May 13, 2012
John 15: 9-17
In the years following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the issue of whether the followers of Jesus were Jewish or Gentile (non-Jewish) was a hot one. The Apostles, led by Simon Peter, initially insisted that – for Gentiles to become members of the Church – they had to consent to follow Jewish law, which meant that the men had to be circumcised. OUCH! If believers were not circumcised, and if they did not follow Jewish law (which included dietary and other restrictions), they were not permitted to eat with and associate with the Jewish believers. While this may seem uncharitable and extreme to us, the Disciples and Jewish believers were simply following the mandates of Abraham and Moses under the Torah – which Jesus also believed in, as a pious Jew. The Law was the Law, and that was that (to paraphrase the bumper sticker: “The Torah says it, I believe it, that settles it.”)
Nonetheless, as Gentiles were attracted to the Good News of Jesus Christ in droves, the story of Acts shows that the Apostles began to evolve on their position. One day, as Peter was sitting in a
room in Joppa feeling hungry, he fell into a trance and had a vision: “He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” (Acts 10:11-12). The Lord commanded Peter to “Get up … and eat”, but Peter protested, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (vv.14). Then the voice of the Lord said to Peter “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (vv.15). This sequence was repeated three times, “and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven” (vv.16). God showed Peter the beautiful diversity of the created world, and pointed out to Peter that he was the one calling it profane.
Unbeknownst to Peter, at the same time, a Roman centurion named Cornelius – a very pious Gentile – had been instructed to seek out Peter in Joppa. Cornelius arrived at the house where Peter was staying just as his vision ended. Peter offered Cornelius hospitality in Joppa, and in return, Cornelius later welcomed Peter to his house in Caesarea. When Peter arrived in Caesarea and saw a number of people gathered at the house of Cornelius, he said “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. So when I was sent for, I came without objection” (Acts 10:28-29). Peter had evolved! He then began to speak to those assembled, saying “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35), and preached the Good News of Jesus Christ. While Peter was preaching, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all those present – Jew and Gentile alike – and the Gentiles began to speak in tongues and praise the Lord: “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (vv.45). Peter then asked rhetorically “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (vv.47).
While the account of how the Gentiles became included under Christianity differs between Acts and the Epistles of Paul (Paul, of course, takes credit) the bottom line is that there was an evolution from rigid following of the Law (and a very fundamental part of the Law) to openness and inclusion. While we take for granted today that Gentiles may become Christians, the path by which that decision occurred was long and fraught with conflict.
Like the Church’s position on Gentiles, so its position on marriage has likewise evolved. As the illustration above shows, the Bible itself provides precedent for a number of different marriage forms, in addition to the “one man + one woman” variety. There were also commitment rituals for same-sex unions in the Medieval Church. One rite, the Adelphopoeiia, while not necessarily sanctioned by the Church hierarchy, “was both fairly widespread [about 70 manuscripts], and probably was used by some same-sex couples to give some outward sign to their relationship” (“Medieval Sourcebook: Two Versions of the Adelphopoeiia Rite”). One of the rites ends with “Then shall they kiss the holy Gospel and the priest and one another, and conclude.” While some people may argue that the institution of marriage is defined in one particular way and should never change, one humorist recently observed that “the fact that you can’t sell your daughter for two pigs and a cow any more means that we have already altered the institution of marriage.”
This Wednesday, May 9, 2012, we all witnessed the end of a long evolution of thought on the part of a thoughtful, believing man, who also happens to be President of the United States. In an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts, President Barack Obama stated “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” He cited many things in his evolution on the issue of same-sex marriage, which many Christians assert is counter to Biblical Law, but one of the key ones was the fact that his daughters had friends from their school who were in same-sex marriages. He said that, when talking around the dinner table with his daughters about their friends’ parents, “it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them and, frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.” In the President’s case, the angels who showed him the blessedness and diversity of creation were his own precious daughters. Alleluia!
In Peter’s vision at Joppa, the Lord said “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” by distorting Biblical Law through rigid interpretation. While Mosaic Law prescribed death by stoning for men who are Gay, Jesus pointed out that there is a greater law, underwriting all others: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love … This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15: 10, 12). When we live in God’s chesed (unconditional, Covenant-backed love), we live out that love by reaching out in ever widening circles of inclusion and justice. Peter did not think that Gentiles would ever be welcome in the community of Christ, but God showed him otherwise. The President, as a Christian, struggled and evolved for many years on the subject of same-sex marriage, but God (through his dear daughters) showed him that the way of love is the way of the Lord. Let us all remember those who are unjustly excluded in the name of the Law, and allow the law of love to change our minds.