The Gospels are replete with stories of Jesus’ many encounters with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and not all of them were pleasant. To put it plainly, Jesus and these religious leaders debated and argued on just about every religious issue of the day. Whether it was about healing on the Sabbath, eating with tax collectors and sinners, or paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus was pursued by their questions and accusations, and he was very quick to respond, mostly through questions of his own that he put back to them that left them dazed and confused.
The central point of contention in all these debates and conflicts, however, centers on one important question: Who speaks for God? And, the basic problem for these religious leaders was that this rebel rouser was usurping their positions as God’s authority over the people, and if he was able to continue, then they would eventually lose these places of power.
In order for them to remain in power, they not only needed to make Jesus look bad, they also needed to maintain the status quo of religious beliefs and practices as if they were protecting God. Of particular importance for them for maintaining a sanitized religion were the purity laws that kept many people out of the religious life and community of Israel all for the purpose of keeping their concepts of impurities out.
But, in their zeal to protect their traditions, to protect their temple, and essentially to protect their God, these guardians of religion were failing to see what God was really like and what God was really up to.
The main thing for Jesus in many of the debates with the religious leaders is that those who think they are on God’s side, and those who are quick to say that others are not, are really outside of God’s kingdom. But more seriously, not only are they outside the rule of God, their actions of trying to protect their traditions, their temple, and their God, are really in opposition to what God was doing through the ministry of Jesus and in the lives of people.
Over and over again, Jesus confronts these religious leaders with their abusive power over people and their wrong-headed belief that they are protectors of God by criticizing them for shutting out people who these religious leaders believed to be unclean.
Jesus, on the other hand, does not see them as unclean. Rather, he sees them as people in need of compassion, embrace and community. Indeed, we might just say that Jesus, the pure one, was quite willing to place himself in the community of those considered impure by the religious leaders. But his place among them was not to bring judgment. Rather, his community with them was really an affirmation of their humanity.
While the religious leaders continued to put up barriers to separate the pure (Themselves!!) from the impure, Jesus’ ministry was about crossing the boundaries, even tearing them down, to create one community out of those who seek God’s kingdom.
Jesus is clear that the kingdom of God is not about keeping those we consider impure on the outside. The kingdom of God is the mysterious power of God’s movement in the world to bring about a community of welcoming and embrace of people from all walks of life. In fact, in contrast to the religious leaders, Jesus views the kingdom of God as populated by those these same religious leaders would not allow into the temple.
Peter understood this perspective, but only after his dream of unclean animals coming down from heaven on a sheet. When God commanded him to eat the animals, Peter’s initial response was one of disgust, based solely on what he thought to be unclean. But the dream was not really about unclean animals; it was about the people Peter considered to be unclean, the Gentiles.
Peter’s dream, and his witness of the coming of the spirit of God onto the Gentiles, changed Peter’s mind to the point that he proclaimed to his fellow Jews, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" (Acts 11:17).
There are many Christians that still believe that God needs protecting, and they do their best to hinder what God is doing. Like the religious leaders Jesus faced, they believe, sometimes very zealously, that they ought to keep out those they consider impure. In doing so, they believe it is their duty to protect the boundaries of the church to keep out the unclean.
I am afraid, however, that taking such positions only reincarnates the opposition that Jesus faced from the religious leaders of his day. Doing this places us in opposition to God. But this is very easy to do. It is easy because it gives us a religiously sanctioned way for reinforcing our prejudices against groups of people by simply claiming that they are not children of God, that they are unclean, and that they cannot participate fully in the community of faith.
One of the major attempts to protect God today is the continual efforts of many to exclude gays and lesbians from full participation in the church. While some denominations have moved forward on this to embrace those of different sexual orientations, they have not done so without opposition.
While well meaning and thoughtful people have felt very zealous about protecting the traditions, the church, and God, by continually excluding gays and lesbians from full participation in the church, they have declared them as unclean. In doing so, they look and act very much like the self-appointed God protectors of Jesus’ day.
It has become apparent through my own Christian journey that I am not the protector of God on this issue, or on any issue, and I cannot and will not hinder what God is doing. Peter’s evidence for the inclusion of the Gentiles was that he witnessed the spirit of God in them, and thus he could not reject the people he once rejected.
I have experienced people of different sexual orientations than my own living out the power of the spirit in their own lives, through caring for justice and goodness in the world. How can I hinder what God is doing by pretending I am a self-appointed God protector?