Sunday, February 10, 2008
First Sunday in Lent
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
“It’s not the Bible that makes our jobs so hard . . . it’s the notes!” That’s what a colleague of mine said recently when we were talking about how we talk to our congregations about reading the Bible. While I am not sure I completely agree—there are plenty of troublesome things in the Bible itself that make our jobs hard—I do know what she meant.
What she meant when she said “the notes,” of course, were all the parts in italics, the printed text below a line on the pages of your Bible—open it up and take a look.
Depending on the translation, version and printing of your particular Bible, you will have whole paragraphs of notes, commentary and explanation or, at the very least, section titles delineating each new subject or story.
I know what the publishers are thinking when they produce these Bibles with notes—they are thinking that people like you and me sometimes have a hard time making sense of the ancient text and could use some helpful explanation as we read. The problem, of course, is that we readers have a hard time remembering which words are Holy Scripture and which are the comments of an editor who was just trying to be helpful.
I remembered this when I ran into a disagreement with the notes in my Bible just this week. At the beginning of Chapter 10 of the book of Acts, the Bible I was using to study had a little italicized heading that read: “The Conversion of Cornelius.” I checked a couple other Bibles on my shelf and, sure enough, there was the designation several times: “The Conversion of Cornelius” or, “The Conversion of the Gentiles.”
This little note was very troubling to me, you see, because the more I studied this amazing story from the book of Acts, the more I realized: this is not the story of the conversion of Cornelius at all . . . ! Instead, it’s really the story of the conversion of the Apostle Simon Peter.
Well, the editors couldn’t put THAT into the notes—after all, Peter was one of the first disciples Jesus called to follow him. Peter had been a “converted” follower of Jesus for years. In fact, by the time Luke got to recording the Acts account of the birth of the first church, Peter was one of the most highly regarded leaders in the church. There was, presumably, no need for him to be converted . . . but here he is again, right here in Acts chapter 10, taken a hold of by the Spirit of God and all of the sudden coming to terms with a fundamental change in the way he saw life as he knew it. Peter is living, right here in Acts chapter 10, massive directional change requiring repentance and a new way of looking at the world. Now, if that isn’t true conversion, well, I don’t know what is.
See, there had been some serious dissension in the early church, a schism dividing two camps and each felt deeply convicted that their position was the right position. One camp was led by the Apostle Paul, who was of the opinion that the Gospel message was one that should be proclaimed to the whole world—not just in Jerusalem and the surrounding regions where Jesus preached and lived.
Leading the other camp was the Apostle Simon Peter, main character in our passage today. Peter was convinced: if you decided you believed in Jesus, the first step you would take, of course, was to convert to Judaism. You’d go through all the rites of Jewish identity and assume an upright Jewish lifestyle with all the dietary restrictions and Levitical rules that entailed.
Well . . . this controversy was the backdrop for the amazing story Luke reports and our four readers shared with us from the tenth chapter of the book of Acts this morning. Your Bible’s editor might have called this passage, “The Conversion of Cornelius” . . . but look closely at the story before you decide to believe the notes:
Cornelius was a centurion of the Italian Cohort, which means nothing to you and me today, but we should be aware: Cornelius was an extremely high-ranking official in the Roman army, about as far from what Peter was as you could imagine. Cornelius was not a Jew, and had no interest in becoming a Jew. In fact, converting to Judaism was grounds for immediate dismissal from the army. But he’s described here as “a devout man who feared God.” And one day, as Cornelius prayed, he heard God’s voice telling him to search out a man called Simon Peter . . . and so he did.
Meanwhile, back at the seashore, Simon Peter was staying at the house of a friend (also named Simon) and he went up on the roof, as was his custom, for his daily prayer time. He also had a vision, but this one was a little stranger than Cornelius’. Peter, devout Jew and committed follower of Jesus Christ, saw a sheet coming down from heaven. On the sheet were all kinds of animals, even animals clearly named in the Levitical code as unclean. The voice Peter heard was a voice telling him to kill . . . and eat the animals provided to him for food.
Well, you can imagine how shocking this was. NO WAY was Peter going to breach Jewish law to do something he had learned his whole entire life was unclean and forbidden. Peter knew, you see, that there were certain standards for faithful, holy living. And he could recite them front to back.
But then Peter heard the voice again, and this time he knew it was God. God had stern words for poor Peter and they were: “What God has called clean . . . you must not call profane.”
We’ve been talking here at Calvary for some time—it has been years, actually, that this conversation has been going on—about how we, as the community of Christ at Calvary Baptist Church will institutionally deal with the issue of homosexuality in the church . . . in our church.
For those of you who are visiting today, you should know this is not our normal worship fare; this sermon is part of an ongoing discernment process within our community, and the deacons have asked me to address the issue from the pulpit.
At first thought the task seemed a little, well, distasteful to me. Frankly, nobody likes to talk about sex in church anyway, but preparing a sermon from a topical starting place is not my normal style. See, as a preacher my discipline is to open the texts assigned for the week and to mine them for a word from God.
And yet, I have to say I think our deacons are correct. It’s time for us, if we say we are serious about following Jesus, to look hard at how we are going to deal with this issue that is dividing almost every Christian denomination today.
I am not talking about the question of whether or not we welcome gay people to worship with us . . . as far as I can tell that is not a question here at Calvary; we’re pretty insistent here about welcoming everyone who seeks relationship with Jesus Christ.
No, I am talking today about the full integration of our homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ into our community of faith on every level of expression. That is, those who live and serve and worship among us, recognized in the full expression of who they are, of who God created them to be.
This issue is a hot-button issue, you can’t deny it. Even those who haven’t cracked open a Bible in years can tell you that tradition, conventional wisdom, everything they ever learned at church makes them think that homosexuality is really bad—in fact, it’s one of the worst sins a person could commit, right? . . . And that when we accept homosexual persons into full expression of life and faith in our community, well, we’re violating certain standards for Christian behavior.
The problem for those of us bound and determined to follow Jesus is that what he asked of us runs head on into this strict exclusion of people. Jesus, as you know, was a radial INCLUDER. Truth be told, a dissonance like this one is uncomfortable, and it calls us to look deeper. So, as we struggle it’s best for us to start by looking at what the Bible says. If you’d like, take out your Bibles or the pew Bibles and let’s take a look together.
While different scholars hold different views and interpretations, it’s pretty widely agreed upon that there is a total of six passages in the Bible that address homosexuality.
Of the four passages in the Hebrew scripture two are stories of destruction that include horrifying, brutal sexual violation, some of it homosexual. These passages, Genesis 19:1-29 and Judges 19:1-30, are two of several “texts of terror” (as theologian Phyllis Trible would call them), biblical stories of human evil lived out to its devastating extreme. Honestly, reading these texts is not a happy experience. They detail horrific events, but what they don’t do . . . not at all . . . is address the issue of sexual identity, as some claim that they do. Violence, evil, human pain—yes, they cover those. But they do not sexual identity, heterosexual, homosexual or otherwise.
The third and fourth mentions of homosexuality in the Hebrew scripture are found in the Levitical code, specifically in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Here we must note, before we start looking at these passages, that as many have pointed out, it is an irresponsible hermeneutic to look at the Levitical code and insist on its compliance . . . if you’re going to comply selectively.
In other words, if you’re going to take one rule as essential, well, you’d better be ready to take the rest on, too. When you read the Levitical law you will see that these passages in Leviticus state clearly that homosexual activity is punishable by death. They are, however, right smack in the middle of other rules—even other sexual guidelines. For example, the Levitical code calls for a man to take several wives, but not to marry two sisters at the same time. A man can get in a lot of trouble if he happens to talk with a woman who is having a menstrual cycle, and the cutting of facial hair—a man’s beard—is strictly prohibited. The consumption of foods like shrimp and pork is forbidden, and the code declares abhorrent the wearing of clothing made of any kind of mixed fibers.
The truth of the matter is that, in the time the Levitical code was adopted, the future of the Jewish people was dependent on vigorous procreation. While homosexual behavior existed, of course, there was no concept of what we know to be valid today: homosexual orientation. Frankly, the luxury of discerning sexual orientation did not exist. The four passages in the Hebrew scripture addressing homosexuality do not address orientation and we should be very careful about selective application of ancient laws to a modern context.
This all seems a little silly, and in a way it is: Christians do not and have not ever accepted adherence to Levitical law as requirement for Christian faith. It seems quite an irresponsible and even dishonest handling of the Hebrew text to pick and choose and apply selectively. And so, looking at all the evidence, it seems to me that Hebrew scripture does not provide any easy answers for us.
And so we turn to the New Testament, the revelation of Jesus Christ whom we claim to follow, for more guidance. It seems like the most prudent way to explore this topic in the New Testament is to start with the Gospels, with the witness of Jesus. When we do that we quickly note that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. Not one thing.
Jesus, as you know, was no shrinking violet. He spoke out vehemently and repeatedly against what he perceived were the evils of his day. He blasted the Pharisees and called for relief for the poor. He overturned convention—even Jewish law—and welcomed women into his inner circle. He reached out to touch and to heal those who were untouchables. Jesus, as you know, was a radical who was not afraid to call a spade a spade. And he said nothing about what so many have determined to be the most heinous of sins—homosexuality.
But Jesus’ silence, though notable, is not the only New Testament evidence on the matter. Because Jesus never mentions it, the total New Testament witness on the subject of homosexuality is found in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Romans 1:18-29.
In the 1 Corinthians passage Paul lists a whole litany of sexual sins, including what many translators have called “homosexual offenders.” Here Paul lists, along with other sexual violations, the act of homosexual prostitution, clearly an act that debases human value as do all the other acts of sexual violation listed here, among them heterosexual prostitution and adultery. I think we can all agree that sexual violation of any sort is sinful . . . at best . . . so, in fact, we are in agreement with Paul here.
The Romans passage is the one that is most frequently quoted when the issue of homosexuality is raised.
Again, the homosexuality Paul makes reference to here is wanton, irresponsible behavior of pagan temple prostitutes, behavior described as “burning with lust.” We read this passage honoring the historical context in which it was written. And we compare Paul’s words to what we know of our homosexual brothers and sisters who labor alongside us in the work of the Gospel, who live peaceful, committed and loving lives, who most certainly are not running around behaving in ways that “burn with lust” or that violate other people.
Again, Paul is talking about temple prostitution, a part of society that is totally foreign to you and me, in much the same way that loving, committed relationship between two persons of homosexual orientation was totally foreign to Paul.
So. What I’ve just recounted here is the total biblical witness on the topic of homosexuality. With careful study it’s clear that these six passages either address cultural and historical situations that differ from our own or their translation and meaning are ambiguous at best. The bottom line is this: we do scripture a disservice when we use it to address issues it was not written to address. And I would even go so far as to say that we use the Bible irresponsibly when we ask it for answers to questions about sexual orientation or loving same-sex relationships. The Bible does not address this topic at all, other than to hold up for us God’s high standard of radical love expected from all people.
As people of faith, when we tackle a hard issue like this one, we want to be very careful to look closely and prayerfully at the scriptural witness. And we also want to be careful that we don’t use scripture to defend a position we hold because it’s a position we’ve always been taught.
Peter had the same exact dilemma! While Peter was still puzzling over the vision he’d seen, who showed up at his doorstep but the representatives of Cornelius . . . with the news that their master had sent them because he’d heard from God that they . . . Peter and Cornelius . . . were to meet?
Oh, this must have been so hard for Peter.
And it wasn’t hard because Peter was a good-for-nothing bigot who couldn’t overcome his prejudice.
No, it was hard because everything Peter had learned about God and about relationship with God was suddenly being challenged—turned on its head. And it wasn’t just his personal opinion that was being called into question. The standards of holy living that Peter endorsed could be substantiated with Hebrew scripture and Levitical law. He knew from tradition that he should never interact with Gentiles. He’d learned his whole life at the feet of the Rabbis in the synagogue that any sort of mixing with non-Jews was absolutely abhorrent to God. It wasn’t just a whim for him . . . it was fundamental to his understanding of God.
But, convinced as he was of his beliefs, Peter had a heart that’s ultimate desire was to follow God. And somewhere in the confusing message of the dream and the ensuing invitation of Cornelius, you have to believe that Peter realized: “come to think of it, Jesus had challenging messages like this for us all of the time!” And maybe, just maybe, Peter understood that God was asking him to look at the world—to look at his faith, again—in a whole new light—just like Jesus had always challenged him to do.
And, Peter, to his eternal credit, took the challenge of conversion that God offered him that day. He heard the voice in the dream and imagined what letting go of his black and white convictions of who God is would mean for his life. He took the risk of listening to the ever-speaking voice of God and stepped into the fear of conversion. And as he did, he met this Gentile Cornelius and decided that including him did NOT go against God’s standards. In fact, Peter’s conversion made him shockingly realize that his attitude of exclusion was the very thing that didn’t meet God’s standards. Look at verse 28: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Peter came to suddenly see that this was really the exacting standard God required of him.
And Peter converted.
Peter . . . Peter! I feel your pain and ambivalence. I grew up knowing without a doubt what was wrong and what was right. I learned that God was an exacting God who expected a certain kind of life from me—a life carefully delineated at church. I knew that missing the boat—that not meeting these standards—meant certain destruction, and I learned my best how to live my life to be sure to do everything right.
But then, like Peter, I was offered the opportunity for conversion. Not for lowering the standards I knew God expected, but by opening my heart to the possibility that God’s love was wider and stronger, bigger and more embracing than I could ever possibly have imagined.
My conversion started with the realization that when I hold onto what I’m sure that I know about God, my hands end up clenched hard and tight, knuckles white, muscles straining.
When I was converted I learned that there were indeed certain standards for relationship with the God of the Universe . . . the standards of living our lives doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God, or as Jesus said, loving God and loving my neighbor.
In my conversion I learned that God’s high standards were not in any way dependent on my grip. Instead, my closed and tightly held fists were just that. Closed. Closed off to the fresh wind of God’s Spirit; shut off from the work that God still had to do in my heart; exclusive and small, gripping just a little piece of God’s all-encompassing love for this world.
See, Peter learned that relationship with God cannot be contained in whatever it is that we believe about God. I know that’s hard to hear . . . but it’s true.
God is bigger than our qualifications, and God offers you and me the possibility for conversion as we constantly learn to open our hands and let go . . . let go so that the Spirit of God can create something new . . . let go so we can recognize certain standards of faith in people we’d never imagine could believe . . . let go . . . so that, like Peter, our hearts can be converted, again and again and again.
Our scripture lesson today is most definitely NOT asking us to abandon “certain standards” we have for Christian faith.
No, it’s asking us to do something much harder than that.
Today we’re being asked to recognize those qualities of faith in the most unlikely places . . . and to open our hands and our hearts to conversion, so that we might live out the radically inclusive love of God that gathers all sorts of people to the table of Christ.
It’s at that table, you see, seated right next to all kinds of unlikely Christ-followers, where we are cleansed and nourished, then sent out again to live into the standards God expects from us: to live justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with the God who has set a place at the table for everyone. In fact, God has even set a place for you and me. Thanks be to God.