r street community church ~ 07.17.2011
It must be said that how we read scripture greatly determines how we interpret scripture. Whether you view these texts, Genesis to Revelation, as a rule book, a love letter, an owner’s manual, or (my preference) a narrative or story; these filters determine much of what we take away from the words we read within the covers. Even so, it is important that, regardless of your personal filter, that we give at least some weight to the style and intent of each individual document or book within the canon. We know that Song of Solomon is poetry; that the Psalms is a song book; And… be know that the “Acts of the Apostles” is a historical narrative of the very early church and its spread beyond its Judaic roots. So… we read Acts, not as doctrine… not as theology… we read as a story and discover the roots of our faith. And… like all stories, we listen for where the narrative touches and illuminates our own story; for the relevance which allows the story to speak into our reality.
One thread that seems to run throughout much of the Acts narrative is the tenuous nature of Paul’s relationship with Jerusalem (Acts 15 – council of Jerusalem). Not hostile… no open animosity… just a little awkward? Maybe they could not quite forget his former role as persecutor. Maybe some were there when he held the coats at Stephen’s stoning. Whatever the reason, Paul’s relationship with the church in Jerusalem was somewhat strained.
So Paul’s role as travelling missionary probably suited everybody just fine. Happy when he came to town… even happier when he left.
So Paul has come home. And Paul is already a bit of a rock-star. The leaders in Jerusalem must be just a little jealous of his success. Even the book of Acts… it starts with Peter as the central character in the story but Paul pretty quickly takes and retains center stage. He is spreading the gospel further and faster than anyone expected and he was doing it as a bit of a rebel. The church had scattered due to persecution from Saul (Paul) and others. But the seat of authority remained in Jerusalem. James and others who stayed viewed their role seriously as the center of this new faith and they likely viewed themselves as the branch closest to the vine – even as Christianity began to spread beyond the Jewish world. So Paul, the missionary to the gentiles; the rock-star evangelist… Paul travels the empire starting churches and sharing Jesus with anyone and everyone who will listen. To gentiles. To outsiders. To pagans.
It’s fair to assume, Jesus’ teaching notwithstanding, that a fair number of Jewish Christians still believed that the Messiah came to the Jews and for the Jews… only. Maybe this was not articulated. Maybe they never said it in staff meetings; but I tend to imagine the sentiment was not rare. Sort of like when a football fan who loves the razorback and the cowboys finds that a former razorback rival is now playing for the cowboys. Or maybe the way you feel when a singer you can’t stand records a duet with your FAVORITE singer are; at best… conflicted.
I think this is maybe how Jerusalem viewed Paul. They could not really argue with his success, but… Gentiles? Really?
So Paul comes home. And he does the right thing. He visits James and the leadership of the church in Jerusalem. It’s kind of like when Bono visited the Vatican… well… sort of… And Paul tells them how things are going. He reports the amazing stories from his journeys; stories of new believers, unbelievable response to the story of Christ. He tells them of the many gentiles who have believed and who now follow in the way of
Jesus. And the leaders in Jerusalem…? They are thrilled… of course they are.
20 After hearing this, they praised God. And then they said, “You know, dear brother, how many thousands of Jews have also believed…?”
and then… the meat of this story…
“You know, dear brother, how many thousands of Jews have also believed, and they all follow the law of Moses very seriously. 21 But the Jewish believers here in Jerusalem have been told that you are teaching all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn their backs on the laws of Moses. They’ve heard that you teach them not to circumcise their children or follow other Jewish customs. 22 What should we do? They will certainly hear that you have come.”
How many of you were raised Baptist? Church of Christ? Assembly of God? Methodist? Catholic?
How many of you were taught, and maybe even believed that your “tribe” had it right? That the OTHER denominations were somehow a little less Christian? Sometimes it was subtle. Some of you grew up in traditions where you are doomed to hell, not for NOT being a Christian, but for being the wrong kind.
We all drew lines that defined us and separated us from those people.
Prefered Bible Translation…
Most of us who grew up Christian grew up with the belief that our particular brand of Christianity was best; was most like Jesus; was most like… Paul. We look around us – at others practicing their faith – and we say the same thing the elders in Jerusalem said to Paul; “they are not doing it right!” Which is to say… they are doing it differently. And rather than embracing the other expressions of faith in Christ… Instead of asking what might be learned from these stories of spiritual awakening in the gentile world… Instead of inclusion comes a demand…. a demand to conform. A demand to do it the way WE do it… the correct way.
But maybe the old ways aren’t really wrong… they are simply not the ONLY ways.
Paul seems to go along with the request of the elders, at least at face value, but writes in other instances that things like circumcision or dietary restrictions are of really no importance. That these things are the old law and that grace frees us from being saved by this type of rigid observance of a methodology or a tradition. He seems to say that following Christ is a matter of following what is before us rather than holding on to what is behind us.
Historically, we mark the progress of Christianity as these disputes over the old and the new come to critical mass. Phyllis Tickle points out in “The Great Emergence that these moments of upheaval come about every 500 years. The great Decline and fall (500s AD) Monastic Period - The Great Schism in 1054 - The Protestant Reformation (1500s AD). Each of these major shifts are accompanied by what Ms. Tickle calls a “giant rummage sale” – where the church gets rid of the idols and kingdoms that are human constructs and moves into a new way of following Jesus. And she does so over the objections - often violent and bloody objections – of the status quo.
And so, today… 500 years later…
A popular young rock-star pastor writes a book and asks provocative questions about heaven and hell and eternity - and the establishment - the symbolic elders - say, “that’s not how we do it… we have established the proper way to follow Christ… we do not ask these questions”. Or others, on blogs or in pulpits or on street corners ask questions and wrestle with big and small issues, questions about gender and sexuality… with war and violence… with poverty and responsibility for our fellow man… with caring for creation and understanding our origins…
Hearts that love Jesus… who seek with all their hearts to follow him… these hearts ask questions and too often have found themselves, not embraced and engaged, but dismissed or worse, attacked… Told again and again “this is how WE follow Christ… this is the CORRECT way.”
Some eventually crumble and join the elders… assimilate into the accepted culture.
Some recoil at the rejection and walk away from the church altogether.
But some find a community where questions are valued; where new ways of following Christ are engaged and embraced. Where they young learn from the elder’s wisdom… but the elders are wise enough to know that they might also learn from the young.
As His kingdom comes into focus, gradually across the ages, the church - His bride changes. She becomes more beautiful… more lovely. For 2000 years he has been preparing her… and preparation is change. Preparation is a process of removing what is not needed and adding those things which are needed. In preparation, the bride does not disappear, she is not destroyed… She is simply discovered… made beautiful by taking away those things that have obscured her beauty and adding those things which complement and enhance.
And so we stand, in this moment, and submit ourselves to preparation… to change. We lay aside the dogmas and doctrines that keep us from being beautiful… that make us less lovely. We lay aside fear… hate… judgment… arrogance… violence… and we pick up compassion… love… acceptance… faith… We include all who come and exclude none. We enlarge our tent and make room at our table for those who seek him in ways we have not experienced or have even rejected. We do not assume who can know him… who He can love. And we open our hearts and our doors to anyone being called to worship at the feet of Jesus.
May we be a community who values tradition…
May we be a community who embraces the new…
May we be a community who never comes to believe that our way is the only way…
and May we embrace every soul who comes truly seeking Christ – in whatever fashion or state they come…
May there always be room at our table. His kingdom come.