Setting the Stage

Welcomed and loved... Bob was a member at a church in Chicago where a friend of mine was pastor. Bob was a child of the church, born and raised there. But because of his mental faculties, he had never become a member, because when it was time for confirmation, he wasn’t capable of “understanding” the classes. And some forty years later, this had all been forgotten. Upon learning of this, my friend made sure to include Bob in the next new members’ class. Because the truth is: how many of us really “understand” faith? Bob knew that this church was a community where he was welcomed and loved, when there were so many places where he was left out. And because of that, on many levels, he actually understood faith better than most of us ever might.

Welcomed and loved...

When we look at the narrative sweep of the Bible, some times it seems like those two concepts are sorely absent. There’s a familiar predictability in the Hebrew Bible, the narrowing of the community of God. By the second generation of humanity, there’s already sibling rivalry and murder. At the flood, God has decided that only one couple of each species was worth preserving - including out own. By the time we get to Abraham and Sarah, God has promised an eternal inheritance to this one couple and they’re offspring. On and on the story goes: Isaac is in, Ishmael is out; Jacob is in, Esau is out; David is in, Saul is out. Even after ancient Israel is established as a kingdom unto itself, things get so bad that the prophet Jeremiah proclaims that only a “righteous remnant” would remain faithful to God. The whole narrative seems designed to figure out who God’s people are, and who they are not.

By the time the New Testament rolls around, it comes as no surprise that the Pharisees are in charge. They are the guardians of the boundaries that determine who is in and who is out based on what they do - or don’t - do. What can you eat? Who can you hang out with? If you behave, you’re in; if not, well, you’re out.

And right into the middle of this mix drops Jesus. He comes across as a wandering rabbi, and yet he is immediately clashing against the Pharisees’ standards. He heals people on the Sabbath. He touches those who are supposed to be unclean. He eats with prostitutes and tax collectors. He just doesn’t behave. But it’s not just petty crimes that mark his behavior; it’s capital offenses. He forgives sins! He claims divinity! He takes on the Pharisees’ notions of what is good, moral behavior. And yet, he should be considered an outsider, revealed by his own lack of moral fortitude. But instead, he seems to be getting more and more supporters as he goes, and from people who ought to know better!

And what’s most shocking of all is that he is breaking open the boundaries of who is in and who is out - not reversing them, mind you, which would be easy enough to confront.  It would be one thing if he were replacing Pharisees with lepers. But it’s another thing altogether to say that Pharisees and lepers ought to hang out together. No wonder he was perceived as a threat.

Jesus was challenging the very basic assumption about the Biblical narrative and its narrowing purpose. He wasn’t making the community smaller; he was expanding its circles ever wider. He was reversing course. In Jesus’ mind, who was “in” and who was “out” was up for re-examination. And, worst of all, he claimed that he was doing all of this in the name of God!

By the time we get to Acts, the religious authorities are convinced they’ve set everything back in order. This pesky Jesus has been eliminated. His followers still seem to be hanging on, but no movement survives long without its leader, right? And yet, they seem to keep growing. And growing. And growing.

Up to a certain point, that growth is all within the “people of God” as understood at that time: the Jews, the descendants of Abraham’s righteous offspring. Even Jesus seemed to keep things “in the family” for the most part. But things are about to change.

Peter has gone off to the coastal city of Joppa. And while in prayer, he has a vision that changes his, and the church’s, mission forever. A sheet lowers from heaven. And in the sheet are animals of all varieties, including those that were forbidden for human consumption. But in the vision, he is told that what God makes clean is clean. And not only are dietary boundaries burst open, but the very boundaries of God’s community disintegrate. Peter is convinced that “God shows no partiality” but that “in every nation” anyone who fears and and does what God thinks is right is acceptable to God.

And that’s where we came into the lesson this morning. As Peter is preaching, Gentiles - that is, non-Jews - start acting in ways that show the Holy Spirit is at work in them in the same ways that marked the early church. The Jewish “believers” - that is, those who have become followers of Christ - cannot deny baptism to them. God must want them inside the community, too. And so, inside they come.

Welcomed and loved...

How often do we need to hear these lessons before they finally sink in? We are inheritors to a church which has alternately raised and lowered its own walls. Theological diversity in the early days of the church quickly gave way to definitions of “orthodox” and “heretic”. Churches were split off from time to time because of liturgical and theological subtleties that are lost on our current sensibilities. Eventually, West split from East (or East split from West, depending on whose version of history you read), each one claiming that the other was “out”.

Our own Protestant ancestors challenged these assumptions, breaking with the Catholic Church because of its own rigid boundaries. John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism, spoke of the “Invisible Church”, one where only God could draw the true boundaries. We soon forgot. Northern and Southern Presbyterians, Fundamentalist and Modernist, liberal and conservative, traditional and evangelical, we build up walls again and again and again only to see them fall before our eyes.

We have decided who can serve or even worship in the church based on their race or gender or orientation. And we make the table, the very thing that should unite us as Christians, the place with the highest walls of all. You have to go through a special class so that you understand what communion means. Or you have to be baptized first, because that’s the sacrament that marks who is “in” and who is “out”. But what about Bob, up there in Chicago? Doesn’t he get it more than any of us, what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be welcomed and loved...?

Friends, don’t get me wrong here. Being a community without boundaries does not mean that anything goes. And it does not mean that we open the community simply for political expediency or for the sake of openness itself. We do so rooted in the words from John’s letter that we read today. We do so because we show our love for God by our obedience to God’s desires! We find ourselves so deeply rooted in the Biblical narrative that we begin to see the world as God sees it: a very imperfect and broken imperfect place that is worthy of our disdain, but deserving of our compassionate, even sacrificial love!

Was God narrowing the community in those early days? Or was it remarkable that we even made it to the second generation after Adam and Eve’s behavior in Eden? Do we miss that Isaac and Ishmael, that Jacob and Esau are reconciled? Do we see that Jesus wasn’t actually changing the story at all, but magnifying its deeper purpose? For Jesus, and Peter after him, and even Paul after him, opening up the community was an act not of religious defiance, but of pure obedience?

Friends, you have heard me say it before: our faith calls us to be different in times that are very different. But what is sacred, what is crucial, what is needed and desired, will always remain.

We - we - are welcomed and loved. That is the eternal inheritance.