A Lesson in Hope

Luke 24: 13-32

In the Gospel Lesson, we find two of the disciples walking away from Jerusalem having lost hope for the future after Jesus’ crucifixion. They had hoped that Jesus would redeem Israel.  They don’t know what to believe in now, they don’t know what to put their hope in any more, not realizing that Jesus is walking down the road with them.  Jesus deals with the disciples fear and uncertainty by giving them a Bible lesson.  I know it doesn’t sound very comforting, but it did help these two disciples.

"We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation."  That’s the official UMC position on scripture.

Just because this is the official church stance, I know that doesn’t mean that all United Methodists feel the same way about scripture.  Some folks have an ambivalent attitude towards the Bible, for example folks who have felt a Bible lesson steal their hope away.  I’ve had verses of the Bible used against me, too in very unhelpful, unhope-full ways, so I am sympathetic.

Every clergywoman has to contend with the two verses in the New Testament that say women should keep silent in church and women should not teach men in church.  As a seminary student I wanted to learn how to defend myself whenever someone threw these scriptural passages in my face.  

Because of my seminary professors and the books they recommended, I learned how to interpret the two verses that caused me trouble.  I saw how these Bible verses were sections of letters responding to specific issues within particular churches.  Looking at all of St. Paul’s letters in the New Testament, I noticed that Paul did not silence all women preachers and leaders in all churches.  Therefore, I concluded that there was no reason for me to think that the Bible banned women from church leadership for all time.

I had a similar reaction to these two New Testament verses printed on the front of the bulletin that trouble some of you.

Ἢ οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι ἄδικοι θεοῦ βασιλείαν οὐ κληρονομήσουσιν; μὴ πλανᾶσθε· οὔτε πόρνοι οὔτε εἰδωλολάτραι οὔτε μοιχοὶ οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται

πόρνοις ἀρσενοκοίταις ἀνδραποδισταῖς ψεύσταις ἐπιόρκοις, καὶ εἴ τι ἕτερον τῇ ὑγιαινούση διδασκαλίᾳ ἀντίκειται

 I just dismissed them as products of a bygone era that addressed cultures of New Testament times and places, not Christians for all time.

Then I became a seminary professor, and one of my students came to me because he was struggling with a Bible lesson, and he wanted a book recommendation.  Because I had studied the two verses that had troubled me but had not done as careful a study of the ones that troubled him, I couldn’t help him.  So I told him that I would get back to him, and I asked the seminary’s New Testament professor for her recommendation.  I read one of her recommendations and realized that there was a significant difference between how the passages that had troubled me and the ones that troubled my student were interpreted.

Some of you have confided to me that you have a son or a grandson who is gay.  You are struggling because you love your kids, you know that they are good people, but the Bible lessons say that homosexuality is a sin, and the UMC says that homosexual conduct is incompatible with Christian teaching.  You can’t reconcile what the Bible lesson and the church say with what you know in your heart to be true about your son or your grandson.

What the book I read and then recommended to my student helped me to realize is this-- these two passages of scripture, the top one from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and the bottom one from Paul’s first letter to Timothy, aren’t talking about your son or your grandson or my student’s family member.

Dale Martin is a professor of religion at Yale University and a New Testament scholar.  His book lays out the problems with trying to translate these two scripture passages from Greek into English.  St. Paul used a term, arsenokoites, that rarely shows up in writings from that period.  The few times it does show up in other people’s writings it is in a list of sins that have to do with economic injustice and exploitation-- accepting gifts from unjust sources, extortion, withholding wages, driving up food prices, robbery, swindling, thievery.

Dr. Martin does not claim to be one hundred percent certain that he knows what this Greek word arsenokoites means.  He suspects that it has something to do with economic injustice and exploitation because of the other terms that it is associated with in the sin list.  Dr. Martin’s main point is that no one can be sure what arsenokoites means.  There should be an asterisk next to this word in all of our Bibles with a footnote that says “meaning of the Greek unclear.”  That is a more honest conclusion than the claim that these two verses condemn homosexuality.

Whatever St. Paul is referring to in these two letters I am certain that it is not the desire for love, marriage, and a family.  The Bible does not condemn such longings.  The Bible puts those longings within the context of salvation history.  These all too human desires are only a problem when they distract us from the love of God.  

When we put all of our hope in this world.  When we are preoccupied with the good in this world and neglect what is good for our souls, that’s when longings become a temptation.  That’s when we need to renew our search for Christ.  Admit that we need help if we are going to maintain our communion with the sacred in the midst of the secular.  I’m confident that when you come to that point in your life and you seek Christ, you will find that he’s already there, walking beside you down the road you’ve been traveling.

Unfortunately, I don’t think a Bible lesson is going to help your gay son or grandson who wants to marry the love of his life and raise children with him.  Your family member is facing a deep-seated bias that is so ingrained it made it’s way into English translations of the Bible, a feeling of disgust towards gays that can only be overcome through familiarity.

The more gay and lesbian people someone personally knows, the more someone can overcome that deep-seated feeling of disgust through the counter observation of real people.

It’s easy to hate an abstract stereotype.  The most effective way to overcome an abstraction is with the concrete lives and hopes and dreams of living, breathing people.  Especially people who we have known all of our lives.

Jesus’ Bible lesson opened the disciples hearts, but it wasn’t enough to restore their hope.  Jesus explained to them the abstract biblical concept of a Messiah who would suffer and die to redeem Israel and then be raised from the dead.  Their hearts were on fire as Jesus told them what the Bible says about him, but even so, they still didn’t know who they were talking to.

It was only when Jesus sat down at the table with them, blessed the bread and shared it with them, in that private moment of table fellowship, that’s when they recognized him and knew him for who he was.  That is when the truth of the resurrection became real to them and they hurried all the way back to Jerusalem so that they could share their story with the rest of Jesus’ followers.

So it’s not the Bible scholars who I admire in this instance.  It’s the people who come out of the closet and those of you who support your loved ones when they come out, you and your kids are my heroes.  Your willingness to reveal your true selves, to walk alongside folks, sit and eat with them, share your stories, that’s what’s changing hearts and minds.  You are not just teaching a Bible lesson, you are living the teachings of scripture.  And in doing so, you give others hope.