(For Bearing Witness
(NB: When I say "we", I generally mean "I and people who are like me in the respect presently under discussion". Probably not always, but mostly.)Part 1
There are a lot of Christians who would say to gay people, "Jesus totally welcomes you to his church, as long as you stop being gay." You know, just stop having sex with the person you love and/or are married to.
2000 years ago, a lot of Christians were equally 'welcoming'. They said to gentiles, "You can totally be a Christian, as long as you stop being uncircumcised." Just a wee snip, nothing to it.
And then there were some other Christians who said, "What does God care how much skin you've got? You can totally be a Christian. Full stop."
Arguments ensued between the two factions.
Peter (the Peter who all the Popes are spiritually descended from) belonged to the first camp. And then he has a dream in which God tells him to kill and eat an animal which, according to Mosaic law, was considered unclean. Peter -- very self-righteously, as Peter was wont to be -- says "No way, I've never eaten anything unclean!" and God says "Don't call anything unclean which I have made clean." (Read the unmangled original here, NIV version
.) This happens three times, because Peter always needs things
to happen three times
before they can sink into his head.
Then Peter wakes up and a bunch of uncircumcised men come along and invite him to their place to teach them about Christ, and one thing follows another and he has this "Oh, I get it!" moment. And later on when his fellow Christians are all "Dude! You ate with uncircumcised people, ew!" he explains his dream to them and they all
have the "Oh, we get it!" moment. Moreover, they have a "Whoa, God's giving new life to everyone
, isn't he awesome!" moment.
2000 years later. I'm googling for "what I have made clean" instead of checking my church service sheet for the chapter and verse, and I come across someone on Yahoo Answers asking "Which is the worse sin, eating pork or homosexuality?" and a whole bunch of people saying homosexuality. One guy in particular reasons thus: because of Peter's vision, God made eating pork clean, but homosexuality is still a sin. And I... I just... Okay, I shouldn't have clicked on a link to Yahoo Answers, but seriously...
You know how when Jesus is wandering around telling parables, and they're totally missing the point -- oh look, by "people" I mean Peter
-- and he does this awesome wee rant of frustration at how stupid
they are? I kind of want to do the same thing.
People! It was a vision, a parable! It wasn't about the food
! --Okay, it was a little bit about the food. But mostly it was about how the whole entirety of the Mosaic code doesn't matter anymore. Jesus's death has made everything
clean. Pork doesn't matter. Circumcision doesn't matter. Homosexuality doesn't matter.
This is what Peter's vision says: God has welcomed everyone. How dare we unwelcome them?Part 2
Originally I was going to say something like "These things don't matter; all that matters is love. If you love your neighbour, if you welcome everyone, you can be a Christian." But... you know, that's still a conditional.
A while ago when I was googling on Anne Lamott, I found a quote of hers, "You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do," which made me a) giggle and b) wonder in a kind of Steve Urkel voice "Do I do that?"
And while I was listening to my minister's sermon on Peter's vision I was pondering about how religions/denominations can start off so tolerant in one area and then become so intolerant in others. Christianity is totally tolerant of gentiles but... well, I love Paul-was-Saul, but his asexuality has had, shall we say, an unfortunately disproportionate influence on the Church's development.
And I think what might be going on is maybe that we say "X doesn't matter because what really
matters is Y":
- Making the right sacrifice doesn't matter because what really matters is being circumcised.
- Circumcision doesn't matter because what really matters is not having the wrong sex.
- Homosexuality doesn't matter because what really matters is being tolerant.
Not only do we claim we have the final say on what matters, we also claim that we can judge how well someone has followed our rules -- despite that famous line "Judge not lest ye be judged."
And Peter's vision says we can't do that. All those Christian fundamentalists who keep hatefully rejecting people, all those money-grubbing evangelists who I don't think are acting like real
Christians? Too bad for me, because who's Christian and who isn't is not my call. If I believe that God welcomes everyone unconditionally, then I've got to allow the ramifications of that "unconditionally". And that is: If someone wants to be a Christian, then they're a Christian. No "ifs". Just done, full stop.
This doesn't mean I can't tell them when I think they're doing Christianity wrong of course. Because...Part 3
I need to circle back to the point about how dull and slow Peter is.
I mean, Jesus told him back in Matthew
that what goes into your mouth isn't what makes you unclean (this is really important, so it's worth repeating: Jesus says oral sex is A-OK, folks!), but only what comes out of your mouth. And years later Peter still needed a threefold vision to hammer essentially the same point home again.
But despite the fact that Peter was so dull and slow, Jesus kept on more-or-less-patiently explaining, again and again, no matter how many times it took. And/but/because/so Peter was the guy Jesus decided to make the foundation of his church.
My three thoughts on this:
- I think each of us has something we're dull and slow about sometimes -- a lesson that we have to learn over and over again. So, while rolling our eyes at Peter is fun, I think there's room to identify with him too.
- Jesus' mix of patience, occasional exasperation, but fundamental love and especially perseverance sets a really good and vital example for us when we think people are doing Christianity wrong.
- Eventually Peter got it. It took him years and plenty of divine head-banging, but in the end he got it and himself passed the message on. And, when it sometimes seems to us that people -- including Peter's spiritual descendants -- are never going to get it, that is an awesome message of hope.