It is practically blasphemous to appeal to Jesus as the reason for a church’s refusal to fully accept and affirm LGBT persons because Jesus was the great boundary breaker, not the boundary maker. Consider the following:
First, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he broke down barriers between the “righteous” and “sinners.” The meaning of these terms in the Gospels was usually based on sectarian categories (see especially Mark 2:13-17). “Sinners” was a term applied by the “righteous” to those who did not keep the law as the righteous understood and applied it. Sinners were excluded from religious life. Jesus demolished that barrier when he welcomed all “sinners” to eat with him. Eating together meant full acceptance and inclusion. New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn aptly summarizes:
“Jesus’ practice of table fellowship was not only an expression of the good news of God’s kingly rule. It was also an implicit critique of a Pharisaic definition of acceptability, of a Pharisaic practice which classified many fellow Jews as sinners, effectively outside the law and the covenant . . . What to many Pharisees was a sinful disregard for covenant ideals was for Jesus an expression of the gospel itself. People they regarded as unacceptable, Jesus proclaimed by word and act to be the very ones God invited to his royal banquet.”
Jesus was constantly in trouble with the gatekeepers because he consorted, befriended, and welcomed into his fellowship all those the gatekeepers ruled outside the ranks of the people of God. The exclusion and condemnation of those categorized as sinners by the righteous in Jesus’ day is analogous to the labeling and judgment of LGBT persons as “sinners” by the self-designated righteous today.
Second, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he made the whole of Jewish scripture and tradition hang on the commandments to love God and love neighbor. In Luke’s version of the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, a Jewish leader sought to justify himself by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by telling the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25ff).
When I was a kid in Sunday School I remember being taught many times that being a good neighbor is helping someone in need. While that is important, that’s not the main point of the story is it? The point is that the Samaritan was the enemy. Some Jews may have despised the Samaritans even more than the Romans and vice versa. And what Jesus taught by parable regarding love of enemies, he taught more directly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:43-48; also Luke 6:27-36).
Third, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he extended boundless grace by healing all who needed healing. Consider this summary in Matthew’s Gospel:
“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pain, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them” (Matt. 4:23-24).
There were no hoops to jump through. Jesus healed all who came: women, men, children, Jews, non-Jews, poor, rich, those with or without faith . . . he made no distinction.
Fourth, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he critiqued and confronted his own sacred tradition in order to bring about needed reform. This is particularly reflected in the Sabbath controversies where Jesus challenged Sabbath law (see especially Mark 2:23-3:6). With regard to Hebrew scripture sometimes he accepted it, sometimes he expanded it, and sometimes he rejected it. For example, he accepted the commandment against murder, but extended it to include anger (Matt. 5:21-24). Jesus completely rejected the law of retaliation in the Hebrew Bible and encouraged non-violent protest (Matt. 5:38-42). Jesus critiqued and challenged his Jewish tradition and scripture in order to break down barriers and move people toward inclusion, grace, and compassion.
Fifth, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he overstepped social mores and customs in order to love and elevate those regarded as inferior. In the ancient world a female was deemed inferior to a male. Polygamy was common (Deut. 21:15-17). Only a man had the right to divorce (Deut. 24:1-4). Concerning vows, women were economically valued less that men (Deut. 27:1-7). The monthly menstrual bleeding of a woman was considered a source of the woman’s ritual and spiritual uncleanness (Lev. 12:2). Female inferiority was even built into the structure of the temple itself, with the court of women outside the court of Israel. Women were not allowed into the inner court where sacrifices where offered.
Jesus broke through the taboos of uncleanness when he healed the woman who had the “flow of blood.” When she touched Jesus, instead of rendering Jesus “unclean” Jesus rendered the woman “clean” by healing her (Mark 5:25-34). Jesus overturned notions of female inferiority when he called women disciples (Mark 15:40; Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42). Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Mk 10:1-12) was really aimed at trying to level the playing field for women who could be divorced by their husbands for any reason whatsoever.
Again and again, in story after story Jesus crossed boundaries, tore down walls, overstepped social mores, and challenged laws, scriptures, traditions, and customs that separated and segregated people into acceptable and unacceptable categories which determined who was ‘in’ and ‘out.’ He did this in the name of “Abba” and for the cause of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ ministry as boundary breaker clearly demonstrated what God is like and what God is about.
Given the nature of Jesus’ work as boundary breaker why would anyone think that Jesus would erect barriers to exclude and judge our LGBT sisters and brothers? Some of the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day accused Jesus of blasphemy because they felt he misrepresented God and thus violated God’s glory. They were the ones, however, who were actually misrepresenting God and distracting from the glory of God’s love and compassion. Doesn't this seem all too contemporary?
If blasphemy is understood as misrepresenting God and distracting from the glory of God’s love and goodness (as the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day defined it), then we are all guilty on some level and to some degree. But let’s hope that in our treatment of our LGBT sisters and brothers fewer of us fall back into the same mistake the so-called “righteous” made in their treatment of “sinners.” LGBT persons are not anymore “sinners” than the rest and it’s time more churches embrace full affirmation and inclusion.