By Tommy Airey, last Sunday’s silent sermon
So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step…
When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
In a previous life, I was the athletic director at a large public high school and an associate pastor at an Evangelical church plant at the same time. My single life and my Purpose Driven protein shakes subsidized my 80-hour workweek. It was a life of adventure. One week I was on a short-term mission trip to Nigeria. The next week I was dealing with the fallout of a teacher-and-coach who was sleeping with one of his students.
Suburbia introduced me to people who changed my life. One of the best coaches I ever hired came out to me when I interviewed him for the job. He said that there was “something that you should know before you hire me.” He was gay. My friendship evangelism canceled out my traditional marriage theology. You’re hired! To this day, I experience a painful flashback from time to time. This coach and I were shootin’ the shit in my office at the end of his first season. The topic turned to his sexuality and I asked him what his relationship with his dad was like. I still cannot believe I went there. I was confined by the myths and assumptions passed down to me by my fundamentalist forefathers. They explained away the gay with sexual abuse and daddy issues. Unsurprisingly, the coach matched my cringeworthiness with grace and mercy. Just like Jesus.
Back then, I simply did not have the theological tools, nor the beloved community, to train me up into a different way of understanding God and the world. These would come just a few years later, when Lindsay and I attended seminary and I started reading the Walters (Brueggemann and Wink). Then we met Ty, a former children’s pastor at the Evangelical megachurch who was outed and promptly fired. The Walters and Ty were real life Christians explaining sexuality, the bible and faith in fresh, compelling ways. Step by step. Just like Peter did with the circumcised believers back in the day. And, like that first generation of radical disciples, I joined other circumcised believers accepting their testimony as the word of God. I breathed a sigh of relief that the repentance that leads to life extends far beyond my old traditional categories. Without conversation partners, I would have left the fold.
The God of Steadfast Love doesn’t change. People do. Like us, the bible is far from inerrant. The sacred script moves three steps forward and two steps backward. It holds up a mirror to our faith, which requires a principle of fallibility to thrive. We are wrong about some things. The problem is that we don’t know which things we are wrong about. Two steps back. So we cling to humility, grace, mercy, forgiveness and a reckless open-heartedness. Three steps forward. These lead us to repentance (Greek metanoia), a political term that ancient folk used to describe a traitor. Those who repented changed sides. They pledged allegiance to what they previously demonized and scapegoated. True repentance came with death threats from friends and family members.
What Jesus called a “new commandment” was really, only new for the disciples. It was the way Reality had always been structured. Humans have always had cosmic companionship. And the divine has always been fueled by self-donating-and-daring love. This got real with a Rabbi willing to teach things so direct and honest it got him killed. Crucified love is not inclusive, but expansive. She does not make room for others to come join our circle. She shoves us out beyond our circle to learn vital love lessons from those deemed different.
I’m not sure if the context was a bible study or a happy hour, but at some point Dr. James Perkinson reassured me that “the bible encodes Indigenous memories of living against the grain.” J-Perk says the story starts with Abel, living sustainably and nomadically, slaughtered by the pre-Monsanto monocrop agriculturalist Cain. Abel disappeared. But he still speaks! The Indigenous was crucified. But it rises up! Abel prods Jesus to take his cues from women, the uncircumcised, people with disabilities, animating a way of courage, camaraderie and caregiving that, like Abel, was almost wiped out on the North American continent (along with the buffalo, salmon, sturgeon and Indigenous peoples themselves).
This way—from Abel to Jesus to Wounded Knee to Standing Rock—has always cherished relationship with those deemed different. Chronically treated less-than-human, they are actually more-than-human. Instead of fear, this way approaches the queer and questioning with reverence and open-heartedness. Not because they are worthy of being on our team. But because these precious Beings give us a unique glimpse of the divine that we could never see without them.
Tommy Airey was born and raised on stolen, unceded Acjachemen territory (“Orange County, California”), was transformed by the thin place the Ojibwe, Huron and Odawa call Wawiiatanong (“Detroit River”) and has entered the sacred “hidden waters” the Molalla and Paiute named Towarnehiooks (“Deschutes River, Oregon”). He and his wife-partner Lindsay work for Kardia Kaiomenē, a community-supported non-profit, partnering with families and faith communities to equip and accompany all those whose hearts burn for intimacy, community and justice. He is the co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.Net and author of the recently released Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).