Thursday, June 14, 2012

How the Lord Moves the Church

I just finished reading again the account in Acts 10 of how the early Church changed it's policy to allow Gentiles to join the Church.

This story has become so familiar to me that I really had come to take each element of it for granted. But as I was reading it today, it dawned on me for the first time how convoluted and indirect the manner of receiving this revelation really was. And this is all the more astonishing, given the importance of the revelation that was received.

If I had never read this story before, and someone had asked me, "How would the Lord reveal to the Church that they should change their membership policy and allow Gentiles to join?" I might say, "Well, the Lord would probably appear to the Prophet -- or maybe send an angel if he wasn't going to appear himself -- and simply tell the Prophet that it was now time to allow Gentiles to be full-status members of the Church." And that is precisely what did not happen.

Here's how it actually unfolded:

Step 1) An angel appears to a righteous Gentile named Cornelius and tells him that the Lord is pleased with him, and that he should send messengers to go fetch some guy named Simon Peter, who lived with a tanner named Simon in the city of Joppa.

The way the story is worded, it's unclear whether Cornelius knew who Simon Peter was. Nor does the angel seem to be dropping any clues as to why Cornelius ought to fetch him. Though it is conceivable that Cornelius knew very well who he was, and had some idea why he was being fetched. A lot depends on the degree of contact we assume to have existed between Cornelius and the early Church, and whether or not we may assume that Cornelius had some desire to belong to the Church.

In any event, it's also interesting that Cornelius, not the prophet, is the first to receive a divine visitation.

Step 2) Peter has a "vision" on the rooftop. Now actually, the account says he "fell into a trance" (vs. 10). What Peter witnessed in a trance was very dream-like: a big canopy lowered from heaven, full of all sorts of unclean animals, and a voice saying "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." When Peter refuses the voice, on the grounds that he had "never eaten any thing that is common or unclean," the voice reprimanded him by saying "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common." This happened three times.

Now, as revelations go, this one was pretty ambiguous. It was not clear at all to Peter what exactly the Lord was getting at here. The fact that it was not clear to Peter is attested by the fact he is still puzzling over the meaning of it when Cornelius' messengers arrive at the door.

Just before the messengers arrive, "the Spirit" tells Peter that three messengers are seeking him, and that he should go with them because they have been sent by the Lord.

So at this point, the only "revelation" that Peter has received is a highly symbolic, ambiguous and dream-like vision, and then a more direct command that Peter receives through the Spirit to go with three messengers who have come seeking him.

So far, Peter has not witnessed any divine beings. He's not received any manifestation more dramatic than what could have been a dream, followed by a spiritual prompting. Though, when they arrive, Cornelius' messengers inform Peter that the reason they were sent is because an angel appeared to their master. So Peter learns that an angel has appeared to Cornelius.

Step 3) When Peter arrives at the house of Cornelius in Caesarea, Cornelius is gathered there with his entire family -- including, presumably, more distant kin and close friends. So clearly he's expecting something momentous. This is where it gets really interesting.

After his arrival, Peter explains "how it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean." (Cornelius, as we know by now, is a devout and humble man, so he probably chose not to take offense at this statement that might otherwise have sounded patronizing at best.)

Now Peter is finally starting to make sense of his vision. He's finally seen the analogy between the commandment to eat the "unclean" animals, and the Spirit's prompting to travel with Gentile messengers to a Gentile household. But this understanding has come to him by a process of analogizing and reasoning, not as a result of revelation. Peter figures this part out on his own.

After Peter explains himself, Cornelius follows suit by telling Peter his story -- how the angel appeared to him and what it told him to do.

In Peter's mind, this is confirmation of what he's already started piecing together. He draws the conclusion, "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him." So clearly, the fact that an angel appeared to Cornelius has made an impression on Peter, and it has provoked an insight: in God's eyes, the Gentiles are no different than he is. God accepts them -- the Gentiles -- on the same terms that he accepts anybody else, based on their love of him and their efforts to do good.

This insight was not a revelation. It was the product of human reason, a human being putting together and making sense of what -- until now -- had been seemingly mysterious divine hints and clues.

Had it ended here, of course, the encounter would not really have had any ultimate significance, however. There was one final piece of the puzzle that needed to fall into place.

Step 4) So now Peter preaches the Gospel to Cornelius and all those who are gathered. And while he's preaching, the account tells us: "the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word." What occurred was similar to what is described in Acts 2, to the outpouring of the Spirit that took place on the day of Pentecost. It says that Peter and his party witnessed them "speak with tongues, and magnify God," and they were "astonished."

At that point, Peter feels constrained to declare, "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" And apparently, no one could forbid, because the account ends with Cornelius and everyone else present being baptized.

The form of that question has always intrigued me. Not: "Can we allow?" but "Can any man forbid?" It reminds me of the question asked by the Ethiopian eunuch two chapters earlier, in Acts 8: "See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?"

By posing the question in this negative form: "Can any man forbid?" and "what doth hinder?" it is as if to say: "We do not have the right to prevent these from being baptized."

The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is even more enlightening here, because it takes place chronologically before the conversion of Cornelius. And it helps us understand how and why it is that God reveals what he reveals to Peter in the way that he reveals it.

God had already been pouring his Spirit out on Gentiles long before Peter recognized it. The purpose of this "revelation" was not to initiate a new policy for the Church. It was to make the Church recognize what God had already initiated himself. That is why God told Peter: "What God hath (past tense) cleansed, that call not thou common."

Step 5) The events begun in chapter 10 don't actually find their resolution until Acts 15, at the Council of Jerusalem. Despite the outpouring of the Spirit on Cornelius, and despite Peter's inability to "forbid water" that Cornelius and his household should be baptized, there was continuing controversy in the Church over how to accept Gentiles into the membership.

While Acts 10 presents a series of miraculous events (an angelic visitation; a vision followed by promptings of the Spirit; and a pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit), in Acts 15 there is none of that. There is just a good old fashioned debate. The Church as a whole has not yet accepted the reality manifested to Philip in the wilderness and in Caesarea to Peter. Peter does bear witness to these events, and ultimately persuades the gathered assembly to accept this new understanding of the Law.

In fact, interpretation of the Law is what this had been about all along. It is inaccurate to claim that Gentiles were categorically not permitted to join the Church prior to these events. Gentiles had always been able to join the Church, under condition that they submitted themselves to the Mosaic Law. Cornelius, had he wanted to join the Church prior to the events of Acts 10, could have done so all along without causing the least bit of fuss, simply by allowing himself to be circumcised, and by submitting to Jewish law. The debate at the Council of Jerusalem was not about relaxing a racial restriction on who could or could not be a member of the Church. It was about the Law. It had always been about the Law.

Why didn't the Lord just give Peter a straightforward revelation, announcing to him that the Law was no longer operative in the way he thought it was? I suspect it was because Peter would not have been able to accept such a revelation; it would have conflicted too strongly with a deeply ingrained bias that Peter had about the place of the Law in the life of the Church. The Lord realized that the only way for Peter to overcome this bias was to see for himself that what he assumed about the way in which the Lord worked was wrong. So the Lord didn't tell Peter, he showed him. First, abstractly in a vision about cleanness and uncleanness (and what we humans are not authorized to call "common" or "unclean"). Then, concretely in the bodies of Gentiles receiving an outpouring of the Spirit before his own eyes.

Peter finally understood that this was not about what he or any other man could approve or disapprove. It was about acknowledging a work that God had already begun:
Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.


So here's what I know. God has poured and is pouring his Spirit out on his gay and lesbian children. I have experienced it myself, and I've seen it in others. God has not abandoned us. He loves us, and he accepts the righteous offerings we make to him, and he has blessed us and will continue to bless us so long as we exercise faith.

Just as the Gentiles in Peter's time were not excluded by virtue of being Gentiles, it is not by virtue of our gayness that we are prevented from joining the Church today. Gay people are permitted to join the Church given present understandings, so long as we submit to the Law as interpreted by our heterosexual brothers and sisters. The question is not, can gay people be baptized, but can and should the Church place the onerous burden of life-long celibacy upon us as a prerequisite for baptism? Can man forbid water that we may be baptized?

Peter, at the Council of Jerusalem posed this question in relation to the Gentiles in terms that are eloquent enough for our day, for gay and lesbian Saints:
Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?


Anonymous said...

So then is celibacy unbearable? I've asked myself this question more than once and without really intending to I've used my life experimenting to find the answer to this question. On my mission I was celibate including masterbation but since I had mostly wonderful companions there was always a feeling of support and great love. Does having had male support and affection negate some of the stress of celibacy? (Yes it did for me). But that being said it was only for two years and by the end of the two years I was starting to lose my grip. At the end I began to mentally sexualize my companions. Also two years has an end, it is not eternity.

I dated girls for a short while after my mission but when things got serious I broke it off. I knew in my heart there was no way for me to maintain a marriage to a woman.

I started dating men and that included having sex with them, and after a about 8 years of failed relationships I decided maybe celibacy was the answer. I stopped dating for half a decade, spent time with friends and familybut still used masterbation as a sexual outlet. After what seemed like a very long time I decided to start dating again and have now been in a relationship with another man for a number of years.

I can't really say that celibacy is an unbearable yolk however it is not enjoyable. Some would have us believe that if we go through life this way we will be blessed to experience heterosexual attraction in the next life, but I don't think this is really true. Attraction really lives in the mind and soul so it seems to me more eternal in nature. Would ones mind and soul really just change in that manner just by passing through the veil? If this is true then accepting the gospel in the next life would be automatic and compulsory. So what I'm left wondering is have I been created just to be destroyed, is straightness compulsory in the next life, or has the church got it wrong? Is my sexuality real and eternal?

J G-W said...

Dear Anonymous - I think you've already answered your own question.

But Peter's question was directed to the existing members of the Church. It's a valid question today. What would straight members of the Church do, if the same requirement were placed on them that is currently placed on its gay members?

Neal said...

JGW - all I can say is, this post was brilliant! I learn so much from you. Thank you for these deeply insighful and meaningful thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Dear JGW, I don’t know if I have truly answered the question of my sexuality being real and eternal but coincidentally, I just discovered the Mormon Stories podcast featuring Bill Bradshaw on the biological origin of homosexuality. I’ve never heard the scientific information assembled and organized in such an easily assimilated way and I’m feeling such a great sense of peace and joy that my experience of sexuality is very real. I would like to think it is eternal…

J G-W said...

I heard Bill Bradshaw's presentation at the Affirmation conference in Portland, OR a few years back. He makes a pretty persuasive case that this is totally biologically based. Even what scientists refer to as "environmental" factors, are not environmental in the sense people usually think about it (i.e., culture, nurture). "Environmental" means the biochemical environment in the mother's womb while the child is gestating (vs. "genetic" or DNA-related factors).

I guess an important question for me is, is homosexuality evolutionarily adaptive? That is, does it play a positive function in the nurture of human family groups? I'm satisfied that the answer is yes... Based on what Bill told us about the mechanisms that produce homosexuality, it seems to me to be built into the normal reproductive ecology.

For example... Homosexuality is more likely in families where the same mother has LOTS of children. In other words, once nature has ensured that the parents' genes will be carried on by producing a number of heterosexual offspring, now its time to produce a homosexual offspring or two, to help ensure the survival of the others.

So to me, that introduces the interesting possibility that God WANTS homosexuality to exist, for the health of the entire extended family structure. To me, that implies that there's a place for us in the eternal family structure as well.