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LGBTQ: The middle’s turn to speak

3.17. 2015 Posted By: Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg 2,755 Times read

In the last couple of weeks I have been noticing a new pattern—the middle is finally beginning to speak.

Last weekend was Ohio Conference’s Annual Conference Assembly in Holmes County, Co.

I was one of six Ohio Conference pastors invited to preach and this is what I said:

I have to tell you the truth. While I was honored and excited about being asked to share, I was disappointed when I read the theme verses for our gathering.

Now Romans 12 I could do, but Romans 12:9-13 in particular, quite frankly my first reaction was—now isn’t that the most vanilla scripture in the entire book of Romans.

It has no teeth. It has no chutzpa. It’s safe.

It’s not at all provocative, but I suppose in times like these, who among us need provoked.

My Bible calls Romans 12:9-13 the marks of a true Christian and when you read it, it just feels like that, like we are in junior high Sunday school all over again learning what a good Christian is.

Now I wanted to preach Paul.

I wanted to preach his unabashed authority of scripture, I wanted to preach a word of clarity, a word of finality, a word of direction.

So I sat down to read Romans straight through in one sitting to understand what he is getting at, what is his argument is in Romans 12:9-13.

And I walked away dizzy.

Now every commentary you look at for Romans, talks about how this is the most comprehensive and systematic statement of the Christian faith. It is in truth God’s plan of salvation, what it essentially means to be a Christian.

But quickly as you begin to read through all of Romans you will notice that in truth Paul has two arguments going on here. He has two groups of people he is trying to appeal to all at once.

And in reality, this isn’t just a phenomena in Romans, but in truth it is in every single letter of Paul.

Every single letter from Paul has some element of argument between these two groups of people: the Jews and the Gentiles.

1 Corinthians 1:22 says that the Jews demand signs and the Greeks desire wisdom.

In Paul’s other letters, such as Galatians, Paul addresses the Jews who are insisting that in order to become a faithful follower of Christ you must essentially become Jewish by faithfully follow the rules of Judaism, including all of the outward signs of faith.

Today there are many Christians who find this kind of ridiculous, but to the Jews of Paul’s day it was obvious because Jesus was Jewish. He was actually a faithful Jew and he was in fact The Jewish Messiah, the one the Jews had been waiting, the one the Old Testament had been calling for.

And at the time Paul is writing these letters probably between the years 55 and 57, the Gospels had not even been written yet. So the only “Scripture” they had was the Old Testament and the Old Testament says that you must follow the Law.

So imagine their disgust when this new apostle Paul comes around and tries to say, that following the law, essentially, following scripture is not necessary and that the Gentiles were welcome to be Christian without being Jewish first.

I can’t imagine how difficult it was for the Jews to understand that there was another possible way of expressing faithfulness to God and to Christ.

Now not too long ago there was a great controversy that erupted on Facebook.

What color is this dress? from February 26, 2015 wired.com

Feb. 26 from wired.com

What color is this dress? Blue and black or white an gold?

My husband and I see two different color dresses.

But apparently your answer depends on the shape of the color cone receptors in your eyes.

People have gotten into serious arguments over the color of this dress, because the answer seems like it should be obvious.

It’s biology, but you know it’s sociology (and dare I say theology) too.

The Jews thought the answer was obvious—the dress was Jewish.

Scripture said the Messiah was Jewish and they thought his followers should be Jewish too.

They could not see the blue and black dress through their oblong color cone receptors.

Their obvious answer wasn’t that obvious to everyone else.

This was a common argument in Paul’s letters and it is a prominent theme in the book of Romans.

In one breath Paul debates the Jewish world view that says that Scripture, law and tradition are the only way to express Christian faithfulness, saying in Romans 6:14: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

But at the same time he tears down the Greek’s assumption that the only thing that matters is Spirit and freedom in Romans 3:31: “Do we overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary we uphold the law.”

To the Greeks they would have insisted that outward marks of faith were meaningless and only the spiritual provided freedom.

The Greeks were as equally guilty as the Jews in insisting that dress was supposed to be Greek.

In fact, if you wanted to, you could harvest from Paul’s letters any particular verse at any given time to back up your argument whether you are a Jew or a Greek.

Paul makes your argument for you.

And this is our letter to the Romans. In every chapter 1-11 we have a dizzying argument Paul makes between these two groups who insist that the dress is only one color—their color.

Do you see the division in the church Paul is speaking to? Sound familiar?

And I am not just talking about today’s division.

Isn’t this the same line of division for and against slavery? For and against women in ministry? For and against war? For and against divorce?

And indeed it is the line of division growing in our church today.

We have one group insisting that we follow the letter of the law found in Scripture and the other group insisting that the Spirit is leading us to freedom from the law through revelations found in science and reasoning.

History is just repeating itself.

And just like back then, we are dividing—we are fighting—and some of us can’t even be in the same room.

We are having a difficult time understanding how it is even possible for someone who calls themselves a faithful follower of Christ to even see a dress that is different than our own.

Paul understood this and believe you me, Paul wanted the dress to be Jewish. He knew the Jewish dress. He preached the Jewish dress and protected the Jewish dress.

But on the road to Damascus, Paul was ambushed by the light and in that light Jesus showed him that the dress was not Jewish, but here’s a news flash for you. The dress wasn’t Greek either.

But that is a problem for us and it was a problem for them, because when we hear that the dress isn’t Jewish, we immediately assume that it must be Greek. If the dress isn’t black, it must be white. If it’s not Democrat then it has to be Republican.

I often think to myself, Some great idea, God! This new creation this one new humanity. This body of believers that has nothing in common except that Jesus Christ died for u

Really, how did God ever think this was going to work?

A community that is built around Jews and Greeks; males and females; rich and the poor; rural and urban; educated and uneducated; Black, White, Latino and Asian.

There were bound to be divisions in a body built like that.

But in Romans Paul goes to great lengths to put them all in their places. And that’s what the first 11 chapters are all about.

But in chapter 12 and every chapter following he sets the dizzy straight. And he says, this is what the body of Christ should look like: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal be ardent in spirit. Serve the Lord.”

Romans 12:16 says live in harmony with one another; in fact he doesn’t just say that in Romans 12:16, but in he says over and over again one way or another (in Romans 15, 1 Cor. 1:10, 2 Cor. 13:11, Ephesians 2, Phil. 2:2, to name a few)—he says to these two groups that “all of you should be in agreement and there should be no divisions among you …”

Now, I wanted to preach Paul.

I wanted to preach his unabashed authority of Scripture. I wanted to preach a word of clarity, a word of finality, a word of direction.

But the problem is he doesn’t choose a side. He doesn’t say follow the letter of the law found in Scripture and he doesn’t say spiritual freedom revealed by logic and reason is the way.

In the book of Galatians he spends all of his time tearing down Judaism and its rigid use of laws, but in Corinthians and in Colossians he breaks down the Greek Gentile’s arguments.

And in Romans he just makes us dizzy.

How are we supposed follow his unabashed authority, his clarity, his finality, his direction?

How are we to know what to do, if he doesn’t choose a side?

How are we supposed to agree and be of the same mind if Paul doesn’t tell us which mind to be in?

But he does.

Romans 12 tells us: Embody Christ.

Paul cannot seem to get it through the early church’s head that this dress is not Jewish and this dress is not Greek. In fact, this dress is not even a dress. It’s the cross.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 says that choosing the cross will always look like foolishness, to both those who are bound by Scripture and tradition and those who desire freedom through Spirit, logic and reasoning.

Choosing the cross does not fit into a black and blue dress world. It will destroy the wisdom the wise and thwart the discernment of the discerned.

And Paul was talking to us!

Choosing the cross will always look like foolishness or weakness.

The history of Christ’s church is full of with division—the division between holiness of Scripture and the freedom of the Spirit found in logic and reasoning.

This will happen again if we do not come to understand what Romans 12 understood as the embodiment of Christ as a way of life in the church and what Paul understood as the cross—not simply as salvation for a distant time in the future after we die, but as a way of life in the church today and a way to handle our division.

There is no other way for a diverse group of people who have nothing in common except for Christ to get along, unless we learn to embrace the cross as a way of life together.

What does Paul have to say to prove to us that this new creation is possible?

And not just in terms of how Pink Menno does or does not see this dress—but in how we try to see the dress as our black brothers and sisters see the dress, or our Latino brothers and sisters see the dress.

When we attempt to listen to one another recognize that our dress is not their dress. When we finally take the step to see a dress different than our own, it is then and only then that we will have embraced the cross and embodied Christ with mutual love and overwhelming honor even for those with whom we disagree.

May it be so.

For further conversation read N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Fortress Press, Minneapolis. 2013.

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8 Responses to “LGBTQ: The middle’s turn to speak”

  1. Luke Miller says:

    Thank you Jessica for this great reading of Paul. I always sensed that dress had some theological lessons for us! I feel your word are also useful for a deeper understanding of the work of BMC and Pink Menno.

    If you’ll allow me to extend the dress metaphor, I would also say that I, and many other LGBTQ Mennonites, often have a very hard time even finding language to speak of our place in the divide, because we don’t see just the dress as one color or another – we ARE the dress. We likely have particular theological & spiritual viewpoints that might align us with one side of the divide, but our primary experience is of embodying the divide with our own bodies, souls, and spirits. This is a very different space, spiritually, than being on one side or another (and is a very holy space, I believe), and the work of BMC and Pink Menno is largely centered on shifting the church’s mode of operation from “side A vs. side B” to one of encountering the humanity (and divinity) in the scary space at the center of what it is that divides A from B. In that way, it’s the same incarnational message and work that Paul was carrying forth.

  2. Luke, what do you mean “We are the dress”? Never thought that this dress experiment has sociological and theological aspects. You see the background, where the photo is, and receptors in your eyes react on the background. That’s it.

  3. Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg says:

    I think what Luke is trying to say is that we all see the LGBTQ community with differently shaped receptors. Some see them as inherently sinful while others see them as created by God (born that way) and therefore a part of a good creation. I think that is one way to take the metaphor.

    My hope with this sermon/metaphor is that we can bring this conversation down to a manageable less emotionalyl charged space. Can we begin to talk about our ways of Christian faithfulness in terms of a more Jewish (scripture/tradition) focus v. a more Greek (Spirit/reason) focus, recognizing that we all desire to be as faithful as our worldviews will allow.

    I also want to recognize how problematic the language of the cross is for liberation communities. I know all too well the danger of the cross language for oppressed people. My mom was encouraged to remain married to my abusive father, because it was her “cross to bear.” That is horrible.

    However, I think it is time that we reclaim the power of the cross as a Spiritual discipline for community. What about mutual embrace of the cross? A mutual embrace of the cross embodies Romans 12 and provides a way forward in conflict for God’s new creation, a body of believers who have nothing in common except that Christ gave his life for us.

  4. K Driver says:

    This is a great article describing divisions in the church. But the early church dealt with these divisions, and it’s captured in Scripture! Acts 15 describes the council of Jerusalem. The conclusion of the council was “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” Given that the first three items come from Levitical commands, it is reasonable to figure that sexual immorality would also refer to a levitical understanding; including prohibitions of homosexual practice. Why do we need to continue to rehash this over and over again?

    • Jessica Schrock Ringenberg says:

      You are right, but this hits pretty close to home, because I love my steak medium-rare, more rare than medium. Why don’t we throw a fit about eating blood anymore? Or strangling a chicken? AND my Bible translates porneias as “fornication” which I am sure is much more frequent of a sin in our churches than same-sex attraction. And I am quite positive PORN would be much more frequent a sin, if we are talking sin, which statistically affects 50% of our congregations (but we aren’t talking about that).

      My question for us is, why do we go straight away to one part of scripture without question (abstain from porneias) but overlook food commandments? (I’m not advocating for porneias, I’m just asking the question).

  5. K Driver says:

    That’s really a straw man response. And for the record I don’t know too many (any) folks who eat/drink blood or food sacrificed to idols. And also the Mennonite confession of faith certainly does not sanction other sexual sins nor does the apostle Paul.

  6. Luke Miller says:

    Hi Barbara,
    Since you asked I wanted to say a bit more about my statement that LGBTQ people “are the dress.” Perhaps I’m stretching a metaphor beyond what it can sustain! What I mean is that the experience of being an LGBTQ person in the midst of the church’s current theological & interpersonal divisions is very different than simply being on “one side” of an issue. Some people might see the dress as white/gold, some as blue/black, and have passionate arguments about who is seeing it the correct way. For an LGBTQ person, it’s our very lives & spiritual journeys, our selves, that are at stake, not a belief or viewpoint. That’s what I mean when I say we’re not white/gold and we’re not blue/black – we are the dress itself. Any work that can be done to move away an understanding of “side A vs side B” and towards an encounter with the humanity of the actual people involved moves us toward the embodiment of Christ that Jessica speaks of in referencing Paul’s struggles to bridge the Jewish/Greek divide in his time. I also meant it as a gentle challenge to Jessica that, if you examine the actual work of Pink Menno and BMC (not just things you might read or hear about them), you’ll see that this very work is at the center of a lot of what they’ve been doing – BMC for more than four decades.

    K Driver: How is it a straw man response to quote directly from your main conclusion of the council of Jerusalem and point out that one command is likely irrelevant for our times (food sacrificed to idols), one command is completely ignored and flouted all the time without anyone thinking twice about it (blood is a very common food across many cultures: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_sausage), and that you’re asking for only one of the three commands to be taken seriously? I think Jessica goes much deeper into the message of the New Testament with her thoughts on Paul’s struggles to work on divisions in the church.

  7. Berry Friesen says:

    Pastor Ringenberg, I see you have read N.T. Wright. Good. I have read him too and he is unequivocal in saying the dress is Jewish.

    Why else do we read the First Testament so faithfully? Why else did Jesus say he had come to fulfill the law? Why else does John’s gospel state that “salvation is from the Jews?” Why else does Paul use Abraham as his great example of faith? Why else does he speak only to Gentiles in the climactic portion of Romans (11:13-24), telling them they are a “wild olive shoot” that has been “grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree?”

    “So do not become proud, but stand in awe,” Paul wrote in an obvious reference to the foundational story of creation, justice and love. “For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.”

    If we are confused on this basic point, then God help us!

    Are you really suggesting Jesus was breaking away from the Jewish faith? And that Paul did the same? That is simply mistaken. Both understood the worship of YHWH to be the only true worship and the “law and the prophets” to be salvation of all humankind. And so they subverted the closed doors of Judaism and opened that treasurehouse for Gentiles to enter. And after Gentiles entered, they were instructed in the scriptures, which was the Hebrew Bible.

    In Acts 15, when announcing their decision, the Jewish elders did not fashion something new out of whole cloth and they didn’t even mention Jesus by name. Instead, even while lowering the barriers to inclusion, they insisted that for Jesus-believing Gentiles to be welcomed into Jewish synagogues under their jurisdiction, those Gentiles had to renounce the idolatry and idolatrous practices of the empire and publicly identify themselves with the odd and often reviled ways of Judaism.

    The parallels to our crisis are obvious. God’s wisdom and justice are on display for all to see. All those who desire it may draw near, even if they are “dry trees . . . (for YHWH) will give them an everlasting name, better than sons and daughters” (Isa. 56:3-5).

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