Who do you say I am?

by Jean Dean - August 24, 2014 A reflection on Matthew 16:13 - 20, Galatians 3:28 Listen to the audio recording

“What are people saying about the son of Adam?”  Jesus asked his disciples one day near the end of his mission, and they told him.  Then he asked:  “But who do you say that I am?”  Impetuous Peter blurted out:  “You are… the Son of the Living God!”

If Jesus asked us, his disciples today, what our society is saying about him, what would be our answer?  “A nut case!”… ”the Saviour”… “Someone like one of the prophets in the Bible”… ”just a swear word”.  On a personal level, we might ask ourselves who is Jesus for each of us?  Son of God?  A  good man? A wise teacher?  A close friend and guide?  I’m sure there would be as many different answers as there are people here this morning, each shaped by the experiences we’ve had over the years.

When I was in Sunday School kindergarten, to me Jesus was the nice, tall, fair-haired man in a long gown holding a lamb in his arms, with the mother sheep pressing close against him, looking up anxiously at her baby.  I suspect the same picture hung in many other Sunday School halls 82 years ago.  That picture has changed for me many times in the years since, as I am sure it has for the rest of you.

In other countries and cultures, artists have painted Jesus with their skin coloring and dressed in clothes of their culture, and have portrayed Jesus in a variety of moods and circumstances.  Even in Canada, all portrayals of Jesus haven’t been the same.  Do you remember the Laughing Jesus that Mr. Wheatley drew for use in the United Church Sunday School materials?  Bearded, yes, but of no particular nationality, just the essence of who Jesus was for the artist – a Jesus who could laugh as well as cry.

On this particular Sunday, Gay Pride Day in Ottawa, and because of my personal background of having worked with MCC (Metropolitan Community Church), I’d like to share with you – first, who Jesus is for me now – not the exclusive, one & only Son of God, but my guide and teacher, a loving, compassionate Spirit-filled person who I am trying my best to pattern my life after; and, second, who he was to some of the outcasts of his day and who he has become for many gay & lesbian folk today – and could become for many other outcast groups in our day – such as First Nations, refugee immigrants, convicts, homeless — in fact, anyone who is “different” in any way.  That can only happen through us, his disciples today, becoming his hands, feet and voice.  Trinity has already hosted 2 refugee families, one some years ago, and one within the last few months.  We also help in other ways through our Outreach Committee and the Jubilee Foundation.  But we can do more.

Jesus himself was an “outcast” in his society because he associated with “tax collectors and sinners”, because he ate & drank with his friends at every opportunity – indeed, because he departed from the accepted thinking and behaving in many other ways as well.  Let’s take a look at some of the unsavory people Jesus connected with:

  • a tax collector, Matthew, who worked for the Romans, taxing his own people (and incidentally lining his own pockets at the same time), who became a disciple;
  • a prostitute, the “woman of the streets” who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears & dried them with her long hair;
  • Simon, a Zealot, one of a group plotting secretly to overthrow the Romans, also a disciple;
  • touching an “unclean” man – a “leper” — but not necessarily a leper in the meaning of Hansen’s disease as we know it today;
  • letting a woman with a 12-year “menstrual flow” touch him… she would have been considered unclean and not to be touched even by her husband.

Who do you think Jesus was for them?  To me, he was someone who saw the real person, who didn’t judge them by the mores of their society, who saw everyone as a child of God, regardless of their standing in society.  Jesus showed people who they really were, that they were good enough in God’s eyes just the way they were, and that they could become “good enough” in their own eyes by accepting themselves as God already accepted them.

Where do we see this approach today?  One was when the Rev. Troy Perry brought this “good news” to the gay community in Los Angeles when he founded the International Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1969… they were “good enough”, accepted by God, they “belonged”.  However, he said from the beginning that some day he hoped he’d “work himself out of a job” where a separate church for gays & lesbians and other differently-oriented people would be unnessary, where they would be “part of the family” with no strings attached.

We’re getting closer to realizing Troy’s dream  in Canada today but not elsewhere. In June this year, 45 years later, the Toronto gay community (including MCC Toronto) hosted the Worldwide Pride Day, to which 110 gay/lesbian couples from around the world came to celebrate their Holy Unions, because they don’t have that right in their own countries, much less equal civil rights and must lead secret lives just to survive – and many don’t survive. They will go home, heartened & strengthened to carry on the struggle for equality and  acceptance there.

The United Church was a little slow in getting on board compared to the Trudeau government which took homosexuality out of the Criminal Code in 1969. However, in 1988, the United Church of Canada at General Conference in session voted in favour of accepting gays and lesbians as elegible for full membership, including elegible for ordered ministry.  From then on the United Church has been leading the cause for gay/lesbian equality where religion is concerned when other mainline denominations are still lagging behind.  As we heard from John earlier, some Trinity folk, including Rev. Ellie, will be attending Ottawa’s Gay Pride Parade this afternoon as one way of showing our support for and encouragement of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans-gendered and Queer/Questioning community.  Another way to make a more long-range impact, is our setting up of a Committee (of which you’ll be hearing more this fall) to explore becoming another Affirming Congregation in the United Church of Canada.

Being a United Church congregation leading the vanguard this way is not easy. Much of what has been thought and believed about the gay/lesbian community has its roots in years & years of enculturation and literal Bible teaching about homosexuality.  To change that thinking and belief in adult years can be most uncomfortable and challenging.  But we need not be embarrassed or ashamed if that happens to be one’s belief still.  With the help of the Affirming Exploratory Committee and a careful search of New Testament teachings we will be able to go through the emotionally charged process of revising the thinking of our earlier years in order to reach the level of inclusivity demonstrated by the one we claim to follow.  If Jesus’ “way” is our “way”, then it is imperative that we welcome, affirm, and support the social outcasts today, even though we may experience opposition similar to that which Jesus encountered.

Such inclusiveness is not only in line with Jesus’ example, it is in line with St. Paul’s teaching, as we heard in today’s second reading.  His reply to the Galatians (who had questioned him about eligibility for membership in their group of believers) was — everyone is eligible, male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile (today we might add gay or straight) – all are “one in Christ Jesus”. Differences don’t matter… God is blind to all differences, of whatever kind.

Other beliefs have changed before. For instance, there was a time when being left-handed was frowned upon.  School children would have their knuckles wrapped with a ruler if they tried to write with their left hand – the “right” hand was the proper and accepted hand to “write” with.  It happened to my Dad, and he did eventually write with his “right” hand… but he did many other things with his left!  Times have changed,  and we’ve learned that left-handedness is just the way some people have been made by the Creator.  It is my hope that the day will come when those of us who are heterosexual will be able to accept that homosexuals are the way they are because that’s the way the Creator made them, and learn to value the varied gifts and colors both orientations bring to the tapestry of life.  The gay movement has adopted the rainbow as their symbol, but those of us who happen to be heterosexual are part of the rainbow too!

So… I encourage you to join in the opportunities to take another look at what is actually involved in becoming an Affirming Congregation that our new committee will present this fall.  It is an opportunity for us to grow some more in our faith, becoming that much closer to the one we follow as is possible in confusing and changing world.  After all…

If Jesus accepted the “untouchables” of his day, can we do less in ours?



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