Acts 15 (selected, NRSV)
Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 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. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 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? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
After hearing all the evidence, James replied:
Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”
In June of 2016, our country was left shocked after what was, until the shooting in Las Vegas the following year, the deadliest single-shooter mass shooting in modern US history. Since it was committed by a self-identified member of the Islamic State, it was also the deadliest terror attack on US soil since September 11th, 2001. The damage done by that shooter in an Orlando nightclub was devastating. 49 people were killed, with 58 more surviving their wounds. In many ways, the country came together to condemn the violence and to mourn the loss. Governmental leaders expressed their condolences and used it as an occasion to strengthen their resolve against domestic terrorism. Prayer vigils were held across the country, with faith leaders addressing the violence in sermons and in public statements.
It’s a routine that we’ve unfortunately had to get used to in this country. But something was different about this act of violence. One element of this story made church goers and faith leaders uncomfortable as they addressed the violence—not willing to offering their unwavering support for those who were affected. Had this shooting happened at any other nightclub, things would have been different.
But Pulse was a gay nightclub. And in addition to the fact that this was not a place where many church members would find themselves, it was a place filled with people who would not be welcomed in many churches without changing their own self-identity.
I don’t think most of the discomfort was a result of disagreement with a particular lifestyle or a condemnation of sexual sin. Instead, our discomfort was because we had come face to face with the most extreme embodiment of the homophobia that is pervasive in our church and society.
As a result, it was hard for those who suffered this violence or were fearful in its aftermath to seek sanctuary and protection in the church. Sure, there were many churches that opened their doors and their arms, condemned violence against people because of their sexual orientation, and offered protection and prayer. But for every church like that, there was someone suggesting that what this shooter did was a good thing. Though these weren’t pastors of large, influential churches, their rhetoric echoed around the country as they were reported on the news. I’m sure we’ve all heard the rhetoric out of places like Westboro Baptist Church, who are infamous for carrying signs proclaiming that “God hates fags.” But after this act of violence in particular, the news reported the words of Pastor Roger Jimenez who preached that “the tragedy is that more of them didn’t die,” while mischaracterizing those who were killed as predators and abusers. Similar words were repeated by other Christians who thought similarly.
The rest of us, driven by fear and confusion, largely remained silent. We didn’t know what we could say or do to best witness the truth of Jesus Christ in our world. Many of us were perhaps stuck between a desire to express God’s grace and love for all people and a conviction that certain behavior cannot be condoned in the church.
Thus, our response, the response of the Christian community, was weak and haphazard. We condemned the violence, but ignored the people who were being targeted and attacked.
Our deafening silence is not new. In many countries in our world, the practice of homosexuality is criminalized and is, in some instances, punishable by death. People live in fear for their lives and are forced to hide in the shadows. And our country, just last year, voted against a resolution in the UN condemning the use of the death penalty to punish consensual relationships.
Most of us, I’m sure, would condemn such obvious attacks on human rights. But many, especially within the gay community, still remember the judgment that came from Christians during the AIDS crisis. Despite the cries for help from scientists and those who were afflicted with the disease, many Christians shook their heads and concluded that AIDS must be an instrument of God’s judgment. It wasn’t until about 20 years after the start of the outbreak that tides changed and the Christian community was mobilized to respond. Even today, we still have difficulty talking about issues like AIDS openly and without prejudice.
I’ve mentioned two issues in particular that highlight our struggle to minister to our gay friends, family members, and neighbors, but the difficulty certainly does not end with our response to physical suffering. The Christian Church as a whole has immense difficulty witnessing to Christ and ministering to Christians and non-Christians alike who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. And in the history of the United Methodist Church, our debates about how to best minister to the LGBT community have only gotten more divisive through our denomination’s 50 year history. Most recently, this debate has resulted in the creation of a study commission within our denomination that will present a plan, to be voted on early next year, to resolve our current impasse. Many want to strengthen and enforce our rules that bar gay and lesbian people from serving as clergy and prohibit United Methodist ministers from performing homosexual marriage ceremonies. Others want to loosen our rules to acknowledge the call of God on all people, regardless of their sexual identity, and enable ministers to unite gay and lesbian people in the covenant of Christian marriage.
Even within our own church, we could probably find a few people who agree with one of those two positions, along with others who might stand in the middle of the debate or not know what they think.
As we consider in our time this morning the ways we have failed to witness to Christ with the LGBT community and the contentious debate that continues within the Christian community, I think it’s important that we consider the resources of our United Methodist tradition. Through prayer, discernment, and often contentious debate, our General Conference has set the tone for how the United Methodist Church as a whole should witness to our gay and lesbian neighbors. Since our Social Principles were first discussed at the 1972 General Conference, we have come to the following, somewhat contradictory, statement on human sexuality:
We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift… [through] the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
We deplore all forms of the commercialization, abuse, and exploitation of sex…All persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured and to be protected against violence.
We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment.
[We] do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.
We affirm that God’s grace is available to all.
We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.
We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
All of us can probably find a lot in that statement that we can wholeheartedly agree with and seek to embody as we live as Christian disciples. At the same time, there are probably things we wish would have been said that were not, or things we wish wouldn’t be said that are. At the very least, I think that statement properly orients our focus. No matter what we believe about faithful human sexuality, we are united in our call to witness to Christ to and be in ministry with all people, since all are capable of receiving God’s grace. Likewise, we are united in our condemnation of violence and discrimination against any of God’s children, driven by our belief that all humanity has been created in the image of God. We believe, as expressed in Psalm 139, that it was God who formed each human person in their mother’s womb. We believe that all people are fearfully and wonderfully made.
When considering our ministry to the LGBT community, it is likewise important for us to recognize that many of them identify, not only with their sexual orientation, but also with their Christian upbringing. Like the rest of us, they were baptized in the faith as their parents promised to nurture them in the Christian life, they attended our Sunday School classes, and asked tough questions in our youth groups. Though any of us can make choices that betray our covenant with God, none of us can remove the waters of baptism any more than we can change who our parents are. Those waters of forgiveness, that mark of Christian identity, is a reminder of God’s eternal promises with us. And in response to that grace, all of us are called to repent of sin and seek forgiveness. As we heard in Jesus’s words to us last week, the church is supposed to be a house of prayer for all people. It’s supposed to be a safe place, a sanctuary, where all can come to know the God who created them and listen for God’s guidance.
Unfortunately, I think our rhetoric and party-line positions about human sexuality stand in the way of any constructive conversation about how we can all best be faithful to God through our use of this gift. In our debate about the place of LGBT Christians in the church, we’ve made this one issue the only thing we have to say about the faithful use of our bodies. We’ve ignored the widespread commodification and objectification of the human body. We’ve ignored and swept under the rug the exploitation of women and children—in both church and society. Instead, the only thing our world has heard from the church as our distinct witness on human sexuality is that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
What if all of us, no matter where we stand on the particulars of our response, came to a fuller and more faithful understanding of the life to which God has called us?
As we start to construct a picture of faithful Christian witness through our bodies and our relationships, we need to consider the witness of Christian Scripture. Through this grand story, we see that in every time and place, the people of God have been called to examine their behavior in light of the holiness of God. In the beginning of the Old Testament, we’re shown through Adam and Eve that intimate companionship is an essential part of our humanity. We’re not meant to be alone, but to share life with others, particularly with one other through the covenant of marriage. But in the Old Testament, we also find a lot of behavior that not many of us would condone. In the ancient world, including in ancient Israel, polygamy was understood as the “natural order.” The focus was on producing as many children as possible and caring for the family land. Though in that time and place there was no conflict between polygamy and their adherence to God’s law, it was still important to maintain standards of faithfulness. We see this in the story of David, where his exploitation of Bathsheeba, a woman to whom he was not married, is condemned.
In the Gospels, though it seems that monogamy was now the norm, divorce was still in question. The Old Testament law permitted a man to divorce his wife for any reason, but Jesus reminded his audience that God’s intention was for husbands and wives to remain committed to each other in faithful love. As God had chosen his people long ago, and remained faithful to them through good times and bad, people in the marriage covenant are called to remain faithful to their spouse.
As the church sought to follow the teachings of Jesus in the early days, the biggest issue was whether or not to admit Gentiles into their fellowship. Jesus had said he had come not to abolish the law of God, but to fulfill it, yet early Christians weren’t fully sure what he meant. Was the Jewish law still applicable to all who wanted to follow Jesus? What changed the discussion in the early church was that Jewish Christians had witnessed the faith of their Gentile neighbors. They had heard and responded to God’s good news and needed to know if God would require them to become faithful Jews in order to be faithful Christians.
In Acts 15, we heard the verdict. The Gentiles did not have to change everything about themselves to become Christians. They could remain Gentiles. In addition to the obvious commands to love God and their neighbor, Gentile Christians were only required to observe three elements of the law: they had to abstain from things polluted by idols, from fornication, and from whatever had been strangled and from blood. Even these commands evolved as Gentiles became wholly part of the church, but for our purposes it is the second command which is important. The Gentiles, who had lived a laissez faire, anything goes, kind of life when it comes to sexuality, would have to “abstain from fornication.” They would need to be faithful with their bodies and in their relationships, refusing to participate in the exploitation of their brothers and sisters in Christ.
No matter what else we conclude about God’s desire for our bodies and our relationships, and no matter how we seek to include gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the life of the church, we need to hold onto this call to holiness. We need to remember that marriage is a reflection of God’s relationship with us. We need to live lives of holiness so that every behavior is a witness to God’s goodness. This call is a burden and a joy we all share. We shouldn’t expect anything of our other brothers and sisters in Christ that we don’t expect of ourselves. All of us have to consider who God has made us to be and how we live out that identity in our behavior. Though we are called to reject evil in every form, our practice of Christian faithfulness is not as simple as calling out one practice as evil and others as acceptable. Instead, we all are challenged to be holy as the people God has created us to be.
All of us are dealing with complex human realities. Life is messy. We have to examine the things we can change and the things we can’t. We’re called to live our lives for God, and not fit into some cookie cutter model of humanity. We have all been saved by God’s grace, and not by anything that makes us better than anyone else. All of us have been called out of our trespasses and sins and into life in God’s covenant love.
Jesus reminds us that this call to holiness is difficult and it requires that we all examine ourselves. Jesus reminds us that we need to take the big sin out of our life before we micromanage the sin of others. Jesus reminds us that even our thoughts speak to our character. Jesus has difficult words for all of us. But no matter how we identify ourselves and no matter how others see us, God offers us grace from whatever might separate us from God. Others may shout accusations and insults, but God speaks with a booming voice to all creation: you are forgiven and you are loved.
Mindful of our sin, expressed in the ways we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves and to live in accordance with God’s way, and trusting in God’s mercy, let us confess before the Lord our God.
Merciful God, we confess the folly of our sin and the hypocrisy of our complaints. We grumble about the evils in our world, even as we are complicit in evil. You have made your church a house of prayer for all people, but we make some feel unwelcome. You have offered the cleansing waters of baptism to all who call upon your name, but we refuse to believe that some have really been cleansed of their sin. We point out the speck of sin in the life of our neighbor, but we refuse to acknowledge the weight of our own sin. Merciful God, expose our sin before the light of your grace. Free us to be witnesses to your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Thanks be to God.
You can find more information about the featured image above here. This church, painted by Vincent van Gogh, is sometimes referred to as “the church without doors” for its ominous, unwelcoming character. May we be, instead, a church with open doors, which is a house of prayer for all people.
If you are interested in some of the resources that have influenced the above sermon, check out the books and articles below.