Thursday, 17 July 2008

Homosexuality and the church: a meditation on the tragic (Part Two)

A guest-series by Ray S. Anderson

The Tragic and Human Sexuality

If love is intrinsically tragic because it offers possibilities of fulfillment to human desire, hopes and needs that can never be met in even the most perfect human relationship, then sexuality itself is intrinsically tragic. The sexual nature of humanity perhaps lies nearest to the core of the self in terms of human intimacy. This is why sexuality is such a profound and yet complicated – and yes, tragic – component of the structure of humanity.

Sexuality itself is tragic because it is a component of the very structure of humanity that is woven through with the tragic. We do not understand what it is to be a human person until we understand that. And we cannot understand the struggle to integrate unfulfilled, sometimes chaotic, and often self-defeating sexual experience into authentic human personhood until we understand that.

When a man in his late 40s tells me, “I always wanted to have children, but after getting married when I was 25 I discovered that my wife could not and would never be able to conceive a child. Yes, adoption was one possibility, but my dream of having a child of my own well never be realized.” I respond: “Yes, I understand that, it is tragic.”

When a single woman in her late 50s tells me, “When I was in my 20s I thought for sure that I would be married. All of my friends found someone, I never did. I have lived all these years hoping for someone to love me in a special way. It never happened.” I respond: “Yes, I understand that, it is tragic.”

When a homosexual person tells me, “I knew that I was homosexual from the time I was a teenager. I tried to deny it, but finally accepted it, and though it is against what the Bible teaches, I have someone to love me and to live in a relationship that I could never have otherwise.” I respond: “Yes, I understand that, it is tragic.”

What each person in these situations has in common is an experience of the tragic as a component of their human experience. We must first understand that before considering the moral implications of their behavior. When Jesus confronted the woman at the well (John 4) he drew forth the truth that she had lived a life of promiscuity. “You have had several husbands and the man you are living with is not your husband.” Jesus perceived the tragic component of a woman’s life lived under these circumstances. The moral issue with regard to living with a man not her husband was never brought up. Jesus did not label her a sinner, but empowered her to confess that he was truly the Messiah sent from God. My point is that to label the sexual orientation and practice of a person as “sinful” fails to understand the tragic construct of that person’s life.

The Tragic and the Kingdom of God

Sin is not a condition that precedes grace. For until one is welcomed into the Kingdom of God through grace, the tragic only is a condition to be overcome, sometimes by religion, rather than by a relationship in which the tragic is brought under the promise of redemption. Until we each have discovered our own sin, always through grace, to be called a sinner by others is not only graceless, it is tragic. It breaks the common bond that makes us human. Saul of Tarsus would never have accepted the accusation that he was a sinner until he experienced the grace of God through his encounter with the risen Christ. Until the tragic nature of sin is revealed though grace, it lies untouched and unredeemed, hidden like a deadly virus that thrives on self-affirmation only to emerge in self-condemnation.

Jesus did not label persons whom he encountered as sinners, but rather offered them the power of his own person and inclusion in the Kingdom of God as an eschatological promise of redemption of the tragic. Looking over the crowd who followed him, he had compassion on them because “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:7). Later that day he instructed his disciples to feed them and, as a result, more than 5,000 were fed. This “miraculous meal” was an eschatological sign and promise of redemption from the tragic. For a meal only lasts one day and holds back the tragic for a time; then hunger again rises up to remind humans that their existence is fragile and weak.

Redemption from sin begins with understanding, not with condemnation. Does this mean that sin is disregarded? Not at all. But then we should understand that we are bound to each other not only by virtue of the tragic, but also by sin. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church with regard to sexual sin, he placed that particular sin in the same category as greed, worship of idols, and being abusive, a drunkard or a cheat (1 Cor 5:11). Paul only discovered that he was a sinner following his experience of grace through Jesus Christ. It is of no benefit to the Kingdom of God to call someone a sinner; instead, offer the grace of God so that they discover this for themselves.

The Kingdom and the Church

Jesus proclaimed the coming and the actual presence of the Kingdom of God in his own life and ministry. “But if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has arrived among you” (Matt 12:28 NLT). But the Kingdom, while bringing redemption within the tragic, did not promise redemption from the tragic until the end of this temporal order and the coming of the Kingdom of God in glory. At the same time, Jesus said that his Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Paul taught that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of living by religious rules and regulations, but of “living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17 NLT).

The Kingdom of God confronts the world with the reality of what God intended for humanity and the way it is supposed to be, calling what is into a redemptive relation with God as Creator and Redeemer. The church is a sign of the Kingdom and acquires its identity and role in relation to the Kingdom. As such, the church is not the Kingdom of God, but an eschatological extension of the Kingdom into the present world order. In the end, it is not the church but the Kingdom of God that is presented to the Father by the Son in its fullness and completeness (1 Cor 15:17).

The church in its teaching and life, under biblical authority, is not only a place where we can come “just as we are,” but a place where we can experience the redemptive grace of God to become and live as God intended. This is the tragic aspect of the Kingdom of God and the form of the church in the world. It embraces what is tragic in the form of the failure of humanity to be and live in accordance with what God intended. At the same time in its teaching and practice it brings the tragic under the redemptive promise of healing, hope and ultimate overcoming of the tragic. For the church to exclude its neighbor, the homosexual person, is to forsake its own relation to the Kingdom of God and its authentic mission on earth.

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