Thursday, September 29, 2022

Human sexuality and "sin"

Is it a "sin" to be LGBTI+?

This is a question that is much more important now than ever before. Whatever our answer to this question is, “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know,” there are significant consequences to be considered.

If we answer “yes” then nothing much changes. We will continue along still experiencing the significant problems that face the church today. Those problems include a loss of people, a continuation of the rejection of the church by those within the LBGTI community, and a rejection from within the church of the suggestion made by science that sexuality is biological. Simply saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” is a superficial answer to a complex problem and does nothing to provide an actual answer to the question. Even if a homosexual person were to become a part of our fellowship, is welcomed unconditionally, becomes a Christian, and makes a church their home, for as long as we name homosexuality a sin then at some point their journey towards wholeness must include an enforced celibacy, the rejection of any existing partners and the possibility of future ones, and the acceptance of a belief that a key part of their identity (their sexuality) is intrinsically sinful.

This is what pains me more than anything else; the vast majority of an entire section of our community is rejecting the church, and with it the gospel, because we continue to label their sexuality sinful and, as a result, reject them as people.

Are we prepared to continue on that path? If so, we need to think carefully of how we navigate it. Because that road will continue to cause a lot of hurt to a lot of people.

The alternative is that we answer “no.” We cease to call homosexuality a sin. Now, there are a whole range of biblical and theological questions that arise in answering in this way. Can we legitimately do this? How are we to interpret clear prohibition passages from Leviticus, for example? Are we just enforcing culture upon Scripture? These are serious questions and a significant and complex situation we find ourselves in. We need to think theologically about this and carefully interpret Scripture in the context of the canon, not just proof-text with individual verses. That latter approach is simply insufficient.

There is a biblical precedent for interpreting Scripture that bears some parallels here. It commences with a look at the books of Ezra and Nehemiah that are set in the time period immediately following the Exile of the Jews. The people joyfully return to Jerusalem but there is a complex issue that accompanies them. Many of the Jews had married Gentiles during the period of the Exile. Now that they were back in Jerusalem the people are rebuilding the city but they are also rebuilding their national identity. Exile had been a punishment for covenant unfaithfulness and so they were very keen to not fail again. A significant question arises - “Can we allow for interracial marriages or not?” They read the Book of the Law and it is interpreted amongst the people. The decision they come to at the time is that no, marriages between Jews and Gentiles are to be rejected. The Priest Ezra stands before the people and declares:

“You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Now honour the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.” (Ezra 10:10b-11)

The decision was made to send away the women and children from marriages between Jews and Gentiles. Of course, it’s not the men sent away. It's the women and children who suffer. I find this one of the most difficult and tragic passages of Scripture. Picture the heartache. The children wondering why? The wives left to fend for themselves and raise their children alone. The pain. The rejection. The abandonment. Yet, there it is printed in black and white in the book we call Scripture.

This passage provides some perspective on the inter-race relations that existed between Jews and Gentiles; specifically, the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. To help us understand them better we should read passages like John 4 and Luke 10 with Ezra and Nehemiah in the back of our minds. For the Jews, contact and interaction with Gentiles was considered sinful and highly contagious. They were to keep themselves physically separate from them; they certainly did not accept, let alone ask for water from them, nor assist them if they were injured on the side of the road. Herein lies the power of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan as well as his interaction with the woman at the well. At the heart of these interactions Jesus is challenging the status quo and what was accepted as a normative understanding of purity at the time.

Consider now the book of Acts and, specifically, Acts 10 – the story of Peter’s interaction with Cornelius. The background to this situation is that following an intense persecution lead by Saul (Acts 7-8), the Lord intervenes and converts the leader of the opposition in a dramatic and history-altering way (Acts 9). Following Paul’s conversion the church experiences a time of peace and strengthening by the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31). This peace is significant. There had been persecution, including the stoning of Stephen and others, and now the relationship between the Jewish leadership and the budding church was at rest.

For the time being.

Following this Peter and Cornelius experience their visions from God. Peter’s is a vision of food descending from heaven; food that he was previously not permitted to eat. It was considered unclean and Peter knew this well. But now pork chops, prawns and lobster were on the menu!

Hallelujah! Pass the bacon!

For Peter, a Jewish man, this was unheard of. This wasn’t like he’d travelled to a foreign country and was eating something different while on holidays, this was a challenge to his entire worldview. Three times he is confronted with this vision and three times he was told the following:

            “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15)

Take note that Peter struggles with the meaning behind the vision (10:17 and 19). He realises that it’s not just about what he can and cannot eat yet he can’t figure out what the deeper meaning is.  “While Peter was still thinking about the vision” he is instructed by the Spirit to go with the men that are about to arrive. He is obedient and goes to the house of Simon the Centurion; a God-fearing Gentile. Peter states openly the problem that he faced. He was a Jew and he was breaking Jewish law by being inside the house of a Gentile. We, the readers, are meant to pay close attention to this because it relates directly to the meaning of the vision:

“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)

The meaning of the vision that Peter had previously struggled with becomes clear to him by virtue of the presence of the Holy Spirit descending on these people before him in exactly the same way it had happened for him at Pentecost. Peter states:

“I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34)

Peter shares the gospel with them and he and his companions are astonished to see that the Holy Spirit is poured out on these people, even though they are Gentiles. For them as Jews it turns their previous well-known status quo completely on its head. In the light of Ezra and Nehemiah, and the interpretation of the Law that had been established and upheld from that date on, Jews did not interact with Gentiles. Yet here and now in front of Peter and his companions the Holy Spirit itself was descending upon Cornelius and his household simply by virtue of their faith in Jesus Christ.

The vision becomes a reality. It’s not about the food. It’s about the people.

Peter returns to Jerusalem and is called to account for what he has done. Remember the peace between the Jews and Christians referred to in Acts 9:31? The leaders of the church are aware just how fragile that peace really was. The fact that Peter had gone into the household of a Gentile and eaten with them could well result in the re-emergence of the persecution they experienced under Saul. So, they challenge him to respond to the accusation that he “went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:3).

Peter recounts the story from start to finish. If it wasn’t clear for us as readers at this point we are reminded of the key change that has taken place in Peter’s mind; the instruction given directly from the Lord. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 11:9)

Peter tells them how the Holy Spirit came upon these people in the same way that he had come upon Jewish believers at Pentecost. Peter asks a powerful and pertinent question:

“So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)

Here is what we need to carefully consider today. Could it be that we are faced with a very similar situation to that which confronted Peter? In recent years I have come to know several Christians who identify themselves as being homosexual. These very same Christians have been blessed with the gift of the Holy Spirit just as equally and extravagantly as I have been. If God has given them the same gift that he gave me, who am I to think that I can stand in God’s way by labelling “impure” someone whom “God has made clean?” This is why I answer the question “Is it a sin to be LGBTI+?” with a firm “no.”

Peter realised that there was a connection between the previously unclean foods and the previously unclean people. Perhaps, then, we need to consider that there is a similar connection for us with those who identify as LBGTI.

At a later date the church wrestled with the question as to whether Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). This was the first of many councils where the church considered its response to new and sometimes complex situations. Peter, reflecting on his interaction with Cornelius and his family, spoke on that occasion.

“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:7b-11)

As I read that I cannot help but substitute the word “Gentiles” for “the LBGTI+ people.”

Some questions to consider

Could it be that labelling homosexuality as “sin” places an unnecessary “yoke” around the necks of the LBGTI community; a yoke that they are unable to bear?

Do we need to remind ourselves that it is “through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are?”

Is the fact that LBGTI Christians have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit evidence enough to suggest that God has made them clean and, therefore, we should no longer call them impure?

If we continue to label being LGBTI+ as “sin” could we be “standing in the way of God?”

Significantly, we are left wondering what to do with the verses, such as Leviticus 20:13, which clearly prohibit homosexuality (and specifically male to male homosexuality in the case of this verse). Well, I am going to suggest that the same approach be taken to this verse that is taken to the ones just a little earlier in the same book, such as Leviticus 11:7-8, which clearly prohibit the eating of pork. It is not that we ignore their presence, or apply an editorial hermeneutic and just “read on by.” No, the reason we can happily eat bacon and eggs for breakfast is because God himself has declared these foods to now be clean. Remember, though, that Peter’s vision wasn’t just about food. It was about the people. Now, by virtue of the gift of the Holy Spirit freely poured out upon all people, including both Gentiles and Jews, that the dividing wall that previously existed between these two groups of people has been destroyed. The evidence for this, for Peter and for us, is the presence of the Holy Spirit upon all people. It is the presence of the Spirit that makes a person clean. 

This includes LGBTI+ people.

I have come to the conclusion that the presence of the Spirit upon any person makes them clean, regardless of race, sexuality, gender, age or status. If God gives the same gift to them as he’s given to me then who am I to think that I could stand in God’s way?

Concluding thoughts

A little earlier in the book of Acts we find the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. We are told, in Acts 8:27, that this Eunuch had gone down to Jerusalem to worship. What he is likely to have encountered, though, is rejection. For according to the Law, specifically Deuteronomy 23:1, anyone like him was not permitted within the Temple.

Restricted from entering into the place of worship because of a difference in his sexuality.

We’re not told how he acquired a copy of the scroll (something that intrigues me) but on his return home he is reading from Isaiah 53:7-8. Philip is taken to this man by the Spirit and aids him in his interpretation. The Eunuch is baptised and as a result the person who was once excluded is now included.

Praise God!

We don’t know anything more about this Eunuch but I like to think that he hopped back into his chariot and joyfully resumed not only his journey but also his reading of Isaiah. If he did so it wouldn’t have been taken him long to come Isaiah 56:4-8. I can only imagine the smile on his face when he did so. There he would find the promise of his inclusion within the temple. Not only that, there he is promised a name that is “better than sons and daughters.” He would have known, too, that on that very day that name was his.

This is the hope of the gospel. The hope of salvation for all people. That everyone would know that they are welcome in the Kingdom of God. That still others will be gathered besides those already gathered. My prayer is that this will include many, many LGBTI+ people.

Lord may it be so.

For this is what the Lord says:

“To the [LGBTI+] who keep my Sabbaths,

    who choose what pleases me

    and hold fast to my covenant—

to them I will give within my temple and its walls

    a memorial and a name

    better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

    that will endure forever.

And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord

    to minister to him,

to love the name of the Lord,

    and to be his servants,

all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it

    and who hold fast to my covenant—

these I will bring to my holy mountain

    and give them joy in my house of prayer.

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices

    will be accepted on my altar;

for my house will be called

    a house of prayer for all nations.”

The Sovereign Lord declares—

    he who gathers the exiles of Israel:

“I will gather still others to them

    besides those already gathered.”

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