A young woman sent an email to the Church this week asking for help. Her good friend has gotten involved with a church that, in her words “teaches that homosexuality is a sin.” This friend has begun to believe and say hateful things, and is learning about conversion therapies for gay and lesbian people. The woman asking for help explained that she doesn’t know much about the Bible, so she hasn’t been able to refute her friend’s arguments. She is hoping that since we fully welcome and affirm LGBTQ persons that maybe someone here can tell her how to convince her friend that she is wrong. I invited her to come and see me, but I know there is no argument that will convince her dear friend that she is mistaken. Not because solid arguments for full inclusion cannot be made from Scripture, but because this kind of intellectual debate rarely ever changes people’s minds. If anything, it widens the rifts. What changes people’s mind is openness to the Spirit of God and first-hand experience of the people they fear and condemn.
The story of Peter’s move toward the full inclusion of the Gentiles is a beautiful case in point. Word has reached the church headquarters in Jerusalem that Peter has been eating with Gentiles. According to Jewish law, his is a double sin. He is eating forbidden, unclean foods, and he is doing it with unclean, uncircumcised men. Peter is called on the carpet for what he has done. In his defense, Peter offers no carefully crafted argument that re-interpets the Jewish Scriptures on matters of pork and profane people. Instead, step by step, he simply tells the story of his experience. It begins while he is praying, so intently, so deeply, that he falls into a trance and sees a vision of prohibited foods and hears a voice ordering him to kill and eat what is before him. Peter is repulsed. His gag reflex kicks in. He argues with God. No way. No how. Not today. Not ever. It reminds me of my first trip to Korea where I was served fat, roasted grubs as an appetizer. Maybe not unclean, but my cultural formations were saying, “no way, no how, so gross!” The voice Peter hears says, “What God has made clean, do not call profane.” Then the sheet full of food is yanked back into heaven and Peter wakes up, confused.
Before he can record anything in his dream journal, three Gentiles are knocking on Peter’s door and asking him to come with them. He goes. He meets Cornelius, a Roman centurion who has had his own angelic vision about a guy named Peter who has a life-giving message for him. Peter has barely begun to deliver the message when the Holy Spirit falls on all these Gentiles. Peter baptizes them, and then stays with them for several days, eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with snacks in between. And you know what happens when you eat with people? You get to know them. You learn what they care about and what they fear, how they struggle and what delights them and they learn the same about you.
By the time Peter is asked to account for his bad behavior and testifies about his experience, he has discovered that these Gentiles—long separated from Jews, a source of fear and loathing—are just people doing life, making meaning, finding purpose, working, cooking, cleaning, laughing, crying, singing, dying. It is Holy Spirit who has finally brought them all to the same table, in their different-ness, to discover their deeply human sameness—their need for love, belonging, and affirmation, their yearning for peace and communion with the divine source of their lives, and with people from whom they are separated.
It is Peter’s openness to the Holy Spirit that draws him across the boundaries established by his religion. It is the Spirit who pulls Peter to this place where he ends up eating pork with people he was taught were unclean and profane. And he has the good sense not to hinder what God is doing! He doesn’t put these Gentiles on hold. Doesn’t say, “I need to check with the circumcised brothers in Jerusalem.” Peter just does what the Spirit moves him to do.
For more than forty years, the Reformed Church in America has been stuck in an intellectual debate about what the Bible says concerning the full inclusion of LGBTQ people. During that time, the rift between people has only widened, and the denomination is now on the verge of splitting apart. This week Thursday, people from across the United States and Canada will gather in Holland, Michigan for the annual Synod of the Reformed Church in America. And our preaching elder, Rob Sweeney will be there, sitting at table, sharing meals with people who may judge and condemn him. He will be there, sharing the witness of his experience as a gay man, alive in the Spirit, and sharing the experience of this congregation, doing our very best to welcome all persons into the life-changing experience of the Spirit in this little community of Jesus.
We are not doing it perfectly. I know that we sometimes hinder the Spirit of God. We can get stuck in our traditions. We are slow to apprehend what the Spirit is doing and move with her. This we confess and repent of again and again, seeking to open ourselves more fully to the Spirit so that we can welcome, love, and affirm each other more fully. But the gracious truth is, our experience and our witness is being heard in this community.
A young woman wrote for help this week because she knows that we welcome and affirm LGBTQ persons, and she is searching for an argument that will change her friend’s mind. What we have to give her is not an argument. What we have is a long beautiful story, a witness to the divine love that crosses boundaries, and sets this Table where there is room for all to come and eat the bread of new life, and drink the cup that heals the brokenness, and restores our communion with God and one another.