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synchro-blogging on sexuality

I'm adding my voice to over 70 others connected with Bridging the Gap by posting on the issue of homosexuality today ...

I'm in the editing stage of my March 2010 book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith. I knew when I began the book that one of the ten questions would be around the subject of sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular. What would I say about the subject?

For many years, I was like thousands of Christians: uncomfortable with the conventional approach to homosexuality - namely: it's a chosen lifestyle, and it's a sin. (I was also uncomfortable with the "anything goes" approach that was often - and falsely - presented as the only alternative.)

I knew from my many years as a pastor that sexual orientation was not a choice; I can't count the number of people who "came out" to me over the years, and never once did I have a person say, "This is a choice like any other sin issue. I'm just choosing to rebel, and if I repent, I will be different." They all had gone through months or years or decades of intense struggle and shame before coming to the point of saying, "This isn't a choice. It's a fact of my make-up. It's integral to who I am."

So, I was uncomfortable with the conventional approach, but I was unsure how to construct an alternative that was equally faithful to Scripture and faithful to the reality I saw in human beings who came to me as their pastor, friend, and family member. Over many years, that alternative has become more and more clear, and surprisingly (to some), it was a passage of Scripture that opened the way for me to see it.

While people have vigorously and sometimes viciously debated isolated verses in Leviticus, Romans, and 1 Corinthians (versus which, I explain in the book, may have very little or nothing to do with contemporary understandings of sexual orientation) ... Acts 8 was waiting with a story that is more powerful than many have realized.

It's a story about an African man who because of his race can never fit into the Jewish nation, and because of his sexual identity can never fit into the traditional family. As a eunuch, he can never be "healed" to become heterosexual. So now, through no choice of his own, he finds himself an adult who can never be categorized in traditional sexual roles. He has come to Jerusalem to worship God, but has, no doubt, been turned away - first because of his race and second because of his sexual identity: the Hebrew Scriptures explicitly excluded both Gentiles and people in his nontraditional, not-part-of-the-created-order sexual category.

Returning in his chariot to his home in a distant land, he is reading the prophet Isaiah. One passage seizes his attention. It's about a man who was led like a sheep to slaughter or a lamb to the shearers, despised and rejected, a man who would not have physical descendants, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. A disciple of Jesus named Philip runs alongside the chariot and asks the man if he understands what he is reading. The man invites Philip into the chariot and asks if the writer was writing about himself or someone else - a question that suggests this man feels the prophet is talking about him in his sexual otherness: he too will have no descendants; he too has been rejected, misunderstood, despised, shamed ... he too has been brought like a sheep or lamb before people with cutting instruments.

Philip explains that this passage can be read to describe Jesus, and he shares the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God. As they pass a body of water, the man then asks if there is anything that could hinder him from being baptized. Anything that could hinder him - his race? His sexual identity?

Imagine what Philip might have said: "I need to contact the authorities in Jerusalem to get a policy statement on this issue. Maybe we should wait a few centuries until the church is more established. Baptizing you could cause real controversy in our fragile religious community. In the interests of not offending people back home, I'll have to say no. Or at least not yet."

But Philip doesn't answer with words; he responds with immediate action. They stop the chariot, and Philip leads him into the water and baptizes him.

Neither race nor sexual identity was an obstacle for the apostles in welcoming a new brother into the community of faith. As early as Acts 8 in the story of Jesus and his apostles, the tough issues of race and sexual identity are being addressed head-on. But as we all know, as the years went on, both issues once again became obstacles. It's only in my lifetime that we have truly begun to put racism behind us - although even there, we still have a long way to go. Now, it's time for us to remove the second obstacle. Not in spite of the Bible, but because of it. We've lost a lot of ground since Acts 8. That's why I am among those who dissent from the conventional approach and attitude, appealing back to Philip's even more ancient church tradition.