Wednesday, June 20, 2012 -- Week of Proper 6, Year Two
Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 971)
Psalms 119:97-120 (morning) 81, 82 (evening)
Numbers 11:24-33 (34-35)
Romans 1:28 - 2:11
[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html for an online version of the Daily Office including today's scripture readings.]
Many years ago I noticed that our Daily Office Lectionary skips two verses in Romans 1, verses 26-27. They are two of the most controversial verses in the New Testament. I thought to myself, "Ah, ha! A little political correctness in the new Prayer Book." (The new Book of Common Prayer was authorized in 1979). So I looked up the lectionary in the old book, the 1928 Prayer Book. The second lesson for Evening Prayer on the 7th Sunday after Trinity is Romans 1:17-21, 28-32. What do you know? These verses haven't been used in the lectionary for a very long time, if ever.
But I've heard them quoted more than nearly any other two verses with reference to the church's debate over same-sex relationships.
Yesterday we read the beginning of Paul's argument. He is setting up to make his case for justification by faith apart from works. He wants to emphasize that all have sinned -- the Gentiles who followed their futile ways in idolatry and the Jews (his primary audience in this book) who have followed the law in vain.
First he is speaking of the futility of Gentile idolatry. Yesterday he said they should have known better, because what can be known of God is plain through the creation. But instead of looking through the created order toward the God who created it, they looked to creation itself and worshipped idols, part of the created order. The next part (verse 26 on) is Paul's indictment of the Gentile idol worshipers.
Here are the omitted verses that have had so much play recently:
(26) "For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, (27) and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error."
This is the most significant passage in all of scripture cited to condemn homosexual behavior. I've heard at least four interpretations.
1. It's plain and straightforward. God, through Paul, condemns all acts of same-sex intercourse.
2. The passage is about the rites and rituals practiced in temples of idol worship, which included acts of intercourse with temple prostitutes. Has nothing to do with the love of committed gay couples.
3. Paul is using Jewish polemic and caricature about Gentiles to goad and shame his Jewish readers into abandoning circumcision and the law. This is prejudiced, exaggerated language about Gentiles and their debauchery as motivation for his Jewish readers. (The nasty litany continues through the end of the chapter.)
4. Appropriate instructions for heterosexuals. It is unnatural to have same-sex relationships. But for someone whose sexual orientation is naturally toward the same-sex, a similar admonition would apply in the other direction.
I know good, faithful Episcopalians who find themselves convinced by each of these interpretations. (and there are probably other ways of interpreting that I don't know)
A gay friend of mine engaging this section of Romans told me that when he reads this, he doesn't see himself being described. "I've been gay all my life. It's as natural for me as I suppose your love for your wife is for you. And I'm a sinner, all right. But when I read what Paul has to say about these people -- 'debased mind... filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, ...gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless...' Well, I've gossiped before and you could say I'm haughty every once in a while, but that's not me. That list doesn't describe me or my partner or our relationship together or our lives apart."
A straight friend of mine reading this passage and reflecting on her own experience says of homosexuality, "I think it's wrong. I just do. I think its wrong and the Bible condemns it. It's not natural. And if someone feels an inclination toward someone of the same sex they shouldn't act on that any more than I should pick up something that doesn't belong to me just because I'm attracted to it."
Most of the letter to the Romans deals with the question: "How should Gentiles and Jews relate to each other 'in Christ'?" They come from different worlds, and yet they are bound together in Christ. During the upcoming weeks reading Romans, we might let our sub-text be "How should Episcopalians with different world views relate to each other 'in Christ'?" Let's see what we can learn.