idea very strongly. In that wider context, it seems Paul here needed to get specific to name things going on in that community which they were ignoring because they were already forgiven anyway.

      So the question becomes: what if God is not concerned with following the rules? What if God is drawing us toward love? That’s a very different image of God which will have a lot of ripple effects in your theology and life, but that’s the image of God I see in Jesus, who is the ultimate revelation of God.

      • Peter Stockman says:

        Thank you for your in depth response and for getting back to me so quickly. How you interpreted those verses really does help and it does make sense. One last question if I may be so bold: Do you know if this type of interpretation can be found in any of the early church fathers? My only reason for asking is that from what I have read they seem to have been very legalistic whereas this interpretation definitely seems to demonstrate God’s grace whilst also encouraging believer’s to grow in holiness. Thank you again for your earlier response, it really was helpful.

        • Admittedly it’s been a while since I read much of the Church fathers, so I can’t say much concretely or with direct quotes behind it, but some tangential thoughts come to mind:

          I do think it is fair from my understanding to say that in general, the West adopted the legal framework moreso than the East. To this day, the Eastern Church will be more likely to talk about sin as wounds to us needing healing rather than breaking God’s rules needing punishment.

          The penal substitution atonement theory as well as its predecessor the satisfaction theory – which both start with some kind of slight against God committed by humanity – came much later. Most of the early Church didn’t really get into details of how atonement worked, but when they did, the emphasis was more on defeating evil rather than satisfying God.

          It’s safe to say some early Church fathers condemned Jewish legalism as they tried to differentiate themselves. That probably doesn’t count, but it was mostly in the language of grace over law. Not sure I can think of anything off the top of my head for them explicitly condemning Christian legalism.

          There were debates like whether a baptism by a priest who later renounced the faith was still valid, and the majority ended up on the more “grace” end of things (e.g. yes, that baptism is still valid). They were definitely legitimate debates between emphasizing the church as holy ones and the church as a place of grace, though, as it is still in modern churches.

          If you haven’t yet, check out the works of Greg Boyd including reknew.org. He’s probably my largest influence, and he probably could answer this question about the Church fathers, too.