Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Generous, subverted, difference


At Pentecost, the Spirit of God is poured out on all flesh—the baptising of every human culture—revealing God’s desire to be with all humanity, through and with Jesus. Arguably the biggest challenge the first generation of Jesus’ followers faced concerned the outworking of that expansion of God’s desire—or at least, their understanding of it—to include Gentiles as well as God’s ancient covenant people, the Jews. The most significant presenting issue was Peter going to the home of a Roman officer and eating with his household. Though it is likely that a Jewish-god-fearing Gentile, and man of means, would do everything he could to present Peter with food that would be acceptable to him, this time together, which proved so utterly transformative for both parties, must have raised the anxiety of host and guest alike. It was also deeply controversial, within the established Church, a community that was still essentially Jewish by heritage. After open and honest conversation, James proposed that the Gentile believers be asked to adapt to two elements regarding food: that it should be kosher in preparation, and not offered to idols. After all, god-fearing Gentiles would have been familiar with Jewish customs, indeed attracted to them, and likely already attempting to live in ways shaped by them to a greater or lesser extent. Tensions remained, however, and as the gospel to the Gentiles spreads through Paul and his companions—increasingly moving beyond the god-fearing fringes of the synagogue—Paul is hounded everywhere he goes by Christians who insist that new Gentile believers in Jesus must become culturally Jewish. Three times, Paul asks the Lord to remove this ‘thorn from his flesh,’ a reference to tribes who resist the settlement of the Land by the descendants of Abraham whom God had brought out of Egypt. On the other side of the argument, some Gentile Christians insisted that idols were emptied signifiers, and so the prohibition against eating food offered to idols—essentially, anything offered them at the table of their fellow citizens—was not fit for purpose. Paul agrees, in principle, but also asks them to take on a greater principle: that they did not allow the actions they took with a robust ethic to damage the conscience of their sisters and brothers in faith who took a different—what we might call a traditional—view on the matter (Romans 14, 15). At some later point, James’ half-way-house is abandoned.

Tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians were as much an issue in Rome as anywhere. Though Paul had not planted this church, he intended to visit them, and wrote to them, addressing this vexing issue up front. In a breathtakingly bold move, Paul goes to what had become a litmus-test (arguably, the litmus-test) of the Jewish diaspora, the distinction by which they lived among Gentile neighbours while retaining their own identity: that the sexual proclivities of the Romans were not only circumscribed by the Law but also unnatural, or, contrary to nature—contrary to that which is deemed self-evident.

First, Paul deals with the Law, and its relationship to the flesh (our different heritages), taking considerable time and various arguments to demonstrate that in the coming of Jesus to be with us, the written Law has fulfilled its duty and been discharged (and, likewise, natural law). This is the recurring disagreement Paul finds himself having to address in city after city, church after church. Then, and only then, does Paul take up the image of what is contrary to nature (Romans 11, after nine chapters devoted to discussing the Law; though even in chapter 1, Paul has noted the tendency, as prevalent among Jews as Gentiles, to turn what is natural into an idol). Using the imagery of the vine, a symbol of God’s people, he speaks of God breaking off natural (Jewish) branches, grafting in (Gentile) branches contrary to nature, and then re-grafting in original (Jewish) branches, again contrary to nature. The technical term ‘contrary to nature,’ used to demarcate the difference between Jewish diaspora and Gentile neighbours, is explicitly taken by Paul and subverted to become the very thing that, in God’s wisdom and grace, unites the two.

If Paul is brave enough to employ self-gratifying, loveless, same-sex brief encounters (which he does not condone, and which—as power injustices—the New Testament consistently censures) as an incomplete image for God’s desire and action to be with all humanity, surely selfless, loving, intentionally lifelong same-sex relationships are a more complete (inevitably still imperfect) image of this incredible gospel? As we see heterosexual marriage as a sacrament that participates in and points to the relationship between Christ and the Church, so we might see same-sex marriage as a sacrament that participates in and points to the union of Jew and Gentile within the Church (personally, I do not see these two things as interchangeable, and so, if we are to authorise liturgy for same-sex marriage, would want to see more than flexible pronouns) or even to the communion of the Jewish and Christian faiths within the greater totality of the people(s) of God. The litmus-test of ‘orthodox’ (though, in truth, this has nothing to do with the Creeds) Christianity, for a Church living in exile or diaspora among a post-Christendom society, becomes the very thing that unites not only Straight and Gay, (post-)liberal and (post-)evangelical, but—perhaps most significant of all—older, aging Christians with Millennials, Gen Z and Generation Alpha.

As someone who seeks to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God, with Jesus, shaped by the authoritative witness of the Scriptures as the Holy Spirit breathes life into them, in the company of Paul, Peter, James (and countless others, including many women) and within the heritage of the Church of England, it seems right to me that we should be able to affirm and offer same-sex marriages as we do traditional marriage. And that this be a matter of conscience, and local discernment. To do so is to stand within (or, be grounded in) biblical narrative, with Paul, and to point to something far bigger than any gay wedding.

It seems to me that those who discern, together, that within their own local community—a community people are free to join or to leave—they will ask LGBTQIA+ people to embrace either traditional marriage or celibacy, also stand within biblical narrative, with James. To do so is not inherently homophobic; and such communities, being open and un-defensive, will help save LGBTQIA+ people, enjoying the rising tide of history right now, from hubris. On the other hand, to insist that such a position is the only acceptable Christian view—or even the only acceptable Evangelical view—is to be what Paul describes as a ‘mutilator of the flesh,’ inflicting harm on LGBTQIA+ Christians and seekers, and cutting off heterosexual Christians from their sisters and brothers in Christ.

It seems to me also that those who discern a freedom to affirm and embrace same-sex relationships as fully as possible need to attend to Paul’s call not to despise or cause harm to the weaker brother or sister, whose conscience before God does not permit them to share the same conviction. This, too, is to stand within biblical narrative, with Paul and the house churches in Rome, whose correspondence is so pertinent to the matters the Church must engage with today. Which does not make it easy but is part of the ongoing and essential tension of working out how we live together, in as much as we are able, as we live into the unfolding gospel of Jesus drawing all things to be one in heart and mind, and one with God.

There is no settled position on these things because the gospel continues to speak to every generation afresh, and every culture, from within and at times from without the Church. There is only a willingness to take seriously the big questions, the reality of people’s lives and the depth of the (mutual) desire to be with Jesus, trusting that, if we are wrong—as we may be—God is still committed to being with us; or a falling away into fear that we, or some other, fall from those pierced hands—and so to see, in the invitation to meaningful encounter, only threat. With Paul, I choose to proclaim that ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38-39).

All of which brings us back to Pentecost, and the (messy, disruptive) promise for all, whether near or from far away, whom the Lord our God calls to him.


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