5-20-18 “Journey: The Places We Will Go”
I shared with you last week about my love of flying in spite of how harrowing my first experience of flying had been. And several of you shared with me after worship about some of the “less-than-ideal” flight experiences you’ve had over the years as well. And I can understand why some people refuse to fly for one reason or another - 30,000 feet is over five miles up - that’s a long way up…or down. So, I understand that fear. At the same time, millions of people fly safely every day, and statistics tell us that flying is actually statistically safer than driving.
I’m more surprised, though, when I hear about people who have never traveled out of their state, their county, or even their city. When I was with Kmart in Zanesville, it was not uncommon to find people who had never been to Columbus, who refused to drive on the highway. And by highway some weren’t talking about Interstate 70, but US 40. And even more confounding, while I’ve been here at Crossroads I did encounter one woman one time who told me that she had lived on the westside for over 60 years and had never been east of High Street in downtown Columbus. So there’s that…
Our scripture readings today point to two different things happening in the early church. The first, the familiar passage from Acts chapter 2 about the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Jesus community on the Day of Pentecost, initiates what we think of as the church, as the first Christian community following the death and resurrection of Jesus. And here we read that suddenly a strong wind came up and something like tongues of flame rested on each of those gathered together, and that they suddenly began speaking in other languages that were foreign to them. Now, to be clear, they were not doing what is often referred to as “speaking in tongues,” that is an unintelligible language that can only be understood by someone with the spiritual gift for understanding. No, the passage is clear that they were speaking in foreign languages, languages of other known countries and peoples. And we understand this image to mean that the Holy Spirit descended on, the message of Jesus Christ was to be disseminated to, people of all nations.
The reading then jumps to the end of chapter 2 where it describes what life was like in the early church. And what did this church look like? Well, it looked like regular potlucks, and weekly communion, and small group bible studies meeting in peoples’ homes, learning from the teaching of the disciples. And it says that the people who made up these churches praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to EVERYONE.
So we see, in a very short time, a change or progression in what the church looks like, moving from a few dozen people in the immediate aftermath of the resurrection to three thousand that it says became part of the church on that Day of Pentecost. And the book, The Acts of the Apostles, what we commonly refer to simply as Acts, tracks how the message of the early church is carried to other people and other places over the years by the eleven disciples and eventually by Paul.
Later, in chapter 10, we encounter the story of Peter and Cornelius, which marks yet another significant change or transformation in the life of the church.
And we see a move from generalities about the ever-changing church in chapter 2, to some very specific instances of what brought about these advances in the later chapters. In chapter 10, as our dramatic reading presented, we’re first introduced to Cornelius, whom we are told right away is an “outsider,” that he is a Centurion - that is a commander of one hundred Roman soldiers - but that he is a devout follower of the Jewish God. And the writer tells us that Cornelius, “consistently and generously gave to the poor, and he practiced constant prayer to God.” So we’re to understand that, while he is not one of the “chosen people,” and while he is not a “disciple of Jesus,” he is a good man.
So God’s messenger comes to this outsider and tells him to send men to Joppa to find the Apostle Peter, who is in the home of one Simon the Tanner, and ask Peter to share his message with Cornelius. And with that our story jumps to Peter, and immediately we get a sense of transition or change that continues to happen with him as well. We’re told that Peter is in the home of Simon the Tanner. So at this point we might wonder, what does a tanner do? Well, a tanner works with animal hides, removing the hides from dead animals and processing them into leather for use in bags, belts, shoes, and whatever else might be needed. The fact that he works with dead animals would render him perpetually, almost permanently, unclean from a ritualistic standpoint, along with anyone or anything that he touches; meaning that he couldn’t partake in temple or synagogue activities, couldn’t make sacrifice, couldn’t do anything without first going through an elaborate days-long purification process that would require him to stop working, to stop earning money to feed and support his family and household first.
This is where we find the devout Jew and Apostle Peter staying, and this is where we see the first sign of a really big change that is taking place not only within the church, but in Peter himself.
But I want us to pause here for a moment and consider the bigger question of change in the church. For some, when we think about change in the church we localize it and think only of change within our own congregation. Others think more broadly of a denomination or the church as an institution.
But when considering the prospect of change in the church, both groups often express a resistance to change, a desire to stay the same or revert to what it once was, or at least what they perceive that it once was. On the other hand, there are some - those who perhaps have no real understanding of history, or at least of church history, who don’t perceive of any real change in the church at all over the years, or even over the centuries. I read an interesting article this week by Daniel Clendenin, in which he talked about a book by theologian and historian Garry Wills titled The Future of the Church With Pope Francis. And as Clendenin describes him, Wills is “both a fierce critic and devoted son of the church.”
So while Wills is Roman Catholic, it is helpful for us as Protestants to remember that until the 16th century, there was no Catholic-Protestant divide, there was only one church, the Holy Roman Catholic (or universal) Church. So when he talks about the early history of the Catholic church, he’s talking about our history as well. And in his book Wills asks the rhetorical question “can the church ever change?” and then goes on to suggest that those who think the church will never change are among those with a limited knowledge of history.
And Clendenin, quoting from Wills’ book says, “It's believing a fiction to say that the church has had an immutable [that is, unchanging] past, "that the church was always what it has become." That's patently false. The church didn't always have priests (a "failed tradition” he calls them) and popes.
For thirteen hundred years it didn't teach transubstantiation, and for almost nineteen hundred years there was no such thing as papal infallibility.”
And he goes on to say that, “In ways both large and small, for good and for ill, the church has always changed. Change is the "respiration" of the church,
"its way of breathing in and breathing out." And just as it's a fiction to say that the church has had an immutable past, so too is the idea that its future is a foregone conclusion.” And then he points out several ways that Wills says that the Catholic Church, again understood as the “universal church,” has changed across the centuries.
And the first thing he points out is that for a thousand years, Latin was the official and common language for a universal church, in spite of the fact that only a very few understood it. Thought of another way - for the first thousand years of the church, half of it’s total existence, only the priests could read Scripture. It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press, around the same time as the Protestant Reformation, that is 500 years ago, that the Bible began to be translated into common languages and that common people had access to it.
A second major change that Wills points to is the changing nature of the church-state relationship. “At first,” he writes, “the state ignored the church. Then it persecuted the church. And if Emperor Constantine later took over the church, Wills observes, in the high Middle Ages it's just as true that the church took over the sword of the state with its "crusades, inquisitions, interdictions, in the christening and excommunicating of kings." More recently, liberation theology has opposed the state in defense of the poor.”
Wills also looks at changing views of contraception, patriarchy, and abortion within what we know as the post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church.
“By the 1990s, so few Catholics agreed with papal teaching on contraception that those who did were "statistically non-existent." It was a good example of how sometimes church authorities don't exactly retract their positions, "they just accept the fact that the People of God have moved on.” That same “moving on” is happening among Catholics on the issue of abortion, where a majority now support a woman’s right to choose, and to a slightly lesser degree on the issue of homosexuality.
And these issues not only are bringing about change in the Roman Catholic church, but in the Protestant denominations as well. And as you know, in our own United Methodist Church in particular, the issues of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of openly gay clergy are hot topics. There has been a battle going on within the United Methodist Church over these issues for nearly the entire fifty year existence of the UMC as we know it, post 1968 merger. As those who support the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church and in ordained ministry have grown in strength, those who oppose that have grown increasingly immutable in their interpretation of both Scripture and the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It finally came to a head at our General Conference in 2016, where when faced with an impasse between opposing sides, the Conference turned to our Council of Bishops and asked them to make a recommendation on how we move forward as a denomination. The Council of Bishops, basically the governing authority within our denomination whose role, among others, is to carry out the decisions of the General Conference, created what is called the Commission on the Way Forward, made up of United Methodists from across the spectrum, clergy and laity, progressive and conservative, gay and straight, male and female, black and white, to explore and make a recommendation to the Council of Bishops for how we should proceed. This recommendation will be brought to a specially called General Conference in 2019, next year. We don’t know exactly what will happen during or in the aftermath of that Conference, but we do know that regardless of the decision made by those Conference delegates, it will bring significant change to The United Methodist Church as we know it.
The UMC and its historical predecessor churches have seen change before, though. Whether it was splits over the role or position of bishops in the eighteenth century, divisions over slavery in the nineteenth century, or fights over the role and ordination of women in the 20th, the only constant, in the church or in the world for that matter, is change.
One of the most radical changes in the early church, though, is that which is described by Luke in our reading for today. I’ve already pointed out the major change that is represented simply by Peter’s being willing to stay in the home of Simon the Tanner. But as Peter is waiting on lunch one day he has a vision of something like a sheet descending from above full of what he understands to be “unclean” animals, and a voice, presumably of God, telling him to kill and eat. And Peter replies, “No way, Lord! These animals are forbidden in the dietary laws of the Hebrew Scriptures!” Now, notice here how Peter is so concerned about remaining kosher and following the dietary laws, while he seems totally unconcerned about the purity laws he’s violating by being in the home of this tanner. “I’ve never eaten non-kosher foods like these before—not once in my life!” he declared. His sudden claim of righteousness, or self-righteousness perhaps, is shot down, however, when the voice responds, “If God calls something permissible and clean, you must not call it forbidden and dirty!”And it says that “Peter saw this vision three times; but the third time, the container of animals flew up through the rift in the sky, the rift healed, and Peter was confused and unsettled as he tried to make sense of this strange vision.”
At that point, the messengers from Cornelius arrive and share the invitation they bring, and the following day Peter leaves with them in route to the home of the Centurion. Arriving at 3pm the following day, we’re told that when Peter meets Cornelius, the Centurion drops to his knees before Peter as if to worship him, but that Peter tells him to stand up, that he is just a man.
And then Peter, the effects of all that he has encountered in the last few days being made known through him, says to Cornelius, “You know I am a Jew. We Jews consider it a breach of divine law to associate, much less share hospitality, with outsiders. But God has shown me something in recent days: I should no longer consider any human beneath me or unclean. That’s why I made no objection when you invited me; rather, I came willingly.”
And Clendenin points out to us that while “there are many layers to this story,” we should “notice the obvious — that the real convert here, the person who really needs a radical change of mind and heart, is not Cornelius the centurion but Peter the believer. And so he repents, confessing, "God has shown me that I should not call any person impure or unclean.”
And Clendenin continues, “We should hope and pray and work for a better church. But we should also reject the purist's dream of a perfect church.
Jesus described his kingdom as a field of wheat that's infested with weeds, a net full of good and bad fish, and as a field of wheat that needs to be winnowed.”
"Nothing in our sinful world is perfect,” Wills reminds us, “not the church and not the state. Only…at the End of this Age, do we enter an ideal community in heaven. Until then, living between the heavenly city of God and earthly city of Man, we do the best we can in an imperfect "third city" here and now.
So we see in the emerging of the church in the book of Acts, a series of events in the life of Peter that lead him to the understanding that God shows no partiality and that all are welcome in this journey of new life in Christ. Upon this rock, the Spirit builds a church that offers hope to the hopeless, strength for the weary and new life to those who think theirs is over. This is what the church is called to do and to be, and if it doesn’t do this, it’s not being the church. This is who and how we’re called to be as disciples of Jesus Christ, and if we don’t do this…well.
This kind of openness and inclusion, an attitude of welcoming and caring for the other, is what the world needs from the church right now. Not more fighting, certainly not more judgement - much of the world already largely views Christians and the church as both too judgmental and subsequently, irrelevant to their lives. But if we are willing to make the journey of faith, to commit to living and following the way of Jesus Christ that is given for all people in all places, then as that great theologian Dr. Seuss told us, “Oh the places you will go!” Amen.