Who Belongs?

At it’s heart, this story in Acts 15:1-17 is about a community trying to define itself. Does it want to be known by the rules it keeps or by radical inclusiveness?

The story starts with a group of new Jewish-Christians arriving in Antioch, which is where Paul and Barnabas are. This group, insists that non-jews who want to become Christian must adopt Jewish law and customs. Paul and Barnabas argue about this with them. Eventually, the community decides to refer the matter to the apostles and elders who are in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas head off to Jerusalem for a consultation.

There was a big debate. We think of debates as having rules. This was basically everyone weighing in with their opinion at the same time, all shouting over each other. Once the argument had blown itself out, Peter steps into the silence and speaks. He suggests that the law was central to the Jewish faith but that something new is emerging which is not based on the law but on Jesus. It is the relationship with the Risen Christ that is central to this new faith.

The early church struggled to make sense of who they were. Would membership be based on old traditions passed down through generations or would it be based on something different? Jesus consistently questioned laws that were interpreted as a way of keeping people outside of God’s grace. Peter wanted the early church to follow in Jesus’ footsteps of creating a community based on relationship.

In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Since that time, Christianity has been associated with governments and power in many places around the world. Christianity was the religion of colonization. Christianity was the rule of the land. Initially, there was little separation between Christianity and government and even though we identify as having separated religion and politics, there continues to be an assumption of shared stories and history.

At the time of the reformation, Martin Luther asked whether the church would be based on rules and traditions that had become a burden or would it be based on something new and different? Martin Luther wanted individuals to have direct access to God without having to go through a priest. This was about the same time that the Bible started being translated and printed into multiple languages so it became accessible to more people. These were radical things but they shaped the protestant church that we have today.

The separation of church and state is a fairly recent phenomenon. We haven’t needed, until recent history, to define ourselves because there was an assumption that everyone around us was Christian even if they weren’t practicing the faith. There have always been a variety of denominations and beliefs within Christianity but always based, to a certain extent, on shared stories and history.

What was at stake in the early church was a question of membership based on following the rules that had been handed down or membership based on relationship with the Risen Christ and the community. In the end, the relational form of membership won out. When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire it was no longer a relational faith but a faith of government and power and rules. Martin Luther recognized that the faith was falling into the old habit of using rules to keep people away from the Holy and wanted to return to a form of faith where relationship with the Risen Christ was central.

Within our culture, we no longer have the shared history or the familiarity of biblical stories that once could be assumed. How do we define ourselves and our membership without these common touchstones? I believe this is a great opportunity for us to really examine what it means to be a faith filled community. Are we a faith filled community because we all believe exactly the same thing? Are we a faith filled community because we have a set of common rules that all of us follow?

How do we decide who belongs and is fit to be part of the community? Historically, people believed (or at least gave lip service to belief), which led to what was considered appropriate behavior and as a result they belonged. If they did not maintain a lip service to belief or stepped out of appropriate behavior they no longer belonged. My grandmother was raised as an old order Mennonite and when she married outside the faith she was shunned. She didn’t believe in the right way, didn’t behave in the right way and didn’t belong.

A new model of church membership flips this order. We belong. We are welcomed and loved. We have relationship with the Holy and the community. This leads to belief that there is something beyond us and that the spirit is active and present in the world. This belief then shapes our behavior. I like this model because it begins with an assumption of belonging. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. We always belong to God. If our community is faith-filled then we always belong here too. Belief and behavior flow from this sense of belonging.

This is what the early church was trying to get at. In God’s family, everyone is welcome without having to know the shared history and stories. As people are immersed in Christian community, everyone is transformed. Newcomers and long-timers alike are transformed by their interactions as they seek new ways of being faithful in a changing world.

Sharing the Faith

In Acts 8:26-39, we hear about Philip, who was named as deacon along with Stephen. Philip is given direction by an angel to go into the wilderness. There is no one for miles. It is a deserted road. On this road, he meets an Ethiopian eunuch who is the royal treasurer. He was travelling in his chariot and reading the scroll of Isaiah but he doesn’t understand it.

As Philip listens outside the carriage he is moved to speak to the eunuch. They spend time together and the eunuch is moved by what Philip says to him. The eunuch is baptized by Philip. The eunuch understood that he couldn’t learn and understand the faith by himself. He needed someone to teach him and help him to understand.

W510 - picture009 - CopyWe cannot learn the faith by ourselves. We need each other to help us learn and grow. That’s one of the reasons we always baptize in community—because we recognize that parenting and raising children in the faith is difficult. We invite families to choose God parents whose primary role is to encourage and nurture children and their parents in deepening their faith. As a faith community, we commit to supporting individuals as they grow in faith. We learn about our own faith as we worship and other times when we talk together can be even more powerful for deepening our experience of faith. Bible study, children’s programs and even moments of pastoral care can be powerful experiences of learning the faith.

Learning the faith is not something that stops when we become adults. It is something that should be an on-going part of our lives until the moment of our death when we discover what comes next. The eunuch was curious about a faith he knew nothing about and was drawn into learning. That learning was transformative for him. Learning with others needs to shape our own faith. saturday worship 4

Sometimes we are hesitant to share our faith with others. Maybe they don’t think like us and will disagree with us. Maybe we worry that someone won’t like us any more. Religion was on the list of things to not talk about when I was growing up but we need to get over this discomfort of speaking about our faith with others. Philip didn’t wait until he knew the eunuch well. He didn’t wait to find out where he had been worshiping. Instead he approached and said, “can we talk?”

We need to be bold in talking with others about our faith. There are many different kinds of Christianity. I believe that the world needs to hear a message of faith that holds rationality and mystery in tension. The world needs to hear a message that is inclusive and welcoming. The world needs to hear a message of faith grounded in compassion and love. This is a gift that we have to share with the world and the world needs this message. We need to be bold in sharing our faith, speaking truth and offering hope in a hurting world.

As we learn, we find the boldness and confidence we need. As we speak and proclaim the gospel we continue to be shaped in the spirit of Christ. We are transformed and the world is transformed.

Serving Even in Discomfort

This week’s passage (Acts 6:1-7:44) covers a lot of ground. It begins with a conflict in the church. The Greek Christians were complaining that when they were giving food to the widows the Greek widows were not being given as much as the Hebrew widows. There’s a conflict over which group within the Christian community is more important or more deserving. We’ve seen Jesus addressing similar issues in his own community as he tries to help people understand that one group is not more important than another but that all have a place in God’s kingdom. The early Christians continued to struggle with the practice of breaking down barriers and seeing “the other” as an equal. We continue to struggle with this in our own community and congregation.

But the disciples have a solution. “We’re too busy preaching the word of God to worry about feeding the widows so let’s appoint leaders to distribute the food and look after the needs of the poor.” The Greek word used to describe these leaders is diaconia. It is means to serve and it’s where we get the words deacon/deaconess and diaconal. After these people are named, the disciples pray and lay their hands on them. The Greek word here is ordinatio and from this comes ordination. Ordinatio means to lay hands on someone, to pray over them and commission them to a particular ministry.

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for more info about Diaconal Ministry check out DUCC

As a Diaconal minister, this story is rooted my identity—to serve. One of the reasons I find myself called to diaconal ministry is its commitment to serve and stand with those who are most marginalized. Training for diaconal ministers covers a wide range of places where people can be marginalized. In the social ministry year we covered topics including: Residential schools, addictions, colonization, globalization, violence and abuse, disabilities, prison ministry, refugees, militarism and non-violence, poverty, sexual orientation and gender identity, racism and many more. We were encouraged to experience as many different people as possible and learn directly from people who live these realities. The role of diaconal ministry is one that supports people in current situations and provides pastoral care, Diaconal ministry encourages people to find their own voice and then works alongside a community to transform individual lives and communities. I see my role as serving you and together serving the community beyond our doors.

It took me a long time to be comfortable with the idea of serving. I struggled with the word serving because of it’s close ties to servant. I don’t know anyone who is a servant but it conjures up images of always being at someone else’s beck and call and always following someone’s orders. What I have come to realize is that my call is to serve God. I do that by serving people. It is service that requires me to give of myself, my energy, my creativity. As a person of faith, I have to serve God. I need to do what is required and expected of me because I my faith, because of my understanding of scripture and God’s purpose in the world. This service brings joy and hope into my life. It is service that requires me to be in relationship with others. Sometimes it is challenging. Sometimes it is inconvenient. Sometimes it is exhausting. Sometimes it brings me into conflict.

Sometimes, even within the Christian church, my understanding of Christ’s radical into inclusivity and welcome leads to conflict. At times, it would be easier to remain silent but my faith requires me to challenge injustice. This week Yorkton celebrates it’s 2nd Pride week. There are many people in our community who live in fear because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. There are people who feel they can’t come to church because they will not be welcome or safe. What does that say about us as a church? I don’t want to live in a community where people feel unsafe because of who they are. I believe we are all created in God’s image and loved by God. Our communities and churches need to celebrate the diversity that God creates.

Sometimes, we might feel that we don’t know anyone who identifies as sexually diverse so it doesn’t impact on us directly. You might be surprised who you know that doesn’t tell you this part of themselves because they don’t feel safe. You might be surprised by who is a part of your congregation. When people don’t feel safe, I believe that the entire community suffers and the body of Christ is broken.

Stephen was commissioned to a particular ministry. I am commissioned to a particular ministry. All of us are commissioned to ministry when we are baptized. We lay hands on an infant or adult. We give a blessing and send them out into the world to be God’s hands and feet. We reaffirm these commitments in confirmations and professions of faith. Ministry—caring for the poor and marginalized is not limited to a few people but is an expectation of all people of faith.

We are entering the time of year when many communities host Pride events. I encourage you to attend at least one event this season. Your presence helps people to know that they belong, that they are welcome and that they are safe. Your presence helps to heal the body of Christ. For some of us, participating in these events might stretch our comfort zone. It might unsettle us. It is an opportunity for us to celebrate and affirm the diversity that God creates.

If Stephen could risk his life for his faith, perhaps we can risk some discomfort.