As I’m working on message notes for this coming Sunday, and I’m thinking that I haven’t done much on my blog in 2015 as of yet, I thought I’d share something I’ve been thinking of, along the lines of my post last year looking for an Acts 15 Council Redux on LGBTQ Inclusion.
Today’s post is similar in that I’ve been dreaming with another passage from the book of Acts, Acts 10 and the story of Peter and Cornelius. Today, I’m praying for more and more followers of Christ to dream with Peter. I want them to have visions of God’s grace and love enveloping people who maybe aren’t like them, people of whom they have have been taught are outside of God’s presence and present work.
I invite you to read that chapter, even if it is very familiar to you already. This post may feel a bit like a defense of my affirming beliefs, but believe me, I’m not feeling too stressed about defending myself. What little negativity I have experienced in being a straight ally is no comparison to the hurt and pain that some of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters have experienced in and outside of the church. These are just some of my thoughts right now…
I Relate to Peter’s Experience
I feel as though I have gone through something very similar to Peter’s vision and the events at the home of Cornelius. Like Peter, I was also raised not to associate with certain people and certain things, and I was taught that they were unclean. But as I opened my eyes and desired to see clearly for myself, I began to see things in a different light, and people that I had been taught to see as so wrong no longer seemed so wrong at all, but more wrongly understood. Then as my thinking begin to change I experienced something even more powerful; I began witnessing their faith and I saw God’s Spirit moving among them. More than my mind changed along the way; my heart changed as well.
And so I have moved in my life from just not wanting to condemn my LGBTQ sisters and brothers, to vocally advocating for the affirmation of their sexual identities and their inclusion as full members of Christ’s kingdom and fellow human beings endowed with all the dignity and value God bestows on us. I’ve written about my understanding of many scriptures that are often related to this topic of conversation, but it’s passages like Acts 10 and 15 where my hope truly waits for us to move. I do believe that this is something a bit new that God is doing in the church and it’s not a question to be answered by only by digging in ancient texts and arguing over Greek words… this is movement of the Spirit in us all.
God initiates all the action in Acts 10. God sends an angel to answer the prayer of Cornelius, a Roman soldier outside of God’s people by birth, ethnicity and religion. But this soldier has faith and is called devout and God-fearing, and in answer to that faith God instructs him to send for Peter. Meanwhile, God is also moving in Peter’s life in a surprising way; Peter has a vision of God tempting him to act against his religiosity and spiritual upbringing! Whoa. The vision presents Peter with animals to eat which have been forbidden to him by religious law and practice, and Peter refuses on religious grounds to do as the voice from heaven instructs him. But the voice answers Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happens with Peter three times until he hears the voices of the men sent by Cornelius.
Peter is a quick guy, pretty smart. He puts it all together and goes to the home of Cornelius. He goes and begins speaking with everyone gathered in the house and explains that though he would never have come there before, now “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”
If you know the story, or if you just read it earlier, then you know how the narrative goes. Peter hardly gets through his explanation about Jesus before the Spirit is seen moving in the audience in an amazing way, and Peter and the others from Joppa are astonished. Peter calls for their baptism because, “They have received the Spirit just as we have.”
Do you feel the connection that I feel with this passage? Just as the Spirit moved to manifestly convince Peter that he should affirm and accept the faith of those Gentiles who were so unlike him, I believe that we heterosexuals, who constitute the majority, in and outside of faith, are being called to witness God moving outside our expectations. Some of us are so sure, after years of religious life and years of religious practice, that we know exactly all that God has done, is doing and will do. I’m encouraged by Peter’s example of following the Spirit, even into some new places and some new understandings.
Peter surely had to do some rethinking with his scriptures after this experience. He surely had to do some restructuring of his religious thought and practice. And in fact we know that this is not only difficult to do but we make mistakes and stumble along the way. Later on Paul will recount his public chastising of Peter for refusing to eat with Gentile converts, even after Peter has had this incredible experience (Galatians 2:11-21). Change is tough, scary and requires an on going commitment to making it last in meaningful ways.
I Was Already Re-Reading My Texts
Since I made a public statement of my affirming and inclusive interpretations of scripture and religious life, I’ve had some emails and messages to me asking in various ways, “How can you?” How can I deny what I was taught in my youth? How can I deny what is so plainly written (in English at least) in our scriptures? How can I break with tradition? How can I risk alienating people from God by teaching them falsely? Though I will try to answer those emails when I have time, the answer is simple and kinda like the story of Peter in Acts 10: You see, I went and found God there already. I didn’t need to necessarily save anyone.
I Found God With Them Already
As I came to understand many of our scriptural passages differently than I had been taught, I also began to know LGBTQ Christians, people of deep and authentic faith. I experienced the real disconnect between the criminalizing speech of many straight Christians about “the gay lifestyle” or “the gay agenda” and the reality of their beauty, faith and struggle. Indeed, I found that we are far more united in our similarity and faith than we are divided in our dissimilarity and sexual orientations.
I Believe I’m Simply Following God’s Lead
Some keep asking me about a presumed arrogance on my part, that I have in someway chosen to reject God’s authority and wisdom to rely on my own. Really, I don’t claim a single new thought here, folks. Yes, my thinking has changed a lot over the last ten years on this, and even more in the last few years, but I don’t claim for a moment that I have received any kind of a special vision or message from God… I’m using Peter’s story in Acts 10 as a metaphor. I think it’s an exciting metaphor for the way we can see and follow God moving through the world and through people. As the Gospel crushes ethnic and national barriers, so can it remove the barrier of our differing sexual orientations.
If you’re a traditionally non-affirming pastor, preacher, teacher, parent or average Jolene on the street, it can be scary to entertain the option of changing your mind. It can be isolating, endangering of your friendships, and even threatening to your job security if you are engaged vocationally with a non-affirming congregation, school or religious entity. Just to risk asking the question if there’s room for changing the way you’re currently interpreting scripture and taking certain stances on human sexuality can put you in jeopardy and make you feel as thought you are losing firm footing in your faith. I want to assure you that in my experience, God has been waiting for me catch up far more often than trying to hold me back and keep me reigned in. If you need a safe person to ask your questions with and discuss a new way forward, please just let me know!
Worshiping with my LGBTQ sisters and brothers, and hearing their stories and expressions of faith, I’m left with Peter joyfully proclaiming, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”