Mt. Calvary courtyard
I occasionally took personal retreats at an Episcopalian retreat house overlooking Santa Barbara. Mount Calvary was run by the Order of the Holy Cross. As one might suspect with names like that, there were many depictions of Jesus on the cross in sculptures, carvings, and paintings.
One stormy afternoon, sharing pizza and wine in front of a cozy fireplace, one of the brothers and I discussed the ramifications of the relatively recent decision of the Episcopal Church in the United States to ordain women. I was surprised that, despite his liberal views, he opposed women’s ordination. He did so not because he opposed it per se, but because it would interfere with any hope of reunion between the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions. “I’d have no problem with it if Rome ordained women,” he explained.
I considered the many similar objections to the ordination of lesbians and gays in my own Presbyterian Church. The impending reunion of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church, U.S., which had split over the abolition of slavery one hundred years earlier, might have been impeded if the more liberal northern congregations had approved ordination of homosexuals.
So the constant cry that ordaining homosexuals would split the church was sounded even more to muster our defeat. (I believe the church would do more to keep its dwindling fold if it banned ordination of boring preachers and belligerent clergy!)
Also fresh in my mind were the recent concerns expressed over the unity of the National Council of Churches in the United States, if it accepted the membership of the predominantly gay Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.
As I considered all these perceived threats to the church as the Body of Christ, I reflected on the many images of Jesus on the cross in the retreat center. Repeatedly reminded of the brokenness of our Lord, a response to the brother who opposed women’s ordination came to me. I rhetorically asked him, “When Jesus was faced with the choice of doing what was right or keeping his own body from being broken, which did he choose?”
Paul wrote to the church at Philippi that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in our likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
“He learned obedience through what he suffered,” affirms the epistle to the Hebrews, which some biblical scholars assert may be the only book in the Bible written by a woman (Heb. 5:8). But, she explains, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear” (Heb. 5:7).
This is clearly a different vision of God than the Almighty presented in the Old Testament. This is a God who, out of sacrificial love, leaves the closet of heaven to descend to earth and become like us, “tempted in every way as we are,” willingly living and working among us and dying at our hands—all to bring us God’s Word of love (Heb. 4:15). This is a deity who risks the brokenness of the body to call us home to God.
Many Christians feel uncomfortable with this image of God. They want to believe that God is all-powerful as well as all-loving. Our imperfect world belies the possibility that God is both. If God is both, God may be blamed for either causing or allowing human suffering.
In his book The Divine Relativity, process theologian Charles Hartshorne suggests that, facing a contradiction between an all-loving yet all-powerful God, it would be better to sacrifice our understanding of God as all-powerful than to sacrifice our understanding of God as all-loving. We conceive of God as the best possible entity, and when we think of the best possible person we know, we are more likely to choose the most loving over the most powerful. Even the Superman hero in comic books is not attractive because he is super powerful, but because he uses his super powers for good, in other words, lovingly.
For many years I found this reasoning worked for me. But then it occurred to me that perhaps our understanding of power was distorted, for we think of power in terms of possession and control. In my own loving experiences, I found that my attempts at possession and control had nothing to do with love, nor did they bear any resemblance to the spiritual power I witnessed in others whom I considered more mature in faith.
In his temptations in the wilderness, Jesus’ response to the Tempter’s offering him possession and control of all the kingdoms of every age on earth was, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and God only you shall serve’” (Matt. 4:10). Possession and control do not characterize God’s power. Love is God’s power. Possession and control is worldly power, love is spiritual power.
Process theology understands God as one whose love is persuasive rather than controlling. Biblically there is much basis for that perception. God leads us as a shepherd, challenges us in a prophet, models human life for us in Jesus Christ, influences us as a teacher, empowers us like a counselor, and inspires us as the Spirit.
This and next week’s posts are excerpts from the chapter “Risking the Brokenness of the Body” from my 1990 book Come Home! Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians, published by Harper & Row, with added chapters in its 1998 Second Edition, published by Chi Rho Press. These excerpts fit well the themes of the present season of Lent. Today, of course, I would add transgender, intersex, and bisexual people.
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