October 6, 2013 (World Communion)
So we are moving along through the book of Acts, this history of the earliest church. So far, the conflict we have seen has been basically external. People outside the church–unbelievers–causing problems for those who are trying to follow Jesus. Accusations of public drunkenness at Pentecost, some of the religious elite arresting the apostles, the stoning of Stephen, the persecution in which Paul so zealously participated before his Damascus-road conversion.
We’ve had little rumblings, but mostly within the church it’s been singing and praying and sharing of goods; preaching and healing and baptisms.
Now, in chapter 11, we finally get to the internal conflict. There is finally a problem within the church, a disagreement amongst believers. I’ll admit that I’m kind of glad to get to this part of the story, because, well, it’s the part I recognize.
Certainly many of our Anabaptist forebears could relate to the tales of persecution–as could many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world today. And especially on this day, World Communion Sunday, we should remember that there are still situations of religious persecution–not “my teacher talks about evolution” kind of persecution, but people facing job-loss, imprisonment, violence because of their religious beliefs. For too many people in the world, the first part of Acts is still far too relevant.
But I cannot relate to this type of external persecution. We are not in danger of being arrested because of our presence here, worshiping together. We could go down to Mass street and shout about Jesus on the street corners if we wanted.
I do not know what it means to be persecuted from the outside. But internal conflict . . . people within the church being unhappy with other church folks because of their understanding of Jesus and the church and who’s in and who’s out . . . that sounds a little bit familiar.
One thing this story tells us is that the church rumor mill is as old as the church itself. Even without the benefit of telephones, newspapers, Facebook, or Twitter, the apostles and believers in Judea have heard about what Peter did in Caesarea–namely, he baptized a bunch of Gentiles.
Now you might think that the church folks would be happy about a bunch of baptisms–but these were Gentiles. That is to say, not Jews. Actually, the quoted criticism here is not even about the baptism, but the fact that Peter ate with them. Perhaps the assumption–probably accurate–is that the meal was not Kosher. In any case, they were upset that the Gentiles were being brought into this faith community.
There were religious differences between Jews and Gentiles, yes. And also ethnic/racial differences. Jews and Gentiles had different cultural heritages. They did not understand each other well. Maybe they were even a little bit afraid of each other.
You may not be aware of it, but one of the priorities of the Mennonite Church USA is anti-racism. Yes, the church still has a problem with this. Two thousand years after Peter got in trouble for bringing Gentiles into the church community. It’s not that white Mennonites think that people of color shouldn’t be in the church or be baptized. We’re all for racial diversity as long as it doesn’t lead to any, you know, actual diversity–different kinds of praying or preaching or music or theology.
When I was in seminary—the first time—I served as a Christian Ed and youth intern at a mid-sized mainline church. It was a predominantly white church in what had become a predominantly Hispanic part of town. And that church wanted to “reach out” to the people in the neighborhood. They hosted after-school tutoring for neighborhood kids. They ran a Vacation Bible School program each summer that attracted about 100 kids—mostly from the neighborhood. And they got really frustrated that none of the neighborhood families became part of the church. They would talk about their frustrations at the same meetings where they voted to spend how-ever-many-thousand dollars to update the organ. Which was played loudly. And slowly. And accompanied hymns written by long-dead Europeans. Plus, the pastor spoke no Spanish. Nada.
So, yes. This issue of race and culture within the church is still alive and well today.
The apostles were upset with Peter baptizing Gentiles because this new, emerging church was supposed to be their church. A Jewish church. Their understanding of Jesus was grounded in Jesus’ identity as a Jew—like them.
And we all do that, really. Hold onto the similarities between ourselves and Jesus. Whether they are real—like, for instance, as best we can tell, Jesus really was a Jew; or whether they are culturally reinforced historical impossibilities. For centuries in the Western church Jesus has been white. Those of us who think about it geographically, historically, know Jesus would not have been white or looked white at all—but so many paintings and sculptures from throughout the ages reveal how people made Jesus in their own white image. Because it was comfortable. And it served the power structure.
But God’s visions for Peter and Cornelius in this story show that within the church, we are not called to be comfortable or powerful. We are not called to stay in our safe spaces with people who look and act like us; with only people who agree with us. Jesus has bigger things in mind.
Sonari Glenton, of NPR fame, tells a story on This American Life about the Catholic school he attended in Chicago. His family, along with other black families, had moved into a the Southshore neighborhood as white families fled. He attended the neighborhood Catholic church and school, where pretty much all of the students and about half of the teachers were black. One day when he was in fourth grade—1983–he was sitting in his reading class when the principal came into the room. Sister Rosemary Brennan was a short woman with a big presence—an Irish woman with a fierce love for the kids at her school. But that fierce love didn’t mean that you wanted to get on her bad side, and when she walked into the classroom the students were just wondering who was in trouble now.
But Sister Rosemary didn’t call any of the children out. Instead, she got a chair and dragged it to the front of the room. She stood on the chair, her back to the class, reached up on her tiptoes, and took down the crucifix of blond wood that was hanging above the chalk board. She pulled another crucifix out of a box, stretched up again and hung it above the board. And there hung a new Jesus. A Jesus carved in dark wood with a broad nose and thick lips. A black Jesus.
When one of the students bravely asked her what she was doing, Sister Rosemary simply said, “Boys and girls, we’re not sure what Jesus looked like, but we know he probably looked more like you than like me.” Then she turned around and walked out of the classroom.
She changed out the crucifixes in thirty plus classrooms. Dragging thirty chairs to the front of thirty rooms, stretching up on her tiptoes with all eyes on her. Sister Rosemary certainly did have a fierce love, and an honest theology, and a clear understanding of scripture.
And Sonari Glenton says that from that moment on, Jesus was black for him. Still, to this day, when he prays he envisions a black Jesus.
Being an inclusive community doesn’t mean that we let people in who act like us and see God the same way we see God. Being an inclusive community means that we truly open up, that we are willing to let people who are different from us help us more fully understand the depth and breadth of God, that we look to and listen to others as we try to figure out what it means to follow Christ.
The apostles are hesitant, at first, to include the Gentiles. But after they hear Peter’s story, his critics quit criticizing him and begin praising God for the new members of their family.
Now don’t get me wrong. This is not a “happily ever after” tale. As more people with diverse cultures, beliefs, eating habits, geographical locations . . . as more people come into the church, the potential for internal conflict escalates. And we will see as we continue reading Acts that there are many more difficulties to overcome.
This is not a story that provides simplistic answers for complicated questions. It is a story that reminds us that we should listen closely to the stories others have to share. That God operates beyond our areas of comfort. That God’s church includes people we wouldn’t expect in ways we can’t imagine. It is a story that can help us live together with openness and grace.