The Radical Acceptance of the Gospel
Introduction and Assumption
I am humbled by and grateful for your invitation and for the gracious words of
introduction. I am particularly thankful for Kristine Gebbie and Lester Wright, dear friends, who were extraordinarily faithful worshippers at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in New York City where I was pastor for an all-too-brief time before being elected Bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod.
I want, also, to introduce my dear spouse Lois whom I had to force to come with me to Australia. We’ve been obsessing on you, reading about you, and delighting in this country and continent. Lois has been a faithful companion and partner for over forty years and I hope you have the opportunity to meet her today.
I want to speak to you today about four things, get you a bit agitated about the Radical Acceptance of the Gospel and perhaps allow some time for questions and reactions. If that doesn’t happen in this hour-or-so, be assured that I will be available to you all day and into this evening. Since Lois and I are relying on Kristine and Les for transportation!
Under the Theme: The Radical Acceptance of the Gospel I will first, briefly, describe what I mean by that word “radical.” Then, I will outline my understanding of Lutheran Hermeneutics – that is, how Lutherans read the Bible. Third, I will share some experience from my own life and that of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which led to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly votes to be radically welcoming – at least officially; you must know that it is not universally true for us – New York City is not Fargo. And then I want to share a particular passage from Scripture which I think should have great, radical meaning for all of us.
Let me share an assumption which you may reject but you are stuck with because I’ve already written my paper.
I think there are people in this room in deep need of the Gospel. In fact, I know it because we all are, all the time, the insiders and the outsiders. So I want to say at the outset, as a card-carrying, creed-believing, confessional Lutheran who is an insider par excellence – a bishop, for heaven’s sake – I want to say how thankful to God I am for you and for your continuing, unfailing witness to the Church and your deep desire to be accepting of all people.. The Church - and by that word I mean the whole thing with an upper-case C, has developed a bad habit of talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender people as if they are a problem. So let me say that they are not. Quite the opposite: they have provided the Church with enlightenment, with eye-opening and life-changing examples of Christian courage and grace, and with models of how to live the Christian life under adverse conditions. The Church’s policies and practice – and again, be clear, I’m talking about the capital-C-Church – have been restrictive and exclusive to the point of cruelty. We have told many people who want to give their lives to Christ and the witness of the Church, including the willingness to devote their lives to service as ordained pastors, that they cannot. Their choices or their lifestyle or even the way God has made them are so wrong that we’ve had to erect special barriers to keep them from serving.
The Church's teaching has downright perverse effects. In my experience, the more LGBTQ people conform to the practices the Church blesses and honors for heterosexuals – like public pledges of fidelity to another person, family commitment to the nurture of children – the less likely it is that they will be gladly invited to work out their discipleship in many Christian congregations.
Yet, here they are, active or eager-to-be-active in the full life of the Church, if only we were a welcome place, if only we were really accepting. They keep on witnessing to the truth of Christ in their lives. They keep on offering help that the Church desperately needs but is too proud or too stubborn to accept. They keep on ministering, with us, to people who have the approval and the privileges that have been denied to them. We can learn to be accepting. So that’s my goal for this address.
First, that troublesome word “radical.” At least it is troublesome to some folks. I was born in 1950. I’ll give you a few moments to do the math on that. I grew up in the State of Illinois in the flat middle of the United States. We defined ourselves – perhaps you know what I mean – we defined ourselves by what we were not. Not Black, not Mexican, not queer, not Catholic (heaven forbid), not…well, you know what I mean. And certainly not radical. We were good, decent folks there in Lemont, Illinois.
Now that you’ve done your math, you must realize that I grew up in the turbulent 60s. Were they turbulent here, too? And it was in the 60s that I came to know that the word radical has a deeper meaning, from the Latin word for root – which makes it a very good word for us when talking about the foundation of our faith, the root of our tree of beliefs as Christians, the Good News of God reconciling the world through Jesus, the Gospel.
So now I turn to talking about that radical Gospel and how it drives our efforts to be accepting of all people, especially as Lutherans.
How you read the Bible is always glued to how you think people “get saved.” I think this is a most Luther-an understanding. There are many quotes from Martin Luther to this effect, of which I share only two:
From one of his famous Table Talks: “When I discovered the difference, that God’s Law is one thing and God’s Gospel something else – that was the breakthrough.”
And from his Commentary on Galatians: “I must listen to the Gospel. It tells me not what I must do but what Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for me.”
This radical, fundamental understanding of truth, where the Gospel, the Good News of God’s rescuing all of us through Jesus Christ, is the lens through which we read all of Scripture. It is what gives authority to the Bible because the first and most important definition of the term Word of God is Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen.
So, I want, now, to speak a bit about how Lutherans interpret the Scriptures. What is our hermeneutic.
Lutherans interpret scripture contextually.
We ask about the literary context of the book in which any Scripture passage is found. We ask about the historical context of the situation the passages were intended to address. The biblical perspective on sexuality is decidedly heterosexual. That is not arguable. But how is that perspective to be viewed given our modern understanding of homosexuality?
Lutherans interpret scripture by principle of analogy.
We ask whether situations in the modern world are analogous to those in the biblical world – even if they are not exactly the same. Old and New Testament passages focus on questionable sexual practices which scripture describes as “unnatural.” Given a growing consensus on the nature of sexual orientation, are such practices to be considered “unnatural” for other orientations? Do prescriptive passages apply to these two orientations in the same way? Can they? Should they?
Lutherans interpret scripture in light of scripture.
We try to reconcile what is said in one part of scripture with wat is said in other parts of scripture, so that we can be faithful to the entire Bible.
Lutherans believe in “a canon within the canon.”
We believe that some things in scripture are more important than other things. Jesus gives us principles for determining what is the most important. We believe that Jesus has given the Church the authority to determine which commandments in the Bible apply to us today and which do not. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19) and it’s similar passage in Matthew 18:18 - “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18)
We exercise this authority responsibly when we follow the guidelines Jesus has given: God prefers mercy to sacrifice (Matthew 9:13; 12:6). The greatest commandment is to love God with one’s whole being, and the second is to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:24-40). We are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12). The weightier matters of the law are justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).
There are very few references to homosexual behavior in the Bible; and no references to homosexuality. The Bible speaks nine times more frequently about how we relate to money than on how we relate to sexuality. As an issue or practice it was of minor concern.
What does our being reconciled to God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit mean for us? How radical is that gospel? As I have indicated before, it is interesting, in the context of our society and in a church which is rightfully concerned about the state of marriage, we hardly spend any time talking about the much more strenuous Jesus-of-the-gospel strictures against divorce. I hear people in the homosexual community weep when they talk about the portrayals that demean the quality of their covenanted relationships.
I hear pastors and congregational leaders rejoice in the exemplary grace-filled lives you live. I hear people say that gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gendered people are exactly the kind of folks they would like to have serve as their pastors.
I hear gay and lesbian people speak with far more clarity about their life in Christ than do those who do not have to defend their very identity.
Let me be clear and bold: I have discovered that there is nothing in the Bible that speaks clearly and directly to this set of issues. There's some stuff about prostitution, pedophilia, abusive relationships, but there is nothing about homosexuality or about the faithful, committed relationships in which many confessors of Christ find themselves today. I have struggled with our Lutheran confessional writings and have dug deep into Luther's works and learned that there is great freedom in our communion and that we are called to err on the side of grace at any cost. I have heard the voices of Christians in other parts of the Church. But most importantly, I have spoken with scores of gay and lesbian people and more recently with transgender and bisexual people and I have found them to be, first, followers of Christ. And I would say to you that it was in these conversations that I discovered the broad, high, and deep meaning of what I claim is the theological bottom line of the radical acceptance of the Gospel.
There are theological issues that I believe Lutherans have a particular, God
given vocation to address.
Marriage: I believe we need to look very carefully and thoroughly at the institution of marriage. Our churchly involvement in this practice is very fascinating. Lutherans believe that marriage is not a sacrament, though many in our churches treat it as such. In Lutheran understanding, it is a function of the state which has been imposed on our pastors to carry out.
But I believe we also need to address the state of marriage in the Church today. For example, the Bible makes it very clear that divorce is unnatural and contrary to the design of God. Jesus stridently says much about it. Heterosexuals who think gay couples are undermining their marriages should seek help, as nearly half of all heterosexual marriages end in divorce.
A review of Lutheran history and the current practice in many European countries where Lutheranism has been central will indicate that the legal agreement is carried out first, outside the church building, and then the newly-arranged covenant is blessed inside the church building.
When Lois and I were married 42 years ago and again when our son and his wife were married, the wonderful part was not the signing of a legal document, but the thanksgiving to God in which all of us engaged. The church should offer that kind of event to every couple, homosexual or heterosexual, and get out of what is, in the opinion of many, the practice of marrying only some and extending a thousand-plus benefits to those elect heterosexuals. I'm still working on this, so let me pursue this a bit by talking about "Blessing."
I think the Church, led by Lutherans, should reclaim the word "blessing" as it has been used by God's People throughout time. But I want to be very clear about this: the blessing the Church does is, first, a blessing of God; that is, a giving of thanks to God for the gifts God has given us. This is the ancient pattern of the Hebrew berakha, blessing God for the gifts God has given including the gift of godly relationships of grace and commitment. As a confirmation class student said to me once, "With all the hate in the world, if two people are in love with each other I think we ought to thank God for it."
Another theological problem is Forced Celibacy: I believe that policies which force people who are homosexual in their self-understanding to live a life of forced celibacy, are in fact contrary to Scriptures and to the Lutheran Confessions. 1 Corinthians 7 declares that celibacy is a gift, not a curse, and it should always be voluntary, never forced. Likewise, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, one of our Lutheran documents, says, in Article 23, that it is "not possible to remain chaste outside of marriage" apart from "a high supernatural gift of God." All of which is to say: those who require celibacy of any one do not have the Bible or the Lutheran Confessions on their side. While the Bible does not prohibit homosexuality anywhere, ever, it does prohibit celibacy requirements.
Biblicism: We Lutherans need to announce to the world and ourselves that the real issue is not one of biblical authority. When, guided by the Holy Spirit, we enter into a deep and committed study of the texts the Church has misunderstood and used as weapons, we will realize that the Bible's purpose is not to exclude but to include, not to condemn but to save, not to heap on Victorian moralisms some claim to be divinely-imposed moral absolutes but to proclaim the amazing grace of God, not to reject but to accept. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments demonstrate God's love and forgiveness when God's people, individually or corporately, fail to live up to the expectations that God has set forth. That love and forgiveness is the Gospel. I believe, for example, that the Bible sets forth standards of life and behavior, but I do not believe that the Bible is fundamentally a rule book. It is, instead, the story of God and God's people. Its primary character is not "I" and the story line is not principally about how "I" should behave. The primary character is God, and the story line is primarily about how God has behaved, how God has responded, how God has been made incarnate in Jesus Christ, and how that risen and living Jesus continues today to lead us into all truth by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Those who seek biblical warrant for such inclusiveness need only look, for example, to the encounter between Jesus and the Woman at the Well in John 4, where he breaks all kinds of rules in order to offer her new life, or at the amazing story of Jesus’s healing the man born blind in John 9, a wonderful text that asks the important question "What glorifies God?" It’s a great reading for us. I also think the raising of Lazarus is splendid. In John 11 - well, you know the story: Jesus raises his stinky friend from the dead and then turns to the crowd and says, "You unbind him." I think that's a great model for us: when God raises people from the dead through the wonderful mystery of Holy Baptism then it's up to the church to unbind them. And that Lazarus story brings me to the bottom line for me, theologically.
Holy Baptism is the most radical acceptance we offer, especially the practice of baptizing infants. This is, in my opinion and I believe in Lutheranism's confessional understanding, the theological bottom line. It's the riskiest, most radical thing the Church does: baptize.
People in both - or all - camps write and read lengthy biblical, theological, and psychological papers that cancel each other out. We set up all kinds of wars in the Church, including derogatory attacks on other Christians, other people for whom Christ died. The set of issues before us is far more important, far more foundational than any agenda.
I regularly look into the faces, the eyes, of candidates for ministry, people who have a consuming desire to serve the Church. And I am puzzled by the theological claim that we are all ordained in Holy Baptism – the wonderful, sometimes-misunderstood and often-ignored Lutheran gift of the priesthood of all believers – yet we set standards for membership that exclude certain people from the church even though they have been ordained already in the water and the word at the font.
4. Clear and Challenging Words from the Gospel
A Church that engages in the risky business of baptizing infants, a Church that rejoices in the claim that this is a means of grace, a Church that welcomes all is called by God to remove the double standard and open its arms to all people.
If you are seeking clear words from God about what it means to engage in this Radical Acceptance, let me suggest the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus invites us, urges us, to stand on our heads and see the world, our society, individual lives and the Church from that Christ-like perspective. I think of the amazing words of the Beatitudes as both challenge and opportunity for those of us who are privileged to stand-with-Jesus-on- our--heads, for all of us who have been gathered here today and for the thousands we represent. And as I think of these words I also want to see them clearly as challenges to us, invitations for this day and for a lifetime, to continue to stand on our heads, to continue this risky business of being the Church.
Blessed are the poor in spirit; yours is the kingdom of heaven! What could
the Church do, not just say, that would make the poor in spirit be--li-e..v..e. that?
Blessed are the mourners; they shall be comforted! How will the mourners believe that if we are not God's agents in bringing that comfort?
Blessed are the meek; they shall inherit the earth. How will the meek ever believe such nonsense if the Church does not stand up for their rights against the rich and the powerful in the name of the crucified Messiah who had no place to lay his head?
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God's justice; how will that message get through unless we are prepared to stand alongside those who are denied justice and go-on-making-a-fuss until they get it?
Blessed are the merciful; how are people to believe that, in a world where mercy is weakness, unless we welcome the estranged?
Blessed are the pure in heart; how will people believe that, in a world where
impurity is big business, unless we ourselves are worshiping the living God until our hearts are set on fire and scorched with God's purity?
Blessed are the peacemakers; how will we ever learn that, in a world where war in one country means business for another, unless the Church stands in the middle and says that there is a different way of being human, a different way of ordering our common life?
Blessed are those who are persecuted and insulted for the sake of Jesus; how will that message ever get across if the Church is so anxious not to court bad publicity, that it refuses ever to say or do anything that might get it into trouble either with the authorities for being so radical and subversive or with the revolutionaries for insisting that the true revolution begins at the foot of the cross?
I wish I could say that I knew of a Church somewhere in the world that had fully grasped this strange agenda of Jesus and was living by it. No parish I have served has, nor has the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, nor have I, nor have you. But there are signs to give us hope. There are moments when I think the Reign of God is nearer than when we first believed. And I rejoice to say that the efforts being engaged by Accept and organizations such as this have been models of this kind of spiritual life, this new life in the new creation of the new humanity worked through Jesus Christ. We are not what God wants us to be, yet. But we are on the way. So I am, once again, most grateful for your trust toward me and for your invitation. And while I cannot speak for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or for its Conference of Bishops, or for the Metropolitan New York Synod of which I am bishop, I can speak for myself about my hope for all of us, for this new creation in Christ. I want to invite you to strive for accepting all people and to remain faithful and diligent in engaging The Radical Welcome of the Gospel.
In closing I want to say again how grateful I am for your faithfulness, your strength, your grace-filled living. As a Lutheran I feel compelled to offer at least a small word from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans as a kind of summary of what God is calling us to do; “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God." (Romans 15)
Friends in Christ, may God fill us and all God's People, always with the welcoming love of Christ, The Radical Acceptance of the Gospel.
Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo
Metropolitan New York Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
28 March 2016