|Today’s scripture reading: Acts 15:1-18|
I had a hard time keeping the attention of at least one member of Youth Group this week. He had our conversation pulled up on his screen at home, but also on a nearby screen he was watching something else at the same time. I don’t know when it became must-see live TV, but I learned that Thursday night was the beginning of the multi-day affair that is the NFL Football Draft. These high holy days of professional football mystify me, but it is fascinating to think about all the skilled college players who just found out over the last several days where they will play next.
Of course, learning what jersey you will wear is just the beginning. Like anyone entering a new workplace, or a student going to a new school, there’s a great deal of culture to understand and get used to on their new teams. A new roster of dozens of players and hundreds of support staff to get to know. New plays to study up on and learn; a new routine of how practices and games will go. The new backup quarterback for the Vikings has to start imagining himself as the heart of the team, and he’s just twenty-one years old. It’s critical that the longtime and just-drafted players learn to work together as a complete, confident, and skilled team. There’s no room for divisions between them, and when disagreements do crop up it spells real trouble for the whole franchise.
These are the games of our day, but the expanding new church in the Book of Acts has a lot in common with such dynamics. There were longtime believers, the Jews who had lived this faith from the cradle on, and recently came to understand how Jesus’ death and resurrection fit into it. There were also a growing number of non-Jewish followers of Jesus who had joined the team, but who didn’t want to live by certain older rules. The sides were at odds over the question of circumcision, and following the laws of Moses more broadly as disciples of Christ. Their differences were splitting the community between so-called “lawbreakers” and “law-abiders”, because people were putting such importance on this question of Torah obedience.
The budding new church community at Antioch doesn’t know what to do, so they appoint a group to go ask the apostles in Jerusalem. They want a ruling from the disciples who followed Jesus and learned directly from him. The details of that conversation in Jerusalem read like minutes of an ancient church meeting! Peter is of the mind that God is not judging between Gentile and Jew, so the church need not require Jewish laws and practices. Barnabas and Paul make their case, James the brother of Jesus chimes in, and they come to agreement about a few limited restrictions on Gentile behavior.
In seminary I took a class on “Church Administration”, and our professor, Martha Highsmith, described this Jerusalem council as an example of the best kind of church meeting. Leadership took up a new idea rather than squelching or ignoring it. Each person spoke forthrightly to their own opinions even though they differed. They talked directly to one another about their disagreement, rather than working through hearsay or spreading rumors. They looked to God’s actions in the world, and the experiences of faith, as a guide when deciding how to go forward. They approached their current moment with curiosity, trying to figure out where God was at work, and fitting church rules to that lived experience. The Holy Spirit will do what She will do, unconstrained by human limits, and it’s the work of the church to get on board with God’s agenda rather than the other way around. And if “God makes no distinction between them and us”, as Peter says, then who are we to raise barriers to membership or inclusion, even among those whose practices and customs are different from our own? How will the church truthfully, faithfully reflect the limitlessness of God?
I took these questions with me for a walk this week in the Morningside neighborhood. Here too, on every block, you can see the source of tension between new and old. Every block has one or two construction sites, where small homes and magnificent trees are being taken out to make room for giant new homes. Longtime Morningside residents and those who love the way things were, including myself, grieve the changes to this community. I’ve heard us tell ourselves stories and stereotypes about “them”, those new people who are moving in and blemishing the look of the neighborhood. Yet what role does the church have to foster community among new and old together?
We have umpteen other ways of dividing ourselves too, of course. Mask wearing, vaccination status, political party, race, class, creed, color, citizenship—all are distinctions that carve people up from one another. And if we’re so wed to whatever team we’re on, keeping it distinct from any other teams, “we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own”, as the song says. Columnist Aaron Brown, writing from the Iron Range, names the political and cultural assumptions at play in Minnesota right now. Part of the state presumes that those in rural areas are “Fanatical hicks who stand in the way of progress.” Another part assumes that “Twin Cities people are all the same: Paradoxically a bunch of rich hipsters who don’t know real work, or minorities who have some secret agenda to take your stuff.” Either way, Brown concludes, “If you fight the culture war you’ll eventually want to draw a line. I stay on my side; you stay on yours. That’s a losing game.”
This is not to ignore the inequalities or injustices between people and communities—falsely pretending that systems are neutral or we’re all color-blind. We see clearly how judgments between groups have led to the supremacy of some and the centuries-old systematic exclusion of others. The church calls attention to such inequities, and joins God in resisting exclusion, precisely because “God makes no distinction between us and them”. And in so doing, we hold close the lesson here of Acts 15, that no division or difference is so great that we can include anyone from divine grace. Every time humanity seeks to draw a line that marks who’s in and who’s out, God crosses the line and shows up among those on the outside as well. So as we answer the call of justice, working to heal God’s creation and set things right, are we doing so in ways that demonize “the other”, or in ways that hold open the possibility that God is working also for the grace and redemption of those who are on “the other side”?
This is the gift we’ve received from God in the witness of the early Christian church, and what we bring to movements for justice and community: the belief that while actions must be amended and corrected, no person or community is outside the recovery of divine grace. To be drafted onto God’s team is to live according to the words of Saint Augustine, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity.” May the God of all life help us act in accordance with such limitless love. Amen.