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Distinctions Lost on the Spirit

Sermon - 5/02/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Acts 11:1-18

The text for this morning comes from Acts 11, and is the conclusion to a longer story that begins in the 10th chapter, of the one of the first Gentile converts into this new movement. Peter goes to Jerusalem and summarizes what has happened in that story for us. So, reading then from Acts 11, vers 1 through 18:

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.”

15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life'.


I once heard Henry Sloane Coffin Jr., the Great American preacher, say that every minister should memorize at least one poem every day. So I've been working on at that, took his words to heart, and I'm up to. . . . . two! The poem of great theological significance by Ogden Nash: "The Lord in his wisdom built the fly and then forgot to tell us why". You could build a whole theology around that. And then more to the point, a Disciples of Christ poet, Edward Markham, who wrote:

"He drew a circle that shut me out. Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle that took him in".

And that, in essence, is this story here in Acts. It is a principal at the heart of the gospel message that has continually pushed the church over the centuries to keep widening that circle. To take in those "Gentiles", whomever they may be. And every time that circle starts to expand a little, there's discomfort. There's unrest. There's push-back. Even outright rejection. "Oh, no, I'm sure God did not intend for us to include 'those people'. And the list of 'those people', over history, is quite long. First were the Gentiles.

We often forget that the church started, in essence, as a Sunday-school class within the Synagogue. It was assumed, that since Jesus was a Jew, if you wanted to be a follower of Jesus, then you too, had to be a Jew. And you can bet that when the first Gentile showed up at the Synagogue with a nice big ham, you know, the picture was not pretty.

The way Acts tells this story, once Peter saw the light, all he had to do was explain it to the elders of Jerusalem, and they would get it. Initially, they were stunned -- the text says they were "silenced". "Dumbfounded", I think, might be a better word here. But they too, quickly get it and they see the light. Really?

I have a number of Jewish friends. They tell me that the last time all Jews agreed on something was when Moses came down from the mountain and said: "Which would you like, 10 commandments in stone, or 100 commandments in wood?" :)

I suspect that this story actually condenses a decade of conflict and controversy that occurred for probably many years. And here it is summarized, to borrow a phrase from John Dominic Crossan, into 'one parabolic afternoon'. That the matter was not solved so quickly as it reads here is is quite evident if you continue to read the story, and even in Acts itself, 4 chapters later, there's a conference in Jerusalem where they debate and argue over the question of whether or not these new Gentile converts (the men at least) needed to be circumcised to come into the faith.

And following that conference, Paul records his own run-in with Peter, in the second chapter in his letter to the Galatians, when Peter suddenly is embarrassed about eating with the Gentiles when his Jewish Christian colleagues show up, and he moves to their table, the 'kosher' table.

So we can imagine that this business of widening the circle to include the Gentiles to be a rather messy affair. Disputes about diets and lifestyles, disagreements over scripture, accusations of turning against God, and more, before the walls are broken down, the prejudices abandoned, and trust is built up as Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians get to know one another and discover 'hey, they're not so bad after all'.

And so it has been throughout the ages. Every time someone begins to push on that circle, to widen it a bit more, the defenses go up, the fears are built, people draw the circle in. You know, we have to protect ourselves. And isn't that at least a part of what is going on in the whole immigration debate today? It's a natural reaction, built into our DNA, to be somewhat fearful whenever the population around us begins to change. And so the good folk in Arizona are pushing back. And unless we get meaningful immigration reform, those tensions will continue to rise and hostility will increase.

Martha Carroll, a Disciples of Christ pastor in Indiana, writes about her own experience growing up in Louisiana during that era. And her article is in one of the last issues of Disciples World, a publication of our denomination that sadly went out of business this last year. Reverend Carroll says she grew up in that place where they made the movie Steel Magnolias. A proper, southern town. And though there were many African-Americans in the town, she said in 12 years of public education she never saw a single black face. Not a teacher, not a student. She thought that "separate but equal" was a verse out of the Bible. She had heard it proclaimed so many times from the pulpit.

When she was 17, her church sent her to a work camp in New Orleans. Boy, were they sorry later they had. It was 1964, it was the first time that anyone confronted her with the racism that she had learned and accepted as simply just the way things were. The way that God intended them to be. And when it suddenly hit her that the racism she learned at home, school, and church was a sin, she said it was like the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus. The light suddenly went on, and it was so bright it was blinding.

Reflecting on that experience, she writes: "I look back now amazed that racism can be so blinding. But now I think of my inability to see what was staring me in the face as a gift of sorts. For one thing, it keeps me humble -- I never forget how ignorant and unthinking I was. And it reminds me that prejudice is, first of all, the inability to truly see other person".

And then, in her concluding paragraph, she caught me totally by surprise. She writes this remarkably insightful conclusion:

"I face a different prejudice today. As a lesbian, I am the other. I see once again from a different perspective how much power the church has to shape the thinking of people. It's ludicrously that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people continue to be discriminated against in much of our society. But then I have to remember, I didn't see. I thought some of what I saw was unfair, but I never questioned the overall structure. I supported a racist system that hurt so many people and I never even wondered if maybe, just maybe, we had it all wrong."

And so here we are once again being asked to widen that circle. And the question before us today is essentially the same question that Peter asked: If, then, God gives the same gift that God gives us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who am I than I can hinder God? And that is, in essence, the question being asked in our open and affirming process as we explore what it would mean to officially adopt what has been our unofficial practice of full inclusion of all persons regardless of sexual orientation or identity.

And are open and affirming team has just completed the first phase of that process, and you can read the summary of some of it on the board in the back, and in a newsletter this week in the article that they prepared. I'm not going over that, but suffice it to say that mostly it was positive. But there's some concerns and some questions that are raised that need to be addressed. Now, where this process will take us, or how long it will take, no one can say. For it is a process of discernment in which we seek, through prayer, study, and dialogue, to discern God's leading. And such is not done lightly or quickly. For some, it can't be quick enough, and for others it goes too fast. We could take a vote and it would be all over. But you see, that doesn't build the body of Christ. So we ask for everyone's patience and prayerful support as the committee works to carefully listen to all voices within the congregation, and trust that in that process God's voice will become clear.

One of the intriguing things to come up and you see those comments is the possibility of seeking consensus. And that will be a challenge. It will be slow. But what we gain in that process, as we build unanimity, is is a very powerful experience.

One of questions that always comes up in these kinds of conversations is 'what does the Bible say'? I want to play for you a clip from the documentary "For The Bible Tells Me So" (that I know some of you have seen and that we've made available in the in the church office and which we are going to offer on May 22nd).

[Dan then played a clip from the documentary/movie "For the Bible Tells Me So"]

By the way, Lawrence King, the Disciple of Christ pastor that is features, is one of two disciples (three actually), the other two being the parents of the Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson who are featured prominently in the film. So I recommend that to you. I've also placed a sermon on the back table I did 10 years ago on the topic, made available, it goes more in depth on my understanding of Scripture for any who are curious, and I'll not go further into that this morning.

Several have raised the question in this process 'is it necessary to make this official policy?'. And of course the answer is no. We could continue our current practice, loving and welcoming everyone, including those who are for those who are against. All are welcome. But making a policy will not change that. But will that practice change under different ministerial leadership? Because after all, I won't be here forever. Should I retire at the age of 65 (about 25 years from now :), what then? Should our new basketball coach get cold feet instead of duck feet (you know, he has a history after all), you know, I could be persuaded. I've always said for $1.8 million, I can hear the call of God :). Haven't played basketball since the church league in high school, but hey, how hard could it be? It would be very hard to leave you, I assure you.

More importantly, our strategic plan, which emerged out of the previous discernment process from a couple years ago, the information you gave to our consultant (Dick Hamm), identified now as the time to do this -- to be engaged in this intentional process of discernment.

And more importantly, we are doing this for the sake of those who have been excluded in the past from the circle of faith, sometimes with devastating consequences. And "For the Bible Tells Me So" tells the story of four Christian families and the struggles that they went through in this process, with differing results. So let me just play for you one clip of one of those families:

[Dan then played a clip from the documentary/movie "For the Bible Tells Me So"]

I hope you'll come to watch with us, and to engage in dialogue around issues that this powerful movie raises for us.

Finally, we are engaged in this process of discerning God's call upon us as the body of Christ, to be intentionally inclusive and welcoming, open and affirming, because, the witness of Scripture, the history of Christian faith, is that love calls us to expand our circle. To include those, whom, as Peter says, 'God has given the same gift that he gave us when we gave our hearts to the Lord Jesus Christ'.

That all who give their hearts to Jesus are not judged, but welcomed with open arms as full members of the body of Christ.


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