What Are We Fighting About?, Part V--Gay Christians and the Caesarea Moment

Previous Posts in the Series:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

I said in the beginning that I wanted to hit four different perspectives on what was at stake with LGBT issues in the Christian Church.  But it occurred to me that there was a critical fifth issue at stake that I was ignoring in my scheme.  To explain how I see that issue, it is necessary to take a dive into the Scriptures.  In particular, to take a look is one of the richest stories in the Bible, the 10th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.

Acts 10, and basically the rest of Acts (and a large chunk of Paul's writings) is about the question of whether or not non-Jews had any place in proto-Christianity.  And Acts 10 begins by presenting us with a good test case--Cornelius the Centurion.  Cornelius was, essentially, what today we would call a "Jewish fanboy"--someone who admired the religion of the people among whom he was serving, and tried to follow their practices as far as he was able.  The "as far as he was able" part is key, because Cornelius was not, and could not be, a Jew.  No matter how sincerely his level of admiration was, both Cornelius and his Jewish neighbors understood that there was a bright line separating them.  They lived in different worlds.  Indeed, Cornelius lived in Caesarea, the city named after the Roman emperors and built so that the occupying forces could live apart from self-consciously Jewish places like Jerusalem.

Anyway, God tells Cornelius to go find this guy Peter, who is staying down the coast in Jaffa (which has become more or less swallowed up by the modern city of Tel Aviv).  As Cornelius's people are on the way to Jaffa, Peter has a vision.  And it is not a particularly subtle or nuanced vision.  God shows Peter an array of non-Kosher foods and tells him to eat them.  Peter values his identity as a Jew, a people set apart, a status made manifest most viscerally through their food laws.  And, so, he refuses to transgress those boundaries of identity and meaning, and refuses to eat the food.  Let's call this "Phase One" of the story--Peter seeks to maintain the religiously-mandated boundaries of his faith, in order to preserve their meaning and relevance to his life.

God, however, has other ideas.
 God tells Peter "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." (verse 15).  Notice that God is the one making things clean; more on that later.  Soon after, Cornelius's people show up, and they try to sell Peter on the idea that Cornelius is someone worth talking to--he's a good guy, he has helped out the Jewish people, etc.  The idea being that Cornelius is seeking (through his proxies) for Peter to validate the fact that Cornelius is worth taking seriously as someone who loves God, notwithstanding his Gentile status.  Cornelius wants Peter to bring Cornelius and his household within the circle of God's love and God's message.

And Peter understands this to be the meaning of his dream, so he is willing to grant Cornelius his wish.  "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." (verse 28).  At which point, Peter gives the Cliff's Notes version of the Good News.  Let's call this "Phase Two" of the story, where Peter is willing to go beyond the boundaries of his religious tradition and bring people into the fold that were previously outside.  So far, this is a straight-forward narrative of a previously exclusionary group learning to include some group that was previously seen as beyond the pale.

But verse 44 is where the story takes a twist.  The Holy Spirit spontaneously manifests among Cornelius and his household.  As I have mentioned before, this flies in the face of both Western and Eastern sacramental theology.  Baptism is the sacrament that brings one within the family of God; then, and only then, can the Holy Spirit come into the newly minted member of God' family.  The East traditionally does Confirmation (the sacrament understood to be the provision of the Holy Spirit) immediately after Baptism; in the West, Confirmation is often years after Baptism when the Baptism is given to babies.  Either way, no church would ever give Confirmation first and then Baptism--that doesn't make any sense.

Nevertheless, that's what happens here.  Or does it?  It seems to me what this passage is suggesting is that Cornelius and his household were already part of the family of God prior to Peter's arrival.  Contrary to both Peter and Cornelius's understanding of what God was up to, it seem to me that the point of this meeting was not for Peter could bring Cornelius into the fold, but to demonstrate to both Peter and Cornelius that Cornelius was within the fold from the beginning, or at the very least from some point prior to Peter's arrival.  One almost gets the sense that the rush to baptize all of Cornelius's household (verses 47-48) was an embarrassed effort to cover over this radical breakthrough--to make sure Cornelius and his household "had all of their paperwork in order" to keep the machinery of proto-Christianity running smoothly.  But I think something much more ground-breaking occurred at the end of Acts 10.  This is "Phase Three" of the story, where Peter moves from being a gatekeeper of admission to the circle to being a witness to something that God is doing on God's own schedule.

So far, all of the posts in this series have toggled between the "Phase One" and "Phase Two" perspectives--the conservative Phase One folks who are insisting on maintaining the traditional boundaries with regard to LGBT sexuality, and various individuals (including me) advocating for having "us" allow "them" inside the tent.  But I think we don't have a full picture of what is at stake here unless we are bold enough to ask the "Phase Three" question--is God doing something in our midst with regard to LGBT people?  Is God trying to get us to move beyond the question of whether "we" will let "them" in, to a recognition that "they" are already inside with "us."  Perhaps when Peter says "God shows no partiality," we should not take that as God being indifferent to two or more objectively distinguishable groups (in this case "gay" and "straight"), but a call to move beyond such distinctions in the first place.

What might God be doing with and among LGBT people, including LGBT Christians who are members of every denomination and church?  I don't have a complete answer to that question, and I imagine no one does.  But, I do know that there are some things we need to do if we are going to be attentive to the question

First, we are never going to be able to ask the "Phase Three" question if those of us who are straight insist on our role as gatekeepers to church life.  Peter thought, and so did Cornelius for that matter, that he was being sent to Caesarea to adjudicate the status of Gentiles in the church.  When in actuality he was there to learn something about the nature of the Church as it always was.  Faced with this uncomfortable and inconvenient manifestation of God's presence in verse 44, Peter could have said to Cornelius "well, that's nice, but I have the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and I still need to work out the particulars involved in your admission to our club."  But he didn't do that, and he accepted God's fait accompli--“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (verse 47).  We need to follow Peter's lead here.

Second, we have to be open to what is really going on in front of us.  This is why I think it is so important to insist on "Christian Realism."  If everything we see is immediately filtered through our pre-determined narrative about the question, we crowd out any space for God to show us what might be beyond those narratives.  Peter ultimately reacted to what he saw in front of him, the evidence of God's work in the world.  We need to be attentive to that evidence, which will likely come to us in forms far more subtle that what happened in Caesarea.

More than anything else, we have to be alert.  There may be a Caesarea moment happening in our midst involving LGBT people (or with regard to women, or some other group, or all of the above).  In fact, I believe there is such a movement, and I think most people have a sense that this is true (if they will allow that thought it develop).  If we believe that this Christianity thing is ultimately about God and not about us--and we should--we need to be alert to what God is doing among us.  We need to let go of the reins of control and gatekeeping and listen and watch for what God might be saying through and with the people around us.

That voice of God that is trying to get through to us--that might the the thing that is most at stake.

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