As a progressive pastor who grew up in an evangelical world, my views on “homosexuality” have been evolving for many years. After ten years spent planting and leading a church in Wisconsin that had many members who were also part of the LGBTQ community, it became clear to me that a public statement of support from the pulpit was in order. I thought that my church was ready to hear this and knew the importance of these statements, but I wasn’t quite right. I was swiftly put on a trial of sorts by my denomination (The Wesleyan Church), was grilled for my beliefs and statements, and was unceremoniously stripped of my ordination with not so much as a “thank you for your service”. After ten years of partnership I was kicked to the curb the instant I affirmed the equality of my LGBTQ friends.
But it wasn’t just the denomination. People I considered friends stopped returning my texts. Factions within the church were formed without my knowledge, with the intent to usher my removal. The issue grew so beyond its original framework that rumors circulated about my “poor character” and “need for counseling.” All because many people disagreed with my making a public statement of support for people that were already worshipping with us. Why was it ok for them to worship with us but not be given equality in the church? It was hard for me, yes – but so much more painful for our LGBTQ folks that loved the church.
There has always been a culture surrounding organized religion dividing the “ins” from the “outs”, but there is a specific purity culture at play in many of our churches today. Lurking behind so many discussions of “purity” lies the shadow of inequality. It seems that some Christians have taken it upon themselves to decide who is “pure” or “holy,” becoming hermeneutical vigilantes to what they regard as spiritual worth. To be honest, I’ve never really understood “purity” or “holiness” in regards to humans anyway. I’m a human, I know a lot of other humans, and ain’t none of us very pure or holy. It all seems a veiled way to create hierarchy.
This brings me to Gospel of John which begins by making the radical claim that the full revelation and force of love of God is incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. This alone is possibly one of the most profound chapters in all of Scripture. At the beginning of chapter two we find Jesus at a wedding in his first public appearance. Here’s where John begins to paint the full picture of what this incarnate force of love will mean for humanity.
We know the story well – Jesus is at a wedding celebration in Cana when his mom, being the persistent revolutionary, pushes Jesus to save the day when the party ran out of wine. A first century wedding was a massive multiple day celebration that would, in many ways, serve as a reflection of the family’s future social status. The worst thing that could happen at any party, but especially this sort of celebration, was running out of wine. This was nothing less than a social disaster for the groom. So, Mary steps in to save the reputation of the family. Jesus turns some water into wine and the party can continue – disaster averted & social status saved!
It’s a nice story, isn’t it? But, the deeper meaning is more interesting. It is no coincidence that John places Jesus at a wedding this early in the text because a wedding symbolizes a covenant of faithfulness that is being celebrated by the surrounding community. Throughout the Old Testament God’s relationship with Israel was often symbolized as a wedding where God and Israel were making vows of faithfulness to one another. But in this relationship too, the wine was running out.
Strapped by the heavy weights of ritual purity obligations, the religion of Israel had become a burden that the people could not live up to. Further, the religious elites, in alignment with Rome, were taking advantage of the common person’s need of Temple “blessings.” Taxes were high and morale was low. The leaders constantly reminded the people of their lower social status due to their poverty, their sickness, their brokenness, their “impurity.” And here in the midst of a celebration of covenant faithfulness there stood huge jugs of purification water looming over the party. There were 619 religious laws that all Jews were required to follow, and if you were to break any of these laws you needed this water to “purify” you – make you clean enough to re-enter religious society. But some things just don’t wash off – like the shame sustained by religious oppression. The people were not free – not free to worship God without the threat of impurity, nor free to live outside the toxic mix of religious inequality the elites were putting onto the common people.
But when Jesus shows up everything changes. Jesus turns these waters into wine and in an instant – there’s no more water for purification – no more shame, no more exclusion, no more hierarchy. Party on friends!
This is deeply significant as wine is symbol of heaven in the Old Testament, a symbol of God’s restoration of shalom, a symbol of the good future that God is birthing. (See Amos 9:13-14) Now, in Jesus, heaven is crashing into earth and everything is changing. No longer are you to be considered systematically unclean and in need of purification – no longer lesser – in Jesus the walls are being broken down and everyone is welcomed into the Kingdom of Love. So why does the church so often want to turn this wine back into water?
Now, my home is with the United Methodist Church and it too is having its own moment that will determine how to proceed with the LGBTQ community and the ordination of gay, lesbian, and transgender pastors. I’ve got friends on both sides. To me, it seems that the only reason that someone’s sexuality would be given so much weight regarding their acceptance and call to ministry is that we sometimes like turning Jesus’ wine of heaven back into the water of religious exclusivity. Some may disagree that this is the case, which I understand, but this is what it looks like to me. I believe, at its core, this is a discussion about equality and the only way for the LGBTQ community to be equal is to have full access to all the rights, privileges, and leadership of the church.
Dear UMC – let’s be on the right side of this one. Let’s be like Mary – realizing that this is not just a little moment of running out of something to drink, or just a theological debate – what is happening here is a pivotal moment of social standing for so many of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. This will have lasting ramifications on so many in our churches – our gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and queer brothers and sisters. We need them. We need them to help us understand life in a fuller way – to understand God in a fuller way. We need to be in this together and the only way to do that is to affirm and embrace them as full equals.
The religious elites were constantly upset with Jesus because he consistently broke down the purity laws, the stipulations of sacrifice, and the power of the religious elite. But that’s the whole point of Jesus’ wine of heaven. Jesus speaks to the imbalance of power and social statuses more often than we think. When Jesus turns the water into wine, heaven is crashing into earth and all things are being renewed because ALL people are now being welcomed and accepted. No longer do religious rules, purity regulations, boundaries, or manmade/arbitrary stipulations keep anyone out of the Kingdom.
Let’s embrace the wine flowing from heaven’s hillside (or at least the Welch’s equivalent) and resist our urge to keep those jars of purification around. Let’s let Jesus keep turning them into wine and let the hope of acceptance and equality flow for our LGBTQ friends. Social status matters because when social status is out of balance, when some are not recognized as equals, exclusion follows.
My life has been profoundly impacted by my gay and lesbian friends and I couldn’t imagine doing life or church without them. I need and want them in my life – as equals. They constantly remind me of the goodness of God’s new Kingdom and the blessing of surprising friendships. For me – I’d rather drink the wine of heaven’s shalom than any water that keeps me divided from other humans.