I can’t help but think that this has all happened before. It was thousands of years ago in one of the more contentious capitals of Rome’s far-flung empire. A fledgling Christianity was in turmoil. Gentiles, of all people, appeared to be flocking to the faith. Some believed that they ought to be circumcised in order to be fully recognized saying: “ “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”“. Others were just fine with them as they are. The debates raged on and even the apostles and other leaders were taking sides. With no resolution forthcoming, Paul and Barnabas traveled to Jerusalem to get some answers. Along the way, the spread the word that even the Gentiles were being saved and filled with the Holy Spirit. Some believers – and card-carrying Pharisees at that – once again stood up and addressed the council telling them that circumcision was necessary.
Peter says: God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.“”
I wonder – if at this point he has Cornelius in mind. Cornelius wasn’t just any Gentile, he was a Roman Centurion – a killing machine. But he also feared God. An angel appears before him and tells him to send for Peter. Peter happens to be praying on the roof of the house where he’s staying and he starts to get hungry. God lowers a sheet before him – it has every unclean animal on it. A voice tells him to take and eat. He refuses saying that he’s been a good Jew who only eats Kosher – or clean – food. The voice answers him: ““Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”” This happens three times. And wouldn’t you know it – Cornelius’ servants show up at the door asking for him. So Peter goes with them because he understands that it’s not about the food – but God has made Cornelius clean, too. This is what Peter tells Cornelius when he meets him: “ But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (Emphasis mine.) Peter tells Cornelius about Jesus, Cornelius and his household all believe, are baptized, and are filled with the Holy Spirit. Then when Peter returns back to the fold, he gets the fifth degree about hanging out with the wrong crowd and he has to explain the whole story from the beginning.
As for the Council in Jerusalem, Peter – being Jesus’ right-hand man – settled the question and the Gentiles were not required to be circumcised. The Pharisee-Christians were probably not happy about losing, but at least they could take comfort that as circumcised Jews, they were probably “more saved” than the Gentiles. As for the gentiles – not being required to be circumcised helped even more new believers join the folds.
And so here we are again, the gentiles are the LGBTQ community. The question isn’t “should we require them to be circumcised?” but “should we demand they conform to our beliefs?” The big difference is that the religious establishment seems to have manipulated the meeting so that only people who agreed with them were there. There were no Pauls or Peters who represented some big Cornelius moment and could settle the question. In all this, it struck me that even as Christians, the Pharisees were still Pharisees. Cornelius was still a Centurion. Becoming a believer didn’t change who they were. I suppose it remains true of our believers today – their natures have not changed. Some hold to their favorite doctrines as if it were as essential to salvation as the Pharisee-Christians believed circumcision was.
Paul wasn’t one to mince words – “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” I can’t help but enjoy the delicious irony that the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, so intimately concerned with their precious manhoods would be the modern counterpart to the pro-circumcision group. Had their ancient counterparts won, then they’d all be circumcised. Paul though, said that when it came down to it, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.”
The question becomes then, “What are God’s commands?” I’d say that it depends on your teacher. If you literally obey an ancient book, you might find that it does say that God commanded circumcision, slavery, genocide, and a whole host of other things. If you obey the Rabbi known for making the religious establishment angry with his tendency to break the rules – you might find that God commands us to love others, put their needs before ours, to have compassion on the marginalized, to show mercy when others won’t and that’s just for starters.
(Bible references: Acts 10-11, 15, Galatians 5:12, 1 Corinthians 7:19, and 1 Corinthians 13 – this, by the way, has more Bible References than the Nashville Statement.)