Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Friday, July 19, 2013

Everyone is welcome: making the belief a reality, 7.14.13

Acts 15:1-21
Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ 2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. 3So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.’

6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’

12 The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. 14Simeon has related how God first looked favourably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
16 “After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18known from long ago.”

19Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. 21For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.’

Galatians 2:11-16
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

14But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” 15We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
            The early church was an amazingly dynamic community. New people were coming to faith all the time and becoming a part of a community where sharing and love were a way of life. At the same time, there were disagreements, and the church was still learning what it was. We read a few weeks ago about how the Holy Spirit led Peter to Cornelius and his family to preach the good news about Jesus.

            As soon as the believers in Jerusalem heard about Peter eating with gentiles, they started to criticize him. But when he told the story of God’s Spirit clearly leading the way and of how God gave the Spirit to those gentiles before Peter had even finished speaking, they could see that God was reaching out to gentiles as well, and they praised God.

            That didn’t end the discussion, though. While the church leaders accepted that gentiles could come to faith in Jesus, some people believed that gentile believers had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses.

            That seems strange now since neither one of those things has been part of our experience as Christians. But at this point in the church’s life, Christianity was still a movement within Judaism. The church had its own leaders, but they hadn’t left the synagogue or temple. They were still Jewish, even though most Jewish leaders thought they were heretics.

            The Old Testament was the only Bible these Christians had, and when the Old Testament talks about circumcision, it is clear and non-negotiable. Israel is ordered to circumcise their sons on the eighth day after birth as a mark of their covenant with God; those who weren’t circumcised, were excluded from that covenant. Circumcision and law were the signs of the relationship with God. Without being circumcised and following the law, one was not part of the Jewish community of faith, so it makes sense that these Jewish disciples of Jesus insisted on new believers following the rules of Judaism, their community of faith.

            But Peter, Paul and Barnabas had seen that God was doing something new. It wasn’t just about bringing a few gentiles into Judaism; in Jesus God was making a new way for people to be in covenant with God. This new covenant was based only on God’s grace through Jesus Christ. These evangelists who had worked with gentile believers knew that God was calling them to follow Christ, not to follow the law of Moses.

            The church is wrestling with what it means to be part of the faith community. In this conference, the church decides that membership in the church is going to be based only on following Jesus and following a few ideas from the Law. It sounds like strange and silly detail, but the short list of rules James mentions: no sexual immorality, no animals that have been sacrificed to idols or strangled, and no blood, keeps enough of the tradition of Judaism so as not to offend, while not restricting the gentile believers unreasonably.

Even after the council, the question of how gentiles will be included in the community isn’t entirely settled. There continued to be people who taught that circumcision was required. The whole Letter to the Galatians is Paul’s response to this faction within the church.

In our case we’re just reading a small section of that letter. In that passage we see a different side of Peter than we do in the passage from Acts. In Acts Peter advocates for fully including gentiles without making them follow the Law or be circumcised. We know he risked the disapproval of his friends when he stayed with Cornelius. He wants everyone to have a place in the church.

But then Paul talks about rebuking Peter because when Peter visited the church in Antioch he started out sharing the table with gentile believers, but then pulled away from that fellowship when he felt pressure from other leaders. How do we put those two pictures together?

It seems like Peter believed in including gentiles in the church in principle, but wasn’t a hundred percent committed to deep community with them. He knew that they were equal in God’s sight, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to think of them as brothers and sisters. He wasn’t sure he wanted to get close to them. After all, they came from a different background; they had different traditions and food and habits. And Peter didn’t want to endanger his friendship with the Jewish Christians at the center of the church in Jerusalem.

In a way, Peter is acting out separate but equal. It’s fine to have gentiles in the church, but he isn’t interested in being their best friend. Paul says that’s not enough. In Christ, we are all one body. It doesn’t matter where we come from, how much money we make, what we like or don’t like. Our standing in the community doesn’t have anything to do with what we do for a living or how much we give or what kind of clothes we wear. It doesn’t matter what faith we followed before we came to Christ. All that matters is Christ. Christ’s grace is the only thing that saves us and it is the only thing that brings us into the community of faith.

That’s still a challenge in our congregation and in others. Church is part of our social life, but it’s also more than that. When we come to church we naturally have people we feel closest to, people who are close friends. And many of us have been in this congregation for years, so those church friendships have been part of our lives for decades.

That’s great. Part of the fun of coming to church is the joy of seeing people we already know and care about. It’s awesome when people we know from church become friends we see outside of church too. Some people we click with almost automatically, often because we have interests and experiences in common, and it’s fun to share those things together.

But the church is called to becoming the body of Christ. That means breaking down barriers. It means actively seeking out people we don’t know in the community and getting to know them. Not just getting to know their name, but listening to their story, sharing their experiences. It means getting outside our comfort zone every week to make new friends.

It’s hard because relationships can be awkward. Even simple things like knowing someone’s name. If you’ve seen someone in worship a few times and maybe you introduced yourself three weeks ago, you feel like you should remember their name, but you just don’t. So that feels embarrassing and it makes it hard to get to know someone better.

That might be the hardest thing about coming to a new church as a visitor or member too. If you’ve been coming to Laurelton for 5 years you already know everyone’s name who has been here a while so all you have to do when a new person appears is learn their name. That new member has to learn everyone’s name, and that’s hard to do. It can be hard for long term members to get to know new people too, partly because we already have people we want to visit with. That can be a beautiful thing, but it can also keep our community from integrating new people.

The challenge for the church is to be a community where deep relationships flourish, where we can share our true selves with one another and trust each other with personal things. At the same time we are called to be an open community where people are welcomed right in and made to feel at home regardless of where they come from or what struggles they face. Those two things don’t go together very often. Usually our relationships are either open, accessible and superficial or closed, exclusive and deep.

How do we do both at the same time? It starts with practice. It starts with looking for chances to get to know new people and really listening to each other. There are some conversations we need to have in private with particular people we trust, but in general I’d like us to actively work on including people as much as possible in our conversations and in our lives.

So today at coffee hour I encourage you to seek out someone you don’t know well. Even if you know the other person’s name and think they know yours, start by introducing yourselves so there’s no awkwardness if someone has forgotten. Listen to each other’s stories; get to know each other’s interests; find out what brought them to this church, what they like, what they don’t like.

We’re a small church. That comes with some challenges, for sure. Probably it would be easier to pay the bills if we were larger, for instance. But the cool thing about being small is that we have a great chance to get to know each other pretty well. Make it your goal to know everyone’s name by the end of August. If there’s someone in worship whose name you don’t know, find them after worship and introduce yourself.
I’d love it if we had enough new people visit during the summer to make it a challenge to learn everyone’s name. One thing we do every week in supper and scripture is start with introductions. Some weeks it feels silly because everyone there is a regular who already knows everyone, but the practice never hurts. So we’re going to try that today. We’re going to start with Alan and just go around the room. You can stand up or not, but say your name loudly and slowly. And pause after the person next to you so people have a second to absorb. As you listen, try to pay close attention. We’re not going to have a quiz, but community is better when we really know each other, and learning names is a start.

Paul writes a little later in Galatians: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That’s a deep sense of unity, a vision of barriers broken down.

We say and believe those words. We believe that everyone is welcome in the church, but for that to really mean something, for the grace of community to really transform our lives and our community, that welcome has to take shape in everyday, practical relationships. We have to welcome new people in conversation, to share our lives with each other in ever deeper ways. It starts with a simple introduction and an open ear, and leads in slow, mysterious ways to God’s kingdom.

Thanks be to God.

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