Church on Fire: Know Your Mission

Scripture: Acts 20:17-38

First things first:

I have to say a word about some of the language in this passage, specifically Paul’s reference to the trails he endured because of “the plots of the Jews.”  We come across language like this not infrequently in the New Testament, where “the Jews” as a group are blamed for something in particular; the Gospel of John is a good place to go for it. This kind of language has also been the basis of Christians demonizing Jews a lot over the years.

I cringe when I come across passages like this one in the Bible, because we don’t always have the context we need to be able to interpret them well, and when we don’t interpret the Bible well, we can use it for some bad stuff.  So, especially this week, when the news has been full of neo-Nazis and swastikas, I want to provide some context.

In this passage, Paul says he endured trials because of “the plots of the Jews.” But Paul is a Jew.  Paul has always been a Jew and Paul never stopped being a Jew when he became a follower of Jesus.  Anything Paul says about Jews is also as one.  Any feud there is a family feud, and we all know it’s different to say something about your own family than it is for an outsider to say those things.

Luke, the author of Acts, may or may not be a Jew.  By the time he is writing his Gospel and its sequel, Acts, sometime between 70 and 90 CE, Christians and Jews have become two separate groups, but the wounds are fresh.  There’s also a lot of pressure for Christians to prove to the Roman Empire that they are not a threat to the government or social order, and in the process of doing so, maybe some blame gets cast elsewhere – even though the Romans give Paul plenty of trouble too.  Paul’s troubles, as well as Jesus’s, have a lot less to do with any specific group of people and a lot more to do with the fact that people are people, then and now, and we are fallen and broken and self-centered and afraid.

Few of us who are Christians today would now call or would ever have called ourselves Jews.  We are the majority religion in the most powerful country in the world, and we hold social power in a way that neither Christians nor Jews ever did in the first century – though I know it may seem to many of you that that social power we hold is shrinking, and maybe it is.  The point is, we can’t take language that comes out of one specific context a long time ago and carelessly use it today.

So if you also cringed to hear words like “the plots of the Jews,” I hope that helps.  If you didn’t, then I still hope it is a cautionary reminder against repeating language like that or otherwise lumping Jews together in a group to blame for things.

The overarching point, of course, is that whenever the Bible is used to demonize any group of people – whether Jews, black people, gay people, Muslims, whoever – whenever the Bible is used to make them “the other,” to blame them as a group for various social ills – whenever that happens, it makes baby Jesus cry. Because then we have colossally missed the point.

As long as we’re clear on that, let’s move on.

Last week, the apostle Paul got thrown in prison in Philippi and narrowly escaped a riot he indirectly caused in Ephesus.  Preaching the gospel and living it out, as I said last week, can get you in trouble like that sometimes.

When Paul leaves Ephesus, he travels around a bit.  Back to Macedonia for a while.  Back to Asia Minor again.  He and his group make a tour of cities on the west coast of Asia Minor, until he ends up back in a town 30 miles south of Ephesus called Miletus.  From there, he sends for the leaders of his Ephesian church to come meet him.  It’s not totally clear why he can’t meet them in Ephesus itself – but I guess we can only imagine.  There in Miletus, Paul delivers a farewell address.  After this it’s off to Jerusalem, where he hopes to make it by Pentecost.  And after that, if he gets the chance, it’s on to Rome.  We know only that the Spirit has told him it’s time to go.

There with his Ephesian church leaders gathered around him, Paul recaps the important parts of his ministry with them – how he lived among them, how he shared of himself, how he held nothing back, even in the midst of the trials he faced, and how he ministered to both Jews and Greeks.  He tells them he doesn’t know what will happen in Jerusalem, but he does know it will be dangerous, because every place is dangerous for Paul, now.  But, he tells them that that doesn’t matter.  There is nothing more important to Paul than carrying out his God-given mission: “to testify to the good news of God’s grace.”

This summer the clergy on our district were supposed to read a book about Christian leadership in changing times.  It was called Canoeing the Mountains.  In one chapter, the author talked about the importance of having a clear mission- not just for a church, but as a person.  He said you had to be able to express your mission in eight words.  No frills, just start with a verb and say what you are there to do.  This mission, then, is your guiding principle.  The mission is your most important thing, even when there are risks to be taken and sacrifices to be made.

I realized that in this passage, Paul has actually done that perfectly.  “Testify to the good news of God’s grace.”  Eight words.  That’s Paul’s mission, and that’s his most important thing, the thing that relativizes everything else, even risk and sacrifice, even death and suffering.

And through the book of Acts, from Damascus Road on, that is what Paul has done.  He’s testified to the good news of God’s grace by preaching in the synagogues.  He’s testified to the good news of God’s grace by meeting in people’s homes.  He’s testified to the good news of God’s grace by proclaiming the story of Jesus in town squares.  He’s testified to the good news of God’s grace by healing people and setting them free.  He’s testified to the good news of God’s grace in prison.  He’s testified to the good news of God’s grace by telling his own story: that he was a sinner, the worst of sinners, and God redeemed even him.

And yes, Paul has faced danger.  And yes, Paul has suffered hardship.  And no, Paul doesn’t know what is going to happen next.

But Paul knows his mission.  He knows the job that God has given him to do, and come hell or high water, he’s going to do it.

How many of us can say we have that kind of clarity?

At the clergy meeting a few weeks ago where we discussed this leadership book, we got a chance to go around the table and share our own personal missions.  I admit that I lack some of Paul’s clarity.  “Make people think about Scripture in new ways,” I said at first, when it was my turn around the table in the clergy meeting.  But that didn’t quite capture it – after all, it doesn’t do much good to get people to think differently if it doesn’t get anyone to act differently. “Serve others and inspire others to serve,” maybe?  “Help build God’s Kingdom in my community”?  These are all things that came to mind.

I’m not sure I’ve ever really been invited or challenged to think this way before.  I’ve thought about it for the church.  “The mission of Arlington Temple is to be a welcoming community called by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and equipped to be God’s people in the world.”  OK, that’s more than eight words.  (What if we shortened it?  “Equip people to be God’s people in the world.”  That’s nine…)  And I’ve thought about it in the context of the denomination: “”To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

And I’ve thought about call, that churchy word we use for the work that God has for us to do.  It’s just that call can be kind of a nebulous concept, a divine puzzle to figure out over time.  But mission is now.    What am I here to do?  What is my most important thing?  What am I willing to take risks and sacrifice for?

Or as I put it a little while ago on Pentecost – what sets you on fire?

It strikes me as not a bad thing to be able to put into words.  Give or take eight of them.  It strikes me, in fact, now that I think of it, as a pretty good thing to have some clarity on – so I can make sure that’s what I’m living out.

How about you?  What’s yours?

Of course, any old eight-word mission we might come up isn’t necessarily going to be religious in nature.  Neo-Nazis have a mission, too.  Or we might come up with something positive, but mostly for ourselves.  So if I were going to leave it there, this wouldn’t be a sermon.  It would be a TED talk.  That’s why once you come up with your personal mission, I’m going to give you a question to test it by – “Does it glorify God?”

To use Paul’s language – does it testify, in some way, to the good news of God’s grace?

If not, it may be time for a new mission.

I’ve been thinking this week that in the midst of everything going on, with our country in crisis mode, with tragedy striking across the world, with the reemergence of Nazis and the KKK into the mainstream of our national dialogue in a way that uncovers the culture of white supremacy that has always been lurking under the surface – sometimes not very far – it’s a good week to be thinking about this.  It’s a good week to decide what we are about in the midst of the pain of the world around us.

What is our mission – what is your mission – in the midst of this pain?  It’s a start, but not enough, to refrain from using the Bible to demonize groups of people, as I mentioned before.  How are you committed to testifying to God’s grace in a relevant way in the midst of hate?  How are you going to testify to God’s love for all of God’s children and the fact that every one of us, no matter the color of our skin, is made in the image of the same God?  How are you working to build a world where those are not just nice words we say but the reality we live?  How are you committed to genuine reflection on how you, a fallen and broken and fearful person like all of us are, may be part of the problem?

The world around us needs some good news right now, and I don’t believe that we can afford to be mission-less in the midst of it.

God is working through us to redeem this broken world.  What is your mission?  Will you claim your part in that?

 

Church on Fire: The Disruptive Gospel

Scripture: Acts 19:23-41 (Acts 16:16-40)

We’re going to get to the story we just heard from Acts 19, but first I want to back up a couple chapters to another story about one of Paul’s many adventures.  This story takes place just after Paul meets Lydia – who you may remember from last week as the Philippian businesswoman who starts the first European house church.  Paul and his companions remain in Philippi for a little while, staying with Lydia, and while they are there they meet a certain woman who happens to be of a very different status from their hostess: this woman is a slave.

She’s also possessed by a spirit that somehow gives her the power to predict the future, so her owners use her to tell people’s fortunes and they make a tidy little profit off of that.  When Paul and Silas meet her, something about this spirit immediately picks up on the presence an outside spiritual power, and the woman follows them around Philippi shouting “These men are servants of the Most High God!  They are preaching a way of salvation!”  The text says this happened for many days, which presumably got old quickly.

At some point Paul gets so exasperated that he just turns around and yells, “In the name of Jesus Christ, stop it!” and the spirit leaves the woman.  It’s a happy ending, except for – who?  The woman’s owners, who find their share prices suddenly taking a dive.

So they drag Paul and Silas before the local authorities.  Only it maybe doesn’t sound so great to try to charge them and throw them in jail for exorcising a spirit, so instead, they accuse the religious-minority Paul and Silas of un-Roman activities.  This kind of fear sells, of course, and Paul and Silas end up in jail.

Paul and Silas do get the last word in this little episode.  Late that night as they are praying and singing hymns in their prison cell, there is a great earthquake, and all the cell doors swing open and their chains fall off.  When the jailkeeper sees this he thinks he’s lost all his prisoners and is ready to kill himself, but when he realized they’re still there, he ends up getting saved instead.

I admit it might have been nice if Paul had gotten rid of that spirit more for the sake of healing the slave woman and less just because it got on his last nerve.  Still, no matter what Paul’s motives, Jesus was at work.  In the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he stood up and read from Isaiah in the synagogue, he said: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me…He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release of the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind; to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  That day in Philippi, those words were still true.  This is, then and now, the power of the Gospel.

We also learn in this story that the Gospel, at times, has the tendency to cut into the profit margins of the economic powers that be.  This will be important.

Fast forward a couple of chapters and the missionary team is now in the city of Ephesus.  Here, again, Paul finds himself in trouble, which will be a recurring theme for the rest of Acts.  Things get interesting quickly in Ephesus – we learn, for example, that even a small towel that touches Paul and then is taken to a sick person has the power to heal people.  Also, a number of people who previously practiced sorcery come to believe in Jesus, and hold a huge bonfire where they burn all their old sorcery texts.   All eye-catching, to be sure, but it’s a silversmith named Demetrius who decides that Paul is a threat to society.  Paul is going around preaching the Gospel, telling everyone that new life and hope can be found in Jesus, but Demetrius makes shrines to the goddess Artemis.  Artmesis’s temple was in Ephesus and it was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and she was not only the patron goddess of the city but also, as it turns out, the patron goddess of banking.  Demetrius see the writing on the wall and figure if everyone in Ephesus starts worshiping the one God we know in Jesus, there might not be much of a market for Artemis shrines anymore, and then he and a bunch of his fellow craftsmen are out of a job.

So he gathers his fellow craftsmen and riles them up real good.  “We can’t let this happen!” he says.  “It’s not just about our profits – I mean, it is a little bit about our profits – but we can’t let this happen to Artemis!”  Everyone yells and cheers – “Make Artemis great again!” and before you know it, there’s a full-scale riot going on in downtown Ephesus.

Paul is persuaded by his friends to lay low as all of this is going on, and eventually the city manager shuts the whole thing down and tells the people to take it to court.

Sometimes (I think) we think – though we probably wouldn’t put it in so many words – that being a good Christian means something like being a good citizen, if being a good citizen means something like living a nice, quiet life, helping little old ladies cross the street, picking up litter sometimes, and generally not making waves.  If we do these things then we are pretty well following the path of Jesus.

Not if we read Acts.

Sometimes I think we need a reminder that while there’s certainly nothing wrong with picking up litter or helping little old ladies cross the street, being a good Christian and being a so-called good citizen are not, in fact, the same thing.  Sometimes, following the way of Jesus and proclaiming the Gospel will butt heads with the very values a society is built on.

That’s true, of course, in places across the world where simply to go to church or profess faith in Jesus can get you in trouble – and there are those places.  But it’s also what happens when we look at aspects of our society and dare to say, “God won’t stand for this.” For Paul in these stories, the problem isn’t talking about Jesus.  The problem is that these societies are built on power and profit, and Jesus threatens those things.

The Gospel has the power to disrupt our community life as we know it.  If we’re following Jesus, we “good citizens” should probably be prepared to make and get into a little trouble.

Does that sound like something you signed up for?

I have to tell you that I wrote much of this sermon yesterday, at Jon’s parents’ house where the internet is pretty sketchy.  Then as we drove home and came back into civilization, I started reading my Facebook news feed in horror about everything that had taken place in Charlottesville that day.

As you know, yesterday white nationalists marched on Charlottesville, protesting a decision to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee in a local park.  In the morning, they surrounded a downtown church where people were gathered, in response, for an interfaith prayer service.  It was pointed out that this Klan-type group didn’t even feel the need to wear hoods.  Somehow, militant racists don’t feel like they have to be anonymous these days.  Street violence broke out between the white nationalists and counter-protestors.  Later that afternoon, a car drove into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing at least one person and injuring many others.  This was all two hours south of here.  (Was anyone there?)

You know, I’ve always liked to imagine myself as someone, if I had lived during the 60s, who would have joined the Freedom Riders. I would have been one of those religious leaders you see in the pictures who locked arms with Martin Luther King – never mind that none of them were women at the time – and I would have faced the water cannons and bravely gone to jail. In these ways I would have let the Gospel which says that all people are created in the image of God come to life in my life.

I like to imagine that, but a week or so ago, Bishop Lewis sent an email out to clergy asking us to be there, be physically present if possible.  I read the email and didn’t dismiss it, but Jon and I had plans to go to his parents’ this weekend already.  Besides, having the baby always complicates these things, and besides, this is DC and there is always a protest or counter-protest going on, which I will very occasionally attend.  So it wasn’t something I gave that much thought to.  I confess that what was happening there was a lot bigger than I realized.  So I wasn’t there yesterday.  Some of my friends were, and I am thankful for their witness.  They may not have caused a riot like Paul did, but they willingly walked into one. They did so to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of love and justice, the Gospel that sets all of us free from both the power others wield over us and the power we wield over others.  They did so to say racism is evil and God won’t stand for it.  They did so to live out their baptismal vows: to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

I’ve heard people say that if you’ve ever wondered if you would have been a part of the civil rights movement back then, the best indication is whether you are part of it now.  That always gives me pause.

It’s not about one day, but to be honest, I think I could sometimes let my living out of the Gospel be a little more disruptive.

That’s not to say that I or anyone else missed their chance.  Because at the same time showing up at a protest or counter-protest can be a way to preach the Gospel, we can’t be fooled into thinking that racism in our society is mostly represented by people carrying torches.  That is too easy to denounce – though that kind of blatant racism does seem to be making a comeback these days.   Still, far more often, racism is simply embedded in the world as we know it.  It’s who gets called back for a second interview.  It’s how people fare in the hands of police.  It’s who gets labeled as beautiful.  It’s who has economic power.  Remember what got Paul in trouble wasn’t instigating anything but living and preaching in a way that poked at the values of a society, and specifically the profit and privilege of the people in power.  God wants to disrupt all of that.  God has work for us to do preaching and living out a Gospel that exposes all of those things as a lie.

God has plenty of chances for us, in plenty of ways, to disrupt a culture of fear, hatred, greed, exploitation, and discrimination by instead proclaiming a Gospel of hope, love, justice and grace – out loud.  And if we do it right, it might get us in trouble.

Again, Paul isn’t starting any demonstrations in these stories; he’s just proclaiming the Gospel in word and in action, in preaching and healing.  It’s just that as it turns out, the Gospel is a disruptive force.  Love is a disruptive force.  Justice is a disruptive force.  Healing is a disruptive force. Peace is a disruptive force.  Paul doesn’t set out to start a riot or go to jail but neither does he shy away from living out the Gospel, even when that tears at the fabric of a society held together by greed, exploitation, and carefully manipulated fear.

That’s an important distinction, because there is a danger here, and that is that we might make it more about us than about Jesus.  We might think that the more waves we’re making, the better we’re doing; we may want to be a martyr.  In these days when it’s cool to “resist”, it’s worth examining our motives: how much am I trying to follow the hard and risky call of Jesus to proclaim God’s reign of love and justice, and how much do I mainly want to put that selfie with the protest sign on Instagram for everyone to see?  I ask that because it is a temptation I have struggled with.

Maybe a good question is this: how much have we let this disruptive Gospel first disrupt us?

Have we let Jesus challenge both our pride and our complacency?  Have we let him challenge both the fear that holds us back and the desire for glory that makes it about us, or the need to be part of something bigger that isn’t of God?  Have we let him disrupt this idea of the Christian as a “good citizen” with the call to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God?

On the other hand, if we’re not quite sure our motives are pure, that’s hardly an excuse for doing nothing.

How does Paul do it?  How is it possible for him to keep facing the trouble that he knows awaits as he takes the Gospel to new places?  How does he remain faithful in the midst of it all?

Well, Paul knows there’s something bigger.  He knows that God’s promise is true: that love really does win over fear, and grace really does win over greed, and liberation really does win over oppression, and life really does win over death.  He knows because he’s experienced it for himself.

And with that he’s ready to walk out into the world and say so – come what may.

Church on Fire: Holy Conversation

Scripture: Acts 16:11-15

The other day I was driving along Route 50 when, at a certain intersection, I heard a strange noise.  I realized that it was a guy shouting, and I realized a minute later that he was shouting about Jesus.  I was intrigued, but the light turned green and I didn’t have a chance to catch much of what he was saying.  It was probably for the best.  As I drove away I thought, well, there’s how not to do evangelism.

The truth is, though, that if we read the book of Acts, evangelism often actually looks a lot like that.  Peter delivers a sermon out a window on Pentecost to open-jawed crowds on the street below.   Stephen gives a long and passionate sermon just before he is stoned to death. Paul preaches to the Athenians in the marketplace about their unknown god and how he can tell them who that God is.  It’s the bullhorn-wielding, shouting-guy street preaching of the first century.  (Maybe the apostles are a little more coherent than the guy on Route 50 – I didn’t really get a chance to find out.)

It seems to work out great for the apostles in a lot of cases.  People hear their message and join the church and the Holy Spirit adds to the number of believers day by day.   But if Acts is supposed to provide us modern-day followers of Jesus with a model for our own discipleship, the thought of doing something similar is probably enough to make our hearts melt in fear.  Especially for those of us who have grown up in the mainline church (so – your Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, United-Church-of-Christ-ians.)

If so, I have some good news for you today: that’s not the only way the Gospel gets shared in Acts.  For example, a couple weeks ago we heard the Ethiopian eunuch, who asked Philip for help interpreting the book of Isaiah, and Philip answered his questions and helped him understand what he was reading.  We have the story of Cornelius, the Gentile God-fearer whose house Peter teaches a Bible study in.  And, today, we have the story of Lydia.

Lydia’s story isn’t very flashy or miraculous, but that’s kind of the point.

By this time in the story Paul and his partner-in-crime Barnabas have parted ways, and Paul has teamed up with Silas and Timothy as his new missionary companions.  They are traveling around Asia Minor, showing up in synagogues and telling people about Jesus and starting churches wherever they go. Then one night, Paul has a vision.  In his vision a man from Macedonia says, “Come to Macedonia and help us!”  So the next morning Paul and Silas and Timothy pack up their bags and are off to Macedonia to proclaim the Gospel there, in the city of Philippi.

Paul and the others take a couple days to get their bearings in the city, and then on the Sabbath they wander around looking for “a place of prayer,” possibly the local synagogue, and they wander outside the city gate to the riverbank.  They don’t find a synagogue there, but they do find some women.  The implication might be that these women have gathered for prayer, but the text doesn’t explicitly say that.  People gathered at the city gates for all sort of things back in the day.

Paul and his companions meet this group of women, and they sit down and talk.

Now to be fair, knowing Paul, I’m sure that Paul is doing a lot of the talking and the women are doing a lot of the listening, but still.  This is no bullhorn-wielding, street-preaching sermon.  This is…what we might call…something resembling…a conversation.

One of the women gathered there outside the city is Lydia.  She, like, Cornelius, is a Gentile God-fearer.  She’s also a businesswoman, who sells purple cloth from the textile city of Thyatira to the uppity-ups of Philippi.  She is clearly a woman of some means, and as far as we can tell, she’s head of her own household, not tied to a husband or a father or any other man.  And she will, by the end of this short story, become the head of the first household church in Europe – the church of the Philippians – a church born of some holy conversation.

When you put it that way, maybe this whole “evangelism” thing starts to sound a little less scary.  It’s not bullhorn street preaching, not knocking on doors, not handing out tracts – it’s – just – having a conversation.

Or, you know, maybe that doesn’t actually sound less intimidating at all.  Because while I know that all of us here come from many different kinds of church backgrounds with many different experiences, we Methodists and other mainline Christians are generally really really bad at talking about our faith, even in conversation.  Even as a pastor, I include myself in that.  It’s fine to stand here and preach every Sunday to a group of people who more or less signed up to hear about Jesus.  But when it comes to talking about Jesus and God and my faith and what I believe and how God has worked in my life out in the wild – I suddenly get all shy.

I was talking about this with some colleagues the other day and one said, “Why is it that we have an easier time telling someone about our favorite laundry detergent than about our faith?”

[Question – what makes it hard to talk about our faith in public?]

Like I said, talking about my faith is often hard for me too.  But I discovered at one point in my life that I am actually an evangelist – about running.

I am a convert to running.  As a kid, I hated running probably more than anything else in the world.  I cried when we had to run the mile in gym class.  I cried and then came in last.  But then in high school I joined the rowing team, and we had to run some, and then I started running more on our off seasons to stay in shape.  And at some point, though I honestly don’t know when it was, I decided I loved running.    Or at least I had a genuine love-hate relationship with it.  I started running in races.  I still wasn’t fast, but I was only racing myself.  I started running longer races, from 5Ks to 10Ks to half marathons and even a couple marathons.  I lost weight.  I got in shape.  I was working toward and achieving goals, things I never thought I could do.

I got so energized about running these races that I told people about it.  And if they showed any interest I invited them to run them with me.  “It doesn’t matter if you’re not really a runner,” I would say.  “Neither am I.  If I can do it, anyone can do it.” I mean, I wasn’t pushy about it – it didn’t really matter if they ran or not, in the end – but running changed my life, and if people knew me, they knew that.

Once I stayed at a friend’s house the night before a race in Virginia Beach, and she told me she was thinking about starting to run.  I was surprised, because she had never shown an interest in running before.  So I said, “Really?” And she said, “Yeah, you just talked about how you loved it so much.”

For a moment I was proud, because it was my story that had gotten her excited about something I was excited about.  And then the next moment I felt convicted, because rarely if ever do I have that kind of conversation about my faith.

But it did teach me something about evangelism, which is that sometimes the best kind is talking honestly and naturally, just putting words to who I am and why.  Sometimes evangelism is nothing more than being able to tell my own story.  How did I get here?  What do I believe?  Why?

And yet I think that can still be hard for many of us.  For one thing, I suppose it’s more socially acceptable to talk about running; I’m not worried about making someone uncomfortable.  But for another – I’m not a convert to Christianity, strictly speaking.  I grew up in church and it was always an important part of my life.  Those stories are a little harder to tell, maybe even to ourselves.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet four or five times with some Mormon missionaries.  I know a lot of people try to avoid situations like that but I had actually never been approached by Mormon missionaries before and I was really excited to learn more about their faith and what they were up to – with no intention of converting, of course, which I told them upfront and I think they ignored.

I’ll be honest, there were a lot of things that I would not want to replicate or advise you to replicate about that evangelism experience.  But I had to give them this – they knew their stuff.  If you asked them for their story or about their beliefs, they had an answer for you.  It was frankly often too pat of an answer for me.  But I couldn’t help but wonder how much my fellow United Methodists – how much I, even, might be at a loss for words when asked the same things.

Especially for those of us who grew up Christian, how much do we really think about our own stories of faith?  How much do we think about what we believe and why?  Enough to have a real conversation about it?  We don’t even have to initiate the conversation – do we have the tools we need to at least not shy away from it when it actually comes up?  When it’s relevant?

Last year we had an event after worship where we talked some about being out in our community and reaching our neighbors, and then sent everyone out with fliers, and one of the comments someone made during that session was precisely that when it came to talking about our faith, maybe they – maybe we – could use some help.  So even though it’s been a while, it’s been on my mind since then to do just that.  That’s why for the next two weeks after worship – starting next week – we’re going to have a two-session workshop on Holy Conversation.  It’s a chance to think intentionally about our stories and what we believe AND to practice talking about it, here in a safe space, with each other.

One way we’re beginning to practice that already is by naming, at the beginning of our prayer time, how we’ve seen God at work in the past week.  If we’re going to be able to talk about it outside of church, it helps to start inside of church, intentionally recognizing these things and being able to put them into words.

Here’s a question – what do you think made Paul travel all over the world sharing the good news of what God had done in Jesus?

Because he was passionate about it, right?  Because he felt the fire of the Holy Spirit in his bones.  He knew who he had been before he met Jesus and he knew who he was after and he knew what a difference this had made in his life and he knew what a difference the Gospel could make for the world and this was the kind of thing that begged to be talked about.

Can you talk about why Jesus is meaningful to you?  Why are you here this morning, instead of at brunch?  There’s some reason there – can you put it in words?

I’ve been more aware, since I discovered I was a running evangelist, about how I talk about my faith in my own life, and especially how I do or don’t shy away from it.  I’ve tried to be a little more bold – not  necessarily in starting conversations about religion with people who don’t want to have them, but in being honest about who I am, not trying to water it down so no one gets uncomfortable.  For example, when someone asks me why I became a pastor, I might be tempted to say something wishy-washy like I want to make the world a better place – pretty unobjectionable – but instead I take a deep breath and tell them about how I felt God calling me.  Or like when a friend who is not religious but who loves Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat asked me what I made of the story, I told her how I saw God working through the whole thing, not by causing something bad to happen so something good could happen, but by working to bring good out of the bad that broken humans do.

If our faith is part of who we are, then the opportunities will be there to talk about it, if we’re willing.

You don’t have to have all the answers.  You just have to be ready to tell your own story – and have a conversation.

Nor do you really have to worry about the response.  No one’s keeping track of how many people you converted.  Maybe you’ll talk about your faith and there will be an awkward silence and a change of subject.  Or maybe your conversation partner will ask a question.  And then maybe you’ll ask them what they believe.  Maybe it will lead somewhere, and maybe it won’t.  Even in Acts, we read that the Holy Spirit opened Lydia’s ears to Paul’s message.  It’s not really up to us.

But who knows.  Maybe once in a while we will meet a Lydia of our own, who will end up bringing other people to Jesus, whose lives will be changed by God’s love and mercy just as hers was.  The Holy Spirit works that way, sometimes.

But that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.  Our job is the holy conversation.

 

*The term “Holy Conversation” comes from a book of the same title by Richard Peace.

 

 

A Life in Mission

Scripture: Acts 11:19-26

If you’ve been following along with our series on Acts this summer, you may notice that today we’re backtracking a little.  Today’s reading takes us back to not long after Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.  There is a growing church in Antioch, in Syria, which was started by believers who went there once Jesus-followers started to be persecuted in Jerusalem, and which the disciple Barnabas is now sent to oversee.  When Barnabas gets to Antioch, he’s overjoyed to see how committed the church there is to Jesus.  He also knows that he needs some help – so he goes to get Saul.

Saul, of course, is the man who will come to be known as the Apostle Paul, missionary extraordinaire and author of a good chunk of the Bible, but right now he’s just Saul, a new follower of Jesus.  I realized in reading this that though this passage may be easy to skip over, this is the account of Saul’s first mission.  I mean, when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus he told everyone he could find about it, but this is the first time he’s actually out with the express purpose of sharing the Gospel with people.

The first time, but far from the last.  This one mission will in fact turn into a life lived in mission.

You who went to ASP (Appalachia Service Project – our annual trip to do home repair in Appalachia) this week might not think of yourself as a missionary.  That word has kind of big connotations.  We can go on a mission trip but it’s a whole other thing to be a missionary. Or you might think you were a missionary for a week, but now you’re back so you’re not one anymore.  Maybe that’s what Saul thought too, that he’d be there in Antioch for a year with Barnabas and then who knows, but for Saul, it was just the beginning.

When we go on a mission trip, God wants to do some work through us, to share the Gospel with other people, whether it’s through our words or our actions – (e.g.) to show people that God hasn’t forgotten about them, no matter their circumstances.  But God also wants to do some work in us – God wants to turn us into missionaries.

God wants us to come back and say, OK, that was awesome – how do I keep doing this?

Being a missionary might take you back to ASP again next summer, or it might take you to other places around the world, but it might also simply mean that wherever you are – at school, at work, at home, in your neighborhood, in your city – you live with your eyes and heart open to the work God has for you to do and the people who need to hear that God loves them and God hasn’t given up on them and that meaning and purpose can be found in Jesus and the life he shows us how to live.

Sometimes it takes going to a different place with the express purpose of doing God’s work there to make us think about how we can do God’s work without actually going anyplace at all.

Every one of you can be a missionary, and I think you’ll find that when you start, it’s not just about a trip.  It’s not just about a week.  It’s a door opening to a life that is lived in mission.

Church Divided, Church United

Scripture: Acts 15:1-21

Here is a question I want to throw out to you this morning: How much do we have to agree on to be a church?

(By the way, if you say only something about belief in Jesus, I’m going to push back on that – we have to agree, somehow, on how to live in community, even if that community is only physically gathered for a couple hours a week.  What do we expect of each other?  What do we do that affects each other?  Is there anything to is out-of-bounds?  What’s important to hold in common, and what’s not so important?)

Part of what it means to be the church, to be the Body of Christ, is to do the hard work of learning how to live with one another.

Today’s passage from Acts is a story of church conflict and how two sides agree to live with each other.  We might even call this the first denominational conflict.  The early church in Acts has seen some conflict already – back when the whole community was gathered in Jerusalem, and some people started to complain that other people were getting special treatment when food was distributed to the needy among them.  But that was congregational, a problem that was solved within a community itself, by the appointment of new leaders to oversee the food distribution.  But by this point the believers have scattered and the conflict is between parts of the church in different places.  Now it’s about different parts of the church with different visions for the future.

You may remember that last week we heard two conversion stories: Saul’s, who saw the light and went from persecuting Christians to witnessing for Christ, and Peter’s, who had a vision and realized God was opening the church, up to now a Jewish movement, up to non-Jews as well.

At the time, as Peter sees all the non-Jews gathered in Cornelius’s house receive the Holy Spirit, it seems like everything is falling into place in a very God-ordained kind of way, but of course it isn’t as easy as that.  Back in Jerusalem, where all the Christians are still Jews, the community demands an explanation.  What is Peter doing breaking purity laws by eating and staying with Gentiles?  Peter recounts the whole story to them and when they hear what happened, they say, “Oh, OK, it sounds like God has opened the church up to Gentiles!”

But it’s still not as easy as that.

Some time goes on, and the scene shifts to Saul (now called by his Roman name Paul) and Barnabas in ministry in Antioch, where the church is apparently made up at least partially of non-Jews.  Eventually some Jewish believers from the church back in Jerusalem show up in Antioch, and they say, “Well, it’s great for Gentiles to be part of the church, but of course they’ll need to be circumcised.”

Paul and Barnabas say, “What? No!”  So, the leaders of the church at Antioch say “Why don’t you guys go and sort this this thing out and get back to us,” and Paul and Barnabas head to Jerusalem, and they meet with the apostles and the elders of the church there.  We know this meeting as the Jerusalem Council – the first church council meeting.

It might be kind of hard for modern Christians to wrap our heads around, but there’s a lot at stake in this conflict.  Christianity is still, at this point, a primarily Jewish movement.  What God has done through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is a culmination of God’s promises to God’s people, i.e. the Jewish people.  Being circumcised and following certain dietary laws are how God’s people set themselves apart as God’s people.  It’s a matter of identity, and what’s more, it’s all there in the Bible.  On the other hand, adult Gentile men aren’t exactly lining up to be circumcised, so Paul and Barnabas know this especially presents a barrier to them being welcomed into this new thing God is doing, and Paul and Barnabas don’t think the church should be in the business of setting up barriers.

The answer to us seems obvious since we are two thousand years on the other side of it, and the Christian church no longer considers itself Jewish.  But it wasn’t obvious at the time.

So the church leaders meet, and Peter gives his testimony again, along with a plea not to place an undue burden on Gentile Christians.  He says that it is by the grace of Jesus, and not outward signs like circumcision, that we are saved.

Then James gets up to talk.  This is significant because James is the leader of the church in Jerusalem.  James gets up and he says, “This doesn’t actually contradict our faith.  The prophets have always envisioned a day when Gentiles will come worship the same God we do.  So, let’s not set up barriers for them.”

“But,” he says, “let’s agree on a few things.  Here are the standards that will hold us together as a community.  They are: No worshiping idols; No porneia (translated “sexual immorality”, though it’s unclear exactly what that word means); No eating meat from strangled animals; No consuming blood [in meat.]”

Again – how much do we have to agree on in order to be a church?

When I opened with that question I’m pretty sure no one was going to answer with “No eating strangled animals.”  It’s a bit of a strange list to our modern Gentile Christian ears – these are really the non-negotiables? – but apparently everyone can live with this, and the Gentile Christians in Antioch are happy to hear it and comply.  Paul does tell it a little differently in his letter to the Galatians.  But for now, in Acts, crisis averted.  The divided church is united once more.

Like I said, we could call this the first denominational conflict, and I thought I’d actually take this opportunity to talk a little about our own currently pressing denominational conflict, which has to do with the church’s position on homosexuality.  I think the question we are facing is largely the same – how much do we have to agree on to be the United Methodist Church?

I’m sure there are some of you who would rather we not talk about this, precisely because it is a denomination-level conflict.  What does it have to do with us, here, at Arlington Temple?  Why do we need to bring up controversial things that we’re not openly fighting about here?

Well, I’d rather not to have to talk about it, either.  I love the United Methodist Church and I’d rather be up here telling you about how we as a denomination are fulfilling our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, rather than how we’re kind of a mess.  But there are a few reasons I’m going to do it anyway.  First of all, I don’t think any of us are at liberty to assume that the church’s position on homosexuality doesn’t affect anyone here.  Second, there’s a chance I could be standing in front of you after our next General Conference in 2019, and telling you that the United Methodist Church is splitting; or maybe that it’s not splitting but we have decisions to make about our own beliefs and policies on this subject, and I don’t want that to come as a surprise.  So while I have shared bits and pieces of this struggle with you as they’ve come up, I’m going to try to do it broadly but comprehensively now.

I’m not going to get into all the various arguments, scriptural or otherwise, about homosexuality, though as General Conference 2019 draws closer, maybe it would be worth it to have some of these conversations.  I’m also not going to pretend to be neutral.  I’m a believer in admitting my bias, and I think most of you know that I am in favor of making some changes to our current church policy, changes that I see as removing barriers to people participating fully in the life of the church.

To give you some background, this is the Book of Discipline.  The Book of Discipline is our denominational law book – or to put in more churchy language, this is our covenant for our life together as a denomination.  The BoD has several paragraphs that have to do with homosexuality.  For example, it calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” forbids the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” and forbids clergy to officiate same-sex weddings.  The first of these policies date from 1972, and we have fought about them at every General Conference since.

It gets more complicated.  The United Methodist Church is a global church.  In the US, we’ve gotten more progressive on this issue in recent years, as society has too.  In 2015, our Virginia Conference voted to send a resolution to General Conference recommending changing the Discipline.  It was close, but we voted for that.  However, as the church has been getting smaller in the US, it’s been growing in places like Africa and Asia, where people are generally more conservative on this issue.  So, we find ourselves deadlocked.  The fact that we are a global church makes us different from our friends the Presbyterians or the Episcopalians, both of which have become officially more progressive on the subject in recent years.  Though they may be connected to global bodies, like the Church of England, they vote on these things as an American church.  We don’t.

As we languish in deadlock, United Methodists on both sides have started to protest.  Some progressive clergy have officiated same-sex weddings.  Frank Schaefer got a lot of press for officiating his son’s same-sex wedding in 2007 (he went to church trial in 2013, had his ordination revoked, and then reinstated.) Other clergy have pledged to officiate if asked.  Some conferences in the United States have said they will examine candidates for ministry without sexual orientation as a criterion; and the Western Jurisdiction even elected an openly gay bishop last year.  Meanwhile, some large conservative churches have recently withdrawn from the UMC in protest.  Some conservatives are pushing for mandatory sentencing for clergy who break the Discipline by officiating same-sex weddings, thinking they have gotten off too easily in the past.

We are at a point, and have been for a long time, where everyone is sick of talking about it, everyone agrees it would be better for the time and energy and resources we spend fighting to be put into our actual mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, but we just can’t agree.  We all know that something needs to change.  But what?  How?  Do we suddenly agree on something?  (Unlikely.) Do we split, and become two denominations? Could we do that with love and a blessing?  Do we restructure so that we don’t all have to decide on one answer as a global body – but maybe Conferences could make that decision, or individual churches could make that decision?

Some of us thought something would change at General Conference 2016.  General Conference, which is made up of clergy and lay delegates from all over the world and meets every four years, is the only body that can change the BoD and make decisions for the entire denomination.   Something did happen there, sort of.  The body voted for the Council of Bishops to appoint a commission to consider the possibilities for what the future might look like and make a recommendation.  That recommendation will be heard and voted on at a special GC in February 2019, which is when I could be standing in front of you telling you we have some decisions to make.

Let me tell you a little bit about this group, which is called the Commission on a Way Forward.

The Commission is made up of 32 voting members and 3 moderators.  They are a mix of laity, clergy, and bishops; a mix of men and women; they come from all jurisdictions of the US as well as Africa, the Philippines, and Europe. Their mission is to “design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much cultural differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible.”  As they do this, they are considering the relevant passages of the BoD as well as considering new church organizational structures that might help us live together.

The Commission has met four times so far, most recently just this past week in Chicago.  They have been doing their research, talking to different groups with something at stake in what happens, talking to people from other denominations who have been through similar conflicts, talking to people who can tell them about other times of conflict in our own United Methodist history, like when the church was segregated and all the African American churches were lumped together in their own jurisdiction (this ended in 1968.)  At this latest meeting in Chicago they were supposed to be reviewing a first draft of a plan to present to General Conference – I haven’t heard any more on that yet.

Again – how much do we have to agree on in order to be a church?

When I officiate weddings, I sometimes talk about marriage as sacramental, though it is not considered a sacrament in the UMC.  What I mean is that I think God’s grace is tangibly present in a relationship where two people are committed to figuring out how to live together – in the compromises they make and the lines they draw and the ways they balance and even challenge one another.  I believe the same is true for us as the Body of Christ.

It was true for the church at the Jerusalem Council.  In the end, the church in Acts finds a way to live together that involves compromise, deciding what is non-negotiable and what can be let go.  The problem is it is pretty hard to agree on where to draw the line between negotiable and non-negotiable, but I think to do so is to do the work of being the Body of Christ, and I think God’s grace can be present in those conversations.

At the same time, my prayer for the church has never primarily been for unity.  I think it is possible to be unified around the wrong things.  My prayer has primarily been that we as a church would be faithful to God’s call for us, maybe even if that takes us in different directions.

In Paul’s account of the Jerusalem Council in Galatians, things go a little differently than they do in Acts.  In this account James and the other Jerusalem Church leaders shake hands with Paul and Barnabas and kind of agree to go their separate ways – James to the Jews, Paul to the Gentiles.  It wasn’t a church split, but it was a recognition that God had different work for each of them.  Paul writes, “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which is actually what I was eager to do” (Gal 2:10).  In other words, they can remember their common mission while going about things a little bit differently.  Is there something for us in that?  Might we be held together more broadly by our belief in Christ and our common mission to make disciples, while in some sense organizing our common lives differently?

OK, Allie, you might say, what’s the takeaway here?  We’re not the ones making these decisions, and neither are you for that matter, so what’s the good news that I came to church for here?

Well: that God is with us and the Holy Spirit is at work among us even in the midst of all this. The Holy Spirit isn’t mentioned as being present at the Jerusalem Council specifically, but she has been present throughout the book of Acts as the apostles have gone forth on their mission, and we have no reason to think she has stopped.  God is and has always been bigger than the church.

And: that God has a good future for us, even when that is hard to see through our own mess.  I don’t know what that future will look like, and neither does anyone right now, but that’s OK, because God does.

And: that our mission to world as the Body of Christ begins with how we live with each other.  I’ve said this before, but we can’t be the Body of Christ outwardly unless we’re the Body of Christ inwardly.

God’s work for us continues, and it is the work of welcoming, loving, healing, feeding, showing mercy, making peace and working for justice in the name of Jesus.  It’s the work of making the world around us look a little more like God’s Kingdom.  And we still have to figure out how to live together – but ultimately, that’s the work that unites us.

 

 

Church on Fire: The Church of Paul and Peter

Scripture: Acts 9:1-20; Acts 10:1-23

 

Victor Torres moved to New York City from Puerto Rico with his family as a child in the 1950s.  Even though his family hadn’t been especially poor in Puerto Rico, it hard to ignore the siren song of New York, promising opportunity for all of them.  But once they got there, opportunity wasn’t quite what they found.  The only place they could afford to live was Brownsville, one of the worst neighborhoods of Brooklyn.  Their apartment was infested with rats and cockroaches and violence was rampant on the city streets.

Victor spent time on the streets by himself while both of his parents were at work.  He quickly learned that he had to be tough to survive.  One day when a man harassed him while he was trying to make some money shining shoes, he stabbed him with a pocketknife.  When he was a little older, he got recruited for a gang called the Roman Lords.  He saw it as his “entrance into the world and manhood,” a “chance for security and identity.”  From there he worked his way up the ladder until he was one of the gang’s leaders.  He fought people, stole things, and eventually got hooked on heroin.  Multiple stays in the local hospital’s detox program didn’t help him.

But then one day in November 1963, Victor walked in the doors of a place called the Brooklyn Teen Challenge Center.  There he met Nicky Cruz, a man with a very similar story which you might know from the movie The Cross and the Switchblade.  He also met some of the people who had been instrumental in Nicky Cruz’s own conversion to Christianity.  There, he didn’t get any of the medication that the hospital had given him to help him detox.  There, his only hope was prayer and the Bible.  Almost as soon as he arrived, he tried to leave.  But he was stopped by some of the people who worked there.  As they stood in front of him, Victor began to cry, and he began to ask God for help.  The next time he went back out onto the streets, it was as a witness for Christ.[1]

In a lot of ways I think I grew up thinking that that was what a conversion story looked like: bad guy meets Jesus in a sudden moment of clarity.  The worse the guy, the better the story.  That was conversion.

And sometimes it is.  A few weeks ago we read in Acts about the death of Stephen, who was persecuted for his faith in Jesus, and Luke tells us that as the crowds gathered to stone Stephen, they handed their coats to a young man named Saul.  In the aftermath of Stephen’s death, Saul “began to wreak havoc against the church.  Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison.”

Saul is back in the picture today, and he’s on the warpath.  Now, just like the church’s mission is moving out of Jerusalem, so is Saul’s.  He’s traveling all the way to synagogues in Damascus, looking for Jesus followers to bring back to prison in Jerusalem.  The CEB translation describes him as “spewing murderous threats.”  Can’t you just see Saul on that road to Damascus, with murder in his eyes?

But that was when everything changed.

A blinding light beamed down from heaven.  The voice of Jesus spoke: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” says Saul, and there’s a loaded question if I ever heard one.  The voice answers, “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.”

When Saul finally does enter the city of Damascus, it will be as a witness for Christ.  Soon after, he will come to be known by his Roman name, Paul, as this persecutor of Jewish Christians goes out to make some Gentile ones.

Like I said, the worse the guy, the better the story, and Saul was pretty much the worst.  He even writes to Timothy, “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” (1 Timothy 1:15)  We have to love Saul’s story.  We have to love the complete about-face.  We have to love the reaction of Ananias, who God sends to lay hands on Saul and restore his sight- who’s like, uhhhhhh.  We have to love the reaction of the people in the Damascus synagogues when he’s starts preaching and they’re like, uhhhhh.  We have to love the disciples when Saul tries to join them back in Jerusalem.  “Hey guys!”  Uhhhhhhh.

We have to love how God works like this, through people like this, to build up God’s church – because truly if there is hope for Saul there is hope for all of us.

Most of our own stories aren’t quite like that, though.  Some of us may well have more dramatic conversion stories than others.  Some of us may very well have stories about how we were hard and fast skeptics but then there was one precise moment where we somehow saw the light and everything changed.  Those are great stories I’ve often wished I had a story like that, because I think they preach so much better than, “I grew up in the church and always kind of liked it.”

But let’s face it, some of us have stories that are more along those lines.

And that’s OK, because while Saul is busy proving to the disciples in Jerusalem that he actually doesn’t want to kill them anymore, Peter is on his way to a conversion story of his own.  It happens when Peter is traveling around the region healing people, and after raising a disciple named Tabitha from the dead (like you do) he ends up staying for a while in the city of Joppa, at the house of a tanner named Simon.

Meanwhile, we meet a man named Cornelius, who is not Jewish, but he is a God-fearer.  Do you remember that term from last week?  A God-fearer was someone who hadn’t officially converted to Judaism – when conversion meant circumcision, you can understand why adult men might find that to be a bit of a barrier – but he did participate in Jewish life and faith through prayer and financial support.  One day while he’s praying, an angel appears to him and tells him to send some messengers to go find Peter.  So, Cornelius does.

As the messengers are approaching Joppa, Peter is praying himself.  He’s on the roof of Simon the tanner’s house and it’s lunchtime and he’s starting to get hungry.  And while lunch is being prepared, Peter has a vision.  He sees heaven opening up and a sheet being lowered down with all sorts of animals on it, and a voice says to him, “You ordered lunch?”

And Peter says, “Oh no!  I couldn’t possibly!  By no means, Lord!”  I love that response; the CEB puts it “Absolutely not, Lord!”  Absolutely not, Lord – that takes a little bit of chutzpah, right there.

But what you need to remember about Peter is that Jewish law forbade him to eat certain kinds of animals, among them animals on that sheet.  And Peter has grown up in the synagogue and always kind of liked it, right?  That’s his story.  Peter’s a good Jew.  And good Jews don’t eat that stuff.

I can tell you, as someone who became a vegetarian at age 16 and then a few years ago started eating fish again – just fish – that I thought about it and considered it for years, literally, before I actually ate fish.  And the first time I did, it was hard to actually put that fork in my mouth and then swallow.  Things like this are hardly a matter of someone just shoving a sheet in your face – and my diet wasn’t even religiously motivated.

Peter’s dilemma is this: what he hears God saying now directly contradicts what he knows God to have said before.

What would you do?

Well, Peter never gets the chance to actually eat the food on this sheet.  After Peter protests, the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” and then the sheet is pulled back into heaven.  This happens three times.  And Peter’s wondering what to make of this all when all of a sudden there’s a knock at the door.

It’s Cornelius’s messengers, and they ask Peter to come back with them to Cornelius’s house.

But Peter isn’t supposed to stay at Cornelius’s house.  He’s a Gentile.  He doesn’t follow the same dietary and purity laws as Peter.

But Peter must hear in his head, again, a voice saying to him: “What God has called clean, you must not call profane.”  And something clicks.  It wasn’t just about food.

At Cornelius’s house, Peter says, “I now understand that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.”  At Cornelius’s house, Peter preaches the Gospel of Jesus.  At Cornelius’s house, Peter watches as everyone there – this whole group of non-Jews – receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, just like Peter and the Twelve had at Pentecost.  Up till now, the Christian church had been a Jewish movement – but suddenly the doors swing open wider.

Like I said, Peter was a good Jew, probably from birth.  And what’s more, Peter was a good Christian.  He didn’t need a bright light to bring him into the family of Jesus, because he was already there, already its leader.  Peter didn’t need a conversion story.

But he got one anyway.

Because conversion doesn’t end when you become a follower of Jesus.

It makes me wonder if to be a part of God’s church, to submit yourself to the leading of the Holy Spirit, is actually to be called to conversion over and over.

So here’s a question: When was the last time you changed your mind about something related to God or faith?

I had to really think about this question and it made me wonder if this was one of those times I was preaching to myself.  In college and in seminary, as I was learning all sorts of new perspectives on the Bible and theology, I felt like what I believed was changing every day.  In a good way.  What did it mean for Jesus to die on the cross?  Maybe it was something different than what I had always taken to be the one right answer.  How does prayer work?  Maybe it was a little more open-ended than simply getting God to do I wanted.  It felt like every new answer, as provisional and imperfect as it may be, led me a little bit closer to the God that I was seeking.

Somehow that’s a little harder these days.  I feel like I’m supposed to know certain answers a little bit more.  Whether I do or not is another question.

I think it can be scary to change our minds about something as big as God and what God is like and what God wants from us.  Those are often things that we have a lot invested in.  They’re things we’ve built a worldview around.  The stakes are high.  It’s scary to think that the conclusions we’ve come to today, much less the ones we’ve held forever, might not be the ones that God wants for us to hold for all time.  It’s not quite as easy as someone sticking a sheet in your face.

Here’s what I will say: when I’ve changed my mind about something related to God or faith in the past few years, most often, I think, it has been about people.  People who might not share my exact theological convictions, but who I come to realize are full of grace and love, anyway.  People whose politics frankly annoy me, but then I’m struck with how they are living out their Christian faith in some ways better than I am.

If Peter’s conversion is any indication, then maybe changing our mind about people and where they fit into God’s family and God’s church and God’s will for the world is maybe the most important kind of conversion we are called to.  All the theology – we have time to figure that stuff out.  But to God, people are urgent.

Think back to Ananias, the Jesus follower who laid his hands on Saul to let him see again.  Saul changed his mind about Jesus, but it wouldn’t have gone any further than that – except that Ananias was willing to be converted about Saul.

Here’s what I believe: I believe that a church on fire, the way it was in these early days of Acts, can never be a stagnant church.  I believe that Jesus calls each of us into a relationship with God through him and that Jesus calls us to follow in the way of life that he shows us, life in the Kingdom of God even before death.  And I believe that as we do that, as more is revealed to us, as we meet new people who bear the face of Christ along the way – that we are going to have to change our minds.  Not just once, but a lot of times.  Not just about one thing, but about a lot of things along the way.

It’s called conversion, and we’re called to it over and over, well beyond the day we first saw the light.

 

[1] Victor Torres, Son of Evil Street: The Amazing True Story of a Son Who Became a Product of New York City’s Mean Streets

Church on Fire: Someone to Guide Me

Scripture: Acts 8:26-40

If you were in worship last week, you heard Kelvin tell the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  Up to now the early church has been going along, picking up steam, driven forward by the power of the Holy Spirit – but not entirely without notes of trouble.  The apostles, early on, are arrested and released.    The scrutinizing eyes of the powers that be have never completely left them.  It seems that, even post-resurrection, God’s love and grace and goodness will always be opposed by those who have the most to lose, and those who live in the way of this love and grace and goodness will always need to be prepared for that.  So, Stephen is stoned to death for his faith in Jesus, and it’s an image of what the life of discipleship has in store for the rest of Jesus’ followers.

When Stephen dies, it’s like something is unleashed, and persecution of the early church begins in earnest.  The believers leave Jerusalem and scatter throughout the rest of the province of Judea and Samaria.

But like in Jesus’ case, death and scattering in fear are not the end of the story here.  After all, it is often the case that persecution strengthens rather than weakens faith.  Faith dies when it gets too comfortable.   But when people see how much we are willing to risk and sacrifice for something we believe in, they start to think maybe there’s something to that.

So instead of the end of a movement, Stephen’s death gives way to something new.

Do you remember how just before Jesus ascended back into heaven, he told the disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth?  Well, now for the first time the church leaves Jerusalem.  The Gospel for the first time reaches the rest of Judea and Samaria, because suddenly there are followers of Jesus spreading the word – not quite to the ends of the earth, yet, but we’re getting there.

One of those followers is Philip.  Philip isn’t one of the Twelve, but if you have read the book of Acts up to this point, you’ve met Philip before, briefly: like Stephen, he was one of the people chosen to be in charge of distributing food to the poor members of the community so that the Twelve would be freed for prayer and proclaiming God’s word.  When the church scatters, Philip finds himself in the region of Samaria, which had once been the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  He preaches Christ there, to great success.  As our story begins today, the Holy Spirit is about to send him on his next assignment.

I’ve heard that instead of Acts of the Apostles, this book could really be called Acts of the Holy Spirit.  She’s really the one driving the action throughout the book – as it should be, right?

So one day soon after all this has taken place, an angel comes to Philip and says, at noon, take the road the goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.  So Philip does.  When the Holy Spirit says go, you go.  And as he goes, he sees on this same road a man in a carriage.  There are a couple things it is important to know about this man.

First, he is an Ethiopian.  Ethiopia, at this time, called Cush or Nubia, was basically any of Africa south of Egypt.  It was also, for Jews in Jerusalem, pretty much “the ends of the earth.”  The church’s mission continues to look outward.

Second, he is a high-up person in the court of the Queen of Ethiopia.  He’s like the Secretary of the Treasury.  A few things here are indicative of his high social status, including his fancy carriage and the fact that he can read.

Third, he’s a eunuch, and this is related to his social status, because it was often eunuchs who served in the courts of powerful women – because they were castrated, they were seen as “safe.”  But, despite his status as a rich and important person, being a eunuch does in one sense put him outside society’s mainstream.  His sexual identity makes him “other.”  He doesn’t quite fit into the boxes that most people expect other people to fit into.

And fourth, he is returning from worshiping in Jerusalem, which means he is either a Jewish convert or what was sometimes called a God-fearer, someone who hadn’t officially converted but practiced the Jewish faith to some degree.  And this is also related to the previous item, because while he had come to Jerusalem to worship God at God’s Temple, there were some rules about eunuchs entering the Temple.   Namely, according to Deuteronomy 23 and Leviticus 21, they could not.  So if those rules were in effect during this time, and depending on how much the Ethiopian man knew about them beforehand, there’s a chance he was going home somewhat disappointed.

But Philip doesn’t know all this yet.  What Philip knows is that there is a man in a carriage, until the Holy Spirit says to him, “Hey, you should go talk to that guy.”  (Has the Holy Spirit ever nudged you into conversation with someone for a certain purpose?)

So Philip runs to catch up with the carriage, and he realizes as he gets closer that the man is doing a little personal Bible study, reading from Isaiah.  So Philip, still running, calls out breathlessly, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

I imagine this guy being slightly taken aback – after all, if someone’s running to catch up to my carriage, I really figure either they’re in big trouble or I’ve left my coffee on the roof again – and possibly even offended, because who even is this guy to imply that he might not understand? The Ethiopian man, after all, is a rich and important guy.  Philip is, presumably, a peasant.  He certainly doesn’t have a carriage, although as we learn later, the Holy Spirit does once in a while provide some pretty sweet transportation.

But he doesn’t say, “Who are you, exactly?” and he doesn’t dryly say, “I’m fine, thanks;” he says, “You know, now that you mention it, I really don’t understand, no.”

And then he says, “How can I, without someone to guide me?”

And then he says, “Hop in.”

I want to pause the story there because I think I know the feeling.  Do you?  That when it comes to studying the Bible, when it comes to understanding our own faith, we’re doing all the right things but something isn’t clicking.

When I first started seriously studying the Bible in college – not just reading the words on the page, but taking classes that got into the history and the literary context of those words, and how they were different in Hebrew, and that sort of thing – I began to feel incapable of ever reading the Bible on my own again.  I certainly don’t believe that you need a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies in order for God to speak to you through Scripture, but once I knew how much was there between the lines, I was well aware of how much I was missing.  It’s a big reason I still mostly use a study Bible today, even in my own devotional reading, so I can read the notes that someone smarter than me has included to help guide me in my reading.  How can I understand, otherwise?

Well, Philip hops in and discovers what the Ethiopian man is reading, and it’s from Isaiah 53.  “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,” it goes, “and like a lamb before his shearer is silent, so he didn’t open his mouth.  In his humiliation, justice was taken away from him.”

And the man asks, “Who is this about?  Is it about Isaiah, or is it about someone else?”

His question is theological, of course, but it’s also personal; especially if we consider that he is perhaps on his way home from not being able to worship as expected because of his sexual status, his own experience of humiliation; especially if we know that a few chapters later, in Isaiah 56, the prophet has a vision of God inviting all people who live righteously to enter God’s house, yes, even eunuchs.

As one writer puts it, when he asks who Isaiah is writing about, he is really asking, “Is this passage about me as well?”[1]

Sometimes my questions aren’t about historical context or translation issues, either.  Sometimes my questions are more along the lines of “What does this mean for me, here, now?”  “How does this apply to my life?”  Does Jesus really need me to sell everything I own and give the money to the poor?  If I act sometimes like a sheep and sometimes like a goat, which line do I get to stand in on Judgment Day?  How do we extend God’s grace to others without encouraging wrong or unhelpful behavior or letting ourselves be a doormat?

Those more personal questions, to be honest, are the harder questions.  Those aren’t questions that can simply be answered by notes in a study Bible.  Probably nobody’s going to hop up into our carriage and give us the one right definitive answer to all of them.

But as it so happens, on that day, Philip answers both.  “I’ll tell you who Isaiah is writing about,” he says, and then he goes on to tell the Ethiopian man about Jesus, the one who was led like a sheep to the slaughter, the one for whom there was no justice.  And Jesus, the one who opens the doors wider for us, for whom neither race nor gender nor in this case even an outside-the-box sexual identity are barriers to a full relationship with God.

It’s a good thing Philip came along.  Otherwise, he might have kept reading but never understood.

If you’ve ever felt like the Ethiopian man, unsure about what God wants or what faith means or what it all looks like in real life, have you sought guidance?  Have you taken that step to understand better?  The Holy Spirit might not just drop someone into your carriage, but God does give us people and resources to help us along the way in this life of faith.  Pick up a study Bible, for instance.  Maybe there’s a Philip you know, someone whose faith you admire, someone who through age or experience has a little more wisdom than you, who can help you get a little closer to what God might have to say to you.

It might be easier or take less energy to just keep not knowing, to keep feeling a little bit stuck, even to despair a bit – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Of course in this story Philip is the one in the know, imparting his greater understanding to someone with less, but I have to wonder if the Ethiopian man taught him something too.  Maybe Philip had never thought specifically about what the good news meant for someone who was a eunuch.  Certainly he’d spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant for those who were poor – he had been, after all, in charge of feeding people.  But what about this man who was clearly not materially poor, clearly not lacking in influence, and yet marginalized in his own way, too?  Philip believes in the Jesus who breaks down barriers to our relationship with God – but might he have understood what that meant a little more fully that day?

The truth is, none of us understands perfectly, this side of heaven.  The truth is, we all need a little guidance.  The truth is that when it comes to figuring out this whole faith thing – what we believe, what it means, how to live it out – none of us are supposed to go it alone.  We need each other.  We’re supposed to do it together.

When we meet upstairs for Bible study after worship, that’s what we do.  We’ve read the text for the week, but we’ve each read it in a vacuum – alone in our chariots, so to speak.  Then we come together and we all have our different takes and our different experiences that shed some light on the story and some different ideas about what it might all mean – and of course, I bring my study Bible, for the notes of people smarter than me – and we talk, and we guide each other.

How else are we supporting and guiding each other in our life in community?

Are you seeking the guidance you need?  Are you sharing your insight and experience and even doubts and questions for the benefit of others?  Because that’s part of what it is to be the church.  It’s part of how our mission grows and expands and welcomes other people in.  It’s part of letting the Holy Spirit move and work among us.

When Philip has spoken, the Ethiopian man knows that he’s found an answer he’s been looking for.  “Look,” he says, “there’s some water, is there any reason I shouldn’t be baptized right now?”

And Philip says, “Well, come to think of it, no,” and he baptizes him right then and there.  I suspect neither the Ethiopian man nor Philip will find that all their questions will be answered for all time, even if something new has been revealed to each of them today.

But that’s OK.  They don’t need to be.  They are both part of the Body of Christ, and they aren’t doing this alone.

 

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, p. 428 (Thomas C. Long, “Pastoral Perspective”)