I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God."Romans 12:1,2 (KJV)
For some reason, my Lenten meditations have led me to this passage. I decided to quote it here in the King James Version for two reasons: one is that that is how I memorised it as a child. The other is that it uses the word “beseech” and, well, I just like that word! Just to clarify, the word “beseech” means to “urge” or “implore.” It’s a word which gives this passage a sense of importance, that this is something that Christians really MUST do.
A few weeks ago, I heard a sermon (or, perhaps more accurately, a lecture) on “Christianity Lite” in which this passage was used. The idea was that many of us “go through the motions.” We go to church, we say some prayers now and then, we perhaps enjoy the fellowship but we don’t really RISK anything. We haven’t surrendered our lives to the service of Jesus Christ. We haven’t allowed ourselves to be TRANSFORMED by God’s spirit working in our lives.
Then last weekend, I met with a friend whom I had met through the Gay Christian Network. He brought me some CDs of various messages that had spoken to him in his faith journey. One was a keynote address to the 2009 GCN conference by the late Rev.Peter Gomes, who had been a professor at Harvard. Rev. Gomes was an African American gay man who grew up in the 1950s. He loved Jesus and was devoted to preaching the Gospel, the scandalous and offensive Gospel as preached by Jesus Christ himself while he was here on earth. (An excerpt from that speech can be found at GCN Radio on the 28th August 2009 episode.)
I listened to that CD yesterday while driving around the beautiful New Zealand countryside. Rev. Gomes pointed to this passage in Romans as a call to action for gay Christians. Interesting and significant, since it had already been on my mind.
The thing about being a Christian, while at the same time, understanding oneself to be gay or lesbian or in some way “outside of the heterosexual mainstream” (to quote WendyGritter), is that we are given a lot of grief by both sides. The Church, in many cases, has been a hostile environment for us. We have been told that, on the one hand, Jesus loves all of us, BUT, on the other hand, we aren’t welcome in the Church unless we try to change. Sometimes we are told that it’s ok that we are gay AS LONG AS we are committed to celibacy. But even if some of us have chosen that path, we are then told (perhaps not in so many words) that we are defined by who we sleep with, so if we are celibate, we are no longer gay. The implication there, of course, is that we must not TALK about our attractions to those of the same sex. Those are merely “temptations” that must be avoided and overcome. The clear messages for many of us have been that, not only are we disordered because of our orientation; we are also “worse” sinners than anyone else. Why, then, ask our gay friends, do we stay? Why do we put up with the rejection and abuse in the name of Christ?
That is a very good question. For me, it comes down to this: I have come to realise over the years that my sexual orientation, who I am fundamentally attracted to romantically, sexually, and spiritually, is not a choice. I believe this is the case for most people. I have also come to realise that my faith is also not a choice. This realisation came later out of some very powerful experiences and spiritual conversations with God in which I came through with a very real sense that God had a hold on my heart and my life and was not going to let go. At different times in my life I have suppressed, hidden, or denied either my faith or my orientation. At those times, my spirit has been deeply troubled and I have not been at peace. When, finally, I was able to reconcile those two aspects of my life, and live them out with integrity, I was able to find peace and joy in my walk with God.
In listening to the testimonies of other gay Christians, I have found that their experiences, while not identical, have within them some version of my own. We are in a place where we are called to be NOT CONFORMED to what the world thinks of us. We have been called all kinds of names by the Christian community: promiscuous, idolatrous, God-hating, amoral, rebellious, etc. By the Gay community, we have been accused of having “Stockholm syndrome,” of identifying with the oppressor, of selling out, of betraying our gay brothers and sisters who have fought so hard for equal rights and freedom from oppression and abuse.
It’s interesting to note that Jesus was accused of similar things. The religious establishment of his time accused him of being a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners (as if that were a bad thing), of not having proper respect for the laws and traditions of his faith. Those who wanted him to be their Messiah were quite disappointed that he took the path of humility and meekness rather than riding into Jerusalem on a white horse, sword drawn, ready to drive out the occupying Romans and save the people of Israel from oppression once and for all. I’m not at all implying that gay people are analogous to the Messiah. What I am saying is that, by not conforming to the expectations of the world around us, whether it be the Christian world or the Gay world, or any other sector of the world, we may be closer to walking in the footsteps of Jesus than we ever imagined.
But there’s more. We are called to be TRANSFORMED. I would submit that it is impossible to truly have an encounter with the risen Christ without a transformation occurring. I am not a Greek scholar, but it is my understanding that the verb tense used is sort of an ongoing one. The transformation is happening, as our minds are renewed, as our ideas and our beliefs are changed to see each other and ourselves as Jesus saw us. The remarkable thing about Jesus is that he had a choice. As God, he created us in God’s image and we went astray. We have chosen our own self-interest over relationship with our Creator. God could have said, “I’m very disappointed with what I have made, they haven’t turned out as I intended. Oh well, let them go their own way, I’m done with them.” But instead, God said, “I love these people I have made SO much; I’m not going to let them go. I’m going to become one of them, to show them that I know what it’s like to suffer what they suffer, to feel what they feel. Not only am I going to become one of them, I am going to become one of them in the most humble and poor circumstances and I am going to really get to know the outsiders amongst them and bring them back into community with each other and with God. In fact, I’m going to take it the end, to suffer torture and execution as a criminal, though falsely accused.” Talk about being TRANSFORMED!
That is the Gospel, the truly good news of Jesus, the Christ. God wants all of us back in relationship with God. And to do that, God needs us to continue in the path of Jesus, all the way to the cross and beyond. God needs us to take the oppression, the pain, and the abuse and transform it into love, repentance and forgiveness. We are not called to change people’s hearts and minds. That’s the job of God, the Holy Spirit. We are called to love our enemies and forgive our oppressors. We are called to set an example of humility and meekness while working for justice and peace for the oppressed. We are called to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ that ALL are loved and welcomed and forgiven by God and that we can come as we are to the throne of grace and let God change us according to God’s own will and purpose.
This is truly good news. And it is the challenge of the journey of Holy Week. Today’s collect from the New Zealand Prayer Book reads:
“Jesus, when you rode into Jerusalem the people waved palms with shouts of acclamation. Grant that when the shouting dies we may still walk beside you even to a cross. Amen.”
What does that mean for us? Will we conform to the image of the world around us? Or will we stand out as agents of transformation in this broken and finite world? Jesus overcame the pain and suffering and was resurrected so that we can know that we are forgiven and reconciled to God and so that we can see that this world CAN be transformed to be what God intended. When we see in others the face of God, in whose image they were created, we must respond with those acts of love and service that Jesus carried out when he touched the untouchables, spoke to the outcasts, forgave those whom everyone else wanted to condemn and write off.
I beseech you, my sisters and brothers, to not be conformed to the expectations and images of the world around us but to be agents of transformation as we walk with Jesus in love and service to those who oppress us and those who are oppressed by others. May God bless your Holy Week journey.