Sexuality & Scripture

At the Table of God’s Delight

October 2011:  by the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey D. Lee | Bishop Lee of of Chicago gave this presentation at the Chicago Consultation/Ujamaa Centre consultation in Durban, South Africa:

It is a great joy and an honor to stand with my friends here before you today.  Mushin and Sathi, I am glad to be here with you and I hope to learn a lot from you.  I want to thank all of you, my brothers and sisters for coming to take part in this conversation — we are members of one another in the Body of Christ and I feel my own commitment to the Lord Jesus and the way of his cross has been strengthened by our time together. 

It is a little amusing to me to be speaking to you today under the heading of “other theological traditions and resources.”  I am an Anglican who happens to live in that part of the Anglican Communion known as the Episcopal Church.  Now, I know that sometimes our actions strike others parts of our Communion as puzzling or troubling. Maybe we even appear to be something slightly foreign or exotic in the global scheme of things, and in these last several years in particular, to some around the topic of human sexuality.  I do believe we have a particular perspective to offer, a distinctive history intertwined with the birth and growth of the United States, a nation capable of accomplishing great good and perpetrating great evil.  Episcopalians inhabit a particular context filled with its own challenges and opportunities to share and make real in this world the good news of Jesus Christ.

We may be puzzling, we may at times be arrogant, unintentionally heedless of the full impact of our actions on other parts of our global communion, we may do good things too and let too many bad things go unaddressed.  We may be and do all that, but what I hope to let you know tonight in no uncertain terms is that we are Christians.  Standing firmly in the great stream of the catholic faith, we intend to proclaim nothing more and nothing less than what Christians through the ages have always proclaimed: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  But that proclamation, witnessed to by Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition needs to be enfleshed, lived out and renewed in every generation if it is to be a living faith and not something else.  As a great Lutheran theologian put it:  traditionalism is the dead faith of the living – tradition is the living faith of the dead.  And all living things grow, they develop and they change.

I won’t try to deliver to you a learned treatise here, a kind of apology for the theological rationale that has led us to some of the decisions we have made.  I will leave the careful biblical exegesis and painstaking theological analysis to others—I recommend their written work to you, fine work available at the resource table.  I will say this though:  I think rather too much is a little too confidently claimed on every side for what the bible actually says about this topic.  But I am not an academic theologian, historian or exegete. I am a bishop. And I want to share with you a central piece of the work I do as the bishop of a diocese in the middle of the United States. It is the centerpiece of my ministry and a deep joy to me. It is the work of gathering week by week with the people of God to renew the vows of Holy Baptism. This is primary theology, the church expressing itself in worship, gathering around the baptismal pool and the holy table. Gathering the people of God, inviting them to bring their lives to a sacramental encounter with Christ, and then reflecting with them on the implications of that meeting is what bishops are for. As I make visitations to the congregations of my diocese, scarcely a week goes by that I do not preside at a celebration of Holy Baptism or confirmation. That is common to all the bishops of the Episcopal Church.

It is common to the bishops of the whole Anglican Communion and the church catholic.  If there is something unique or “otherwise” about the life and witness of the Episcopal Church, it may be just this: the rites in our version of the Book of Common Prayer for the sacramental initiation of new Christians and the renewal for mission and ministry of the already baptized–Baptism, confirmation, and what we call the reaffirmation of baptismal vows.  Adult candidates for baptism, or the parents and godparents of infants, come to the font and do what Christians have always done: profess faith in the Triune God, declare their trust in the saving power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and promise to make the way of his cross their own way of life.  This is the pattern, of course, reflected in the baptismal rites of all the churches of our Communion, from the first Prayer Book of Cranmer to all our various contemporary revisions.

For the past 30 years in the United States, we have celebrated baptism with a particular form of the baptismal vows called the Baptismal Covenant.  It has shaped us and continues to do so, I believe in profound ways.  The framers of our baptismal rite made a faithful attempt to make even more explicit a central baptismal promise embedded in the English Prayer Book of 1662 and in every subsequent version:  “Will thou then obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of thy life?” In the Book of Common Prayer 1979 this rather summary question has been expanded into five questions, rooted deeply in the biblical and catechetical tradition.

In a real sense, the Baptismal Covenant begins with a form of the ancient renunciations and adherences.  As the candidates for Holy Baptism are presented the first question, what they are asked is a three-fold renunciation of the power of evil in their lives– the world, the flesh and the devil.  Or as I like to put it, they are asked to renounce, to turn their backs, on the glamor and the false promises of security made by cosmic evil (Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness as the rite puts it), systemic evil (the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God), and personal evil (the sinful desires that draw us from accepting the love of God).

In the church of the second or third century I can imagine the candidates facing the west, the land of shadows and things that go bump in the night as they made these renunciations.  Turning around, making ritually clear their conversion, they would then be asked to make allegiance to Christ.  Our Prayer Book asks it like this:  “Do you turn then to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?”  It is hard for me to convey just how counter-cultural these promises are in the context of a society like the one I live in.  The ideals that the dominant North American culture holds out to us are self-sufficiency, personal achievement, and I would add, almost above all, financial security (as we say), the lie that with only enough money in the bank or purchases made, we will be safe from harm.  In a teaching session once, I said of these questions that they were asking us to put our whole trust only in Jesus, not in our accomplishments, not in our bank accounts, not in our good looks or degrees or the stuff we buy.  A woman in the back of the room got visibly upset and finally shouted out at me, “You mean to tell me we shouldn’t even try to succeed?  That’s not the Christianity I grew up with!” No, I suspect it was not.

Once the renunciations and promise of single-hearted faith in Christ have been made, we come to the Baptismal Covenant proper.  It begins with the question and answer version of the creed, the symbol of faith as it is called, with its roots in the earliest centuries of the church’s life.  Our life as Christians—the very life of the universe, Christian faith would say—flows from the heart of God, the Holy Trinity, this divine threefold-unity: the delight of the Father in the only begotten Son overflowing in the return of love which is the Spirit. The creed is not primarily a statement of intellectual comprehension of the vast mystery of God.  The word credo doesn’t mean that exactly, as though faith is something that happens only from the ears up.  St. Augustine said, “If you can understand it, it’s not God.” I quoted that once to a group of bright teenage confirmation candidates and a 15-year-old boy blurted out, “Well that’s a relief!”  No, we will never understand God, which doesn’t mean of course that we can’t know anything about God; just that comprehending God is not possible for created beings.

Here let me just say that I often wonder if the Christian way of speaking about God as Trinity in unity isn’t aimed in the same direction as Islam’s (and Judaism’s) prohibition of visual images of the Divine.  To say that God is Three in One and One in Three makes no ordinary sense—on purpose.  At the heart of the Christian faith is a way of speaking about God that boggles the mind; it’s a remedy against turning even this doctrine into an idol of certainty.

The creed isn’t a dispassionate intellectual statement; it’s a love song.  It is a declaration of trust in God’s never ending goodness, faith in God’s desire to give us life, to communicate the divine life with creation, to place our hope in the conviction that God’s desire is to reunite us with himself.

In teaching about the doctrine of the Trinity, I often make use of a famous icon that depicts the three angelic visitors who called upon Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18. Taken together, the visitors are said to be an appearance of the Lord. The figures in the icon are radically attentive to each other, inclined toward one another with apparent love around the table of sacrifice.  But this is not a closed circle.  There is a space at the table.  It is for the viewer, for you and me.  The very life of God is open, and God will not rest until every man, woman and child who lives is seated at the table of this divine life.  This points at what the Eastern Orthodox tradition calls divinization, theosis.   God is drawing us deeper and deeper into his own life.  Human beings are destined for glory.

So our Baptismal Covenant begins with, and is rooted in, this vision of the divine economy.  God chooses to enter the human condition in Christ, whose self-emptying love opens the way to reconciliation with God through the Spirit, who opens the possibility of living that reconciled life among us even now. As a favorite writer says, “Most of us think of eternal life as something that happens to us when we die; we’d be better off thinking about it as what happens to us when we really start living.”  Something like this reading of the doctrine of the Trinity has deeply influenced our understanding of baptism, and it represents a kind of counterpoint to an understanding of baptism that has primarily to do with cleansing from original sin.  By the grace of God, in Holy Baptism we begin to participate in the deathless life of the Risen Christ right now.  If God has invited all humankind to the banquet of new life, who can be excluded?  The answer seems inevitable: no one.

The Roman Catholic sacramental theologian Bernard Cooke says that sacraments do not make true, they make real.  We do not baptize little babies (or anyone else for that matter) so that God will love them.  God already loves them.  We baptize them to bring them into a community of faith that can demonstrate what that truth looks like, feels like.  The newly baptized become living, breathing limbs and members of the Body of Christ, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, the touch of Christ might be extended in time and space.

What follows then?  How shall we live this new life so that it might be real?  There are five promises in our baptismal rite following the creed that point the way for us.  I call them the “So what?” questions.  As I said earlier they attempt to lay out, in a fuller way, the question in the 1662 Prayer Book, “Will thou then obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of thy life?”  These promises are rich with biblical themes.

Here they are.

+  Will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?  Will you keep going to church? The Christian faith is irreducibly ecclesial, communal as Paul reminds us again and again.  One Christian is no Christian.

+  Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you sin repent and return to the Lord?  Every sin has already been forgiven.  In Christ’s embrace of the cross it is finished but since I continue to sin I have to turn again and again to accept the gift.

+  Will you proclaim by word and example the Good news of God in Christ?  Will you become the good news we preach?  And when asked about what motivates your actions toward others, will you be ready to tell people about your faith in Christ?

+  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  Jesus himself tells us the greatest commandment involves precisely this love of neighbor.  The rabbinic tradition has a wonderful story that we should imagine a host of angels going before every person we meet shouting, “Make way for the image of God!”

+  Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?  Will you vote?  The prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible right through to Paul’s insistence on praying for those in authority points toward our duty to work for a world in which all will have what they need, and not as a matter of charity.

As a bishop I lead people through these covenant promises week in and week out.  They shape my life profoundly.  I believe they shape the life of the Episcopal Church, and I hope they shape the lives of our members and those who are coming to faith in Christ among us.  They point us faithfully toward the Lord Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection has broken down every barrier that divides us.  They describe reliably an outline of the Christian way of life that would be recognizable at any time or place in Christian history.

The decisions we have made as a church, in moving toward the full inclusion of all people in our sacramental life, flow not from political correctness, nor from increasingly elastic social norms, nor from an “anything goes” attitude toward sin, but precisely from a profound engagement with the central matters of the Christian faith, beginning with contemplation of the Trinity itself.  My deep conviction is that the issue of the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the sacramental life of the church is not at heart about the full inclusion of LGBT persons—The Issue is not the issue.—It is, for our time and place, about the unfolding realization of just what was done for us on the cross.  It is about finding ourselves seated with every child of God at the table of God’s delight.