Human Sexuality

On Saturday, I visited the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home (FUMCH) for their 30th annual Day On Campus. Every year FUMCH is opened up and people from all over the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) visit the campus for a tour and for information on the work and progress of FUMCH.

The program consisted of a presentation of the work of the home, which included various testimonies of volunteers and alumni, as well as a couple of performances by the current residents of FUMCH. After the presentation of the work, we were invited to have lunch and then we were given freedom to roam the campus and tour some of the buildings and meet some of the young people who are cared for through FUMCH’s ministry. It was a fantastic day. Nine of us made the short drive from our home town to FUMCH and everyone was both impressed and inspired.

As part of the presentation of the work, a 22 year old FUMCH alumnus had been invited to share some of his story. He did so with a real sense of humility and integrity. He shared a very moving account of his background – how he had experience life and how that experience had led to him being pulled from his family and taken into FUMCH’s care. He spoke candidly about his inability to understand and process what had happened to him when it was happening, but that the mentors, therapists, staff and volunteers of FUMCH had helped him through in the years that he spent there. It was a glowing tribute to the work and ministry of FUMCH and listeners could not help but be moved as it was told.

At the end of his presentation the young man began to thank the people in his life who had helped him get where he is today. He thanked the staff and ministry of FUMCH. He thanked his house-parents at FUMCH who had helped shape his life and offered him security and love when he was not finding it anywhere else. He thanked his birth mother (to whom he had since been reconciled) and his two older sisters and his younger brother. Then he thanked his partner of three years, Michael. He said that Michael had loved him and given him a place of trust and intimacy like he had not experienced before.

It was now clear that this young man is gay. Here he was standing in a room full of United Methodists openly proclaiming his sexuality and the trust and intimacy that he had experienced in a committed relationship with Michael over the past three years.

The United Methodist Church is currently in the midst of a debate around issues of human sexuality (primarily around issues of gay marriage and the ordination of gay people) and finds itself very divided. A large population of United Methodists hold to traditional views of human sexuality and are against the church moving to a place where gay marriages can be solemnized in UM churches and by UM pastors. This large population is opposed by an equally large population who advocate the full acceptance of the LGBTQ community in terms of both marriage and ordination.

When this young man was openly referring to his sexuality in a room full of United Methodists, I have to say, my first thought was to wonder how the reference to his partner, Michael, had gone down. How did the people of this room experience hearing what this young man had to say?

Personally, I still do not know where to come down on the actual issues which are currently plaguing the UMC, and I am not going to comment or offer any kind of position on them here. I will say that in my formative years as a teenager, I would have found myself quite homophobic. However, that is no longer the case. As I have got older I have learned that my real role as a Christian man is not to judge others and point the finger at the sins of the world. Rather my role is to love all those that I encounter day and daily – to know their names and to be willing to hear their stories and walk some of their journeys with them. I also know that I am to celebrate lives that have been recovered, restored and transformed through God’s love and mercy.

As I sat there listening to this young man on Saturday morning there was a moment, just when he referred to Michael that I had an inner cringe. I think I was responding to my in built prejudices – those parts of me which i am constantly trying to address and be free from. But then, after that moment, I found myself thinking this:

“Regardless of where I face confusion on the issues of human sexuality, regardless of what I have thought or currently think; am I going to sit here and let the fact that this young man is gay take away from the wonderful redemption story that has played out in his life? Am I going to let his sexuality become the only story here and not the restoration of his life through the love, care and nurture of Godly people at FUMCH? If I am, shame on me.”

Shame on me.

Thankfully, I do not think that I am letting his sexuality define my hearing of his story (except that i am writing about it here…). Thankfully, I am instead celebrating his life as one redeemed and restored by love and care because redemption and restoration of a life is what love can do.

My prayer is that God would continue to lead me in the way of love and that I would submit all my prejudices (inherited or freely developed through ignorance and lack of thought) to Him who is able to transform my heart and mind.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Slaves first…

‘You know how it is in the pagan nations,’ he said. ‘Think how their so-called rulers act. They lord it over their subjects. The high and mighty ones boss the rest around. But that’s not how it is going to be with you. Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant. Anyone who wants to be first must be everyone’s slave. Don’t you see? The Son of Man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life “as a ransom for many”.’

I have been working through N.T Wright’s “Lent for Everyone – Year B” in the weeks since Lent started. Personally I have found it great as devotional reading – I find pretty much all of Tom Wright’s work to be fantastic! It has also been a helpful guide in preaching too – I have been using Mark’s gospel as the basis for our church’s life and worship through Lent. For me, Mark has been quite brilliant as I have read it through again and again in the last few months – his explosive, no-nonsense way of writing suits me. And my willingness to work at getting Mark’s bigger picture has put every little individual section in Mark’s gospel in a brand new light for me. Admittedly, in my Christian life, I have been poor at reading the books of the Bible with any sense that they were written by skilled authors who had plan and purpose in their work. I have been too quick to read the bible as a series of short, inspirational, living, preach-worthy sections and stories and not to see them as something which has been included in a bigger work with some bigger points to make. This has been to my devotional detriment over the years.

Today, I turned up the reading and was led to the passage in which the above quote appears – Mark 10:35-45. Because of the way in which I have been guilty of reading Scripture in years gone by, I was quick to recognize that this is a passage which I have read many times before and listened to many a sermon preached on too. The worry when I recognize a passage in that way is that it can become too easy to switch off, just read the words and not really think them through. However, today this is not the case. I am reading this passage no longer as a stand alone story from the life of Jesus. Rather, I am reading this passage as a story carefully placed by Mark in his attempt to help readers like me understand the points that have already been firmly made in the previous two chapters, namely that Jesus is the Messiah(8:29), God’s own Son (9:7), and that what lies ahead (suffering and death) is the plan of God for the salvation of the world (8:31, 9:12, 9:31). It is by that suffering and death, which is going to happen in the coming days, that Jesus will finally be declared King of kings. The disciples have spent the last couple of chapters in confusion over the things that Jesus is saying. Peter declares Jesus as Messiah but then rebukes him for saying that he will suffer and die; on the mount of Transfiguration, they understand that what is happening is sacred, holy and special and their only reaction is to ask if they should build tents for Jesus, Elijah and Moses in order to preserve the moment. Mark is painting a picture (in these chapters) of the disciples as ones who seem to be able to say the words “Jesus is Messiah” but struggle with what the implications of that are in the plan of God. They can be forgiven for reacting with such confusion. After all, when a person is declared King the expectation would naturally be that they have been or will be victorious. For Jesus to begin to name himself as the Messiah and then talk about his suffering and death does indeed seem like a bit of an unvictorious anti-climax for the long, arduous story of Israel’s wait for their king.

The Transfiguration was certainly a turning point for James and John. On that mountain, they realized for sure that Jesus was who he had been revealing himself to be. They saw the heroes of old and they heard the voice of the Father. As they came down that mountain and re-entered life as they knew it, their understanding would have been that Jesus is or would one day be the King. They now had an idea of the true identity that Jesus was getting ready to take on. But they still had no inkling of what that would mean for Jesus or for themselves. For them, for Jesus to be King was for Jesus to take on a new power and authority; it was for Jesus to be in charge; for Jesus to be giving the orders, and they wanted to be right in on that action with him.

“Hey Jesus, could you maybe do something for us?”

“What is it that you boys want?”

“When you are in your glory, as King, would you let us sit beside you – one of on your right and one of us on your left?”

It was clear from their question that they still had no clue about what Jesus had been trying to get across to them about the nature of life in the Kingdom of God. Wright put it very well in his writing on this passage:

“Actually, he’s been telling them about this for the last two chapters and they still haven’t even begun to grasp the point. He is going to die; and his death will not be a messy accident, will not simply be the kind of thing that happens to people who lead powerful renewal movements or who go about declaring that god is now becoming king, and acting in accordance with that. His death will be the means by which he becomes king, and hence – since the two are intimately bound up with one another – the means by which God becomes king. This is how, as he said in 9:1, God’s kingdom will come with power – but it is a power that, as Paul saw, is utterly redefined.

The redefinition, in fact, is the point of it all. James and John, like Peter at Caesarea Philippi, are still thinking as humans think rather than thinking as God thinks. Look at the pagan world, says Jesus. ( We look around at our own world and – guess what! – remarkably little has changed.) The rulers of the nations lord it over their subjects, and people in positions of power boss other people around. That, no doubt, is what James and John wanted to o, and it is what a great many people in our world long to do. If you can’t beat them, join them. But that is not how things work in the Kingdom of God. Back, once again, top the lesson which the disciples had to learn but still hadn’t learnt, after the encounter with the rich young man.

In God’s upside down world (or should it be right-way-up world?) everything is reversed. It’s like ‘Through the Looking Glass.’ Anyone who wants to be great must be (what did they expect: ‘prepared to work hard’ or ‘exceptionally prayerful and well behaved’ or ‘utterly trustworthy and responsible’?) – must be your servant. The one who hands you a fresh cup to drink out of. The one who cleans up when you have finished eating. The one who scrapes the mud off your boots when you come in from the field. The one you take for granted, who does things you can’t be bothered to do. Yes: your servant. In fact anyone who wants to be first must…again what do we expect? ‘Must have exceptionally sharp elbows and be prepared to get up very early in the morning to get ahead of all the other pushy people out there’? No: to be first you must be the slave of all. Slave! Even lower than ‘servant’. The slave has no rights; no human dignity. Nothing to make you envy or look up to him. People despise slaves. Treat them as dirt. Look the other way rather than catch their eye.

Yes, precisely. Now watch:

“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him; nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

That is the passage (Isaiah 53:2-3) that jesus had in mind. It goes on to speak of this slave, this ‘servant of the Lord’, wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, receiving in himself the punishment that made us whole (53:5). He will give his life ‘a ransom for many’

It isn’t just that James and john haven’t been paying attention to what jesus has been saying about what will happen to him in Jerusalem. They haven’t begun to even glimpse that jesus’ forthcoming death will be the moment when, and the means by which god’s saving power is revealed in all it’s glory.”

I don’t think I had grasped it either. But this passage of writing by Wright certainly helped.

Everything about Jesus points to our call to be servants. I get that wrong all the time. My suspicion is that many do.

It’s time to stop getting it wrong and start putting it right.

To be first, I must choose to be last and to be servant and slave to all. That’s the model of Jesus and therefore also the model for my life.