As we enter the called General Conference of The United Methodist Church this weekend, where our global church body will debate and vote on the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church (marriage and ordination,) I’ve been reflecting.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
This is the phrase Nathanial throws at Phillip in John chapter 1. Phillip had met Jesus and was proclaiming him to be the Messiah they had waited for. Nathanial wasn’t having it. So, hearing that this supposed “Messiah” was from Nazareth, he responds rather flippantly, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I would have loved to see the accompanying eye roll.
Phillip responds simply: “Come and see.”
“Ok, Nathanial,” Phillip seems to think in this short passage, “point taken. But come and see and you will change your mind.”
And Nathanial does! And quickly. Even before the miracle at Cana. Nathanial meets Jesus and proclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
But what was wrong with Nazareth? Scholars have posited theories, but let’s just be basic here.
- In Jesus’ time it was tiny. It was a “one light town.” Though let’s stay in the first century and call it a “one mikva town.”
- It was likely aligned with Judean politics. So, for those who did not agree with Judea’s ideology, Nazareth would have been considered part of the problem. (For Trump supporters perhaps imagine going into a neighborhood with all Clinton signs and vice-versa for Clinton supporters.)
And yet, despite Nathanial’s horror and disbelief that something as significant as the Messiah could come from such an insignificant place with the “wrong” ideology, Jesus DID.
Over the past years and months I’ve read and listened to different points of view about The United Methodist church and this particular juncture.
From many progressive and LGBTQ friends I hear utter frustration with the denomination. In fact, many have left the denomination because of this issue. I’ve had seminary friends leave the UMC to answer pastoral calls in the United Church of Christ and Episcopal Church because of the rejection of LGBTQ individuals in our Book of Discipline. I do not blame them and it is our deep loss.
From many conservative friends I hear utter frustration with the denomination. Some are concerned that our church is following dangerous societal norms while disregarding Biblical law. Some threaten to leave the denomination and take congregations with them if the decisions of this weekend do not uphold the current language of the Book of Discipline. Despite what some progressives might believe, I think that would be our deep loss as well. While many inside and outside of the Christian faith tend to label those in this camp as “bigots,” I’m not convinced most are. I think that just like those who advocate full inclusion, anti-LGBTQ Christians believe they, too, are acting out of love—the love and concern for eternal salvation.
From friends outside of the North Alabama conference, the UMC, and Christianity I hear disbelief and even annoyance. Many who grew up in the church have abandoned Christianity over issues like these. After all, theologies of exclusion have created climates where our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are rejected, taunted, and even killed.
I hear, “Really though, how can anything good come out of the North Alabama Conference where it seems most are anti-LGBTQ, or The United Methodist Church, or, let’s be honest, even Christianity anymore. They have hurt too much and too often.”
I get it.
But even our Messiah came out of the most unlikely of places and in the most unlikely of ways.
And throughout our history as Christians, and even United Methodists, this trend tracks.
Let’s take a look:
When Christianity wasn’t Christianity, but rather an unpopular Jewish movement, we had similar debates.
Can anything good come from the unclean and those who don’t follow religious laws?
Jesus thought so. This is why he touched lepers and healed on the Sabbath.
Can anything good come from the Gentiles (non-Jews)?
Paul thought so. But James most definitely did not. Peter was decidedly “moderate.”
Many early followers held fast that the only people who could properly follow Christ must be Jewish. That meant adhering to Jewish law laid out in the Torah (found in our Old Testament.) This ranged from strict dietary laws, to what clothes could be worn, to how hair should be cut, to adult circumcision. After all, what would become the New Testament was far from existing and their scripture was what Christians later would come to consider the “Old Testament.”
Paul berated Peter for siding with James and not eating with Gentiles. (We see this in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, but honestly, I like to imagine that Facebook argument.)
Paul saw the Spirit working in Gentiles as well as Jews. They had mighty gifts to offer the growing Christian movement. And thankfully, they were allowed to.
Can anything good come from women, slaves, or eunuchs?
Paul and others saw the gifts of the Sprit working in women, slaves, and eunuchs too.
Priscilla was a missionary with Paul and Phoebe was a leader in the church of Cenchreae. The entire book of Philemon is about advocating on behalf of a former slave. Phillip sees the spirit working in an Ethiopian eunuch and sits down to study Isaiah with him.
Can anything good come from divorced persons?
Early Methodism in America wasn’t so sure. After all, Jesus had “clearly” stated in Matthew 5:32 “But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
In 1888 the Methodist Episcopal Church decided, “No divorce, except for adultery or causeless and continued abandonment, shall be regarded by the Church as lawful.” (MEC GC Journal 1888, pp. 231, 279)
In 1908 the bishops of the MEC stated “the consecutive polygamy permitted by the divorce laws of some of our states is a disgrace to our country.” (MEC GC Journal 1908, p. 133)
1928: “a divorced person seeking admission into membership in our Church who manifests a proper spirit and satisfactorily answers the usual inquiries, may be received” (MEC Discipline 1928, ¶70, n.p.).
1972: “In marriages where the partners are, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, estranged beyond reconciliation, we recognize divorce and the right of divorced persons to remarry, and express our concern for the needs of the children of such marriage” (UMC Discipline 1972, ¶72, pp. 85-86)
The work of the Spirit was recognized in divorced individuals. They were accepted, could be remarried, and serve as ministers.
Can anything good come from the abolishment of slavery? (Yes, we had to bring this one up again.)
The Methodist Episcopal church split in 1844 over this issue. In fact slavery and race were so contentious in this period of American Christianity (and even present-day) that several protestant denominations split over this. Pro-slavery ministers preached the biblical validation for slavery and thus, the continuation of its institution in America.
Of course, in later years after the Methodist church’s reunion, apologies have been issued. Because in our present consciousness, it is obvious (even with “biblical validation”) that slavery is not moral and that those who were bound in chains for so long have incredible gifts to offer Christianity.
Can anything good come from women leadership? (Yes, we had to bring this one up again too.)
Even though John Wesley licensed Sarah Crosby to preach in 1761, it wasn’t until 1956 that women were granted full rights of inclusion in the life of The United Methodist Church.
The spirit moves in women too, and their gifts have been invaluable to the life and leadership of the church.
Can anything good come from LGBTQ persons?
The evidence of the work of God’s embracing Spirit cries, “YES!”
I pray for the delegates this weekend. I pray for the hearts and minds in our global church body. I pray for my friends and loved ones on the whole spectrum of this argument. I pray for my friends and loved ones whose very identity is being debated.
Though the best, viable outcome (from my perspective) from this weekend is likely just another beginning to another path of gradualism in the UMC, the movement of our Gospel and our long history points to this resounding “YES!”
God, forgive us for taking so long to live into your way.