Sunday’s sermon: Faith Out of Discord

Text used – Acts 15:1-18

 

  • There’s a short story by Dr. Seuss called “The Zax” which can be found in the book The Sneetches and Other Short Stories[1] (originally published in 1953).
    • 2 characters: a north-going Zax and a south-going Zax
    • Paths of these two characters just happen to meet head-on
    • Both Zax refuse to alter their course by even a single side step
    • Stand there arguing with each other in perpetuity as the world goes on around them because neither is willing to give an inch
      • World develops around them
      • Highway is built over them
      • But they continue to stand there, neither of them actually going anywhere anymore, because “this is who I am, and this is the way I do things, this is the way I’ve always done things, and no one can make me change! Things would be so much easier, so much better, if you did them my way because clearly, my way is the right way, so you must be wrong!”
        • An attitude that doesn’t work out terribly well for the Zax → still standing there arguing at the end of the story (with the distinctly Seussian implication that they’re still standing there arguing to this day)
        • An attitude certainly not confined to the pages of whimsically-rhyming children’s books
          • Attitude that has permeated the halls of Congress
          • Attitude that has polluted many relationships – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors
          • Attitude that has plagued many communities of all sizes – small towns all the way up to big, teeming cities
          • Attitude that has pervaded even the stained-glass beauty of the Church → In fact, it’s an attitude that’s as old as Christianity itself. It’s the very attitude that sent Jesus to the cross because those in power felt threatened by the message Jesus was spreading. And clearly, from our Scripture reading this morning, it didn’t stop there.
  • Today’s text sounds like it could have come out of contemporary headlines
    • Background: Paul and Barnabas have returned to the city of Antioch (modern day south-central Turkey) after one of their long, evangelizing/church-planting journeys – text leading up to what we read this morning: They sailed to Antioch, where they had been entrusted by God’s grace to the work they had now completed. On their arrival, they gathered the church together and reported everything that God had accomplished through their activity, and how God had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles. They stayed with the disciples a long time.[2]
      • Important point: Paul and Barnabas reported to the church in Antioch “how God had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” → Remember that at the very beginning of the early church, the vast majority of those who were Christians were also Jews. There were a few Gentiles that Jesus had interacted with during his ministry, but within the congregation of the early church, they were certainly the exception, not the rule. Yet on the other hand, remember that all of Paul’s many long mission journeys took him only into Gentile lands, so Paul’s entire life and mission was to bring the good news of Jesus Christ and God’s love to Gentiles … to The Other.
        • People that the Jews had grown up being taught not to mingle or intermarry with
        • People that had probably conquered or oppressed the Jews at some point in their long and difficult history
        • People whose wide array of gods certainly looked nothing like Israel’s God
        • And yet here were Paul and his helpers taking the good news of Jesus Christ to these Gentiles.
    • Clearly this is where the problem arises – laid out in the beginning of our text for this morning: Some people came down from Judea teaching the family of believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.”[3] → “This is who we are, and this is the way we do things, this is the way we’ve always done things, and no one can make us change! Things would be so much easier, so much better, if you did them our way because clearly, our way is the right way, so you must be wrong!” Even more dangerous: “If you want to be part of us, you have to be like us. You have to look like us on the most intimate, visceral level. Your discomfort doesn’t matter. Your pain doesn’t matter. If you don’t look like us, you don’t belong.”
      • Plenty of times this same mentality has been applied throughout history … never for good → most immediate example that comes to mind: Indian boarding schools
        • Established through the Civilization Fund Act (1819)
        • Established for the sole purpose of obliterating Native culture and language all across the country → America’s attempt to solve the “Indian problem”
          • From an article in The Atlantic marking the 200 yr. anniversary back in 2019: This is what achieving civilization looked like in practice: Students were stripped of all things associated with Native life. Their long hair, a source of pride for many Native peoples, was cut short, usually into identical bowl haircuts. They exchanged traditional clothing for uniforms, and embarked on a life influenced by strict military-style regimentation. Students were physically punished for speaking their Native languages. Contact with family and community members was discouraged or forbidden altogether.[4] → “If you want to be part of us, you have to be like us. You have to look like us on the most intimate, visceral level. Your discomfort doesn’t matter. Your pain doesn’t matter. If you don’t look like us, you don’t belong.” Friends, this is a legacy that the Presbyterian Church participated in. This is a legacy for which we need to repent.
            • Work that the PC(USA) has recently embarked on[5]But we’ve still got a long way to go.
    • In today’s reading, Paul and Barnabas push back → argue their point until it becomes clear that they need some 3rd party intervention → take the matter to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (This certainly was no small feat. It required a journey of roughly 300 miles. And yet, they went.) → arrive in Jerusalem → both sides make their arguments before the apostles and elders → apostles and elders confer and come to their conclusion (delivered by Peter) – text: “Fellow believers, you know that, early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe. God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.”[6]
      • Paul and Barnabas put a powerful and inspiring emphasis on Peter’s words with more stories of “all the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through their activity”[7] → This is their testimony. This is their public witness of the faith that God has not only worked through them but in them.
      • Apostle James puts the final note on the assembly by quoting words of hope and promise and restoration from the prophet Amos, not just for the Jews, but for all – text (God speaking): I will rebuild what has been torn down. I will restore it so that the rest of humanity will seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who belong to me.[8]
  • Friends, we cannot deny that change is difficult, especially for something like the Church – something that is big and expansive in structure and doctrine, something that is old and established, something that is near and dear to the hearts of many. But change happens. Change comes. All the time. No matter what.
    • Think back to the Zax who stood arguing about who would change and who would not → The longer they stood there, the more they argued, and the more they argued, the longer they stood there. Little did they realize that in refusing to give, they’d both already changed who they were. The minute they refused to change – the minute they refused to open their minds and eyes and hearts to a new idea, a new possibility, a new way – they ceased becoming a north-going Zax and a south-going Zax because they weren’t going anywhere anymore! They weren’t going north or south. They were standing still. They were stuck. That core element of their identities that defined them so deeply that they couldn’t let go of it was necessarily erased by their obstinance and unwillingness to find common ground.
      • Today’s Scripture = tale of hope and tale of warning about who we can become and what can become of us when we try to cling so desperately to church “the way we’ve always done it” or when we open our hearts and our doors to something new
        • Spill the Beans commentary: Perhaps what is significant is that debates such as the one in Acts 15 are the mark of the church moving beyond what it originally understood itself to be. There were no signposts, no one had been this way before, and so as the church faced these open seas, the whole structure creaked like a boat suddenly changing direction as it tried to come to terms with what it understood itself now to be.[9]
    • Here’s the crazy thing, all. This Church – capital C “Church,” as in the whole body of Christ, all believers, the Church universal … this Church that we think is constant and unchanging is far from it.
      • Late Phyllis Tickle, Christian writer who was one of the most respected and internationally renowned authorities on religion in America until her death in 2015, wrote a book called The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why[10] → In this book, Tickle talks about how, every 500 yrs., Christianity goes through a shift – a major shift. She playfully calls these times “rummage sales – when the church cleans out its attic.”[11]
        • 500 yrs. after the death of Christ = councils that established things like which books would be included in the Bible, what was sound doctrine and what was heresy, the established structure of the church
        • 500 yrs. after the councils (1054 C.E.) = The Great Schism → disagreement which ended up establishing the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western/Roman Catholic Church
        • 500 yrs. after the Great Schism (1517) = The Reformation → birth of Protestantism and the thousands of branches that have grown out of that central Christian trunk since then
        • And if you add 500 to 1517, friends, you’ll realize that we are exactly there. 2017 was the 500 yrs. anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses being nailed to the door of that church in Wittenberg. And here we are, 4 yrs. past that anniversary. We are in the throes of just such a time of change, and like those in our Scripture reading this morning, we don’t know what waits for us on the other side. We don’t know what the Church will look like. But as Peter reminded those early Christians and reminds us even today, God is working. God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires. God, who makes no distinction between us and them (no matter how we choose to define “us” and “them”). God, who saves everyone in the same way: by the grace of Jesus Christ. So as this change swirls around us, how will we let it change us? Will we be Zax who dig their heels and lose themselves in the argument and the discord and the refusal to try something new? Or will we be like the early church and open ourselves up to all the beauty and diversity and newness that’s coming? Amen.

[1] Dr. Seuss. The Sneetches and Other Short Stories. (New York: Random House), 1953.

[2] Acts 14:26-28.

[3] Acts 15:1.

[4] Mary Annette Pember. “Death by Civilization: Thousands of Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools created to strip them of their culture. My mother was one of them” from The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/03/traumatic-legacy-indian-boarding-schools/584293/. Posted Mar. 8, 2019, accessed May 2, 2021.

[5] https://www.pcusa.org/news/2020/9/24/stated-clerk-issues-call-action-behalf-indigenous-/.

[6] Acts 15:7-11.

[7] Acts 15:12.

[8] Acts 15:16b-17a (quoting Amos 9:11-12).

[9] “Easter 5 – Sunday 14 May 2017: Bible notes – What Is The Nature Of The Church?” from Spill the Beans: Worship and Learning Resources for All Ages, iss. 22. © 2017 by Spill the Beans Resource Team, http://spillbeans.org.uk.

[10] Phyllis Tickle. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books), 2008.

[11] Ibid, 19.

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