Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’
Something amazing and unanticipated has happened in the early church. People of every social status, ethnicity and nation, have flocked to join the with the followers of Christ! It was unanticipated because many thought this would be a renewal among Hebrews only. But the story of Jesus‘ life, death and resurrection attracted everyone! Why were so many different people drawn to this? It was the way the community organized itself. They fed the hungry no matter their ethnicity. They welcomed poor and wealthy alike. Slaves and women had as much value as men. Roman society attempted to keep people clearly stratified, with Roman men at the top, women, other ethnic groups, the poor and slaves all in lower tiers. Christians valued all equally as the creation of God, as those called family by Jesus.
But as we can see, the arrival of all of these different ethnic groups caused controversy. The Messiah, so some thought, came for Israel. These ethnic groups must, therefore, become a part of Israel, (be like us) in order to be a part of God’s Kingdom (to be saved). The heart of the matter is just that. Does the unity of the church depend on the uniformity of its members. Must all be circumcised, become Israel, be like us.
Chapter 15 of Acts is a very important story in the life of the church. In this chapter if was decided that unity in Christ did not depend on national or ethnic identity. All people were welcomed into the community of Christ. This sounds great. And it sounds very much like our own Baptist tradition of ‘Soul Liberty‘ which proclaims that God has created each person with a mind and a conscience and given the Holy Spirit so that each can respond to God as they feel called, as they see fit. But in practice, it gets complicated. Even today we see evidence of the challenge. Rarely are churches truly representative of a variety of ethnic groups and races. In our day and age churches are even divided among lines of age, young and old.
First, this story allows us to admit that we do find welcome of the stranger, the other, challenging. Who are the ‘others’ that you find most challenging to welcome? When/Where have you experienced being the outsider? Were you made to feel welcome or left on your own?
‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’
This story sheds some light on Baptism... what it is, why we do it.
Our baptist tradition tells us that baptism is an ordinance (something ordained, by Christ) that is meant for ‘believers’ not infants. By ‘believers’ we means someone who is capable of making the choice for themselves. Our baptist tradition also tells us that Baptism is not a necessary precursor to God’s eternal love. One need not be baptized in order to ‘go to heaven.‘ So why do we baptize?
The Ethiopian Eunuch is identified in many ways. He is a person of dark skin. He is the descendent (more poetic or symbolic than literal) of Egypt, the nation that enslaved Israel. He is a eunuch which means that he has either been violently physically altered, born with a physical aberration, or that he is same-gender loving. Regardless of which, he is ‘cut-off.‘ If physically altered, then enslaved. If physical aberration or same-gender loving than he is cut-off from the covenant community of Israel, which, apparently, is the community that he is drawn to. He is the outsider, the other, the ‘not-like-us.‘ He wishes to be claimed, to belong. Baptism a ritual in which the individual proclaims that they belong to God in Christ. This is the new identity, the new allegiance. Where once the Ethiopian Eunuch always felt the outsider, now he is named, claimed and valued as a child of God.
But if that were all that Baptism was, we could baptize infants. Surely we want our children to know, from the first moments of their birth onward, that they are claimed and loved by their Creator. Baptism is more than an assurance of love, it is also claiming an identity and allegiance that trumps all others. Paul will write in Galatians; 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. What Paul is saying is that what identifies us is not cultural gender roles, ethnic or national allegiances, or social or economic class/status. Now we are identified as one in Christ. This cuts both ways. If gender role, ethnic identity or social/economic status has always left us vulnerable, oppressed, marginalized, then we are freed of that and open to a full life defined by relation to Christ alone. If, however, we have benefitted from, found pride, comfort or strength in these allegiances and identities, Baptism is a challenge to us, a radical break between who we have always been and who God calls us to be. Why do we take such a radical break from all allegiances? So that we are always open to receive those who God leads us too, to welcome all that come seeking the solace of God’s love.
For his life was taken from the earth.”
The passage of scripture that the Ethiopian and Phillip look at comes from the book of Isaiah and is called a ‘Servant Song.’ The early church read this and other servant songs, which spoke of one to come to Israel’s rescue, but who would also suffer, and saw Jesus. This gives us a chance to reflect on the mission of Jesus a bit.
In the original Hebrew ‘life was taken’ is literally ‘life was cut off,’ and now we see why the Eunuch was so interested in this passage of scripture. In this particular Hebrew tradition, the one to rescue and renew was not triumphant or victorious through power or strength, but the one who was cut off. He who was discarded, cast out, put down, is the redeemer of Israel. The worthless are of great worth in the economy of God.
Reflecting back on the life of Jesus there are many places in which the worthless are given worth. In some cases Jesus does this work simply by exposing the sin of the people doing the evaluating, as in the story of Zacchaeus. It wasn’t that he was worthless, but that the people, wrongly considered him so. In other cases Jesus would not only expose the cultural system of exclusion, but also heal those excluded, such as lepers. Another example would be the woman caught in adultery in John. Jesus exposes both the hypocrisy of the cultural system and then commands/enables the woman to ‘go and sin no more.’
This leads me to conclude that the church exists, was created by Christ, as a staging ground for disciples to go out to the cut off, the excluded, the shamed. And once we are out there, to empower those considered worthless, who perhaps consider themselves worthless, to no longer live as the excluded, but as the valued and the worthy. According the gospels, this happens when people experience the love of Christ. Which challenges us in a couple of ways. It challenges those of us who are currently the church, because it asks us to stop sitting in the pews wondering where the people are, and demands that we go to them. It challenges us to create relationships which nurture the discouraged. A houseplant left with little water or light, withered, wilted and close to death, does not spring back to life immediately. Care and patience are required. And it challenges us to set aside the identities that society has put on people; welfare recipient, unemployed, single-mother, food-stamp user, (and that list could go on an don) so that we see each person as a child of God for whom Christ chose to be cut off.
As challenging as this is, this sheds new light on evangelism, which is such a necessary part of the church, but which frightens us so. We go into the world as evangelists, to the unloved, with love. To those considered worthless with a message of welcome and a belief of potential...
Monday Luke 8:
Go down to the road - the desert road...Now there was an Ethiopian...
Who is this character, the Ethiopian Eunuch? As an Ethiopian he a dark-skinned person. The word ‘Ethiopian‘ comes from the Greek meaning ‘burnt skin.‘ Although matters of race and ethnicity are always complex, in our own time, not to mention trying to reconstruct ancient history, it is safe for us to assume generally that what we are learning is that Ethiopians, also called in the Hebrew scriptures, Cushites or Nubians, come from North Africa, from Egypt.
The point of this character, I would suggest, is that the Holy Spirit is leading Hebrews back to Egypt, but not out of desperation or for oppression, but instead with good news. Symbolically, those who had been separated, had lived a relation of dominance and oppression, are being reunited under the death and resurrection of Christ. In other words, the gospel shatters ethnic and national identities. This is a poetic story of reconciliation if you asked me. Where historically there had been oppression and separation, between Jew and Egyptian, now in Christ, there is unity and sanctuary and community.
Let’s be honest. This story cuts against the grain of what many assume about faith in Christ and membership in his church. Many want, I want, a place a safety, peace, security, stability. These are important in our lives. But that isn’t the purpose of faith or church. These are means to an end and that is the shocking part. Many of us come to church for the means without knowledge of the ends. Christ created the church not to simply be a secure and stable community, but so as a staging ground for a mission. And that mission was to go into un often unstable, fearful, angry world with peace, hope and healing. Church is a place of stability only so that we, the church can enter the traumatized places in the world. Phillip is called to go to the desert road, the wilderness road, the place of instability and risk and need. That is the faith and that is church...
What does this mean for us as Christians? In 2 Corinthians 5:18 we read these words of Paul; All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.’ In a world of many divisions, often violent and oppressive, we are called to be a force that reconciles, creates peace. This week, more than ever, we need to remember our vocation, our call, as Christians.
Thursday Luke 7:58
Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him;
So what have we (hopefully) experienced in Sunday’s worship and in the subsequent days?
First, I hope that we have experienced a resurgence of God-thought. The danger revealed in this story is that any and everyone can grow lethargic about believing in God. God can so easily become the cosmic butler who waits quietly out of the way, until we have need of God. God can so easily become a word we use to give ultimate importance to our own priorities, assumptions and ideologies. God can shelter us from the pain and injustice in the world around us (that we perhaps unwittingly participate in) and God can support and empower violent, vengeful, cruel or uncaring actions that really have nothing to do with God or God’s mission on earth. So I hope that you have been encourage to think a bit about God.
Second, I hope that we have experienced the disturbing presence of Jesus. Luke tells us that throughout his life, Jesus disturbed the people and the systems of society that created and accepted poverty, cruelty, bigotry and ignorance. His life was not a sacrifice to God’s wrath, it was the perfect expression of God’s love and justice. When ‘faithful’ people had grown complacent or comfortable, Jesus shattered that with a reminding of God’s call to go into the world, among lonely, broken, hurting people as the loving presence of God. His death was not to satisfy an angry God, but to show that faithfulness and allegiance to the passionate life of God, even to the point when it costs us something, when it causes death, is not defeat, but victory, not an end, but a new beginning.
And so, finally, I hope we have experienced the insistent call of a passionate life. I hope that we have been grasped by something. Paul Tillich says that faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite. I hope that we have perhaps briefly understood that ‘life’ is not what we make of it, but instead what God pulls us to when we give ourselves passionately to one another, passionately to the weak, the suffering, the ignored, the hated. This is ultimately the story of Stephen. He is grasped, as he serves the vulnerable, the hungry, the tolerated by a God who loves passionately all people. While there is risk, Stephen does die, he has experienced eternal life by allowing this insistent God to pull into a life of ecstatic service of others and advocacy for others. He does not merely get through the days he is given, but makes each moment a Spirit filled celebration of love, solidarity, community and sharing.
Wednesday Luke 6:14
for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us."
It may be that our eyes glaze over when we begin to listen to or read Stephen’s sermon upon his arrest (I admit it, mine do), after all, it is the longest sermon in the book of Acts. Our lectionary reading from Sunday actually skips over most of it, which sounds good, but we do miss the big point Stephen is trying to make.
It sounds as if Stephen is criticizing Judaism, and he is, but we have to understand exactly what his criticism is, so that this sermon doesn’t become theological fodder to anti-semitism or triumphalism (Christian beliefs are ‘right’ and Jewish ones ‘wrong’).
Stephen is having a go at the temple and all that it has come to symbolize as well as its ineffectual social engagement. Let’s remember that Jesus had a go at the Temple too. Stephen’s version of the gospel is radically open to all people and that is shocking and challenging to the religious elites. Remember, Stephen is a Hellenist Jew, so he is considered by Jerusalem Jews with suspicion. In more current language we might say that he is ‘tolerated,’ which reveals how weak and patronizing toleration is.
Stephen, being a member of a patronized class is therefore more sympathetic to others who are considered ‘lower’ class. While I do not have the space to explain in detail, there is a great deal of evidence that suggests that what Stephen is doing in this sermon is advocating, not only for the acceptance of his own people but also of Samaritans (and you hopefully remember how hated and dehumanized Samaritans were in this time and place). Stephen is in effect telling the religious leaders and anyone who would listen that they believe in the wrong God, a God who favors only Israel and disregards all other peoples of the world. Stephen is saying that faith in God and religious practice at the temple has become more about Jewish National Identity and Jewish national superiority than about serving God. The temple has become an idol. God is not worshiped there, Israel is worshiped there.
Building on yesterday’s idea, The Holy Spirit, through Stephen is not only shaking the foundations of the apostles plans for the church, but also Israel’s understanding of Temple, God and themselves even, their identity. Stephen is reminding Israel of its call, chosen by God, not to be superior or authoritarian or patronizing, but to serve, welcome and guard all the peoples of the earth from violence and injustice. And this takes courage. To speak up for those considered outsiders and the unworthy takes courage. To challenge the theological underpinnings of demonic beliefs and practices takes courage. To allow God to pull us into this kind of passionate and risky life, takes courage.
Tuesday Luke 6:8
Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.
There are some struggles in the early church and yet good things are happening. It is obvious that the early church understood that the life of Jesus and the life that Jesus gives is meant to to burst beyond the allegiances of nation, ethnicity, or social grouping and create a community of the wealthy and poor, Hebrew and Hellenist. These Hellenist newcomer/outsiders are really included in the community we notice. When the vulnerable Hellenists advocate for more, the Hebrew apostles place Hellenists in charge of the feeding ministry. They are included in the leadership and given the power to make important decisions, not just given a token place at the table. So the apostles exercise good planning, sound decision making and good leadership.
Then the Holy Spirit rushes in and mixes things up. Stephen was ordained by the apostles for the ministry of feeding the hungry, but Stephen begins preaching authoritatively and healing powerfully. This is not what the apostles planned for or intended. (Are there hints of control-issues here? Perhaps the apostles thought that as those who had actually lived with Jesus were the only ones prepared to preach and teach and Stephen, a recent convert, was just not worthy of the ministry of preaching). ‘The best laid plans of mice and men/often go awry,’ wrote the poet Robert Burns. We laugh at it because we experience its truth. But we also find it frustrating and even frightening when the plans that have gone awry are ours.
Part of the story of Acts is the story of the Apostles best laid plans going awry. Which leads me to ponder a very different way of think about church, about being member of the gathered believers in Christ. To be baptized into this body is to regularly submit to having the Holy Spirit lead us awry. Perhaps, I’m wondering, church isn’t so much about comfort, as discomfort, not so much about security as learning to enjoy the ride of the chaotic urging of the Holy Spirit? The history of church doesn’t often tell this story. Church has often resisted the insistent call of the Holy Spirit to shatter assumptions and systems that enslave and oppress. In our own nation, much of the church resisted the civil rights movement. Still today churches resist the Spirit empowered equality of women (not letting them lead or preach).
Acts tells us a shocking story. The Holy Spirit was moving, tearing down the best laid plans and building new communities. As we will see, those apostles that could not ride this chaotic wave of the coming Kingdom were soon replaced with those who could ride that wave.
So, what do you think? Church as a place where we come to allow our comfort to be challenged and even shattered in the hopes of something new?
Monday Luke 6:1
the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
Luke’s story continues in the book we now call the Acts of the Apostles. Although Easter continues liturgically in our worship at church, our scripture readings do not allow us to linger long in resurrection relief. Instead, we are catapulted head-long into the complicated, gritty, controversial and sometimes painful mission of God. Luke is very honest about the struggles and the mission of the early church. Let’s look at that today.
First, Luke tells us that the Hellenists and the Hebrews are at tension in the early church. The Hellenistis or Greeks were probably not exactly people of a different ethnicity from the Hebrews. They were themselves Jewish, but they were ‘raised’ outside of Roman Palestine, away from Jerusalem and some of the customs were a bit different. They were accustomed to a greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. And they were more comfortable with diversity than the Hebrews who lived in and around Jerusalem.
We will remember that a significant theme in Luke’s presentation of Jesus is that he crossed boundaries. He went to the Samaritans, spoke to women, touched lepers, ate with unclean and ‘sinful’ women and men, and with the despised wealthy as well. Today’s story from Luke reveals that the early church struggled with this. The Hellenist’s were different and distrusted. Some Hebrews may have wondered if this ‘church’ they had joined was becoming a ‘Hellenist church.’
Leslie Newbigin writes, ‘The mission of God changes not only the world, but the church as well.‘ Right away Luke shows us that the mission of Jesus was being carried out by the early church, whether they were comfortable with it or not. There were exclusions to be undone and relationships to be created. The mission of Jesus, of taking the good news of God’s love for all creation continued, sometimes despite the apostles.
Church as a place of disturbance of the status quo. Church as a place not where beliefs are supported, but challenged. Church as a place, going beyond beliefs, where attitudes, behaviors and actions are challenged. Church as a place of Holy Disturbance?
Could that be what church is all about, allowing the Spirit to disturb us?
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.