Monday, August 23, 2010

shelter from the storm (acts 27)

We pushed out to sea. With those words we are told that Luke and Paul are setting out on a journey. The journey is the larger adventure of the Book of Acts---from Jerusalem, which might be understood as wherever home is---to Judea, the people are like us and live close to us---to Samaria---the people who live adjacent to us and may not be like us at all….to the ends of the earth (Acts 1. 8).

Now some of you have traveled a great deal, I know, you tell me about it when you return, and if you are going to get to the ends of earth you are going to have to cross bodies of water. And so in Luke’s narrative they set sail. To sail is to be carried by the winds, and it helps to know something about their patterns. Paul warns them not to leave at this particular time…it is just after the Day of Atonement, early fall, not the best time to venture out, but they ignore his advice. We can relate. “It is not the best season for sailing, but I can think we can take off now.” “You should take better care of your health…I think I am fine.” “You should seek some counsel, some guidance…I think I can do it on my own”. We have all been there.

And so they put out to sea. They push away from the dock. The conditions are precarious. It is, in personal terms, the journey from who we are to who we might become. It is common to speak of life as a journey. In our congregation this week parents have taken their children to college, another parent watches his child climb into the school bus as a kindergartner for the first time, a couple prepares for missionary service, and a mature adult moves into a retirement community. It is a journey.

In this life’s journey we know that we age, we learn new things, we move around, from place to place. People come into our lives, they change us. Maybe we marry or become parents. People also leave us, and there are voids. Some relationships fill us with joy, others leave us diminished. Some are the cause of praise, others lamentation. We sometimes ask why bad things happen to good people. And we sometimes wonder why good things happen to bad people!

Life is a journey. It’s also common here for Christians to speak of life as a spiritual journey. From the moment we meet the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts, he has been on a journey. He was there when Stephen was put to death, giving his consent. He was transformed on the road to Damascus, his life turned around. He was visited by Ananias, who was God’s messenger of acceptance and forgiveness. He was there to confront Peter about the way of Jesus being more accessible to those beyond Judaism. Paul was no longer an outsider; he was an insider. And from then on he becomes a passionate missionary to those on the outside, the Gentiles, the pagan, the unclean. This mission would take him to the ends of the earth, and to the world’s largest city: Rome.

They set sail. Twice Luke tells us that the movement was difficult. This is an honest account of the spiritual journey. Many of us think that if we trust God, if we make the decision to follow Jesus, it will be easy, but often it is just the opposite. We do remember the language in the gospels about taking up the cross and carrying it, or dying to self, but we rationalized that we were intelligent enough or shielded enough or sophisticated enough to avoid all of that. We thought we were in control. But when you are sailing you are never in control.

The sailing is difficult and at times slow. Then it gets worse. The winds begin to blow, and the ship is battered by the storm. Five years ago next weekend our nation was battered by storms on the gulf coast. Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and a number of displaced persons were transported all over the U.S.

I remember meeting some of the Katrina refugees. As the waters rose they had gone from their homes to the Superdome to a bridge to an airplane and had been flown to some unknown destination which turned out to be Charlotte. They ended up at the Coliseum, which has since been demolished. On the day it came down my own sadness was not that I had seen the Hornets play there, which I had; it was the day I spent in the presence of the men and women who had made their way through the storm and had survived.

I remember listening to some of the men and women trying to make sense of what had happened. Some blamed God. Some said God had cleansed the area and needed to. Some were speechless. I remember the nine families whom our church helped during the following months, all of them different. I remember that Charter Hall was filled with furniture and clothing, which many of you donated and assembled. I remember the meal we shared with them, also in Charter Hall, on Thanksgiving Day. The church, instinctively in that moment, became a shelter in the storm. The church has always taken in those battered by the storm; it is a holy place because it is a safe place, a sanctuary. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, expressed it this way:

“I saw a river over which every soul must pass to reach the kingdom of heaven and the name of that river was 'suffering'...And then I saw a boat which carries souls across the river and the name of that boat was 'love.'”

One of the earliest images for the church in the first centuries was a ship, an ark, taking us back to the story of Noah. The church was God’s instrument of salvation, the means by which we pass safely through the storms to the shore, the shore being eternal life and heaven. At its best, the church is a community of salvation, a safe place. The tragic reality is that church is not always a safe place—we think most visibly of children abused in church settings, sometimes by religious leaders. And yet the church at its best provides a shelter from the storm.

Two years ago this fall one of our Sunday School classes had planned a retreat at Myrtle Beach. Pam and I were going to be the leaders. It happened that week that the stock market dropped 777 points in one day. Financial institutions changed forever. Retirement funds and employment plans were threatened. About 80 people had signed up for the retreat, and about 80 showed up. It had been a disorienting week. A friend e-mailed me a picture of graph of the stock market with a line going lower and lower, and the image was one of sinking. As we gathered, it felt very much like a group of people who had passed through the storm.

How did we make it through? It helped to be together, it was God’s grace that we had planned to be together and not alone, and that has always been one of the great gifts of the church: we do not make this journey as solitary individuals, we follow the signs of those who have gone before us, we draw strength from those who travel with us, we set out on the adventure because it is something of a calling.

In a difficult time, we need each other and we need God. I think of the Irish Fisherman’s Prayer:

"Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide, and my boat is so small."

The sea, the water has always been ambivalent to a great extent. It is a source of life and death. What does not kill us, someone has said, makes us stronger. In the adventure we become more resilient; in the danger, we discover strengths we did not know we had. A part of the learning in Acts 27, as they make their way across the sea, is what is expendable. Luke tells us that they tossed some of the cargo overboard. There is wisdom for us here. In college I led backpacking trips through the Appalachian Trail of southwestern Virginia. When you are hiking long distances you figure out what is essential and what you can leave behind.

It is true in life. What do we need to let go of? An anger, a resentment, a bitterness. The image of throwing all of this into the ocean is allowing it to be cleansed, submerged, swallowed up. In Luke’s telling of the story they are ridding themselves of everything that is unnecessary as they move into God’s mission.

Here the emotions of the passengers shift from discouragement to fear, and at about this moment Paul speaks, and he says to them, “do not be afraid.” God is going to take care of them. God is going to take care of us. We are going to make it. It is an echo of Jesus speaking to the disciples, “do not be afraid”. And then a compelling experience that Luke wants us to remember: they have been battered, they are discouraged and fearful, and they are wondering if they are going to make it through the night.

Just before daybreak Paul realizes that they need to eat. Their resources are depleted, they are hungry, he encourages them: you have to eat, you have to remain strong, God is watching over you. And after he had said these words, note what happens in verse 35: he took the bread, he gave thanks to God, he broke it, and he gave it to them. It is an experience of Holy Communion, a meal that sustains and strengthens and reminds us of the promise of life even in the midst of death. Do not be afraid. God is with us. There is shelter in the storm. In the morning light they see something; it is the shore. They have made it. We are going to make it. I don’t know how you connect to this sermon or this passage of scripture, but the storms are relevant to us in one of three ways:

• We are coming out of a storm.
• We are in one.
• We are going into one.

Some of us are here this morning and we are putting out to sea. There is some apprehension, some uncertainty, some risk, and also some excitement. Some of us are here this morning and we are sailing, but it is not going according to plan. We are out of control, or lost, or wondering if we are going to make it. Some of us are here this morning, and we have no control over the external environment in which we live, but we have heard the calming voice, assuring us that all will be well, and we have tasted, again and again, the daily bread for which we pray every week. We know that God provides. Some of us are here this morning, and we have passed through the storm, grace has brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home. And it has been grace, the grace of being in the boat, the grace of finding community or church, the grace of friendship or a guide, or, simply, the grace of the Lord Jesus, who calms the storms and is the peace that surpasses understanding, who is the hope of all who seek and the help of all who find. Or simply the grace of surviving.

The Puritan minister Richard Baxter gave voice to this:

"O then what a blessed day will that be when I shall have all mercy, perfection of mercy, and fully enjoy the Lord of mercy: When I shall stand on the shore and look back on the raging seas I have safely passed; when I shall review my pains and sorrows, my fears and tears, and possess the glory which was the end of all.”

Grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.

Do not be afraid. God is with us. There is shelter in the storm.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

how to leave a congregation: lessons from paul (acts 20)

I sometimes speak to groups of pastors; maybe they are in the first few years, or they have gathered for some purpose. In listening to them I hear a singular thought expressed in a variety of ways: they will tell me that they do not get any respect, or that they do not have much influence or authority. I have come, over time, to this response. The minister is almost the only person in a community who stands up every week and speaks for twenty minutes, and people listen, or at least they put aside what they have been doing for a time. That is authority. It is something I do not take for granted.

And I have also come to another conclusion. Over time, months, years, the pastor, the preacher, the teacher does shape a congregation, for better or worse. Instead of filling us with resignation or despair, what a pastor does is actually a calling that is humbling. For that reason I have always sensed that it is good for you to hear diverse voices, not only mine and Bill’s and Tara’s, but also David Mosser and Ron Robinson, John Arey and Marcia Conston and Leslie Marsicano, Will Willimon and Zan Holmes, Jim Salley and Bishops Goodpaster and Innis and McCleskey, Ben Witherington and Cam West and Bob Tuttle and Susan and Greg Jones, and others.

What is preached and taught matters. I hear this in today’s reading of scripture. We have moved deeply into Paul’s missionary work, and in a sense it is coming to a conclusion. Luke tells us that Paul is in Ephesus. At the time, in the first century, it was the second largest city in the world, next to Rome. It was an ancient Greek city located on what is now the coast of Turkey. Paul had been there for three years, and he wants to go to Jerusalem, for Pentecost.

Why does Paul want to go to Jerusalem? For the festival, maybe, but it seems to be about destiny. In Acts this parallels a turning point in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus “sets his face toward Jerusalem” (9. 51). Jerusalem is a place of suffering, where the powers are confronted, but it is where God’s mission is fulfilled. And so he calls the leaders of the church of Ephesus together.

It turns out to be something of a farewell statement. These were popular in the ancient world and they are today: we think of Tuesdays with Morrie or The Last Lesson. But it is deeper than that; many of us have sat with family or friends, we have wondered and worried and waited for anything that might be said. In the scripture Paul is getting closure on what he has tried to do among the Ephesians, and what it has meant.

He begins by talking not about doctrine, but a way of life, and this is appropriate. We care about what people think because we have observed the way they live. I have listened to adult children stand in this sanctuary and bear witness to the influence of a father or a mother, and they will recall some wisdom passed on, but first they reflect on what they observed in everyday life, which is what is so compelling about it: my father would never do something for himself unless everyone else in the family was taken care of; my mother was a grade parent every year of my life---a child might bristle about that, in the moment, but decades later it means something.

And so, Paul says, “from the day I stepped foot here I served the Lord with humility and with tears and endured trials”. He was not motivated by ambition or vanity; in his own writing in 1 Corinthians 13 he would summarize it:

If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and have faith to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

Paul’s humility was not only a way of life that the Ephesians could observe; it was humility under the word of God, which shaped what he would say to them. And this seems to be the burden that Paul is trying to express in this gathering. Twice, he says, I held nothing back from you, I did not shrink from doing anything for your good, “I did not skimp or trim in any way” (The Message) from declaring to you the whole purpose, the whole counsel of God.

In other ways, Paul is saying, I have been honest with you, forthcoming with you, truthful with you. This message was revealed to me, and I did not hide it from you.

What was it that he shared in all of its fullness? What was the “whole purpose of God” that was for their good, and for our good? It is to know who we are, in relation to God and to our neighbor. In relation to God, the substance of it is grace.

To the religious person, the good person, the moral person, the good news can be bad news: our religion, our morality, our goodness does not save us.

To the person who would not describe himself or herself as religious at all, the bad news can be good news: we are children of God, we are created in the image of God, no matter the distance that has separated us. In both instances it is rooted and grounded in grace, what we do not deserve, what we cannot earn, what we will never repay.

The grace of God is made visible in the mystery of the cross of Jesus, in his suffering and humility, through his death and resurrection. And so we can be honest about our flaws and failures. We can be honest about our sin and our need for divine grace. “I did not pretend”, Paul is saying. “I held nothing back that was for your good”. To the religious: your virtue will not save you. To the pagan: you are a child of God.

The whole counsel of God has a vertical dimension but it also has horizontal implications, namely how we live with each other. If we exist in relation to God through grace, we live in relation to each other with humility. Our love for each other covers a multitude of sins. We forgive, as we have been forgiven. As Paul would write, again, in I Corinthians 13:

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

The whole counsel of God is the commandment to love God and to love our neighbor. Luke who recorded this encounter in the life of Paul had also recorded in his gospel two stories of Jesus that anticipate Paul’s teaching: the parable of the prodigal son (our relation to God) and the parable of the Good Samaritan (our relation to each other). This is the substance of the faith. It seems simple, but it is difficult. It involves repentance, the need for continuing self-examination, and faith in the power of Jesus Christ to do what we cannot always do on our own.

And here Paul is a model for us. It is a cliché to bash Paul, or to stereotype him. But we can learn something here. What is it for a parent to say, to our children, “I have told you the truth.” If we can do this, they will grow up, they will mature. This turns out to be Paul’s concern for the church at Ephesus. just as Jesus prepared the disciples in John 13 and 14 for his departure, Paul is preparing them because he will no longer be with them.

And so Paul does not sugarcoat it. I am going to leave and you are going to need to look out for each other. Wolves are going to come in and devour the sheep. Some from within our own group will distort the truth in order to entice people to follow them. I am warning you, Paul says, with tears.

And then Paul concludes with a brief reflection on grace and generosity. I did not do this work among you for personal gain, Paul says (is it possible that some were making this claim?). I worked with my own hands, I supported myself and I gave you this example. Work and the dignity of work are essential. This allows us, Paul goes on, to support the weak. The church that lives by the grace of God extends this grace to the most vulnerable of our society. Then Paul remembers a saying of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” This is not a verse that appears in any of the gospels, but, as a wise friend noted recently, maybe it was in the oral tradition; among the living, the community remembered hearing these words from Jesus himself.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” A Christian community is always a circle of giving and receiving. As we are generous, we unclog a vessel through which the grace of God flows toward us and we are blessed. As we receive, the reality of God who is love becomes real and tangible. And we are bound together in a cycle of giving, grace, and thanksgiving.

I struggled somewhat with this passage over the past days. It would be arrogant to preach this as if I am the Apostle Paul and you are the church at Ephesus. No sane person claims sainthood or the mantle of being an apostle unless he or she is under a delusion! But it says much about ministry that is very personal. I am never clear that I am communicating the fullness of the gospel. The tension, in holding something back, is always that a pastor grows to love a group of people. It is easy to be a prophet when you come in from the outside, aim, fire and then leave town! The weeping prophet---Jeremiah, for example, or in this text the Apostle Paul, speaks the truth, but in love, and for the good of the community.

There is surely, and Paul makes this clear, an accountability in our teaching, preaching and hearing the gospel. A worry I often hear expressed is that we need to have some program, some initiative, some offering, or we will miss out, and another church will move forward. Perhaps this is true. But there is in scripture a deeper accountability, and that is to the substance of the faith: are we living honestly and truthfully before God, in grace, and with each other, in humility?

It has been my experience that I have received a great deal more in ministry than I have given. That I am a Christian, that I am a United Methodist , that I am a minister, that I am a minister with Providence, it is all a gift and a blessing. Ministers probably do not say “thank you” enough. This text and this time seem to be the occasion. Thank you!

In the midst of sharing with the leaders of the church at Ephesus Paul had said something that must have startled them: I am leaving, and I know that none of you will ever see my face again. He finishes speaking and kneels to the ground, a gesture before God and with them, and they pray for him. There is a genuine outpouring of grief. It is a profound transition. Paul has given them a gift, and they have been a blessing to him. And yet it finally not about him, the church is not a personality cult, the mission of God is greater than any one person, even the Apostle Paul. Life will go on.

They walk with him to the ship. Ahead are the storms. We will talk about the storms later, how Paul makes it through the storm, how we make it through the storm.

For now, they walk with Paul to the ship, and he climbs on board and sails away.

Monday, August 09, 2010

the option of atheism (acts 17)

In college I majored in biology, thinking that I might be a teacher, or do something in the fields of science or medicine. All of that changed when 1) I took organic chemistry and 2) I sensed a call to be a minister. Which was not the path I was planning, but that’s another story. I knew that I would eventually attend seminary, and I began looking around for a major that had more to do with people than chemical equations. This landed me in the psychology department. “This will be great,” I thought. “This will help me later on, when I am working with people.”

Once I had made the decision I experienced the truth of the Willie Nelson song: “Funny how wrong I could be.” My two favorite professors in the psychology department, men I thought and think very highly of, were grateful that I had come into their area of study and teaching. They liked my background in the sciences. But there was one small thing: they were both, and they were very public about this, intellectuals who had little use for religion or faith.

One was a Jewish man who trained in the writings of Sigmund Freud. I had classes with him in Abnormal Psychology, the History of Psychology and Depression. He was Jewish, but not a practicing Jew, in a religious sense. He felt, with Freud, that religion was wish fulfillment, something we hoped to be true, but something that was not actually true. Yet he was a funny man, and full of life, and he was supportive of me, even if he thought I was misguided.

The other professor was more interested in research, and he had come under the influence of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. He believed that reality was the sum total of what you could test and measure, see and touch. I had classes with him in Tests and Measurements and Experimental Psychology. I distinctly remember the day he called the denomination I belonged to a cult. He said it with a smile, but the message was clear.

Now my story is not all that interesting, really, or unique. It was the encounter, on a small scale, between faith and reason, or, as Tertullian would have said in the 2nd century, Jerusalem and Athens. It was an encounter, I would learn, that was reported in the Bible itself, in the Book of Acts, in the experience of the great missionary, the Apostle Paul. We are moving, as Acts 1.8 had predicted, from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and now to the ends of the earth. We are in Gentile, pagan territory. We find Paul in the middle of the second of three missionary journeys. He is in Athens, the ultimate college town in the Roman Empire. I should say Athens, Greece, not Athens, Georgia!

The speech in Athens is at Mars Hill, and Luke tells us that Paul, as he looks around Athens, is “deeply distressed”. In Bible Study last week David Mosser translated the word as “annoyed”. Athens is a very impressive place but it is filled with idols, and thus, for a good Jew, a violation of the second commandment.

Idols are substitutes for God. We can make idols of celebrities and politicians. We can make idols of wealth and possessions. We can make idols of our careers (and yes ministers can be very good at this) and even our hobbies. We can make idols of our children and our physical appearance. The most impressive structures in any city will tell us what our idols are: athletic complexes, health care facilities, centers of commerce. Pleasure, longevity, wealth.

Paul looks around, and the city is filled with idols. He begins to speak in the synagogue and in the marketplace. And so we talk about the faith in holy places, where we are, but also in public life. God calls us to engage with the world. Luke tells us that there happened to be Epicurean and Stoic philosophers among the curious. Epicureans were all about personal pleasure and sensual delight, which fits right in with a consumer culture (think of product placement on the Food Network, or HGTV, or ESPN, or MTV). Interestingly, Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, has referred to himself at times as an Epicurean. It is the lifestyle Paul refers to in I Corinthians 15: if there is no resurrection of the body, then eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

The Stoics were all about self-control and overcoming destructive emotions. They were all about clear judgments and inner peace. And there is a very strong connection between the Stoic philosophy and the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the thing I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Now there is a little of the Epicurean and the Stoic in each of us. As you are listening to me describe them, you are probably thinking, “what’s the problem…my husband is a stoic, my wife is epicurean.” Most of us like the taste of a good meal, or the vision of a beautiful sunset at the beach. Most of us develop a way to cope with the adversities that come our way, and we try to avoid destructive excess. So we have something in common with them. And they, often, with us, and so they are curious to know what this famous missionary and rabbi is talking about. “What does this babbler want to say?” they wonder. “Maybe he is talking about some foreign god?”

We get a glimpse of how odd the Christian gospel was in the first century, and how strange it is today, in a culture where we know so little about the Bible. It is, Paul would write later, “foolishness to the Greeks”. From the other side it is, as my professor labeled it, a cult.

“Tell us about it,” they ask him. They are curious. And then a comment from Luke: they spent all of their time in nothing but telling or hearing about something that was new (21). The fad of the moment. The trend of the week. The fashion of the month. Who is on the way up and who is on the way down? What have you done for me lately? “Tell us about it”.

And so Paul begins. I see how religious you are (22). In looking around, I can see all of the objects of your worship. It is not that people are not religious. It is that we are religious about the wrong thing. We are religious about politics or body image or our sports hero or our 401k. These can all be good things; they were just never meant to be our ultimate concerns! I looked carefully at the objects of your worship, and I came across an altar with the inscription, “To an Unknown God” (23).

And here Paul makes the connection, he engages with the world. God does not call us to avoid the world, or to trash it, but to engage it. We are called to examine what is going on in the world and appeal to it. This Paul begins to do.

The God who is unknown to you, he says, I am about to make known. And now Paul can tell the story of the God of the scriptures. “The God who made the world and everything in it is Lord of all things. We are created in God’s image; we do not have to make a god in our image, a god to serve our own needs. God is more than we can imagine! God created the infinite resources that surround us, but amazingly, God wants us to seek him and find him; indeed, God is not remote. God is near.” He quotes one of their poets, “In him we live and move and have our being” (28).

Then Paul shifts the discussion to the heart of the gospel. He calls the people of Athens, the brilliant people of Athens, to repentance and change. He urges them to consider a God who is greater than their imaginations and whose purpose transcends their needs or desires. This God will set things right, this God will establish a kingdom of heaven on earth, and indeed the assurance that all of this will happen is in the resurrection of God’s Son from the dead.

This of course makes no sense to the Epicureans or the Stoics, and their descendents among us today. Reason can only go so far----there must be revelation. The natural world can take us only so far---there must be the supernatural. Paul is asking them, and us, to do something that is difficult: to trade a god we know for a God we do not know….and that takes faith, and faith is a gift. We live in a marketplace of ideas and idols. Even inside the church, some do not have much use for revelation or the supernatural or the resurrection.

For many the church is primarily a social network. I came across a wonderful comment from a very honest Jew, who said, “Garfinkle goes to the Temple to talk to God; I go to the temple to talk to Garfinkle”. Not everyone in a church is a believer, and not everyone in a church shows up for religious reasons. I am not making a judgment; if you listen long enough people will tell you this.

When they hear about the resurrection, Luke tells us, some mock (32). At one time agnosticism and atheism were underground, but now they are very public. One of the largest growing sections in any bookstore is works on atheism. In the culture, outside the church, there is a lively discussion going on about faith and atheism. A rabbi, David Wolpe often debates the atheist Christopher Hitchens, and thousands show up. The debate about religion is a sign to me that 21st century North America is going to look increasingly like 1st century Athens: some curiosity, some mocking. And so we had better get our story straight. The faith that we learned as children was a gift to us, as children, but it will not sustain us in an adult marketplace of ideas and idols. It happens all the time: people go to college, they are intellectually challenged, they lose their faith and they drift for a while. We think, like little Bo peep, that if we leave them alone they will come home. Maybe, maybe not.

Some mock, but others say, “We would like to hear more about this later (32).” For some, there is an opening. Christopher Hitchens has cancer, at an advanced stage. He was interviewed by Anderson Cooper the other evening, and they talked about prayer. Hitchens does not pray, but he acknowledged that many were praying for him. Some had prayed for his demise---this is the ugly side of Christianity, but he admitted that many, many more were praying for his recovery. And he is grateful.

Some mocked, some said we would like to hear more, and then, at the conclusion, some became believers. It is a mixed response, and that is always true when the gospel is preached: some cannot accept it, for one reason or another; some want to know more, some accept the good news. People do have intellectual struggles with the faith, and we should not judge or dismiss them. We can build bridges toward them, like Paul, engage them, we can give an account for the hope that is in us.

It is also true that we sometimes judge ourselves at our best and others at their worst. We can encourage people outside the faith not to focus exclusively on the most extreme cases of religious abuse and failure, but also on the ways Christians contribute to the world. This morning we think of the ten Christian Aid workers killed in Afghanistan this weekend.

We cannot control what others believe, nor should we. We should not reject those outside the church who do not believe; Paul certainly does not. We can engage the world of ideas and idols beyond us, and the curious who are among us, with the good news that the One who created us is near to us, in the word of God made flesh in a person Jesus Christ, who was raised from death, so that we might have life.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

in necessary things, unity (acts 15)

The fifteenth chapter of Acts is most likely one of most important passages of scripture that Christians rarely read.

It might be categorized under the label “the unintended consequence of success”. The mission is expanding, the movement is flourishing, we have witnessed the Pentecost for the Jews (Acts 2) and the Gentiles (Acts 10), and reflected on the conversion of Paul (Acts 9) and the dream of Peter (Acts 10) that changed the course of his life. Along the way the outsiders are becoming insiders, the gentiles, the pagans are coming to faith. Now the unintended consequence: they are not circumcised, which is the mark of faith and the tradition. And yet they have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord. So: do they need to be circumcised? According to the custom of Moses, some would say, the answer is yes.

And so we discover in verse two that there is “no small dissension and debate” among them. It comes as no surprise to us that there is sometimes dissension, conflict, and debate in the church. Do you think people ever disagree in the church? Yes. It has been happening for a very long time!

What is significant about Acts 15 is the subject of the disagreement: who can be saved, who can be a Christian? We have moved from the utopia of the conclusion of Acts 2, where everyone shared all things in common, to a conflicted and divided community. And this often happens, even today. Someone has an experience of God, the inner knowledge that she is saved by grace. And then she comes into contact with a real church, and there is bickering, or, can we even say the word, politics!

And the politics produces disillusionment. We go through an election, we send folks into political office who are going to change things, the solutions are conservative or liberal, your choice, but we don’t see much change---just more bickering and noise and name-calling---and the needs go unmet and perhaps the challenges increase! The only thing that changes is that one side goes on offense and one side on defense.

Well, you say, that’s politics, we expect that from politicians, it is their business, but we do not expect that in the house of God. And yet it is true, as the wisdom has it, that “everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics”. It took only a few chapters in the Book of Acts to arrive at this reality. There are two sides of the aisle: one the traditionalists, the other the innovators. The traditionalists are looking back on at least one thousand years of history. It was central to the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17). One had to be circumcised in order to take part in the Passover feast or marry into a Jewish family. To be uncircumcised was to be heathen, unclean. Along with the Sabbath, circumcision was one of two primary symbols of the Jewish tradition. Even in the first century, however, there came to be a common disagreement within Judaism; some said that circumcision was a necessary requirement for inclusion; others said that immersion in a ritual bath, a mikveh or baptism, was enough; there are mikveh pools to this day outside the temples of Israel.

It was natural this that disagreement would be passed on from Judaism to Christianity. Do the converts need to undergo circumcision? I realized in working on this sermon that I probably do need to define circumcision, and this is where the conversation might go from being “pg” to “pg13” or even “r”. Circumcision is the removal of a portion or all of the foreskin a part of the male anatomy. It has almost universal roots as a tribal mark, it is related to hygiene, and is a rite of passage into the status of a warrior.

So there are traditionalists and innovators. The traditionalists are clear: “this is non-negotiable, this was the commandment of God, this was passed on from our fathers and mothers to us”. There is much that is valuable about our traditions. Years ago I was a part of a group of ministers who met early each Tuesday morning for support and conversation. We assembled in a barbecue restaurant in Lexington, and some of us drove over thirty miles each way to be there. It meant a great deal to us. We had been meeting for several years and we arrived so early in the morning that we had our corner booth, which held all of us. One morning we walked through the doors and someone was in our booth…I started to say, our pew! We did not actually own the booth, we did not have a permanent booth license, but it seemed like it was ours. It had become a tradition. We found another place to sit and all morning it felt….strange. I could not keep myself from looking at the people who were sitting in our booth! The getting together each week---that was life-giving! But the externals of how it actually happened….well now it seems trivial, and yet we are creatures of habit.

So imagine a one thousand year old tradition, one that is fundamental to your identity, and the question becomes: can we set this aside? Tradition is essential. It is also true that sometimes we grow up in a tradition and we accept it without thinking. It helps to question our traditions. I heard a story about a young couple, newlyweds, preparing a meal together. At one point the husband asks the wife, “Why do you cut the ends off the ham?” She thinks for a moment, and responds, “because my mother did it.” “Why did she do it?”, he wonders. “I don’t know”, she says, “I’ll ask”. And so she does, and her mother gives her the same reply: “I do it because my mother always did it.” Finally the young woman asks her grandmother, “why do you cut the ends off of your ham.” The grandmother answered, “because my pan is not wide enough.”

Why do we continue to do what we have always done? We take the summer off from school so that we can help on the farm….only, most of us do not live on a farm. An eleven o’clock worship service also allowed dairy farmers to milk the cows before arriving at worship. All of us are creatures of habit who value tradition, whether we are talking about our favorite college football team or how we prepare our food or….how we come into the presence of God.

Here we shift our thinking from the traditionalists to the innovators. They are witnessing something pretty dramatic: the conversion, the turning of individuals toward God. It is a new thing, maybe even the new covenant that Jeremiah has promised, the circumcision of the heart. It’s not bad news, the innovators are saying; it is good news!

One of the problems with tradition is that we can see it as an end in itself: we embrace the tradition but, like the newlywed, we cannot quite tell you why; we forget the purpose of the tradition in the first place. The human traditions related to how we access religion or God or salvation may change, the medium changes, but the message does not. The innovators remind us that the tradition always points us beyond ourselves, to God. And so the conversation among the core leaders of the Christian movement, including Peter and Paul, goes to the heart of the message. Who can be a Christian? Can anyone be a Christian? Or can only those who have been circumcised be Christians? They met together, there was much debate (verse 7), finally Peter speaks, then Paul and Barnabas, and then James, the brother of Jesus. What about the Gentiles and Circumcision? What about the tradition? What about the new thing we are seeing in the world? How do we make sense of it? What are we going to do?

Their decision? Peter begins: “Why do we put a yoke on the neck of the disciples that our neither nor we have not been able to bear?” There is humility in those words----the recognition that we have not always lived up to the ideals of our traditions. And then a powerful affirmation: “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” We are saved by the grace of God. Salvation, right relationship, acceptance, wholeness, however you name it or frame it or claim it, it is a gift. And so Peter, who had been among the inner circle of the disciples of Jesus, called by the Lord himself, present on the day of Pentecost, does not claim any of this tradition as a privileged status.

An astonishing statement: “You mean, this church belongs just as much to the person who walked through the door for the first time today as it does to someone who was there from the very beginning?” Peter puts it bluntly: we are all in the same boat! And then James reinforces the decision: we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God (with circumcision), but there are some ground rules: avoid serving food to that is offensive to your brother and sister Jewish Christians, and keep from immoral sexual practices (verses 20, 29). There was a specific context for these instructions: the pagan practices of temple prostitution (and the Greek word used here is our literal word for pornography) and the violation of feasts that were related to Israel’s long history of family meals.

Will Willimon writes in his commentary on Acts, “converts into the church are welcomed, but not without limits.” What are the limits? They seem to go to the heart of what it means to honor one another in daily lives, and to honor our bodies in our sexual relationships. And so the disagreement is resolved; as the resolution is read to the missionary community, the letter expresses that “it seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit…that we impose on you no burden beyond the essentials”.

When Christians disagree, we err on the side of mercy toward one another, and we leave the final judgment to God. Richard Baxter, a Puritan minister in 17th century England who had lived through the religious wars that moved many to seek a home on this side of the ocean, summed it up well:

In necessary things, unity.
In doubtful things, liberty.
In all things, charity.

This sentiment would inspire another church later, a century later. John Wesley would write:

“Is your heart right, as my heart is with yours? I ask no farther question. If it is, give me your hand. For opinions or terms, let us not destroy the work of God. Do you love and serve God? It is enough. I give you the right hand of fellowship.”

So, who can be a Christian? Anyone who accepts the grace of Jesus Christ and is willing to treat our brothers and sisters in Christ with dignity and respect. For the one who has been a part of the tradition for a long time, this means being flexible, and remembering that the ground is level at the foot of the cross; we are all sinners, saved by God’s amazing grace. For the one who is new to the tradition, for the one who desires innovation, it implies honoring our fathers and mothers in the faith, in a family story that stretches back now for thousands of years, filled with creeds and parables and hymns and practices and rituals and meals.

Once the decision was made, and I do believe the Holy Spirit was a part of it, the gospel was free to move beyond the boundaries of ethnicity and family and, it is not a stretch to say, political partisanship, to fulfill the promise of Jesus: the spirit was and is moving from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and now, to the ends of the earth (Acts 1. 8). And very briefly, why does that matter? It matters because God loves the world, not just a particular race or tribe or class of people. And it matters because you and I are the beneficiaries of this decision, we are the gentiles, for in the fullness of time we would come to be included in the grace of Jesus Christ.