A friend sent me an email this week with the text of a homily from several years ago by Fr. Raneiro Cantalamessa, preacher to the Pontifical Household, on friendship between men and women. The text is from Luke 10, on Jesus’ relationship with Mary and Martha. After noting the usual exegesis—that the passage is about the active and contemplative lives—Fr. Cantalamessa goes in a different direction:
I think, however, that the more evident theme is that of friendship. “Jesus loved Martha, together with her sister and Lazarus,” we read in John’s Gospel (11:5).
When they bring him the news of Lazarus’ death he says to his disciples: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep but I am going to wake him up” (John11:11).
Faced with the sorrow of the two sisters he also breaks down and weeps, so much so that those who are present exclaim: “See how much he loved him!” (John 11:13).
It is wonderful and consoling to know that Jesus knew and cultivated that sentiment that is so beautiful and precious for us men—friendship…
In this final post of my series on sin and sexual minorities, I will examine an additional major principle that is useful in determining what sins we should prioritize addressing, and I will conclude with a few related thoughts. This principle comes from Matthew 7:3-5 (ESV):
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
Up until now in this series, I have focused on sins against sexual minority people. As I alluded to in the introduction, I will now turn to some initial reflections on how to work this into a holistic understanding of sin with respect to sexual minorities. I am writing from the perspective shared with the other writers of this blog, that “God created human beings male and female, and that all sexual intimacy outside of a faithful, lifelong marital union of a man and woman is contrary to His plan.” The purpose of this series has not been to argue that this does not matter, but rather that we should not consider only this matter when looking at the topic of sin and sexual minorities, because all other areas of Christian morality also matter greatly.
For the final two posts in this series, I will discuss two important principles that we should always keep in mind while addressing the sexual sins that some sexual minority people commit. I do not presume to have complete pastoral solutions even if I had the space to write them out, but I think the principles I will point out here are both scriptural and fruitful.
Scripture clearly teaches that sin comes from the heart. For example, in Matthew 15:18-20, Jesus teaches that the sins that defile a person come from inside a person’s heart, rather than from outside. In order to truly address our own sins, including the sins described in the previous two posts, we must address the condition of our hearts. The gospel is not really about behavior modification, but about inner transformation. Therefore, in this post, I will discuss some of the attitudes of the heart that contribute to sins against sexual minority people. Despite the fact that I’m not straight, these sins in particular are ones that I have often had to address in my own life, and that I have not completely overcome. However, I believe it will be edifying to bring them to light.
A very common sin, and one that Jesus addressed repeatedly during his earthly ministry, is that of self-righteousness. I think that a lot of straight Christians see themselves as fundamentally better people than most sexual minority people. This is not a truly Christian attitude, because we are all sinners who rely on God for salvation and sanctification. We have done nothing to earn a better place in God’s eyes through our own actions.
In the previous post of this series, I discussed overt sins of word and deed, where the nature of the sin is doing something that we should not do. In this post, I will discuss one major sin of omission, where the nature of the sin is not doing something even though we are commanded to do it. I personally find that sins of omission can be a greater struggle. It’s far too easy to just not get around to doing the sorts of good I am commanded to do, or to allow myself to be controlled by fear of man. However, failing to do what God has commanded is still sinful.
Although the sins I discussed in the last post relate to sexual minorities of all faith convictions, the particular issue I discuss in this post relates specifically to celibate gay Christians. In Galatians 6:2, we are commanded to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (ESV). As we have discussed previously here and here, celibacy for gay Christians is often involuntary in the sense that it results from obedience based on conviction, rather than from an otherwise felt gifting or calling. This type of celibacy can be a difficult burden for people, so if we are really bearing one another’s burdens, we should certainly be bearing that one somehow.
Yesterday’s post on Sexual Ethics and the Trinity was mostly very well received (for which I am grateful). But I did get some criticisms, which I’d like to try to respond to. (I suppose it’s inevitable, when you try to push the conversation in a very different direction, that some readers will not understand where you are going.)
Social and religious context
Why did I write this in the first place? What problem was I trying to address?
In the last 40 years, western culture has gone through a profound shift in its understanding of marriage, human sexuality, and procreation.
This shift has also affected Christians in various ways. In the Catholic Church, contraception, remarriage after divorce, and same-sex unions remain contrary to Church teaching, but this teaching does not receive anything like universal assent in the pews. In other Christian communions, there have been divisive debates about a variety of issues in sexual ethics, with varying levels of official acceptance of changing attitudes toward sexual ethics.
God reveals Himself primarily as Father. What does that mean for our understanding of marriage?
Even in Christian culture, marriage is often seen primarily as a romantic and erotic union between a man and a woman. Thus, it has become more and more common, when we want to speak theologically about marriage, to talk about the image of Christ as the bridegroom of the Church.
Moreover, the widespread availability of contraceptives has made children seem a somewhat secondary, and voluntary, addition to marriage. Christians are not as inclined to reflect deeply on the connection between marriage and children as earlier Christian generations did.
In his excellent posts from Monday (Celibacy Is Not the Gospel and Celibacy in Light of the Resurrection), Wes attempted to respond to the following concern: “If we’re going to ask gay Christians to give up gay sex, that self-denial must be demonstrably good for us.” I liked what he had to say in response, but I think there is something more fundamental that ought to be said.
In “Christian Apologetics” (collected in God in the Dock), C. S. Lewis stresses the importance of focusing first of all on the claim that Christianity is true:
One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because you think it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue ‘True—or False’ into stuff about a good society, or morals, or the incomes of Bishops, or the Spanish Inquisition, or France, or Poland — or anything whatever. You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point. Only thus will you be able to undermine … [t]heir belief that a certain amount of ‘religion’ is desirable but one mustn’t carry it too far. One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.
And one brief follow-up to my last post…
I’ve always been fascinated by the way the apostle Paul describes his understanding of his self-denial near the end of his first letter to the Corinthians:
For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied…. Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
I don’t know any other way to interpret this than to recognize that Paul is saying, if he weren’t a Christian—a believer in the coming resurrection of the dead—then he wouldn’t be living his life the way he currently is. All that risk-taking, all that self-sacrifice on behalf of his churches, all that arduous ascesis—none of it would be worth much to him, in and of itself, if there weren’t a future bodily resurrection. Or, at the very least, he wouldn’t be the one pursuing these costly practices. Leave it to other moral heroes.
Is celibacy “good news” for gay Christians? That’s the way the question is often asked, and very poignantly, too (for instance, in the recent posts by Stephen Long at his blog Sacred Tension and also by Rowan Williams: “In what sense does the Church actually proclaim good news to the homosexually inclined person…?”). The point, usually, seems to be this: If we’re going to ask gay Christians to give up gay sex, that self-denial must be demonstrably good for us. We need to be able to point to ways that celibacy enriches us and contributes to our thriving, if we’re going to continue to ask it of gay people.
And there’s something unquestionably right about this. The church is called to promote joy and flourishing. Part of our life together as believers is about trying to find ways of living that enable Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel—“my yoke is easy and my burden is light”—to be felt. If gay Christians are pursuing celibacy in our churches, we are right to want to make that experience one that is nurtured by friendship and various other forms of community and able to be practiced with peace, courage, and hope. We are right to want to eradicate shame and isolation. (And we’re also right to critique the ways the church is captive to certain “family values” which often amount to little more than an idolatry of marriage and the “nuclear family.”)
But I wonder if there isn’t something unhelpful about this line of thought, too. When the New Testament uses the term “gospel”—“good news”—it isn’t talking primarily about celibacy or marriage or any other form of human activity. The gospel is an announcement of what God has done and will do—about God establishing his reign in the world, defeating sin and death, through the work of Jesus Christ (see, e.g., Mark 1:14-15; Romans 1:1-5). It is about the forgiveness of sins and the hope of the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15:1-11).