Here are a few excerpts from this past Sunday’s sermon on Acts 15–a.k.a. The Jerusalem Council. My fifteen-year-old informs me that she was trying to read during the sermon, “But then you got loud.” I’m afraid you won’t be able to experience the full effect of my pulpit pounding–you’ll just have to use your imaginations.
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So, like the questions of circumcision and dietary restrictions in the first century, the questions about sexuality in the 21st century are a very big deal.
As most of us have discovered though, one way or another, big deal things can cause big deal reactions. These discussions of the issues about which we feel passionate–which really are discussions about people we love–can be difficult, even explosive.
So I want to look a little more closely at this gathering of the church leaders in Jerusalem–what many refer to as the Jerusalem Council. I’m interested to see how they approach the touchy subject of the law as it relates to new Gentile Jesus-followers.
The first thing I notice is that those who have gathered share stories. Paul and Barnabas tell of their ministry with the Gentiles, and Peter also shares stories of his ministry–how he saw God give the Gentiles the Holy Spirit just as God had given the Spirit to the Jews. I think this sharing of stories is a vital part of communicating–especially of communicating with those who disagree with us. . . .
These stories open up space for people to stretch and grow.
This story-telling is also a challenge for us working toward inclusion–particularly those of us allowed to be on the inside because we are not–or not known to be–gay–it’s a challenge for us to get over our “Mennonite humility” and claim the role of Peter: We have to tell the stories of the Holy Spirit at work within and through sexual minorities. To say that God has made no distinction between “us and them.” To urge the church to quit putting the unbearable yoke of celibacy on our gay brothers and sisters–because it is a yoke that very few of us can bear.
Listening to and telling stories is vital to our church life.
And here’s another important thing to note about this meeting in Jerusalem: after people share their stories, James stands up and shows how the words of scripture agree with the testimony of Peter and Paul and Barnabas. Look, says James, our prophets said that even the Gentiles will seek the Lord. Now certainly there were scriptures that could have been quoted that urged people to follow dietary laws, to be circumcised. But those are not the scriptures James shares in light of the stories he has heard.
For too long, in the contemporary church, those who would exclude sexual minorities have been the loudest scripture-quoters. The first ones to go to the Bible for support. This has been true to such an extent that many people–inside and outside of the church–view condemnation of homosexuality as the “biblical stance.” But despite what so many people have told me, the Bible is not clear about homosexuality. Not by a long shot. The Bible is clear, however, about love and justice, and the dangers of judging and excluding, and the need for humility, and the many gifts given to all believers.
As we live out and listen to stories, we should do so in light of our holy scriptures; we should consider how these ancient words speak to us today.
So the Jesus-followers gathered in Jerusalem, listened to each other’s stories, examined those stories in the light of scripture, and then they made a decision. . . . It worked for them . . . sort of. But we have to realize that this process will not magically resolve all the disagreements. Any more than the Jerusalem council led the church into clear policy and happily ever after.
We are talking about the church here. A church which is, for better or worse, made up of a bunch of human beings. Things will be hard and messy. Today. And next weekend. . . . Probably forever. Or until Kingdom come, at least.
But those of us who love Jesus and value the church come together anyway. We listen and give our testimony anyway. We study scripture anyway. And we pray together that we can be as faithful as we can be–that we will act in ways that seem “good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” May it be so. Amen.