O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Jesus is born into the midst of deep longing for liberation. God’s people root their identity in their deliverance from Egyptian slavery into the promised land. They are the people who cried out under oppression, whose God heard their cries and came to be-there* with and for them.

“I have seen how My people in Egypt are being mistreated. I have heard their groaning when the slave drivers torment and harass them; for I know well their suffering. I have come to rescue them from the oppression of the Egyptians, to lead them from that land where they are slaves and to give them a good land – a wide, open space flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:7-8, The Voice)

By the first century, God’s people had endured wave after wave of foreign powers ruling over them. Though they had taken the promised land and established a king meant to maintain God’s rule, everything unraveled. The first wave crashed in 586 BC, when the Davidic monarchy was dethroned with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The people were taken into Babylonian captivity and exile became the new reality. The second wave hit: the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Though permitted to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, God’s people were still under foreign rule. The third wave rolled in with Alexander the Great conquering the region. The next wave of subjugation brings us to the Roman Empire into which Jesus is born.

Imagine hundreds of years of wrestling with your identity as God’s liberated people in the midst of constant captivity. Imagine gathering for worship and singing yet again:

“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2, NRSV)

“My soul languishes for your salvation; I hope in your word. My eyes fail with watching for your promise; I ask, ‘When will you comfort me?’ How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?” (Psalm 119:81-82, 84, NRSV)

Your constant prayer in these dark times is – God, hear again; come down again; liberate again!

O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear!

In the thick of mourning and longing, of hoping and praying, God’s people are bombarded with the dominant reality of the Empire. The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) was celebrated as Lord and Savior, a Son of God, who brought good news for the whole world by establishing peace. Caesar’s gospel marked the beginning of a new era. His birthday was said to be “the beginning of the good tidings for the world” and  “a way to honour Augustus” was to “reckon time from the date of his nativity” (see Priene Inscription article). Thus, his birthday was decreed the beginning of the New Year in many provinces. It is into this Empire, this reality of Roman power, that Jesus was born. The birth announcement in Luke proclaims a different Savior about to bring a different kingdom. This language is a direct challenge to Caesar and his gospel. This language is resistance language. Another reality is breaking in. Do you hear it?

Do not be afraid, because your story of exile and oppression has turned a page, and this chapter is titled, Promised One. The good news you have been desperate to hear, that salvation, liberation, rescue, deliverance has come, is breaking into this drama right now. (my paraphrase of Luke 2:10-11)

Bringing us back to Reframing the Gospel

Several weeks ago I shared about the workshop I presented, “Reframing the Gospel: How LGBTQ Inclusion is Central to Jesus’ Kingdom Vision.” In the post, “Moving the Conversation Forward,” I wrote:

If this discussion [about LGBTQ inclusion] is going to move forward, affirming biblical interpretations have to convincingly address this important concern [of biblical authority]. This is what Brownson is getting at when he insists on a “cross-cultural biblical vision.” While reading Romans Disarmed, a light came on for me that illuminated a possibility for reframing the conversation: “the good news of the kingdom” proclaimed and embodied by Jesus that Paul, in Romans 1, sets up as a radical counter to the Roman Empire’s gospel of Pax Romana, is the root from which the tree of LGBTQ inclusion is nourished and allowed to bear the good fruit of life in Christ.

In the next post, “Fruit and Roots,” I engaged Matthew Vines’ “test the fruit hermeneutic” and the traditionalist concern that becoming affirming would require rejecting the Bible as authoritative. Vines calls us to engage scripture with openness to new insights for the sake of LGBTQ people suffering great harm due to non-affirming interpretations.

As a first step toward demonstrating how LGBTQ inclusion is central to the gospel, I reflected on the story of Jesus’ birth and “good news” in the post, “What’s This All About?” Good news, or gospel, is connected to salvation – liberation from something; deliverance into something else. This brings us to today’s exploration of the context in which Jesus was born, one of longing for freedom from oppression and the restoration of God’s kingdom. The good news proclaimed at Jesus’ birth is that this freedom and restoration was breaking into the world where Caesar’s gospel of Roman peace dominated the landscape.

Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh inspired the connection for “Reframing the Gospel.” In the first chapter of this important book, they write:

In the face of an imperial gospel that proclaims that all salvation lies in Rome, and that identifies the emperor as both lord and savior, while bringing crosses, crippling taxes, agricultural exploitation, economic destruction, war, and violence wherever it goes, Paul brings a gospel of deep, transformative, creation-restoring salvation that turns the empire on its head. You have to realize that proclaiming Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, as Lord flies in the face of imperial ideology. This is seditious language because if Jesus is Lord, the Caesar is not. Moreover, this gospel reverses the order of the empire by coming to the Jew first and then to the gentile… And now if there is any gospel left to be proclaimed from the heart of the empire, it is that a struggling group of Jesus followers have bent the knee to the Messiah, have named him as their Lord, have embraced a faith alternative to fidelity to the empire, and have an obedience in their lives that subverts imperial obedience. (17)

In Paul’s letter to the Roman churches, opening with what seems to be one of the largest barriers to becoming affirming (Romans 1:18-32), he unpacks “the good news of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1) for the believers in the heart of the empire. Exploring this text in light of its imperial context leads us to reframe the gospel and see a trajectory pointing toward LGBTQ inclusion in our context. This is where we’re heading in the next post.

 

* Everett Fox translates God’s name in Exodus 3 (often translated “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”) to signify God’s presence – “God said to Moshe: EHYEH ASHER EHYEH / I will be-there howsoever I will be-there. And he said: Thus shall you say to the Children of Israel: EHYEH / I-WILL-BE-THERE sends me to you” (Ex. 3:14).

What’s This All About?

Every time Christmas nears, the scene of Linus reciting from Luke 2 comes to mind. Charlie Brown is frustrated with a meaning of Christmas wrapped up in flashy decorations, showy pagents and greedy consumerism. He knows there is something else, something more, something special, but he can’t quite put it all together. Linus takes center stage and answers Charlie Brown’s question – Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about? – with a story.

An angel appears and speaks (Luke 2:8-14):

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (NRSV).

When we read this, we may not immediately jump for joy. We miss so much that is packed into this announcement because of the distance between our moment in time and the ancient world of those shepherds living out in the fields near Bethlehem. Reading other translations and paraphrases might help:

“Don’t be afraid! Listen! I bring good news, news of great joy, news that will affect all people everywhere. Today, in the city of David, a Liberator has been born for you! He is the promised Anointed One, the Supreme Authority!” (The Voice)

“Don’t be afraid. For I have come to bring you good news, the most joyous news the world has ever heard! And it is for everyone everywhere! For today in Bethlehem a rescuer was born for you. He is the Lord Yahweh, the Messiah.” (The Passion Translation)

“Don’t be afraid, because I am here announcing to you Good News that will bring great joy to all the people. This very day, in the town of David, there was born for you a Deliverer who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Complete Jewish Bible)

Somehow the announcement of Jesus’ birth is good news that changes everything. The good news I first heard as a teenager can be summarized like this: Jesus saves. Believing “Jesus is Savior” was supposed to change my life. It was supposed to change everything. Looking back over the years, however, I resonate a bit with Charlie Brown. All the window dressings of the Christian life left me feeling like there must be something else, something more, because though the Christians I knew said we were participating in something special, I couldn’t quite see how it fit together. Many times throughout my journey, I’ve been exasperated and cried out, “Isn’t there anyone that can tell me what this is all about?” It just seemed we were all actors in a play that might have been produced well, but that was telling the wrong story.

Throughout my 20s and 30s I’ve been exploring the question: What is this story that is supposed to be such good news?

Lights please.


Do not be afraid, because your story of exile and oppression has turned a page, and this chapter is titled, Promised One. The good news you have been desperate to hear, that salvation, liberation, rescue, deliverance has come, is breaking into this drama right now.


We need to ask some questions in order to understand this story. When this announcement was heard, what was the plot of the chapter in which the hearers lived? What was happening? What were they waiting and longing for? In other words, from what did they need to be rescued? Also, for what would they be liberated? Salvation from what and for what? Jesus’ birth announcement in Luke is one of four beginnings to the story. Let’s turn to the other three gospels to see how those writers set the stage for this good news.

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23).

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’’” (Mark 1:1-3).

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).

Matthew, Mark and Luke use the language of “good news.” John is doing something a bit different, but we’ll get to that in the another blog post. For now, notice the language connected to good news: the kingdom of God is announced (that’s good news) and is demonstrated through healing; Isaiah’s vision of God delivering the people from exile (also good news) is connected; this story includes everyone.

We are in the first week of Advent (began Sunday, December 1), a season that begins the church year. This season is one of expectant longing that leads up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. In the next post, we’ll dig into the good news story more and, hopefully, get a clearer picture of what this is all about and how it is core to the work I presented at the TRP Conference in my workshop, “Reframing the Gospel: How LGBTQ Inclusion is Central to Jesus’ Kingdom Vision.” In the meantime, think about how you might answer some of the questions I posed regarding the announcement of good news.

Fruit & Roots

I’ll get right to the point: we’ve got to talk about LGBTQ inclusion in the church. I know there is a lot of emotion swirling around this conversation. People and churches are afraid to “have the talk” for many reasons – fear of conflict, change, loss, the unknown. Churches and denominations split over this. It is not an easy task. Some churches prefer to ignore the conversation altogether for as long as they possibly can. If we don’t talk about it, we don’t have to deal with it. Some churches proclaim their position (affirming or non-affirming) without any conversation. This isn’t up for debate – homosexuality is sinful. Or, This isn’t up for debate – God loves everyone and everyone is welcome here. Some churches draw the conversation out over years, trying to find a way forward that pleases everyone. If we keep talking about it, we’ll eventually reach a consensus. Some churches look for a third way. Isn’t there some way to compromise to keep both sides happy?

There’s no doubt about it – this is a difficult issue. We cannot, however, allow difficulty to prevent us from pressing into this conversation, because lives are at risk. For those of you who have theological skin in the game, please recognize that those of us who also have physical and emotional skin in the game bear the weight of this issue in ways you do not. Whatever you feel and however uncomfortable or scary it may be for you, it is exponentially more for us. This “issue” is our lives, our futures, our relationships, our wellbeing.

“I know that many pastors are afraid of losing members, money or their very jobs by having this conversation. It happens. These are very real concerns. But do they outweigh the need for all people to have a place to worship? You need to buckle up, count the cost, and do the right thing… You will save more lives than you will lose church members.” – Pastor Mark Wingfield, 2019 Reconcile & Reform Conference

If you can agree that we need to engage in conversation about LGBTQ inclusion, I hope you can also agree that how we shape this conversation is equally as important. Matthew Vines, in his book God and the Gay Christian, offers a lens through which we might evaluate our teachings regarding sexuality and same-sex relationships. Drawing from Jesus’ fruit metaphor in Matthew 7, Vines points to the bad fruit of non-affirming biblical interpretations: “Sadly, negative attitudes toward gay relationships have led to crippling depression, torment, suicide, and alienation from God and the church… If for no other reason, those destructive consequences should compel Christians to take a closer look at the relevant Scripture passages.”

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Vines’ “test the fruit hermeneutic” has been criticized as a “gross misinterpretation of Jesus’ words,” that “removes the authority from the word of God and gives the reader the authority to scrutinize the Bible’s truthfulness based on whether or not it hurts people’s feelings” (see Denny Burk’s blog post, “Beware a ‘Test the Fruit’ Hermeneutic”). Setting aside the gross erasure of LGBTQ people’s suffering by rephrasing it as “hurt feelings,” let’s address what seems to be the heart of the matter: biblical authority. Many who hold to non-affirming readings of scripture fear that questioning and/or reinterpreting passages that seem to clearly condemn homosexuality would require rejecting the Bible as “God-breathed” (NIV) or “inspired by God” (NASB). For example, if Paul says that “homosexuals” won’t “inherit the kingdom of God” (NKJV/NASB, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10), how would it be possible to affirm same-sex relationships and not spurn God’s word? A post dedicated to ideas of biblical authority and the way we read certain passages is necessary to unpack some of the dynamics in play here. For now, let me ask this: Would you be willing to”take a closer look” at scripture, asking questions and considering different interpretations of passages that seem clear right now if you could do so while affirming that “[e]very part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way” (MSG, 2 Timothy 3:16)?

In the workshop I presented earlier this month at The Reformation Project’s Reconcile & Reform Conference, I root Vines’ “test the fruit” approach in scripture by “reframing the gospel” according to “Jesus’ kingdom vision.” I have never been satisfied by affirming interpretations that seem to minimize the Bible’s ability to guide my sexual identity and expression in faithfulness to God. For years I forced myself to keep holding on to an ex-gay or side-b (mandated celibacy) position because I was unconvinced when reading “revisionist interpretations” (see James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality). I am a person of the text. I am most energized and passionate when studying scripture and discerning how to shape my life according to its revelation of God’s vision for humanity. This is why I consider deeply rooting LGBTQ inclusion in the Bible, and specifically in light of Jesus’ life and teaching, as essential.

Later this week I will dig into what I mean by “Jesus’ kingdom vision” and how that “reframes the gospel.” As we enter the season of Advent, reflecting on the longing for salvation that is promised in God’s delivering presence, let us open our hearts in longing for a faithful way forward that produces the fruit of healing, reconciliation, freedom from oppression, and love.

Moving the Conversation Forward

Conversations about LGBTQ inclusion in the church, if they are had at all, often devolve into “lobbing back and forth ‘clear’ Bible verses as grenades” meant to “end discussions” rather than find a way forward (listen to Pete Enns tackle this in Episode 70 of The Bible for Normal People). Many times “agreeing to disagree” is a euphemism for dismissing the person we disagree with, checking out and retreating to our respective sides. The problem with that retreat, however, is that we are saying to members of the body of Christ, “I have no need of you,” severing our connection. LGBTQ lives are at stake here. As long as our identity and relationships are up for debate, the very communities meant to be a source of life in Christ are instead bringing suffering and death. The church has to find a way forward.

Hundreds of people recently gathered at The Reformation Project’s Reconcile and Reform Conference in Seattle, WA to explore that way forward. I was honored to present the workshop, Reframing the Gospel: How LGBTQ Inclusion is Central to Jesus’ Kingdom Vision. My aim was to contribute to what James Brownson in his book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, calls “a new chapter in the church’s debate over same-sex relationships.” He critiques both the “abstract and ill-defined conceptions such as gender complementarity” of traditionalist interpretations and the “overly general notions such as justice and love” of revisionist interpretations and identifies the need for “a more specific and nuanced cross-cultural biblical vision for gender and sexuality, with particular attention to the implications of that vision for gay and lesbian people in the church.” I’ve spent most of my life studying the Bible seeking such a vision, and a few months ago I read a book that inspired the idea for my workshop.

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Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh inspired a connection that became clear to me between Brownson’s call and the “test the fruit hermeneutic” that Matthew Vines offers in his book, God and the Gay Christian. Drawing from Jesus’ teaching about false prophets in Matthew 7:15-18, Vines concludes, “Jesus’ test is simple: If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree.” Noting that “negative attitudes toward gay relationships have led to crippling depression, torment, suicide, and alienation from God and the church,” he urges “Christians to take a closer look at the relevant Scripture passages.” Some non-affirming Christians such as Denny Burk, however, argue that Vines’ approach “twists Jesus’ teaching… into a tool for suppressing biblical texts that clearly condemn homosexuality.” Burk is concerned about the lack of objectivity and subsequent “ethical anarchy” he sees in Vine’s hermeneutic. Burk insists that the “good or bad quality of the fruit [of non-affirming teaching] is determined solely by its conformity to God’s revelation in Christ,” not “any particular sinner’s subjective impression of it.” Specifically, the “personal distress” or “hurt feelings” of gay people should not cause Christians to conclude that non-affirming biblical interpretations are problematic or need revision. Burk echoes the traditionalist concern that the Bible remain authoritative, its meaning anchored in God rather than easily manipulated by the human potential for self-deception. If this discussion is going to move forward, affirming biblical interpretations have to convincingly address this important concern. This is what Brownson is getting at when he insists on a “cross-cultural biblical vision.” While reading Romans Disarmed, a light came on for me that illuminated a possibility for reframing the conversation: “the good news of the kingdom” proclaimed and embodied by Jesus that Paul, in Romans 1, sets up as a radical counter to the Roman Empire’s gospel of Pax Romana, is the root from which the tree of LGBTQ inclusion is nourished and allowed to bear the good fruit of life in Christ.

The workshop I presented at the conference was my first attempt at communicating how I connect the dots between a test the fruit hermeneutic, a need for affirming teaching to be deeply rooted in scripture as an authority for faith and life, and the biblical narrative arc of God working to establish his reign among humanity, especially as it is revealed in “the good news of Jesus Christ.” From now through Advent, I’ll share a series of posts unpacking the workshop presentation with additions as I continue to develop and clarify my idea. Then I plan to release a series exploring real-life stories and experiences of the good fruit of affirming biblical interpretation. As we in the LGBTQ community long for the church to offer “good news of great joy” for us, we wait expectantly for Jesus’ liberating presence to be manifested in our midst in new and deeper ways.

 

Note: For those interested in the list of resources I cited during my workshop, click here.