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.”
So Christmas week got a bit busy and I didn’t get a fourth blog out for the introduction to Jesus from Mark’s Gospel. I hope you all had a beautiful holiday with friends and family and I’m praying that you have an amazing new year! Today, I’d like to combine that missed week with the text we used this past Sunday at Church in Bethesda, because they are linked in a special way.
Mark doesn’t give us the dramatic birth narrative or any youthful Jesus at all. He begins with the prophetic voice of Isaiah and then the contemporary voice of John the Baptizer telling the people to pay attention, “The One is coming.” And the One who is coming is all about Good News.
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”– 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark 1:1-8
Jesus is the awaited good news. Jesus is the intersection of the vast narrative of God with humanity in a special way, the fullest way, and he comes to us with Spirit. It’s a brief yet exciting introduction in my humble opinion.
And then the One arrives to be baptized by John and we finally have a bit of good narrative drama… the sky is torn wide open and that previously mentioned Spirit falls on Jesus as a dove and the voice of God proclaims, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-13
And so we meet Jesus, the very image and presence of God’s love and favor. In Mark’s Gospel we find the beginning of the story with Jesus rooted in the prophetic story of God and fueled by love and favor. God is pleased and announcing love. It must have been an amazing time for Jesus. I believe it was also formative for Jesus as love and favor become the core of his ministry and message.
Yesterday we turned back to Luke’s Gospel for a passage that is often described as the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry. We know from the Gospel accounts that he has already been traveling and preaching, but it’s a special time in Nazareth when he sits in the synagogue and again we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, which Jesus claims as his own. He truly is inaugurating something special…
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. Luke 4:14-22
God’s love and favor expressed at his baptism seems to become the core of what Jesus sees as his ministry, and he announces just that very favor in the synagogue of Nazareth. Again, there is the Spirit upon Jesus that now speaks through him to announce good news: favor for the poor, liberty for prisoners, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and a time of God’s favor. He sets his ministry firmly in the soil of God’s raging favor, rich love and grace for the least expecting, least powerful, most disenfranchised and often the least deserving.
He doesn’t announce a new reign of greater power for the powerful. He doesn’t promise greater glories for those in authority. He doesn’t come with reward for the faithful, but instead he offers hope to the hopeless and favor to those without merit. The weak and without power, the blind and captured ones, find sight and liberty. The guilty ones, the prisoners who have been captured in their own culpability, find freedom.
Jesus brings favor to those most needing it, not to those most deserving it. This is a fundamentally important aspect of his ministry and purpose that we must not lose. We must hold to the Jesus who brings God’s favor to all the unsuspecting and unexpected. This truly qualifies as good news.
So, what will your 2015 be like? Have you made plans? Have you laid out goals for the year? Do you understand that you are not trying to attain God’s favor, but you already have it? Have you breathed deep the love and favor of God to fill your lungs with vital life and readiness? Can you stop for a moment and imagine the sky torn asunder and the Spirit wrapping you in a warm embrace while God whispers, “I love you. You are amazing and I’m so happy you are mine.”
Go into the new year daring to stand in that embrace. Go into 2015 believing in the favor and the love of God. If you need to see, if you need to be freed, this is the what the favor does. If you struggle against a poverty of body, mind or soul, this is what the favor comes to help you with. Jesus is the image of favor offered, not favor earned. Claim it, for it is yours.
“You don’t have to change
for God to love you.”
Anthony de Mello SJ