This week, the lectionary for Morning Prayer takes us into the Old Testament book of Job and the New Testament book of Romans. Job is an incredible work, that teaches us that we do not know the whole picture, and that God desires for all persons to know wellbeing and works for that by being present to us in our pain. Romans is a brilliant letter, written by Paul to the house churches of Rome, concerned with the scope of salvation in Jesus Christ, encompassing Jew and Gentile and breaking down the divisions between them.
Yesterday, we found ourselves in the second half of the first chapter, which is widely seen as condemning same-sex relationships. I regularly encounter three different responses by Christians to this (there are others, but these are the ones I most frequently meet). Some argue that Paul is simply wrong in this regard, and must be put aside. But I hold to the view that Paul writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and in order to reveal truths needful to salvation. Others claim that Paul is enlightened for his time, but of his time; and that we are called to continue that trajectory of liberation in the light (and darkness) of our time. Again, I would uphold that Paul is not simply enlightened for his time, but inspired by the Holy Spirit; and, moreover, that he was not a man of and constrained by his time (any more than we are of ours) but sent to his time and rooted in the history of God’s plan of salvation (as we, too, are sent, and rooted). Still others affirm that Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, condemns same-sex relationships as incompatible with God’s plan for humanity, and that is the end of the matter. But here I would respectfully suggest that, in declaring the ‘plain meaning’ of the text, they have not paid careful attention to what Paul actually wrote, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
In setting out a revealed understanding of the nature of God and of humanity, Paul emphasises that God handed humanity over to urges, too strong for us to resist, to treat other people in dishonouring ways, that fail to acknowledge that they are created in the likeness of God, and result in shame. Paul restates this handing over several times. It is the same word used in the Gospels of Jesus being handed over to the authorities, and speaking of his followers being handed over to the authorities; and, in Romans chapter 8, in the context of a list of shameful things done or that might be done to Paul and his companions, Paul uses it of God handing over his Son, for our sakes. Jesus, the antidote to shame. Whatever it is that God is doing here, it is laying the foundation for salvation.
As Paul continues to explore what it is that God is doing here, he turns to same-sex relations, both between women and between men. It is not entirely clear what manner of relationship Paul is describing—some point out that the Greek suggests same-sex prostitution—but the emphasised point is that this activity is ‘contrary to nature’. Again, it is not immediately clear what is meant by this—does it, for example, mean contrary to the self-evident cultural expectations of the Jews among Paul’s audience, as where, elsewhere, he says that it is contrary to nature for men to have long hair and women, short? It is, however, a crucial point that Paul is laying down.
Crucial, because Paul will return to it. In chapter 11 [What? How are we supposed to track an argument constructed so painstakingly!] Paul describes the Gentiles as having been grafted into the olive tree that symbolises God’s people, grafted in by God, contrary to nature. Paul goes on to note that those Christians of Jewish cultural heritage are natural branches that have been broken off the tree by God, and then grafted back into the tree by God, contrary to nature. Therefore, both Gentiles and Jews find their place in the people of God as a result of God’s contrary-to-nature action. This is as true for Paul, who can list his qualifications in the flesh, as well as recognise that this has never really been the way in which Israel is truly constituted—see chapter 9, immediately following on from the part about the Son being handed over, and the victory, in him, over shame—as it is for anyone else.
Contrary to nature, therefore, is not opposed to God’s salvation plan, but key to it. Contrary to nature is not Paul’s prejudice exposed, but God’s loving activity revealed.
Now clearly, the commodification of bodies through same-sex prostitution is as far a fall from God’s will for humanity as is envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, slander, hatred towards God, insolence, arrogance, boasting, inventing evil, rebelling against parents, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness—or all the other ways in which any and all human relationships are bound by strong urges that overpower us. Even so, herein lies a key revelation pointing to God’s salvation plan. In the same way that marriage between a man and a woman points beyond itself to the relationship between Jesus and the Church—and, therefore, the use of prostitutes violates this—might not committed same-sex relationships point beyond themselves to God joining Jew and Gentile together as one flesh?