Sermon - 25th February 2018
"I do not condemn you"
Scripture - John 8:2-12
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Once, when accused of not taking the Bible seriously, the Revered Troy Perry replied: “I do take the Bible seriously, but I don’t take it literally.” Troy is the founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, the denomination in which our congregation has its origins.
Sadly, it is the experience for many of us that the Bible has been taken out of context to hurt, reject and condemn us. In today’s sermon, I am going to be looking at a few of those hurtful passages and seek to explain the context, which you may find useful in conversations you may have.
Frequently, taking Bible verses out of context is the choice weapon of many so-called Christians who seek to condemn people for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Every year, at the Manchester Pride Parade, a group of such people assemble and preach their language of hate.
You probably won’t have any success convincing the bigots out of their hateful ways; but remember that many in the LGBT community are distrustful of religion and people of faith, so your voices speaking up for God’s message of all-inclusive love and acceptance is important.
Looking at the Old Testament as whole, there are just two verses which mention male homosexuality. There are no references to lesbians. Both of these verses occur in Leviticus, the third book of the Bible, written in 7th to 5th centuries BCE, and it contains a manual for religious living for the Jewish people covering all aspects of life. Of the 27 chapters, only one (chapter 18) addresses sexual behaviour.
If you get involved in a conversation about faith and being LGBT, the verse Leviticus 18:22 is likely to be mentioned:
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (NRSVA)
The other verse which mentions homosexuality comes two chapters later (Leviticus 20:13) and cites the punishment.
Taken out of context, this verse seems absolute. So let us try and give it some context. Firstly, the issue of translation. Any modern translation of a text written some 2,500 years ago is bound to carry a different nuance than the original. Our concept of what it is to be gay did not exist at the time of writing.
The Hebrew words “mishkvei ishah” can be translated in many ways, but literally means “woman’s bed”. Even retaining this verse out of the larger context, with this translation, I am sure that we would all agree that a man sleeping with his male lover in his wife’s bed is not good behaviour!
Now let us try to put this verse into context: Leviticus 18 is a list of prohibited sexual relations, all of which involve family members. All around the world, incest is illegal and taboo. This is the context of Leviticus 18, instructions to men in what not to do with their female relatives. For completeness, the infamous verse 22, read in the context of the rest of the chapter, men are instructed not to do the same with their male relations.
Before we move on, let us think about the one word in the verse that is used venomously against LGBT people – “abomination”. This Hebrew word, “to’eva”, occurs over 100 times in the Old Testament and refers to everything from idolatry, sexual practices, business-people using false weights to cheat their customers, to people eating forbidden foods. For example, Leviticus (11:10) also says it’s an “abomination” to eat shellfish!
So to the bigots, claiming to call themselves Christians, we have this to say, using the words of the gay theologian, Keith Sharpe, from his book “The Gay Gospels”:
“[You] make selective use of the Old Testament… yet, there is no logical justification for enforcing some and ignoring others. [Your] selection is based on a pre-existing prejudice against gay people. [You] do not, for example stone to death [your] disobedient children. [Deuteronomy 21:21].” (p. 27)
Moving forward now to the writings of Saint Paul. Having learned that the context is important, let us put Paul in context. The Book of Acts tells us that Paul, before his conversion, was called Saul and he was a Pharisee. A Pharisee was one of the two leading political groups in Israel around the time of Jesus, the other being the Sadducees. Ancient Israel was a theocracy, a country ruled by the priests in a group known as the Sanhedrin. Saul was part of that: he was a Jewish priest; his up-bringing and education was rooted in Leviticus and its rules.
Through his conversation, Saul – who became Paul – left Israel to proclaim Jesus’ message to the known world, and he encountered first-hand the Greek and Roman world, and it probably shocked him. Unlike Israel with one God who provided a code to live by, the Greco-Roman world had many gods and their concepts of morality and acceptable behaviour were different, just as ours is in the 21st century. Also, the Roman understanding of sex was different from that of Paul’s Jewish upbringing. Whereas sex was wholly absent from Jewish religious practices, sex - including temple prostitutes - was a part of Roman religion.
For Romans, acceptable sexual practice was not centred around gender, it was around status and power. A Roman man could have sex with a man or a woman, so long as the other was his social inferior. There was a little bit more to it than that, but that is the gist. You can read more about this in more detail on our church website.
And so, it is into this context that Paul wrote those verses in Romans 1: sex was being used not as God intended, that is within a loving, mutual relationship. In context, we can, therefore, understand why he wrote this.
There is one other text from Paul’s writings which is sometimes used against LGBT people, which occurs in his first letter to the church in Corinth (6:9), a young church that was troubled with conflict and arguments. Even though the verse in context mentions many types of wrong-doing, LGBT-hating bigots focus on the translation of one Greek word – 'arsenokoitai', a Greek word which seems to have been created by Paul, as it does not occur anywhere else in Greek writing of the time. There were plenty of Greek words to describe gay sex, but Paul did not use them. Therefore, we have no definitive way of knowing what Paul meant.
Finally, and most importantly, let us have a look at what Jesus Himself had to say about homosexuality… nothing!
But, Jesus did have plenty to say about how we conduct our lives and our relationships with others. In modern stories, we expect the climax or high-point to come at the end; in Hebrew literature, it is found in the middle. We see this in the Gospels, where the high-point is the Disciples’ moment of understanding of who Jesus is: the Son of God, the Messiah. In the same way, the high-point of the teaching in Leviticus is the middle, and is a cornerstone for Jesus’ teaching on human relationships:
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)
All of our lives are far from perfect: we do make mistakes, our interactions with others do go wrong, relationships can break-down. Jesus taught the following lesson
In this Gospel reading, we have mention of the Pharisees and their rivals, the Sadducees (called here “teachers of the Law”). Maybe even Saul (Paul) was there listening and witnessed this. The woman they brought before Jesus had done wrong. That is not in question. The letter of the Jewish Law, as written down in Leviticus, did call for the death penalty. So, what changed? The author of John mentions that Jesus twice wrote on the ground. What was it that He wrote? We can only guess… some commentators speculate that he wrote the sins of the woman’s accusers; others, more skilled in knowing Jewish tradition, knew that the priest was required to write the sin and the accusers’ names in the sand, echoing Jeremiah 17:13 - and by doing so, Jesus was keeping the Law. Maybe this is why the author of John didn’t mention what Jesus wrote, as at the time of writing, it would have been common knowledge what he had written.
The core point of this Gospel account is that despite her wrong-doing, Jesus gave her a way out to a brighter future. The woman’s human accusers stop and leave. In the same way, Christians who use Leviticus and the writings of Paul in Romans and 1 Corinthians should learn the same lesson the woman’s accusers learnt. Re-using the term “abomination”, the gay theologian Keith Sharpe has these harsh words to say to so-called Christian LGBT-haters:
“Churches which use Leviticus to attack gay rights are arguable themselves an abomination in the sense that they have ceased to be the thing they are supposed to be: preachers of the good news of Jesus Christ to all God’s children.” (ibid.)
Finally, Jesus’ words to the woman is that He does not condemn her; neither does he condemn us. However, He does not offer her a free-ticket to do whatever she wants. He does tell her not to sin again. In Lent, we take time to reflect on our lives, to look at the things which we need to bring to light.
But hear again Jesus’ words, spoken to all of us: “Neither do I condemn you.” The next verses in John’s Gospel say this:
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’” (John 2:12)