Recently a Biblical historian mentioned to a group of pastors that without the benefit of graduate studies in Biblical history we’re undoubtedly going to interpret the Bible wrong. That’s probably true and so we look to Biblical historians and theologians to interpret scripture less wrong. So much of life seems to be that way. We don’t have a full understanding of a lot of things in life, whether how our bodies work or how different parts of the world work. And so we rely on knowledge that we hope is less wrong than what we replied on previously.
Karl Kuhn, Biblical scholar, helps interpret our reading from Acts less wrong. There is a lot of boundary testing and boundary breaking going on in Acts. To our contemporary ears it comes off as unfamiliar hearing about various divisions between Gentiles and Jews in ancient Palestine. Those of us less familiar with holiness codes and dietary restrictions are slower to grasp the significance at play having these two groups spending time together. As Karl Kuhn notes it’s significant to suggest that Gentiles would also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Familial relationships and God’s presence generally had discreet boundaries drawn around them with who qualified as an insider in the group. Although there are plenty of examples in Hebrew scripture of outsiders receiving God’s grace, thinking about the healing of Naaman from leprosy or the Syrophoenician woman at the well for example. There are also multiple references in Hebrew scripture prescribing love and care for foreigners. God transgressing boundaries is nothing new, and the human response is predictable. As humans we tend to become incensed when God widens the circle. As Christians we need to be careful not to project anti-Semitism upon our reading of the text. It’s easy to fall in the trap of blaming the Jewish people for various things. In doing so we perpetuate hate of Jewish people by Christians that goes back centuries, so we want to avoid doing that. Another attempt at being less wrong in our reading of the text.
Karl Kuhn mentions it was even more significant that Gentiles and Jews would eat together at the same table. There were rules prescribing who can eat with who in order to maintain one’s right relationship with God. It was breaking cultural and religious norms to stray from these rules as Peter does in Acts. There would be social and religious repercussions not abiding by these norms.
Taking a leap from the text to contemporary interpretation is always tricky because there will never be a one-to-one correspondence. We can’t fully say that situation X in ancient Palestine is the same as situation Y today in Canada. What we can say faithfully is that God continues breaking down barriers whenever we construct them to keep people out. The Holy Spirit continues to enliven Christ in our communities whether we recognize it or not. We are not God’s gatekeepers as Christians.
One way the Spirit is at work in our midst is through the public conversation we continue at Church of the Cross with our neighbours. Pr. Lyle mentioned this in his sermon last week, alluding to our church sign message “God grants us stewardship over our own bodies.” Consider the empathetic responses we received especially from women. Unsurprisingly we received a phone message from an white man in his 70s in Victoria who saw the sign message and begged to differ. I offered to call back a brother in Christ and appeal to our common faith. That despite our differences we still worship the same God. We still read the same scripture even if we come to different conclusions. While he granted me that, he wasn’t really interested in hearing a theological interpretation of scripture that differed from his own. He kept coming back to the rules, to the law, to the suggestion we are transgressing boundaries by encouraging women to take charge of their own reproductive health.
A couple thoughts came to mind. The Bible isn’t a medical textbook and doesn’t say a lot about abortion. Some Christians only started becoming obsessed with abortion in recent decades. It wasn’t always the flashpoint issue that it has become. As well I asked the man, “Do you think you know better than women what should happen to their bodies?” He hesitated but ultimately repeated the same lines about breaking rules, breaking boundaries. And he’s not wrong about that. The Holy Spirit does break rules ad boundaries and that makes people upset. That’s not just a religion thing. It’s a human anthropology thing. We’re often not comfortable with norms changing or being challenged.
There was one particular line of argument he used that I think we need to pay attention to as progressive Christians. He asked, “As a Christian do you follow culture or you follow God’s word?” I said both are connected. We interpret God’s word from a cultural perspective, in this time and place in which we live. He didn’t like that. He wanted it to be a black and white issue an either-or choice, but it never is. The reality is we interpret scripture from a specific time and place, bringing values and histories to bear upon what we read and the Holy Spirit is at work in the midst of our constant interpreting and re-interpreting. It cannot be otherwise. Just as this man was bringing to bear cultural norms and theologies to upon scripture from a very particular perspective. Peter and company were not concerned with the same cultural questions this man was concerned. This man had not teleported himself back to some original interpretation that is more basic or deserves higher priority. It’s a convenient move simply to accuse someone with a different theological perspective with being driven by culture rather than scripture.
As Lutherans we have a theological basis on which to prioritize the autonomy of women’s bodies within our own theological tradition. Remember how Martin Luther freed the religious from abstinence in order to serve the church as nuns and monks now free to marry. He reminded the wider church that God because incarnate in order to celebrate bodies, not be ashamed of them.
Similar arguments can be made for protecting women’s access to abortion. It is a medical service we safeguard as a society because women are fully human and are free to choose what happens to their bodies. Just as we don’t restrict men in their reproductive choices. We don’t force or forbid medical procedures upon men’s bodies.
And we’re fighting a similar fight protecting the rights of trans people who want access to medical services that protect their health and wellbeing. While some people may regard this as transgressive of social or religious norms, none of this is all that radical. At least it shouldn’t be radical to see that people ought to be in charge of their own bodies.
In one sense I give thanks for this man’s phone call because it helped sharpen my own theological thinking around theology and incarnation. It helped me empathize with this man as a cousin in Chris with whom we both share more than we might realize. We realized that neither of us was likely to change the other’s mind on an issue that is this divisive. I hoped that he came away with the understanding there are churches who also have theologies and engage in rigorous readings of scripture that are different than his own.
One challenge we face as Lutherans belonging to a mainline denomination is that we can fall into silence when it comes to controversial issues around theology. Understandably we want people to like us and make sure people aren’t offended by anything we say. There can be some good reasons for seeking mediation. However we want to make sure we aren’t more concerned about diplomacy than we are standing up for people with the least amount of power. We do well to remember that Martin Luther was not a people pleaser, although he had an exceptional wit and could command attention in a public conversation. He stood up for Reformation principals around freedom of the Christian, which centred around serving others.
Often we are told that the prophetic and pastoral don’t always mix. It is a tired myth to say we cannot both point to God’s transgressive love in breaking boundaries and also care for the people close to us. We can break boundaries and also care for people in our communities. The reality is the prophetic and pastoral go hand in hand. Women driving by the church relieved that a church isn’t awful but even affirming of women’s reproductive rights is pastoral ministry. Just as we also visit people who are sick in hospital and check in on people who are homebound.
We’re all bringing struggles today. I invite you to bring your struggles in prayer, in conversation, in community, so that together as God breaks boundaries in our midst, we bind the wounds of the injured and live into a God’s coming dominion of love. Amen.