It's on our minds, so we had as well say it up front: most AIDS patients contracted the disease through homosexual conduct (in the U.S.A., though not worldwide), which is sinful, and we find it very difficult to get past our abhorrence for the sin and to feel godly compassion for this particular sinner. Yet that is precisely what we must do, if we are to follow Him whose name we wear and whose Gospel we profess to live by. Several biblical truths point us in that direction, and make the journey pass with less difficulty to a Christlike ministry.
1. We must distinguish between compassion for a dying fellow-human and biblical denunciation of a sin which might have caused the disease involved. It is unfair to say, worldwide, that most AIDS victims acquired the disease through homosexual conduct. Even in the United States, hundreds of victims of this deadly disease acquired it through "innocent" means -- primarily blood transfusions during surgery or for hemophilia or as newborns from an infected mother. But focus on those whose disease came through sinful misconduct. The point emphasized above is absolutely true.
Do we stand at the death-bed of one with lung cancer and "preach" at him or her for years of smoking? Do we withhold compassion for the person (or the person's family) dying of heart disease, because that person broke God's commandments and abused the body by improper diet? No. In those areas we distinguish between a sinful lifestyle and the suffering human who has become its victim. We must do the same regarding AIDS if we are to represent Jesus Christ faithfully in our day.
2. We must distinguish between particular individuals and some stereotyped group. All prejudice thrives best in terms of groups -- and disappears fastest when one begins to know individuals. Homosexually-oriented persons, according to the best scientific evidence, comprise at least 10% of the population, and some estimates run far higher. That percentage does not stop at the church-house door. If the truth were known, every person reading these words probably respects and loves at least one person who is homosexually-oriented -- and might well be closely related. It is unfair and sinfully prejudicial to make broad statements about "them" as if "they" are all alike and may be stereotyped -- especially according to the image projected by the most flagrantly promiscuous, rebellious, openly-defiant individuals who usually make the news. "They" are individuals, with many different appearances, mannerisms, personalities. Some of "them" are devout Christians, who silently weep and struggle in agonies too great to wrestle alone but for which they know no other person to whom they can turn for understanding help.
3. We must distinguish between a prevailing temptation or weakness and a choice to engage in sinful conduct. Sensitive Christians involved in ministry to such persons note the distinction and reflect it in their terminology. These persons are "homosexually-oriented" individuals, not homosexuals. The first term stresses a condition -- whatever its ultimate origin -- and emphasizes the tendency, the inclination, the temptation to be resisted. The second term is best reserved for those who choose to practice such behavior as a way of life. This is not "calling sin by another name." It is applying in concrete terms the biblical truth that we are all prone to specific temptations and that we are called by God to resist them in the power of the living Christ. It acknowledges that some persons choose not to resist temptation. But it also makes plain that others -- equally tempted -- fight the good fight and in so doing might stand head and shoulders higher in God's sight than some who dismiss them with a label.
4. We must remember that all human beings are sinners and that the only difference is that some are forgiven by the gracious merit of the blood of Jesus Christ. Throughout Scripture, God's harshest words have been reserved for the prideful, the arrogant, the self-righteous. The proud Pharisee went home an unforgiven sinner in Jesus' parable, while the woman caught in adultery went home forgiven. It does not minimize any sin to say that none of us is free of guilt. Rather it trivalizes both sin and divine forgiveness to make artificial classifications of sins -- though that itself is a sin which we all probably commit. Can it be that one reason we find so much pleasure in railing out against particularly heinous sinners (in our view of matters) is that it somehow makes us feel more righteous in our own "lesser" sins? If so, we should know that God is neither impressed nor fooled by such rationalization. All are guilty. Some are forgiven.
Many who have AIDS also have God's forgiveness -- and have a special claim to be Christians' compassion and ministry. Many others have been turned away by the self-righteousness and judgmental attitude of professing Christians who seemed to say, "When you are able to live as you should, then come and visit the church." The gospel truth is that no one is able to live properly in his or her own strength. By coming to Christ for total forgiveness and a new beginning, however, many who once lived in sexual promiscuity of all sorts have found a power for life they had never known and could not have produced left to themselves. "Such were some of you" was not written only of and for the ancient Corinthians.
The church is not a museum of saints but a hospital for sinners. When Christians forget this, they forfeit their calling to be Christ's body to a sick and dying world.
5. Jesus Christ the Great Physician went not to the well but to the sick, and so must His faithful followers. Serving Jesus means identifying with people who need Jesus in order to lead them to Jesus, who alone can forgive, renew, and give eternal life. The person who doesn't want to be seen with "sinners," or to touch the untouchables of society, cannot walk close to Jesus, for that is where the Gospel most often shows Him and represents Him as doing.
In Jesus' day, the leper was considered cursed by God and his disease was considered divine punishment. To touch a leper made one ceremonially unclean. Yet Jesus touched lepers --and His touch made the lepers clean! The touch of Jesus still flows through His faithful people, imparting wholeness of spirit, and sometimes physical and psychological restoration as well. We must decide which we most fear: the stigma of society through association with the modern "leper" in our midst, or the forlorn look of Jesus as He says, "Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, my brethren, ye did it not unto me." Dare we ask, in our own circumstances, "How would Jesus behave?" Dare we read the Gospels to find the answer to that question? Dare we not?