I bet you didn’t know that the Book of Acts is all about living as a gay Christian. Okay, so that’s not really what it’s about — it’s actually a chronicle of the early church and of the movement of the gospel out of Israel and into the life of non-Jews, which is a pretty amazing story in itself. But in that very movement of God’s redemption from the Hebrew into the Gentile peoples can be found an important lesson for every person who wrestles with being faithful to God as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. That lesson comes right at the beginning of God’s work among the Gentiles, namely, in the account of Cornelius’ conversion in chapter 10. I’ve written about the fallout from this episode before (in Angry at God’s Love?!?), but here I want to look more at Peter’s participation in this crucial turning-point in church history.
The story may be familiar: Cornelius, who loves God but is not Jewish, receives a vision instructing him to send for Peter. At the same time, Peter has his own vision, of a sheet full of unclean food descending from heaven with a command to eat of it. Three times this vision comes to him, three times he objects that he will not break the Jewish dietary code, and three times a voice responds, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (v.15). After this, Cornelius’ men arrive, and the next day take Peter with them to Cornelius’ house where, upon learning why Cornelius called him, Peter suddenly understands the meaning of his own vision and proclaims that “in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him” (v.35). With this proclamation, the promise made centuries earlier by the Hebrew prophets that God would pour out his grace on all the nations of the world, begins to be fulfilled, as it is being even to this day.
Peter’s proclamation is great news to us as GLBT Christians. Note how he interprets “what God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” as “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (v.28b): this is a daring interpretation, radically passing beyond the merely logical implications of God’s statement into a universally encompassing understanding of God’s love for all humanity, meaning Jews, non-Jews, and even queers! Although the early church twice resists this interpretation of God’s work in the world (see chapters 11 and 15), Peter’s bold reading of God’s actions eventually prevails and the Christian church truly comes into existence.
What I want to focus on here, however, is how Peter got to that wonderful statement in verse 28b. Notice the statement that immediately precedes it: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me…” (v.28a). Did you catch that? It is unlawful, and yet…! And yet here he is, breaking the law, the same law he tried to uphold three times in response to his vision! By going to Cornelius’ house, Peter willingly breaks what he still believes to be God’s law. Why? Because God had told him, “accompany them without misgivings; for I have sent them Myself” (v.20). When Cornelius’ men arrive at Peter’s, he puts aside all his concern about the Law, hosts them for the night, and returns with them the next day, “without even raising any objection when I was sent for” (v.29). Peter does not yet understand what is taking place; he does not yet grasp that God is calling non-Jews to redemption in Christ Jesus; he still holds to his devout understanding of the purity requirements of Jewish Law. But he puts all that aside, both what he knows and what he doesn’t, and goes. For him, God’s command trumps all his preconceived notions about God’s work; obedience is more important than understanding. Only after he has obeyed, after he has gone, does understanding come. Although he had resisted the vision, he did not question the command. And with that simple act of faith and trust, Peter laid the foundation for the calling of all nations to partake in the mystery of Christ Jesus.
What I think is most important about Peter’s example for us as GLBT Christians is that he willingly and “without objection” does something he thinks is unlawful. For this is exactly what most of us must do when we come to terms with God’s call for us as non-hetero believers. Most of us must wrestle with having been told by the church that heterosexuality is the only lifestyle acceptable to God. God had to tell me outright he had no plans to “heterocize” me before I could let go of that notion (see My Grace Is Sufficient for You for the full story). One of our most important acts of faith, then, is to accept that God is calling us just as we are: we must put aside our preconceived notions of who and what is acceptable to God, and obey God’s call in our lives. Only then will understanding come to us; only then will we truly realize, with Peter, the extent of God’s kingdom in the world. And perhaps only then can the church move closer to the fullness of its own existence.
To put it more bluntly, we must, with Peter, lay aside our churches’ conceptions of morality and ethics in order to accept God’s call in our lives. We must be willing to do even that which we think is unlawful, which for many of us means we must stop trying to become something God has no intention of making us: straight. We will no doubt feel we are being impious in doing so, but in reality we will only then be living by faith. For as has often been pointed out, ethical morality is fundamentally opposed to faith: where one exists, there is no room for the other. Faith is so much bigger and more powerful than mere morality can ever be: had Peter held to his understanding of Law, the church might never have left the confines of Israel and fulfilled the old prophecies of the redemption of the gentiles.
But Peter is not the only biblical example of faith triumphing over ethics; he is simply following the precedent set by the founding father of Jewish people, Abraham, who in Genesis 15 found salvation simply by believing God’s promise (see 15.5-6), and in Genesis 22 proved his faith to the world by taking his son Isaac as a sacrifice at God’s command. Kierkegaard wrote an entire book on this latter episode, pointing out that this is the event that shows Abraham to be a true hero of faith. But not, as most people think, because Isaac was so precious to Abraham. No, many other biblical characters gave away what was most precious to them without thereby being equal to Abraham (consider Hannah giving up her son Samuel to the Lord, or Jonathan forsaking his father, and his claim to the throne, for the sake of God’s anointed servant David). What made Isaac so crucial and Abraham so heroic was the immense ethical responsibility every father has for his son, a responsibility Abraham was willing to put aside without question at the command of God. When his faith conflicted with morality, he chose to obey faith. Only thus was Abraham worthy to be the father of redemption for all humanity.
Abraham, through faith, brought salvation into the world; Peter, through faith, delivered it into all the nations. We too have the opportunity to respond to God’s call in faith: to lay aside our limited understanding of what God finds acceptable and to obey God’s command in our lives, which is simply to believe God’s promise that we are reconciled to God through Christ. God loves us, God delights in us, God gives himself to us! Let us accept with joy that we are neither unholy nor unclean but, like Cornelius, welcome to God, delivered from the powers of death, and called for great works. Let us firmly believe that just as we are — gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender — we may follow in the footsteps of our ancestors Abraham and Peter and, through faith, change the church, and the world, forever.
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.