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.

A Kaleidoscope of Theologies

In this passage (Ephesians 3:1-12), Paul is writing to the Ephesians –  a group mostly made up of non-Jews. I love the book of Ephesians because it has so much to say about how we live together in a faith community in the midst of difference and conflict.  The Jewish Christians really struggled with how people who were not culturally, ethnically or religiously Jewish could still be God’s people. Paul is telling the outsiders that they are welcome and that they can be part of Christ’s body even though they think, look and act differently from the Jewish Christians. What connects and holds the faith community together is a faith in Jesus.

As a minister, I have had many opportunities to reflect on and learn about my faith. Sometimes where my belief has taken me is a natural fit. Sometimes it has been more of a struggle to change and let go of beliefs that no longer fit. In the passage, Paul has had an experience of faith which he has shared with the community. His belief that Jesus had come to all people, not just the Jews was radical. It was a departure from the belief of the early church. As a minister, I often find myself in a place where my beliefs no longer fit with what I was taught as a child or what seem to be common assumptions about Christian faith.

As a minister, I am called to share my faith with you from my own learning and reflection. This task is a gift but sometimes intimidating. There is a fine line between sharing and learning together and an arrogance that dismisses other belief. As I read this passage I hear Paul saying he knows something that no one else does. He has a new message that no one else has heard. He is clearly grounding this message within the context of Jesus message but reshaping it so it has meaning for the congregation with which he is corresponding.

Paul recognizes his own insignificance but that the Spirit is working through him. He also recognizes that there are many different strands of wisdom within the church tradition. What he is offering as a message is only one strand. This tension between many different beliefs has been part of the church since its earliest time and continues to be a part of our own context.

Throughout the history of Christianity there have been many different strands of faith. It seems a bit like a like a kaleidoscope with many shapes and colours. Everyone who looks at a kaleidoscope sees different things, is reminded of different things. What we see may depend on the what’s happening in our lives or world at any given moment. Our scripture and the theology we draw from it functions in a similar manner. This is why we have four gospels in our Bible—all of which are different.  They tell the same stories in different ways. They tell different stories and have different focuses and emphasis. There has never been a single right way of understanding the gospel message or of practicing faith. However, attempts have been made to force “right” belief at the expense of other strands of faith. That’s how our cannon of scripture—the books we now simply call the Bible—came to be. Marcion was raised as a Christian but disliked anything Jewish or material. Somewhere around 144 C.E. he organized a church following his own beliefs and using only Luke and Paul’s writings.

Other congregations used a variety of writings. We know of at least 21 known gospels that were in use in the early church. Because of Marcion’s beliefs and that of some other fringe groups like the gnostics, the mainstream church, decided that they needed to clarify what it was they believed and what was appropriate reading material for learning and instruction. Out that we end up with the canon of scripture (containing only four gospels) and the Apostle’s creed, the first draft of which appeared somewhere around 150 C.E.

Throughout the history of the church there have been different interpretations of scripture and theology. When one group goes too far one way or another, another part of the church tries to draw them back. There is a history of feeling so strongly about particular beliefs that groups leave denominations and start their own church. That’s how we have ended up with so many different denominations.

Within modern Christianity there is sometimes a tendency towards an assumption of common beliefs. As United Church people we are sometimes accused of believing in everything or in nothing. I think that the reason for this accusation is that as a denomination we have tended to not stay within the prescribed notions of single belief. It is hard sometimes for people who have been taught that there is a right way of believing to recognize that there are multiple ways of interpreting scripture, of practicing faith and of living faithfully.

I want to share with you some of my beliefs that I wrote in the form of a personal creed. Some of the things in it you may agree with. Some of it you may disagree with. Some of it may raise questions for you. I offer this recognizing that what binds us together in the body of Christ is our sense that God and Jesus are central to our lives.

I believe in a loving, just, compassionate God
who cries and laughs with us,
This God creates
and is beyond what we can know or comprehend
is within us and
we are within the Creator
All creation is God’s body,
When we harm creation, we harm ourselves and our creator.
The Wise Ones call us to dance and celebrate all life with this Creator.

In Jesus, this Creator was and is made known.
He was fully human and fully known by God as all of us are.
He cared about each person individually
and knew that all must be free for one to be free.
As Political Lord, he challenged structural violence
and empowered people for transformation.
Jesus is known as
prophet, guide, protestor, activist, healer, teacher, witness.
Jesus died because there is sin in the world
which separates us from each other and from God.
Jesus challenges that separateness.
There is witness to his life, his death and his resurrection.
It is because of this witness that he is known to us today.
Jesus calls us to continue the witness that points to a
God of justice, love and compassion.

The Holy Spirit gives courage and passion to continue the witness.
She is known in dancing life, in laughter and tears,
in grace and compassion.
She is the breath of God that offers creative movement in the world.

God calls all creation to live in justice and peace together.
Not in some distant time and place but here and now.
We live as though the Kingdom of God is already among us.
The Kingdom of God is made known:
in healthy, respectful relationships, in risk and in trust.
God is a God of relationship so in relationship there is hope for all creation.

What’s most important for me in my faith is that God is embodied in each of us. Sometimes we are very good at living faithfully. Sometimes we are more challenged in how we live. For me, belief is important in that it shapes how I live and how I see the world. I believe in a God of hope, a God of transformation therefore my life and speech and actions must reflect hope and transformation. If I believe in a God of hope, I cannot live in fear. If I believe in a God of love then I cannot spread hate. The belief points me in the direction of life that I want to live.

Over the Christmas break, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about hope and fear in the context of our own faith community. If we believe in a God of hope then many things are possible. If we believe in a God of fear, we are doomed. The Christmas angels remind us “be not afraid.” This is some of the best advice that our scripture has to offer.

We cannot live in fear of beliefs—Christian or otherwise—that are different from our own. God is bigger than our belief. Ephesians reminds us that we need variety in our belief. The variety challenges us and helps us grow in our faith. You won’t always agree with everything I say here and that’s OK but I hope that when you hear things that differ from your own beliefs it will deepen your own faith. Sometimes, it is tempting to only want to hear what affirms our own belief. It’s comfortable and in many ways easier but if our faith is never challenged by others then it doesn’t deepen and grow.  As we become grounded in our own faith—not necessarily more rigid or certain—it often becomes easier to tolerate difference.

This isn’t to say that we want to believe everything or nothing. What is essential is for us to be able to discern which aspects of our faith are most central and which we cannot compromise on. For me, these are my belief in a God of justice and compassion, that God works through all of us to transform the world and that we experience God through our relationships. These core beliefs are what give me hope and help to maintain my faith in a world that sometimes feels like it is falling apart.

I often wear a cross. The cross connects us to Jesus’ death and resurrection. For many, a cross is a symbol reminding us that Jesus died for our sins and of the need to believe in Jesus so that we will abide with Christ after death. That’s a particular variety of belief.

For me, the cross is a reminder of the people who stood and watched Jesus die and could do nothing. It reminds me that there are many people in our world who continue to live with injustice and death. Sometimes it feels like a can do nothing. This particular cross was a confirmation gift and when I put it on it connects me to the minister who gave it to me and her commitment to justice. It reminds me that there are many people around the world who continue Jesus’ work today. It reminds me that death does not have the last word in our world. I’m not terribly concerned with what happens after we die because my faith is grounded in God’s activity in this world. This is also a variety of belief.

Neither of these beliefs is wrong but they shape how we see the world and the emphasis we place on our interactions with others. Both are grounded in Jesus and scripture. In our faith, we need to make room for each other even when we see the world differently. We need to listen to each other and be open to be being shaped and touched by belief that is different from our own. That’s part of the richness of wisdom that comes from being part of a faith community.

We need more than just the wisdom that has been handed to us from previous generations or that comes from those of us trained as ministers and theologians. We need the wisdom of the collective faith community. You are part of the rich variety of God which is made known in all of us together.

People often make New Year’s resolutions. I encourage you to spend time reflecting on your faith and how it shapes your world view. I encourage you to resolve to join a Bible study or other reflection group. Your faith is what grounds you in God’s spirit and that faith always needs to be deepening and growing. Open yourself to be challenged and learning as well as sharing your own wisdom with faith community.

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