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April 7, 2008
Colgate Rochester Crozier Theological Seminary
Rochester, New York

My grandmother in small town Kansas had in her living room an old lithograph of Jesus surrounded by children, and he was holding one on his lap. “Suffer the little children” was its title, and it referred to the biblical story of Jesus’ disciples rebuking parents who had brought their children to meet Jesus. Jesus was angry, and rebuked his d=isciples, saying, in the King James Version, “Suffer the little children to come unto me: forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” This picture was emblematic of my first impression of Jesus—that he wanted to meet me and would welcome me on his lap. As we sang in my Sunday school, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves, yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”

When I went forward at an altar call, it was to accept Jesus, and when I was baptized by immersion a few weeks later, what it signified for me is that I would be with Jesus and God and my family forever. It was, to me, a sacrament of belonging.

When we’re talking about meeting Jesus or meeting anyone, first impressions are extremely important. As it turned out, I would have plenty to challenge my first impressions of Jesus as I grew up. As a child in the 1950s, I attended a fundamentalist Baptist church and a fundamentalist nondenominational Christian school.  One day, my schoolmates and I were each given an outline picture of Jesus to color in with crayons. When I chose a bright red crayon to color in Jesus’ lips, I was ridiculed by my classmates for making Jesus into a girly-man with lipstick, and the implication was that I was not a real boy. Already I was being programmed by gender expectations as well as by a rather primitive sort of Christological orthodoxy: Jesus did not do drag.  I cried in embarrassment and hated myself, because what I wanted was to be accepted by my peers, to belong. Each of us—gay or not—could probably tell many such stories of instances like this when we realized we were different, we were queer, and didn’t quite fit in.

By the time I reached high school, with the secret knowledge of my own homosexuality and with the hidden desire of being a “real” teenage boy like everyone else, a friend of mine told me he had seen the just-released film “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in which the slight, Swedish actor Max von Sydow plays the role of Jesus. My friend complained that the Jesus portrayed was a weakling and a wimp, not the muscle-bound carpenter of power that he probably was. I winced because my friend’s comment somehow suggested that if Jesus were like me he would have been undesirable and ineffectual. Yet now as I look back at that incident, I realized my friend’s desire was to see Jesus as something he himself was not, himself an awkward, nerdy kind of adolescent.

Yet the story of the Incarnation, that God became flesh, made in our likeness as we were made in God’s likeness, tells us of Immanuel, “God-with-us,” God-like-us in every way but one: that he loved perfectly. Doesn’t matter whether he looked like Woody Allen or Brad Pitt. The Isaiah passages that Christians would later claim told of his coming spoke not of a Superman, handsome and desirable in every way, but of one who “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces; he was despised, and we held him of no account” (Isaiah 53:2b-3). This is a man closer to my own experience, feeling homely and awkward and queer, last chosen for any team.

Many if not most of you are familiar with Marcus Borg’s book entitled “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.” In it he describes how the Jesus he met in Sunday school changed to the Jesus he met in college, then in seminary, and finally in midlife. When I read the book years ago, my immediate reaction was to say, “Yes, this is my experience, too!—I have come to know Jesus in different ways in different periods of my life!” I wanted to buy the book for each of my family members to help them understand why I still follow Jesus and how they don’t have to settle for the Jesus of our childhood fundamentalist church. We can come to know Jesus and to follow Jesus in our own way given our unique life experiences.

Ultimately I have come to believe that, for myself, it’s less important what I believe about Jesus than that I follow Jesus. The “Christ” part is not as important as the “Jesus” part for me. I believe that somehow Jesus “got it right,” that he lived the kind of life and practiced the kind of spirituality that I would like to live and practice. Whether he is God’s Son anymore than you and I are God’s sons and daughters is not a question I would put to Jesus, but rather, how he figured out his unique relationship with God and how he lived that out with such confidence, integrity, dignity, and humility.

How was he, as the scripture text from John’s Gospel so “full of grace and truth”? That’s the way I want to be when I spiritually grow up: able to discern the truth, and yet to hold that knowledge with grace; able to be graceful and gracious in the way I manifest such truth, neither “boastful nor arrogant or rude” as the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, nor insisting on my own way, especially because, unlike Jesus, my truth is never the whole truth, nor is my truth nothing but the truth.

Different ways of meeting Jesus need not be confined to a continuum of one’s personal lifetime, say from a credulous or doubting childhood to a passionate or skeptical adolescence to an acquiescent or noncomformist adulthood to a settled or questioning middle age to a wise or foolish old age. Different ways of meeting Jesus may also be diversely understood along a continuum of experience, context, and condition, whether that of era, culture, race, disability, unacceptability, gender or sexual identity, marginality, vocation, and so forth.

Now, the downside of this is that often systems or churches have used Jesus to their own ends to endorse everything from “the divine right of kings” to our present incursion into Iraq. Televangelist Pat Robertson used his Christian pulpit to suggest that we should assassinate the president of Venezuela, leading political cartoonist Mike Luckovich of Atlanta to depict Robertson wearing a t-shirt that reads, “Who would Jesus assassinate?”  And much of the church today paradoxically uses Jesus’ teaching against heterosexual divorce that heterosexual Christians themselves have set aside to suggest that same-gender marriages are an offense against God, an offense against the “sanctity” of marriage itself.

Queer Christians—and by that I mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender as well as our allies—queer Christians need to take Jesus into our own hands—or better, to let the Jesus that we know and love take us into his own hands, into his own arms, onto his own lap and breast, as the Beloved Disciple. Critiquing the way the church and even those outside the church have introduced Jesus to us is part of a larger enterprise that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender scholars have called “queering” theology.

Instead of calling our enterprise “queer theology,” as if it were an end in and of itself, the original intent of the woman scholar who gave us the term was that we should always be in the process of “queering theology,” that is, critiquing theology from the perspective of the outsider, those left outside the system. If nothing else is clear to me about the nature of Jesus, it is that queers—and here I’m using the term metaphorically to apply to all those left outside the religious and political systems of his day and of our own time—queers were the very ones upon which Jesus focused his ministry, to meet them and their spiritual needs where they were, not to make them acceptable.

Meeting Jesus again for the first time, as Marcus Borg describes it, or “Queering Christ” as Bob Goss and Mona West call it, is a way of getting to the heart of Jesus, in my view. Notice I don’t say “getting to the truth about Jesus.” In my view, “getting to the heart of Jesus” is the way of the mystic. “Getting to the truth about Jesus” is the way of the theologian or the historian, like the scholars involved in the Jesus seminar that try to determine what the historical Jesus actually said or did, and what it means in a theological system. Though I find the work of historians and theologians of great interest and of much help and insight, ultimately I embrace the myth and mystery and mystique of Jesus Christ.

“Myth” in the sense that I’m using it—as you might guess—does not mean something untrue or unreal; it means something deeper and truer than literal reality, deeper and truer than any form of literalism, whether that of the biblical literalist or that of the historical literalist or that of the theologically orthodox. I don’t want to demythologize Christ, I want to remythologize Christ, to better embrace his mystery. Deconstructing Jesus might be an interesting enterprise, but I want to affirm that Jesus is more than the sum of his parts, much like the rest of us.

We’ve all been in relationships in which one or both have tried to analyze the other. That’s helpful to a point, if we use what we understand for good rather than to keep the other at a distance.  But, after years of experience in relationships, I’ve learned that love is finally about embracing the mystery of the other: quirks, warts, and all. By that I don’t mean accepting abuse from a lover, which is a rejection of your own mystery. Nor do I mean merging your separate mysteries, which is a compromise of each one’s mystery. Lovers embrace not only one another’s unique bodies in love but mutually embrace one another’s unique mysteries in love.

To me, this is the way Jesus embraced those he loved and how he expected to be embraced. He didn’t tell Zachaeus to grow a foot taller before he invited himself over to his house for dinner. He didn’t tell the one Samaritan among the group of ten lepers that he had to convert to Judaism before he restored the man’s health. He didn’t even tell the Roman centurion that he had to renounce the imperial state he served before he healed the man’s lover or beloved servant, depending on the translation. The people he called to his inner circle were not the influential, the educated, the well-connected, nor the prosperous. But he nonetheless valued them highly, entrusting his message of the inbreaking of God’s realm with them.

That’s why I refer in all my writing to the kingdom of God as the commonwealth of God, because I believe God’s realm is one in which you and I and everyone share a common spiritual wealth, none higher, none lower, none more, none less. Saints or the deeply spiritual I define as those who have simply become better aware of this shared spiritual wealth and are already living in this commonwealth.

Ultimately Jesus trusted his disciples with his very life, saying that greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Queer disciples have also been entrusted with Jesus’ life and his gospel. We can’t let other Christians alone interpret Jesus’ grace and truth. We mustn’t abandon Christ as his disciples did when threatened by the culture or religion of their time.

Yet we do need to abandon inadequate concepts of who Jesus Christ was and is. On Sunday afternoons I used to speak to a little interfaith—or, better to say, “eclectic”—spirituality group in Atlanta called Midtown Spiritual Community. It’s made of ten to fifteen souls that all grew up in Christian churches, half Catholic and half Protestant, mostly straight but a few gay, and few of whom now follow a Christian spiritual path. I didn’t dare preach, but I did give talks which were often interrupted and always encouraged conversation.

Betty Ann, who takes things quite literally, in the early months of my tenure never said anything out of shyness. But she became quite bold and actively questioned things I said, trying to understand my metaphorical language in a literal context. I had just read Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers,” and was presenting some of its concepts to the group. I mentioned the Zen Buddhist axiom, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”—explaining its meaning that if you think you have Buddha or what buddhahood means under your belt, so to speak, you should do away with your present concept to embrace a new understanding of Buddha and what it means to embrace your own Buddha nature.

At this point, Betty Ann interrupted me. Noting the parallels I was drawing between Buddhism and Christianity, she took me literally at my word and asked, “You’re saying we should kill the Buddha if we meet him. Are you saying we should also kill Christ?” It was one of those insights that made everyone laugh at the recognition of a truth.  I too laughed and said, thinking of church adversaries who would find my heresy useful, “Now, I don’t want to be quoted out of context on this, but yes, we should also ‘kill Christ.’” What I meant and what I mean is that we too need to let go of our notions of who Christ is to embrace new and fresh understandings of Christ in our context, as well as what it means to be the Body of Christ, the church, and what it means to be Christ for the world.

Even Jesus recognized this, according to spiritual author Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, a professor of mine at Yale Divinity School, said that Jesus knew that he had to get out of the way in order to be “the way, the truth, and the life.” As much as he may have wanted to succumb to the all-too-human temptations in the wilderness to survive, to build a good reputation, and to keep in control of the burgeoning Christian corporation, Jesus knew that Holy Spirit could lead his disciples into further truth and thus a more inclusive spiritual community.

Some of you are aware of founder’s syndrome. If the influence of a founder of a church or an organization lingers too long, the group may lose its ability to adapt to new circumstances with a new mission. Jesus, I believe, was more interested in founding a movement than a religious organization. He did not need to be the first pope or CEO. He did not need to be in strict control—only some of his subsequent followers would succumb to that temptation.

Even the apostle Paul, whose fundamentalist Jewish ways might have given him a predilection for controlling early Christians absolutely—even he gave us understandings of Jesus that led to multiple interpretations and to an open process of discerning truth. Think of Paul’s insistence that we are saved by grace through faith rather than by Law in Romans, or the freedom he relished in Galatians: “for freedom Christ has set us free, submit not to another yoke of slavery.” Consider Paul’s admonitions that Jews and Gentiles get along in Ephesians, and that so-called “stronger” and “weaker” Christians keep faith with one another in Corinthians. Remember Paul’s wonderful metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, a unity that causes us to suffer and rejoice together with members in pain or who are honored. And consider the vagaries of Paul’s understanding of Christ as the head of that body. There are no specifics in having the mind of Christ. Paul apparently could live with ambiguity, if not entirely, at least to a greater extent than many Christians who quote him to condemn others, confessing as he did in 1 Corinthians 13: “now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

And early Christians apparently followed suit, to cite but one scholar of several who have come to the same conclusion, Elaine Pagels, who has written of the multiple viewpoints of early Christians regarding belief and behavior, one that worked until Irenaeus created Christian orthodoxy, literally, “straight thinking,” condemning “wild” and “evil” scriptural interpretations as heresy. Orthodoxy, as you might guess from the clue “straight thinking” is the very opposite of “queering theology.” (I love the t-shirt that proclaims, “I can’t even THINK straight!”) Indeed, it could be said, that queering theology was the common practice of Christians before the ossification of orthodoxy set in. So early Christians “first impressions” of Jesus were like the ancient church mosaics of Christ: multiple pieces that somehow fit into a whole. Those like Irenaeus who not only enforced but actually created orthodoxy were the theological obsessive-compulsives of their time, needing and thus creating order out of the multiple experiences of Jesus Christ.

But, witness the split between East and West in Christendom, and the later split between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and the subsequent splintering of all three of the major traditions over the centuries, and the observer realizes that Jesus Christ can’t be contained in a single box or a single system. As much as we might beat our chests in grief that the Body of Christ seems to be broken, divided against itself, I view it as very traditional, and I would add, even healthy. I think of it as a river delta. As a river approaches the sea, it may break up into separate outlets, thus spreading its fertility and irrigation over a greater expanse of land. In the same way, in the multiple manifestations of experiences of Jesus, more people can be touched by this spiritual guide who got it right. Baptists to Episcopalians, Eastern Orthodox to Assemblies of God, Third Worlders to First Worlders, Wall Street to Marxist revolutionaries, gay to straight: all have the possibility of meeting Jesus again for the first time within wide-ranging contexts.

One of the reviews of my book “Coming Out as Sacrament” seemed to be favorable, but took exception to my introduction of “coming out” as a hermeneutic—a method of scriptural interpretation—for, in a sense, meeting the Bible again for the first time. Literalists often believe they do not interpret scripture, but, as a professor in religious studies taught me in college, those who interpret scripture unaware of their own lenses, their own presuppositions, are the most dangerous.  Anyway, my suggestion in “Coming Out as Sacrament” that “coming out” had biblical precedence, and thus could be viewed as sacramental, as it were, instituted not only in the life of Christ but throughout scripture, really bugged this reviewer. He said he was tired of everyone proposing a new hermeneutic by which to interpret scripture, and presumably he meant feminists, Marxists, people with disabilities, and so on—all contemporary hermeuticists, to coin a word. He implied that there were traditional hermeneutics that were good enough, no other hermeneutic need apply. But this gay reviewer, in my view, fell into the same trap as those who oppose the full welcome of queer people into the church. They claim we are trying to re-interpret scripture, as if reinterpreting scripture weren’t the traditional thing to do. For every generation, every culture, every people, and every kind of people must meet the Bible, must meet Jesus Christ, again for the first time within their era, their experience, their knowledge, their circumstances and interpret the Bible and Jesus anew and manifest the biblical message and the Jesus gospel afresh.

Said another way, a hermeneutic is a way of putting questions to the Bible. You and I have different questions to ask Jesus, different questions to ask the Bible. It’s not only our privilege to reinterpret the biblical stories, it is our responsibility. In my view, that’s why Jesus is still alive and well two millennia after the historical Jesus walked this earth, because Christians of all stripes continue to ask him questions.

Who is Jesus to you? Who is Jesus to the congregation you come from or the congregation you serve? Who is Jesus to the LGBT community? Who is Jesus to the Christians who oppose queer Christianity, or feel indifferent to it? Does Jesus hang out with the ninety nine orthodox sheep, or does he seek the queer sheep that has spirit and the sense to get away before he’s butchered? And what does Jesus mean in our contemporary context when he tells us, “I have other sheep not of this fold. I must bring them also.”

During one of those luxurious Sunday brunches after church that afford the occasional opportunity for meaningful conversations, a gay Roman Catholic priest who had just begun his retirement from active diocesan ministry explained to us that God now for him was a grandmother. He explained that his first impressions of God and of Jesus came while sitting on his grandmother’s lap: gentle, kind, and welcoming. Since that time, at the hands of the church, he had gained harsher, more demanding impressions of God and of Jesus. But the impressions of God and of Jesus that proved lasting were those he received upon his grandmother’s knee.

Ultimately, amid our first impressions of Jesus and our subsequent impressions of Jesus, we discern our lasting impressions. “Who do you say that I am?”—the question that Jesus put to his disciples is the question that we must answer for ourselves. Remember the context of the question? Jesus asks the disciples who others said he was, and they offered the impressions that others had of Jesus: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  Then Jesus puts the question to them and to us, “But who do you say that I am?” What are your lasting impressions of me? What do you take with you?

The more mystical Gospel of John ends with, “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” The John is the only gospel writer to speak of the Beloved Disciple. It is thought by some that John was the beloved disciple, and by others, that the reader of the Gospel—in other words, you and me—is the disciple whom Jesus loved. If we take the latter notion to heart we are obliged ourselves to lie on Jesus’ breast as the beloved disciple did at the Last Supper, “listening for the heartbeat of God” to use a Celtic phrase about the experience. I believe that’s what you and I have are trying to do in our lives, our studies, and our ministries to date. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my life and in each of my books.

To me, each of you represents yet another book about Jesus that is being written with your own impressions about him. Our lives and the lives of all Christians from Jesus onward are the multiple volumes, I believe, that the mystic John alludes to at the end of his Gospel.  All of us together, are building onto the myth of Jesus Christ, the truer, deeper meaning of his life for us. We all have our own gospels to write, not just in words, but in our ministries.

Many if not most of you know my personal history seeking ordination in the Presbyterian Church. I was one of those lone openly gay candidates for ordination in the 1970s that raised the issue of the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender church members and ministers. I served on a Presbyterian task force on homosexuality in the late 70s. In the 90s we had a human sexuality task force. Finally, a few years back, a theological task force on the peace, unity, and purity of the church addressed the issue once more. Each of these has moved the heart of Presbyterians a little closer to Jesus’ sacred heart that welcomes us. But still, there is a policy left in place forbidding ordination of openly gay ministers like me.

So in 2005, a leader of the international denomination that welcomes LGBT people, Metropolitan Community Church, asked if I would serve as an interim pastor for Christ Covenant MCC in Decatur, next door here to Atlanta, where I’ve lived since 1993. Ordination was not required. But I believed the congregation deserved someone fully credentialed in the denomination and, because MCC allows dual affiliation, I was ordained in MCC on World Communion Sunday three years ago. Friends joined me from several parts of the country, and we had quite a party!

My first Sunday at Christ Covenant MCC, I offered one of the lasting impressions that I have of Jesus, found in the story of his dining with spiritual outcasts in Matthew 9:9-13. I entitled the sermon, “Dining With Jesus.”

Jesus is at dinner with tax collectors and sinners. The reason tax collectors are specifically included is that they were viewed by his people as the worst of the worst: Jewish collaborators with their Roman oppressors.

Let’s imagine ourselves in the scene, at dinner with Jesus. We may not be tax collectors, but we are sinners. None of us can claim to live up to the imago dei, the image of God in which we were made. None of us can claim to live up to our inheritance as beloved children of God. We have all fallen short of the glory of God. By definition of the religious leaders of the time, we have been excluded from God’s temple for being ritually impure. Yet Jesus, who claims a unique relationship to God, chooses to dine with us. As you probably know, in the religious belief of his time, dining with us would have rendered Jesus ritually unclean, denying him entrance to God’s temple.

And yet Jesus sits with us and asks us to pass the chicken or mashed potatoes or black-eyed peas. As easily he asks us to tell him about what has happened in our lives, where does it hurt, where are we going, what do we believe, how can he help?

There is judgment in this story of Jesus sitting with sinners, but it is not placed on the backs of those gathered around the table. It comes from and comes back on the self-righteous Pharisees who felt they were religious insiders who knew God’s will better than these religious outsiders. “Why,” they ask the disciples, “does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And, overhearing the question, Jesus responds by quoting Hosea, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” He tells them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Most people who read this interpret it to mean that Jesus is dining with these designated sinners to make them change their ways. But Jesus thought everyone was a sinner. It’s evident from other scriptures that Jesus doesn’t regard the Pharisees as “the righteous,” using his harshest language to castigate them for their self-pride and their disrespect of others. In contrast, he never condemns anyone else. “Neither do I condemn you,” he once said to a woman accused of adultery. Jesus recognized that we are all sinners; that we all need to hear, “Go and sin no more.”

So what’s going on in this passage? I believe the clue is in Jesus’ reference to serving as a kind of physician to those with whom he was sharing a meal. I believe the reason Jesus is dining with these folk—and us folk—is to heal those who have been spiritually abused by the religious institutions of their time, those who have been outcast from God’s presence by the judgmentalism of others.

I define spiritual abuse as any way in which you are treated as less than the sacred child of God that you are.  Ultimately all forms of abuse—physical, emotional, sexual, verbal, and so on—are forms of spiritual abuse, because all fail to recognize the victim as a beloved child of God. As with other forms of abuse, those who suffer abuse are more likely to abuse others. And so we need the healing presence of Jesus to care for our wounds—those inflicted by others, or that we inflict on one another, or that we sometimes inflict on ourselves.

This is my lasting impression of Jesus that I carry with me, even as I serve as a minister, a writer, and an activist. You can see it’s not far removed from my first impression of Jesus welcoming the little children, welcoming me, to sit on his lap. I offer it to you just to stir the embers of your imagination so that you too might consider what Jesus comes to you within the context of your own experience. What makes Jesus such a strong spiritual figure, I believe, is his ability to touch us where we live, where we love, and where we search. And he won’t mind if we color his lips—or his heart—bright red.

Copyright © 2008 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit circulation with attribution of author, occasion, date and venue. Other rights reserved.

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