She interrupted the sermon I was preaching. “Excuse me. I don’t mean any disrespect. I’m a lesbian. You’re talking about all of this love and mercy. What does this mean for me?”
It was the launch day of our church plant in Long Beach, California. Long Beach has a large LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) population. (Only West Hollywood has a higher LGBT population in Los Angeles.)
Our new church was perched on the edge of the rainbow district in a 16-acre park that hosted homeless people, pushers, prostitutes, skaters, families, and gangs. Across the street the city’s premier gay coffee house borders the thoroughfare that the regular Pride parade marches through, which sometimes makes it impossible for us to get to our building.
My mind raced through various responses I could give. I knew that whatever my answer was, it might cost us half of our core church planting team.
As I faced the crowd, I was the only one who could see the tears glistening in her eyes as she fought back the emotion. I braced myself to give her the only answer I could give …
That is how Peyton Jones begins his article in Leadership Journal, “The Gospel in an LGBT World: What the gospel means for those whose identity is their sexuality, and for you.” I find his article helpful because he is addressing what seems to me a peculiarly difficult but highly important issue in our time.
It is difficult because, as Christians with a God who has revealed himself and his will to us authoritatively, in the Bible, we are necessarily absolutists. We acknowledge that we may not have properly understood God’s intention in Scripture, with regard to particular moral issues but, having done our best to hear what God says, we are obligated to be obedient to what we understand to be God’s will. Furthermore, we have heard God say what is universally and absolutely morally right or wrong for all of humanity, not just for us personally, or for our church. But such absoluteness puts us seriously at odds with the relativistic and morally pluralistic mind set of our culture, as propagated in public media and voiced in private conversations. Being a universal moral absolutist makes us decidedly counter cultural in our ideas and hence in our speech and our relationships. By anyone’s definition, this is very difficult, because we naturally want to fit in to our context, to be liked, and to be perceived as kind and loving, these being virtues at the core of our morality.
Difficult though it is to be counterculturally obedient to Christ, it is highly important. When Jesus commissioned the church to disciple the nations, he instructed us to teach them to observe all that he had commanded. That is not going to be possible unless they choose to become part of the community of Christ’s followers. So, we want to proclaim the good news of what God has done for us sinners, in Christ, in ways as winsome as possible. But the good news, that God forgives the sins of the genuinely repentant, is only good for those who believe themselves to be sinners in need of forgiveness. And to reach that point, God’s law, which God has given us to point us to Christ, has to be proclaimed. How and when to do this, so that God’s Spirit can do his convicting work in people’s hearts is often not easy for us to discern. Speaking the truth in love is our goal, but we sometimes find ourselves tongue tied when the moment comes at which we feel it is time to speak.
When I read that introduction to Jones’s article, I saw him in the position I have described, and which we understand so well. His own situation was complicated by the fact that he was not in private conversation with the lesbian who raised the question, he had an audience of Christians whose response to his answer could have significant personal ramifications for him and his ministry. Thankfully, things seem to have turned out well. He recounts what followed:
I answered, “It means the same for you as anybody else.”
For all I don’t know, I am confident that nobody gets a separate gospel.
One for All
I heard gasps from the crowd. For real. They betrayed those who didn’t really understand the grace of God. Similar gasps must have been heard when Jesus singled out Matthew with his index finger and said, “Follow me.” There was tension in the air. It was uncomfortable.
Then something beautiful happened.
An art professor called out, “Nobody here is any different from anybody else in God’s eyes. You should get to know me. You think you’re a hard case!”
Ten heads over, another woman raised her voice, “God loves you. You know how I know? He took me. I was a homeless, alcoholic wreck. Nobody wanted me, but Jesus wanted me, and I know he wants you too.”
That day those who had been forgiven much, loved much. A grace sprang up from the core of their beings, and it overflowed.
It’s ironic, but the church has always struggled to understand God’s grace. Many Christians still think that it enables people to get away with murder, rather than transforming us from the inside out. They fear that grace means the “lowering of standards.” Although God has never indicated that his definition of sin has changed, our lives may not be completely stitched up this side of heaven.
Like everybody else, members of the LGBT community come in with a lot of baggage and their transformation isn’t instantaneous. But the gospel is the same for everyone.
Boarding the Plane
When someone from the LGBT community walks through the doors of the church, our approach is crucial. If our first thought is, Are you going to stop “that” and change? we become spiritual TSA agents. Hypocritical ones, too—erecting moral metal detectors and demanding people empty out certain banned sins before we let them fly.
And to be honest, isn’t homosexuality the only sin that we make a barrier right from the start? We preach God’s grace and explain that God will receive, forgive, and cleanse. We emphasize that they’ve been given the righteousness of Christ, and that sanctification will follow along their journey. But for many Christians, with homosexuality the change needs to happen yesterday. But as Jesus told the Pharisees, we shut the door of the kingdom in people’s faces.
Why Are We So Afraid?
Jesus invited scandalous sinners to follow him. Although it seemed a simple, unrestricted invitation, there was an implicit recognition of the teacher’s mastery over every area of the disciple’s life … eventually. Like leaven, it would infiltrate every area of one’s life, but it would happen “on the way.”
In The Hobbit, Gandalf issued a similar invitation to Bilbo—to embark on a journey and become something different from what he was along the way. It was the journey itself that facilitated his transformation.
Who can pinpoint the moment at which the twelve were truly converted on their journey with Jesus? Whether the disciple is gay or straight, transformed lives result from going on a journey with Jesus, not cleaning themselves up before starting the journey.
Some churches take pride in a superficial purity. But at what cost? In his classic Life Together, Bonhoeffer quotes Luther: “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes … he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing, who would ever have been spared?”
Jones has more to say, but that captures the essence of what I wanted to pass on. The gospel is the same for all of us, and we still need it every day, because we are not done with sinning. Confession of sin is an essential part of our worship of the holy God, and assurance of forgiveness is what we hear in his gracious response.