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.”
There’s an undercurrent of non-affirming Christianity that is sincerely seeking a way to welcome gay Christians without having to deal with gay marriage or the thought of gay people having sex, and it boils down to the idea of enforced celibacy. This means that gay folks are welcome to be gay, but not as whole sexual human beings. What I find most interesting in this proposal is what it indicates about the thinking on homosexuality among straight Christians, namely that more and more are finding it hard to assert that gay is a choice.
If you’d like to read the most civil and gentle assertion of enforced celibacy, you can read Mr. Ronald J. Sider here at Christianity Today. His article is the reason I’m writing this post. I would have eventually gotten around to writing about celibacy in our discussions of LGBTQ concerns, but his writing got me thinking, and thinking leads to pacing, and pacing leads to more writing… reminds me of a proverb I heard once, Proverbs 10:19 (NLT), “Don’t talk too much, for it fosters sin. Be sensible and turn off the flow!” Hehehehe, I can’t turn off the flow…
What is celibacy?
Celibacy is the absence of sexually gratifying physical activities. We don’t find much in the Old Testament about celibacy as the people of Israel didn’t think very highly of it. They had other concerns in mind, mainly procreation. Poor Prophet Jeremiah was commanded to be celibate as a graphic image of coming suffering. Ouch. That’s about it for the Old Testament where the idea of celibacy is not so highly celebrated. Of course, neither was same-sex relations, again as the focus was on making babies. All sexual minorities had a difficult time in those days: any LGBTQ people, eunuchs, celibates and barren women. They simply didn’t have a way to plug into the overall drive to populate the earth.
One of my favorite scenes in all the Old Testament is between Hannah and her husband Elkanah in 1 Samuel 1 (NRSV). She is barren, and her husband’s other wife ridicules her for her barrenness, but her husband loves her and says, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” He loved his wife and celebrated their love without the need for her to bear children. Awesome.
And on a side note, Elkanah’s other wife? Yes, he was married to both Hannah and Peninnah. And God heard their prayers and Hannah’s son was the great prophet Samuel. But I thought God “ordained” marriage as one man and one woman? I would swear I’ve seen someone holding a sign that said that. So much of what we have in the biblical narrative lays outside the simplistic models we bandy around in our own day and age.
Sorry, back to celibacy. We have to move into the New Testament where the active redeeming of sexual minorities and marginalized begins to take place in its fullness. Jesus begins this by having women prominently placed around himself and his ministry and they are often the focus of his attention and conversation, to the befuddlement of his male disciples. And who is among the first Gentile converts in the book of Acts but an Ethiopian eunuch!
Jesus also affirms celibacy in a discussion of fidelity and eunuchs in the first half of Matthew 19 (NRSV). It’s a fascinating discussion in which Christ affirms fidelity in marriage by chastising the religious for casually breaking the kinship bonds (bone of bone and flesh of flesh) of marriage. He then mentions some outside the kinship/marriage bonds, those who do not marry, what seems to be three types of eunuchs:
1) natural eunuchs (asexuals? hermaphrodites?),
2) physically altered males (eunuchs made eunuchs by removal of the testicles), and
3) spiritual eunuchs (those choosing a celibate life for the work and glory of God).
There’s room to quibble on the descriptions of the types of eunuchs here, but what cannot be quibbled over is that the option to become a eunuch (presumed to be celibacy) is a choice made by one who can accept celibacy as a calling.
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Paul celebrates his celibate lifestyle. He’s happy to be celibate himself, and he encourages anyone who has the gift of celibacy to exercise it…
1 Corinthians 7:7-9
“7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. 9 But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
Let’s make special note of two things here from Paul…
1) celibacy is a gift for one called to it, and
2) Paul is substantially challenging many millennia of religious focus on marriage and procreation. Whoa.
I think the worst thing that happens when we engage this text is to give people the idea that they should just get married if they can’t contain their sexual desires. Marriage is much, much more than that. We shouldn’t read Paul saying there is only denied lust in celibacy and fulfilled lust in marriage. But we also make a big mistake when we don’t engage this text and slip into thinking that celibacy might be something that we may impose on someone not otherwise gifted or called to celibacy.
And how about Paul going up against all the millennia of religious preoccupation with procreation? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon about the way Paul challenged procreation as the basic reason or function for human sexuality and marriage, but there he goes. I know, the chapter goes into more than marriage and celibacy in the sense of calling. It’s a deep and unique discussion on calling as a Christian. But hey, 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 (NRSV) is actually an amazingly beautiful exposition of equality between marriage partners. It’s very not-at-all-patriarchal. I like it a lot.
Celibacy in scripture is a choice, a gift and a calling. It is not a consolation prize or a requirement that one Christian might decide to enforce upon another.
An Acts 15 Redux, please!
Ok, let’s get to the good stuff… I am calling for a repeat of the church council in Acts 15! LGBTQ folks want a place at the table with us, the table where we all sup equally of the joys of marriage, acceptance and full citizenship in our churches and civil communities. And so far the straight Christians are not all sure what to do about this insistent desire.
Let’s remind everyone what happened in Acts 15. Gentiles had begun converting to Christianity and some of the Jewish Christians felt that those new Gentile converts should be circumcised and made to adhere to the Law of Moses as a prerequisite for being in the church. Paul and Barnabas didn’t want that to happen and in the interest of settling the debate they go to Jerusalem to put the matter before the church elders and apostles. They go and tell the story of the Gentiles’ faith, and Simon Peter steps in with a great idea… don’t put rules on them that even we can’t tolerate.
6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Others agree, and James steps forward to outline a simple down-to-bases list of things to ask the Gentile Christians to avoid: idolatry, fornication, meat from strangled animals & blood. It seems totally sensible that they are asked to avoid association with idols, though it was probably a bit difficult as the new converts would be confronted with civic gods and household gods at every turn in daily life. The fornication they are asked to avoid is porneias, or a general sexual infidelity. Sounds legit, as we are called to be a people of covenant, both with God and one another. The meat of strangled animals and blood part seems weird to us today, but would have made much more sense to people steeped in purity rituals than we are.
We need a Simon Peter to stand in our midst, a rock, a voice of wisdom and liberating courage to say, “Enough with our reticence. Enough with our burdensome ideas and rules. We need to celebrate the faith of our sisters and brothers and not do anything more that causes them to stumble or lose hope.” And then we need a James who can help us chart a course of grace. Our Peter and James don’t have to be males, we just have to listen and make a move in faith.
What if we straight Christians would look and see God moving in the faith and lives of our amazing LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and would celebrate? What if we chose not to try to bind impossible conditions on these sisters and brothers, something as horrible and as unscriptural as enforced celibacy, but instead decided to welcome them into our shared down-to-bases understanding of God’s will for sacramental and covenantal relationships and life?
We would be faithful to ask for things like…
- Purity. We’re all called to live lives of purity, avoiding unrestrained sexual activities and lusts that can overwhelm us.
- Fidelity in Marriage. We’re all called to be faithful and committed life in the covenant of marriage.
- Full Offering of Gifts. Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters should be sharing their full gifting with the church to help us grow and mature in faith, just as we are each dependent and in need of the other, and we all share this responsibility to one another.
- Grace & Hope. And finally, as we recognize that we really aren’t two separate people at all, but one family in Christ, we would ask that our LGBTQ sisters and brothers would extend us a healthy dose of grace to overlook our delay in celebrating their faith and to join us in a deeper and more faithful hope that better days are coming for us all.
I’m going to go sit in the corner of my living room now and savor the dream. I’m going to revel in my belief that our God will be found to be much bigger than our divisions and worries. I’m going to be watching and listening for the Peter and James that God will raise up among us. And then she speaks, I’m going to be there to sing a hymn of the purest praise to our awesome God.
O my God! My God of impossible dreams and limitless peace! May your people of every nation, tribe and tongue, every color and continent and island, every gender, every sexual orientation and every corner of your amazing world call on you in joy and hope! May all of us join together in praise of you and love of one another! Speak and make us listen! Amen!