Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Birth of the Church: Building God's Beloved Community

We began this preaching series at the end - following the crucifixion, we have walked through the days of the early church, from Jesus’ appearances to his disciples to early days of conflict. Today, we remember that all are welcome in this place, and we are all part of the big picture - God’s picture of gathering all people into beloved community. We read today from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. 

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?

Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. --Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29 (NRSV)

When I first moved to southern California in 1978, I was a redneck. And I say that in the most honest and true ways. I’d grown up on a ranch. And, although I went to a boarding school for high school, I’d never really experienced life outside that context: northern European, white, rural. 

You can imagine what a culture shock Los Angeles was for me. This sense of cultural difference continued through most of the time I lived there. Even after 20 years, my life was still one of growth and transformation, set in the context of a huge, continuously changing, diverse community.

It was then that I began working at the regional body of a public sector labor union. Say or think what you may about a labor union, our primary goal was to help people understand and build power for themselves. We sometimes think that power, and amassing power, is a bad thing. But power can be used constructively. To drive social change, to improve lives, to bring about greater equity and fairness. 

The people I worked with were so diverse. In fact, I, as a white person, was in the minority. I’d never worked in a place quite like this. I’d never been in such close contact on a daily basis with people of color. African-American, Latinx, Asian, Jewish. We were a diverse group. It was here that I first tasted soul food. Or bagels with lox. Or pancit. It was an amazing multi-cultural experience. 

And, yet, there were times when it wasn’t amazing. When we clashed over cultural differences. Or over the ways in which we understood or had experienced life and the work we were doing. Sometimes this led to deep disagreement.

It’s this - this disagreement that can come from our differences - that Paul is talking about in our text today. Last week, we heard the underlying reasons for the conflict between the Jewish and Gentile believers in the churches in Galatia - what we know as present day Turkey. Paul understands that the Galatians churches have become so focused on the argument around practices of the Torah and, particularly, the practice of circumcision. He understands that the churches have become so focused on this argument that they’ve become completely distracted in their faith. That they’ve become so focused on the circumcision agenda, that they’ve forgotten what had been happening in their midst - the amazing transformation work of the Spirit. 

Paul isn’t throwing out the law. His letter is a reaction to those who are saying that the law is paramount. It’s an argument that just the law, for the sake of the law, is not faithful to God. So, Paul reaches back to Abraham and makes the point that God counted Abraham righteous, not because of the law, but because of his faith. Faith came first for Abraham, then the law. And the purpose of the law was not to bind them, but to transform them as a people, to set them apart. So that, from Abraham and his descendants - this people set apart - would come One who would fulfill the law in its entirety. And, in the process, blow the doors of God’s beloved community wide open. 

Or as one theologian puts it: The redefinition of the people of God is now complete. Before the coming of Christ that people’s pride was the law; it was the gift of God which set her apart as a special people, unlike other nations and religions. By attention to the law she sought to maintain her privileged position as the chosen of God. Then the Messiah came, and the question of who really belongs to God’s people was transformed. Christ fulfilled a promise to Abraham which had to do with the expansion of his family as a component in their heritage. The people of God no longer are determined by the law but by Christ, belonging to him, being joined to him in baptism. But to redefine God’s people in this way is to imply revolutionary consequences for the nature of the new fellowship. (Charles Cousar)

So, when Paul gets to that infamous passage - there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, Paul isn’t advocating for some massive social revolution. Instead, he is calling for the Galatian churches, separated by their differences, to remember what connects them. What unites them. And what transforms them into beloved community. It is their unity made possible only through Christ.

The distinctions don’t evaporate. They are simply left powerless. Because the distinctions are cultural constructions, not the will of God. In God through Christ, there is only oneness. And, as the people - the body - of Christ, the Galatians, and we, are called to continue this trajectory. Not of “saving souls,” but of building and expanding beloved community here. And out there.
It was unity of purpose that eventually led my co-workers and I to work through our differences. Not in a way that insisted we all be the same or do the work in the same way. But, in a unified way, even in the midst of our diversity of backgrounds, experience, ethnicity or even food.

May this be our desire for the church, which is God’s desire for the church. That, regardless of our differences, our bond to one another is in Christ. And may the Spirit continue to transform us, so that we might continue the work of expanding God’s beloved community in our time and place. Amen.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Birth of the Church: Being Radical

Last week, we heard about a conflict in the church in Antioch - a division between Jewish and Gentile Christians - that was resolved through listening and compromise at the first ecumenical council in Jerusalem.

As we near the end of the Narrative Lectionary year, we will be spending this last three weeks in Galatians - Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, including the church in Antioch. This letter provides us with a view of Paul’s perspective of the disagreement we first heard about last week. This letter is also central to our Christian faith and our understanding of the doctrine of justification. It is also a letter that is often called the Magna Carta on Christian freedom. 

So, this morning, we read in Galatians, chapters 1 and 2.

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for 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. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But 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?”

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet 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. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. --Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21 (NRSV)

Have you ever struggled with playing it safe instead of being radical? 

A few years ago in my former church in Pasadena, we experienced this. For several years, we had professed and believed that we were a hospitable congregation, welcoming all people. And, for the most part, we were.

Yet, we had a problem with the homeless population in our neighborhood. They liked to camp out overnight on the church property. Usually, though, if we gave them a little cash or let them use the phone or internet, or allowed them to stay overnight, well, eventually, they would move on. 

But, then, Monica and Vern arrived. (I’ve changed their names.) They lived in a beat up, broken-down van - a van they parked at the edge of our parking lot. Figuring they would move on as so many others had, we were polite. And helpful. And hopeful that they would eventually leave.

But, they didn’t leave. In fact, they started to push themselves into our congregation. When we opened up on Sunday morning, Vern was right there to help set up tables for morning fellowship. Both of them began coming to Sunday morning Bible study. Monica asked if she could sing in the choir. And on and on. They just continued to push their way in the

Now mind you, most congregations would be thrilled with newcomers like this. How often do we proclaim our openness to visitors and our desire for them to become a part of us? How thrilled we would be if newcomers wanted to immediately become so involved!

To be truthful, we weren’t really all that thrilled. We weren’t thrilled because Monica and Vern were so different from us. For one thing, they were homeless. For another, well, they didn’t have regular access to showers. And so, sometimes, they smelled a little. Sometimes, they smelled a lot. They didn’t always say or do the “right” things. They didn’t fit into our norm. Into our small-minded, closed-hearted norm of what our church should look like.

And so, we struggled with being radical people. With being followers of a radical Gospel that teaches us that each one of us is enough and is good enough. That God has done it all for us and for every person. That there is nothing - nothing - we need do to be made righteous. That all of us, whether Jew or Gentile, whether white or black, whether gay or straight, whether binary or non-binary, all of us are made righteous before God through Christ Jesus. That is radical.

But, that’s not all. For too long we have used language that has rejected the validity of the covenant of God with the Jewish people. Parts of this letter, written by Paul, were used in the mid-20th century as a basis to extinguish the lives of millions of people. Even Luther, in his writings, used this part of Galatians to malign the Jews.  Because in large part, we have misconstrued what Paul is saying here. 

After decades of scholarship, it is now generally recognized that first-century Jews didn’t actually think that their “right status” with God came from keeping the Torah. Instead, like us, they believed they were saved solely by God’s grace. But, they also believed that their saved status was demonstrated by their obedience to the Torah, practices that marked them as God’s people, that set them apart. 

So, when Paul writes in chapter 2 that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith, this is not a diatribe against Judaism and the keeping of the Torah. Paul was a Jew, who kept the Torah religiously. Instead, if we look in the first chapter of Galatians, verse 16, we have a clue. Here Paul notes that Jesus was revealed to be God’s Son so that he might “proclaim him among the Gentiles.” Woven into the letter to the Galatians is a key idea - that the ancient promise of God - the covenant with Abraham to bless all the families of the world through his people - is now being fulfilled by the Messiah, Jesus. Christianity is not superior to Judaism. Rather, as one theologian puts it, “Christianity exists as the gracious fulfillment of the already gracious Judaism. It is the climax of the covenant, fulfilled in Jesus, through whom, as John writes, we have received grace upon grace upon grace. The holy Scripture tells this story - of how God’s past, present and future grace goes forth from Israel to the world through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

So, when Paul opposes Peter to his face, it’s not because Peter was a legalist, attempting to earn his way into heaven. Instead, Paul is saying Peter was acting hypocritically by leading others in a way that was out of step, even contrary, to the multi-ethnic, cross-cultural, radical nature of the gospel. By refusing to eat with Gentile Christians when a faction of Jewish Christians arrived in Antioch, Peter was essentially saying that there were two classes of Christians, divided by ethnic lines. And that to be a “real” Christian, one must live according to the markers of the Torah. But, Paul was having none of that. Because Paul’s idea of justification by faith in this letter is not an individual act of inclusion, but a communal act of inclusion - bringing the non-Jews into the sect of Jesus believers. It answers the question of who’s in and who’s not. For Paul, because of the radical faithfulness of Christ, nobody is out. Everybody is in. 

Monica and Vern eventually became a beloved part of our Pasadena church. Members. We learned to live into being the radical people of love that the Gospel called us to be. And, when they decided to move on, nearly two years later, we were heartbroken to see them go. 

This is what it means to be radical people of a radical Gospel, whether we are from Galatia or Pasadena, from Goshen or Louisville. To be people reaching out by grace to grab for dear life onto the perfect divine life of Jesus Christ, given for us. To be a new creation, given a new status. Included. Transformed by grace. To love. Deeply. According to the will of our God and Father. 

To God be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Preached May 9, 2021, online with Grace & Glory Lutheran/Goshen, KY, and Third Lutheran/Louisville, KY.
Easter 6
Readings: Galatians 1:13-17, 2:11-21; Luke 18:9-14

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Birth of the Church: The Old and the New

Our story today begins with a conflict. It is a disagreement between Jesus followers over what is required for salvation.

The story last week about the Ethiopian eunuch marks a dividing point in Acts. Between the ministry that, to this point, has been primarily to Jews and those who worshipped the God of Israel, and the ministry to the Gentiles, which, in the Jewish perspective, is everyone else. 

In between last week’s and this week’s reading, we see the beginning of the church’s ministry to the Gentiles. These chapters include the conversion of Saul, who will change his name as he begins his own ministry with Barnabas, his colleague and companion. They travel to Antioch, which is a town, north of Judea, in present-day Syria.

But, it’s not only Paul and Barnabas who are preaching the Good News of Jesus to Gentiles. In Acts 10, Peter has a transformative experience. A vision that leads him to Cornelius, a Gentile, God-fearing centurion who belongs to the Italian Cohort - a unit of archers, that is based at the Roman administrative center in Caesarea. In his vision, Peter receives a message - that he is not to call anything “unclean” that God has made “clean.” It is a genesis moment for Peter, who will then, like Paul and Barnabas, begin in earnest to share the Good News with Gentiles.

But, there is a problem. A conflict. A theological question around the issue of circumcision. “How could a Gentile possibly participate in the blessings promised to the covenant people?” In short, how can Gentiles be saved, without being circumcised? The concern is not about exclusion because of race, but inclusion within God’s covenant.

Our reading is from Acts, chapter 15. 

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.” And 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. So 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. When 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. But 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.”

The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After 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. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now 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? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

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. After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,

‘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,
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 known from long ago.’ 
--Acts 15:1-18 (NRSV)

The disagreement begins in Antioch. Other apostles, presumably in good faith, have come into the community and have begun to preach that, in order for Gentiles to be saved, they must be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas get into it with these apostles. We can only imagine the argument that must have occurred. 

It is agreed among church leaders that Paul and Barnabas and a few others should go to the elder apostles of the church in Jerusalem, bringing this question. They recognize that, to require circumcision of every male believer in the Antioch church would be viewed as culturally inappropriate - an act of mutilation. 

So, Paul and Barnabas and the others go. As they travel south, going through other Gentile countries, they begin to witness how broadly the Holy Spirit has been at work. By the time they reach Jerusalem they are overjoyed with what they have seen on their travels. The council in Jerusalem also rejoice over this news. Except for a few, who continue to insist that the Gentile believers must be circumcised.

Notice what happens next. Paul and Barnabas and Peter don’t simply write off the council in Jerusalem. Instead, they honor this relationship. And together enter into dialogue about what to do.

Peter begins. Reminding them of his earlier revelation from God and his experience with Cornelius. He argues from a position of grace - of inclusive grace - that there is no difference between “them” and “us” - between the Jewish and Gentile believers. That, if the leadership requires the same yoke of circumcision on the Gentiles they will not simply be burdening them, but will be putting God to the test. Because it is clear to them that God, through the Holy Spirit, has been at work among these believers.

The leaders are silent. They do not interrupt or disagree. They simply listen to Peter’s argument. Then, Paul and Barnabas share their experiences. What they have been witness to in their ministry. The signs and wonders that God has been doing in the midst of these Gentile communities.

When they finish, notice what happens next. Each side makes concessions for the sake of unity. No longer will circumcision be required for Gentiles believers. Yet, these same believers will be required to engage in certain practices that all believers - Jewish and Gentile - will be compelled to follow.

What’s the lesson for us in this text? Perhaps it's that none of our own experiences are better or worse than any others - they are just different. We all come to faith in our own ways. We come with different histories, perspectives, and expectations. These different perceptions are not right or wrong - they just are. It’s part of the joy and the frustration of bringing people together. Yet, when we learn to listen to each other, to our leadership, and to the Word of God, and we are all working on the same goal - sharing the Good News of life through Jesus - we can learn to work together, despite our differences.

What are the yokes we need to shed? How are we constraining the work of the Holy Spirit? As we begin to move out of pandemic life, these are questions that we must be asking. And, like the early church, may we err on the side of grace, inclusiveness, love, and unity. Because these are the markers of the church. These are the markers of God. Yesterday, today, forever. Amen.

Preached May 9, 2021, online with Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, KY, and Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
Easter 5
Readings: Acts 15:1-18, Luke Luke 2:29-32