A commentary on the responses to Sexuality and the Citizenship of Heaven.
I was not surprised by the responses to my article on Sexuality and Citizenship of Heaven.
It must be disorientating for some critics, who hold a simplistic map in their heads, that essentially divides the ecclesial and theological world between conservatives and liberals – always, note, allotting the latter a negative value – only to find that the gospel of God’s love for LGBTI Christians is grounded so deeply and thoroughly in the scriptures, and is simply being proclaimed.
Moreover, that the gospel of God’s astonishing atoning, boundless redeeming love in Christ, and of God’s free grace – something that is not deserved, and cannot be earned by any of us, and is bestowed through Christ as our saviour – is proclaimed so unequivocally by someone like myself.
But I ask, why ever not? The scriptures are clear. Jesus tells us that gender and sexuality won’t matter in heaven: we shall be like the angels (Mt. 22.30). Paul tell us that our equality in Christ transcends our labelled identities (Gal. 3: 28), and that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13). Christ died for all, and all who receive him (Jn. 1: 12 & 3: 16). Paul, writing to Titus (3: 4-7) puts it better than any theologian ever can:
‘…when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life...’
So we can’t save ourselves. And yes, Paul’s letter to Titus goes on to extol the importance of virtues and good behaviour. But Paul does not add ‘or else…!’. No threats are made. Salvation is not something you eventually acquire…but only provided you are very, very good. Throw yourself on God’s mercy; accept Christ as your redeemer; and rejoice. We have all sinned. We all fall short of the glory of God. No-one deserves heaven. But accept Jesus, and welcome him in to your life; and God will share his home with you for eternity. I thought that was the gospel all good Evangelical Protestants proclaimed? Actually, I thought that was the gospel: full stop.
The gospels often chide the church for trying to act as a kind of Border Agency Police for heaven; or Christians offering their well-meaning services to Jesus as Immigration Control Officers for Paradise. But Jesus isn’t interested in our proposals to police his kingdom, thank you. So the gospels offer extreme cases of God saying ‘let it be’. The dying thief on the cross is an obvious example (Lk. 23:32-43, etc.) He could not have known Jesus for more than a few minutes, or perhaps even seconds, let alone an hour.
Yet on the cross, for the most minimal confession, he is promised paradise. Had the disciples still been around to witness this exchange shortly before the death of Jesus they must have wondered to themselves what on earth the point of giving up everything and forsaking all for the Kingdom of God had been. Had they not been with Jesus for three years? Had they not abandoned their jobs? Had they not left behind their families, even leaving the dead unburied? Of course they had. So how come then, that Jesus is offering precisely the same - no more and no less to a man who has been committed to a lifetime of violence and crime. It doesn’t seem fair, does it?
Fairness is something Jesus often asks us to reflect on. The younger son in the parable of the Prodigal (Lk. 15. 11-32) isn’t treated fairly at all. He is treated with lavish generosity, and absurd, abundant, unmerited grace. As Martin Luther once said of that parable, if that is all the New Testament had in it, it would be enough.
The parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Mt. 20. 1-16) gives an equal portion of the rewards to the least deserving. God gives those who are clearly quite hopeless the same – the same – as those who have toiled all day long. It is as though the parable reminds Christians that salvation isn’t measured out in fractions. You can’t be half saved. You can’t be half baptised. You can’t be half loved by God.
And so we come to the parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Mt. 13. 24-30). Which, if I may sum up, is saying this: whom I shall save is my business. Now, get on with yours. Or, ‘as to who I let into heaven – what is it to you?’ This is tricky territory, I know, but no-one who reads the gospels deeply can be surprised. Jesus has a habit of including outsiders. He has a habit of associating with the undeserving. He has habit of making peripheral people central. And in all of this, he asks us to rejoice with those he saves; be happy for them. God is.
So many of the parables Jesus tells get right under the skin of the real motivation for being part of the Church, and following Jesus. And the interesting thing that the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard suggests is that in Christ’s scheme of salvation, the rewards and bonuses scheme is rather ‘flat’. In other words, salvation does not come in half measures – you cannot be half saved; you’re either welcomed into God’s kingdom or you’re not. You can’t be half ordained. Salvation doesn’t come in fractions. You cannot be half baptised. You either receive the Eucharist or you don’t – sacraments are not divisible.
And so these parables, as so many do, comes back to haunt the Church. And especially to haunt small groups who think they alone ‘have’ heaven and Jesus, and are quite sure about who the have-nots are. But this spirit is not of God. So instead of policing the borders and boundaries of God’s kingdom, acting as passport control or immigration officers, we are invited instead to gather up everybody – as many as we can – to share in precisely the same fortune that we already enjoy, and have known for years.
The parable takes us back in to the parable of the Prodigal, and ask whether you’re enjoying the feast, celebrating with the younger son who was dead but is now alive, and has been miraculously resurrected? Because that is what the party is for. Or, whether we are bitter and resentful with the older brother, believing that the party and celebration is undeserved? The parable is, in fact, shocking news for the Church. For it points to the foolish abundance, the ridiculous generosity of whom God bestows favour on. Mercy and grace are infinite, and all shall receive the same.
It is the same salvation for the church volunteer that has put in 50 years of hard graft, blood, sweat and tears into keeping a church going, as it is to the tiniest child that is baptised right at the end, or indeed to those in the middle, who stumble around in their half belief, perhaps even barely caring about the grace-full inheritance that has been bestowed upon them. In all of that, this parable asks, do you as the Church rejoice at God’s abundance, or seek to limit it or control it? And why is it the church likes to act as God’s Immigration Control or Border Police – when all we have been asked to do is issue invitations and open the frontiers?
To whom does this heaven belong? Not to the church. It is not for us to decide who gets in and who fails the fitness test. Salvation is God’s gift, by grace, freely bestowed – because his son has paid the entry fee. That’s why someone like Alan Clarke (1928-1999), former Tory MP is so interesting in relation to this parable. After a lifetime of claret, cigars and women - a deathbed confession comes in just in time. The parable beckons: would you let him into God’s kingdom? This parable suggests God’s resounding ‘yes’. And in turn, this parable raises another question about the accessibility and openness of parish churches, sacraments and of ministries. We can’t be saying ‘no’ to anyone yet – because God’s ‘yes’, his invitation to all, is still there. What better way to end then, than with the words of F. W. Faber’s surprisingly inclusive early Victorian hymn:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea
There’s a kindness in his justice
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in heaven
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgement given.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness
With a zeal he will not own.
There is plentiful redemption
In the blood that has been shed;
There is joy for all the members
In the sorrows of the Head.
There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that home of upper bliss.
If our love were but more simple
We should take him at his word;
And our lives would be all gladness
In the joy of Christ our Lord.
In our ministries, then, we are continually called to be a people of grace and generosity. There will always be some who exploit this. There will be some who abuse it. There will be some who show contempt for it, and nonetheless claim it. So be it.
But what is that to us? In all of this, we are to remember that God’s love is broader and deeper than anything we can conceive of. His love is not rationed. In fact, it is so comprehensive as to be almost irrational. And so we offer a church for all, because God’s kingdom is for all. That’s why I am fully confident of God’s love for LGBT Christians. I am fully confident of that for those who are celibate. And for those who have found love and fidelity with a lifelong partner. The scriptures are so beautifully frank. God lives in love - (1 Jn. 4: 16): ‘God is love. Everyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in them’.
So, leave the judging to God, says the parable. In the meantime, why not get on with loving the world and inviting people to this kingdom – even the ones you suspect to be enemies, or perhaps even deviants. Christ always had room in his heart and ministry for such people. And God in his mercy may yet have a spare room for them in his many-roomed mansion (Jn. 14: 2). But a word to the wise here, if I may: God might actually put them next door to you.