The Episcopal Church was in the headlines with an announcement that the Diocese of Los Angeles had elected a lesbian female as Suffragan, that is, an assistant, Bishop. Reaction to the election was, predictably, swift and often negative. According to the way some interpret “the Bible” same sex relationships are allegedly evil. Yet nowhere does Jesus say anything about the subject and nowhere in the entire Bible is there anything about intimate relationships between women.
Some, but not all, scholars hold that the Gospel According to John was the work of John the son of Zebedee whom Jesus chose as a disciple as Jesus began His ministry. Although nowhere in this Gospel does John explicitly identify himself as the author, at the end of the Gospel, its writer says he was an eyewitness. The writer does not mention himself by name. Instead, we read the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” throughout this Gospel, and says he was the same disciple who wrote the Gospel and the same one who was next to Jesus at the Last Supper. The feelings of this man for Jesus were manifest in the Upper Room at the Last Supper, at the moment when Jesus said to the disciples, “one of you will betray me.” At that moment, the Gospel speaks of “the disciple whom Jesus loved was reclining next to him,” or that’s how the New Revised Standard Version translates it. The Message translation by Eugene Peterson says the disciple whom Jesus loved dearly was leaning on Jesus’ shoulder. The Original New Testament of Hugh Schonfeld posits that the beloved disciple was leaning against Jesus’ breast. The King James Version has him leaning on Jesus’ bosom. The interlinear Greek translation by Paul McReynolds uses the words “chest” and “lap” of Jesus. The point is, there was more than an ordinary man-to-man relationship between these two, and not one of the other disciples express any shock at this. Jesus obviously trusted this man to the utmost – while on the cross, Jesus entrusted the care of his Mother to this beloved disciple. John’s Gospel says that after the crucifixion, he took the Mother of Jesus to his own home. There are various legends about where this disciple took her – after spending some time in Jerusalem, he went to Ephesus, an area in what is now the country called Turkey and then to Patmos, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. Scholars believe he founded a group of Jewish Christians known to scholars as “the Johannine Community.”
What distinguished this community was its conflict with other Jews over the Messiahship and divinity of Jesus. Like many Jewish people today, the first century Jewish establishment, even after death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, believed Jesus was just a man, not the Messiah and definitely not the Son of God. According to some historians, the Jewish establishment threw the Johannine community out of the temple over this issue. Like the Johannine community, Christians today face a community that doesn’t see Jesus as divine. Beyond the four walls of the Church, it’s a very secular world out there.
The explicit emphasis on the divinity of Jesus, and His relationship to God, is what distinguishes John’s Gospel from the other three canonical Gospels, which are called the “synoptic” Gospels. In John’s Prologue, or theme-song, Jesus is identified as the Word of God, or Logos, that pre-existed the appearance of Jesus on earth as a person. The relationship between Jesus and God as Father is John’s message. Everything Jesus does, He does with authority from His Father. Jesus is the Way to the Father. Jesus is the True Vine and the Father is the Vine Grower. On behalf of the Father, Jesus gives us a new commandment to love one another and sends us the Holy Spirit. And on our behalf, Jesus prays to the Father in the hours approaching his death. For John, Jesus is a pathway between God and us, a mediator, one who facilitates our relationship with God.
What is happening here between Jesus and God as Father in John’s Gospel gives us an insight on what it means to be a priest. Priesthood doesn’t just mean the ordained priesthood. Ordained priests are Priests with a big p while the rest of us are priests with a small p. In his book “Living On The Border Of The Holy”, theologian Rev. William Countryman defines priesthood as a ministry that introduces us to what he calls “arcane”, which means “hidden things.” For Fr. Countryman, everyone is the priest of a mystery of something someone else does not know. Accordingly, the priesthood of Jesus as described in John’s Gospel is a priesthood whereby we get to know God, which gives us insight into God’s hidden reality. As you may recall,
said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way,” to which Jesus responded that He, Jesus, is “the way.” Jesus knows that in his Father’s house there are many mansions, and He is the one who went to prepare a place for us. In his role as priest, Jesus prayed for his disciples, more specifically, to protect them in God’s name “so that they may be one” as Jesus and God are one. St. Thomas
The passage in Leviticus that is cited to abuse and exclude gay and lesbian persons reads as follows: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination and shall be put to death.” What they don’t tell us is that these words are set in the context of a purity code – the same code that says that anyone who commits adultery shall also be put to death. Yes, for Christians, this is a life and death issue, but in a much different way: Jesus came to bring us everlasting life, not a code of rules whereby some human beings can kill others in God’s name. For Jesus, love was more important than purity codes. Look at how Jesus lived in relation to the purity codes of His day. Do you remember that Jesus didn’t wash his hands and his utensils before he ate, and that he healed on the Sabbath? And he numbered among his followers many of the Jewish society’s outcasts, like tax collectors, prostitutes, and Samaritans. In John’s Gospel we get the key to it all: Jesus tells us to live not be rules, but by love. It is this message of love that was the hidden “holy” of the priesthood of Jesus – it was the essence of what Jesus was sent to share with us. It was in John’s Gospel that Jesus introduced a new commandment to us – to love one another, as he loved us, and this is how the world will know we are his disciples.
The three Epistles of John are also associated with the Johannine community. First John was written in time of conflict in the early church, as it talks about the presence of a so-called Anti-Christs in their midst, those who denied the divinity of Jesus. But First John also reminds us we are all children of God and that God loves us as children. It exhorts us to love one another because love is from God. First John tells us that we must not be like Cain, the son of Adam and Eve who killed his brother Abel in a jealous rage because Abel’s sacrifices were more pleasing to God. First John goes on to say that whoever does not love abides in death, not life, and that hate and murder are one in the same. Love and the divinity of Jesus go hand in hand. One of the promises we make in our Baptismal Covenant, to respect the dignity of every human being, is grounded in the notion that God is in all of us, and that God is love.
The Fourth Gospel, and First John, both warn us that the world won’t like Christians, and that’s very true. All one need do is watch the news and see how most people react to crimes committed against them – they want to see the offenders punished, not forgiven and rehabilitated. And look at how much political support the death penalty continues to have. We also see it in the large cuts in social welfare programs when the economic conditions are devastating the least among us. When the financial system was on the verge of collapse in the Fall of 2008, whom did the government help? Not the people thrown out on the street by banks foreclosing on houses, but the banks—saving those institutions was more important than saving people from homelessness. Not the kind of priorities Jesus would have, for sure. What this says is for a large segment of today’s population, the message of Jesus has yet to affect on their opinions and behavior.
Today’s church can and should model the Johannine community. Mo. Carter Heyward, in her book “Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right,” described God as “dynamic, not static, participatory, not uninvolved, accepting, not denying, of what is really happening, here and now.” Our community does that by living the values of Jesus by pushing an outlook on life that revolves not around rules, retribution, and respect for the powerful institutions of society, but by love for one another both within our church community and to the world outside. The message of Jesus to love one another, is what we as a community experience as what Fr. Countryman would call “The Holy”, that is, the hidden message that we present as priests to the world outside the walls of this Church. It is what we communicate to the world out there, not just by what we say, but by what we do.
Christianity is not about purity codes. It is about how we live, how we treat one another both within this community and in our interactions with the world outside of it. Christian values are not centered on our sexual lives, whatever they might be. Christian values are incarnational values, God’s presence among us in the Word made flesh. Jesus was born to be among us as a servant, teacher and healer, not a rules enforcer. Unfortunately, that’s not the view the young people in the outside world has of Christians. In his book, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters, researcher David Kinnaman analyzed what Christianity looks like to people age sixteen to twenty-nine who are presently outside the church. They found that these non-churched young people think of that today’s Christians don’t represent what Jesus taught or intended. They think, according to Kinnaman, that “Christianity has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fearmongering that has lost its own heart.” He contends that young men and women are mentally and emotionally estranged from Christianity and skeptical about faith. They associate Christianity soley with conservative expressions of faith, and because of that, Kinnaman believes that Americans generally are increasingly resistant to Christianity. Kinnaman asserts that young people, whether Christian or not, “don’t want a cheap, ordinary, or insignificant life, but their vision of present-day Christianity is just that – superficial, antagonistic, depressing. Simply put, if the Christian Church is going survive, we are going to have to be something different than most people out there think of as Christian.
Christianity is about living in a way blessed by the Holy Spirit, the same spirit to which John’s gospel introduces us, where Jesus tells us he will send us an “advocate” who will make present in an ongoing way what Jesus said and did during his lifetime. True to Jesus’ promise, the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles at Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit continues in the Church in our sacramental life. At baptism we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. At confirmation, the bishop prays that the Holy Spirit may increase in us “more and more.” The Holy Spirit is present as we examine our conscience in preparation for confession. The power of the Holy Spirit is what changes the bread and wine at Mass into the Body and Blood of Jesus. At ordination, the people sing, “Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire,” asking the Holy Spirit to descend on the ordinand as it did on the apostles as Pentecost to enliven and motivate ministry. In marriage, the Holy Spirit blesses the relationship and is present throughout the life of the couple. And In Unction, the Holy Spirit heals us.
Today’s Christian Church must become a sacrament to the community, and outward and visible sigh of an inward and spiritual grace. It is a Christianity which is all about welcoming ALL people into our midst, commitment to Jesus, commitment to each other, sharing our table, forgiving and healing one another, and as leaders in our community, committed to bringing God’s kingdom into our lives.