Tag Archives: Gospel

Martha and Mary, Queer Saints.

The household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus is well known to us from the Gospels, where they are described as “sisters” and their brother Lazarus. They are also known to us as Jesus’ friends, and their home as a place he visited for some rest and hospitality.  The problem is, that the story is perhaps too familiar: we are so used to hearing of them and their home since childhood, that we automatically accept the words and visualize the family in modern terms, just as we did as children.  To really understand the significance of this family, we need to consider the social context.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, BEUCKELAER, Joachim (1565)

In the modern West, we are accustomed to a wide range of family and household types. Although the socially approved ideal remains the nuclear family, with one husband, one wife, children and pets, we recognize many others as well: single person households; communal living, especially for young adults; same sex couples; and siblings (or other family members) sharing a home.  In the Biblical world, economic and social conditions dictated that just one model was nearly universal. A patriarchal male established a household, and controlled within it wives, concubines, sons, daughters and slaves. Sons remained within their father’s household and its economic basis until they had the resources to set up on their own. Daughters remained with their families until they were married off by their fathers, to submit to their new husbands. Their entire existence was dependent on the men who controlled them – fathers, brothers, or husbands. A single woman living independently of men was remarkable. Two women living together would have been exceptional. They are described as “sisters”, but that may not be in the literal sense – the term was commonly used to describe what we would describe as a lesbian relationship. This may or may not have included sexual intimacy, but it was most certainly a household in open defiance of the standard gender expectations for women, and so I have no hesitation in describing them as “queer”.

We should also pause a moment, and consider briefly their brother Lazarus. He is best known to us in the story of his rising from the dead, but in the context of the household, he appears to be a minor figure. Although Hebrew families were dominated by the males, with sons taking control of the women after a father’s death, in a household of siblings, we would normally expect that with one brother and two sisters, the man should be the master of the household: but that is emphatically not the picture of Lazarus that comes across from the Gospel. He too can be described as “queer” on that basis alone, although there is a lot more that could be said about Lazarus as a possible lover of Jesus.

This week though, the Church celebrated the feast of Martha and Mary, and so it is on the sisters that I want to concentrate.

When I reflect on the story of Martha and Mary as I have grown up with it since childhood, the image that sits with me indelibly is of the hospitality that they offered. Hospitality should be a core Christian value. In the traditional Hebrew desert community, hospitality to travellers was a primary virtue: without it, they could easily die, and at one time or another, anyone could find himself a traveller in the desert, dependent himself on the hospitality of strangers. The family itself, with its total interdependence, can be seen as a model of mutual, reciprocal hospitality. Through the institution of marriage, creating linkages between households and family networks binding the entire society, hospitality between households was the social glue binding the entire society.

As we know to the present day, the most powerful element and symbol of hospitality is the shared meal. It is not for nothing that the Mass is constructed around the commemoration of a meal. Hospitality and community go to the heart of the Christian ideal: this certainly is how I understand the concept of God’s Kingdom on earth. Where we have full, mutual hospitality and community, love inevitably grows, and there can be no possibility of injustice.

The challenge must be to make  certain that the hospitality really does extend to all. We as gay men an women know to our cost that very often it does not apply to us, and we must continue to work to secure that hospitality for ourselves: but we must likewise ensure that we too, offer hospitality, both within our community and beyond it. Let us never forget that the clearest symbol of hospitality in the Gospels is seen in a queer household.  Let us strive in our modern queer community to model and embody the spirit of hospitality to the wider world.

(See also :

Jesus in Love BlogMartha and Mary: Sisters, or Lesbian Couple?, in Kittredge Cherry’s excellent, continuing  series on LGBT saints

and

Web Gallery of Art for commentary on Bueckelaer’s painting

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The Holy Spirit, "Leading Us To Recognize GLBT+ People" (Bishop Gene Robinson)

When Bishop Gene Robinson delivered the keynote address at More Light Presbyterians celebration dinner at 2012 General Assembly, he came under fierce attack in some quarters for some words about the value of MLP “sowing confusion” in the Presbyterian Church. This reaction was based on not only complete lack of understanding of what Robinson was getting at, but also and more seriously, a failure to see that the whole point of the Gospels is not as a defender of a traditional status quo, but as a transformative instrument, allowing the Holy Spirit to enter and transform our lives – and our societies.

In “Christ Transforming Culture” at More Light Presbyterians, there is an excerpt from Bishop Marc Handley Andrus explanation of why he and 28 other Episcopal bishops had submitted a friend of the court brief to the US Supreme Court in support of equal marriage – then continues with this extract from Bishop Robinson’s keynote address:

Jesus says this really astounding thing: “There is much that I would teach you. But you cannot bear it right now. So I will send the Holy Spirit who will lead you into all truth” (John 16:12-13). Don’t for a minute think that God is done with you, and those who come after you. Does anyone doubt that we were led by the Holy Spirit to turn our backs on defending slavery using Scripture? Is it not the Holy Spirit that is leading us to a fuller understanding of the gifts, integrities and experiences of women? And I would say that the Holy Spirit is leading us to recognize gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. We should see this as a sign of a living God. We don’t worship a God who stopped revealing God’s self at the end of the first century when the canon of scripture was closed.

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St John the Evangelist, the “Beloved Disciple”: December 27th

In the catalogue of “gay saints”, or pairs of supposedly “gay lovers” in Scripture, the coupling of John the Evangelist (the “beloved disciple”)  and Jesus himself is surely the most controversial. Many people, including some of my friends from the LGBT Soho Masses, find the whole idea that this may have been a “gay”, sexually active relationship, highly offensive. Others argue the opposite case.
In an explosive book, “the man jesus loved,  the reputable biblical scholar Theodore Jennings mounts an extended argument that Jesus himself was actually gay and that the beloved disciple of John’s Gospel was Jesus’ lover.  To support this provocative conclusion, Jennings examines not only the texts that relate to the beloved disciple but also the story of the centurion’s servant boy and the texts that show Jesus’ rather negative attitude toward the traditional family: not mother and brothers, but those who do the will of God, are family to Jesus.  Jennings suggests that Jesus relatives and disciples knew he was gay, and that, despite the efforts of the early Church to downplay this “dangerous memory” about Jesus, a lot of clues remains in the Gospels.  Piecing the clues together, Jennings suggests not only that Jesus was very open to homosexuality, but that he himself was probably in an intimate, and probably sexual, relationship with the beloved disciple.
Daniel Helminiak, Sex and the Sacred

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Dec 27th: John, the (Queer) Evangelist.

The Gospel of John is of particular interest to queer people of faith for its repeated references to the “beloved disciple”, or to “the disciple that Jesus loved”. These references make clear that whoever he was, this disciple had a relationship with Jesus of particular intimacy. There’s the well-known scene from the Last Supper where he rests his head on Jesus’ breast (or lap), and at the crucifixion, he is the only man standing among the women at the foot of the cross. He is the one to whom Christ entrusts the care of his mother – rather as a surviving spouse in marriage would assume some responsibility for the care of a mother-in-law. The existence of this special relationship  provides much of the argument for the proposition that Jesus’ sexual orientation may have been what we call “gay”.

The beloved disciple is not explicitly named, but is often assumed to be John himself. I have written before on these lines, using “John, the Beloved Disciple” as a jumping off point for a reflection on the gay Jesus:

For gay men in particular, combining this thought in our prayer with a recognition of Jesus’ full bodily humanity can be a powerful entry into building that important personal relationship with him in our spiritual lives.
……….
The significance for us of John as “the disciple Jesus loved”, goes way beyond the possibility of genital activity. Love is primarily an emotional relationship, not a physical one.  The English language does us a disservice in using “lovemaking” as a euphemism for the physical act, even without any deep emotional significance. “Loving”, in its full sense is more important than mere “lovemaking” as a physical act. In this sense, we know without any possible doubt that the words “whom Jesus loved” are true.  How do we know it? Because they are true for all the disciples, as they are for each of us, and for all others.

But this does not do full justice to the importance of John himself. He may not, after all, be the person described. (Theodore Jennings, who has written most extensively on the subject, believes he is not). In any case, focussing on Jesus in the relationship ignores John, whose feast day it is. There are other reasons for thinking of John the Evangelist as queer.

 After Jesus had left the earth, John had a further notable and intimate (at least emotionally so) relationship with  another male disciple, this time younger than he – his disciple and scribe, Prochorus, bishop of Nicomedia. (Prochorus in turn, later formed a fresh relationship of his own with a younger man, Irenaeus,)
John the Evangelist, with his scribe Prochorus

Then there’s the nature of John’s Gospel itself. Even the most cursory comparison of the four Gospels notes that it stands apart from the other three. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke share a common perspective and so are called the “synoptic” Gospels. That of John is quite different. It is often noted that gay men, as social outsiders, offer a unique view and special insight on the world and social relationships, possibly explaining the high proportion of gay men among the most acclaimed writers and artists in human history. This Gospel is written from the perspective of the beloved disciple – John states clearly that it is written from his witness. Even if John is not himself the beloved disciple, it is notable that it is in his Gospel, and not the Synoptics, that this relationship is recorded. Is this because, being gay himself, John saw something with his queer view (his “gaydar”) that the others did not? In his commentary on John (in The Queer Bible Commentary), Robert Goss describes it unambiguously as the queerest Gospel, because it as a coming out story – that of God coming out, through Christ, to his people, because it is in John that Christ is presented as most gender fluid.

Finally, let us recall again that in medieval Northern Europe, there was even a long-standing tradition that John and Christ were the bridal couple at the Cana Wedding Feast. This image of a marriage between Christ and John reminds us that in the mystical tradition of the Church, the established image of the Christian as the spouse of Christ is available to gay men, as “bridegrooms of Christ“, just as much as it is to women, as “brides of Christ”.

John, the queer Evangelist, is a powerful reminder to us as LGBT people that Christ numbered among his close followers and leaders of the church, people whose emotional and sexual lives did not conform to the conventional stereotypes of the day. In addition to John, we have the examples of Martha and Mary, of Lazarus (who is also named as a possible claimant to the title “beloved disciple”), Philip the Ethiopian Eunuch, and the Roman centurion. We too, likewise have a claim to be fully included in the modern Church, and to take any leadership roles for which our talents equip us.

Books:

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John, the (Queer) Evangelist.

The Gospel of John is of particular interest to queer people of faith for its repeated references to the “beloved disciple”, or to “the disciple that Jesus loved”. These references make clear that whoever he was, this disciple had a relationship with Jesus of particular intimacy. There’s the well-known scene from the Last Supper where he rests his head on Jesus’ breast (or lap), and at the crucifixion, he is the only man standing among the women at the foot of the cross. He is the one to whom Christ entrusts the care of his mother – rather as a surviving spouse in marriage would assume some responsibility for the care of a mother-in-law. The existence of this special relationship  provides much of the argument for the proposition that Jesus’ sexual orientation may have been what we call “gay”.

The beloved disciple is not explicitly named, but is often assumed to be John himself. I have written before on these lines, using “John, the Beloved Disciple” as a jumping off point for a reflection on the gay Jesus:

For gay men in particular, combining this thought in our prayer with a recognition of Jesus’ full bodily humanity can be a powerful entry into building that important personal relationship with him in our spiritual lives.
……….
The significance for us of John as “the disciple Jesus loved”, goes way beyond the possibility of genital activity. Love is primarily an emotional relationship, not a physical one.  The English language does us a disservice in using “lovemaking” as a euphemism for the physical act, even without any deep emotional significance. “Loving”, in its full sense is more important than mere “lovemaking” as a physical act. In this sense, we know without any possible doubt that the words “whom Jesus loved” are true.  How do we know it? Because they are true for all the disciples, as they are for each of us, and for all others.

But this does not do full justice to the importance of John himself. He may not, after all, be the person described. (Theodore Jennings, who has written most extensively on the subject, believes he is not). In any case, focussing on Jesus in the relationship ignores John, whose feast day it is. There are other reasons for thinking of John the Evangelist as queer.

 After Jesus had left the earth, John had a further notable and intimate (at least emotionally so) relationship with  another male disciple, this time younger than he – his disciple and scribe, Prochorus, bishop of Nicomedia. (Prochorus in turn, later formed a fresh relationship of his own with a younger man, Irenaeus,)

John the Evangelist, with his scribe Prochorus

Then there’s the nature of John’s Gospel itself. Even the most cursory comparison of the four Gospels notes that it stands apart from the other three. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke share a common perspective and so are called the “synoptic” Gospels. That of John is quite different. It is often noted that gay men, as social outsiders, offer a unique view and special insight on the world and social relationships, possibly explaining the high proportion of gay men among the most acclaimed writers and artists in human history. This Gospel is written from the perspective of the beloved disciple – John states clearly that it is written from his witness. Even if John is not himself the beloved disciple, it is notable that it is in his Gospel, and not the Synoptics, that this relationship is recorded. Is this because, being gay himself, John saw something with his queer view (his “gaydar”) that the others did not? In his commentary on John (in The Queer Bible Commentary), Robert Goss describes it unambiguously as the queerest Gospel, because it as a coming out story – that of God coming out, through Christ, to his people, because it is in John that Christ is presented as most gender fluid.

Finally, let us recall again that in medieval Northern Europe, there was even a long-standing tradition that John and Christ were the bridal couple at the Cana Wedding Feast. This image of a marriage between Christ and John reminds us that in the mystical tradition of the Church, the established image of the Christian as the spouse of Christ is available to gay men, as “bridegrooms of Christ“, just as much as it is to women, as “brides of Christ”.

John, the queer Evangelist, is a powerful reminder to us as LGBT people that Christ numbered among his close followers and leaders of the church, people whose emotional and sexual lives did not conform to the conventional stereotypes of the day. In addition to John, we have the examples of Martha and Mary, of Lazarus (who is also named as a possible claimant to the title “beloved disciple”), Philip the Ethiopian Eunuch, and the Roman centurion. We too, likewise have a claim to be fully included in the modern Church, and to take any leadership roles for which our talents equip us.

(For a superb selection of visual representations of John, or of John and Jesus together, see Kittredge Cherry’s post at Jesus in Love blog).

Books:

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