Serving the "Why Not?" God
By: Candace Chellew-Hodge
At a book reading in 2007 for his book "The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus," Harvard Divinity School professor Peter Gomes was asked by an audience member if he believed in a literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus.
The openly gay author paused for a moment before responding: "Yes, I do. Doesn't make any sense, but I believe it. I have no evidence."
As someone who has had serious doubts about the validity of a bodily resurrection of Jesus, his answer kind of surprised me. I couldn't believe such a learned man would believe such a story as a body literally rising from the dead - especially if it didn't make sense. His answer made me stop and think, however - especially since such a learned man could believe such a fantastic story.
I have spent many years arguing my position for a spiritualized understanding of the resurrection. Every law of science and physics that we know in our modern age argues against any body, divine or otherwise, rising from a grave. I simply could not go there. But, Gomes' answer helped me to realize that I was becoming a "fundamentalist" in my belief about the resurrection being spiritual but not bodily. Dr. Gomes' answer convicted my heart in that moment and resonated deeply in my soul.
I recall discussions on the resurrection from my past with one person who, when asked about a literal resurrection shrugged and said, "Why not? God can do whatever God pleases."
At the time, the answer seemed like a dodge - a way to not take responsibility for a personal position on such an important question. After all, Christianity is an Easter religion. What good is our faith if it is dead and not alive? What good is our faith if it cannot ultimately triumph over evil and death?
As Gomes' answer sunk into my head and my heart, I rethought the sage answer of "Why not?" Suddenly, it made sense - well, it made some sort of sense. Gomes is right, the resurrection makes no sense and we have zero evidence that it actually occurred. But, something did happen that Easter morning; something that awoke the despondent and suffering spirits of those who had faithfully followed Jesus through his short ministry. Something profound happened that morning - a stone rolled away from their hearts, their eyes were opened, their hearts sung with joy because they realized Jesus was not dead - but fully alive.
Did he really walk around in bodily form - showing off his scars and making a believer out of Thomas?
Though it may sound like a theological dodge, I think, instead it is a powerful answer, one that makes way for the mystery of God. When we become certain about our theology, stating for certain that the resurrection did or did not happen as it is written in the Scriptures, we close ourselves off to the mystery of God. When we insist that everyone believe as we do and begin to exclude each other on whether we accept this or that doctrine as true or not, we close ourselves off from the mystery of God - as well as from each other.
Our God is not a God of concrete, never to be moved, certainties. Our God is a God of mystery - a God who still speaks and still does new things. Our insistence on orthodox certainty - even certainty of the unorthodox - keeps God entombed in a book or in a doctrine, dead as the paper it's written on. We serve a "Why not?" God. This is a God that is very much alive - a God that can overcome any grave we put Her in - a God that constantly rolls away the stones of our own tombs, freeing us to live within the deep mystery that is our "Why not?" God.
As long as we are asking, "Why not?" we will always be opening our lives, our minds, and our hearts to God. As long as we are asking, "Why not?" we are inviting God to commune with us - to show us new ways to live into the life that God has called us to live. As long as we are asking, "Why not?" our hearts are open to those who have already decided that they are certain about their beliefs about God and God's ways.
Let's try out this new idea. Some would say that gay and lesbian people are an abomination to God and that unless they renounce their sexual orientation or seek to "change" it or repress it, they cannot be loved by God.
There are a myriad of answers to that simple query. Some would say that God cannot accept gays and lesbians because sexual expression between members of the same gender goes against God's law - against nature. They quote the passages we're all familiar with to back up this claim - Leviticus, Romans, 1 Corinthians - we know them all. These are their reasons why God cannot accept gay and lesbian people as they were made.
What's interesting is that their answer to "Why not?" fails to take into consideration the times that God seems to have broken God's law and gone against nature - as well as the times that Jesus himself appeared to transgress, and even reshape, the law.
The crux of the argument between pro- and anti-gay camps when it comes to Romans 1 is that those who are condemned are acting "para physin" or "against nature." This is the same word Paul used in Romans 11:24 to describe what God does by including the Gentiles in God's salvation. God has acted "against nature" to included the outcast - the hated Gentiles. So, did God act against nature or are we dealing with something more revealing, like a mistranslation?
An article on "para physin" at Religious Tolerance notes:
M. Nissinen defines "para physin" as "Deviating from the ordinary order either in a good or a bad sense, as something that goes beyond the ordinary realm of experience." The word "unconventional" would have been a more precise word for translators to use.
If that is the case, those condemned in Romans 1 would be acting against society's conventions - but not against God's law. Yes, gay and lesbian people are unconventional - but so are many heterosexuals. Being unconventional does not make one condemned - it merely makes one different. People recoil at difference, certainly - but they are committing no sin in their unconventional actions. Transgressing social convention is no sin. God transgresses this convention by including the Gentiles - something that didn't go over well in the early Christian community, and was fought against by some members of the community.
In Matthew 5, Jesus also turns convention - or law - on its head with a series of "you have heard it said … but I say to you" statements.
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. - Matthew 5:21-24
Here, Jesus usurps the convention of judgment with a new convention - reconciliation. Whenever we think badly of each other or call each other names - we are just as guilty as a murderer, because we murder each other's spirit with our words and actions. Jesus commands us to be reconciled to one another - to find the common ground. Instead of calling each other "homophobes" or "faggots," we're called to find the common ground beneath the cross where grace is abundant for us both. We are called to find a way to live together in love - to be reconciled as God's beloved children.
Jesus continues this message of reconciliation in Matthew 5: 43-48. While it seems to make sense that we should love our neighbor and hate our enemies, Jesus is clear:
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. -Matthew 5:44-48
The convention of hating those who hate you is turned on its head. Should we love our neighbors as well as our enemies? Why not? Jesus leaves no wiggle room here. We all experience rain in our lives, whether we are good or evil. Loving those who love us gets us no reward. Instead, we are called to be "perfect" as God is "perfect."
Many have argued that this is a call to be righteous - or even more accurate - self-righteous - becoming rigid in our beliefs and calling out anyone who disagrees with us about this or that doctrine. Instead "perfect" or "teleios" in Greek means to be "finished," "complete," or "mature." To be completed is to be authentically who we are - to not be double-minded or fearful of the way that God has created us to be. To be complete, we must live authentically, embracing all that God has made within us - including our sexual orientation. When we are complete, loving our enemies as much as our neighbors is no problem, because we understand that we are one through Christ Jesus. There is no "us" and "them" - there are only children of the living, loving, still speaking God.
So, is God still creating, recreating? Why not? God can do whatever She pleases, can He not? Has God overcome the grave? Why not? Has God created us to be all that we can be - becoming perfected as the people we have been called to be? Why not?
We serve a "Why not?" God - a God of surprises, a God that overcomes death, both literally and figuratively. We serve a "Why not?" God, who invites us daily into the mystery. Will you answer that call?
Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.
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