Queer Ephesians 4.29-32: Guest Post: Danny Pegg

Danny Pegg is a first-year ordinand (trainee priest) at Westcott House, Cambridge.

  


29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,* as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Jesus promised that the Comforter – the Holy Spirit – would be with us always until the end, and yet we often feel completely alone. We relate to God as one person in a relationship with another person and its easy to forget that God is not like other people. Other people come and go and we feel close and distant to them at different times.

Remembering that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit from now until the day of redemption when we feel alone might be hard, but this truth is awe inspiring. Just as the Spirit descended on Christ at his baptism and remained with him, so with us, who share in his baptism, the Spirit also remains. We are incorporated into the body of Christ and come to our God and find our salvation through him who is the Way, all because he loves us.

This is a part of Paul’s diatribe on how to live as a Christian, placed between instructions on negative behaviour and actions. He tells us not to speak destructively and not to allow black feelings conquer us and be what we inflict on others, because of the example of Christ. Sometimes though we do say the wrong thing and we do feel terrible – and that’s where we might just begin to doubt God and feel apart from him and his Spirit, or ‘grieve the Holy Spirit’. Paul is reassuring here: you are sealed, so no matter what, that can’t change. Feelings can change, behaviour can change, and we need to know the example Christ has set for us when we fall short – BUT – the truth of the matter does not change: we are part of his body, we bear his seal, freely given.

In the debates concerning sexuality, there can often be a tendency for it to get hurtful or personal. We are called to an example above that – get rid of rage and anger, Paul says. That isn’t always easy or even possible when confronted with someone who calls you a bigot or someone telling you that your innate self is an abomination. However, it should be our aspiration. When we can be kind and compassionate to one another – liberal and conservative alike – and forgive one another when we fall short of that, just as Christ forgave us all, then perhaps we can have more constructive dialogue together about human sexuality.

The seal of the Spirit is on the foreheads of all Christians and we are all together in the body of Christ. The radical love he preaches extends to those who disagree with us, perhaps especially to those who disagree with us. For if there is no Jew or Gentile, no man or woman in the body of Christ, then there is no friend or enemy. There are no sides. We are one – even if we do not look like it or act like it – we are one, in him.

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Benedictus for the Grave

This Holy Saturday, the Benedictus reminds us that this is not simply a day of waiting for the real event on Easter Day. This is another day on which we rejoice in God’s great and wonderful works for us. God has taken the grave, and has shined the light of the Christ into its darkness, so that it may not be a thing of fear for us, but may be “to guide our feet into the way of peace”


Each morning many Anglicans join together to pray the morning office together, continuing the tradition started by the first monks in these lands, praying for themselves, the communities in which they find themselves, the Church and the world. And every morning, we say or sing a canticle, the Benedictus, sung by Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, in Luke’s Gospel.

It is an odd canticle, but as I have been training I have fallen more and more deeply in love with it. It is a canticle rich in the praises of God, calling to remembrance God’s good promises to his people from the earliest days, and charting their fulfilment in Jesus.

And it is an odd canticle to have on Holy Saturday. This is the day between the commemoration of Christ’s passion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The Church is in mourning. Christ lies in the tomb. Still. Silent. The altars are stripped of their ornaments and hangings, as the Church lies waiting.

Or does it? I suggest that the Benedictus at the morning office reminds us that God is far from dormant when Jesus is in the tomb. Already on the cross, Christ has been enthroned. Soon he will rise from the dead and ascend to be seated at the right hand of the Father in glory. And now, this Holy Saturday, he is hallowing the grave for us, actively and powerfully, preparing it for us as a place, not of fear, but of joy and hope.

The Benedictus begins with the praises of God, and the remembrance that God has “raised up for us a mighty saviour, born of the house of his servant David” (2). Jesus has been enthroned in glory, just by his mere presence in the world, his coming into the world. From the moment of Christ’s incarnation in Mary’s womb we can truly say that ‘God is with us’, Immanuel. And on this Holy Saturday, we remember that God is still with us. From the womb of his mother, through his ministry, to the cross, through the grave and into glory… Christ is with us.

And all this is part of God’s eternal plan. For God’s plan is to “come to his people and set them free” (1). Through the prophets (3), the covenant (4), and God’s promises to Abraham (5), God has always and at all times been working to make his people “free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life” (6).

The cross does not stop God’s work. There is no pause. As Jesus lies in the tomb, God remains what he has always been and shall always be. Active. Continuing to carry out his one great work of creation, redemption and recreation, spanning all time and space. Holy Saturday is not a day when nothing is going on.

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So what is going on?

1Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel,
who has come to his people and set them free.

2He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,
born of the house of his servant David.

3Through his holy prophets God promised of old
to save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all that hate us,

4To show mercy to our ancestors,
and to remember his holy covenant.

5This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,

6Free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.

7And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

8To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of all their sins.

9In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

10To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

In the Benedictus, Zechariah acknowledges that his son John will be a “prophet of the most high” (7), but his role will only be to “go before the Lord to prepare his way” (7), giving “his people knowledge of salvation” (8) not wrought by himself, but by God. John will not himself forgive sins, but will announce what God is about to do (8).

And here, the Benedictus trawls Isaiah for some of the most beautiful and effective imagery. Christ, the light coming into the world (John 1), is here “the dawn from on high” which “shall break upon us” (9). And now, remember Isaiah 9: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them the light has shined.”

Well, according to the Benedictus, God’s work in Christ is “to shine on those who dwell in darkness” (9), but not only that. On Holy Saturday, we do well to remember that God also shines on those who dwell “in the shadow of death” (9). From the tomb, as a corpse, the Christ is still shining. From the tomb, Christ’s light hallows the grave and opens up for us the gate of glory.

As Christians, we confess that the grave is not a thing of shame, or fear, or terror. For it is not the end. We believe that in Christ we will be raised. We believe that at our deaths Christ’s light, far from being extinguished, is visible most clearly. For we die not in despair, but in hope and joy. Our grave is not our end. It is the beginning of a new life in Christ. And after a while, we shall be raised, and see him as he comes again, to establish his kingdom of justice, everywhere and for eternity.

This Holy Saturday, the Benedictus reminds us that this is not simply a day of waiting for the real event on Easter Day. This is another day on which we rejoice in God’s great and wonderful works for us. God has taken the grave, and has shined the light of the Christ into its darkness, so that it may not be a thing of fear for us, but may be “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (10).

Amen.

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Queer Ephesians 4.25-5.2: Queer Dialogue in the Church

We have all seen angry queer or anti-queer protests, and we have probably all heard angry queer or anti-queer sermons. But that is fundamentally not how Ephesians calls us to truth-telling. Rather than being opponents, we must remember that we are members of one another, children of one God, redeemed and called to restoration in one Christ. We are called to be imitators of God, building one another up, not in hostility but in love.


The Rules of Queer Engagement

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil.

The vocation to “speak the truth” (v.25) is one which many queer people have wholeheartedly embraced, and the Church and world has become a much more godly place because of it. Yet Ephesians places truth-telling in a very particular context.

 

Firstly, it is in a context of complete honesty: truth-telling must be done along with “putting away all falsehood” (v.25), for it is only then that truth-telling can happen with full integrity. I wonder how often our secular queer brethren begin with this notion of fulk integrity? Or how often the political strategising of interest groups can put the telling of the full and fair truth rather on the back-burner?

And secondly, we as queer Christians are not speaking primarily to a hostile majority, or to our oppressors, or people who are fundamentally ‘other’ to us. As Ephesians has made clear with its theology of unity in Christ, when we speak to those in the Church, we speak to those who are intimately a part of us, whatever they believe, “for we are members of one another” (v.25). And again, this makes the rules of engagement for queer Christians radically different from their secular counterparts. The church, and those who comprise it, are never our enemy, or those who need to be recruited as allies. That thinking might serve some purpose at particular times, but actually, and fundamentally, that is not how Ephesians calls Christians to think of dialogue.

And the reason for this is clear. If we allow ourselves to think in fundamentally aggressive or oppositional terms, our righteous anger and zeal for justice can tip over into something rather different. “Be angry but do not sin” (v.26). For when we allow our anger to run away with us, then we are prone to let resentment fester and to let our worst instincts run riot: “do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (vv.26-27).

We have all seen angry queer or anti-queer protests, and we have probably all heard angry queer or anti-queer sermons. The temptation to respond in kind is almost overwhelming. But that is fundamentally not how Ephesians calls us to truth-telling. Rather than being opponents, we must remember that “we are members of one another” (v.25), children of one God, redeemed and called to restoration in one Christ.

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Guidelines for Queer Participation in the Church

28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,* as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.* 51Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us* and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

What follows is a list entitled in the NRSV, “Rules for the New Life”, but which I am calling ‘Guidelines for Queer Participation in the Church’.

 

V.28 has two purposes. Firstly, all of us have things in life that we should probably lay aside, habits, practices, ways of thinking, if we are to live the Christian life with full integrity. For thieves, it is that they “give up stealing” (v.28), though all of us have habits which might become a burden or drain to the church, spiritually or otherwise, and Ephesians calls us to consider them seriously. And in contrast, we are called to “labour and work honestly” (v.28), each contributing something to the life of the Church, not holding back our gifts and skills, “so as to have something to share with the needy” (v.28). Each of us has something to share, but also some serious soul searching to do as well.

The next injunction is a powerful one for all progressives in the Church. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up” (v.29). I don’t know how many gatherings of queer Christians I have attended that have descended into bitching and trashing of our theological ‘opponents’, and I couldn’t count the number of times I have personally contributed to that negative spiral in conversation. But it detracts from the very serious work to which we are called of “building up, as there is need” (v.29), and as queer Christians we are probably aware of the very great need for the Church to be built up, more than most!

But what about healthy venting of steam? So often a good bitch or a laugh at the expense of a particular theological standpoint can be therapeutic, a necessary release that helps to put things in perspective. Well, the key is discerning when it is appropriate to let our hair down, and when it is more appropriate to be discrete, “so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (v.29). One of the hardest things about ministry training for me has been learning to speak appropriately in different contexts. But this is a skill and practice to which Ephesians calls each and every one of us.

And then Ephesians gives us this bizarre admonition: not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (v.30). I have two things to say about this. Firstly, it is the Holy Spirit with which we are all “marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (v.30). The Spirit is the sign and seal of the unity of our common identity and common hope in Christ. And so a call not to grieve the Holy Spirit is a call to greater unity. And secondly, this must have an effect on our consideration of prayer. When we pray, we pray ‘in the power of the Spirit’, and prayer is something easily misused. Many queer people elect to abuse it by simply not praying at all, and surely this must grieve the Holy Spirit. But also, we have all heard prayers which are not so much focussed on God as much as their audience. These are the prayers which do not so much pray, ‘Your kingdom come’, as ‘Lord, may my will be done, and not theirs.’ This sort of prayer is utterly abusive, and progressives must guard against it as much as should conservatives. Our prayer must always invite God into situations of division in order to work his purpose as God sees it, and must not become simply another platform for our perspective and our identity. Prayer must always be an instrument of love and grace, and never a weapon or a megaphone.

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Love and unity are the watchwords of Ephesians, and Christians are called to embrace these as living principles, whilst keeping an eye on those tendencies which might arrest their full expression. We are all called, but particularly queer people who have so many reasons to feel these emotions, to put away “all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” (v.31). How powerful the Christian witness would be if we could all do this! A Church of diversity and generosity, characterised by love is summed up in this wonderful suggestion: “and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another” (v.32).

For our love for one another does not actually stem from our qualities or the qualities of those we are called to love. Our forgiving love as queer Christians stems from the fact that “God in Christ has forgiven you” (v.32). We a not called to be empathetic superbeings, or utterly forbearing martyrs, but rather are called to “be imitators of God” (v.1), imitating God’s love and grace in all our dealings with one another. This helps us to put our disagreements in perspective, reminding us that we are not warring factions but “beloved children” called to “live in love” by the Father of us all.

And as a seal of this passage, Ephesians reminds us of how that love was typified in Christ, who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (v.2). And if that was the sort of love which characterised all our dealings with one another in the Church, all of us might be a little closer to the hope of our calling.

Crucifixion
Andreas Pavias Icon of the Crucifixion, second half of 15th century egg tempera and gold on wood overall: 83.5 × 59 cm (32 7/8 × 23 1/4 in.) National Gallery, Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens

Queer Ephesians 6.10-20: Guest Post: John Whitty

John Whitty is a Master’s Student at Oxford University specialising in Patristics: the study of Early and Late Antique Christianity. His main research interests are hidden knowledge in the Early Church, and the Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century.

 


10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

This passage of Ephesians is fundamental in understanding how Paul views Christian faith as armour against the evils of this world. In modern circles, one can often find their Christianity is the object of criticism and ridicule. This inevitably leads to a feeling of alienation, where one feels distant from others, and more worryingly, disconnected from oneself through self-doubt. When we look at the way the queer community is treated, we see the same kinds of alienation, albeit in a much more severe and all-encompassing sense. In response to this threat of alienation, Paul advises us to take the source of this alienation, our Christianity, and turn it into our greatest defence. In the gospel, there is steadfastness, and in faith there is defence from alienation.

The second section of this passage deals with the other fundamental risk an individual took in proclaiming their Christian faith in the apostolic age: physical persecution. Other early Christian texts, such as the Epistle to Diognetus and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch also identify this as an issue. To be a Christian at the close of antiquity was to be an outcast from society, and as such, a member of a marginalised group. Though Christianity is now the norm, and most practitioners do not face persecution at the hands of those in power, some Christians still face persecution from both within and without due to other aspects of their identity. However, we cannot all be expected to suffer as the great martyrs of Christianity suffered. John Chrysostom likens a Christian contemplating the fortitude of the martyrs to a greedy man standing in front of a seven-mouthed fountain, with pure gold cascading from each mouth. As tempted as we are to grab every single nugget of gold, we must instead take what we can, and reflect the fortitude of the martyrs to the level we are able, and allow their deeds to empower us to the actions of which we are capable.

Perhaps Paul’s words can be re-applied to alienated of today: that participation in the Spirit will provide the gifts an individual needs to proclaim their beliefs and identity without fear, in the hope that the alienated and voiceless find welcome and their own voice in the contemplation of the divine.

Queer Ephesians 4.17-24: New Queer Life

Becoming Christian does not require us to give up our identities, our cultures or our integrity. Rather, clothed with a new self in addition to our old, we are called to discern wisely and in love… how to live with integrity as Christians as well as who we already were.


A Call to Christian Integrity

17 Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. 19They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practise every kind of impurity. 20That is not the way you learned Christ!

V.17 is a problematic one for me as a queer person. So often I hear it said that, for queer people, the injunction to “no longer live as the Gentiles live” (v.17) means to no longer live as the queers live. In other words, there is an assumption that exists in many churches that to live life in Christ, queer people must abandon their culture and identity. To live in Christ is to live as a straight person: to live as a queer person is to be a “Gentile”, an alien to God, and to reject God’s purposes for our lives.

But this is to completely miss the point of what Ephesians is trying to say. The “Gentiles” of which Ephesians speaks are those in the Graeco-Roman culture which so contrasted in many ways from the Jewish culture the early Christians began to emulate. And the characteristic which for Ephesians characterises this culture is “the futility of their minds” (v.17). There is something about the way that people think, the way they perceive the world and themselves, that is preventing them from living fully the life that is offered in Christ.

Indeed, what for Ephesians sets these people apart as “Gentiles” (v.17) is the fact that they are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart” (v.18). Ephesians says that there is something that those who do not know Jesus lack, leading to an ignorance characterised by “hardness of heart” (v.18). Think of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 9, or the promise of God repeated twice in Ezekiel 11 and 36 that God will replace the people’s hearts of stone with a heart of flesh.

Throughout the Old Testament, those who do not know or have forgotten the love of God display a hardness of heart which blinds them from showing true love themselves. Hence, Ephesians’ comment that “They have lost all sensitivity” (v.19), such that they are unable to show love with the sensitivity of God. This is characterised by the fact that they “have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (v.19).

Now this requires a bit of teasing out from a queer perspective, since there is a temptation to say that this is simply about sex, its being bad, and especially some forms of sex, and to simply move on. But this is not the point Ephesians is trying to make. The problem that the “Gentiles” face in having “abandoned themselves to licentiousness” (v.19) is not necessarily that they are doing things they shouldn’t be. It is that, because they have “abandoned themselves”, they are no longer acting as honest and responsible moral agents, acting with integrity, but are acting in “licentiousness” in the true sense, without any thought for what their actions mean.

One thing that must be said for queer people is that we think about sex a heck of a lot. We have to think about our relationships and what we do with our bodies at great length, because the Church, whatever its faults, and whatever its motivation, makes us do this. And the result of that, I think, is that queer people in the Church often have a far less licentious approach to relationships than often do their straight brethren. We think, we agonise, we pray and we discuss. And in so doing, we aim to act and love with integrity. And this is exactly what Ephesians commends us to do.

And another element of this verse is that the “Gentiles” are “greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (v.19). Now, again we are used as queer people to being categorised in many and diverse ways as ‘impure’, but Ephesians doesn’t put the emphasis on that way of looking at relationships. Rather, the emphasis is on the Gentiles’ greed. The line that is being drawn here is not between impure acts and pure ones. Rather, it is between the desire for relationships with integrity and with the love of God at their heart, and relationships that are very little more than the search for the next high, or the next novelty.

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Like many young people of my generation, my growing into my sexual identity was driven largely by what I had access to on the internet. My desire as a young person was to understand new things, to explore what was possible, and of course the next step was to try to find people with whom to try out those new things. When I look at the people I dated as a young person, and how those relationships developed, I am astounded at the extent to which my participation in those relationships was driven by the potential for new experiences and trying out things. And I am astounded at how little at times I was directed by my relationship with the actual person involved.

Now I was never one for casual encounters or short term things, but I certainly did have my priorities in the wrong place. And I can see the difference when I started dating more mature people, being more mature myself. And I can see an enormous difference between those relationships and the Christian fellowship that characterises my relationship with my current boyfriend. And so I get completely what Ephesians means by saying, “That is not the way you learned Christ!” (v.20). The focus is really not on the “greed” for new things, and our relationship is not characterised by a sort of “licentiousness” that says anything goes whether or not we honour God, our neighbours or ourselves. Rather, in “all sensitivity” we try to live a Christian life with integrity.

And this is the challenge that Ephesians offers to us as queer people: How do we lead a Christian life with integrity? With Christ at the centre, mindful of the Good News at all times, sensitively doing all things for the love of God, our neighbour and ourselves. And not in ignorance, greed, self-abandonment or licentiousness. I think that’s something we can all work on, whether we are queer or not!

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Clothed With New Life

21For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

The second part of this section fleshes out this idea of what Christian integrity means. The core of living the Christian life in God is remembering that “surely you have heard about him and were taught in him” (v.21). As Christians, the thing that sets us apart is that we have heard and been taught about Jesus, and this matters because “truth is in Jesus” (v.21). Jesus is the barometer for all our integrity. It is against him that we measure our faithfulness, to him and to the people God has created and called us to be. This goes beyond What Would Jesus Do? and touches what would Jesus think, or ask, or relate to here. If we are, as Ephesians has been arguing throughout, made one in Christ, brought into a profound union with him and with one another through him, this will affect everything that we do, think and are. As Christians, queer or otherwise, Jesus is not a bystander in our lives and relationships.

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And that welcoming in of Christ into our lives does, for each one of us, entail changes. But notice how the practical changes are integrally linked to the identity change. “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self” (v.22). Ephesians suggests that you can’t become a Christian by merely changing what you do, and you can’t live as a Christian whilst behaving seeming entirely the same.

But this MUST be read in light of what has gone before. Remember that we can’t read this giving up of old life out of context. What Ephesians is worried about is that Christians might carry in living in ignorance, greed, self-abandonment and licentiousness. That this continues to be the overriding concern is shown by the characterisation of “your former way of life, your old self” (v.22) as “corrupt and deluded by lusts” (v.22). As in vv.18-19, the lack of understanding and knowledge of Christ is tied up with greed, or lust, and lack of integrity, or corruption.

What this is contrasted with, is the call for Christians “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (v.23). The way in which Christians learn to live with integrity is by the love and knowledge at work, by the Holy Spirit, in our very minds. This is a work of prayer and conscious thought and wrestling with the questions of what it means to live with integrity as queer Christians, but where God is involved, it is most definitely possible.

The fact that Ephesians does not expect us to become something we are not is worth emphasising. So often we as queer Christians are told to portray ourselves as something we are not, or actually to conform, to become something we are not, by prayer or programme. Rather than casting our selves away (remember that in v.19 Ephesians saw self-abandonment as something the “Gentiles” did), we are called to “clothe yourselves with the new self” (v.24). Our new identity in Christ is a clothing which honours all that was best, all that was good, true and loving about our old selves. And it takes us beyond ourselves, pulling our selves along on a new path.

For Ephesians ends this section with the affirmation that we are called once more, as at the beginning, to be “created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (v.24). Becoming Christian does not require us to give up our identities, our cultures or our integrity. Rather, clothed with a new self in addition to our old, we are called to discern wisely and in love… how to live with integrity as Christians as well as who we already were.

Once I was a queer. But now I am a Christian… Oh, and still a queer.

Call for Guest Bloggers

Hello everyone!

Because it is Holy Week and I know everyone has lots of spare time, a call for guest bloggers for the Queer Ephesians project. I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am.

If you’d like to contribute, it can be any length, in any medium, vlog, film, poetry, art or a straight reflection as I’ve done them. I’ll post your blog alongside my own reflections, which just makes the whole thing more interesting!
The fabulous Danny Pegg from Westcott House in Cambridge has already done one, that’ll hopefully be posted next week.

The topics still remaining are:

  • Ephesians 5.3-20: Renounce Pagan Ways
  • Ephesians 5.21-6.9: Power Dynamics
  • Ephesians 6.10-20: Put on the Armour of God

…though that’s only a guideline!

Drop me an email on t.m.sharp@durham.ac.uk if you’re interested.

All my prayers during Holy Week, T

  

Queer Ephesians 4.1-16: Unity in a Humble and Diverse Church

In the first half of chapter 4, Ephesians asks us to consider the unity of the Church in Christ, how we must approach this unity which finds its reality not in homogeneity, but in a diversity of members and a diversity of gifts and vocations. The Church must respond to diversity in loving humility.


Oneness in Christ

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Throughout chapters 1-3 Ephesians has been reminding us that we are called to unity and to love in Christ. And Ephesians invokes Paul’s imprisonment, during which he wrote most of his letters, to emphasise the stark reality of the wonder of this calling. “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (v.1). Life worthy of God’s calling is characterised by living “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (vv.2-3).

Many of us who are queer are probably quick to spot the deficiency of these traits in those with whom we have had our most difficult experiences: those who have excluded, demeaned and abused us. But this is also a challenge to us. Taking a line that is militantly progressive is as lacking humility and gentleness as is the rabid conservative. And those of us who are progressive are often just as willing to dismiss the theological perspective and experience of other, failing to bear with one another in love, as are our conservative brethren.

This is a challenge as well as encouragement for queer people. For we are called to live “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v.3). We have just as much responsibility to heal the rifts in the church, and to calm its infighting, as do conservatives. Ephesians reminds us at we are in this together.

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Our oneness emerges from the fact that, in Christ, “There is one body and one Spirit” (v.4), and this oneness goes as deep as “the one hope of [our] calling” (v.4). Our very hope stems from the one vocation which we share in Christ, from beginning to end: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (v.5). We are in this together as a Church, and also as creatures of “one God and Father of all” (v.6). And is this God and Father great enough to be able to bring us together in all our many differences? Yes, for he “is above all and through all and in all” (v.6). God pervades our very hearts, all of us, even those who seem farthest from us, and calls us in his grace to unity “of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v.3).


God’s Inclusive Work in Christ

7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said,
‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.’
9(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

For Ephesians, it is Christ’s presence which unites us most of all, for “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (v.7). Every one of us is included in God’s overwhelming plan for goodness and wholeness, and the extent of this inclusion is measured by the gift of Christ. Ephesians then makes the case that “Christ’s gift” is not simply something that happens up there, far away from us, or to other people. It takes a verse from Psalm 68, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people” (v.8), and acknowledges that it seems to suggest that Christ’s work is something that happens fundamentally in another place and on another plane: Christ’s work seems far from us.

But then, Ephesians interprets this verse rather acrobatically to say that “When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” (v.9). God’s work in Christ is fundamentally not something that happens up there, far away from us, or to other people, but rather is something that happens everywhere, for and to everyone. God does not operate differently in heaven and on earth for “he who descended is the same one who ascended” (v.10), and God’s work is not limited to heaven, but even goes “far above all the heavens” (v.10). God’s work in Christ is fundamentally inclusive in the best sense of the word, because it is something that God wants to happen for and to everyone and everything, “so that he might fill all things” (v.10).

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Diversity of Gifts and Diversity of Vocations

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Verse 11 is another verse that many of us have experienced being used badly. It is a verse that is used to remind us not to rock the boat, to know our place, and to accept that because we are queer God must not have given us particular gifts with which to grace the Church. But I do think this is a gross distortion of the message of Ephesians. For the purpose of this listing of the different ministries in v.11 is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (v.12), that is, to equip all of the people of God for active ministry. The universality of God’s ministerial gifts is what is being affirmed here, not their exclusivity. So while it is true that we are not all called to be apostles, not all called to be prophets, or evangelists, or pastors or teachers, we are all called to active ministry within the church. And if the Church neglects this fact then it is guilty of the worst sort of sacerdotalism, the worst sort of clericalism.

For God gives these ministries, not for the furtherance of individual communities, or denominations, or cell groups in isolation, but gives the gifts needed “for building up the body of Christ” (v.12). The gifts God gives us are not in isolation from the strong theology of unity which Ephesians has been pressing from the beginning of the letter. In Christ we are one body, and in Christ we are called to one ministry, that is the building up of the body of Christ, everywhere and in all ways, the accredited and the informal, the public and the private, the loud and the quiet.

The point that Ephesians is making is that if we think that the ministry of the people of God is limited to this list of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, we are severely underestimating both the needs of the body of Christ, the Church, and also the overwhelming abundance of the grace of God. For the challenge all Christians face in responding to God’s call is great. The challenge is nothing less than a ministry of building up “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (v.13). How great a goal is this, and one which Ephesians is fully aware will require all Christians to utilise all of their gifts, whatever people say, to realise in “the unity of the faith” (v.13).

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This mature approach to vocation, in which the gifts of all are honoured and utilised, is contrasted with the alternative: “We must no longer be children” (v.14). This way of being church is characterised not by unity in the bond of Christ, but by being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” (v.14), so rigidly understanding theology that new ideas threaten to break the church or require wholesale departure from what has gone before. Likewise an inability to discern the truth in what people are saying, or to evaluate their motives, so that the church is thrown off balance “by people’s trickery” (v.14), either hunkering down and refusing to listen to any new voice or failing to be wisely critical of new voices, failing to discern the honest reshaping of the truth from “craftiness and deceitful scheming” (v.14). These weaknesses have paralysed many a church already and in our own time.

Rather, the church is called to “speaking the truth in love” (v.15), faithfully and humbly, rather than rigidly and dogmatically, for this is what allows the church to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v.15). And how does Ephesians characterise this speaking the truth in love? With unity. For Christ is the one source and the end point, the united ontology and telos, of the Church, “from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (v.16).

As a church we need to get far better at discerning how to help our brothers and sisters work properly within themselves, as God has called them, so that they may work, as God has called them and with the gifts he has given them, for the building up of the whole.

This is how unity in Christ works. Not in homogeneity, but in healthy and mutually supportive diversity of gifts and vocations. Only when we begin from the assumption that it is God calling flourishing human lives to work in Christ’s body, and not us calling people to fulfill human categories of ministry, will we be able to allow God to work for the unity which he has already effected inwardly in Christ.

Only in this humble approach to humility can the church “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [it] has been called” (v.1).