A few weeks ago, I preached this sermon at my local church. There’s a story behind me asking – and receiving – permission to preach it, and another whole set of stories about the response from the church members – both good, bad and ugly. The senior pastor, Gary Rivas (also Methodist Bishop of Johannesburg), responded to the sermon the week after I preached it, and there’s a few stories there too. I won’t tell any of those stories now. I will just share the sermon with you. There are two versions as I preached it at our main campus and then at our local campus. I have also included my actual sermon notes, and a link to Gary’s response.
This sermon is about one of the most pressing issues facing the Christian church in our generation: how we treat LGBTI people. And it is a call to listen to God’s Word, which calls us to be a community of radical inclusion. Enjoy. And let me know what you think.
Bishop Gary Rivas’ Response:
First version of the sermon, at main campus:
One of the defining issues of our world today is “us vs them”. Whatever “us” and “them” happen to be. There are deep dividing lines in society.
Politics – reasoned debate?
We are right. They are wrong. In fact, they are idiots.
Sadly, race. Us vs them.
Economics too. Rich protect and hide wealth, maybe instead of using it to help others. Poor get more militant in demanding a solution to their poverty.
It’s “us” vs “them”.
These are complex issues, with politics, race, and economics all playing a part. And religion too.
Sadly, the Christian church is not immune from these divides either.
At Gracepoint, concerted effort to break down “us” vs “them” thinking at a denominational level – including our One Campaign.
I wonder if we’re doing so well at an individual level?
It’s easy to love and welcome people just like us. But do we extend as much of a loving welcome to others? To “them”?
This is a topic as old as the church of Christ itself.
In fact, it was the First major controversy in the early church. And it is the focus of my sermon today.
The “us” vs “them” debates were one of the most defining of the early church, leading up to the Council of Jerusalem, 50AD.
Early Jewish Christians did not want to extend grace to Gentiles. Especially not to the Romans – invaders and occupiers of their land. So they took a few Biblical verses and turned these into restrictive laws. They forced Gentile converts to adhere to Jewish cultural requirements, including their hygiene laws, their food laws and requiring the men to be circumcised. This became a huge issue, as you can imagine. It created a massive “us” vs “them”. How they dealt with the issue is a lesson for us today.
What the Holy Spirit led the early church to become was a community of radical inclusion. We must be the same.
Break down the walls – walls around our hearts and minds, walls around our communities.
The passage we read in Acts 10 happened 10 years after Jesus’ resurrection.
Cornelius, Roman Centurion. Peter’s vision.
Understand Peter – is this a test? Laws against this. Sinful. Wrong.
God says: “A new covenant”. New rules, of radical inclusion.
About 7 years after that the issue reached a crisis point and all the church leaders met together in Jerusalem to debate it and decide what to do.
Read about it in Acts 15 – Council of Jerusalem.
Understand this: Paul, as one of the key leaders of the early church felt called to take the Gospel to everyone – not just the Jews. But Paul came from a tradition of Jewish leaders who had a well known prayer: “God, thank you that I am not a Gentile, a woman or a dog.”
Outcome of Council = accept Gentiles and don’t impose Jewish laws on them.
Council of Jerusalem = radical shift from what the early believers believed to be true. About who was one of “us” and who was not one of us.
The early church broke down some barriers that had been in place for centuries.
They changed their interpretations of certain laws and customs, and created a new community of radical inclusion.
This took visionary and bold leadership.
The early church leaders changed their minds, and they extended grace to those who had previously been excluded.
Sadly, though, that’s not the end of the story.
Through the 20 centuries since that first Council, the church has continued to exclude people.
For example, It took 18 centuries for the church to deal with slavery, and even then it only really followed what was happening in broader society. The church should have at least included master and slave as equals – which would have accelerated the end of slavery, no doubt.
The church has never been very good at racial integration, although the Methodist church in South Africa was better than most.
Another example is how the church has treated women: Some churches still exclude women from leadership.
We could also point out that Most of our churches are still way too divided along class and economic lines. And even racially too. Look at us this morning – are we a good representation of our nation?
We should be better than this.
But let me focus in on just one furthe example.
I want to read from a book by Dr David Gushee, one of America’s foremost Christian ethics professors, “Changing Our Mind”:
“I want to consider a small minority group that was for almost 2000 years the object of a tragically destructive, religiously motivated, contempt on the part of the Church of Jesus Christ.
The Church’s teaching about this group was grounded in a number of biblical texts drawn from across the canon of scripture, as they had been interpreted by Christian leaders, and reinforced by centuries of Christian tradition. This destructive pattern of interpreting these texts went back near the origins of Christianity and eventually was very broadly shared by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant strands of the Christian Church. One could even describe it as a rare point of unity for these warring groups — they could agree on little, but did agree on this. It was hard to find many dissenters to this tradition, as it was grounded in knowledge sources at the very center of Christianity: Scripture, tradition, and major church leaders, what they said generation after generation. Everyone just knew that the group that was the object of this negative teaching was well worthy of the church’s rejection and disdain. Everyone just knew that this disdain was “biblical”, and that it was attested to by the highest authorities of the Church. Indeed, expressing rejection and disdain for this group became a core part of Christian identity, even Christian piety.
The Church’s negative teaching about this group was comprehensive. The Church taught a disdain for this group as a whole and all individuals in this group. The Church taught that this group was morally inferior. The Church often taught that this group was evil and had a particular association with Satan. The Church taught that all members of this group would be eternally separated from God. The Church taught that the worship practices of this group were worthless. The Church warned its adherents about associating with this group. The Church ascribed particular vices to this group, including sexual degeneracy and violence, both allegedly aimed especially against children. Even the term used to name this group became a slur, while other even more derogatory slurs were developed.
The Church, at times, was willing to welcome individual members of this group into its fellowship, but this welcome was equivocal. Converts from this group were often relegated to second-class status, if they were welcome at all. Often their group background came up, especially in relation to questions of leadership or ordination. This reflected a lingering taint associated with this group – a taint that even conversion could not wash away (at least some of the time). Often this half-welcome was withdrawn, and members of this group were exiled not only from the Church, but from the communities in which they lived.
While the leaders of the Church almost never explicitly taught that its members should perpetrate violence against this group, this unfortunate group was indeed regularly victimized by violence. Meanwhile, in everyday life, bullying was common against the members of this group. Name-calling was constant. Social separation was routinely enforced. Preaching regularly communicated contempt for this group. No Christian wanted to be seen as too cozy with this group, for fear of sharing in its moral taint and losing the support of their own family and friends. When this group was targeted by the state, few Christians could be found who would stand in solidarity with them.
From the perspective of the members of this targeted group, Christianity was everywhere, and Christianity was dangerous. The Church’s Bible, Cross, tradition, clergy, and scholars carried not positive but negative associations – associations of harm. Members of this targeted group sometimes knew of the beautiful teachings of Jesus. They had heard great sayings like “love your neighbour as yourself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” But members of this targetted group, very much “the least of these” in Christendom, rarely experienced any Golden Rule, any love, or any mercy, from the Christians who heard and proclaimed these beautiful words.”
End of quote.
Have you worked out who he’s talking about?
In a great ironic twist in history, the people Dr Gushee is referring to are the Jews. Until the Holocaust of the Second World War, Jews were treated terribly by the church. Through a concerted effort after WWII by church leaders and theologians, the hearts and minds of Christians around the world were changed. It took over two decades, but by the mid 1960s, the church had changed its view of the Jews. We even now refer to Judao-Christian beliefs as if they were one thing.
It shouldn’t have taken 20 centuries.
We’re supposed to be a community characterised by inclusion.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean that just anyone can join the church and do or believe just anything. We’re not a community where anything goes. We’re governed by the Bible, which gives us rules and advice on how to live good and holy lives.
But the Bible is very clear that we are a community of radical inclusion. Everyone is welcome.
Belong before you believe.
You are welcome here.
You will learn how to be family by being with us and among us. And we will be changed because you join us – just like any family is changed when a new child is added.
Our community is a living, growing, vibrant community, infused with grace, transformed and transforming and characterised by inclusion and love.
There are some specific ways in which the church has excluded others over the centuries that we cannot and must not accept.
Gender – From the Resurrection throughout the book of Acts, the early church had many female leaders. Unusual and progressive.
Some people left Melrose when Jane appointed our Pastor. Sad to see them go, but our community does not discriminate on the basis of gender.
Race – Gentiles, Jews, Pentecost = all nations from the very beginning. Unusual and progressive.
Culture – Us vs Them – Gracepoint = different expressions, different languages and styles – attempting to be deliberate and concious about this. Worship in different languages. Different styles of worship, preaching. Lots of options for small group involvement.
Understand: culture can be tricky;
Eg. timing. Tell story of extension cable. Lots of singing. Then only the service begins. When does a township gathering start? When everyone is there. We start on time (and our sermons are supposed to last for only 25 minutes so we can end on time too).
Sometimes it requires some adjustments, but culture should not be a barrier to inclusion.
Nationality – say no to xenophobia (a great methodist tradition; central methodist and Zimbabweans)
*These are all things that we cannot choose.* They are built-in parts of who we are. They can never be used as excuses for bad behaviour, and some of what we are needs redeeming. But we can never exclude someone based on these factors. They haven’t chosen these characteristics.
Paul understood this. Peter discovered this. The early church wrestled with it and then embraced it.
We should be a community of radical inclusion. Which means that as individuals within this community, we need to be loving, welcoming and accepting of people who are different from us, of people who the world might say, “don’t spend time with them”. “THEM”.
There are other built-in factors that we cannot use to exclude people from our church community.
The Bible is clear about there being no dividing lines between the rich and the poor. In many ways, this is also not something that is chosen. Not many people escape the economic class into which they were born, either rich or poor.
Disability – as a father of an autistic child, glad our church caters for special needs people.
There is one further category that I must mention this morning.
Sexual orientation – most controversial. Science is clear. You don’t get to choose or change which gender you’re sexually attracted to. About 1 in 20 has same gender attractions. 1 in 1000 is transgender, and about the same number, 1 in 1000 are intersex. We refer to them together as LGBTI.
Today, they’re treated as Jews were treated through much of church history.
Like women for some churches, even to this day. Just like many churches excluding people of different races, cultures and skin colours, especially in this country under apartheid.
In every one of these, the Bible was used to justify the exclusion. Just as the seven verses that refer to homosexuality in the Bible are used today to exclude LGBT people from our communities.
But we changed our mind about Jews. We changed our mind about different races and cultures. We changed our mind about women. We didn’t change the Bible – we just realised that we had been misreading the Bible all along. We realised that God’s love and inclusion are the most powerful messages of Jesus and the early church.
In Acts 10 onwards we see the early church struggling, but finally agreeing to extend grace to people it had previously excluded. Not by lowering its entry criteria to now include unrepentant sinners, but realising that they had misread the Scriptures in the past and were calling things sinful that God had made clean.
It’s time to extend our community of radical inclusion again.
That doesn’t mean that anything goes. It doesn’t mean anyone can do anything. But no-one is excluded because of who they ARE.
It’s time to stop using the Bible to divide us from them, and start seeing in the Bible the radical inclusion, the amazing grace and the great love that God has for everyone.
Sadly, our Methodist denomination still does not allow gay marriage. So, officially we cannot marry gay couples. But we can welcome them into our churches, and treat them with grace and dignity, and worship and serve God with them as brothers and sisters in Christ. And that’s what we do at Gracepoint.
It isn’t easy. It shouldn’t be. I am asking some of you to consider changing deeply held beliefs. It wasn’t easy for the early church. It wasn’t easy for Peter. It took years, lots of discussion and debate, and community. One sermon isn’t going to change your mind – but please embark on a journey with us.
But this sermon is not just about sexuality. It’s about all the ways we might choose who is one “us” and who isn’t.
I wonder which areas of “us” vs “them” do you battle with the most?
Different cultures. Gender (me and women worship leaders). Rich. Poor. Gay. ??
Not just about sexuality.
Like the early church, God is calling us still today to become a community of radical inclusion.
Let’s ask a few questions of our church and ourselves as we close the service today:
In what ways might you still be harbouring an unChristlike attitude towards others?
In what ways is God calling you to embrace “the other”?
What can you do to break down the walls that “us” from “them”, so that together we can be a community of radical inclusion?
How could we as a community become even more intentionally inviting?
How can YOU open your heart and life to “the other”?
I truly believe that these questions lie at the heart of what it means to be a true Christian.
I believe that the answers to these questions provide the foundation for the future of our country and a better world for ourselves and our children.
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”