“I am at a loss.// The ground crumbles underneath.// God, please steady me.”
This is a haiku by John Stevens, a pastor out in Oregon. If you can access the congregation’s Facebook page, you know that he writes and shares a faith-based haiku most every day, which I then re-post to our Page.
I think it sums up what is going on in today’s reading quite well. The Church is at a turning point… The early Church is growing and expanding remarkably. There have been many problems, and a fair amount of persecution, and yet, lives are being changed. So what is the problem?
The problem was all about whom we were becoming. The problem is all about what we are becoming.
According to the book of The Acts of the Apostles “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day [God] added to their number those who were being saved.” [Acts 2:43-47]
This sounds great, doesn’t it? The Church is growing… the community of the followers of Jesus is growing: “… day by day [God] added to their number those who were being saved.” But all this growth is happening in and around Jerusalem, among Jews, among those who belong to the covenant of Abraham, those who observe the Law as received by Moses on Mt. Sinai.
However, “In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” [Acts 10:1-2] What do we do about Cornelius? Cornelius is a Gentile, a non-Jew, a person outside of the law and covenant of Moses, and a person who worshiped God, the God of Israel. It certainly doesn’t sound like a problem to us does it? But it was a monumental and growing problem for the early Church. Who are we? What defines us? What makes us a Christian?
“I am at a loss.// The ground crumbles underneath.// God, please steady me.”
“Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”” [Acts 8:27-36] Well, for one thing, eunuchs could not legally be part of the Temple community, but… could he be part of Jesus’ new community? What are the guidelines for this new community?
The Abrahamic Covenant set out to establish the Jews as a unique community within the world, set apart, blessed to be a blessing to others. The sign of this covenant was male circumcision. That was the guideline, that was the Law… Jewish males were to be circumcised, that became the mark of our devotion to God, to the Law of God, that was the sign of our inclusion within the community.
The early Church, this newly forming community, now had to grapple with Gentiles, like Cornelius, who had become a believer in Jesus as the Christ of God. We had to figure out what to do eunuchs, like the one Philip baptized. This was a big problem within the early Church. We don’t see the problem today, but perhaps we should.
Luke opened our reading this morning with… “Then some Jewish Christians came down to Antioch and began to teach the believers, “Unless you follow exactly the traditions of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas strongly disagreed with them and hotly debated their position.” [Acts 15:1-2] ‘Strongly disagreed’ and ‘hotly debated their position’ is probably nice for ‘they did a lot of shouting and yelling at each other and probably threw things.’ Many were saying: the only way to become a Christian was to first become a Law-abiding Jew– including circumcision. Others were saying: No, God is doing a new thing here. The Holy Spirit is leading people to Jesus whether or not they are Jews or Gentiles or whatever. Their problem was figuring out who they were becoming. Our problem is figuring out what we are becoming.
John Stevens writes– “I am at a loss.// The ground crumbles underneath.// God, please steady me.”
Remember, in the early days of the Church, there was no steadying influence or guidance from the New Testament– there was no New Testament. They had to share and debate their experiences concerning people like Cornelius, like the eunuch, like Gentiles, like ourselves, who had come to believe, who had come to have faith, to begin to trust the Way of Jesus as the way they wanted to live, but who did not fit traditional categories, traditional molds. They hadn’t yet recognized or trusted the working of the Holy Spirit blowing through the Church.
E. L. Doctorow once said that ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’
What the Council in Jerusalem finally discovered was that trusting in God, trusting God’s Spirit among us, is what allows us to take what little light we have and know that it will be enough to make the whole trip. The foundation of the Church is faith and trust in God; we do not and can not build on law and doctrine alone, on how we’ve always done things, on what is comfortable for us.
We cannot see the fullness of God, but in Jesus the Christ we can see that all people, men and women, rich or poor, LGBTQ or straight, are part of, are included in that fullness of God. This debate we see in Acts is not over. The Church is still debating over who is included and who is excluded. In some branches of the Church, the role of women is greatly limited; LGBTQ persons are treated as second-class citizens. We have a ways to go in trusting God. The road ahead is not as illuminated as we want, so we’ve effectively stopped our journey ahead, our journey of healing and making people whole again, and instead spend our days and weeks and years yelling and shouting at each other. We’ve chosen to subject ourselves to the rule of doctrine and law instead of trusting God for the road ahead.
The underlying desire of God, from the time of creation through to today, is to ‘save’, to welcome, to heal and make whole, all people. John has told us that God sent Jesus to us that we would know and have life, and that abundantly [John 10:10] As Luke wrote “…just as we believe we are saved through the grace of Jesus Christ, so are they.” [Acts 15:11]
“I am at a loss.// The ground crumbles underneath.// God, please steady me.” God, please steady us.