Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Bible & Homosexuality

Over the course of the last year we have dealt with some challenging issues through our questions of faith sermon series.  We’ve looked at the problem of suffering & unanswered prayer, is God homicidal, do all religions lead to God, to name just a few topics.

This morning I want to tackle a subject which is a hot topic in the church at the moment, and has attracted a lot of media attention.  It made the headlines again last week, when it was reported that the ‘Church clears way for Gay Bishops.’  It is the issue of homosexuality and the church.

I have deliberately steered away from tackling the issue of homosexuality until now for several reasons.  Firstly, of the many challenges facing the church, the question of homosexuality is not the most important issue – there are other far more important matters that I feel the church needs to address, I will come onto these later.    Secondly, I know that this is a topic that affects many of us personally.  There will be many people here who have relatives and close friends who have wrestled with the question of their sexual identity, and there may be people here today for whom this has been, or may still be an issue. 

So this morning what I want to do is lay out some of the reasons why this question is such a big issue in the church at present. But before I do that I want to talk about how my own opinions on this issue have been influenced.

New Zealand

In 1998 I went to NZ for a year to work with the Mission to Seafarers.  My first priority, after finding somewhere to live, was to find a church that I could belong to.  I ended up attending my local Anglican Church called St Luke’s.  I was made to feel very welcome by that church, being so far away from home, the support I received from this community made a real difference to my time in NZ.  But this was also a very liberal church, which as an evangelical I often struggled with.  Within the congregation of St Luke’s were a significant number of gay people, and so whereas previously the issue of homosexuality had always been a theoretical one for me, which didn’t impact on my life personally, whilst I was in NZ I was challenged to think more deeply about where I stood on this issue.

This issue became even more personal, when one of my closest friends who I was training with at theological college, admitted to being gay.  Coming from an evangelical background, they had wrestled with the question of their sexual identity, and came to the conclusion their sexual identity is part of who God made them.  This person is ordained and also in a civil partnership, and now lives and works in Spain.  So I’ve had to wrestle with how I feel about this, and how I respond to this situation.  So the issue of homosexuality is for me, and many others, one that touches my life & my relationships personally.

What I came to realise is that like most moral issues, the issue of homosexuality is not black and white, and we need to realise that when discussing this issue, we are talking about peoples’ lives.   It saddens me to hear the judgemental and condemning way some Christians talk about this issue, both traditionalists and liberals.  It is a complex moral issue, and when discussing it, we need to respect different opinions.

Society & Church

Societies attitude to homosexuality has changed considerably over the last thirty years.  Homosexuality is now much more widely accepted than it once was, we now have civil partnerships, and gay couples can adopt.  The Equality Act protects people from discrimination on the grounds of their sexuality.  It is because of the Equality Act that the Church of England is going to allow openly gay BUT celibate clergy to become Bishops.  Despite the way it was reported in the news last week, there hasn’t been a radical shift in the Churches position on the issue of homosexuality.    

But whereas society’s attitude to homosexuality has become more liberal, it is an issue that threatens to divide the church, with on the one hand, those who want to uphold the churches traditional teaching on sexuality, and on the other hand liberals, who want the church to treat homosexual relationships in the same way as heterosexual relationships.

Many people outside the church struggle to understand why this is such a controversial issue within church.  Fundamentally, the reason it is such an important issue, is it comes down to how we understand and interpret the Bible’s teaching on this issue.

The Bible and Homosexuality

So what does the Bible say about homosexuality? 

The Bible is silent about homosexual orientation, and there are only a handful of biblical references which clearly prohibit homosexual practice.  For example, Leviticus 18:22 says, “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”  And in Leviticus 20:13 it states, “‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.”  

Paul in his letters also writes about homosexuality, for example in Romans 1:26-27 he writes “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

There isn’t any passage in the Bible which defends homosexual practice.  However having said that, there are some important points that need to be made. 

Firstly, what the Bible appears to prohibit is NOT homosexual orientation, but homosexual practice.  This is often overlooked in the debates about homosexuality.  This is why the Church of England still insists that gay clergy must remain celibate.    

Of course, there is debate about the interpretation of these verses of scripture.  For example, the passage that I quoted from Paul’s letter to the Romans, has been described as the most important biblical reference for the homosexuality debate.  But there is a debate amongst scholars as to whether Paul is talking about homosexual activity in its broadest sense, or whether he is talking about homosexual prostitution, or homosexual acts committed by heterosexual persons, or heterosexuals who "abandoned" or "exchanged" heterosexuality for homosexuality.  What this illustrates is the complexity in interpreting scripture. 

Those from a more liberal position argue that we understand a lot more about homosexuality now, than when the Bible was written, and homosexuality is much more widely accepted.  However it is worth remembering that homosexual practice was very wide spread in the Greco Roman culture. 

What would Jesus say?

So what does Jesus say on the issue of homosexuality?  Well the answer is we don’t know!  But Jesus did say that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17).  Jesus did not undermining the Law of Moses, which would have included teaching on sexual ethics.  When a woman was caught committing adultery, Jesus did not condone her actions, but then neither did he condemn her, but instead told her to sin no more (John 8:11).  Paul in Romans reminds us that all of us fall short of God’s standards, we have all sinned.  Therefore we are all called to repentance and to live a new life following Jesus commandments. 

One of the most inspiring people I have met is Martin Hallett, who runs the ‘True Freedom Trust’.  This is a Christian support and teaching ministry for men and women, who accept the Bible’s traditional teaching on same sex practice, but are also aware of same sex attractions.  Martin Hallett came and spoke at my college about his own struggles with the feelings of attraction he has for other men, but also how he has chosen to live a celibate life style, because of the teaching of scripture.  It has not been easy decision for him to make, but he believes it is has been the right choice. 

Other Issues

Based on the amount of time that the church spends debating homosexuality, you would think that it is the most important issue facing the church today, but it isn’t. 

In 2007 Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that there are much more important issues to focus on.  He said, "Our world is facing problems - poverty, HIV and Aids - a devastating pandemic, and conflict.  God must be weeping looking at some of the atrocities that we commit against one another. In the face of all of that, our Church, especially the Anglican Church, at this time is almost obsessed with questions of human sexuality."

Jim Wallis, who is an American evangelical writer and political activist, who advises President Obama, said in a recent interview: “It’s sad that when three billion people – half of God’s children – are living on less than two dollars a day, so much of our talk is about homosexuality.  It’s an important issue for sure, but with so many people struggling and dying in poverty, should this be our top priority?” 

In Isaiah God makes it clear that the things that matter to him are to “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)  These are the issues that really matter. 


Our Gospel reading this morning, is a reminder that we as the church are called to be a place of welcome, a place of acceptance, and a place of healing.  I have only been able to scratch the surface on the topic of homosexuality and the Bible, and we may have differences of opinion on this topic, but I hope that as a church, we can discuss this, and other moral and ethical issues in a way that promotes love and understanding amongst Christians.  Because ultimately as Christians we are called to love one another, just as God loves us, and it is love that is the authentic mark of a Christian community.  Amen.

Questions for Home Groups

Please remember that this is a sensitive subject, which needs to be dealt with great care.  It is important to recognise that people may have different opinions on this subject.

·         Do you know someone who has had to wrestle with their sexual identity?  What struggles did this person have to face?  Has it influenced how you approach this issue?
·         Why do you feel the issue of homosexuality is such an important one for the church?
·         The Bible is silent about the issue of homosexual orientation. Why do you think this is the case?  In the debates surrounding homosexuality do you feel this distinction between orientation and practice is often overlooked?  Does this alter the way in which we approach this subject?
·         Why do you think we focus so much on homosexuality, but ignore other aspects of sexual ethics, for example sex before marriage amongst heterosexuals? 
·         Jesus said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17) – what can we learn from this in relation to the debate surrounding homosexuality and sexual ethics in general?
·         What can we learn from the way Jesus treated people (you may want to look at John 7:53-8:11)?
·         How can we best support those people who are struggling with their sexual identity?
·         What do you feel are the main issues that the church should be concerned about today?    

If you want to explore further the question of the Church, Bible and Homosexuality I recommend the following websites:

An Exercise In The Fundamentals Of Orthodoxy www.peter-ould.net  the website of the Revd Peter Ould, one of the main bloggers in the Church of England on the topic of relationships, sex and Jesus.   
True Freedom Trust www.truefreedomtrust.co.uk - a confidential Christian support and teaching ministry for men and women who accept the Bible's prohibition of same-sex practice and yet are aware of same-sex attractions, or struggle with other sexual and relational issues. 
Church of England www.churchofengland.org/our-views/marriage,-family-and-sexuality-issues/human-sexuality.aspx - links to documents on the issues surrounding human sexuality, including homosexuality, and the Church’s teaching on Civil Partnerships

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

I am the Vicar, I am

I am the vicar,

I am.

I am the pastor, the carer, the listener

the one with the time to drop everything and

I also understand global politics and immigration


I am the one who knows about Afghanistan

and cares about ‘our boys’

and I care about speed-humps



and the positioning of zebra crossings near schools.

I am passionate

about school assemblies

council meetings

mums and toddlers and also

I am good at one-to-one and small groups and

I listen and empathise and at the same time

I am the one who plans and strategizes and

I am the one who understands budgets and decides if we can buy

any staples

or replace the heating system.

I am the vicar, I am.

I am the quiet reflective

prayer and

I am the speaker, the enthuser, the motivator, the learned teacher


I can engage a room of 10, 50, 300 people with no problem


I am the one who relates particularly well to children

older people

the middle-aged

the jobless

the employed

the doctors

teenagers and

I am the one who is always one step ahead and

I am the one who is endearingly disorganised.

I am the vicar, I am.

I care passionately

about church politics

I care passionately about domestic abuse

I care passionately about the plight of Anglo Catholics

women priests

gay clergy

evangelicals and

I listen to the pope

the archbishop and

Rob Bell.

I am up-to-date with

theological developments.

I understand the history of the reformation

the armed forces

the war

the government

the deanery

the Jewish background of Jesus and

I care about the excluded and

I manage my admin and

I know how to access children’s services.

I am the vicar, I am.

I am the one in whom

trust is placed

I am the one in whom grumbles are placed

I am the one who is always talking to everyone else

I am the one who models worship










I often get it wrong.

I am the one who has to keep my doubts under wraps and

I am also the one who is vulnerable and




I am the one who chairs


I am the one who manages group discussions

I am the manager of an organisation that employs only me

I am the volunteer co-ordinator

the opinion co-ordinator

the trespasser on the territory of people who have

been around a lot longer than me

and will be there after me.

I understand the heating system

the financial system

the rota system.

I love committees.

I drink tea with

older people

And coffee with younger people

I listen to stories of bus routes and hospital visits


I believe in transforming our community through the power of


I am the one

who is very tired.

I am the one who hates wearing dresses but

still smiles

and would love to be muddy all the time.

I am the one who only

works one day a week.

I am the one

who loves this job.

I am the one who is making it up as I go along.

I am the one who would not swap this for anything.

I am the vicar, I am.

With thanks to Janet Chapman of Birmingham Cathedral for this delightful and perceptive piece. It is from http://theblogofkevin.wordpress.com

When Tragedy Strikes

Walsall Advertiser Living Faith Column, June 30th 2011

Two weeks ago I attended the funeral of my nephew Matthew who was stillborn.  Watching his father filling in the grave where his tiny coffin lay was one of the most heart breaking things I had ever witnessed.  No parent should have to bury their child. 

The Bible tells the story of Job, a good man, who respected God and refused to do evil.  But despite Job’s faith in God, it did not protect him from tragedy befalling his family.  In one terrible day Job loses everything, his possessions, his home, his life stock and worst of all his eleven children.  The question raised by the story of Job is how is he going to respond to this disaster, is he going to reject God or hold on to his faith?  This is the question many of us face when we experience a great personal loss.  

When tragedy strikes we naturally want answers to why God could allow such a thing to happen, but there are rarely any easy answers.

Following Matthew’s death I was reminded of a point in Jesus’ own ministry, where many of the people who had been following him, grew disillusioned and disappointed, and abandoned him.  When Jesus asked his own disciples if they were also going to leave him, Peter responded "Lord, there is no one else that we can go to! Your words give eternal life.” (John 6:68)

Having faith in God doesn’t mean we are protected from terrible things happening to us, nor does it mean having all the answers.  True faith means learning to live with the questions and the doubts, whilst still trusting in God’s goodness, love and mercy.  Faith is also realising that God is present with us as we journey through life, and therefore we do not have to face these tough times alone. 

Despite all Job faced, he clung on to his faith in God, just as my sister and brother in law are clinging on to their faith, because they know that nothing, not even death, can separate us and those we love from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. 

So if you are finding life difficult today, don’t give up on God, because he never gives up on us, and with Him there is always hope for the future.

If you have been personally affected by a death of a baby please visit Sands the Stillbirth and neonatal death charity.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Pentecost Sunday

Sermon preached by Penny Wheble at St Martin's Church in Walsall, on Pentecost Sunday 2011.

Today is Pentecost Sunday – an important day in the church calendar.
The word ‘Pentecost comes from the Greek: it simply means ‘fiftieth’.
Pentecost Sunday ends the period of Easter.

Pentecost grew from what was originally a festival marking the first grain harvest of the Middle Eastern year. This was marked by a sacrifice to the gods taken from the first part of that first harvest. In very ancient Palestine, this first-fruit sacrifice was tightly tied into the religions of the gods of power and fertility. As the Jews grew to understand themselves as followers of the one and only true God, they created ways to be thankful to that God, Yahweh, for the first harvest, without the pagan trappings. The celebration became a mini-pilgrimage, or chag, where they would stay at their region’s shrine, bringing with them grain loaves and young livestock for sacrifices. As the Jewish kings started to centralise religious activity into Jerusalem (a process that lasted several centuries), this pilgrimage and sacrifice was brought there, with all the songs, processions, liturgies and pageantry that Jerusalem did so well. To them, the 50 day period was the week’s worth of weeks after the Passover. The Passover recalled hard times and rescue by God, hence the unleavened bread; Pentecost, or Shavu’ot was the celebration of a blessing of harvest, and its joy was symbolised by leavening the bread.

The festival began to take on another religious role around the time of the Exile. And because Exodus 19:1 describes the arrival of the Jewish people at Sinai as being about that time of year, Pentecost was used to mark the giving of the Torah or the first five books of Moses at Sinai. Over time, the Torah, as a set of instructions, became more prominent in Feast of Weeks’ celebrations.

Now, let’s fast-forward to Jesus’ time. The believers had gathered together after Jesus returned to the Father. It wasn’t just the 12 disciples, there were around 120 of them. They would have been talking, remembering, praying, and wondering what was next, after some of the strangest months there ever were.
Luke, in his account, speaks of how they started telling the people they met about Jesus, after they had been filled and set on fire by the Holy Spirit. The streets were full of people from many places, mostly there for the holy day, some still hanging around from Passover. When each of them heard the witnesses speak, they heard it in their own language! (That is, if they were allowing themselves to listen; otherwise they heard babbling, as shown by the remarks about drunkenness.)

What was being told fully for the first time, was the good news about Jesus and what it means for all people. But more than words – the words were being carried with power and authority by the Holy Spirit into the hearts and ears of those who were listening. About 3000 people joined their ranks – the first fruits of a new kind of harvest, and the giving of a new covenant of grace fulfilling the covenant of the Torah.

Pentecost wasn’t the first time the Spirit was active. The Spirit had been working all along in people who listened, giving them guidance, teaching, shedding light on the mysteries of life, and causing prophesies. The Spirit had struck home powerfully in John the Baptist’s message of repent and be saved, and came in full force upon Jesus at his baptism which began Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus was a man who was overflowing with the Spirit, and it showed in whatever he did – the teachings, the healings, the suffering and the death, the return and the leaving.
John’s Gospel even mentions that Jesus had blown the Spirit onto each of his disciples before leaving. But Pentecost was the first day that the Spirit took hold of the followers of Christ as a group or body, and came to stay. It was the first time the Spirit’s raw power was there in anyone who followed Christ, not just the Twelve.

So, what does Pentecost mean for each of us?
We are called as a people to be together in order to share Jesus’ love. If you believe in Jesus and are baptised, then you’re called into something much bigger than you are. Being part of the church of Christ as a believer means that you have the Holy Spirit at work in you. And that means that you each have tasks that the Lord wants you to do, and you have been given what it takes to do them. You are to listen for the Spirit’s guidance, through the scriptures God gave for you. The liberating, earth-shattering spiritual event of Pentecost was the first fruit of something that continues to this day, and beyond.

Some of you here may still be wondering about faith; you may find it weird, intriguing or just puzzling. God meant for each of you to be in this too. You are like the people who were in the crowd that Pentecost day. About 3000 in that crowd changed course and became believers. A few grumbled, some debated it among themselves. But most people in Jerusalem didn’t even notice, or saw it and just got on with their daily lives. No new power impacted their lives. No new purpose gave them direction. And many people, even devout ones, still couldn’t sense the presence and power of God in their lives, and would you believe it, it’s still like that today.
Pentecost holds the promise that God has something new in store. The believers from that first Pentecost day kept their faith, and told others about Jesus, and kept living his way and many more would find God’s promise fulfilled in their lives.

Pentecost is not a solemn occasion. It’s a time for vigour, excitement, energy, movement, birth and fresh commitment.
It’s also a time to think about the gifts the Spirit has given you: Perhaps there is a way you can use them to build up or help bring healing to others, to the credit of God alone. The only thanks that the Spirit wants for giving gifts is that we should use them instead of sitting back and wasting the opportunities.

As a church here at St Martin’s, we worship together, pray together, sing together, and just do things together, but my final thought is how can we reach out to others, especially in the community and those on the outskirts of society. Let’s be reactive to the needs of those around us, and encourage one another as Jesus did his disciples.

Let’s pray:

Lord, you have chosen and called us
To worship and serve you
And to open our lives to the power of your word.
You have loved us and healed us,
You have changed us and filled us.
Now set us free to be signs of your grace
To those who are lost and those who are hurting.
We commit ourselves to Christ
And to be open to your will.
Now fill us with your Spirit,
That we may live in the freedom of your grace.