April 28, 2013

“Us and Them”
Acts 11:1-18

For congregations to continue to grow, spiritually, all new forms of togetherness ultimately must be in service of a more enriched individuality, and not the other way around. (A paraphrase of Edwin Friedman “A Failure of Nerve,” p. 169.)

All are welcome, we mean it! (A phrase seen on a church flyer).

John Wimber, a musician, a charismatic pastor, and one of the founders of the Vineyard Church movement; “insisted that Christian bodies (read, church) must take the position that everyone who wants to come thereby belongs just because of the wanting and without regard to how he or she may behave or claim to believe.” (Tickle, Phyllis Emergence Christianity, Baker Books, 2012, p. 81)

Luke records for us today an account that some of us are quite familiar with. The situation is not unlike a time when a certain event occurred in what was usually an orderly third grade classroom. I do not recall the precipitating circumstances but what I do remember is that in a moment of failed judgement, Mrs. Falahee told the class to read quietly for a moment while she left the room. What the principal saw was only the very tail end of longer episode in the classroom. Because I was caught in a, lets say compromising position, arm cocked with an eraser in hand, he looked at me and said: “You, come with me.” I was summoned to the principal’s office. No one is comfortable with a summons like that.

In the presence of Mr. Willbanks I did not make excuses for my wind-up to throw that eraser. Up until that point I had not done anything. So I simply explained to him what happened. Our teacher was not gone from the room for 5 minutes and bedlam ensued. Throwing chalk and erasers. Jumping around, running, pulling the girls pig-tails, I don’t remember what all. I did not name names, but explained what happened and when. I still got the paddle. Substitutionary Atonement is what the theologians call it.

If you listened carefully to the reading from Acts this morning you noticed some of this going on. See, the first followers of Jesus were still part of the synagogue, in Jerusalem, and like all faiths defined themselves by certain practices. They are called the ‘circumcision’ group.

Peter, one of the group, has been out of town. Word has gotten back to church that while Peter was away he was engaged in some bad behavior. It is a scene out of any Hollywood parody of the business woman on the road who lets her hair down, maybe has a few drinks, the next thing you know she’s dancing on the table. As long as word doesn’t get back home she’s fine. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. You know what happened. Somebody saw what was going on there, recognized Peter, and the word got back to Jerusalem.

It seems while Peter was on his road trip he had dinner with some acquaintances. Not the same folks he’d be dining with back in Jerusalem, they say he was with folks he should not have been with and eating food he should not eat. These are not lapses in judgement or that somehow he misunderstood the menu. He understood he was sent there.

Still, the church leaders want to know what the heck was going on. He was summoned to explain his actions.

Peter does not defend himself. He doesn’t make excuses. He turns to his interrogators and says, ‘let me tell you what happened.’ He tells them that he received the invitation, recognized that he should not participate, that he has never…not up to now anyway…varied from the straight way. Then he tells them something surprising, God speaks to Peter, saying, “what God has cleansed, you must not call common.”

Peter is not saying, ‘yeah I know it’s wrong but everybody else is doing it.’ He isn’t saying that. He also is not saying that he didn’t know better. He did know better. Peter is not saying that they tricked him. There was no charade by the other to be someone they are not. The food was not disguised in such a way that he didn’t recognize it. No, from the very beginning of this event Peter knew that travel down this path would lead to this uncomfortable summons.

What Peter tells the leadership is essentially this: I know what the rules are as well as you do, but God tells me that those rules we have used to make judgements about others don’t amount to a hill of beans. It was as if Peter heard God say, those people are as much my people as you are, so stop making distinctions I don’t make.

Peter has learned that God shows no partiality. As the sign says on our door, “All are welcome.”

At first, those with nice and neat barriers and boundaries were silenced when they heard that people who did not ‘fit’ the expectations for God’s people had received the Holy Spirit. That’s what the text says, they were quiet.

St. Luke does not describe what was going on in that silence. We all know that silence does not necessarily mean consent. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some folks questioned the authenticity of this alleged ‘falling of the Holy Spirit.” It is much easier to maintain your own strict guidelines for salvation if you insist that those who don’t follow them didn’t really experience The Holy Spirit in their midst. That can and is done.

There may have been some who said, ‘well, good for them!’ Which is another way of saying that whatever it is they experienced it certainly wasn’t the real thing like we get over here. There may have even been a few who would be willing to receive these outsiders, technically, under the umbrella of the church, just so long as they stay over there in Joppa and don’t try any of that new stuff here in Jerusalem.

There may not have been anything said. that doesn’t mean the situation wasn’t talked about. The Holy Righteous Church of the Parking Lot is a recognizable feature of the church landscape. I bet that even in Jerusalem groups of self-appointed guardians of the faith who gathered in the meeting after the meeting to protect the church from the invasion of, well, openness and good ideas.

This may be well and good if followers of Jesus were expected to be divided by particularities of custom, of behavior. But we are not. We are to be one; one in the Spirit, one in The Lord. No isolationist practices.

As if to explain how this might be possible, in John’s gospel, chapter 13, Jesus gets as direct and prescriptive as we will ever hear him. As he approaches Jerusalem in his final days, he tells them: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Thus the challenge for the church is laid down in plain and simple terms. If you want to be a part of this community, if you want to claim a place in among those who call themselves Christian, you must love. I suppose that it goes without saying that you love God. Then there is this second part that cannot be separated from the first, it is that you love your neighbor as yourself.

I think that we can agree that to love God is an essential requirement to being a religious person, a faithful person. For the most part, religious people further define themselves by doing some things and, perhaps not doing other things. Some times we say, ‘this is what we do.’ At other times we say, ‘I never did it that way before.’ Every faith does this and if they try and tell you they don’t they are either lying or they don’t believe in much.

Are there things that each of us do that displeases God? Sure. But I cannot help but notice that what was certain is now, changed; for the better, for everyone, for the better.

On this day in Joppa the church is not defined by what it believes, or what it does, but by loving those who have been somehow drawn to her doors. And the church is defined by going out into the world and sharing the Love of God without prejudice. The simple truth is that the church is for everyone, insiders, outsiders, everyone. It isn’t hard to believe this. What is hard is to do it.

The controversy about opening the church was settled only temporarily in this passage. The issue was raised again and again in Acts, and it continues to be raised to this day.

But there is a real church that is living and growing and breathing. The Spirit is present and the people are alive. Shall we be silent? We can be a part of that church, or in silence we can be part of the group that thinks it is the church, that is more preoccupied with meetings and minutes and rules than the action of the Spirit and message of salvation for all? Are our doors open wide enough? As the Spirit moves, let’s open them, and to tell our community and the world that we are church for everyone.

How exciting is that! The Spirit of of God is working is places we can barely imagine! And we can be a part of that too! Through sharing God’s gracious love we are going to be the most welcoming congregation around! How can we not praise God?

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad