I think it goes without saying that most of us have a lot of anger at God for our situations as gay and lesbian believers. It seems to me that just the experience of being gay and Christian, at least in our present society, naturally creates in us a great deal of anger toward God: We get mad at God for allowing church people to tell us we are not acceptable in church. We get mad at God for making us gay in the first place. In my own experience, I even got mad at God for not making me straight as I had been told God would! Anger goes with the territory for us, and we must learn how to give our anger (often justifiable anger) to God rather than to throw it at God.
I have written about anger at God before, in my article on Jeremiah [see Suffering in the Service of Christ] a few months back. And since Jeremiah is still to me the character that best illustrates the nature of anger at God, I won’t re-hash what I’ve already said there; you can read the article from the archives. So I want here to look at another type of anger with God: corporate anger, the anger of the community of believers toward the free grace of God in Christ Jesus. Now I know this will not seem to make sense at first: why in the world would anyone be mad at God for reconciling us back into fellowship? But I think this is something we see in scripture, and I want to point it out to you.
The book is the Book of Acts. I had been struck by the corollary between the story of St. Peter and Cornelius and our own struggles with the church a few years ago. But as I returned to this book over the past few months, I noticed that this encounter between a Jew and a Greek sets up a theme that the author returns to throughout the book. Let’s take a look.
The story begins in chapter 10, when Cornelius receives a vision from God telling him that he has found favor with God and should send for Peter; Peter meanwhile, is receiving the vision of the unclean animals, wherein God tells him to break the Jewish dietary laws and eat. Three times this happens. All three times, Peter says that he will not break the commandment. All three times God responds that what God has cleansed should no longer be considered unholy. Peter then receives the messengers from Cornelius and understands the vision: as he says to Cornelius’ family, “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.” (v. 28)
The story has obvious relevance to us as gay believers: God has cleansed us, and therefore we are no longer to be considered unholy or unclean. It is our faith in Christ that determines our membership in the kingdom of God, and not the outward rules of religious purity. This is of course the entire message of St. Paul’s letters: that the Hebrew laws were given to a specific community for a specific purpose, and now that God has superseded that purpose, we sin against God by holding onto those laws. As Peter explains to his fellow disciples later, “the Spirit told me to go [to Cornelius] without misgivings” (11.12) and “who was I that I would stand in God’s way?” (11.17) Peter no longer allows himself to make distinctions between people, but relies solely on the Spirit of God to lead him in his ministry: those who were once off-limits are now seen to be perfectly accepted by God through the work of the cross of Christ.
As I said, this narrative sets up a thematic thread that continues throughout the book of Acts. Immediately after Peter leads Cornelius’ family to faith in Christ, he is called to defend his actions to the apostles in Jerusalem, because he had broken the Mosaic Law about eating with Gentiles. Now keep in mind that Jesus himself walked a very thin line in this matter: he repeatedly claimed that he had been sent only to the Jews, but much of his teaching and many of his great miracles center on non-Jews. In fact, he greatly angered the conservative leaders by pointing out that Israel’s two greatest prophets, Elijah and Elisha, both were sent to non-Jews to perform some of their most important miracles (Luke 4.25-27). So we can see that this is in no way a new issue: God has always meant for the work of redemption to be extended to the whole world. The trouble is that those who have been included into that redemption often don’t want to offer it to those outside their own cultural boundaries.
This almost happens in Acts 11: Peter defends his visit to Cornelius simply by relating the events and describes the miracles he saw there. And this appeases his colleagues: “And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.'” (11.18) Peter’s witness to them is convincing, and they judge the work of God by its fruits, and not by their own education regarding the Hebraic Law.
Unfortunately, this is about the only happy ending we get in the Book of Acts regarding this theme. Notice what happens when Paul begins his ministry on this very topic. Take for instance his first sermon in Antioch (chapter 13), when he preaches at length on Jesus as the Messiah who was raised from the dead. He is invited back by the people to preach these things again. But when the entire city turns out the following week (and wouldn’t it be nice to see that happen today!), the Jews grow jealous! They don’t want this gospel to be open to everyone! They want to hold onto it for themselves! And to preserve their unique position as God’s chosen people in the city, they persecute Paul, drive him out, and even follow him to another city, stoning him to the point of death.
Now, after these events, the disciples gather in Jerusalem to debate the question of the Gentiles and the Hebraic Law. When it is asserted that the Gentiles must also follow the commands of the Jewish Law, Peter testifies again: God “made no distinctions between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (15.9-10) What a wonderful statement! If the Law was too much for the Jews to bear, why should the Gentiles be forced to adopt it? Again, this seems to fit perfectly with our status as gay and lesbian believers: when even heterosexual couples cannot live up to the God’s standards of righteousness, how can we possibly do any better trying to be straight? Peter’s final comment sums up exactly where we stand today: “But we believe that we are saved throught the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” The requirements for salvation and reconciliation are the same: the grace of Jesus, and nothing else.
The apostles accept Peter’s testimony and send Paul back out to the mission field. But Paul’s life soon to grows repetitive: he teaches, and although many Jews and Greeks believe, the Jews who disbelieve grow jealous and cause dissension in order to force him out of their city. Again and again, Paul meets with so much hostility from the Jews that he rejects them for the Gentiles, who are hungry to hear the truth about Jesus. And again and again (though not always), what stirs the people up is the inclusion of the Greeks into the life of the church: look at verse 28 of chapter 21: “This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people, and the Law, and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defile this holy place.” (emphasis mine) Paul preaches to anyone who will listen, and then brings them in to the church when they believe him — how horrible! Note what happens next, when he is allowed to defend himself before the crowd here: the people listen to him discuss how he met the resurrected Christ on the road and was converted, but as soon as he claims that Christ told him “I will send you far away to the Gentiles”, the people shout “he should not be allowed to live!” (22.21-22)
Do you see what has happened here? The people will not accept that God has sent the word of Christ to non-Jews! They do not want to share anything with the Greeks! I think they are angry that God would do such a thing, and take away their privileged status. Granted, this is not the only problem people had with Paul’s message: many people could not accept the resurrection of Christ, and many of the Greeks felt threatened by his insistence that their gods were false gods. But we must not overlook that one of the reasons people rejected Paul’s witness was because he preached to those who were not “acceptable” to society. They rejected the word of Christ because they did not want that word to be offered to everyone! In fact, the Book of Acts ends on this very theme: Paul is in Rome and again, the Jews disagree about his message. Paul’s last words in the book are: “Let it be known to you therefore, that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will also listen.” (28.28) This makes it clear how important the social barriers between the Jews and the Gentiles were to the rejection of the Gospel of Christ by the Jews, who were the very people Christ was first sent to save!
Now I have no intention of making this an anti-Jewish statement. I love Judaism, and I love the Jewish people, and I believe God still holds the Jews in a special part of His heart. The Jews of the New Testament age were often very good people, much more just and fair than their Greek neighbors. If they behaved poorly in this matter, it was not because they were Jewish, but because they were human. They simply could not look past their prejudices about the worth of outsiders. They were privileged as the chosen people of God, but they had forgotten that this status was dependent not on their worthiness but on God’s grace. And when God showed them that God wanted to include the whole world in the act of redemption, the Jews, having either forgotten or misunderstood their own history, rebelled.
People today are no different: as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and straight-but-not-narrow, we have all been looked down on by those in the church who “meet” the standards of behavior. We see it on class lines, gender lines, ethnic lines, racial lines, national lines, economic lines, political lines, moral lines — you name it, we have found a way to create division amongst ourselves. And do I need to mention that “division” is the word from which we get the name, the Devil? Division does not come from God! The whole of the gospel, from Genesis forward, is about God reconciling all people to herself — and if all people are to be reconciled to God, then who are we to set up barriers? When the church keeps people out, it sets up a double barrier: keeping them separate from ourselves, and separated from God. Fortunately, God can get around those barriers, but often God allows us to keep our own barriers in place: we miss out on God’s wonderful movement in people’s lives because we refuse to tear down the walls we have created — they didn’t keep God out, they only keep us out.
I know that mostly we are on the outside of these walls: we are the ones excluded, the outsiders. And I know that is quite a different thing to separate ourselves from those outside our cultural clique than to separate ourselves from those who do not accept God’s work — those who rejoice in oppressing the helpless and in afflicting the innocent. We must be willing to reject those who do not act with justice, fairness, and compassion, because they do not work God’s work. But that is not the same as rejecting those who claim God’s name because they are not like us. We must be very careful to examine the work of Christ, to see where God is moving, and to accept, quickly and joyfully, the fruits of the Spirit wherever we see them.
History has taught us over and over that those who are outsiders grow just as heartless once they have become insiders. Who are we, as LGBT-etc’s, willing to reject once we gain acceptance and power in the world? Let us never forget that as Christians, we will always remain outsiders to the world in which we live. Let us never allow ourselves to become angry with God because of whom God invites to the table. But let us also not assume that because we are the minority, we could never do such a thing. The Book of Acts makes clear that the people who had for so long been persecuted by the surrounding nations were quick to reject the possibility that God might include those same nations in the work of salvation. Let us be vigilant to ensure that we who have been rejected do not in turn become those who reject. We are all saved through the grace of Jesus — and through Christ’s blood we have fellowship with the entire world of believers. Let us show the church that rejects us that, in spite of all their understanding, we truly do have the Spirit of Christ. Appropriately enough, let us be known by our fruit.
Steve Pearson is a Protestant mutt and failed theologian who has a Ph.D. in Literature and teaches at a midsize university in the South.