Acts 15: 1-11 We Are Not That Kind of Church
February 19, 2017
And Peter said, because of the Holy Spirit, there is no distinction between them and us. None at all.
I knew a minister who said his first church was in Oak Ridge, TN. Not long after he started to work there the state began to build the Oak Ridge atomic energy plant. He said there were people coming in from all around the country. License plates from a dozen different states. All these northerners come down south to build the plant and work in it. He called a congregational meeting to talk with the church about making a special effort to welcome these new people. He thought maybe we should have some kind of calling-on-people campaign – to make all these new and different people feel welcome. Well, he said I surprised to find out that not everybody was in the church cared for his idea.
“Oh I don’t know if they will fit in here,” said one. “They are not from around here,” said another. Another person said, “Many of them are just construction people so they won’t even be staying.”
“But,” the minister said, “I still think we ought to make an effort to invite THEM.”
After arguing for a time, the congregation finally decided to do something. One person made the motion that in order to be a member of the church, you must own property in the county.” Someone seconded the motion and although he minister campaigned against it, the motion passed. The members said, “You are just out of seminary, what do you know?”
Now, some forty years later he and his wife decided to go back to Oak Ridge for a visit. As he was telling his wife about that meeting and about how tough it was, but he began to notice it was even tougher to find the church. Then, he saw it. A big white building - but it seemed to have a different sign out front. He looked and he looked again, the sign outside the church said, “Bubba’s Bar-Be-Que, all you can eat.” The parking lot was packed with cars from all over the place: cars and trucks and motorcycles, license plates from near and far.
Inside - the pews were pushed against the wall and the organ pit was now where they kept the cash register. There were all kinds of people: Jews and Gentiles, Slave and Free, Male and Female, Samaritans, Phoenicians, Ethiopians, you name it and they were there. The minister recalls, “Then, I turned to my wife and said, “You know, it’s a good thing this place isn’t still a church, otherwise these people couldn’t be in here.”
The fifteenth chapter of Acts was an Oak Ridge moment for the early church. God was bringing them all kinds of people into their community and they had to decide what do we do? Paul and Barnabas had no doubt – invite them, of course! But, others didn’t see it that way. Verse 2 says, “And there was no small dissention among them.” In other words, when Paul and Barnabas suggested these Gentiles become new members it was like poking a stick in a hornets nest. It was one big church fight.
Acts 15 was just the last straw of a lot of straws. After Jesus ascended into heaven the Holy Spirit arrived, it went from a lot of US and a little THEM to suddenly there were more THEM than US and that will always spell trouble.
The first group of converts – some 3,000 – were converted by a five-minute sermon by Peter on Pentecost Sunday. But, that wasn’t a real problem since the Jewish converts looked like the Jewish disciples. The next conversions took place when Philip preached in Samaria. A number of them were converted. Samaritans were not loved by mainline Jews, but since Samaritans were also Jews, it was like inviting your black sheep cousins to the family reunion, you may not like them, but you know they have a right to be there.
However, things really started to make them uneasy when Philip converted an Ethiopian eunuch. You can see the disciples looking at Philip saying, “We are not racist or anything, Philip, but an Ethiopian - a Eunuch?” Then, if that wasn’t enough, it all gets topped off by Peter himself. Peter has a dream about inclusivity and the next thing we know he is knocking on the door of a Gentile, a Roman colonel named Cornelius. Now he is bringing Cornelius to Thursday night choir practice and everyone is forcing a strained smile as they say, “So glad to meet you, Roman, Gentile soldier whom we have always been told to hate.”
Seems there is no end to the Holy Spirit’s great sense of humor. When they imagined converts, they had in mind people who looked and sounded like them. First you bring us strangers, then Samaritans, then Ethiopians and now Gentiles. Who’s next, for goodness sakes?
Well, it felt like that to them, I can assure you. When word reached Jerusalem that because of God Gentiles and pagans were turning their lives over to Jesus, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, didn’t know what to make of it. “It can’t be,” they said, “These Gentiles can’t be followers of Jesus, they are not like us; heavens, they are not even Jews. They must become Jews first in order to become Christians. Besides obeying the laws, they wanted them to go a step further. They wanted them to be circumcised. Well, asking someone to worship on Sunday instead of Saturday is one thing, but to demand them go under the knife, well, the Gentile converts were uneasy to say the least.
When it came time for them to vote, I am sure someone said, “They simply won’t fit in, they are not from around here.” Someone else said, “They have to own property in the county.” Someone else insisted they had to be circumcised, but in the end, Peter and Paul and it was the grace of God that had the last word.
We ought to stop now and then and ask ourselves, “Are there any groups of people not welcome in our church?” Is there anyone we would turn away? I don’t think we would, but we need to sure.
Last summer a deranged young man named, Omar Mateen, walked into an Orlando nightclub frequented mainly by gay men and for three hours shot and killed the patrons. Before he was done, he shot over 100 people and killed 49. I felt sadness for the families but also empathy for the larger gay and lesbian community. To be targeted by such hate must have made all of them afraid. I felt they needed to know that our church held no such hate. As we all know there are some churches that do have that kind of hate – I felt it was important for them to know we are not one of them. So, I put something up on our church sign asking that God would bless them.
Now, some people questioned my action. They wondered if I was blessing a life-style or advocating for an orientation? The answer was, no, of course not. However, I was doing what I thought Jesus wanted me to do. Time and time again Jesus associated himself with the people others wanted to marginalize, to push away. The people the church thought were dirty and useless, were the very people Jesus made it a point to embrace. It became a real problem for Jesus and the disciples. He allowed a prostitute to wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. The decent people couldn’t tolerate this. They said, “Are you blessing a life-style or advocating for an orientation?” Jesus said, “No, of course not. I am showing the love of God.”
When people questioned me about what I did, the story which came to mind was this one today, from the book of Acts. Acts 15 tells us that all kinds of people were inspired by God: dirty people, useless people, the very people whom the church had marginalized, the Holy Spirit was bringing into the community of faith.
The church had to decide, “What do we do with them?” Some wanted to force them to adopt all the Jewish laws before they were accepted. This is when Peter said, “Why are you putting a yoke on these people that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? But we are saved by the grace of God alone.”
So, when folks questioned me about my empathy for those who were gay, I wondered if we were trying to yoke them to a law that even us church types cannot follow? Maybe they haven’t followed the law but then again we do not follow the law either. We who have had every advantage and every chance to do good and to be good and to do right and be right, yet we still fail at the laws of God every day.
One minister said it this way: “In this church or any church, you meet mainly two kinds of people: Pharisees and Tax collectors, Jew and Gentile, good and bad, just and unjust, insiders and outsiders, newcomers and old timers, gay and straight, and both types have one thing in common they are saved by the grace of God. People outside looking in on us, might be surprised by all the different kinds of people you find here. But, you and I, we are not surprised. We have different political affiliations, different theological beliefs, different family make-ups, different dispositions, different tastes. We know we are different and that is just fine.
Groucho Marx who said, “I wouldn’t associate with a club that would have me as a member.”
This is one place we are glad to meet people just like us.
We know that God would not make a distinction between the good and the bad, or else we wouldn’t be here.
Whether a Christian is in prison on death row or sitting on the front pew at Churchville Presbyterian, we may differ in our disobedience and in our sin, in the kind of sin we commit or in the degree by which we commit them, but you and I and the person down the aisle have one blaring thing in common, we are saved by the grace of God alone and by nothing else. None at all.
TO GOD BE THE GLORY FOREVER AND EVER. AMEN.
Together in Christ,
“A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH”
The Presbyterian Church was an unexpected offspring of a religious movement called “The Reformation.” Two of the leading Reformers of the time, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), had no intention of forming a new church, at least not initially. Their desire was to reform the present day Catholic Church, to purge the Church of corruptions and set it more in line with the traditions and theology of Scripture and of the early church. The Reformers became known as “Protestants” because their requests for change sounded more and more like protests.
The Presbyterian Church is one of several churches that can trace their origins to the Reformation. Presbyterians get their name from the Greek word “presbuteros” which means “elder.” The term refers to the system, in apostolic times, of choosing leaders from among the wisest members of the church. A prominent doctrine of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.” Reformed churches designed themselves in ways that gave more power to the congregation. The Presbyterians established a representative system where elders, presbyters and commissioners were elected.
The French organized the first congregation in 1555 and the French Huguenots were one of the first Presbyterians to reach America, followed closely by the English, Dutch, German, Irish and Scottish. In 1706 the first American presbytery was formed in Philadelphia and soon after the Synod of Philadelphia in 1716. 1789 marked the First General Assembly in Philadelphia.
The Church grew and diversified as it headed westward. By 1800 there were 20,000 members. In another thirty-seven years, there were 220,000. With the growth in numbers came an increase of conflict, separation and sometimes reunion. “Old School” and “New School” divisions plagued Presbyterians for years. The most infamous of issues was slavery. The Civil War severely divided the Church.
The next 120 years saw movements toward reunification. In 1958 the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) and the United Presbyterian Church of North America merged to form the Presbyterian Church in the United States of American (UPCUSA). In 1983 the two largest Presbyterian Churches united at the Atlanta General Assembly (G.A.): the southern-based Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and the northern-based (UPCUSA). In 1985 the G.A. approved a seal for the new Church. There are some powerful images in the symbol which reveal what is important to us as Presbyterians. Today there are about 2,000,000 members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), the largest of the mainline Presbyterian denominations.
“Unexpected” may seem like a good way to describe the beginnings of the Presbyterian Church. But for Presbyterians it has always been the “providence of God.”
Together in Christ,
Noah's Ark: Embark on a Voyage in Trusting God
6:30 p.m. - Fellowship Hall
Pizza, Popcorn, Drinks
All are welcome!!