Posted by: jevcat | July 9, 2011

Post-Pride Reflections

Maybe it’s because in some ways we’re still basking in the afterglow and impending implementation of the approval of same-sex marriage that crowned the celebration of Gay Pride Week here in New York, but this week’s daily lectionary readings from Acts have jumped out at me as so relevant, as parallels to what’s happened – and continues to happen – in this country and the church.  Or perhaps it simply parallels my own journey.

The readings are from the tenth and eleventh chapters, and detail the lead-up to St. Peter’s meeting with Cornelius the Centurion, the encounter itself, and the aftermath.  Cornelius was a Roman officer who had become what they called “a God-fearer”:  a follower of Judaism, but one who stopped short of full conversion – circumcision was a big hurdle, and so were the dietary laws, and many of those non-Jews who embraced the God of Judaism could not quite see their way over it.  I don’t blame them.

But God gives Cornelius and Peter connected visions.  Cornelius’s is to send for Peter, and, while perhaps puzzling, it’s pretty straightforward and Cornelius does as he was told.  Peter’s vision is far more unsettling – to him, and, ultimately, to the church.  Peter is shown a host of animals, many of them unclean by Jewish law, and told to eat them.  A large part of Peter’s enduring reputation (and why so many of us love him) may rest with his spectacular failures, but all the evidence is that Peter always at least tried to do the right thing.  Presented with the instruction to eat ritually unclean food, Peter rebels:  No.  Unequivocally no.  He says this not once but three times, and each time he is told that the decision as to what is unclean is not his; it is God’s.

It’s a real “WTF” moment for Peter – Acts says he was “pondering,” but with his personality, the abbreviated phrase may be closer to approximating whatever Aramaic words he actually used (probably followed by a sheepish apology to God).  He’s still working on that one when the messengers from Cornelius arrive, and Peter is given heavenly follow-up instructions to go with them.  One can only imagine the discomfort of the rough-hewn and already baffled Peter when he arrives at the centurion’s house and the Roman drops to his knees before the Galilean.

Mutual explanations and clarifications ensue, but eventually the penny drops:  Peter tells Cornelius:  “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  Interestingly, “does what is right” does not appear to include the biblical purity laws that set Israel apart from other nations, including the paramount one of circumcision, without which a Jew was cut of from his people and God.  Peter’s perception is affirmed by the sudden descent of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his household, just as it had recently come to the disciples at Pentecost.  And with that, the early church’s whole world was turned on its head.  Acts tells us, “And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.  For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”

When Peter gets back to Judea, he has, as Ricky used to say to Lucy, “some ‘splainin’ to do.”  The “circumcision party” are aghast, shocked, appalled, and anything stronger you can think of by what Peter’s been up to; it’s unclean, it’s anti-biblical, it goes against every understanding they have and have been taught of God’s will:  “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  They probably kept their distance as they questioned him – he’s made himself ritually unclean, and they wouldn’t have wanted to risk contamination themselves.  But Peter does explain and, perhaps a bigger miracle than any in this story, they not only understand (at least for the moment – the fight was by no means over), but glorify a God who has burst all bounds to declare what was considered unclean to be clean – and not just tidied up a bit, not just swept into the closet until the guests have gone, but truly, completely, clean enough to pass anyone’s “white glove test.”

And I see that same work of the Spirit in what’s happening now, as church and society evolve in their attitudes toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage.  When, as a child, I first discovered that two people of the same sex could want to love each other “the way mommies and daddies do,” it seemed confusing, and a little gross (but come to think of it, so did the mechanics of heterosexuality at that age, my reaction to my introductory “birds and bees” talk having been along the lines of “He puts what, where?!  I’m never doing that!”).

Among the foundations of my approach to life are Jesus’s teaching, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit … Thus you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:18, 20) and Paul’s “ … the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5:22-23).   And, (bad puns aside) these are descriptive of what I have found in the LGBT Christian community.  I have seen friends fall in love and change in ways that exactly mirror Paul’s words as they struggled to hold together in faith and love, sometimes in the teeth of family and society mockery, derision, scorn, and occasionally fury.  I have seen couples of the same sex so profoundly grateful to God for the gift of their joining that they have thrown themselves heart and soul into service to the church, “extolling God” and impelled by the need to give back some of what they have received.  I have seen the sick cared for with a tenderness and devotion I’m not sure I could match under any circumstances, and faith held onto as a light in a darkness that seemed to have no end, a testament to the power of God of which I am in awe.  I am blessed to be a part of a Christian community that has enabled me to see this witness.

As a church and as a society, we are still so very far from fully absorbing the lesson that God shows no partiality, but I celebrate that we do appear to be inching toward the understanding that “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  (Acts 10:16)


  1. Beautiful reflection and interpretation. You are a great preacher. Thank you.

  2. Awwwww, Francesca, thanks. But it really did just keep noodging at me all week as I was doing the daily readings.

  3. I love your writing and I love you.

    • Thanks, Robin. I’m so glad we’ve gotten to know each other over time.

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