Today is Pride Sunday and our sermon was preached by Kerry Cockerham:
I have heard the story of the centurion’s servant and this passage from Ruth read several times in churches but only recently have I come to see them in a new way, in a way that makes me think of the Bible condemning gay people as being especially tenuous and feel we need to look at passages that affirm rather than the ones that appear to condemn especially on a day of celebration.
The healing of the centurion’s servant can be seen at first glance as just another example of a healing miracle story in the Bible until you peel back the layers of the story and look at it again in a first century Middle Eastern community that is subject to Roman occupation. In this story we as twentieth century British people with our worldview presume that this is the story of a man and his servant who he is fond of as a good servant but for first century readers and for several biblical scholars of the last forty years or so and I have come to the conclusion that they are probably right what we have here is Jesus healing the centurion’s servant with whom the centurion had a sexual relationship. What evidence do we have for this – the affectionate nature of the use of the words ‘my boy’ and the effort he went to, to obtain healing from Jesus, the term used for servant in this text can also be translated as lover and much debate has been surrounding which of the two meanings of the word were intended in this passage though in the ancient world – servant and lover were not mutually exclusive terms, the text is ambigious but it is the case that often in our lives, we too live in the ambiguity.
Jesus, in the story of the centurion’s servant is more concerned with his faith rather than who he did or did not sleep with, his faith is what determines his relationship and his encounter with Jesus. The compassion he shows and his faith in Jesus show Jesus a pure, open, faithful and loving heart.
Pederastic relationships, that is a sexual relationship between an older and a younger man is something that was not only common but something was seen as a normal part of the process from childhood to manhood and maturity. Though to our 21st century eyes are hardly an ideal long-term, committed relationship between equals – what is also important here is the way in which it is also is another example in the Bible that flies in the face of the view that heterosexual, marital relationships in the Bible are the only relationships, present. And even more importantly Jesus’ reaction to this relationship – how many times does Jesus assert that the relationship is against the will of God, how many times does he tell them that they are unworthy of his love and are in God’s eyes an abomination –none! OK Jesus doesn’t exactly perform a blessing but neither was seeking one the aim of a first century pederastic relationship, it was very different from our understanding of a gay relationship. It was never intended to even be akin to a marriage nor was that the end goal. It would seem that for Jesus and for the first century Christians who would have been aware of this relationship – this came as secondary to the faith of the centurion. Thus flying in the face of the belief of some Christians today who say that being Christian and being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are incompatible.
Jesus in fact said about this man that he has not found greater faith in Israel. Much has been made of the fact that in the Matthew version of this story Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God being more wide than people think and this is seen as Jesus saying such as this man will be welcome too something that I think is about the man’s status as a gentile rather than has been suggested as a gay man but the point still remains the same – the wideness and depth of Jesus’ love for all can never be overemphasised and as the New Testament teaches us “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
The story of Ruth and Naomi is also another story in which same-sex relationship although not to my mind sexual but nevertheless a story of deep love and commitment which challenges the idea of the Bible and our faith and our God as being homophobic. Ruth and Naomi are on the margins of society as poor, childless, widows they were no longer of use as far as society was concerned. In this passage Ruth refuses to accept her place and ‘comes out’ from tradition and declares her true feelings for Naomi. So deep and great is the relationship and the feelings between Ruth and Naomi in the following words – “Do not press me leave you “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die-there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” That the story of this ‘til death do us part commitment’ is read at heterosexual marriage services. This is the closest expression of love between two women in the Bible when this reading talks of Ruth clinging to Naomi the original Hebrew word for clinging is davka, the same word that is used in Genesis 2:24 to describe the relationship between the man to the woman in marriage. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Ruth refuses to accept the status quo and her status as a marginalised woman off no use and instead she redefines family and offers a model for ideal relationships: one of commitment, mutual caring, giving and preference of the others needs until death. Ruth was young enough to go back to her homeland and have more children with a new husband, Naomi is not; thus allowing her to regain her status in society instead she chooses the margins out of love for Naomi and Naomi’s God risking being on the margins forever. In the Queer Bible Commentary I read about this passage the author Mona West says “Ruth’s words to Naomi are words for our community. They are pronouncement, blessing, creed, hymn, poem and declaration for the ways in which we relate to one another in our comings and goings”.
Our inclusion in Jesus’ salvation plan is demonstrated through the stories of Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathon, that has been suggested as the male equivalent of Ruth and Naomi and the Ethiopian eunuch in the book of Acts – these stories show that when it is said we are not a part of God’s Kingdom or of God’s plan, it is nothing but a lie – God’s call is on the whosoever. If God created us to be gay then surely suppressing that and hating that part of ourselves is the biggest sin, sexuality is a God given gift – heterosexual , homosexual, bisexual, being transgendered and God does not make mistakes.
Debate seems to be surrounding the eunuch as to what category he fell into – there were those who were eunuchs either abstaining from sex for religious reasons, those who were castrated voluntarily – whom we would now call transgender people or those who still remained completely physically intact but had no desire for heterosexual sex – people we would now term gay or even people who had no sexual desire at all – asexuals. What it does show though is that Jesus by no means deems being part of a group whose sexuality is the normative dominant sexuality of any society as being a prerequisite for having a calling to or responsibility in his kingdom, whosever really does mean the whosoever even if sometimes that is disappointing it includes the homophobe as much as the homosexual.
Jesus and John – there has been much speculation on Jesus’ sexuality and mostly based on the fact that there is the verse in the Bible that John was described as the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’. Also John is said to be the one that reclined on Jesus’ breast at the last Supper just as the image of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is described as the Son reclining on the Father’s breast – an image of true intimacy, in fact so powerful was this image that the retired Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, said that the idea of Jesus having this intimacy with a male disciple was what made him rethink his preciously very staunch views on homosexuality.
We have to play a full part in showing God’s love for the world, just as Ruth did not allow herself to be pushed aside but also as Ruth did we have to also admit and engage with the responsibilities this brings. One of the ways in which this has to be accepted is not allowing ourselves to reject people in the name of Jesus and recognising that his love is for those that bless as well as curse us.
I have recently read a book called The Cross in the Closet by a man named Tim Kurek, Tim was a fundamentalist Christian from the Southern US’s so-called ‘Bible-belt’ who was taught gay people could not be Christian and were an abomination to God, until he found out a friend of his was a lesbian, though this revelation was not something he greeted initially with celebration, in fact just the opposite, in his words the Holy Spirit shortly after prompted him to question whether his reaction to gay people was a Christian one or was he actually just like the Pharisees he had read about so many times in his Bible. He decided to find out the answer to this question in a unique way – he decided he would come out as a gay man despite being heterosexual – to his church, his family and his friends and keep this pretence up for a year and for this year to immerse himself in the gay community to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ as he put it. What he found was that everything he had been told was a myth and by pretending to be gay when he was straight he realised on some level he truly was in the closet. He learned what it was to feel rejection by his friends, by his church and by some members of his family. Over the course of a few months he becomes angry; angry at the Church for its exclusion of god’s gay children, rejecting anyone who was different and sees himself as someone whose mission it is to be a straight ally to the gay community. However, he finds that he still struggles with what he calls his inner Pharisee and sees part of the reason his inner Pharisee is still present despite his change of mind is due to the fact that he has rather than becoming a more loving Christian, a better follower of Jesus simply shifted his focus from being angry towards gay people, he has become angry towards fundamentalist Christians. He realise again that his focus must be shifted from judgement of others towards grace and love as a whole.
Gay people have been described as God’s gift to the world though I’m not sure I’m comfortale with that pressure, though I can see why this has been said because LGBT people are friends of the oppressed, of the marginalised – I genuinely believe that the biblical more of by their fruits you shall know them is one of the biggest litmus tests for the issues surrounding moral decisions in the church and the way in which LGBT Christians are more aware of and more sensitive on the whole to those around us that are oppressed such as homeless people, asylum seekers, issues of gender equality, racial justice and disability discrimination. I feel it is no coincidence that though my sexuality and my life with Helen is respected and honoured by those I work with as equally valid as their heterosexual relationships, when talking about incidences of homophobia that have happened to me in the past it is one of my black friends and colleagues that is most outraged. Another one of the gifts of being LGBT can be said to be the gift of faith and I don’t mean by that, that people who aren’t LGBT who do not have faith but a special measure of faith that is required to stay close to Jesus and to continue following Jesus when many in the Church are to see us as lesser Christians or to inform us of God’s disapproval.
Jesus promises abundant life– life without love, is that really abundance, in denying ourselves that we deny God’s promise of abundant life – when I met Helen and discovered the joy of mutual love, trust, commitment and the joys that come with all of that especially important for me personally was that I had found that with a fellow Christian, it was to me God’s abundant life being revealed to me more and more in growing together, we found that together we grew in faith that we not only saw and learned more of each other but also more of Jesus.
What matters is that Jesus knows us and loves us in an interview I recently saw with Tony Campolo and his wife who greatly disagree on the issue of sexuality and have done for about the last twenty years of their fifty year marriage – he firmly believes that orientation is fixed at birth but heterosexual sex within the context of marriage is the only Christian option however, his wife Peggy believes that same-sex, monogamous relationships are also blessed by God and they often appear at churches and on television and say that they feel that doing so is an important ministry in showing how churches can disagree on this issue without causing divisions, as he says after all it is by no means a major issue. There are much bigger ones such as poverty, famine and far more slavery today in varying forms than ever there was when William Wilberforce campaigned for its abolition. As the reflection on our bulletin sheet said the other week that the church is often more concerned with what someone does in bed rather than whether someone has a bed or not! He also talks about gay people being much harder to condemn once realising someone you know and love is gay and let’s not forget the Bible makes it clear that we are known and we are loved and sometimes realising God loves us isn’t the most important fact that we need to hear, it’s the one we forget the most God doesn’t just love us but also likes us – and God saw that it was good.
In the end though, straight or gay, the most important command from Jesus is “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”