‘The Radical Ministry of Jesus’
(The Australian, 3rd June, 1998)
by Michael Kelly
"Should the Church Discriminate?" was argued in the opinion section of the Australian. This was against the background of the archbishop's refusal of communion to all sash wearers. Here Michael writes for the "No" case.
The radical Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth always has been an embarrassment to the religious establishment. From the first moment of his preaching, Jesus made clear that things would get interesting: "the Spirit of God is upon me: for God has anointed me. God has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim God's year of favour." (Luke 4: 18)
Jesus claimed this text as his charter. He then went on to give two provocative examples of how the spirit of God specifically goes out to the rejected and the outsiders before anyone else. For his troubles, the local worshippers tried to throw him off a cliff.
So, you see, it can be risky, but if the Church is not living out this same mission, then it should shut up shop. It might be a nice religion with nice liturgy, but it is not Christian.
One of the most graphic ways Jesus lived out his Ministry was by attending and hosting what we might call dinner parties. Honestly, the man would eat with anyone. In a Middle Eastern society this was scandalous, especially for a religious leader. He ate with the learned, the religious upper-class, the rich, the poor, the prostitutes, the homeless and especially the ritually unclean -- those who were refused full participation in the religious life of their society because they were seen as impure, chronically sinful, spiritually inferior. The religious establishment was always attacking Jesus because of the company he kept, especially at dinner. Yet these open-hearted, welcoming dinners was seen by Jesus as models of the banquet in the kingdom of God, when the poor and rejected would have pride of place.
The spectacle, then, of a Christian Church refusing to share its sacred meal – Communion – with people who come forward in faith, honesty and love is shameful. It is even more so when these people come from the religious and social fringe, where they routinely meet with condemnation and abuse, as gay people do. These other people Jesus told his followers to invite to dinner before anyone else. How times have changed. Jesus' radical table fellowship caused such a stir because it was deeply symbolic. It was a tangible sign of the liberating embrace of God that he claimed would recreate not only human hearts but relationships and society.
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In the sad, upside-down world of the institutionalised churches, the refusal of the sacred meal is also deeply symbolic. This is precisely why our group of gay and lesbian Christians and supporters have brought our call for justice to the table of the Eucharist.
Discrimination has no place at this table, nor in the life of the Church as a whole. It has no place in Catholic families and schools where gay teenagers face their struggles alone and hear all too keenly the inflexible pronouncements of the Church. It has no place in the Ministry or religious life, where those who keep their sexuality hidden and secret can rise to great heights, while those few who dare to be open are sidelined or silenced. It has no place in the formulation of the Church's moral teaching, when men committed to never having sex claim to have privileged access to "the truth", which they alone dispense.
Our action in the Church is not simply about receiving a Communion wafer. It is a call to the Church to embrace profound conversion of heart. That's why it is so threatening to so many. Modern Scripture scholarship is gradually revealing the features of the community of radical equality and freedom that Jesus sought to form. It doesn't look much like the Church we know, yet the same gospel lies at the source of both.
We stand on that gospel and call on the Church to follow the example and to open itself to his spirit in new ways. This will mean change and growth, but isn't that the infallible sign of life and of the spirit of God?
In the process, the Church will lead to learn to listen rather than judge, to embrace rather than exclude, to serve rather than control. It will also need to explore a whole new understanding of human sexuality in all of its diversity and beauty. It will certainly need the courage, the witness and the honest challenge of lesbian and gay people. We will continue to come to the table.
Michael B. Kelly was a religious educator in the Catholic Church for 17 years. He lives contemplatively and shares a spiritual Ministry with gay and lesbian people