Welcoming the Outcasts: Acts 10-11 as a Blueprint for Change

One of the major roadblocks LGBTQ2S+ people experience in finding acceptance and welcome within their communities of faith is simply the perception that tradition is set in stone and cannot change. It’s that difficult combination of inertia and ‘case-law’ I talked about last post again. But as we saw with the case of eunuchs the other day, traditions — and even capital-T Tradition — can change. In fact, Tradition has always changed, is changing now, and will always change. To be alive is to be changing. While the case of the way eunuchs are treated in the Scriptures is a relatively minor change, the New Testament talks about a huge change that would have a tremendous impact on the development of Christianity, Judaism, and eventually, the whole Roman Empire. This was the Gentile Question: Could non-Jewish people become followers of Jesus without becoming Jewish? As reported in Acts and some of the Epistles, this was an open question, and one that did not have an easy solution. But in Acts 10-11 we have a story about how Peter, an important representative of the more conservative side of this debate, had his mind changed. And it’s worth looking at here to see what it looks like for a faith tradition to change.

I’ve written a couple times already on this story, the story of Peter and Cornelius, so I won’t go into it in too much detail. But the basics of the story are as follows. Peter has a vision in which he is commanded by God to eat foods that are not allowed under the Law of Moses. He refuses three times, and the voice admonishes him: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10.15). When he emerges from the vision, he is confused, but his thinking is interrupted by a knock at the door. He is then summoned to Joppa to meet some ‘God-fearers’, non-Jewish people who were interested in and respectful of Judaism without converting to it. Suddenly the meaning of the vision becomes clear to Peter: Under the Law, he would not be able to receive hospitality from this group, but God wanted him to go. Peter goes and tells them about Jesus and the Holy Spirit descends upon the group as they believe his words. Seeing that the Holy Spirit had come down on them, Peter realizes he has no excuse not to baptize them, welcoming them ceremonially into the community of faith, Gentiles as they were. When news got back to Jerusalem, Peter is summoned before his fellow conservatives, who were aghast at what he’d done. He tells them his story, concluding that “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (11.17). The group is open-minded enough to have their minds changed and they give thanks to God for giving “even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.

Of course this is really just the beginning of the story. It’s one thing to say that Gentiles could be welcomed into a Jewish Church without having to become Jewish; it’s another thing to figure out how to operationalize it. A council is held and they find a solution, but it remained a source of difficulty through at least the end of the first century. One way of understanding the relationship between the Gentile and Jewish Christians that became canonized through Paul’s use of it is of a branch grafted onto another tree. In Romans 11, Paul writes:

But if some of the branches [of the Jewish community] were broken off, and you [Gentiles], a wild olive shoot, were grafted among the others to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. … Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen but God’s kindness toward you, if you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And even those of Israel, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree. (Romans 11.17-24)

Here Paul is talking about a double-sided problem: First, how to think about Gentile Christians, and second, how to understand the relationship between the Church and those Jews who did not become Christian. He uses the language and technology of orchards to understand this. Just as a branch from one tree can be grafted onto a different tree, and thereby be supported and sustained by the new tree while remaining essentially itself and producing its own fruit, so too are non-Jewish Christians grafted into the Jewish Tradition. (I never really got this analogy until seeing a fruit tree that was simultaneously flowering with purple flowers on one side and white flowers on the other. One tree, two varieties of fruit.)

So what does this have to do with LGBTQS2+ Christians? For me, the Gentile Question of the New Testament provides an almost perfect analogy and precedent for the Queer Question of the Church today. Just like queer folk today, Gentile believers faced a steep uphill climb when engaging with the received Tradition. In fact, the opposition they faced was far greater! While they could appeal to certain verses and stories in the Scriptures in support of their acceptance, the weight of the Scriptures was clearly against them. God had chosen Israel and given them a Law that reflected what justice and righteousness were to look like. Without being a part of those things, it was near impossible to conceive of how a Gentile could be said to be godly. Moreover, a significant thrust of God’s Law insisted that Israel separate itself from Gentiles, in order to avoid their bad influence and to remain ceremonially pure. Welcoming Gentiles into the fold without their submitting to the Law seemed like a contradiction in terms.

And yet, despite the weight of Holy Tradition, Peter could not deny what he witnessed. Without any reference to the Law of Moses, Cornelius and his household loved God. And they believed Peter’s message about Jesus and, most importantly, they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Impossible though it may be according to received Tradition and the Scriptures, God had welcomed, blessed, and anointed these Gentiles. And this demanded that the Tradition be reassessed in light of the reality before their eyes. This is a similar situation to the one the Church finds itself today with respect to LGBTQS2+ people. The weight of Tradition and the general sensibility and a few explicit passages of Scripture seem to be against their inclusion within the community of faith. (We’ll look at those passages later in this series to see just how strong they are or aren’t…) And yet, there are queer folk of all stripes who seek to be faithful to God in every area of their life, who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit and who want to offer their gifts of leadership, teaching, wisdom, and service to the Church, and who experience their loving and committed relationships as places of spiritual joy, struggle, and theophany, and long to offer them up to God within the context of the Church. How will the Church respond to this? It remains an open question.

And yet, if the Church does choose to welcome queer folk with open arms, once again, it will face the more difficult question of operationalizing it. What does it mean to welcome queer folk and their relationships into the community of faith? And this is where I think the grafting image is helpful. Same-sex relationships are analogous to straight relationships in a lot of ways, but not in all ways. The grafting metaphor allows a helpful way of incorporating them into the concept of marriage (which is always evolving anyway), without eliminating the unique blessings and challenges of both same-sex and heterosexual relationships.

I’ve often heard it said from non-affirming Christians that they would really like to be able to be affirming, but simply cannot because of the weight of Tradition and Scripture. In the face of such opposition, then surely the experiences of queer folk must be wrong or misguided. But, we see even within the New Testament, the Church managing to change on a far, far more challenging question, one that struck to the core of the community’s identity, and against which there was far greater opposition in the Scriptures and Tradition. They were led to this by what they witnessed in the lives of the impacted believers. They could not deny the ways God was working in their lives.

I hope and pray that the Church today will look upon me, my life, and that of people like me, with the same spirit.

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