by Martin Stears-Handscomb
In the first blog in this series I argued that Jesus accepted and affirmed people as they are and showed compassion to those who were unable to marry, including those “born that way” (i.e. gay people). He also avoided criticising a centurion who may well have had a gay relationship with his servant – agreeing to heal the servant because of the man’s love for him. And drawing on St Paul’s affirmation that in Christ’s church there can be no barriers, we can say in Christ there is neither lgbt nor straight – we are all one in Christ Jesus. So lgbt people are welcome in Christ’s church.
Why then are there so many churches that do not welcome lgbt people?
One problem is that – as I said in the first blog, quoting Paul “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”(Romans 3 v 23) or to put it another way, all of us fail to live up to what Jesus wants us to be. So churches are full of sinners! Fortunately, Jesus was known as a “friend of sinners” (Luke 7 v 34) and those who repent of their sins can be used in the service of His kingdom, the challenge each church has to address.
The good news is that there are a growing number of churches that do genuinely welcome lgbt people and recognise and use their talents and what they can offer as full and equal members of God’s kingdom. However that is far from always the case.
In that familiar passage in John’s Gospel “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3 v 16 & 17).
So why do some of His followers and many churches so often condemn instead of welcoming? In Matthew 7 v 21 right at the end of what is called the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Earlier in chapter 7 at verse 1 he has said “Judge not that you be not judged” and he continues with the lovely exaggerated illustration of someone trying to take a speck of dust out of a friend’s eye when they have a huge log in their own.
There is the temptation of those who feel they understand God’s will to become arrogant. Luke records the parable that Jesus taught – of the religious leader who thanked God that he wasn’t like the “sinners” of his time and the repentant man who showed humility and knew where he had messed up. Jesus praised the repentant man as the one who was at peace with God. (Luke 18 vv9-14) Often you will hear people say “hate the sin; love the sinner”. American Baptist preacher Tony Campolo has the more Christian quote “love the sinner, hate your own sin”.
As a gay man, but a Christian first of all, I am conscious of my sins and seek to examine myself regularly and repent and seek to do better, in particular as a part of the service I attend each Sunday (as I am sure each Christian does in their own way). A prayer I value is the serenity prayer: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.’
There are those who believe that we can change our sexuality. Even some who say that just by being gay or trans we are “sinful”. It reminds me of the people who came to Jesus wanting to know why a disabled man was disabled. “Was it his sin or the sin of his parents?” Jesus was quite clear it was neither (John 9vv1-34). We know that, although it can be to some extent suppressed, sexuality does not change. It would be wonderful if it did as no-one chooses to be lgbt. But people will take time to learn that. Each of us has a different story to tell and makes different decisions about how we deal with our sexuality or gender identity. That is why some of us must patiently and honestly share our stories with our Christian brothers and sisters to enable them to move forward on the journey of understanding.
That is not to say that all those Christians who struggle to accept gay people are hypocritical or un-Christian. There is a great deal of misinformation about what it means to be gay or transgender. Often people will believe the stereotypes of lgbt people that are out there. Many of us have had to deal with out own homophobia to accept ourselves as we are and others have to travel that journey too.
Of course as lgbt people we, like everyone else, get things wrong. We make bad decisions, let those we love down, say hurtful or malicious things and we know it and in our better times we regret it. But the good news is that in Christ’s real church we are welcome, we are affirmed. In our relationship with Christ, if we acknowledge when we get things wrong then we can be forgiven in just the same way as any other Christian. Jesus has promised his followers the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. As we seek the truth and share with other Christians we and they will see our faults and want to deal with them. That is where we meet God and are assured of His forgiveness as we seek to turn our lives around (which is what repentance means).
Jesus was despised by the religious leaders of his time. He was often misunderstood. He made what the world would see as a mistake in standing up for the vulnerable, challenging injustice, healing the sick in mind and body, breaking some of the Old Testament rules on the way. That led to a cruel death on the cross. That was not the end though. God did not leave him there but raised him from the dead. Perfect love does not die but is vindicated on that Easter Day.
Going back to Matthew 7 v 21, can we sum up what Jesus says is the Father’s will? Yes we can!! When asked what is the greatest commandment Jesus doesn’t just answer with one but gives two and moreover says they sum up all the law of Moses and the prophets’ teachings – namely “Love God, with all your heart, soul and mind” and then “love your neighbour as you love yourself” Matt 22 v 36 – 40.
Paul again in his letters emphasises the importance of self-giving love among Christians, most famously in 1 Corinthians 13, which he starts by saying “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” In other words I can be a wonderful preacher and show myself full of the Holy Spirit, but if I don’t show a loving welcome and concern for others my words will be useless.
And we can look to Jesus’ words, this time in Matthew 25, when he makes it clear that those who will “inherit the Kingdom” are those who welcome the stranger and care for the vulnerable – in the passage known as the parable of the sheep and the goats.
The New Testament is full of exhortations for followers of Jesus to show love. For example, in John 15 verse 12, Jesus says “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
So we should be able to be recognised as Christians by our loving welcome of all, particularly those different from ourselves. It would be so easy if we could just go into any church and always find people who do God’s will and show a loving welcome to all. It was said of the early Christians by the writers of the time “See how they love one another” (Attributed to Tertullian).
Now we cannot say that there is a particular denomination that is the most Christ-like, or (much as we would like to think sometimes) that high church or low church, evangelical, liberal, charismatic or any other label marks out the best of us. Those who would seek Jesus in our churches have to “taste and see” for it is “by their fruits” that you can tell (Matthew 7 v 16). We must pray that we pass the test!
Martin Stears-Handscomb, March 2013
For the 1st Bible study in the series follow this link.