New Jersey Association of Confessing United Methodists

United Methodist Relay, Voice of the New Jersey Area, Volume XLV, JUNE 1999, No. 5, Page 5


‘What God Has Made Clean, Clean…’

by David E. Wiley, III

What follow didn’t really happen to me. But it could have. And maybe it’s happened to some of you.

One day, I was studying Scripture, preparing for a sermon. I was poring over the passage found in the 10th chapter of Acts. Peter was sitting on the roof of one Simon the Tanner in the city of Joppa (Act 10) when he had a vision. A tablecloth with food that was ritually unclean was being lowered from heaven, and Peter heard the words, "Rise, Peter. Kill and eat." But Peter protested. "No, Lord," he said, "for I have never eaten anything that is unclean." But the voice came to him again, saying, "What God has cleansed, you must not consider unclean."

For hundreds, even thousands of years, Jewish tradition and Scripture had taught Jews not to eat certain foods. They were considered "unclean." But now God said to Peter, "Rise, kill and eat. Because of such Scriptures this, I thought to myself, today we routinely eat such foods. But at the same time I knew this story really wasn’t about food at all. It was about considering certain human beings unclean. Immediately after this vision ended, Peter was called down off the roof to meet with Gentiles whom the Roman Centurion Cornelius had send to bring Peter to him. Being Gentiles, they were ritually "unclean", just as the food was in Peter’s vision. Hundreds of years of Jewish Scripture and tradition had taught Jews not to associate with unclean individuals. But after experiencing the truth of his vision, Peter states, "God has shown me that I should not call any man unclean," and after meeting with Cornelius, Peter baptized him. Later, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, I read where others in the church criticized Peter for departing from tradition and meeting with the uncircumcised.

After I finished reading this passage, my doorbell rang. At the door stood a young man, a member for my congregation, a child of faithful parents. He stood there with his friend, with whom he shared an apartment. "We have come to you today to ask your blessing upon us. We are gay."

Our denomination, along with most mainline denominations in this country, has been struggling with the reality of homosexuality and our pastoral response to it. I, for one, do not understand homosexuality. I don’t understand how a man could prefer a man or a woman a woman as a sexual partner. At the same time, I know many persons who have this orientation, and I do not believe that they have "chosen" it. I believe that this is the way they have been created. I personally do not plan to defy the recent rulings of my denomination about the blessing of homosexual unions. Mercifully, no one has approached me to ask me to do so. But what would I do if they did? Hundreds, even thousands, of years of Scripture and tradition have taught that homosexuality is wrong. Our church now expressly forbids us to perform ceremonies blessing such unions. But if you believe, as many do, that persons who are homosexual are born that way, "What God has cleansed, you must not call unclean." Unfortunately, our Lord gave us no clear word on the subject. But, just as when God appeared to Peter on the rooftop at Joppa, Jesus did share some words that remind me that "Scripture is a Living Word, and that God is still at work the world through the person of the Holy Spirit. As reported by John, Jesus shared these words with his disciples on the night of the Last Supper:

"I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…and he will declare to you the things that are to come." (John 16:12-13)

What did Jesus mean by that? What, in God’s name, was he trying to say to us? What are the "things that are to come" of which Jesus was talking? I think of such issues as the ordination of women. There was a time when our denomination "could not bear" the ordination of women. But it is common today. I also remember an older colleague of mine telling me of the "scandal" when, back in the 50’s or early 60’s, the wife of a Methodist minister in our conference took a job! That just wasn’t done! A pastor’s wife was not supposed to work outside the church. She was an extension of the pastor. The church "could not bear" such a practice. But it is common today.

What about the issue of homosexuality? Is it possible that this is an issue that we once "could not bear", but now God is speaking a new Word to us? And what would I do if some one from my congregation did come to my door with a request for a blessing of their union? Coward that I am, I think I would try to find a way to pastor in the situation - to be true to the Spirit, even the "Spirit of truth" - and yet remain faithful to the legalism of my denomination. I would probably say something like, "I do not agree with the position of my denomination has taken on the matter, but God forgive me, I am not willing to lose my orders over it. However, up the street is a Unitarian Church. The pastor there will perform such a rite, I cannot but I will be present and do whatever I can to offer you my support. And I will pray for the day when my denomination will permit such rites."

"I have many things yet to say to you."

What God has made clean…"

(The Rev. David E. Wiley, III is pastor of the Wayne United Methodist Church and secretary of the Northern New Jersey Annual Conference)

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