Taking a Risk on Love
A sermon on 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13 & Luke 4: 21-30 by Nathan Nettleton, 1 February 2004
God consistently favours love and acceptance over purity, so when we are not sure, it is better to take a risk on love and acceptance.
As most of you will be aware by now, weve got a fairly busy few months ahead of us, with the concluding stages of the church review, the Lenten School of Discipleship, the beginning of the Catechumenate and the always full Holy Week and Paschal services. And one of the things that looks like it is going to be postponed for a few months as a result, is the planned workshop looking at our congregations policy on the acceptance of homosexual people in the church. For those who dont know anything about it, we have had a policy in place since 1995 which says that when it comes to determining whether a person can participate in any area of our congregational life, we do not view homosexual relationships any differently from heterosexual relationships. Now, partly because I know that for some of you this stance has been a cause of some anxiety, and because we dont look like being able to fit that workshop in for a while, I want to offer you some thoughts on it tonight.
Some of you are probably thinking at this point, What on earth has this got to do with tonights scripture readings. Bear with me. It is true that none of tonights readings make any reference at all to homosexuality, but Im not planning to talk about homosexuality itself. Im planning to talk about how we think about people and how we treat people, and about what happens when communities of faith are challenged to rethink their categories of whos acceptable and whos not. And those things are things about which tonights readings have a lot to say. So, to be clear from the start, Im not claiming that these passages are talking about homosexuality, but I am using the issue of the churchs treatment of homosexual people to illustrate some things which these passages are talking about. And specifically I want to offer you the case for thinking that it is okay to live with this policy even if you think its wrong. I want to argue that if absolute certainty on the issue is not available to us, then it may actually be safer to risk being wrong in this direction than in the other direction.
The passage we heard from Pauls first letter to the church in Corinth is one of the Bibles top ten best known passages. Love is patient, love is kind. Youve probably heard it read most often at weddings. And hearing it most often at weddings can distort it a bit for us so that we begin to think about it as being mainly about the nature of love between two committed lovers. But actually it is intended more as a commentary on Jesus command to love one other, even your enemies. It is, therefore, about our attitudes to one another and our treatment of one another in the community of faith, in the body of Christ. How do we as Christians treat each other and everyone else?
And I want to draw you attention for a moment to two things this well known passage has to say. Im going to take them in reverse order, so the first comes towards the end. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Paul is talking about our ability, or our inability, to know things with certainty, and to know for sure what God is about or what is in the mind of God. Hes saying, Remember, you dont have a very clear picture. You cant know for sure. Now you might be thinking that Im overstating things a bit. When you look in a mirror, the picture seems just as clear as when you look directly at someone. But this was written several hundred years before the invention of clear glass. Glass already existed, but coloured glass came before clear glass. It took a long time before we worked out how to remove the impurities which cause the colours. So the mirrors that Paul knew were either made of coloured glass or polished metal. You know those mirrors you sometimes find in public toilets that are just a sheet of polished stainless steel. That sort of inadequate blurry image is more likely what Paul has in mind. Now we see in a mirror, dimly. So Paul is reminding us that our life of faith has to be conducted with the humility of knowing that we dont have all the answers. Much remains unclear. This should be no great surprise, because the reason we talk about having faith is precisely because we dont have certainty. You dont need faith if you have certainty. Steps of faith are the steps you take into the unknown and uncertain. They are committed actions based on promise and hope, not on certainty.
So if we apply that principle to questions of how the church treats homosexual people, we see that we must begin with the humility of uncertainty. We cant know for sure what Gods last word on the subject is. Even knowing what the Bibles last word on the subject is is somewhat fraught. The Bible contains about nine possible references to homosexual acts, and of those nine, only the two in Leviticus are clear condemnations of all homosexual practice between men. Not only does that still leave fifty percent of homosexual practice uncommented upon, but we have the only clear condemnations sitting in a book that is filled with condemnations of things which we routinely regard as no longer relevant. How many Christian men do you know who take seriously the condemnation of shaving, or trimming the hair in front of their ears? And while you will often hear people state a distinction between moral law and ritual law, not only is this a dubious distinction which is not taught in the Bible, but even if it was accepted, the statements on homosexuality are among the many laws for which you could build an equally good case for putting them in either category.
So I would argue that we must start with the possibility that we do not know with any certainty. The living God, who has far more to say than could ever be contained within the pages of a book, has not spelled this one out unequivocally for us. Therefore we must proceed prayerfully, and with all the skills of discernment we can muster. And above all, because we are called to love everybody, regardless of what we might think of their behaviour, we must proceed with love.
Which brings us to the second thing: the things Paul says about the nature of love. Among other things, Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
The fact that Paul says love is not arrogant links back to what we have just been saying. I know a lot more than I should about what it is like to be arrogant. Arrogance is the opposite of humility. To be arrogant is to always presume that you are right and that others are wrong without even needing to stop and listen to what they have to say. Arrogance, if it accepts the dim mirror statement at all, assumes that I still see more clearly than everyone else.
Love does not insist on its own way... It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. This follows on and challenges us to a particular stance when dealing with people who are different from ourselves. It could be the biblical mandate for giving people the benefit of the doubt. Dont insist on your own way, give others the benefit of the doubt that their way may also be acceptable to God. Love bears all things and endures all things - put up with the differences and with the discomfort those differences cause you. Better to endure the discomfort than violate the call to love.
Love believes all things - be willing to hear how others describe their experience of themselves and of Gods love, and even if it doesnt fit your theological categories, take the risk of believing them. If homosexual Christians are saying that accepting their homosexuality instead of fighting it set them free to love God and love others and led them into a deeper experience of Gods grace, perhaps wed better have the love and humility to believe them. And if they are saying that they can no more imagine being sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex than I can imagine being attracted to someone of the same sex, then perhaps wed better have the love and humility to believe them. Im not suggesting that we uncritically believe everything anyone tells us. We need to continue to discern, as Jesus taught us, what sort of fruits are being borne, but perhaps our opening positions should be a willingness to believe and to look for good fruits. This after all is precisely what the Apostle Peter modelled for us in the house of Cornelius. When the evidence before his eyes and the witness of Cornelius and his household said that God had poured out the Holy Spirit on the gentiles, that seemed as confronting and theologically impossible to these early Jewish Christians as God pouring out the Holy Spirit on homosexual people seems to many Christians today. But Peter said, even if this doesnt fit our theology, God seems to be doing something, so wed better believe it and sort out our theology later. Love believes all things.
Love hopes all things - love continues to hope that Gods love and grace are bigger than our minds can imagine, and are capable of including people who we may still be struggling to love and accept. Most of us are hoping this for ourselves, because most of us know things about ourselves that sometimes cause us to fear that Gods love and mercy might not extend as far as us. Fear causes us to hope that for ourselves; but love causes us to hope it for others, to hope that even if this person were to face the judgment unchanged, that they would be welcomed into the embrace of Gods love and grace.
So unless I have done violence to the intent of this passage, Pauls hymn on love already gives us grounds to think that, even if we lean towards the view that all homosexual practice is sinful, our general approach towards homosexual Christians should be characterised by love, tolerance, gracious hospitality, a willingness to listen and learn from their experience and perspectives, and the humility to allow that we might be wrong and that God may be blessing their relationships just as much as any heterosexual relationships.
In a sense what we are dealing with here could be characterised as a gamble. In the absence of absolute certainty, which ever way we decide to go risks being wrong. We might be wrong in allowing homosexual people full freedom in the church, or we might be wrong in denying it to them. And so to some extent it is a case of gambling on which error would be worse. There is someone who comes to the door here frequently to harangue me about being wrong on this issue. He regularly delivers prophesies warning me that because of my heresy, Gods veil of protection is about to be removed and Gods punishment is about to fall on me and our church. I can only imagine that it must be a source of some consternation to him that that keeps on not seeming to happen. But I keep saying to him in answer, I could be wrong either way, but at the end of the day, I would rather stand before Jesus to answer for being too loving and too accepting than for being too judgmental and excluding. Jesus was executed for accepting those his religion asked him to exclude, so if I err in that direction, at least Id be answering to someone who knew what it was like to be judged for that!
And that links us to the gospel reading tonight which illustrates well how Jesus thought about such questions. This follows on from last weeks reading when Jesus delivered his manifesto from the prophet Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue, claiming that the Spirit was upon him to preach good news of freedom and redemption to the poor, the broken, the oppressed and the outcast. And now we hear that, just when he could have basked in the adulation of his hometown crowd, Jesus pulls the rug out from under them and brings their wrath down on his head by questioning their understanding of who God does and doesnt love and accept. Last week we heard that you could have heard a pin drop when he finished reading. It was no wonder. Every simple Israelite living under Roman occupation loved this passage with its promise of freedom and of Gods vengeance on their enemies. But Jesus leaves off the last half of the verse, so that there is no mention of Gods judgment and vengeance. Hes left out their favourite bit! But they seem willing enough to cut him some slack and praise him, until in tonights extract he spells out why. And in a nutshell he says, You folks think that God loves you and hates the Romans and all the other gentiles. You think that God is coming to save you and destroy everyone who is different. But you are wrong. God loves those who are different too, and God is coming to save them too. And if you keep excluding them, youll end up excluding yourselves.
And there is a riot. They want to kill him then and there, to throw him off the cliff. It sound extreme and out of all proportion, but dont you see how the same thing happens today. Stand up at the Assemblies or Synods of any of any of our major Christian denominations and suggest that Gods love and grace is as available to homosexual couples as it is to the rest of us, and see what happens. All hell breaks loose. At Nazareth, the peoples unwillingness to accept the news that Gods grace extended to people they thought were beyond the pale made them unable to celebrate either Gods acceptance of themselves or the presence of a prophet in their midst. Their anger over such a possibility caused them to reject the prophet, to reject Gods chosen Messiah, and to render themselves incapable of receiving the signs of Gods forgiveness and healing that they knew had been seen in other towns. In their passion for excluding those they didnt trust, they put themselves beyond the reach of Gods healing mercy.
There is no question that God favours purity over selfishness, promiscuity and perversity, but that challenges both gay and straight alike. Let me assure you that if you walk around this district on a Saturday night, the gay nightclub precinct in Commercial Road looks no more selfish, promiscuous or perverse than the straight nightclub precinct in Chapel Street. And what is at stake for our churches here is not really Gods call to purity that cuts both ways but Gods call to gracious hospitality and radical inclusive love. And if anything really stands out from the pattern of things Jesus was willing to get in trouble for, it is his passionate belief that God favours love and acceptance over the maintenance of purity boundaries. For myself, I believe that God does not require homosexual couples to give up sexual intimacy in order to follow Jesus. But although I believe that quite strongly and confidently, I do not and cannot know that Im right. But with all the weight of responsibility that comes with being a leader in the church bearing down on my shoulders, I would rather be responsible for having encouraged you in a direction that causes God to accuse you of heresy and of being too welcoming, than to be responsible for leading you down the same path taken by the people of Nazareth that day. I am a lot more confident in Gods willingness to accept and forgive heretics and the extravagantly generous than I am in the likelihood of those who have excluded themselves by their zealous exclusion of others finding their way back into the arms of grace.
And as Martin Luther said, this I believe; here I stand; I can do no other.