Everything started to shift for me with a new understanding of a passage I had long misunderstood.
In Matthew 16, Peter makes his great confession, “You are the Christ,” and Jesus responds with, “God has revealed this to you, and you’re Peter, the Rock, and Upon this Rock I’ll build my church. The end.” Right? No. No, not the end. Jesus then goes on to say that the keys to the heaven – the keys to the kingdom – have been given (to Peter, and to the people God is assembling through Peter), and whatever Peter and the Church bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever they looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. And for years I wondered: What. Does. That. Mean. What is this binding and loosing all about?
Thank God for the internet, and some good teachers. Through a lot of studying, I found out that it is actually a rabbinical term. It means to forbid or allow activities and people by an indisputable authority. It’s the same passage where Catholics believe the Pope derives his authority. And this passage turned my world upside-down. Because Jesus does not give authority to a Book. He does not give authority to the prophets. He does not even hold on to the authority for Himself. He gives this rule-making binding-and-loosing authority, this figuring out what following His Way will look like in real life…to the church. To a bunch of flawed people. More precisely, to a bunch of uneducated fishermen.
But then Jesus died and rose, and from that point on, everything was perfect! Right? No, of course. Because maybe it wasn’t supposed to be. And it didn’t take long till they were fighting over who was in and who was out. What could you eat, did you have to be circumcised, and what about the Sabbath? It was a mess! They were in dire need of some binding to cut down on the riff-raff.
And then, Peter had a dream. Passage #2 in my journey. You can read about it in Acts 10 . In that dream, all different kinds of animals were lowered before Peter on a cloth. Four footed animals with paws; birds; lizards and other reptiles. And God says to Peter: “Kill and eat.”
And Peter was repulsed! “Surely not! I’ve never eaten anything unclean!” Because Peter was a good Jew. He may have hung out with those nasty Gentiles sometimes, but he never sullied himself by partaking of their food. Peter followed the rules. Peter knew the law.
But God wrote the law. And God had a Big Reveal for Peter. So God said to Peter: “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.” And I imagine it took Peter quite a while to pick his jaw up off the floor.
I wonder, what was God’s tone of voice here? The story doesn’t say. Was God’s stern, lecturing? Was He scolding Peter, who once again just didn’t get it? I mean, didn’t Jesus Himself say to the disciples that it wasn’t what went into a man that defiled him, but what came out? Well, sure, But, Jesus was talking about ceremonial washing of dishes! It wasn’t like Jesus talked about the importance of love and community over ritual and purity anywhere else, right? Well, except pretty much everywhere.
So God had reason to be stern. But I like to think there was a chuckle underneath His words, like we get sometimes when we talk to small children. Or better still, maybe there was the sound of millennia of joyful anticipation escaping His lips. Because this – THIS, the ever expanding Kingdom for God – was His plan the entire time. People like Peter – people like us – have been obsessing over the wrong thing. We are so concerned with keeping ourselves from getting tainted. But it is God’s plan to make us clean. All of us.
It was not long after that the Jerusalem Council met. This is the third Scripture that upended my thinking. You can read about it in Acts 15. See, despite Peter’s dream, and later on, Paul’s preaching, there was no unity on this. There were sharp divisions. The controversy was damaging the young, fledgling faith. And so the Jerusalem Council met, and they discussed, and they prayed, and they decided, and they wrote a letter to be disseminated to all the churches.
Note: Nowhere in the reply of the Council is there a “Thus saith the Lord.” Instead, in their letter to the churches, they wrote: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” It seemed good. To the Holy Spirit. And to us. Does that sound like verbal plenary inspiration to you? Or does that sound like a group feeling its way, open to revisiting things down the road? Does that sound like a “God said it, I believe it, That settles it” bumper sticker? At all. To me, it sounds a bit more like a Church doing the best it can with the information it has, and realizing that if they were to make an error, it was going to be an error on the side of as much grace and mercy as they could stomach.
Because there was very little binding involved in their letter: abstain from food sacrificed to idols; from blood; from the meat of strangled animals; from sexual immorality (which is undefined, btw). But mostly, there is a lot of loosing. Mostly, this is a grudging acknowledgment that Kingdom thing is bigger than them, bigger than Judaism, that this way of Jesus was for everyone. This Kingdom is here, the Kingdom is Now, and the Kingdom and is Big.
And what have we done since then? Over and over and over, we have forgotten that we were once the outcasts, the outsiders, the unclean. We have forgotten that we were the ones who made Peter’s stomach turn. We have forgotten that we were the ones about whom God said: “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.”
We have forgotten that the Kingdom was not always for us, and instead we have become Pharisees ourselves, tying up heavy, cumbersome loads and putting them on other people’s shoulders, but then we are not willing to lift a finger to move them. The nature of the burdens has varied across the centuries. But the pull of legalism over freedom has remained. We do not trust people to love one another. And more than that, we do not trust God to teach them how.
Are there exploitative, abusive, and unhealthy gay relationships? Of course there are. Though I’m not sure how well we can see them, what with this plank of exploitative, abusive, and unhealthy straight relationships in our own eye. Friends, it is well past time to stop judging each other by the worst actions of “those people.” In fact, it’s probably time we stopped viewing each other as “those people” at all. Maybe just “people.”
And it’s time we stopped worrying about who is condemned, and started working with the God that is in the business of redeeming: man and woman; Jew and Gentile; gay and straight; black, white, brown, and every other color of the rainbow.
I know this is messy. I know it is uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be. Because anything worth having is worth struggling over.
Scripture is not Truth hermetically sealed in a #2 mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnell’s porch, waiting for the magical mystics to open for us and tell us the answers to all life’s questions. Scripture is more like an unfolding. Sometimes it is more like a wrestling match. But this much, I know: In the end, no matter what, God wins.