Sunday 18 March 2012

A Queer Reading of The Pearl of Great Price

On pp106-7 of BGBC, I state the following about my theological position these days. "However, one of the greatest reform movements to sweep the world church is the Progressive Christianity or Emergent Church movement, which is not fearful of human intellect or the spirit of inquiry and seeks to have modern scholarship elucidate faith in the context of a modern world." I am comfortable in aligning myself with such a Christianity. One of the principal areas that the Emergent Church is looking at in its new ways of thinking about faith is the nature of salvation.

For a very long time now, the nature of salvation has been discussed in terms of an innocent man being required to die to pay a price to an angry and remote God for the sins of humanity, thus saving them from His wrath and judgement, and bringing them salvation. In theological circles, this is known as the Penal Substitutionary Model (PSM) of salvation. You know it well. It has been taught to us all from the cradle and it is the major discourse on the topic of what salvation means in Christian thinking. Jesus had to die for yours and my sins, thus paying the price, a blood sacrifice, for us all and in our stead, thus allowing God to put aside His righteous judgment and wrath and accept us as His children. It’s pretty powerful stuff, and not a little unsettling, I am sure you will agree.

However, not everyone in Christian scholarship is entirely comfortable with the PSM holding the principal and only way of talking about salvation. Many scholars are uncomfortable with the picture of God that the PSM presents and they feel that by focusing on the ‘payment for sin’ concept, the model leaves out the positive message of salvation and the indescribable love of God. So in this blog let me refocus on another aspect of what salvation might mean.

One of the characterisations of salvation that the Progressive Christianity movement is trying to reinvigorate is the idea that salvation can mean healing, wholeness, unity and connection – with the Divine, with oneself and with one’s neighbours and the world. Such healing and wholeness comes directly from the life, the teaching, the example and the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Some of those aspects reach up to the transcendent, some out to our fellow humans and some within my own interior world. It is this last that I would like to emphasise here as we take a fresh, and this time, queer look at one of Jesus’ stories – the pearl of great price.

I always used to puzzle over this shortest of parables. It is so tiny. When they finally added the punctuation and verse numbers to the Bible, which it didn’t have originally, this little story turned out to have just two verses or two little short sentences. Yet it is a powerful little story and really packs a punch, as so many of Jesus’ stories did.

It is found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13 verses 45-46.
Here it is in two different translations.

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it" – NIV.

"Again the Kingdom of the Heavens is like a jewel merchant who is in quest of choice pearls. He finds one most costly pearl; he goes away; and though it costs all he has, he buys it" - Weymouth New Testament.

So with our notion of salvation meaning healing and wholeness, unity and connection, let’s take a fresh look at this parable especially in the way it may relate to LGBT people.

First up, notice how Jesus frames the whole thing in the terms, "the kingdom of heaven is like." This is not the first time Jesus uses this expression and it is not the last. In modern Biblical Studies today, we would say that this theme of the Kingdom of Heaven is one of the major substantive themes in all of Jesus’ teaching ministry. He was always on about it. These days with better understanding of ancient languages through linguistic analysis, a better translation would be ‘the realm of God’ or even the ‘government of God,’ or to use the everyday, ‘God’s way of doing things.’ In other passages in the New Testament, Jesus went on to talk about the realm of God in proximity terms – it is described as being: at hand, close by, around you, here, within you. You can’t get much closer than that last one, can you – within you.

Secondly, Jesus offers a simile to explain what this interior realm of God is like. It is only one simile he uses out of a number so even from this we can take reassurance that there is not just one way to characterise salvation, for surely that is the realm of God within us - no, Jesus himself uses many ways to describe it. And what does he say? He says that it’s like this particular merchant who is on the lookout for fine pearls and then when he finds one of extraordinary value, he goes away and sells everything he has in order to purchase it. When I read something like that, I always want to know the ins and outs of it. For example, I want to know why this is a good picture of the realm of God as opposed to some other picture? How does it work to give us an example of how the realm of God operates? What are the metaphors for life here?

Let’s look. The merchant is looking for something special we are told. He’s on the lookout. He is on a mission to find something of great value. That’s exactly the kind of mission I was on when I was trying to come to terms with my gay sexuality. I desperately wanted some happiness in my life. I certainly did not experience healing or wholeness, unity or connection, either with God or within myself, even though I followed after the Lord with all my heart and strength, and despite my church life with all its praise and worship and fellowship, I always felt inwardly in despair that I held this great and dark secret that kept separating me from God. Or so I thought at the time. Healing and wholeness eluded me.

And when I finally got honest with myself and started looking for some real life answers, it was only then that I experienced the realm of God, the breakthrough that brought me to the light where I could see my life clearly. I could stay closeted, in denial of my sexuality and attempt to suppress my human desire for the rest of my life in the erroneous belief that I was doing it because God wanted me to. Or, I could accept the very obvious and clear fact that I was a naturally gay man and was attracted to my own gender physically and emotionally. I could remain in self-disgust or I could come out into the light and accept myself and like myself and even love myself for the man that God had made me. It was a stark choice; one or the other - despair or hope, lies or freedom.

Then in our text, notice too that the merchant actually did find what he had been looking for. With all that resolve and all that effort, he finally found his treasure, his valuable pearl, or as the old King James Bible puts it so beautifully, his "pearl of great price." I think as gay people we too find our pearl of great price. It is of such inestimable value for two reasons. The first is because it represents something that we have longed for for so long, something we have searched for for so long – no less than a new way of living, a new way of being. All the early years of wondering, running, hiding, suppressing, fearing, but always knowing deep down. And then we reach it, we find it – wow, what freedom!

But secondly, it is of such inestimable value because our pearl, just like the merchant’s, costs us everything, our old life. Privately coming to terms with our sexuality and then subsequently coming out has resonance with Christian baptism doesn’t it? The old is gone, behold the new has come. Our merchant on a mission after finding his pearl then goes away and determines to have this new thing. He is so focused. He sells everything. The Weymouth puts it beautifully doesn’t it? "He finds one most costly pearl; he goes away; and though it costs all he has, he buys it." It cost him everything. He really must think it's worth it.

Accepting our sexuality and living life as an out gay person costs us our old way of living, our old way of experiencing human life. For some, like me, it costs us some friends. It cost me my job, my salary, my security, my social life and my church life. That was twenty years ago and times have changed. But some might still ask, "was it worth it?" And the answer – Absolutely YES! When you find the pearl of great price as a gay person who has been struggling with sexuality, nothing compares. Living in freedom. Liking yourself. Loving yourself. Meeting others just like you. Having love in your life. Having touch in your life. Living authentically. Not having to hide. Not having to pretend. Not having to live the life-lie, as I put it in BGBC. All of that drops away. It is worth ALL of the cost.

So the realm of God is just like this merchant, so Jesus says. This is our salvation. It is an interior change - a setting free emotionally, psychologically. The Spirit of God leading me, inviting me to intimacy and relationship with Himself and others asa gay person. My salvation brings me healing and wholeness, unity and connection. At one with myself finally. Feeling the gentle guidance and undergirding of our loving God in my life as a gay person. God’s salvation within.

So if you find yourself a gay person in a church or family who is longing for salvation - longing for healing and wholeness, longing for unity and connection, then let the light of God’s love and gentle guidance guide you into being set free too. Don't live the life-lie. Talk to someone you can trust. If you don't know anybody, find someone. be like the merchant on a mission. Don’t put it off. You’ve been searching for this life of value, this life of happiness for such a long time. Let the Spirit of God allow you to find your own pearl of great price. And you’ll be able to follow the Way of Jesus in your life as a valued and loved gay person. Your pearl will be of inestimable value.

Love to hear your thoughts.

Pax et Amor - Stuart


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