An Offensive Gospel

September 2, 2012

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 14     Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


This week I met with a small group of colleagues to discuss how to move the diocese to a more accepting view regarding the place of the LGBTQ community in the life of the church. In particular we were discussing how to support the debate that will be held at the Synod next weekend regarding a bill that only asks that we discuss the concept of same-sex marriage. In the course of the discussion we warned them that another billboard would be going up outside St Matthew’s this week. One member of the group groaned about how difficult our billboards make her life. Her point was that her congregation is more theologically diverse than we are at St Matthew’s and it puts her in a difficult position as to how to respond. From Glynn’s and my position all she has to do is stand up and say she disagrees with us and why. It was clear from her position that St Matthew’s causes reactions locally that she could do without. Implied is that when we cause offence it makes her job harder.


After our billboard went up this week we got the usual collection of emails and phone calls. Some expressed surprise and support that a church had the courage to make what they considered our enlightened position known. Others spouted scripture passages at us like we had never heard them before and damned us for not supporting the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality. Media quickly jumped on it asking for interviews. But my favourite moment of the week was a voice mail from a sweet young thing disappointed that she did not get to speak to me in person. She then proceeded to wonder what Bible I read because my position was not in her John Nelson Darby version (one I have to admit I was unfamiliar with) or her King James Version. She then proceeded to quote Romans 1:26-27 as if there was nothing left to be said. But apparently after second thought she went on to assure me I was not a Christian, in fact I was clearly the Anti-Christ. She then signed off cheerily saying I better get myself sorted out or I was going to hell. I liked that one so much I had to put it on my Facebook page. From many of the comments made by my Facebook friends I will be in good company.


To top off the week our bishops felt compelled to speak out against the billboard in the diocesan publication Taonga. I say “compelled” because having worked closely with a bishop in the past I know that they do not welcome being drawn into controversy. I am of two minds regarding this. First, I commend them for in no way trying to stop us from putting up the billboard. They clearly wish we hadn’t but they are respectful of our right to do so. That said, they chose to nit pick that our billboard does not give a full theological explanation of our position with footnotes, forgetting it is only two by one metres big. They chose to ignore that a media release went out further explaining its purpose. They chose to ignore that there is plenty of history behind our billboard. For over 30 years we have argued that it is the church’s loss to not honour and receive fully the gay and lesbian community into the life of the church and society. I can only assume what annoys them most is that a billboard that uses humour to support Louisa’s Marriage Equality bill has gotten extensive coverage in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the US. This apparently compelled them to have to separate themselves from the justice issue behind the bill and declare that the billboard and the opinion of St Matthew’s congregation “does not represent the Auckland Diocese or the wider Anglican Church.” This statement is only true in the sense that our Diocese and the wider church have never voted on the issue of same gender marriage. What it does not acknowledge is that there are many Anglican clergy and laypeople supportive of our views, as evidenced by their signing a letter of opposition to the Roman Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter opposing the Marriage Equality Act. After then denigrating our position they go on to encourage “the church and the wider community to have respectful conversations that lead to a greater understanding of the issue currently before Parliament.” Apparently, while they may feel we do not represent the views of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, we do represent the views of New Zealand and its Parliament who overwhelming supported the bill in its first reading with a vote of 80 to 41. I can only thank God that the Anglican Church weren’t involved in this process. They would have tabled it in favour of establishing a Crown commission to deliberate on it for the next two years seeking options that would not offend anyone before deferring a vote on the report until 2016 when all 121 Members of Parliament might vote in favour.


This week’s adventures and today’s Gospel raise for me the question of what is the church’s role in society. All too often in my opinion our role has been to be a social club that supports King and Country. We are ordained to be an instrument of good order that supports the agenda of those in power. As an example, right now in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney there is a renewed effort to make men the head of the household, and not just churchmen, but all men in society. They are reintroducing a requirement into the wedding vows for women to submit to their husbands. Their reason is the Bible says so, of course, and woe betides any woman who resists! What century are they living in? I’m pretty sure I’d be living alone if those vows still existed in New Zealand. Lynette would never submit and I wouldn’t have been interested if she did.


Apparently, the problem many in the church have with us at St Matthew’s is that we are an obstacle to right order. In biblical language we are a scandalon, a stone that causes others to stumble or stub their toe. Our sin is that we are offensive to some of our brothers and sisters in the faith. In their minds it is unchristian to offend. If so, I wonder how they are dealing with today’s Gospel or for that matter last week’s or next week’s. In all three Jesus goes out of his way to offend someone.


Last week he offended some of his followers by referring to himself as the bread of heaven and that to eat of it is to eat his flesh and blood. Besides identifying himself with God he asked Jews who were forbidden to eat blood to do so metaphorically. Those who were offended walked away.


This week Jesus criticizes the Pharisees who are offended that his followers do not wash their hands before eating as the purity laws require. While in our modern age we know that doings so is good hygiene, Jesus confronts their hypocrisy by quoting Isaiah:


‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”


He then tells the crowd: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” His disciples are anxious that he has offended the Pharisees. They were right. He made no friends amongst the powerful religious leaders of his day.


Next week you will hear him refer offensively to the Syrophoenician woman as a dog when she asks him to heal her daughter. Unlike the disciples who walked away, or the Pharisees who began plotting his destruction, the woman refused to be offended and made a joke, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The result is her daughter is healed.


It is not a coincidence that Mark has juxtaposed these stories. His point is not about the importance of eating kosher, or cleanliness versus defilement, or who is worthy to receive God’s grace. In a highly offensive way Jesus points out that his followers who were among the 5000 who ate bountifully from two fish and five loaves of bread lack enough faith to be one with him by eating his flesh and blood. The law-abiding, pious Pharisees lack enough faith to be less concerned about the cleanliness of their hands than the purity of their hearts. But a Gentile dog has faith greater than her capacity to be offended. His point is that the opposite of offence is faith, but the only way to faith is through the possibility of offence. As Jesus says in Matthew 11:6 “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”


May all who take offence at our billboards be lead to faith: faith in a world where human dignity reigns, God’s justice prevails and the mystery of love surrounds us all.

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