What is to prevent me from being baptized?” asked the Ethiopian eunuch after hearing the good news of Jesus from Philip in Acts 8.
The answer, of course, was plenty. There was plenty to keep the Ethiopian eunuch from baptism and Philip knew it. Indeed, the Hebrew Scriptures were quite clear that this man did not qualify to be admitted into the worshiping community (Deut. 23:1) and, therefore, while he was allowed to worship God in Jerusalem, it would have always been from a distance. He was a eunuch, rendered unable to engage in sexual activity, and was considered inferior, incompatible with full inclusion in the worshiping assembly. Further, he was from Ethiopia, not the particular geographical boundaries of the country we know today, but a term representing the farthest point known by the people of the day. In other words, he couldn’t be from a place farther away, and he was marked by his physical condition, making him a clear outsider. “What is to prevent me from being baptized,” the man asks Phillip. Scripture and tradition said, “Plenty.”
But just as soon as religious institutions demarcate insiders from outsiders, the Spirit of God moves as it will in ways that reduce boundaries to rubble. Indeed, the most significant character in the Book of Acts is not Peter or Paul or the newly constituted 12. It is the Holy Spirit, an untamed power of Gospel-love, that even allows for the baptism of eunuchs, the full welcome of Greeks and the expansion of the church in ways that some found troubling and even offensive.
The same Spirit moves today in the church, albeit not without resistance. The Spirit is at work calling persons to the tasks of ordained and licensed ministry today. But sometimes we have limited the Spirit by our own regulations of who can or cannot be accepted into the work of representative ministry.
I, Keith, am aware of the tension that exists when beautiful, gifted, committed persons of deep Christian faith hear that they are not eligible to enter into ministry in our beloved United Methodist Church. “Yes, I see the Spirit at work in you and I believe you have the gifts to be an effective pastor in the church” a pastor says to one of her people. And they ask, “What is to prevent me from being ordained?”
And the truth comes out: “You are LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and others), and unless you commit yourself to a life of celibacy, you will not be approved.”
Shortly after I was born in January 1994, I, Stanton, was baptized at First UMC, Clover. During the Service of the Baptismal Covenant, the pastor placed his hand on my little forehead and called on the Holy Spirit, saying, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.” After speaking this blessing over me and welcoming me into the family of Christ, the pastor commended me into the love and care of the congregation, that they might do everything they could to increase my faith, confirm my hope and perfect me in love.
I spent the next 18 years of my life completely immersed in the ministries of the UMC. As a child, I went to Sunday school nearly every week because I couldn’t wait to get to church and learn more about God’s story. When summer came, the one thing that I was most excited about was vacation Bible school (especially the craft time). What I loved more than anything, though, was singing in the children’s choir. Though some of the other kids really hated it, I loved standing in front of the church and singing.
When I got to middle school, I was able to get involved with the youth group, something I had always dreamed of doing. As soon as I was old enough, I hit the ground running. If there was a youth event on the calendar, I was there. I loved it so much that I wanted to be even more involved than I already was, so I signed up to be a part of the Youth Council, the leadership team that planned and organized all of our United Methodist Youth Fellowship events.
One time, I got so carried away with wanting to be a leader that I wrote an entire retreat curriculum in my spare time. My youth director at the time was so loving, gracious and supportive of me and my (often excessive) enthusiasm that she took the curriculum and actually used it on our fall retreat that year.
In summer 2010, she took me to my first ever Youth Annual Conference, and my life changed forever. I spent the week engaging with youth from all over the state of South Carolina, learning more about being a young leader in the church and following God’s call. One night during worship, I heard my call. “Stanton, there is a reason that you love this so much. This is what you were made for,” said the voice.
My heart was ignited with passion to lead the church as it shared the Gospel with the world, and I was ready to go wherever God was calling me. When I got home, I became more involved in the church than ever before. I was appointed as a young adult representative to the church council, got involved in forming a youth praise band and helped to restart a contemporary service at our church. I served on the Rock Hill District Council of Youth Ministry; the idea of bringing youth together from all over our district got me even more excited.
The following summer, when I realized that there was a Conference Council of Youth Ministry, I got even more excited, so I joined that, too. Every step along the way, there was another United Methodist leader there to guide me and reaffirm God’s call upon my life. The more that I became involved, the more I realized how deep my love for serving the church was. There was no question to me that this was the place where God had called me. I was called to ordained ministry.
In August 2012, I packed all my things and headed to Clemson University. Within just a few days at Clemson, I got involved with Clemson Wesley. The campus ministry welcomed me with open arms, and before I knew it, I was spending nearly every night of my week doing something with CW— and, of course, it was United Methodist! Soon I was leading worship in CW’s band, and yet again, I was affirmed in my gifts for leadership in ministry.
At the end of my freshman year, I sat down with some of the leaders of Clemson UMC at a little Mexican restaurant. Over lunch, they told me about Clemson UMC’s dream for a new third worship service. This service would be a place where modern music and creative direction would mingle with the beloved traditions of the UMC, and they wanted me to be a part of it.
The following March, I officially came on staff at Clemson UMC. Once again, my life changed forever. On Aug. 3, 2014, we launched “The Vine,” the service the people of Clemson UMC had been dreaming about. Every time I stepped on the stage to lead worship at The Vine, I came alive. When the many voices of our community joined together in song, I could feel the presence of God like I had never felt it before. There was no question to me that I was, yet again, affirmed in my understanding of God’s call on my life. I was living out my call to serve the church, and I had never felt more alive. I was ready to take the next step in following my call: to go to seminary and become an ordained pastor in the UMC.
In my 22 years of life, the UMC has worked tirelessly to uphold the commitment made to me at my baptism. Time and time again you, church, have increased my faith, confirmed my hope and perfected me in love. You have shown me that, indeed, the Holy Spirit has been at work within me. Because of you, I have heard with absolute clarity the place where God has called me to serve—the church, specifically The United Methodist Church.
At birth, you baptized me in the name of the Holy Spirit. Through my childhood, you told me the stories of Jesus and his radical Gospel of love and acceptance. In my youth, you shaped me into a leader, and as a young adult, you’ve ignited in me a fire that can’t be contained.
After years of encouraging me to fully realize the call that God has placed on my life, I am ready. What’s to prevent me from being ordained?
Now, you say to me, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. … Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church” (Para. 303.4, Discipline).
After everything we have been through together, you have never thought that I was incompatible with Christian teaching before. Why would you believe that now?
Keith: “Can we not make a place?”
It’s an all-too-familiar story. And as the lead pastor of Clemson UMC, I, Keith, am left now to comfort both a young person who is uniquely gifted for ministry but unable to respond to his calling because of his sexual orientation and a congregation heartbroken over our loss of a young person who has led our community to praise God’s name and pray for the world.
This month, we send persons who are the only ones among us with the power to discern a better way. As the General Conference convenes in Portland, I will continue to be prayerful for the work of our delegates. I know they carry a heavy burden as they gather on behalf of our church.
But as they gather, I pray that the power of the Spirit will move in ways that may surprise us all so that clergypersons and congregations no longer have to say, “You are a gifted person whose ministry would strengthen the UMC, but …”
Can we not make a place for such a call? Not, perhaps, for every church or community or clergyperson, but for those who see the power of the Spirit moving among persons who have been, in earlier years, defined as “incompatible?” Can we not live more fully into the vision of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” so as to include those we have previously regarded as outside the boundary of God’s call?
What’s to prevent us from extending the circle of welcome to these chosen people of God, filled by the Spirit, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity? I hear a lot of folk say, “Plenty.” But with the help of the Holy Spirit we might, even at General Conference, be surprised at how wide and wonderful the welcome of God can be. Indeed, the Spirit may show us a path that no longer forces us to reject the gifts, graces, commitment and calling of our fellow disciples.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
Rev. Keith D. Ray, II is the Senior Pastor of Clemson United Methodist Church. Stanton Adams is the Director of Creative Ministries. This article also appears in the May 2015 edition of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate.