All are Welcome

 

There’s conflict in the early church again! In Galatians 2:11-21 Paul has been working with a congregation for several years and in that time they have welcomed people regardless of their religious background. Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians are working and worshiping together and the community is flourishing. But then they have some visitors from outside the community. These visitors feel that by having Jewish Christians sharing the table with non-Jews, they are breaking the purity code of the Jewish tradition. Cephas has been part of the community and has been comfortable sharing the table with many different people. Once these visitors come, he starts to distance himself and refuses to share the table. Then others join in and the community is divided. The Jewish Christians aren’t about to eat with sinners who don’t keep the law.

Paul goes on to argue that everyone, whether Jewish or not, is sinner. To identify as a sinner isn’t always a comfortable place. To have sin pointed out to us isn’t always comfortable but sin simply means that we have missed the mark, that we have made a mistake, that we haven’t lived up to who we are meant to be. Sin may be very personal but it also has impact on community.

Sometimes it is difficult to identify the sin. Initially, in this story, the sin is seen as breaking the purity code and not following the tradition of a segregated table. In order to resolve this break in the code, the Jewish Christians refuse to eat with non-Jews. Paul challenges this and suggests that the real sin is refusing to share the table. Paul flips the idea of sin on its head. The people who are accusing others of sin become the sinners.

We want to keep nice neat boxes which allow some people to be insiders and others outsiders but the Holy Spirit is messy and doesn’t conform to our ideas of who should be welcome in our communities. The sin for which Paul holds people accountable is the sin of exclusion and division. We continue to struggle with this challenge. Any time we tell someone that they are unwelcome, we sin because it breaks the body of Christ. It is easy to point to others and say that they are sinners and should be unwelcome but neither Christ nor Paul would support that attitude.

This video from the United Church of Christ shows what happens when we believe we are better than others and want to maintain a closed community without sinners.

When you watch this video, where do you see yourself? Do you think you are one of the ones who might get ejected or would you be the person who moves further down the pew so as not to be in the way when people are tossed out? If would could eject people from this congregation, who would you eject? Where would you stop? Perhaps someone would eject you. If you were the one being ejected, how would you feel? We need to have compassion for each other.

The point of this story is that in God’s eyes we are all equal. None of us is more or less worthy to be a part of the community. None of us should live in fear of being ejected because of something we have said or done or because of who we are. We are all special and we are all loved. The church is Christ’s body and all of us are members of the body. All of us are welcome.

 

Same Commandments for a New World

Moses goes off on the rescue mission and is able to bring the Hebrew people out of Egypt. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The people who remember Egypt are starting to die off. The Hebrew people are getting close to the end of their time in the wilderness.

Deuteronomy is the last book in the Torah—the law books. The Ten Commandments appear in Exodus and again in Deuteronomy. You might think of Deuteronomy as the second edition. Deuteronomy expands and improves upon the laws found in Exodus and Numbers.

The passage begins by reminding the people that the covenant – the promise between God and the people was made not with the ancestors but with the current gathered community. As people of faith we reaffirm the covenant regularly. We reaffirm our commitment to the God of our ancestors in faith through worship, through the sacraments of baptism and communion. We reaffirm our commitments to God when we participate is covenants between people. We reaffirm our commitment to God when we share our faith with others.

At first glance we might see the Ten Commandments and our world and think that no one pays any attention to them anymore and perhaps that’s why the world is falling apart. I think it is helpful to note that some of the Ten Commandments have made it in to our law—the obvious ones about murder and stealing. I think that the commandments continue to speak to us but they need to be reinterpreted for a different time.

The commandments remind us about the importance of relationships: spouse and family, community, God. They give us direction about how to live in community with others. They encourage us in all our relationships to treat each other with respect and compassion.

Honouring father and mother has to do with the importance of family relationships. In the ancient world, survival depended on children looking after their parents in old age. So the commandment has to do with ensuring that parents are looked after. In our own culture, families come in many shapes and sizes. One of the interesting things about this commandment is that mother and father are written as equals. In ancient Hebrew culture the social order was organized with men at the top, followed by children and then women so to place women on an equal footing with a man was radical. This commandment would seem to lift up relationships where partners work together in all aspects of family life. This commandment also contains an instruction that could be troubling. Taken at face value this commandment seems to lift up the idea that children should unconditionally obey and defer to their parents. This commandment has been used to justify abuse and maintain control of children rather than encouraging children to become who they are called to be. We want family structures to be healthy, to be places of nurture, love and encouragement for all their members. Re-written for our time the commandment might be something like: “Respect and care for all members of your family throughout their lives.”

The commandment speaks of not committing adultery. We live in a world where there are many different kinds of relationships. Some people choose heterosexual marriage, some choose same sex marriage, some people choose to be in relationship but unmarried and some people—by choice or circumstance—remain unattached. Some people change relationships several times through their adult life. Relationships are much more fluid in our time than they have been in the past. When we enter relationships—regardless of the form they take—there is value in committing fully to those relationships. The commitment builds trust and allows those involved to become more fully themselves and deepen their relationship with the holy through knowing the other.

In our community, the commandments give a prohibition on murder, stealing, lying. They also remind us not to covet or desire our neighbour’s wife, slave, house, donkey, new car… There are several challenges to this commandment. We no longer live in a world where women are property or where slavery is supposed to occur. People choose their relationships freely. This commandment allows those with wealth to live contentedly. Those with less wealth are also encouraged to be content with their lot in life. This commandment encourages inequality. The intent might originally have been to discourage disagreements over property among a group of people who were relatively equal in their wealth. In our own culture there are huge discrepancies in wealth. What might be more helpful is for us to talk about and work for a good quality of life for all people. These are the commandments that help us create healthy families and communities.

Central to creating healthy community is another commandment which we hear Jesus quote later in scripture: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The Hebrew people are reminded—as we are—to “keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” The idea is that the commandments become central to our lives. By placing the commandments at the center of our lives God also becomes central.

We hear Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke remind people to love God with heart, with soul, with strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. One of the ways we love ourselves is through sabbath. There is a difference between how Exodus and Deuteronomy give the commandment about sabbath. Sabbath is the concept of rest from work. In the ancient Hebrew tradition there was no work done on the Sabbath – no cooking, no travel, no laundry, no farming – only minimal care for livestock. In the home I grew up in there was no homework on a Sunday, Dad never farmed on a Sunday – except to care for the livestock. There was no house work or laundry. The concept of Sabbath reminds us how important it is to rest. The difference between Exodus and Deuteronomy is in why we rest. Exodus ties sabbath to the first creation story which tells us that God created the earth in seven days and then rested. Deuteronomy ties Sabbath to remembering what it was like to be a slave in Egypt. It reminds the people that, collectively, they know what it is like not to rest. Everyone should be entitled to sabbath including slaves and livestock. This shift from focusing on God’s rest to the human need for rest is important because it tells us that the sabbath is not for God but for us. The sabbath is for the creation. Often we associate sabbath with a time of worship but in this instance the connection isn’t there. The focus is on the stoppage of work—on rest.

The first commandment begins by requiring that there be no other Gods. The second commandment is connected and has to do with prohibiting idols. In this instance the idols are concrete images from nature. In our own context the idols might be wealth, power, a new car, a perfect house, the great vacation. Idols are anything that take our focus away from God. These two commandments combine to remind us about the centrality of God in our lives. We sometimes want to separate God from certain aspects of our life. We might try to separate God from politics. We might try to separate God of money. We place money and politics off to one side and God to the other. When we do this the choices we make about money and our politics may or may not reflect God. By separating certain parts of our lives from our faith we are more likely to create idols. By reconnecting our money and politics to our faith, God becomes more central in all our decision making.

One of the troubling thing about both the Deuteronomy and Exodus versions of the Ten Commandments is the image of God punishing children for their parent’s sins. Perhaps punishment isn’t the right word. I think the Biblical authors understood that behavior and attitudes of parents are passed to the next generation but perhaps in language and translation the word punishment doesn’t quite fit what is meant. In ancient it times, as a way of making sense of the world, people understood that God rewarded good behavior and punished bad behavior. I wonder if what the passage is trying to get at is the idea that a parent’s life influences their child’s life. For example, a child born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome lives with very real consequences of a parent’s behavior. Is it punishment? I wouldn’t say so, but it is a real consequence. In the ancient world this might have been seen as punishment. Other places in scripture push back against the idea that God punishes children. Both Jeremiah 31:29 and Ezekiel 18 quote a proverb: “parents have eaten sour grapes and their children’s teeth are blunted” and go on to say that only the one who sins will be punished. These later authors also seem to be struggling with the concept that God would punish multiple generations and they speak out against the text.

Perhaps part of our work as a church is to reconnect ourselves with how the Ten Commandments might be speaking to us. They aren’t intended as a list of rules to be obeyed but as framework to shape community that places God at the centre, cares for others and allows us to care for ourselves. The Ten Commandments re-orient us and reshape us. We might see what looks like a world falling apart but when we are able to center ourselves in God, in relationship, in compassion for ourselves and others the world can be healed.

The Building Blocks of Christian Community

This is a reflection based on Acts 2:42-47 about the early church and the building blocks for the modern church.

This passage from the book of Acts gives us a snapshot of the early church. The priorities for the early church were learning the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread together, and prayers.

 Mizti J. Smith writes that it is “important that community building starts on the right foot.”[1] Learning, fellowship, communion and prayers were the building blocks of the early church and they need to be central to the present church.

It was important for the early church to wrestle with the stories that they heard about Jesus. It was important for them to understand the relevance of the gospel message in their own lives and in their own community so they committed themselves to learning and study. They grounded themselves in the Hebrew scriptures and put the stories of Jesus within that context. Then they had to wrestle with what all of this said about their own lives and community. What they discovered is that their faith required them to be in community with other believers and that their faith required them to live differently than those around them.

One of the ways in which the early church identified itself was through its fellowship. We hear fellowship and think coffee or potluck. The greek, koinonia, that is translated as fellowship is translated elsewhere as sharing. It shares its root with Diakonia which means to serve. So the idea of fellowship with coffee and potluck as we understand it is too narrow. Fellowship includes a commitment to sharing and to serving. Smith goes on to write that, “koinonia signifies mutuality and commonality among the new believers beyond potluck meals.”[2] Potluck fellowship encourages us to know one another. Koina pops up again when we are told that the early church shared “things in common” and that resources are distributed to anyone who has need.

Communion was a central way in which the early church remembered and grounded themselves in the story of Jesus. Communion was not celebrated at the Jewish temple where the early Christians worshiped as part of the Jewish community. Communion was celebrated separately in homes where Christians gathered and was one of the things that identified the Christian community as distinct from the Jewish community.

And then there are prayers…praying together. For the early church it would have been important to pray for strength to be faithful when there were so many pressures encouraging abandonment of the Jesus movement….It would just be easier to remain Jewish. People who were not Jewish but wanted to become Christian needed to convert to Judaism and follow the Jewish law. There was pressure within the Roman empire to squash the early church and we see examples of this throughout the book of Acts. Prayers to stay the course in the midst of these struggles would have been important. Prayers were an important part of the healing process and so praying for individuals would also have been important.

As I was reading this passage and the commentaries about it this week, I was reminded of my own call to Diaconal Ministry which comes from the words koinoia and diakonia. In the United Church diaconal ministers are called to a ministry of education, service and pastoral care.

When I was doing my training for diaconal ministry, we were always taught to make sure and offer refreshment whenever we gathered for any reason. At learning circles we took turns putting on coffee and providing snacks for the day. That has carried over into the ministry that I do. When people drop into the church asking for money or food I start by offering a cup of coffee and listening to their story. A woman said to me a few months ago that she has been to many churches and has never been offered a cup of coffee. She said it made her feel human and respected.  So whenever we gather here, regardless of who is present, I want to bring a sense of hospitality and welcome to the ministry that we do together.

Diaconal ministry includes an emphasis on education and learning. The early church grounded themselves in the scriptures and we need to continue doing the same. Sunday morning hardly scratches the surface of learning about scripture. I love scripture and the way it continues to speak to us in our own context and what’s happening around us. For example, the passage we heard this morning brings us back to the basics of being a Christian community. But it also requires us to look at the broader picture of the world. Since the first biblical stories there has been violence and inequality. Humans have been trying to figure out how to address and eliminate these experiences. Scripture tells that story. As humans listen to God word and spirit they find themselves given wisdom, courage, desire and an ability to challenge injustice and support and encourage those amongst us who are most in need. And we return Diakonia and service. Our learning about scripture and the world should lead us directly to a ministry of service and action. It should lead us to be generous with anyone who has need.

Finally in the early church, they prayed. Prayer is a way of opening ourselves to God’s spirit. It is a way of setting our intention for how we will live. It strengthens and encourages us on days that are painful or exhausting. It reminds us of God generous and abundant love for us and connects with other people of faith who share those prayers.

My hope and my prayer for us is that we will hold the basics of the early church in our collective memory and that these building blocks will be what supports and shapes our future. Amen.

 

1.  Mizti J. Smith. Commentary on Acts 2:42-47http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=895

 2. Mizti J. Smith. Commentary on Acts 2:42-47 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=895