Homily. July 17 2016, St. Albans Church
Readings: Acts 15.1-12; Ps 118.1-2,14-24, Gal 3.21-28; John 15.12-17
(On the occasion of the General Synod decision to change the marriage canon to provide for same sex marriage)
There was a sharp dispute. The church called for a meeting and delegates traveled long distances to get there. When they arrived, there was disagreement. It got nasty at times. There was a debate.
I’m not talking about General Synod 2016 which took place this past week. I’m talking about what Kayleigh just read for us from the 15th chapter of Acts, the account of the Jerusalem Council of 50 AD, the first recorded general synod of our church almost 2000 years ago. The matter being debated was of critical importance: could non-Jews become members of the church, and if so, did they need to be circumcised in accordance with the Jewish law?
Apostles like Peter, Paul and Barnabas had been doing the very thing that Jesus had called them to do, to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth and to all nations. Not only Jews but Greeks and other Gentile peoples were responding to that call, proclaiming Jesus as Lord, being baptised and being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Seeing this, many in the church were calling for Gentile believers to be circumcised, just as God through Moses had commanded all Jews to be circumcised as a sign of God’s covenant with his people.
Those calling for circumcision had tradition on their side. Those calling for circumcision could quote the scriptures to make their case.
But some people, apostles like Peter, Paul and Barnabas, perceived that God was doing something new. They discerned a new and powerful movement of the Spirit of God. And so they shared what they had seen with the gathered assembly, telling them what God was doing amongst the Gentiles based on their own first-hand encounters and experience.
When the debate began, the traditionalists stood up and insisted that “the Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” They did so in good faith, after all, that was their understanding of what was required to be one of God’s people.
But Peter, the one who had received that great vision of inclusion, the one whom God had told to go and meet Cornelius, the Roman centurion, Peter got up and addressed the assembly:
“God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted the Gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.”
And so that great synod in Jerusalem in 50AD had a change of heart, and by doing away with the need for circumcision, opened the doors to the full inclusion of gentiles in the people of God which is the church.
That didn’t mean that everyone agreed, and it wasn’t the end of the matter. In the years that followed, there continued to be those that called for circumcision, those that wanted gentile believers to look and behave like Jews. And so, likely a few years after the council, Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians. He wanted to ground the decision of the Jerusalem Council in a new theological understanding, a new way of understanding what it means to be the people of God, the children of God. He rooted this new understanding in baptism. Paul writes:
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The Spirit of God moved in the early church in the first century, and gentiles were fully welcomed into the church as children of God, through baptism into Christ. Without this movement of the Spirit that took place in the first century, none of us would be here in this church today. But we are here. We who are baptized are all children of God; there is neither Jew nor Gentile. This is our church.
In the 18th and 19th century, there was another movement of the Spirit. The Spirit of God spoke powerfully through people like William Wilberforce, Hannah More and others, against the injustice and inhumanity of the slave trade. And though they faced great opposition in society, and though the church was divided, eventually they prevailed and the slave trade in the British Empire was abolished. “Amazing grace” wrote the former slave ship captain John Newton who sorrowfully repented of his involvement in slavery. “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” All who are baptized are one in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free.
In the 20th century the Spirit of God moved again. For most of our church history, almost 2000 years, women have been excluded from positions of leadership in the church. Again, there were theological arguments. Again, there were scriptural passages which supported the tradition. But again, the Holy Spirit moved. In our Anglican Church of Canada, there was another bruising debate, there was conflict, there were deep differences. But we decided in our General Synod of 1973 to proceed with the ordination of women. In 1976, six pioneering and perseverant women, Patricia Reed, Mary Mills, Elspeth Alley, Virginia Briant, Mary Lucas and Beverley Shanley were the first women ordained as priests in the Anglican Church of Canada. And over the past 40 years we as a church have been blessed by the ministry and leadership of many women, ordained and lay, and the fruit of the Spirit has been abundantly clear for us to see. All who are baptized are one in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.
My friends, it is the twenty-first century, and I believe that the Spirit of God is once more moving powerfully in our midst. Now I could be wrong. None of us have a monopoly on discerning the movement of God’s spirit. That’s why we do our discernment in community, by sharing our experiences, by meditating on the word of God, by praying together. That is what we did last week, over 200 of us, at the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, not for the first time but as part of a process and discernment that has been going on for the last forty years. We have not acted hastily; many would say that we have acted much too slowly.
At our General Synod, after much conversation and much debate, we voted to change the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church of Canada to provide for same sex marriage. We reaffirmed the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same sex relationships. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer people are to be fully included in the life, leadership and sacraments of the church including marriage. Though it will take three years and another vote to realize this change in church legislation, in our Diocese of Ottawa, Bishop Chapman has made this change effective immediately as a pastoral measure.
So to those of you who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer, may I say simply this and be able to fully mean it for the first time: Welcome. This is your church.
And, may I also say this. It has been your faithful witness within our church that has provided the impetus for this change. Over and over again at General Synod, we spoke about the faith, the godliness, the beauty and the holiness of your lives, your relationships and your witness and service within the church and in the world. Just as Peter was able to say of the Gentiles that “God, who knows the heart showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them just as he did to us,” we are able to say the same thing about so many of you in the church who have endured many years of exclusion and hostility, and all the pain that goes with that, and yet are shining examples of the love of God at work in God’s children. Thank you, and I’m sorry that it took so long.
There are in our midst, across the country and sitting right here with us, people who in good faith disagree with the decision made by General Synod. There are many who in good faith have a well thought out and prayerful understanding of scripture and theology which compels them to disagree with same sex marriage. I know, for that was once how I thought. To you I say, you are welcome here. It is good that you are here. We welcome and celebrate diversity in our church, including theological diversity. As we will sing together in a few minutes, “we need each other more than we need to agree.” I know first-hand from our recent experience at General Synod how disagreements can be hurtful and how bonds of friendship can be strained. Some people, a small minority but too many, said hurtful things. Please pray for each other and for the unity of our church. Be gentle with each other. Remember the commandment which Jesus gave to us on the night of his death: “Love each other as I have loved you.” And to those in our midst who are troubled or disagree with the results of our General Synod, I want to say thank you for being with us today and for having the grace to allow those of us who need to celebrate the outcome of General Synod to do so.
Every morning at General Synod we began our day with prayer and with a reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah.
“This is what the LORD says … Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
This is a historic moment for our Church. The LORD is indeed doing a new thing. Thanks be to God!