Acts 15

Acts 15
October 20, 2013
Joanna Harader

It’s become something of a joke amongst pastors of inclusive churches to talk about what people from those “other” churches might think happens in worship each Sunday. Sermon after sermon and song after song extolling the virtues of same-sex relationships. Readings from Dan Savage’s advice columns instead of the Bible. Gay couples making out in the balcony.

I don’t know, really, what people expect. But I imagine many of them would be disappointed most Sundays. . . . But this week, we are blessed with the presence of the board of the Brethren Mennonite Council for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Interests. They have been here since Friday evening praying and talking and working toward a more inclusive, hospitable church.

And this week, also, we are looking at the fifteenth chapter of Acts. So anyone who expects worship at Peace Mennonite to be all about how wonderful queer people are and how the church should love and welcome them–they wouldn’t be disappointed at all this particular Sunday.

I really wish I could say that I plan things like this. That I looked ahead and scheduled the entire Acts series so that Acts 15 fell on the same Sunday that BMC would be here. I wish I could say that. But I can’t.

I didn’t plan this. But here it is. And even though we are not a “one-issue” church and even though I spend the majority of my pastoral time doing things other than officiating weddings of any kind, let alone same-sex weddings, I still cannot read about the early church’s council in Jerusalem without thinking of the current conflicts in the church over inclusion of sexual minorities.

Like the contemporary church, the people within the early church disagreed about certain “code of conduct” issues for its members. Some people felt that the Gentile believers needed to follow the same purity laws as the Jewish believers. Others felt that, as Peter said, “all will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus”–whether they are circumcised or not, whether they follow all of the Jewish dietary laws or not.

And this was a big-deal thing. It was a big deal because these rules were not helping the church be faithful to the teaching of Jesus; they were only serving to keep some people out, to drown out the message of Good News in Christ with a message of law and obligation. Paul and Barnabas, who had given their lives to sharing the message of Jesus with the Gentiles, thought it was a big enough deal for them to engage in rigorous debate and then travel from Antioch to Jerusalem to discuss this problem with other church leaders. Three hundred miles they traveled for this conference.

Most of the BMC board members have traveled much farther than that, though they did have the benefit of automobiles and airplanes. They came here because they believe that the current conflicts in the Brethren and Mennonite churches are big-deal things. That this question of how we include gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in our congregations, conferences, and denominations matters.

It matters, certainly, to queer people who are excluded, shamed, devalued, and spiritually abused in many of our churches and by many church people. It matters because everyone deserve to feel safe and valued–especially in church. It matters because those who are gifted for ministry should be able to spend their time and energy preparing for and engaging in ministry–not defending their right to do so.

It matters to heterosexuals because our churches and denominations are poorer for refusing the gifts of so many people. My heart still hurts when I think of my friend Randy Spaulding who was kicked off of the Mennonite hymnal committee by the leadership of Mennonite Church USA.

It matters because our denominational statements and guidelines against “homosexual practice,” against pastors officiating same-sex weddings, against lgbt individuals being ordained–these rules get in the way of us all following Jesus faithfully.

It matters because we are a peace church and teaching intolerance for queer people leads to violence–to bullying and suicide. A gay young person commented on one of my blog posts about Pink Menno saying that when they are at Mennonite conferences they look for people wearing pink so that they will know who is safe.

It matters because, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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.

That’s why so many people from this church made the trip to Newton with me when my credentials were reviewed; why so many of you went to Oklahoma for the Western District Conference last year; why BMC is meeting here this weekend; why I am going to Newton next weekend for a conversation on “The Church and Homosexuality.” Because it is a 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.

This week, I read a sermon by Randy Newswanger on the BMC web site. He calls out the importance of listening to the stories of others by posing this question: “Are my understandings of God, my understandings of healing and redemption, my understandings of community and celebration large enough to hold the specific details of your story?”

I have certainly heard stories that challenged and stretched my understanding of God. And I think that’s what happened in Jerusalem as well. The Judaizers–those within the early church who advocated for Gentiles to be circumcised and otherwise follow the laws of their original faith tradition–I think that they heard the stories and realized that their understanding of God and healing and redemption and community weren’t large enough to hold the specific details of these stories about Gentiles–uncircumcised, pork-eating Gentiles–who were gifted with the Holy Spirit.

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. 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: “We should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.”

Basically, they decide to uphold a few key rules, but most of the legal obligations–including circumcision–are not to be required of the Gentile converts.

Just like that, the decision is made. In certain Bible-nerdy circles, this Jerusalem Council has taken on a sort of utopian glow. “Look,” we like to say. “The factions of the church came together, talked, listened, and arrived at a faithful decision. And the church lived happily ever after. So all we have to do is get together and share stories and read scripture and ‘poof’–it’s all rainbows and sunshine.”

Well, yes. For about fifteen minutes I’m sure things were just honky dory in that First Century church.

But one thing we’ve learned this far into the book of Acts is that you always need to read the rest of the story. Right?

So the very next story in Acts we see Paul and Barnabas about to set out on another missionary journey. But Barnabas wants to take Mark with them and Paul doesn’t. So they share stories and do a Bible study and agree–no, wait, that was the last story. Paul and Barnabas actually have a big fight, split up, and take their new BFFs with them in separate directions.

A bit later, Paul becomes a mentor for a young Gentile Christian named Timothy. And Paul has Timothy circumcised–even though he doesn’t have to. Even though Paul himself argued against requiring Gentiles to be circumcised. Nobody is quite sure why he did this.

And if we keep reading through Acts and into the epistles, we will see that Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that there is actually nothing wrong with eating food sacrificed to idols as long as their eating is not a stumbling block for the faith of others. Even though the official decision from the Jerusalem council was that even Gentile Christians should not be allowed to eat food sacrificed to idols. . . .

I’m fascinated by the rest of this story. There are all kinds of theological rabbit trails I could go down right now. And I think about two of you would be interested. We’ll have tea some time and talk for a couple of hours.

For the purposes of this already-long-enough-sermon, I’ll just state the obvious: church is messy. There is not a magic discussion format that will lead us to final, enlightened resolution about “homosexuality and the church.” Mennonites are masters of discussion formats–listening sessions, simoan circles, talking sticks, discernment councils . . . if there was one that would work perfectly, we would have found it by now. But these discussions are not perfect; they are messy.

Even so, we keep listening to each other’s stories. We keep going to scripture. We keep checking in with each other to talk, then going out to do ministry, then checking back in to hear the new stories.

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.

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