Start With the Person: A Christian Affirmation of Same-Sex Marriage

On that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him."

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

-- Luke 21.13-24, 28-31

Anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse.

-- Deuteronomy 21.23

About twelve years ago I attended one of the most memorable parties of my life. It was a Christmas party at a fellow parishioner's house. Everyone was in just the right mood and the fellowship lifted us all a bit higher.

In the midst of the jollity I sat down next to Mark, a minister friend. Somehow we got on the subject of homosexuality and the church. He was in favor of an open and principled acceptance of homosexuals -- practicing or not -- into all aspects of church life. But to me an actively gay life seemed incompatible with Christian faith and practice. I asked him about the biblical laws, the admonitions of the Apostle and the principles of design and reproduction in nature, etc. My questions were sincere and he was kind but firm with me. When I rested my case, Mark, the consummate pastor, looked at me and said with considerable urgency in his voice:

"Paul, you're coming at this from the wrong end. You must start with the person."

When I heard those words, coming as they did from a trusted spiritual mentor, I experienced a small but significant shift to the left. Maybe it was the party, maybe it was the look in his eyes, but I actually felt it. I didn't change my mind that night, but over the next few years I did.

Start with the person. What does that mean? I'll tell you, starting with a person. I will call him Brad.

Brad is one of a number of homosexual men and women who are active in my church. My family and I have worshiped with Brad and his partner -- I'll call him Sean -- for about 5 years now. Looking back over my life, I can report that I have not known anyone who radiates joy more consistently and more infectiously than Brad. He loves people; he loves the church; he loves God; he loves Sean. He is confident in his identity as a gay man, as a Christ follower, and as a human being. Normally I keep my visions to myself, but today I say: whenever I see Brad there seems to be a dove perched on his shoulder, or hovering just over his head or flying out in front of him. When I see Brad I see Christ himself.

When Brad figures out it's him I'm talking about, because he is who he is, he will feel terribly embarrassed. I'm a human being just like everyone else, he will say. Which is true, and him saying so will only encourage my opinion. Stop it, he will say. But I won't stop it. Brad brings the gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to the world. And, as the Apostle said, there is no law against these.

But there are laws and admonitions -- some of them found in the Bible -- against Brad's expression of his love for Sean. To say otherwise is disingenuous. So why shouldn't he just follow our tradition, accept that he is not free to express his particular love for Sean and love everyone (including Sean) but not romantically? Like a celibate priest? His love is of God and it will find its target, right?

I'm not so sure. The revelation that greets me in the person of Brad is not merely that he's a gay Christ-follower who's happy in his identity, but that his relationship with Sean is essential to his joy, his peace, his patience, his self-control, etc.

Marriage is a laboratory of love that fits the majority of people, myself included; few are they who are called to love in celibacy. For most of us, loving the world is best learned by paying attention to and caring for a single person. Brad is clearly one of these. The marriage model is for him. His life is grounded in God, but he loves the world through loving Sean. Anyone who knows Brad knows this.

So Brad loves Sean and joy and peace and patience overflow from that. Meanwhile there sit Biblical passages that condemn Brad's expression of his love. Take, for example, Leviticus 20.13: "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them." There are plenty of others but they all come down to the same thing: one must not overtly express homosexual love.

What to do? How to think about this?

Perhaps looking to the roots of Christianity will provide a clue.

While in seminary I had the pleasure of taking Luke Timothy Johnson's New Testament course. One of the things I remember best is his description of the severe cognitive dissonance that must have been suffered by those to whom Christ appeared after his resurrection. By this he didn't mean the incongruity of seeing Jesus alive post-burial or the strangeness of seeing someone vanish from sight. What he referred to was their intellectual struggle with their own tradition -- Judaism -- that unambiguously told them crucifixion was a sign of God's curse.

The earliest Christians were forced, in light of the revelation of a crucified Messiah, to look back over the Law and the Prophets and resolve this problem. They probably started with individual passages but found themselves recasting their tradition entirely to make sense of what was revealed to them in the person of Jesus. Even then, they weren't trying to start a new religion; they were faithful Jews trying hard to square this new information with their old beliefs. In the end the ramifications proved serious enough that Christianity was born. For those who knew him, the person of Jesus Christ proved too compelling for any other response.

In other words, the face-to-face encounter with the person forced a reformulation (not a wholesale rejection) of old ideas. The earliest Christians started with the person and worked outwards, keeping their tradition ever in mind.

Brad is not Jesus and, though our church is trending against tradition (at least in this area), we will not have to recast our faith whole. Coming face-to-face with Brad will not force us to found a new religion, but it must make us think and reconsider and pray.

In any case, it seems relevant to me that Christianity itself was born out of a group of the faithful struggling to make sense of a revelation, and doing so in light of a tradition that rejected the very person through whom the truth was revealed. It may be that my encounter with Christ in Brad is just a fresh echo of that old story.

That's how I think about it, anyway. I'm not a heavy lifter when it comes to biblical studies or Christian ethics, and I thank those like Johnson and David Gushee for doing the hard work of sorting out the details post-revelation.