Student at Alberta Bible College and member of the 8am service at St. Stephen's
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD.
I stand here before you an heir to martyrs. While my English ancestors were watching their king divorce his church from the Pope, my Anabaptist ancestors were being burned for their convictions. While I was still a young child, my gay elders—a community I didn’t yet know was mine—were falling to the AIDS crisis, left to die by ruling powers who saw the epidemic as a convenient way to rid themselves of certain undesirable populations. Even now, the most vulnerable members of the queer community are seeing our basic rights and protections being clawed back in the US and the UK, wondering how soon before the shoe falls for us in Canada as well. Pride may be a celebration, but it is a hard-won and tenuous one.
This is to say I’m hardly ignorant to the severity of persecution Jesus faced. It’s in my blood. It’s the air I breathe. And I know what it is to have a Peter—well-meaning and protective Peter—say “surely it won’t come to that!” when I try to tell them about my reality.
Now let’s look more closely at Peter for a moment. As we learned last week, it’s not as though he’s not aware of who Jesus is. He named Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, and Jesus confirmed it for him. Yet it’s clear here that Peter doesn’t fully understand what that means.
And honestly, that’s understandable. Peter would have grown up with a particular image of the Messiah as a military hero coming to take back the land from the Romans. His worldview doesn’t allow for a Messiah who suffers and dies. Meanwhile Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples the reality of his immediate future and one of his closest friends refuses to hear it— which does not go well for Peter.
When Peter denies this possibility, Jesus calls him his enemy and tells Peter to get away from him. And it isn’t simply that Jesus is angry with Peter for not understanding, but that Peter’s denial is actively dangerous to Jesus and his integrity in his role as Messiah. In verse 23, he says to Peter, “You are a stumbling block to me.” That is, in the Greek, σκάνδαλον, something that causes sin or gives occasion for sin; something that causes stumbling or trouble, an obstacle. Peter’s denial here is a temptation for Jesus to abandon his course. Maybe to choose
a warrior’s rebellion and die with blood on his own hands. Or perhaps to diminish, becoming an ordinary carpenter’s son living with the shame of his own cowardice, wondering if he’d somehow only imagined that he was the divine incarnate, the Word made flesh.
While none of us in the queer community would seriously consider ourselves on par with Jesus, this dangerous denial from friends, family, and loved ones is something we’re deeply familiar with. Whether it’s because the reality of who we are doesn’t fit into their worldview or because they’re trying to protect us from the cruelty of the rest of the world doesn’t matter.
Every time we hear “you’re not bisexual, you’re just confused,” “I’m just worried that if you dress like that in public you’ll lose your job or get bullied at school,” or “asexual isn’t a thing, you just haven’t found the right person yet,” doubt creeps in that maybe we are just confused. Maybe transitioning isn’t worth the risk. Maybe we’re just being picky and someday we will find “the one” who will make us “normal.” These words chip away at our sense of self, making it harder and harder to assert our own reality of who we are under God.
And who we are—you, me, all of us—is vitally important. When Jesus says in verses 25 and 26 “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” he’s talking about the Greek ψυχη, that is, one’s inmost being, but also one’s physical life. Being authentic in following Christ and being authentic to our inmost being are one in the same, and both carry an element of risk to our social and physical safety. Both invite suffering and, as we are inherently relational beings in the image of God, sacrifice for the sake of our communities.
As Dale P. Andrews puts it in Feasting on the Word, “The notion of sacrificial suffering as redemptive comes with a history of abusive practices and a risky trajectory of ill-conceived self-abandonment.” Self-denial for the sake of Jesus is not to be taken as abandoning the true expression of self through “conversion therapy” and the like, but rather stepping back from fearful self-preservation—be it physical or spiritual—and toward the vulnerability of taking on others’ suffering for the sake of the greater community.
Yet finding community under persecution is difficult. For where there’s persecution, there’s fear, and where there’s fear, there’s isolation. Jeremiah’s lament echoes many in the queer community when he asks,
“Why has my pain been perpetual
And my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you indeed be to me like a deceptive stream With water that is unreliable?”
He gives voice to the sense of separation and isolation that comes from fully committing oneself to following God despite the dismissal and denial of others. He also fears that God himself has abandoned him. This feels much like the isolation of being queer. We might even ask Jeremiah’s last question of the church: when you say you will be there for us, will you truly be there for us or will you be unreliable and inconsistent? The LORD asks for Jeremiah’s trust and gives this promise:
“So I will deliver you from the hand of the wicked, And I will redeem you from the grasp of the violent.”
If we, as the church, claim to be agents of God’s will on earth, we must live into that claim. God promises deliverance for the vulnerable and the oppressed. It is therefore the responsibility of the church to enact that promise.
Fortunately, we aren’t left directionless in how to do this.
In our reading from Romans, Paul lays out what it looks like to follow in Christ’s sacrifice day-to-day. Some of this is more thoroughly practised in the queer community than in the church— “10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honour;… 13 contributing to the needs of the saints (in this case, other vulnerable queer folks), practising hospitality…15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16 Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly”—and sometimes we struggle greatly, letting our fears and pain get in the way of solidarity as we lash out at each other. Sometimes the church excels in these things with prayerful obedience; oftentimes we forget to look beyond the comforts and ideals of our own community and in-groups.
This is messy work. Like Peter, we often shy away from the bloody violence of the cross, preferring to focus on the good ethics of Jesus. It’s easy to claim solidarity with the queer community when it’s time to celebrate, but are we willing to stay in solidarity when the violence comes?
Jesus didn’t abandon Peter for his denial here because in the end, Peter was willing to be
corrected and to learn. Andrews again says, “The life of learning is empowered… by Christ’s enduring forbearance to teach, along with the continuously emergent nature of revelation itself.” We have to be willing to mess up, and to listen, and to learn from those who correct us. It won’t always be kindly worded—Jesus called Peter ‘Satan’ after all—and not everyone will be willing or able to teach at any given moment, but there will be someone we can look to for guidance.
So listen. Learn. Be in solidarity even—especially—when it’s messy and difficult.
Tomorrow, when hardships come, let us not forget to “weep with those who weep.” But today, we “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Today is a day of celebration.