Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Us and Them Problem

Fifth Sunday of Easter – Year C (RCL)
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 2:1-6; John 13:31-35
Sunday, May 2, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

“If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)

The Church has always struggled with an “us and them” problem. At any given point in time, there has been a fence around the church, keeping “them” out, and keeping “us” safe from “their” influence. Those who comprise “them” has varied over the years. People of a particular nationality, persons of color, female clergy, gays and lesbians, the poor, just to name a few. Such division is not new to the Church. In fact, we can trace it back to day one. And our reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows us how the early church dealt with the original “us and them” problem.

In the early days of the church, and we’re literally talking days, there were already factions among those who followed Jesus. The very first Christians were originally Jewish. Early on, tension arose between the Jewish Christians and Gentiles who were beginning to believe in Jesus Christ. Specifically, the tension was over what was required to become a follower of Christ. Many of the Jewish Christians felt that one first needed to convert to Judaism and follow the Jewish laws and ritual practices. Others didn’t feel that this was important, that one could believe in Christ without being Jewish. It was all about defining who’s in and who’s out.

Today’s story has Peter, leader of the Jewish Christian community, embroiled in this very issue as he faces criticism for being in fellowship with Gentile Christians. The criticism levied against him is in reference to what is documented in the previous chapter of Acts, where Peter baptizes Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his household. And then following the baptism, Peter stays for the reception, eating and consorting with Gentiles, thereby going against Jewish purity laws. Not only that, but in eating with Gentiles, Peter is not only accepting their hospitality, but is also giving tacit approval to their beliefs and practices – their non-Jewish beliefs and practices.

Now I don’t think the other leaders of the Jewish Christian community, the ones criticizing Peter, were against the baptism of Gentiles. That wasn’t the issue. After all, Jesus, before his ascension, commanded them to spread the gospel to the whole world, including the rite of baptism as the means for inclusion in the Body of Christ. Peter was doing just that when he baptized Cornelius and his family. That event was the start of mission to the Gentile world, the mission Jesus had given the disciples. No, what was happening was that the leaders of the church got hung up on the details, on the minutia, of what it meant to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles. As a result, they missed the point.

Fortunately, Peter could relate to what they were struggling with. He himself had the same struggles just before his encounter with Cornelius. And to help his colleagues out, he relates to them his own struggle with this very issue. He tells them of a vision he had, in which a sheet came down from heaven with all sorts of animals on it. In the vision, God commands him to eat of these animals. When Peter objects, citing that to do so would violate Jewish dietary laws, God counters with the statement, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter immediately understands that the message God is conveying is not about dietary laws per se, but about inclusion – that he wishes all to be included in the church, Jews and Gentiles alike. And with that new understanding, Peter went and baptized Cornelius and his household, welcoming them into the Body of Christ.

This scene of Peter’s vision was obviously of importance to the early church because it is told not just once, but twice. The 10th chapter of Acts contains the first telling of the vision, in real time, as it were. And then in today’s reading from the 11th chapter, Peter retells his vision from a week previous for the benefit of his colleagues. This vision is worthy of repetition in our sacred writings because it was a pivotal moment in the life of the early church, for several reasons. One, it is important precisely because of the intended message – that all are welcomed at the table, Jews and Gentiles alike. And two, because of the process. The various sides in the issue, while holding definite notions about how things should be done, did not become entrenched in their positions. They were open to listening – listening to each other, and listening for the Spirit to guide them. They were genuinely open to discernment of the course of action that would be in keeping with their purpose, with the central message that Jesus Christ proclaimed – that all are welcomed here.

Because of the genuine listening, the willingness to suspend personal agendas, and the willingness to enter into a process of discernment, the leadership of the Jewish Christian community was able to experience a change of heart and mind, just as a week earlier Peter had experienced a change of heart and mind. In fact, it was because of Peter’s witness to the transformation that he had experienced that the other leaders were able to do likewise. This openness to listening, to discernment of the Spirit, to discernment of God’s voice, was the basis for making a decision that would change the face of the early Christian religion, forever altering the course that it would take.

Despite the struggles of our forebears, the Church has not completely learned the lessons contained in those events. As a whole, the Church and the various expressions thereof have continued along the path initially embarked upon by Peter’s critics. Just as they got hung up on who’s in and who’s out, just as they got hung up on the details and the minutia of what it means to worship the “right way,” just as they got hung up on what specifically one had to believe in order to be part of the “true” faith, so have we been guilty throughout the two thousand years of our history.

But rather than beat ourselves up over it, what we need to do is step back and take a look at the lessons of the early church, and re-learn what they have to teach us. And there are two specifics contained in today’s scripture readings that we should heed.

The first comes from the Gospel reading from John. Jesus tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” Loving one another means that we don’t get hung up on who’s in and who’s out, because we recognize that all are welcomed at the table. Loving one another means that we don’t get hung up on the details and the minutia, because that’s not what’s important. Rather than get hung up on, obsessing about, and worshiping the specific way we do things, rather than obsessing about and worshiping our own agendas and preconceived notions, we need to focus on the essentials. And when it comes to living our faith, Jesus’ commandment that we love one another is about as essential as it gets. In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind; and that we are to love our your neighbor as yourself. This is the core. All else flows from this message. If we just try to do that, everything else will take care of itself.

This should be obvious. Yet I am amazed at how often the subject comes up in one way or another. Just this past week, the struggle with this concept came up three times in just one day – in discussions at two Eucharists and one Bible study, all involving different readings, different people, different contexts. But the discussion always came around to the essentials of faith and the necessity of focusing on what is truly important and not obsessing about the extra trappings.

The second lesson from the early church is how they dealt with disagreement. In our own time, we tend to deal with disagreements through debate. Each side attempts to present their best arguments, substantiated by all sorts of Biblical evidence and theological justifications. Well that just doesn’t work most of the time. If anything, argument and debate only serve to solidify differences, to cause us to become more entrenched in our own positions, more determined to prove ourselves right. But that wasn’t how the early church operated, at least not the model for church lifted up in Acts 11. Peter didn’t present theological debates about why the church should include Gentiles. Instead, he told a story. Why? Because stories invite people into the process. Stories show how God has worked in our lives, and those hearing the stories may be able to relate them to their own lives and experiences. And when we look at our lives and experiences, we find that, regardless of our positions on various issues, we are not so different after all. We find that we share core values and beliefs, and that the other trappings are not that important in the grand scheme of things.

Remember, when confronted with disagreements, Jesus did not use debate or theological arguments. He used parables, stories, to make his point. Because stories change lives, arguments do not. Stories allow for the finding of common ground, while debates only serve to divide and to perpetuate separation. This is because debate comes from within ourselves, born of our own motives and agendas, whereas story and discernment come from outside ourselves, born of the desire for clarity and openness. Debate makes no room for God. Story and discernment make room for God to work. As one pastor notes, “If we would only learn to be story tellers and tell compelling stories . . . we could leave the rest up to the Spirit who takes up where stories end” (Jones, 455).

As we continue to grow and to expand our mission and ministry out into the world, we may at times be confronted with some of the same issues as the early church – to become obsessed with identifying who’s in and who’s out, to get hung up on inconsequential details and minutia because it can seem safer and less messy for “us” than dealing with “them” out there. Instead, we need to refocus, remembering what is essential – love of God and love of neighbor – and to recall our own stories of how God and neighbor have been at work in our own lives, to share those stories, and then to step back and let the Spirit guide us where it will. For who are we that we could hinder God?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Stephen D. Jones. “Acts 11:1-18, Homiletical Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, Volume 2, Lent Through Eastertide. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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