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.

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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”)

Church on Fire: The Cost of Discipleship

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

Scripture: Acts 6:8-15, 7:54-8:1

History was one of my majors in my undergraduate degree. I always enjoy learning about the past and how it shapes the present. In fact, in school I was good at it. But, to be honest, I loved history for selfish reasons. To win debates and often to catch people in their lies.  Fake news or alternative facts. Historians have a way of getting down to the root of something. They help us remember important events and give us symbols we can use to honor our past. But, that does not mean they are foolproof from bias and selective recording. After all, it’s the past.

This July 4th weekend is made possible because historians recorded it. We celebrate this day of independence with hotdogs and fireworks, which sometimes may obscure the real meaning of the day. But, thank God for PBS documentaries, we are reminded of the price for independence – the death toll and sacrifices made by countless individuals. Some recorded in history books. Others deliberately omitted. People that died not so much for the love of country because it was not a country then, but for a desire to be free from abuse and persecution.

Nothing is more important to humans than the desire to be free. We all want to be free from pain and suffering, free to choose the way we live, free from being broke and sick, free from humiliation, free to worship God, or not be forced to worship another God.

Luke the historian, author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts, gives us a glimpse into the troubling history of the early Church. Besides miracles and wonders, the early church also confronted infighting, jealousy, bribery, racism, and murder. Luke gives us an account of Stephen who was the first Christian to be killed for his faith. Stephen was one of the seven deacons chosen to care for the orphans and widows in the Hellenistic Jewish community. He was a well-known community organizer, and a great public speaker. The bible describes him as a man who was both “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3) and as one who was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5). His ministry to orphans and widows seems to have put him in constant contact with many Hellenistic Jews – multicultural Jews born and raised outside of Israel.  Stephen also performed wonders and signs among the people just like the apostles.

Unfortunately, like we saw with Jesus, being a well-known, honest, and charismatic person, or being filled with the Holy Spirit does not shield us from pain and suffering. If anything, Stephen was killed for this very reason. He was charged with blasphemy and for speaking against the holy place (the temple and city of Jerusalem). His sermon was not evangelistic, asking people to repent like peter did on the day of Pentecost. Instead, it was an indictment and a judgment against them. He cited historical precedence going back to Abraham, Moses, Joseph, and ending with Jesus. Stephen was not an angry preacher who just wanted to vent. He was a gentleman filled with grace. He loved his accusers, so much that he forgave and prayed for them even as they were killing him.

Stephen’s sermon highlights a few things for us:

It exposes the self-righteousness that Israel had exhibited throughout history.   Rebelling against God and God’s chosen servants.

It exposed the hypocrisy in their claims of having respect for the prophets especially Moses and the law. Stephen reminded them using the Old Testament scriptures how they had repeatedly rejected the prophets and chosen their own ways, including worshiping idols.

It also demonstrated that Israel’s worship of God had been experienced outside the land in other places of the world. Therefore, God cannot be confined to the temple or the city of Jerusalem. However, to the Hellenistic Jews the temple and Jerusalem had become synonymous with God’s presence.  Sometimes placing too much value on something, even if we started with good intentions, can become an idol and hinder us from experiencing God. It is possible for us to place too much importance on patriotism at the expense of righteousness and justice. To respect our denomination so much that we begin to worship it instead of worshiping God. Tradition has a way of blocking innovative ministries even if they are being initiated by the Holy Spirit.

In emphasizing the temple and Jerusalem, the Hellenistic Jews missed the promise in Isaiah 66 that first –  God would bring judgment upon the city of Jerusalem and its man-man temple. Second – God would bring salvation to the many nations of the world.

As the early church was getting established, the focus was more on discipleship and not doctrine. It was more practical than aspirational. It emphasized caring for the poor and vulnerable among the community. The focus was not on heaven but their “daily bread and forgiving each other on earth as it was in heaven. Christianity was about living out God’s kingdom by following the ways of Jesus. But when the church started having power it forgot its mission or became the oppressor. Therefore, we need to keep reminding ourselves of our mission as disciples of Jesus. Stephen demonstrated a mature level of discipleship.

Four qualities of an effective disciple demonstrated in Stephen:

  1. Must be full of the Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit is the one who gives us the power to be witnesses. This was the main the qualification for being appointed as a deacon (6:3). They needed to have a stable reputation in the community. Therefore, this is not talking about speaking in tongues. This is referring to observable character that over time produces the fruit of the Spirit.
  2. Must be full of wisdom – Stephen was said to be full of wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom comes from knowing God. Wisdom in the sense it used here implies a special ability to understand the art of living a beautiful life. Much of this wisdom can be derived through the serious study and understanding of scripture. Godly wisdom leads us to a deeper appreciation of the significance of Christ’s death on the cross and God’s extravagant grace. Steven proved that he knew the scriptures.
  3. Full of faith – there can be no substitute for faith. Without faith, it is impossible to please God, and because anyone who comes to God must believe that God exists and that God is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him. You must believe in the sovereignty of God to bring about good even in circumstances that demonstrate absolute wickedness. Like the Shunamite woman whose son had died but believed in God would somehow make a way – declared it shall be well. Or the ability that enable Horatio Spafford to write the hymn “it is well with my soul” after he tragically lost five children. Faith in God is a mark of true discipleship. Not simply academic knowledge. Stephen believed in the sovereign God. You cannot believe in a sovereign God unless you are full of faith.
  4. Full of grace and power – a person full of grace understands that salvation is gift from God through Jesus Christ. That it is not by works, even though, the seed of grace will ultimately lead to works of righteousness. An inward experience of grace flows outward into a gracious spirit toward others. A person who appreciates being forgiven will extend forgiveness toward others no matter how terrible the sin against them may be. Stephen expressed this overflow of grace even as he forgave his murderers as he choked on his own blood. “father forgive them, and do not hold this against them.”

What can the church learn from this?

  1. The church is called to discipleship – discipleship in not just a task for individual believers. The church is called to care for orphans and widows. To lift those whom society ignores or rejects. To fight for justice. And sometimes we may end up losing our tax emption. But that is the cost of following Jesus.
  2. The church must be full of Holy Spirit – without the Holy Spirit the church becomes a social club. We are not called to nurse ourselves into comfort.
  3. The church must be full of wisdom – we must be able to offer solutions in practical ways. We must be the intersection between hope and despair.
  4. The church must be full of grace. We must refrain from rushing to judgment. We must be gracious even in our disagreement as we seek to find ways of doing life together.

Nowadays, it is difficult for the church to use the language of obedience. The word has become toxic on many fronts because of its abuse by humans to inflict pain or impose their wills on others. Even the church cannot be exempt from abusing the term. Yet the language of obedience and faith in God go hand in hand. To obey God is to have faith in God. When God says love your neighbor as yourself, it is not a suggestion. It is a command. You either obey or disobey. There is no middle ground. Now this does not mean that you will not fail. In fact, you will fail many time overs. But, you must try and demand it of yourself, even as you ask God to help you. “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”

Discipleship is learning on the job how to follow Jesus.

The point of the story is not to glorify evil or human wickedness. The point of the story is to demonstrate the sovereignty of God. God is able to redeem a tragic situation and write a new story. What happened to Stephen should not be justified in any way. It was terrible. The raping of young girls by ISIS as its affiliates is evil and cannot be justified; the bombing of civilian hospitals is evil and cannot be justified. Yet even in these terrible situations, God can still make something good out of them. Lives can be rebuilt as we Christian learn to open our homes to welcome and adopt refugees.

Obedience in God means trusting in the sovereignty of God even if it does not humanly make sense.

Jürgen Moltmann says, “Christian faith is faith in the resurrection.” We believe that God has a way of making beauty from ashes, turning our mourning into dancing.

The killing of Stephen marked the beginning of the Christian persecution. Many died and others fled to other parts of the world where they began spreading the good news of Jesus. We are here today because God made something good out of a tragedy. Jesus promised never to leave us nor forsake us. Even in the middle of your emotional storm, God is there to grant you peace.

Amen!