A Gospel of Grace

For Pride this year I offer a bit of my story of going from conservative evangelical to becoming an affirming and celebrating Christian as I came to understand my own Queer identity and that of my family members. I don’t often post specifically Christian blogposts here (though I’m thinking that might change a bit in the next few months) but I thought this one might be helpful for some to hear.

A few years ago I was asked by someone to explain how I ended up where I am today. They assumed, I think, that I would go through and dismantle the verses that are often referenced as the ‘clobber verses’. For me, however, these are not the verses that have led me to the place of comfort and freedom I have on this subject.

So if not by dismantling the clobber verses, how did I get from there (a conservative evangelical upbringing that was definitely neither affirming nor celebrating) to here? I have a short answer and a long answer for you today.

The Short Answer

The short answer is that I found freedom in three passages: Isaiah 56:3-6 with Acts 8:26-40 along with Acts 10.

In this last passage – Acts 10 – Peter (the ruliest-rule-keeper of them all) is about to get called to a gentile’s house to eat with him. That is a no-no. You don’t do that. And if nothing had happened, Peter’s upbringing and religious training would have meant that he would have said no to the invite. But the Holy Spirit has something different in mind. So Peter goes upstairs to take a nap and has a vision. Three times a sheet lowers from the sky with a bunch of unclean animals on it, and the voice from heaven says, ‘rise, Peter, kill and eat’. It also says, ‘what God has called clean let no man call unclean’. To me this vision – and Peter’s resulting decision to go to dinner with Cornelius, and then see the entire household come to follow Jesus, along with later discussions around Jewish laws within the early church – is a repudiation of all that Leviticus calls unclean. It is an end of the laws of purity, and means that the details of those laws (as they relate to sexuality or food or anything else) are for us to work out in the context of the life and ministry of Jesus. As far as I’m concerned, this includes those of us who are LGBTQ+.

But possibly more emphatically for my process has been found in the first two passages. In the midst of the prophecies about Jesus, Isaiah prophecies that one day the Eunuchs (those who were medically transitioned before puberty, and therefore function effectively as non-binary trans individuals from a hormonal perspective – those least likely to gain admittance to church worlds today, and those completely barred from entering the temple) are promised a place and a name and a memorial in the temple as part of the ‘wholeness’ and ’shalom’ (peace) that God is coming to offer that will be ‘better’ than being called sons and daughters (not sure how you get better than that in Isaiah’s day – this is like REALLY, REALLY AMAZINGLY LOVED). In Isaiah it’s just a promise. And a lot of time passes. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. But then you look at the passage in Acts 8:26-40. It says in the passage that the Eunuch is reading from the scroll of Isaiah about the messiah. This passage is part of that section. And after Philip and the Eunuch speak, the Eunuch says ‘is there any reason why I can’t be baptized’? And Philip says, ’no’, baptizes him right there and then and sends him as the very first ever missionary. A medically transitioned, asexual foreign convert is arguably the first overseas missionary of the church. This one, right here. To me this is a mic-drop moment that the evangelical church has missed.

The Long Answer

The long answer fits that short answer into the overarching narrative of Scripture.

You see, the Bible is full of overarching themes – themes of rest, of salvation, of covenant, of peace – and one of these themes is the theme of a restoration of inclusion.

When Adam and Eve are first created, they experience daily, intimate relationship with God. Neither Adam nor Eve is excluded from this time.

Then there is the fall.

There is division between God and humanity.

But although we may or may not be happy with this division, this is not a state of affairs that God is ever portrayed as being okay with. Even before Adam and Eve leave the garden, God is telling them of his plans for hope and restoration – plans for full inclusion, once again.

To begin with, these inclusion plans feel pretty sporadic. A person here is granted a taste of God. A person there is given the opportunity to hear from God. But there is still this sense of immense distance between God and humanity.

Eventually Abram gets to meet God – is entrusted with a promise from God of blessing and connection “I will be your God and you will be my people”. But even then there is this pregnant pause between promise given and promise fulfilled. It is many years before Abram and Sarai give birth to Isaac. It is many more years before Isaac has Jacob and Esau and many years more again before Jacob and his four wives welcome twelve sons and a daughter into their lives.

Then, there is silence.

Then, there is slavery.

Then, there is a forgetting and a disconnecting from the traditions and stories of Abram’s God.

Until…Eventually…

The thread of the story turns up like the first brave bulb of spring. Spotted, it intersects with the heart cries of an entire nation – possibly as many as two million strong – to turn into a cry for the freedom and hope of rescue and reconnection.And when their freedom is eventually – reluctantly – given to them they find themselves asking the question, “what defines ‘us’ from ‘them’?” In other words, the response to grace is to put rules in place, to try to protect and encircle and close off any gaps through which grace might find its way through.

Except this grace is more powerful than any really know.

It sneaks in – even to the rules themselves – and creates holes for the light to come in through; holes to see the world differently through, if only you happen to be looking at just the right angle.There is grace and inclusion and restoration for the sick; for women; for foreigners; for widows and orphans; for the poor; for the servants and slaves; and even for the animals and the land.

It doesn’t mean it happens, but the grace is there, just waiting to burst out.

And time goes on, and the people forget what living in the midst of the enormity of grace feels like and they get lost in the pettiness of rules again and things start going badly.

There’s just enough memory left to remember freedom and hope and rescue and connection – but not enough appreciation to trust it for the long haul. It’s like grace becomes this ‘get out of jail free card’ that can be handed in at will, but is otherwise easily set aside in the game of life we are currently playing. And yet it still carries on in the background.

Even when people stop caring about the things that matter to God.

Even when people stop caring about the things that matter to grace.

Put a king in place of your relationship with God so that you don’t have to be as close or dependent on God as you previously were? Okay. It won’t end well, but okay.

Watch a king sit around lazily at home leaving his underlings to do the hard work of ruling, murder to cover his sexual misconduct, and completely fail to raise his sons? Okay. It won’t end well, but okay. In spite of that, by the grace of God he’ll even be called ‘a man after God’s own heart’.

Watch another king – his son – acquire enough wives and concubines to keep him busy for more than three years? Watch him build a temple to ‘put’ God into when God had clearly said ‘I don’t live in houses – I can’t be boxed up’? Okay. It won’t end well, but okay. And this from a guy who, by the grace of God is given extreme wisdom and wealth.

But years and years, decades and decades, centuries and centuries of failing to follow the strains of grace are not enough to dissuade God from his mission.

Eventually God says, “maybe they just don’t really get what I mean by grace. Maybe if I showed up, and showed them what it looked like, then maybe they’d get it?”

And so Jesus comes.

And he includes.

Outcasts.

Women.

Adulterers.

Prostitutes.

The disabled.

The mentally ill.

The rich.

The powerful.

The religious elites.

The nobody.

Over and over and over and over and over again Jesus’ words and actions and posture speak of grace freely given – grace freely offered – to each and every person.

His only condemnation, in fact, is for those who stand in the way of grace. Those who position themselves in such a way to suggest that they speak for God and can create by themselves a gate to determine who gets to come in and who must stay away. Those who suggest by their actions that God’s grace is less capable than some might require. Imply by their words that God’s grace can only be applied to the person whose form is correctly signed in the right purity codes or standards.

And in the end it is the unwillingness of those who cling to the rules and the purity codes to see the mark of the Divine in the midst of Jesus’ call to grace that ultimately results in Jesus being taken to the cross and killed.

Sure, it’s prophesied ahead of time that it will happen.

Sure, it’s actually the Roman governor that signs the order.Yet without the insistence of the rule-followers it would not have happened in this way or at this time.If grace had been allowed to run the show, the whole story would have been different.

But that’s how it actually goes down.God-showed-up-with-skin-on, Grace-embodying, Restoration-demonstrating Jesus is killed on a cross like a criminal for being too Divine, too gracious, too interested in restoration for those who stood by with their clipboards and checkboxes.

And somehow even that ends up not being enough to destroy grace.

Somehow even that just gives grace another chance to prove how high and how wide and how long and how deep it is.

Because what does grace do when it finds itself dead and in a tomb? It comes back to life.It shows up again.

And in the pages following that chart the early days of the church grace shows up again and again and again as the early followers work out just how big this grace really is.

Does it apply to people who don’t speak my language – people who have abandoned our nation and our people and even most of our way of life, and only come back once in a blue moon on a pilgrimage so aren’t really serious about living God’s ways? (see Acts 2) – YES! Here, I’ll make this easy for you to understand – I’ll make it so that all of you just happen to start speaking in all of their languages. There. That wasn’t so hard, now, was it? Now all of these people can take the message of grace back to the people they live with, because grace is this wonderful seed that can spread as simple as that.

Does it apply to people who have been castrated? (see Acts 8) – YES! I know you’re not supposed to talk with people ‘like him’ but can’t you see how desperate he is for grace? Plus, he has this super unique position in that he’s headed back to Africa right now and I happen to know that Africa could really stand to know some things about grace, too, and I think this completely unassuming eunuch would make an incredibly fantastic grace-filled missionary! (As a fantastic aside, it will also complete the prophecy made about Eunuchs – medically transitioned gender-variant individuals – from Isaiah 56:3-6 promising a place within the temple walls, a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters.)

Does it apply to people who have been part of the rule-based system but have met Jesus? (see Acts 9) – YES! I know this guy was out trying to have you all killed last week, but now I need you to explain and live out grace to him – abundantly – so that he knows how to take this message to the rest of the Roman world.

Does it apply to people who don’t eat the right kinds of foods? (see Acts 10) – YES! You should definitely break all of your rules and eat with him, at his house, where you’ve been expressly forbidden to go because otherwise you will miss out on the incredible blessings that this act of grace is going to bring. Does it apply to jailers and crooked ship captains and wealthy women and Roman guards? – YES! YES! YES! YES! There will be baptisms and acknowledgements and provision and so much more that will come out of these very unlikely witnesses to grace – you have no idea!

In fact, the answer – over and over and over and over and over again – is YES! 100% yes! Because at its very nature grace loves more than anything else to choose the weak and the outcast and the person who thinks they are worth nothing and use them to show just how incredibly powerful and transformational grace really is.

The Bible closes with this crazy book of Revelation. It’s a vision, told in a very particular literary style to that time period, so lots of it can be weird. But at the very end of it you find a vision of a world restored fully to the way it is supposed to be – in relationship with itself, with each other and with God.And the writer of the story says that present in this space were people from every language and tribe and nation and tongue. That in this place there was no more sickness or crying or sadness or death, for the old ways of things were gone and now the new ways were here.

That is the hope of grace fulfilled.

That is where the story is meant to finish.

That is God’s ultimate plan.

So if that is God’s plan, then we need to be very careful about what kind of rules we go putting in place, and what kind of rules we hold onto. Because this is about a radical inclusion, a radical hospitality, a radical grace that grows like wildfire when planted in the hearts and lives of the world’s most broken and vulnerable people.

And that’s a Gospel – a good news – I’m interested in joining in with, coming alongside of and telling other people about.

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