“The Law and the Spirit," A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie

 “The Law and the Spirit”

A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie

Rector of Christ Church Greenwich

Delivered on Sunday, June 26, 2022

 

On Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion that had been in place for almost 50 years. It is a monumental legal decision with major ethical implications. Those who have fought to overturn Roe v. Wade often cite religious reasons. So, with your permission I wish to discuss this matter briefly with you this morning. Most importantly, I hope that today’s sermon will be the beginning rather than the end of an ongoing conversation about this and other critical issues. And just as you would want me to respect your thoughts on this topic, I hope that you will return the favor.

I believe that any church worth attending should address and not duck the difficult concerns of our day. At the same time, I have no desire to steer your thinking one way or another, but rather to clarify what the Bible teaches us, what Christians have believed over the centuries and where the Episcopal Church stands on this issue. There are good people of faith on both sides of this complicated issue, and I urge all of us to respect those who differ from us. In the last part of my sermon, I will examine what St. Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit,” for these are the spiritual gifts that we need today in order to address important, but controversial topics that are of concern to all of us.

The Bible is a complicated book recorded and assembled over more than a thousand years. The belief that all life is sacred and to be kept alive is in no way consistently held throughout it. In Exodus, God commands, “The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.” (Ex. 22:29b-30) Hence, the Jews routinely sacrificed oxen and sheep and possibly children to appease God.

After the Babylonian Exile in 597 B.C., there is no further mention of sacrificing children. But the Bible does not maintain that “all life is sacred.” Rather it prescribes capital punishment for a wide variety of causes, including if a child struck his parents (Ex. 21:15), or cursed them (Ex. 21:17; Lev. 20:9), as well as for a rebellious child (Deut. 21:18-21). I would not be standing before you, if this were still carried out. In the case of adultery both parties were to be executed (Lev. 20:10). The death penalty was also prescribed for anyone who worked on the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14; 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36), consulted a medium (Lev. 20:27) or engaged in pagan worship (Ex. 22:20). Hence, all life was not deemed to be sacred.

The only place in the ancient Near East where abortion was specifically forbidden was in the Middle Assyrian law. Plato recommended abortions for women who conceived after the age of 40 (Republic 5.9), and Aristotle (Politics 1335b) allowed abortions before “sense and life have begun,” which he estimated came 40 days for males and 90 days for females. The Jewish historian Josephus condemned abortions and infanticide, while the Jewish commentary on the Scriptures, the Mishnah, regarded the fetus as a person only after birth or after the crown of the head breached the mother’s womb.

There are some powerful lines in the Bible that suggest that God knows us in the womb. Jeremiah recounts God saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you,” (Jer. 1:5). The Psalmist adds, “It was you [God] who formed my inward parts, who knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13-16). In Luke 1:44, Elizabeth tells Mary that “the child in my womb leaped for joy.” These passages speak to life in the womb, but there is no explicit forbidding of abortion in the Bible. The commandment not to murder may raise questions regarding abortion, but it doesn’t settle the issue.

In his book What are Biblical Values?, Yale Divinity School professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Criticism John Collins notes, “At the very least this should warn us that abortion is not a central concern in the Bible, and is certainly not the litmus test for biblical values.” (What are Biblical Values? P. 58) In this regard, abortion is similar to the concern of homosexuality which evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics have renounced for decades despite the fact that Jesus never once spoke about homosexuality nor condemned it. Yet, Christians have unleashed a torrent of hatred against homosexuals over the centuries despite following a religion said to be based around love.

The first explicit Christian condemnation of abortion occurs in the Didache, which dates back to the first or second century (Didache 2:2). The Didache prohibits murder, adultery, abortion and infanticide. The late second and early third century theologian Tertullian defined what would become the standard Christian doctrine when he wrote:

For us murder is once for all forbidden; so even the child in the womb, while

yet the mother’s blood is being drawn on to form the human being, it is not

lawful for us to destroy. To forbid birth is only quicker murder. It makes no

difference whether one take away the life once born or destroys it as it comes

to birth. He is a man who is to be a man; the fruit is always present in the

seed. (Apology 9:8)

Thus, Christianity has traditionally condemned abortion. By the sixteenth century, however, distinctions were made which would permit an abortion in certain circumstances such as to save the life of the mother. Theologians distinguished between the formed versus the unformed fetus, based on Aristotelean theory which, as I have noted, held that the rational soul developed in the fetus after 40 days for a male and 90 days for the female.

While popes and theologians equated abortion with murder, it was never punished as severely. Roman Catholic ethicists focused almost completely on the status of the fetus. Modern science has repudiated the Aristotelean theory in favor of a developmental concept of fetal life. From the beginning, the fetus has its own genetic endowment which is different from either parent, yet it lacks the characteristics of consciousness and personality which make us fully human. It’s nervous and circulatory systems develop during the gestation period. Only then is the fetus capable of surviving outside the womb.

Roman Catholic thinkers have generally maintained that from the moment of conception the fetus is fully human with full human rights. This view has led to Catholics condemning abortion under nearly every circumstance. Ironically, while the Catholic Church has fought to protect unborn children, they have repeatedly chosen to protect abusive priests rather than children who have molested by clergy. This is appalling.

If the status of the fetus is the primary issue as it is for Catholics, then all other factors are ruled out of consideration. Episcopalians and many other Christian ethicists, however, note that abortion is a complex choice. It includes the health of the mother, her psychological condition, her duty to her other children, and the economic situation of the family. All of these factors can influence a conscientious choice regarding abortion.

Opponents of abortion often dismiss all considerations other than the status of the fetus, but clergy who have counseled women seeking an abortion know that these considerations weigh heavily on the individual and the family. An overburdened mother of many children with fragile health, inadequate income and under great personal stress may not be in danger of losing her life, but the quality of her life may be in jeopardy.

Does a woman have an absolute right to control her own body? Is an abortion a morally neutral procedure like having one’s appendix removed? The fact that the fetus has its own genetic material and at some point can survive on its own makes it distinct from having one’s appendix removed. On the other hand, potential for human life is not the same as human life. Hence, a fetus is not a baby and we should not treat it as such. In this case abortion is not murder.

Yet, the bias in the Christian moral vision is toward the preservation of life. Therefore the Christian moral vision leans in favor of protecting the fetus. This does not mean, however, that abortion is an illegitimate choice in every situation, but it does mean that it is a morally serious decision, one which should be made only when other possibilities prove inadequate.

What is the position of the Episcopal Church? The 1976 General Convention of the Episcopal Church considered this issue and produced a very thoughtful resolution. It states, “That the beginning of a new human life, because it is a gift of the power of God’s love for his people, and therefore sacred, should not and must not be undertaken unadvisedly or lightly… Such understanding includes the responsibility for Christians to limit the size of their families and to practice responsible birth control. Such means for moral limitations do not include abortion for convenience.

The 1976 resolution also reaffirmed a position taken in 1967, which declared support for the “termination of pregnancy” particularly in those cases where “the physical or mental health of the mother is threatened seriously, or where there is substantial reasons to believe that the child would be born badly deformed in mind or body, or where the pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest.” In these cases, an abortion was deemed a permissible moral act.

In addition “…members of this Church are urged to seek the advice and counsel of a Priest of this Church, and, where appropriate, Penance.” Clergy and others of this Church “are to explore with the person or persons seeking advice and counsel other preferable courses of action. Finally, …the Episcopal Church expresses its unequivocal opposition to any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decision in this matter and to act upon them.” Also the 1994 Act of Convention opposed any “executive or judicial action to abridge the right of a woman to reach an informed decision…or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.”

Now, some would say that religious leaders should stay out of politics, but I would argue just the opposite. Politicians should stay out of religion. That’s why we have separation of church and state. The government is not to favor one religion over another, mandate one religious practice for all people or tell religious believers what they can and cannot believe.

Many argue that the overturning of Roe v. Wade is an infringement on a woman’s freedom of moral-decision making. For such a decision to be taken away from women, doctors, family, friends and clergy is deeply disturbing. While the Constitution does not specifically ensure the right to an abortion, it does not specifically ensure the right to owning a semi-automatic weapon. It is never spelled out. And in the case of abortion, we must remember that the Constitution was drafted and signed solely by men.

Ironically, many “pro-life” advocates firmly oppose any measures to support gun safety legislation, vaccinations, and providing health care resources that would save lives. Their arguments are therefore inconsistent. If we say that we are “pro-life,” we must be pro-life consistently, not where we pick and choose.

While other nations are moving forward to provide more broadly for safe abortions, we are taking a huge step backwards. Finally, some states will ban an abortion even in cases of rape, incest or when a mother’s life is at risk. This is morally repugnant. You and I know that families with resources will find a way to get an abortion. It is the working poor who will risk a back-alley abortion as they did before Roe v. Wade was decided.

Abortion is a complex concern. I have not intended to sway your thinking in one direction, but rather to inform theologically on this topic. Let me conclude by addressing Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which includes two of the most important verses in the Bible. This epistle is perhaps Paul’s most impassioned text. He founded several churches in Galatia in the area of Asia Minor now known as Turkey. After he left, Jewish Christians came and shared a very different gospel from the one he had taught. Paul viewed these preachers as “trouble-makers” and “agitators,” because they created division concerning the Jewish Law and the practice of circumcision. The great division created back then is similar to how abortion divides faith communities today. Paul wanted to heal, create unity and help these churches focus on what truly mattered.

So, he spoke to them about the Holy Spirit, which allows us to be spiritual. What is spirituality? Spirituality is not about striving to be godly. Rather it is about becoming fully human. When we strive to be godly we can easily feel puffed up and view ourselves as better than others. Spirituality is not about trying to lead a perfect life, free of sin and imperfection, which is impossible.

Rather, it is an attempt to live a “whole” or “holy” life. These two words share the same root. The Greek word for “to heal” can be translated as “to save,” or “to make whole.” Hence, whenever Jesus healed a person, he made him or her “whole.” The goal of the spiritual life is to become a “whole” person and let the Spirit set us free us to be all that God intended us to be. Spirituality is therefore not otherworldly, but rather about the here and now. Its goal is to make us more human, more whole, loving, free and faithful.

When St. Paul writes, “Live by the Spirit… and do not gratify the desires of the flesh,” he is not using “flesh” derogatorily, as if our bodies were inherently evil. Rather, “flesh” is his shorthand for self-centered living as opposed to God-centered and other-centered living. Living by the Spirit gives us our deepest freedom, peace and joy. Thus, Paul writes this famous line, “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These two verses offer us a great spiritual compass.

Note that love comes first. It is the root of the entire spiritual life. The spiritual author and former chaplain at the Shrine of Julian of Norwich in England, Robert Llewelyn wrote, “Here, Paul speaks of ‘fruit’ rather than ‘fruits,’ because what follows is not a list of separate qualities but rather diverse dimensions of the one fruit, love. ‘Thus joy is love rejoicing and peace is love resting. Patience is love waiting, kindness is love acting and goodness is love being. Faithfulness is love trusting, gentleness is love nurturing and self-control is love disciplining.”

I close by assigning you homework. Later today, reread Galatians 5:22-23, where Paul writes, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Then ask yourself, “Which of these is most lacking in my life?” Is it love or joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, or self-control? Identify which of these is most lacking in your life and then dedicate this summer to praying for help in this area of your life and working to develop this spiritual gift with God’s help, and you will have perhaps the most spiritually rewarding summer of your life. Amen.