Sermon: The Hospitality of Abraham, Mary and Martha, and God’s Gift of Grace

We can’t earn God’s love. And we don’t need to. God has already given it in his Son. Abraham, Martha and Mary encounter God, and love and an openness to grace is what enables them to discover new life.

Sermon preached at Newcastle Cathedral, Sunday 21st July 2019


 

Have you done enough to earn God’s love?

Do you think you’ve done enough to earn God’s love?

I hope a part of you – perhaps all of you – is scandalised to hear a Christian sermon start with that question. It is of course the worst perversion of the Christian faith… to suggest that we in any way need to EARN God’s love.

And yet, there’s a little part in each of us, that just sometimes says, I’m not good enough for God, I’m not worthy. He can’t possibly love me.

 Or more dangerous, that voice that says, Yes. I’ve made it. I’m an AMAZING Christian. Isn’t God proud of me.

Look at everything I’m doing, the way I live my life.
Look at how many times I go to church.
Look at how often I say my prayers.
Look at how much… I doooo for God.
Isn’t He lucky!

And today’s readings seek out those tendencies in each and every one of us. They square up to us and say… NOPE.

NOPE! You can’t earn God’s love, and you don’t need to earn God’s love. Because he has given you his love, already. He has given you Jesus.

Stop. Listen. Learn to love and to live.

*****

The story starts with the book of Genesis, as all good stories do. God has made a covenant with Abraham, the father of the Israelites, the father of all who follow God. Abraham and his son have been circumcised as a sign of that covenant. And Abraham gets on living a nomadic existence with his family, his livestock, his tent.

And one day, Abraham is sat in the door of his tent at the height of midday… and he sees three men standing near him. My Lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Strange. There are three of them. But Abraham for some reason addresses them as one, Lord.

Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Do you remember Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at the last supper? Do you remember Mary and John keeping watch under the tree on which Jesus died?

Let me bring you a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant. Well, you’re here at a Eucharist, the sacrament of bread and wine, so I don’t need to point out the importance of a little bread… to refresh us.

But my point is this. At first glance it looks like Abraham is showing hospitality to these three guests. Stop and think, and it might seem that Abraham is showing hospitality to God, the Trinity; Father, Son and Spirit.

But is that what’s really going on?

In the famous Icon of this scene, the hospitality of Abraham, you can see the three figures sat at the table, but you can’t see Abraham. The three figures are welcoming Abraham in, welcoming us in to sit at the table with them.

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When Abraham gives them the water, who really gives the water of life? When Abraham refreshes them by washing their feet, who really makes who clean? And when Abraham offers them bread, who really gives the bread of life?

I’ll give you a clue… it isn’t Abraham who is the giver of all gifts.

****

This isn’t a story about being hospitable, about welcoming in strangers. And neither is the Gospel reading.

I have heard many sermons in my time which go like this. Mary and Martha are different. Mary listens to Jesus but Martha is distracted by the tasks of the world. Which are you. Do you pay attention to Jesus? Or are you distracted by the world?

And I think that’s ok, but it doesn’t really do the passage justice.

It doesn’t do Martha justice, either, if I’m honest.

First, she isn’t just distracted by the cares of the world. Luke says she is distracted by something very specific. She’s distracted by diakonia… ministry. It’s where we get the word deacon from today. Martha isn’t distracted by looking up the latest fashions. She’s distracted by something which is really important. Ministering to others.

But second, does Jesus actually criticise her because she is distracted by her work? Jesus says, Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. You have need of only one thing. Mary, who is sat here listening to me, has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

 

Martha, if you think about it, is doing exactly what Abraham was doing… offering the Lord some refreshment. But the difference is their attitude. Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Martha says. Tell her then to help me! Martha’s problem, the thing she has missed, is that what God really wants, what Jesus really wants from her and from us… is love.

The psalms put it rather well, and put these words in God’s mouth.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
Rather, offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving
and pay your vows to the Most High. (Psalm 50.12-15)

Martha thinks that Jesus really needs feeding with food, and she offers her service grudgingly. This isn’t love and honour, in the way that Abraham showed love and honour when God visited his tent. Martha is worried and distracted not by her work, but by her bitterness. And bitterness, feeling hard done by, is always a difficult place to be when you want to show love.

*****

Abraham served his Lord, and he served God in Love. Martha tried to serve God, but her attempt was thwarted by bitterness. And Mary… Mary doesn’t serve God at all. She just… sits there…. but she sits there… in openness and love.

****

Has God ever visited your tent? How did you respond?

Lots of people tell stories of times they served an unexpected guest, and it felt like they had served an angel. One priest tells of a homeless boy he met. They shared a meal at Burger King. He nipped out to the loo, and when he came back the boy had disappeared. Had he ministered to an angel sent by God?

Maybe we haven’t all had experiences like that. But that doesn’t mean God hasn’t visited our tent.

****

The first chapter of John’s Gospel describes the coming of God in Jesus like this. And the Word became flesh, and lived among us. Jesus, God the Word, taking on humanity and living among us. But the word John uses to describe living among us has a deeper meaning.

He says this, and let your mind’s eye create a picture: And the Word became flesh, and pitched a tent among us. In Jesus, God has pitched a tent among us. God has come to our home, and made His home here too, with us and alongside us. The letter to the Colossians puts it beautifully. In Jesus, walking on earth among us, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. God pitched His tent among us, and it pleased Him. 

****

So what should we do? Should we make like Abraham and Martha to scramble to serve our God who lives among us?

No. Remember Abraham. It wasn’t Abraham who was really being hospitable. It was God, God giving Abraham the bread of life and the water of life and the washing of salvation.

If you think the Christian faith is about doing enough to earn God’s love… then you’ve completely missed the point.

We don’t serve God. God serves us.
We don’t need to feed God. God feeds us.
We don’t need to provide for God. God provides for us.
We don’t need to protect God. God heals and holds us in our brokenness.
We don’t need to sacrifice to God. God has already sacrificed himself for us.

****

At this and every eucharist, God invites us to God’s own table. And we approach it and pull up our chairs to the feast. With Abraham and Nicholas, and Mary and all the saints who have ever been. And each other, the saints who are.

God offers us the bread of life here. Will you be like Mary, open and loving?

And if you don’t feel you can, will you hope, will you ask… to be like Mary… Lord, make me open and loving.

In us is so much that wants to earn our place, or be proud at what we have achieved… or which is bitter, and guilty… and hurt and angry and tired. And that makes us often very bad at loving.

But God says… nevertheless…
Come… sit down… and taste.
With me you will find all things.
With me… you will learn love.
With me… you will discover… life.

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By Faith, Not Works: a sermon for Newcastle Pride

Sermon – Eucharist for Pride Festival
20th July 2019
2 Corinthians 3.4-end; John 8.1-11
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I bring you great tidings. Hark! The church is in crisis! There’s no way forward. We’re at each other’s throats! Gone are the wonderful days of old. Chaos reigns. People of God, despair!!!!

****

Now, that’s probably over egging it. But I bet all of us, especially queer folk like me, have felt like this in the church from time to time.

The overriding narrative in the Church of England, and in other denominations too… is that queer people, those of us who don’t easily fit society’s gender and sexual expectations… spell at the best confusion, and at the worst darkness.

Chaos reigns! People of God, despair!

****

Well, I for one refuse to accept that narrative. Coming to faith as an openly gay person, my sexual identity, my desires and relationships, were not a cause of confusion, and they certainly weren’t a cause of chaos.

Each one of us has a different journey of faith to navigate… but fundamentally the discovery of the gift of faith is the same for each of us….

A child of God finding, realising and nesting in the home that was prepared for us from the beginning by our Lord.

Narratives that see queer folk as a problem aren’t good and true for us. And they aren’t good and true for the church.

What narratives might free us? What narratives might offer us hope? What is the narrative in which I am one for whom Christ died and rose again, and not just a problem to be solved.

****

I have known many churches that say they believe the Gospel message is offered for all. They confess proudly that the Good News is for the transformation of all people, that there is no corner of the created world which Christ cannot redeem and make holy.

Well, queer people put that confession to the test.

Do you really think God gives eternal life to all who have faith in Jesus, as a gift, without a price, as grace? Or do you believe we have to earn it?

Sometimes, it feels like queer people have to do an awful lot to earn our place in the church, to earn the assurance that others can get much easier.

Sometimes, it feels like we have to prove our faith, not to God who already sees it, but to our fellow Christians… who seem to do their best to make us feel inferior.

Sometimes, we may let it get to us, and wonder if we really do have to leap through hoops, to earn God’s love. To pretend to be something we are not… because Jesus’ grace, Jesus’ love, isn’t strong enough to make me holy.

****

To this, St Paul says, no.

The Old Testament Law was a start. It tried to teach God’s people how to love God and it tried to teach them that God loved them, even when they betrayed that love. But Jesus has fulfilled the Law. God’s children are freed from its demands, its judgment, its condemnation… even its death.

The Law is good for teaching us how to love our God and how to love one another. But it cannot condemn us.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

All of us who have been baptised and confess Jesus as our Lord, live in the Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, when we look on Jesus in word, prayer or sacrament, see the glory of the Lord. And it transforms us.

God does not change who we are. God loves who we are. And died for who we are.

But God sets us alight in holiness, and frees us to live lives of deeper love, more fervent faithfulness.

****

I wonder how many times you’ve heard the story of Jesus and the woman caught committing adultery.

She is guilty, plain for all to see, and the Law says she should be stoned to death.

But Jesus and the woman… talk.

Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” Jesus has shamed the scribes and the pharisees into leaving her alone. But Jesus is not finished.

She said, ‘No one, sir.’ Now, that word, translated as Sir, is important for christians. She says, “No one, kyrie.” She says, “No one, Lord.”

She confesses Jesus as Lord in the same words that we use. Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy. Ho Kyrios mou, kai ho Theos mou. The words St Thomas used when he put his hands in Jesus’ side. My Lord and my God.

She calls Jesus her Lord, this woman caught in one of the worst offences against the law, and he responds… Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

****

She has called Jesus her Lord, and she is forgiven. She is freed from the condemnation that hung over her. Her faith… not her works… have set her free.

Her faith has set her free, to a new life, of loving better, loving more truly. Her faith has set her free, to learn without fear how God is calling her to be more faithful still.

****

I think that queer people call the church to remember the battles of the past. The battles to recognise that we are saved through our faith, not by our works. Our faith sets us right, not any attempts we might make to earn God’s love.

If you have faith, the Spirit lives within you. Take the Law seriously – explore how it speaks to you about God’s faithfulness, and about what it means to be faithful in love to God. But do not fear.

If you confess Jesus as Lord, be at peace. Be assured of your place in Jesus’ heart. Grow in holiness because you can. Not because you must.

If you confess Jesus as Lord and seek to follow him as a disciple, love boldly, your God, yourself, your neighbour.

Remember the confidence that Jesus has won for you. And live in that confident, peaceful and joyous hope, all your days. Amen.

Queer Acts 2.37-end: Welcome to the Church of All Believers (Peter’s Sermon 3/3)

In the third section of Peter’s sermon he challenges us to welcome people into the Church hopefully, practically and with the eternal promise of God. Luke then offers a picture of the Church as it should be. Is this depressing? Or is it a hopeful challenge that lends perspective to the institutional reality we inhabit?


 

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Offering a Welcome into the Church (vv.37-41)

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ 38Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ 41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

People very rarely turn to Christ becausethey like the idea of Christ. They turn to Christ becuase they want to receive something or they feel they need to do something. So it was with the people who heard Peter’s sermon: “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?'” (v.37). I wonder whether I would have come to faith if I had not always been involved in Churches which gave me things to do!

Peter’s response is difficult, and the number of occasions when this is the appropriate response is pretty slim. But it offers four things which we should offer to those who are being touched by the Gospel:

1) A challenge / hope of change. Peter tells them immediately, “Repent” (v.38). Repentance is a difficult subject, but often when people come with pain, with burdens and weariness, the offer of a different sort of life is one that brings hope. “Repent,” might not be your exact words, but conversations helping someone to think about how life can be more joyful, more hopeful, more peaceful are often the most wonderful conversations to have.

2) A practical entry into Church. Peter tells them, “be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven” (v.38). It is easy to leave a conversation hanging, and sometimes it is the right thing to do. But sometimes people benefit from a nudge, a practical path forward. Especially if church seems an alien thing to them (even more alien than Christ might seem!) an invitation, a question can make the impossible, inconceivable next steps seem possible, attractive, even obvious. ‘Were you baptised as a baby?’ ‘Shall we find out?’ ‘Have you been confirmed?’ ‘I’ve got a friend from Church I really think you’d get on with. We’re meeting up for a pint on Thursday. Do you want to come?’ Baptism may be the result of our conversations, but very often offering an easy way for someone to put their foot through the door and have a peak is the drop that begins the deluge.

3) Offer the Promise. The promise Peter offers the Jerusalemites in God’s name is great: “so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v.38). So many of us have such fear of our sins, even if we don’t call them sins. Offer freedom from guilt, and offer joy. Testify to how you have wrestled, and how you have learned to live and love. The promise of God’s forgiveness and loving presence is only real to others when we tell them how it has been real to us.

4) The Promise is Always There. Sometimes people aren’t ready to commit now. Or they seize up when they feel that we have made them a target, that we want to see them convert before our eyes for our own satisfaction and self-worth. But this is not how God works. God offers an eternal promise, that we may turn to at any point and receive God’s good gifts.

This last point highlights the particular message this passage has for queer people. Hear again Peter’s description of the promise: “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (v.39). I wonder how many times we as queer people have sat in church and experienced that promise as a non-reality in the day-to-day life of the Church. We like adding ‘if’s to God’s promises: that temptation is almost in the DNA of the Christian Church. But all Peter says is, “Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (v.38).

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Does Peter think that all those repenting and being baptised are rendered utterly Holy, perfect and blameless in their works? Not for a moment. That’s not how Christian baptism works. The 3000 who “were added” (v.41) that day were not made into good conservative sexually non-ambiguous Christians. They were still gamblers, addicts, cheats, evil-doers of every kind. But now that they had heard of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they had turned towards him and wanted some of that resurrection life. “Repent, and be baptised” (v.38) is only the beginning of the journey. And we must never place stumbling-blocks in the path of any who seem to desire that journey. So, churches which have put stumbling-blocks in front of us need to repent, yes. But what ‘if’s to we add to Peter’s invitation to baptism? What ‘if’s do we add to Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I shall give you rest” (Matthew 11.28)?

I was once struck when attending an inclusive service how alienating it might be. It was serving a specific function, to be inclusive to a particular group of people who are usually marginalised, and that was a very good thing. But the whole Church can’t be like that. Even the worst sinner, the worst homophobe, the worst gambler, porn-addict, self-hater, abuser, cynic, transphobe… the list goes on… even to these we are called to say, “Repent, and be baptised”, to offer hope of a new life, to offer God’s promise, and a helping hand into Church.


 

A New Fellowship of All Believers (vv.42-47)

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Many of us will remember a time when going to church has felt amazing, where we have known enough people for it not to be awkward; where we have had jobs we can do which make us feel a part of things but which weren’t so hard we felt put upon; where our relationships with people have been good and the holy fireworks have been firing in our prayer lives as well.

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This is something of the picture which Luke paints for us as a result of Peter’s sermon. I don’t know whether this picture of a fledgling church makes me hopeful or envious, or just a little cynical. But it is a wonderful picture.

The new converts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (v.42). The spiritual fireworks are going off: “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” The believers are liberated to live the sort of life a lady at my first church would have described as ‘too pious by half’ as they “had all things in common” (v.44) and “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (v.45). They seem to be in a 24 hour spiritual frenzy as “day by day” they “spent much time together in the temple” and “broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (v.46). They spend their time “praising God” and the fear of persecution before has completely evaporated as they had “the goodwill of all the people” (v.47).

And, bad enough for those of us who are members of churches which utterly fail to live up this ideal, they are even growing: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (v.47).

It makes you want to be sick.

And it’s kind of meant to.

The picture Luke paints is one of a church working perfectly, utterly as it should, where everything is going right. Of course, we can’t live up to this ideal, and by Acts 5 we will see that members of the church are getting into very hot water for failing to live up to it! But just for this brief moment we are offered a snapshot of what the Church could be like.

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Throughout these Queer Acts posts I have steered very clear of any reading of scripture which casts queer people as righteous victims (Christ is the only righteous victim) and conservatives as some sort of satanic opposition to Christ’s liberating will for queer people. Some queer commentators do read scripture this way. And perhaps at times these readings are really useful, especially as an antidote for those who have been burdened by years of explicitly homophobic interpretation, preaching and church life.

But passages like this challenge us to rise above the temptation to see anyone as totally in the right and anyone totally in the wrong. Passages like this remind us that all who believe, imperfect though we are, are called into the fellowship of Christ’s Church. This ideal picture of what the Church could be is meant to shake us out of any complacency in accepting how the Church is.

God’s call for the Church is that we may be one as the Father is one with the Son: that is the core of Jesus’ High-Priestly prayer (John 17.21).

Queer Christians are slightly different to secular LGBT campaigners. We don’t just work for LGB justice or liberation. That might be a part of what we do. But our primary vocation is to be faithful members of Christ’s Church, which is His body, often despite the failings and fractures in the institutional body. That’s hard, and I don’t want to guilt anyone into feeling they have to work with or enter regular fellowship with anyone in a way that is not yet safe for them. But we must have this ideal of a unified and truly faithful church in the back of our minds. When we meet for the Eucharist. When we meet to sing. When we serve those in need. But most of all when we pray, ‘your kingdom come’.

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Queer Acts 2.22-36: How to Tell the Good News (Peter’s Sermon 2/3)

Is the Gospel something to be learnt or something to be lived? Are we ready or willing to answer people’s questions about it? And are we willing to seek out what God is doing unexpectedly in the lives of others, and affirm it in his name?



Acts 2.22-24: A Gospel to be Lived Afresh

22 ‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.

In the first section of his sermon, Peter began to prepare the people of Jerusalem for the Gospel. But now he tells them the story of the Gospel. And he does it in a particular way.

“You that are Israelites”, he begins, “listen to what I have to say” (v.22). He knows that he is talking to a particular audience, Israelites, and he addresses them according to that identity. If he were to address Pagans (“Quirites! You that are Romans” perhaps) he would have to go about his telling of the Gospel in a very different way. But these are Jews, and so he will use the Jewish scriptures to help the story of Jesus to land in their hearts: he grows the Gospel on the fertile soil they already possess.

Peter’s first emphasis is that God has been at work through the Jewish people and continues to be at work in them through “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know” (v.22). He summarises the essential facts of the death and resurrection of Christ in a way that allows space for the role of the Jewish people, of human beings, in the narrative whilst affirming that God is acting out his good purposes throughout: “this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (vv.23-24, cf. vv.34-36). How would you tell someone the bare facts of the Gospel in a way that inserted them into the story whilst affirming God’s action in this Gospel and in their lives? I try to remember John 3.16 when I find myself in this situation: I try to remember, and communicate, that the cross and resurrection only make sense because God did these things for love of me and the person standing in front of me.

The Gospel is not just an objective story to be delivered. It is an objective truth which invites each and every one of us to live it daily and for eternity. Our task as Christians is to invite others to live that story afresh in their own lives.


A Gospel Which Provokes Questions (vv.25-31)

25For David says concerning him,
“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
28 You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

29 ‘Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,
“He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.”

In vv.25-31 Peter anticipates some of the questions his audience might have. Perhaps they would have shouted them out? And he uses their scriptures, the language, concepts and terminology which they already know, to explain in greater clarity what the resurrection is. I often see a man walking around Durham with a placard which has a verse of scripture on it, usually including the word ‘Repent!’ But I wonder how effective, and indeed how biblical, this approach actually is. Jesus does not refuse to answer people’s questions, though he often gives confusing answers. Think of Nicodemus in John 3 (picture below), who comes by night and asks Jesus repeated questions about being born again, or of the Samaritan woman who engages Jesus in theological conversation at the well in John 4.


And the Apostles are no different: we shall see in Acts 8 how Philip answers he Ethiopian eunuch’s questions. Likewise, Peter does not hit people with the truth or scripture unexplained, like lobbing grenades at them and seeing whether any of them learn to duck. Peter takes time to meet them where they are, to respond to their concerns and to frame the truth in a way that they need to hear it.

Are you ready to answer people’s questions? Do you let people ask genuine questions when you talk about Jesus? Could you answer them, or are you too defensive or upset because of the way people ask those questions? I know I often am too defensive or overenthusiastic to listen carefully to the questions people are really asking. Peter has listened, and understands their culture, their perspective, well enough to answer their questions.


A Gospel Which Has Been Witnessed To (vv.32-36)

32This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. 33Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. 34For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
35   until I make your enemies your footstool.’ ”
36Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’

And then Peter affirms that “of that all of us are witnesses” (v.32). In an age which tends to value empirical truth above all else, do not be afraid to tell people what you have seen of God’s working in your life and the lives of others, even in the life of the Church! For most people have seen something of the goodness of God: those of us who come to faith as adults very often know on one level that God is acting in the world, but we still just need to realise that “he has poured out this that you both see and hear” (v.33). What goodness, beauty and wonder have people seen in their lives already? What profound change have they experiences which may be God working in them? Now this is a hard one for anyone to hear, but perhaps particularly for those of us who are queer it can be difficult to affirm God working in others. I may find it hard to empathise with someone who is crippled by homophobia, and I may find it hard to empathise with someone who goes to chemsex parties. But God is undoubtedly working in their lives somewhere, and probably a lot more than any of us can realise.

Are you ready to affirm what God is already doing in someone’s life? Or are you only ready to preach to those whose life is like yours?



Conclusion

Preaching the Gospel is a relational activity. So often we think of preaching and evangelism as being like delivering a package. That isn’t true. The Church must always get better at living the Gospel if it is to call others to live it. The Church must be prepared to answer the questions people ask about the Gospel, and honour those who dare to ask questions which seem strange or upsetting to us. And the Church must be prepared to confess the works which God does in the world now, which we see around us; and also to seek out and affirm the less expected wonders he is doing in the strangest of places and with the least likely people.



Queer Acts 2.14-21: Beginning to Preach the Gospel (Peter’s Sermon 1/3)

In this first chunk of Peter’s sermon, Peter challenges us to begin our talking about Jesus not from a place of negativity and cynicism, but from a place of hope and trust in God.


 

An Introduction to Peter’s Sermon

Peter’s sermon is a massive passage. And I am no going to try to write a single full commentary on the whole thing. What I want to focus on in the next few posts is the challenges Peter poses for us in our proclamation of the Gospel.

First of all, stop and think. How would you sum up the Gospel if you had two minutes to do it? What would you say to a friend who asked you over a pint, ‘What do you believe?’

Then think about the sermons you’ve heard, or the books you’ve read. How did people represent the Gospel to you? Were you convinced? What did you think was missing, or superfluous?

The task of telling others about Jesus is more difficult than we very often realise. It’s often only when you have a go that you run up against the buffers.

Peter’s sermon is a literary device. By that I mean that it is highly unlikely that he actually delivered these precise words as a single sermon. Rather, it is probable that Luke is cobbling together sources telling him about the sort of sermons Peter did preach, and also the sorts of things which the early Apostles emphasised in their preaching. Or perhaps, entirely legitimately for a classical writer, Luke has created his own sermon and put it in the mouth of Peter as an oration, a useful way of giving voice to a large amount of theology in an accessible way.

What matters to us is that it has come down to us through the Church in scripture as the first of the great sermons preached. But how does it go?

In the next three posts we shall see that Peter begins with an assurance that God is working in people’s lives. He then offers us a model for how to preach the Gospel simply and effectively. And he then shows us how to welcome people into the Church. All pretty important stuff. And all of which has particular implications for queer people too. This isn’t a guide for evangelism, or for preaching, but it is an excellent chunk of scripture for making us think about how we communicate as members of Christ’s Church, with each other as well as outsiders.


Acts 2.14-21: How to start the Gospel

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.

18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

and they shall prophesy.

19 And I will show portents in the heaven above

and signs on the earth below,

blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

20 The sun shall be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood,

before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

How does your talking about the Gospel usually begin? Not when you are asked, ‘How would you sum up the Gospel?’ But when you actually talk about Jesus. How our conversations about what really matters begin should give us pause for thought, for the beginning of a conversation frames what follows, shapes it and changes it: for good or ill. Many of the conversations I have pertaining to the Gospel begin with something like: ‘That sermon was terrible, wasn’t it?’ Or ‘The Church is a really terrible institution to be in as an LGBT person,’ or ‘God, I am so not awake enough for Morning Prayer today.’

It is amazing when I start to think about it how many of my Christian interactions often begin with a grump, sarcasm or a criticism of something or someone else. And I don’t think I am alone in being prone to that particular vice.

But Peter’s talk of Jesus does not begin like this. He begins by telling of something wonderful, something that matters: “let this be known to you, and listen to what I say” (v14). These are the words of someone who has guarded speech, who is learning to speak carefully, and so who has confidence when he really does have something good to say.

Rather than beginning with something negative, a challenge, a problem, something the Church could really improve on or should repent of, Peter begins by telling them about something amazing that God is doing among His people NOW: “…these are not drunk, as you suppose” (v.15). The life of the Church can look pretty odd, or just boring, on its own; but Peter puts what is going on in the context of God’s plans and God’s timeless action and will: “No, this was what was spoken though the prophet Joel” (v.16). Peter manages quickly to place the strange and confusing events of the beginning of the Church into the context of “the last days” (v.17); the babbling of the disciples is what “God declares” (v.17); the antics of a small group bears witness to a promise for “all flesh” (v.17), for “sons and daughters” (v.17), for “slaves”, for “both men and women” (v.18). This strange sight of people talking in the languages of the world is just one of the many more familiar portents Peter’s audience expects and looks for from the Jewish scriptures: “blood, and fire, and smoky mist” (v.19) touching all creation, even the sun and moon (v.20).

And all this context setting is to concretise one message: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v.21).
Peter begins his talking of Jesus not with the negatives, not with the failings of the early community, not with talk of the fear they have had of the Jewish leaders or Judas’ betrayal. He begins by assuring the people of Jerusalem that the things they see around them are part of God’s work in the life of the Church, and in their lives too.

This is how our talk of Jesus must begin. God is working in His creation through His Church. And he does this so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v.21).

This is Peter’s first challenge to us: speak to others about Jesus, not beginning from a place of darkness, of cycnicism or despair, but from a place of hope, and trust in God’s good works in our lives and the life of all his people.

NEW PROJECT: Queer Acts – Call for contributors

 

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Some time ago I wrote in pieces a queer commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. It was a satisfying project, not least because of the fascinating conversations with people on line and in the flesh it provoked. Questions like: Can there ever be a queer commentary on the Bible? Is it doing violence to scripture to read it from a queer perspective? If queer readings of scripture simply seek to free the Bible from certain narrow readings, surely they should just be called orthodox?

There is a blog, an essay and a book in each of those questions.

But what I was amazed by was how queer people around me were freed to engage with a scripture that some of them felt had been denied them. This, and only this actually, is my answer to the question: Why bother reading the Bible from a queer perspective?

Scripture, if it is truly God’s Holy Word, will slip through our fingers, will overpower us and run away from us, if we try to contain it, to direct or to make it say what we want it to say. It is only when the Church allows its members to read Scripture prayerfully, humbly, and in love of fellow members that the Church can come to a fuller understanding of what Scripture really is saying.

The prayer, humility and love of queer people is a vital and largely untapped resource for the Church when it comes to Scriptural elucidation.

And in the same way as feminist, womanist, black, liberation and other newer opportunities to read Scripture don’t get everything right, just like the many different perspectives which have been offered in the Church’s past, this reading of Acts will get things wrong. In some senses it will be unfaithful to the Word it exegetes. In many cases, it will simply not have spent enough time learning about the many wiser people who are out there writing on the same Scripture.

So this queer reading of Acts does not claim to be authoritative. Nor does it claim to be anything particularly new.

But it does claim to contribute something for the Church’s consideration, and for the nourishment of its members.

As part of this, I welcome contributions from anyone who might like to write a guest post, reflecting on their reading of a portion of Acts of the Apostles. This need not be in the more formal style which I shall use, but may be in any medium which allows you to communicate effectively.

Please contact me at t.m.sharp@durham.ac.uk if you would like to contribute.

And please pray for me as I undertake this project. Devotion to the study of Scripture is hard for queer people, and hard for people who work hard, and even harder for people who study theology with the rest of their time! But I believe it is utterly necessary for those of us who seek to live as disciples of Christ.

May God bless you.

It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:7-8)

Queer Ephesians 6.10-20: The Armour of God: Faith and Prayer

Each of us is called to share the good news in different ways. For queer Christians, and the Church, it begins with putting on the armour of God, the assurance of our faith and salvation, the reality of our unity in Christ and the Church, and the overpowering deluge of God’s goodness and love. If we begin here, and if we pray… then, says Ephesians, God may just do great things through us.


Be Strong in the Lord

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.

Throughout this series of commentary posts on Ephesians, we have been struggling with the reality of the challenge which the Gospel presents to us. Unity, costly love, mutual submission and service… all these are hard enough on their own, but how much more so in a world which does not seem to recognise them, and which so often seems to be antagonistic to them. When presented with the panorama of the world’s failings in the face of Christ’s challenge, these are the moments when I can understand those who emphasise the fall narratives. The world seems hopelessly lost, and unity, costly love and mutual submission and service seem very far off.

And into this impending despair, Ephesians speaks: “Finally”, after all the challenge I have laid before you, “be strong in the Lord” (v.10). Ephesians does not pretend that the race laid before us is easy, but rather it requires strength. And this is not our own strength, but is “the strength of his power” (v.10). The challenge is so great that we will not be able to accomplish it of our own abilities, but must rely on the power of God.

How wonderful that this most necessary help is offered to us, as we saw in Ephesians 1:19: “and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” Ephesians places all our challenges in the context of the magnitude of God’s work in Christ. And so Ephesians closes its challenge to disciples of Christ with a reminder that if they are to fulfil the richness of the wonder to which they have been called, they will have to do it, not on their own, but in God.

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The Need for Armour

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.

Throughout the letter, Ephesians has set the unity which Christ achieves for us within and between us at the centre of its theological vision for the Christian identity and life. And so it acknowledges that the most effective way we can be tempted away from the glory of our vocation is to forget that all things are made one for us in God, and to divide our loyalties with another. “Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (v.11).

There is an Asterix book in which Caesar sends a secret agent who sows division amongst the Gaulish village by his remarkable ability to provoke envy, slander and mistrust. It is a ridiculous story, but it is instructive. The Gauls are nearly overcome, distracted from their powerful unity, by the presence of a malevolent and divisive influence amongst them. Now, you may not be convinced that there is such a one as “the devil”. You may not believe that humanity is fallen and broken and in need of correction. But nonetheless there is something within each of us that is always tempted to discord, towards all the things that separate us from one another.

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And so Ephesians calls us to “put on the armour of God” (v.10), protecting us from those without who might hurt us, with good intentions or ill. But that armour also cements our identity in God. The soldier is not just protected by a uniform: they are unified with the other soldiers and into something greater, an army. Similarly, Ephesians calls us to powerfully identify ourselves with God, and with each other, the children of God, unified by the armour we put on in God’s name.

But this armour is not earthly armour, concerned necessarily with physical violence, “For 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” (v.12). Our loyalties, our fellowship, love and integrity, are pulled in so many different directions, by “rulers”, by “authorities”, even by “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces” which we cannot comprehend or anticipate.

It is against all the many forces, which seem geared to dismantle the unity which God has effected in Christ within us and between us, that we are then called again to “take up the whole armour of God” (v.13). All of us, but especially those of us who are queer, can point to moments in our lives which are “that evil day” (v.13), moments when all seemed lost and hopeless. But God’s will for us is that, protected and unified by the armour of God, “you may be able to withstand… to stand firm” (v.13). God who has done such remarkable things for us in Christ does not intend for the evil days to have the last word. He does not intend to let us go, now that he holds us so very tightly and tenderly.


The Armour of God

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.

What then is this armour which God calls us to put on, which is to keep us in unity with him and with each other?

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Firstly, before we put on the armour we are called to “Stand therefore” (v.14). Such a teeny phrase, but monumental for queer people. To stand is to make oneself vulnerable, especially in church. It is to be visible, to be public and accountable. It is to present oneself as one really is, appropriately and with integrity. It is precisely the opposite of how many of us have been conditioned to behave by society and even our churches.

And it can be terrifying. It can even be as terrifying as how we are called to “stand” before our Father. We open ourselves up to the deepest scrutiny and judgment. But where we have Christ our advocate to comfort us before the Father’s gaze, where we can be assured always of his love, we cannot always be assured of the wise and just love of our churches, and we can often feel alone. And that is worth noting.

The ways we “stand” before God and the church are different. Standing before society and other Christians is something we need to do carefully. But standing before God is a radical self-giving and honest self-unfolding to the God who formed us in the womb and knew us from the beginning. With Him we can and must be completely open and honest, for it is not us who reveal ourselves to Him: but it is He who reveals the deepest reality of ourselves to us, as we are able to perceive it. Learning to grow into this fact is the root of our integrity.

And standing before God, we can begin to put on the armour: “fasten the belt of truth around your waist” (v.14). Call to mind Pontius Pilate’s response to Jesus’ honesty about His own identity: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Truth, particularly with regard to human beings, is traded so cheaply in a world where the reality of our being and potential is valued less highly than market forces and political control. Well, we are called to be truthful, honest, and people of integrity when we represent ourselves and the Lord who made us. And that might even entail some humility as to what we do not know as well.

For the call to truth is also tempered and coloured by the call to “put on the breastplate of righteousness” (v.14). Righteousness is an odd concept. Christians seem to be more concerned with what is unrighteous than understanding what it might mean to be righteous. Well, for queer people, I think the elements of honesty and humility are particularly important. Queer people are reminded more than most of the limits on our ability to make sweeping statements, our sheer inability to define, categorise and comprehend. And we must apply this to ourselves also. For it is Christ who is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). Whatever points we wish to impress on others, on the churches and society, what matters is that we are able to get out of the way, so that the truth can come to them, and to us… not from us, but from Christ. And that means, as we saw in the post on Queer Ethics, taking our own righteousness seriously, as a gift from God to be preciously kept, not frittered away.

Then, “as shoes for your feet” (v.15), we are called to something remarkably practical: “put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (v.15). Though we are one in Christ, the reason this is such a miracle is that we are all different. We all have different needs and ways to share the gift of the gospel. And so we each of us need very particular preparation and support.

One of the joys of being at a theological college with others training for ministry is seeing how everyone is prepared for mission in completely different ways. For some the learning is primarily academic, for others it is social, or wrestling with their past, and for others it is primarily a process of growing into their own selves in a more profound way than they have previously been able.

It is vitally important that queer people find a church community that can support us in this formation and development. That is one of the great pains for many queer people who grow up in the church and end up leaving. There is something profoundly lacking when we go long periods without direction and the healthy jostling and nudging that results from sharing time with our fellow Christians. Many seek a spiritual director or go on guided retreats to be helped in discerning what shoes they need to put on to prepare them for sharing the gospel of peace.

And how wonderful that amongst all this military imagery, Ephesians thinks to emphasise that we are not preparing for a hostile campaign, but rather one “of peace” (v.15).


Faith, Salvation and Spirit

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.

And “with all of these” (v.16) we are now on to the finishing touches of the armour of God. The “shield of faith” (v.16), “helmet of salvation” (v.17) and “sword of the Spirit” (v.17) are odd ones to end with. They seem massive, and abstract. But I think they are perhaps, for queer people, the most important.

For queer people, there are so many things that can undermine our faith. At times it can seem that all the forces that should be supporting us and growing our faith are in fact distracting, and detracting from it. The words and actions of those around us can stick in our flesh like “the flaming arrows of the evil one” (v.16), lodging painfully and inflaming us, consuming us if they are not dealt with quickly. And so, the shield of faith is the gift of confidence… not a proud confidence but a healthy, humble and well-placed confidence. It is a confidence that says, ‘I am a child of God, a member of the body of Christ which is the Church. I stand, yes, as a sinner, but a sinner who is utterly and wonderfully loved by God my Father.’ This is a quiet confidence that puts out the flames on those arrows which others fire at us, so that though they may hurt, they will not consume us.

And the “helmet of salvation” and “sword of the Spirit” (v.17) are to remind you that you have received the gift of salvation already. You are not working to be saved. However much the Church excludes you, it is God who by your faith has redeemed you. No one can put that gift in jeopardy, for it is from God. And God has marked you with the seal of the Holy Spirit, filling you with his power, and uniting you to Himself and all other believers. And no one can put that gift in jeopardy either, for it is also from God.

Faith, salvation and sword are a gifts of quiet confidence, and of calm. They remind us as queer Christians that we are called to grow in faith and love and hope, whatever might be thrown at us. And that we have God’s assistance with us always. We are never alone.


Just Pray

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 section is moving. It is heartfelt. Ephesians calls out to us to “pray… pray… pray”. The path which Ephesians lays before us is hard. And so we are called to “Pray in the Spirit” (v.18), not in our own power, but rather the power of God. And this prayer should touch everything that we do or think, for we are called to pray “at all times in every prayer and supplication” (v.18) as we lift up everything that we have and see and are before God.

And this means, though it may be difficult, praying for all those in the Church as well. “To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints” (v.18). We are to “keep alert” (v.18) because the first thing that tends to happen when there is conflict or disagreement in the Church is that we stop praying for each other. And when we do that we are buggered. Not because we are failing in a commandment to pray, but rather because our prayer is the deepest manifestation of our unity. So when we stop praying for one another and with one another, we begin to fragment the unity which we have in Christ’s body. Even with the most difficult of our fellow believers.

And then Ephesians calls to mind the context of persecution, which can at times be so close to the hearts of many queer Christians. I wrote at the beginning of this project about the ascription of this letter to Paul in order to make a strong theological point. And here Paul’s imprisonment is brought up again. What strikes me here is that we are called to pray for those who speak, which is probably most of us, “so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel” (v.19). We must pray fervently for all those who speak out, that it may truly be God speaking out good news through them, and not them speaking out their own fear, excitement or ego. And when we speak out, we can feel secure that others are praying the same thing for us.

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Queer speaking out in the church must be prayerful itself, and it must be supported by others’ prayer.

But this speaking out, whether it be vocal or just in the prophetic living out of faithful lives, often comes at a cost, and Ephesians acknowledges this. This is the good news “for which I am an ambassador in chains” (v.20), and anyone who has been backed into a corner or felt trapped by their church will recognise that feeling: “Pray also for me” (v.19) because speaking the gospel into this situation is really really hard.

And here is a final nugget to consider. Ephesians ends the substance of the letter with this phrase: “Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak” (v.20). I do not consider myself a queer activist. And I often am conflicted by the ways in which queer movements have worked out their agenda. But for Christians, the profession and by words and deeds of the truth is something we are called to in boldness. Our identity as Christians means that we are called to make our witness count: the good news we have heard compels us, “as I must speak” (v.20).

Each of us is called to share that good news in different ways. All queer christians are called to different witness. For some it is quiet, for others loud. For some it is publicly expressive, for others it is a faithful approach to daily life. But we are certainly called to express the unity we have in Christ through faith in some way.

For queer Christians, and the Church, it begins with putting on the armour of God, the assurance of our faith and salvation, the reality of our unity in Christ and the Church, and the overpowering deluge of God’s goodness and love. If we begin here, and if we pray… then, says Ephesians, God may just do great things through us.

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