Romans 12-13 Church and State

Reading: Romans 12:8-13:14

On Monday and Tuesday, the Southern Baptists held their annual convention and passed a resolution on migrant children being separated from their parents. On Wednesday, the Catholic bishops issued a very similar statement. On Thursday, Jeff Sessions spoke at Fort Wayne Indiana, and spend a good deal of his time offering a rebuttal to these statements based on a few verses in Romans 13. I don’t appreciate government officials arguing that our faith needs altering to fit the political needs of our government.

Of course, these statements and the rebuttal didn’t come out of nowhere. In May, Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy that would separate children from their parents. Since the beginning of May 2000 children have been taken away. Right now we have over 10,000 children in custody, and the few reports we have of the conditions that these children are held in telling us that it is unacceptable. There really isn’t enough information, to tell details but there is enough to know that this is deliberate cruelty.

Unwarranted family separation is traumatic to both children and their parents. Last week, I heard the story of Marco Antonio Muñoz who died in custody on May 13. This was a father who entered in the US at a place where people often come to ask for Asylum. When he and his wife came, they were separated from their 3-year-old child and the family was broken up and detained. He was distraught, as you might imagine, he was considered an unruly prisoner, and we are told that he committed suicide while in custody. Remember, it is not illegal to ask for asylum. This family was broken up, and a distressed father died over something that is completely legal.

This is father’s day, and because two thousand children were taken due to an arbitrary decision, hundreds of fathers are facing the same distress that Marco Antonio faced. Nobody makes the decision to leave home and start a new life in a new country lightly. People leave because they are desperate to find a place that is safe for their kids. We have rules that allow people to ask for a safe place to live for a reason and, what we are looking at is children being used as a weapon to punish parents for asking.

I was not surprised by these statements, nor was I surprised that they made the news. There are about 16 million Southern Baptists in the United States, and over 1 in 5 Americans are Catholic. Such religious groups are large enough that whenever they make statements, the statements make the news. I was deeply surprised, however, when Jeff Sessions decided to offer a rebuttal to “our church friends”, where he cited scripture and attempted to argue against these statements. I am deeply concerned that a government authority felt it was necessary to critique the theological views of Church leaders and suggest that we interpret scripture differently. Specifically, he suggested that Romans 13:1-7 means that we are to support what the government does as God’s will, because God ordained the government, and he recommends that churches support his policy.

An attorney General has broad authority to direct federal law enforcement policy, but zero authority to talk about church teaching. He has no standing to tell us that the positions of our Church are unbiblical, but the challenge is made. Jeff Sessions, speaking in the role of Attorney General, found a passage of scripture where Paul tells us to obey the government because the government does God’s work. Because of this, we must struggle with the question of which interpretation is valid: that of Christian scholars or a government official. Does Romans 13 mean that what the government does is God’s will and it is the place of the Christian to accept it, and not to criticize it?

The belief that Christians should always support the actions of the government is antithetical to the stories that we tell each other. One example I grew up with is the story published in Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place which tells the story of a family who felt that a law was unjust, and so they built a hidden room where they hid people who were illegally evading arrest and they helped them escape the government. The Ten Boom family was eventually caught, arrested, and most of them died in a prison camp. Corrie ten Boon survived and traveled the world telling the story about how they worked to save Jews from the Nazis, she wrote a book in 1971 that sold 6 million copies before a movie was released in 1975.

If we accept that Romans 13 means that what the government does is God’s will, and the church has no right to criticize, then we believe that Corrie ten Boom was disobedient to God when she and her family saved Jews from the Nazis. Everybody I know celebrates the courage of the ten Boon family. I was privileged to go to her house in Harlaam Netherlands, and to see the secret room where Jews were hidden. I know we don’t believe that Romans 13 means that what the Nazis did was God’s will because I hear Christians celebrating Corrie ten Boom.

If we look back in our own history, we see that we don’t believe that everything the government does is right. I’m sure that everybody knows the name Levi Coffin. Levi Coffin, like Corrie ten Boom worked to smuggle people to safety against the laws of the government. Coffin was part of the network of the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves find freedom and safety in Canada, and in his memoir, he estimates that he helped about 3000 people escape and that he never heard of any who passed through his home being caught. The Levi Coffin house is now a museum that is less than an hour’s drive from us; so if anybody wants to see what it looks like to hide fugitives from an oppressive government, we can go to the Coffin house in Fountain City.

Christian history does not allow us to interpret Romans 13 as God’s blank check to the government. Our heritage is one of being an illegal people. If we look at Quaker history, Friends are one of the groups that might be described as a free church. Free churches are all denominational groups who rejected the idea of a state church. Governments passed laws banning free churches from meeting. Attending a Baptist, or a Quaker or a Mennonite church was, in much of Europe illegal. Quakers and other nonconformists were imprisoned and even killed both in the old world and the new world because of laws that established a state church and forbid other denominations. The very existence of our church depends on an interpretation of Romans 13, other than blind obedience to the government.

If I go back further in Christian history to the time when the Bible was being written, I see some other issues. The first issue I see is Acts 5, where Peter is commanded to stop speaking by the authorities. Peter did not say: “I must obey men rather than God”, but instead he continued to preach and face arrest. The Christian message was only spread through disobedience to authorities.

As Christianity spread, there were several laws that they habitually broke. Laws were passed that forbid them to meet together, but they met together and scripture commands that they do not forsake meeting together. Laws were passed that required Christians to sacrifice to Caesar, and say Caesar is Lord — Christians refused, and those who would not refuse were kicked out of the church. Laws were passed calling on people to take part in community life, including civil sacrifice and idol worship — Christians refused to take part, disobeying the law. If Romans 13 were interpreted to mean that we support the government in all things, there would be no Christianity anywhere. All Christians have the heritage of being an illegal people, and we should remember when we were illegals.

Finally, consider the context of Romans itself. Romans 13:1-7 is not isolated, but comes in a section of scripture that talks about Christian’s relationship with society. This section includes Romans 12 as well as Romans 13. The argument that what the government does is God’s will, and should not be questioned by Christians depends on reading Romans 13:1-7 in isolation of their context. Even if we do not know not remember the audience of the book were an illegal people in Nero’s Rome, we see that the words preceding and following what was quoted leave no room for blindly following governments.

Romans 12 begins by telling us not to be conformed to this world. Paul is not telling the Christians to be good Romans who treat Nero’s every word as God’s law, he is calling them to non-conformity. The rest of chapter 12 talks about compassion and humility. The last part of chapter 12 gives many quotes from the sermon on the mount, ending with the words:

If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:20-21 NRSV)

Romans 13 continues to give a hint to the limits of the command to obey the government immediately after the section that is quoted. Paul moves from talking about why we should pay taxes and respect the authority of governing authorities to quoting Jesus saying:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

We are not called to conform, nor to let the world tell us what is right. It is true that we are called to pay our taxes, but above that we are called to live according to the law of love, to take care of those who need help (including enemies) and to do nothing to harm our neighbors. You need to stop reading at the correct place or you realize that Paul does not recognize the legitimacy of laws that require harming another person. Is it loving to rip children from parents who committed no crime but simply came to ask for refuge? In Romans 12 Christians are called to offer hospitality to those who need it. Does this policy harm a neighbor, yes it harms a neighbor. By Paul’s logic, by our nation’s laws, and by all that is right in the world, what is being done is illegal.

What are we to do? What Paul wrote at the end of Romans 13 is good advice, and I will end my message with the words of scripture:

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in day, not reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14 NRSV)

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Acts 13-14 — Committees

Reading: Acts 13-14

The first twelve chapters of Acts are very different than what we generally experience — everything was unplanned. While Jesus gave the disciples the great commission, there was no plan to fulfill it, people just went where fate put them and they said and did what came to them. The Holy Spirit was active, and everything was exciting — but it seemed like it took an act of the Holy Spirit to get people to take what Jesus taught and commanded them seriously.

Suddenly, we are getting to something that paints a very different picture. Acts 13, 14, and later 15 shows us a picture of something that we are far more familiar with, committee meetings and business meetings. After seeing God giving visions to Peter to tell him where to preach next, it seems rather pedestrian to see something planned by committee; there is a part of me that wonders what happened to the spectacular miracles and visions. Another part of me realizes that it took a miracle for Peter to preach the Gospel to the gentiles — but, now that the miracle happened, the walls were torn down and people were acting according to the new reality.

Acts 13 begins with the Antioch church forming a missions board so that they can send out an expedition. One thing that stands out about this missions board is that they are not the refugees who escaped from Jerusalem; they are instead an international community that somehow settled in Alexandria independently of the persecution that spread Christianity to the city. This committee was a Cosmopolitan committee; its members were not provincial but were citizens of the world. Simeon and Lucius were Africans, possibly both from Cyrene which is in modern-day Libya. Barnabas, in spite of his Aramaic name, was from the Greek Island of Cyprus. Manaen was a member of Herod’s court and was a trusted friend of Herod Antipas since his childhood, and of course, Saul of Tarsus was from a Roman city in Asia Minor which is modern day Turkey.

The committee chose two of its members, Paul and Barnabas, who were especially qualified for this trip — the trip was a trip to their homelands, Cyprus and Asia Minor. They chose two people who lived their entire lives with one foot in the Jewish world, and another foot in the Greek world. Paul not only grew up in a Greek culture, but he was born in a Roman colony and enjoyed the privilege of Roman citizenship. Paul and Barnabas were fluent in the language and thoughts of the Greeks, and also fluent in the language and thoughts of the Jews.

The trip was also somewhat successful — the proconsul of Cyprus wanted to hear what Paul and Barnabas had to say, and Acts 13:12 tells us that he believed. When they went to Asia Minor, they were invited to preach at the synagogue after the reading of the law and prophets — and when they preached the resurrection of Christ they were invited to preach again the following week. The second week, they were not as well received at the synagogue, but they very deliberately preached the Gospel among the Gentiles and had a number of conversions.

The trip, however, ended badly. In Lystra, they healed a lame man, and the people thought that Paul and Barnabas were gods; they decided that Barnabas must be Zeus, the king of the gods and that Paul must be Hermes, the divine messenger. A priest of Zeus prepared offerings to sacrifice in the honor of Barnabas/Zeus, and of course Paul and Barnabas did everything in their power to communicate that there were men, not gods. Eventually, the Jewish community managed to convince the Lystrans that these were men, so the crowds responded to this revelation by throwing rocks at them until they were convinced that they had killed them; after this, they returned home.

 

What stands out to me is that this is what we might call the birth of the institutional church. I know that people groan at committees and business meetings, and we don’t see them as exciting, but God’s work can happen in church meetings. I know that we often look at the work of the Spirit, and the work of institutions as going against each other — but, Acts reminds me that institutions are powerful. One man with a vision is limited by what that single man can do. Institutions pool resources and share the work. Institutions make missionary efforts possible, they make church plantings possible, they make it possible to build a support network, they make relief and long-term charitable efforts possible. I know there are people who don’t much like organized religion, nor the work of organizing — but, I’ve started to notice that there isn’t really non-organized religion so much as poorly organized religion. Everything that the Church does and everything the church is called to do requires organization — the mission of the church is the mission of an assembly of people, not the mission of individuals. Without committees, there are no church plants, no hospitals, no schools, no food banks nor soup kitchens nor missions. All of these things are too big for an individual with a calling and a vision.

I know that we glamorize Paul and Barnabas, who actually went, but we should not forget that the background work that made this trip possible was done by the whole committee: Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen were all involved in this work, even though they did not make the trip themselves. As difficult as it is to get excited about committee meetings, they are important. Without committees, those things that are too hard for one person don’t get done.

 

Acts 11:1-18 — Now Gentiles?

Reading:  Acts 11:1-18

Our reading today takes place in Jerusalem. Peter has just returned from Caesarea. Caesarea, built by Herod the Great, was the administrative capital of Judea — or if you prefer, the seat of Roman power. This city, which was at the time the largest city in Judea, featured an artificial harbor which made Caesarea one of the most impressive harbor cities in the ancient world. It was an impressive city, one of power, wealth and of course an occupation force.

Peter went to Caesarea because he was summoned by a Roman Centurion named Cornelius who happened to believe in God. There was a place in Judean society for gentiles who believed in God; it was far from a place of honor and if such a place were made in our time we would likely call it segregation, but there was a place, and Cornelius must have taken that place. He must have gone to Jerusalem and stood in the court of the Gentiles. Acts tells us that he gave generously and that he always prayed, and that he had a good reputation among the Jews; that last part tells me a lot about him, because how many officers of occupying armies have a good reputation among the people they occupy?

Before Peter got the call, he had a vision of a sheet coming down filled with unclean animals, and he heard God tell him to take and eat. Peter, of course, refused, and God told him that he was not to call unclean what God had made clean. After the vision when the summons came for him to go to the Centurion, and Peter, knowing what the vision meant, decided to go with them to see Cornelius.

When Peter got there, he told Cornelius what he learned saying:

“You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.” (Acts 10:28-29 NRSV)

After talking with Cornelius, Peter went on to address the people that Cornelius gathered and preach the gospel to them, including the good news that God does not show favoritism. When Peter was with the gentiles, there was a second Gentile Pentecost, and everybody with Peter saw that the Holy Spirit was poured out on uncircumcised Gentiles. Because God addressed Peter’s bias in a vision, and because Peter saw that the Holy Spirit didn’t care about the rules that men made to exclude other people, Peter realized that he should obey God rather than men.

Of course, when Peter went to Jerusalem, those who heard what happened were unhappy. Peter just, as he said to Cornelius, did what was unlawful when he went to the seat of the occupation government to meet with an officer of the occupying army. It did not matter that Cornelius believed in God, nor did it matter that he was respected, there were rules of segregation, and Peter broke them.

It is no surprise that people were unhappy with Peter’s decision to ignore the law. When Peter broke the segregation laws, he did not just break a custom, he disobeyed the clear teachings of scripture. Now, how this is a clear teaching of scripture is lost on me, and it is likely lost on you as well. I can read Leviticus 19:34 which says to treat the foreigners no different than the native-born, because of the time the people of Israel were foreigners in Egypt, and reading that, my mind leaves no place for segregation, but clearly they read Torah differently than I do.

One thing that stands out to me is that Peter manages to convince his critics. He simply tells what happens, and they believe that he is a prophet with the authority to contradict what had been accepted as God’s law. You and I know that this can’t be the end of the story. If somebody offers a prophecy that something that we believe that the scripture teaches is wrong and that the Godly thing to do is violate the clear teachings of scripture — we are going to reject that. Peter surprisingly convinced the critics who approached him, but this isn’t about a few people — this is about a belief that is spread through the whole community. It is not going to be easy to convince anybody.

I’m getting ahead of myself in the story told in Acts, but there is an upcoming business meeting that happens in Acts 15. In that meeting, they will side with Peter’s experience and they will write a letter that makes Christianity something other than a sect of Judaism, and into something that welcomes Gentiles without asking to do anything more than abandon idolatry and to avoid eating blood.

When we read Paul’s letters, we learn that like any business meeting, those who agreed with the decision honored it, and those who did not agree with it ignored it. Almost every one of Paul’s letters spoke of the issue of those who did not want to welcome Gentiles into Christianity. Paul made it his mission to bring the gospel to the Gentile world, and part of his mission was to defend the Gentile Christians against those who would exclude them.

The lesson I learn from this is a very hard one. Peter’s vision calls him to violate the law and the clear teachings of scripture. When the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to the Gentiles, it shows that this law and this clear teaching of Scripture seems to be in error. Now, granted, I see the error more than I see the clear teaching — but I’m also aware that segregationists in the United States saw that same clear teaching that Peter and the law saw. From this, I learn that sometimes people can embrace clear teachings of scripture that are not so clear. Religious rules can be made that are simply wrong. I know I think that I’m right, but I do need to consider the possibility that I’m wrong from time to time.

The next lesson that I take away from this whole ancient segregation argument is the context of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he writes:

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:11-19 NRSV)

It is so easy for us to spiritualize what we read, to think of Ephesians as if it is talking about spiritual battles rather than literally talking about many members of the church wanting to exclude people who had a different ethnicity than they did. Paul is talking about segregation being a reality within living memory. We don’t like to think of an early church that struggled with forgiveness, and even one that struggled with something like what we know as racism. We imagine the early church as being close to God, and not having profound problems — but they did have profound problems, and sometimes even similar problems to what we see now.

And that is another lesson that stands out to me; like the Early Christians, American Christians too often prefer our rules and our customs to forgiveness. We look for any excuse to exclude outsiders. I’ve seen too many arguments about which people are not welcome in Church, and some of these arguments quoted scripture. American Christians, just like Early Christians have an impulse to build the same kind of walls that Jesus tore down.

We need to remember that Jesus is the one who tears down walls and that we are wrong to keep building them. I know we build because we are afraid, we are afraid of losing our customs, our history, or our culture. The fear comes from a place of either lacking faith or of placing our faith in the wrong things. Customs do not save, history and culture do not save. This is not an easy lesson, the Early Church learned it slowly, and doubtless, the American Church will learn it slowly too — but we must keep learning.

Acts 9:1-19 — Paul on Damascus road

Reading: Acts 9:1-19

Paul’s conversion is one of my favorite parts of the New Testament. I learned several things from the story of Paul — I learn about devotion to God, I learn about the message that God gives, I learn about communities and bias, I learn how much a prophetic message can change people and communities, and most of all I learn not to put limits on God’s grace nor forgiveness.

We are first introduced to Saul, also known as Paul as he is watching people’s coats as they stone Stephen after he gives a public sermon. Paul quickly moves on to become a great persecutor of the church. Acts 8 tells us that he “went from house to house dragging off both men and women.” The result of this persecution was that the Christians, who violated the order to stop speaking the name of Jesus, were scattered. They left Jerusalem to the Judean countryside, and they even became refugees outside of Galilee, moving to Samaria and Syria.

When we get to Acts 9, Saul is preparing for a journey to Syria to seize refugees and take them back. He is leaving the borders of Judea, going to a gentile country, to extradite refugees so that the cannot escape the religious persecution that he represents. Saul is a deadly and tenacious enemy who is clearly willing to go to extreme measures to kill Christianity in its infancy.

What stands out here is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians — that Paul persecuted the church due to his religious devotion. He believed that he was doing God’s work and that it was important to drive out the sect of Jesus followers who were a real challenge to both the religious institutions and to the religious traditions that had developed. Paul was waging war against something that threatened his culture and his way of life, and it turned out that he was wrong.

What I learn from this is that passion, devotion, and sincerity are not enough to make something right. People can be convinced that they are right, fight hard for what they believe, and be disastrously wrong. This truth has been growing in my mind throughout the 21st century. I look at the variety of conflicting views among Christian leaders, and I have to say that a number of them are disastrously wrong; I sometimes think that God should confront them as God confronted Saul on the road to Damascus.

Of course, this revelation should come with some humility. My ability to correctly name those who need God’s specific revelation is dependent on my passion and devotion representing what is right. When I look at Paul, I see somebody who was not only passionate but well studied. Paul knew the scripture, Paul knew theology, Paul was a studied how religion worked in a nation that answered to a huge world empire that had no interest in his God. No amount of devotion or credentials or surety made him less wrong.

The next thing that stands out is that God’s grace and forgiveness are absolute. We have hints of radical forgiveness when Jesus forgives the thief on the cross, when Jesus prays for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him, and when Steven prays: “Lord do not hold this sin against them” as he is being stoned to death. The extent of this radical forgiveness is shown when God not only forgives Saul but meets Saul on the road and changes his life.

Grace and forgiveness is something that we’ve already know about through words, but seeing forgiveness in action is something else. Paul’s conversion is something that demonstrates God’s forgiveness, and it also comes as a call for the church to forgive as well. The hardest thing that Christ teaches us is to forgive — we love the idea of forgiveness until there is something that we must forgive and then we fight against it.

This was not just true of us, but it was true of the early Church. God, being God, knew that the church would have trouble forgiving Saul for his persecution that made them into refugees, so God gave Ananias a vision, told him that Saul was blinded, and told him to heal his blindness and to welcome him as a Christian. As you can imagine, Ananias responded to God saying: “Saul, you mean the guy who drove the Christians out of Jerusalem, you mean the guy who brings Christians to their death?” Like any of us, Ananias was sure that God must be mistaken.

This is, for me one of the lessons that I have to learn: We are not perfect. Anyone of us would need that divine vision to welcome Saul. Even after this vision, the Christian community had trouble believing Ananias’s prophetic message. It was hard work for the Christian community to accept this teaching of radical forgiveness, even though both Jesus and Stephen prayed for those who were involved in their deaths would be forgiven.

Just as God was gracious and met Saul on the road, God met Ananias in his home, God allowed miraculous signs to show that God really brought Paul to the Christians, and after Saul was converted, God met Peter, and let Peter know that this Christianity thing really was for everybody; what Jesus taught wasn’t just words that sounded nice, but they were exactly what Christianity was about — Christianity is about forgiveness so powerful that your greatest enemy can become a valued member of the community, hate, division, and disagreement can all be overcome in Christ.

We all need to learn some humility. As Augustine says, “If you understand It, It is not God.” We all imagine God as something less than God really is. No matter how devout we are, things like God’s forgiveness is hard for us to completely comprehend. Without knowing Paul’s history, we would not have an example beyond words, but because we see Paul, we have an example that shows us what forgiveness looks like when there is genuine repentance.

The final lesson that we all need to learn is the lesson we learn from the identity of Paul. Remember how the disciples didn’t go to take Christianity to all the nations and the ends of the Earth? Remember how they were content to stay in Jerusalem until persecution drove them out of Judea and made them into refugees? Remember how even after they spread, they stayed a Jewish sect, rather than bringing Christ to the Gentiles? Remember how Peter needed a divine vision in order to accept that Gentiles could be Christians too?

Paul eagerly obeyed the great commission even when the apostles were reluctant to do so. The disciples got the command to go out from Jesus, but they were in no hurry to obey it — Paul, on the other hand, spent his life traveling, spreading the gospel, and writing pastoral letters to all the communities that he worked to build up.

Christianity needed somebody with the energy and the devotion of Paul — somebody who would go and spread the message to anybody. Christianity needed somebody who had the tenacity of Paul. Who other than Paul could stand up to Peter in Antioch, because Peter thoughtlessly acted like a bigot when in the presence of bigots rather than having courage, and continuing to eat and associate with the Gentile Christians? It was Paul who could clearly tell how the Cross and the resurrection is a metaphor for what happens to us — our sinful selves are crucified, and we are raised in Christ as new people. Nobody’s life was as completely changed as Paul. It was Paul who could talk about the dividing walls being torn down by Jesus, because Saul, in his former life, was one of the wall-builders, and Jesus tore down the walls in Paul’s heart.

Paul changes everything, or more precisely Paul reveals everything. Because of Paul, I know that Jesus meets us where we are at, even if we are at a place that is so far from God’s will that we are acting as God’s enemy. Because of Paul, I know that Jesus meets us where we are at, even when there are walls in our heart that need to be torn down so we can accept another person created in God’s image into our community. Because of Paul, I know that the good news is that Christ can forgive and change everything.

Community

Reading: Acts 2:42-47

We all know that community is important. If I search for books about church community and a vision of church community, they are abundant. If I ask somebody to tell me what Quakers practice, I might get the answer Howard Brinton gave: “SPICE — Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality.” Today, we read in scripture about how important a close community was in the early church, and we have not stopped talking about community. With all the words Christians of all kinds spend talking about community, one would think that we’d be great at it — that it was a treasure that we inherited.

Since I’ve grown up in the church, and I can say that it is and has always has been an important community in my life, I will say the good and the bad things about my experience in this community. I will start with the bad: The bad news is that all those books about living in community don’t come because we are good at it. The mythology of our nation is one of great individuals, not of strong communities. When we tell our stories, we focus on the works of individuals, not of the communities. As much as we value our institutions, we really want to give the institution a face and a single human story.

Even worse, our culture focuses on the individual has gone to the point that we do not value people for what they contribute to the community, but instead we value people for their ability to serve and enrich themselves. One example of this is school teachers. We expect a school teacher to earn two degrees before qualifying for a license; one in the subject they teach, and the other in education. After they are licensed, we expect them to continue as part-time students until earning a masters degree in Education.

Teaching is clearly a position that serves the community. If our population is poorly educated, we all suffer. Our health, wealth, and comfort are dependent on not only ourselves but our neighbors. If our community is ignorant, the whole community suffers from the ignorance of the community no matter how well educated the individual is. Teachers work to enrich us all.

In spite of this, this year we’ve heard many people speaking against teachers. Recently, teachers have also been complaining about little our society values education. They have been complaining about wages that leave them too close to poverty, they have been complaining about classrooms that are falling apart due to delayed maintenance, about being under-supplied, about textbooks that have not been replaced in over 20 years. We also know that some state legislatures have debated laws making it illegal for teachers to protest, and banning teachers unions who bring forward these complaints. We all know the George Bernard Shaw’s proverb: “Those who can, do. Those who cannot teach.” We live in a time that despises teachers, in spite of their great value to our society.

If our dominant culture valued community, it would praise those who made choices that benefit the community as a whole. Teachers would be treated with as much respect as we give to successful businessmen and highly skilled professionals. We would value teachers, because teachers work on building up the community. Because our culture does not value community, teachers are too often treated as undeserving and unwanted.

The good news is that we are the Church is Salt, and Light, and Yeast, and Mustard. In places where the culture gets something wrong, the Church has a call to be counter cultural. It is hard to be counter cultural; it is hard, because we are not used to examining those things we are used to. It is easier to ignore community and make faith all about me than it is to think about community in an individualistic society. It is easier to make faith all about me than it is to learn about community, but, I and Christians everywhere read Acts, and we all must find a way to figure out what to make of the community of the Early church.

I grew up in America’s culture. I also grew up in the church. The good news is, as hard as it is to question those parts of culture that are contrary to what our faith teaches us; we manage to question them. All those books about community exist, because people are trying to be faithful to Christ rather than the world.

I know I’ve told you about times when my wider church community struggled when I was a teenager. Back in the 1990’s, we had some pretty bad luck with money; one of the causes of bad luck was that the pastors used a denominational group plan for health insurance, and without warning, the insurance company stopped paying bills. It turns out that the company was embezzled by an executive, and the company shut down and the executive was imprisoned, but this left the pastors without insurance until we found another company.

What I recall is that churches all over raised money to pay pastor’s medical bills. We were not scattered churches, we were a wider community who responded to the needs of others. You might say that this terrible need was shared in common. It would be easy to complain about the company that collapsed, and the executive who caused the collapse, and then leave those with surprise medical bills to go bankrupt, but many people shared the pain. This did a lot to teach me about how the church is community.

We read about the early church, and sometimes it is hard to connect. I don’t know what it is like to be part of a persecuted community. I cannot imagine the hardships that brought the individuals who owned something to give up everything they owned because the need was so great. I am thankful that I’ve never suffered persecution, but it means that I have some difficulty understanding the context of scripture. It is easy to forget that we are not reading about people who met in big beautiful buildings, and were seen as pillars of society, we are reading about a group of fugitives, who met secretly in modest rooms, and shared with each other how their faith gave them hope. I saw evidence of my community over a difficulty that we proved able to manage, the early church faced danger that was far beyond their control.

The early church was bound together both by their common faith, and by the common danger of persecution. Sometimes it is hard for me to find the right way to live in today’s world, because most of the things I know about the Christian life I know from our history of persecution. The New Testament was written during a time of persecution, my denomination experienced persecution during the time of its founding; and I grew up in an area settled by Mennonites, who had similar stories from their past.

Sometimes I worry that we are always looking at the times of persecution and suffering, and we have no idea how to live in a time when we are welcome in society. I wonder how often we act in ways that are not helpful, because the situation has changed. I want us to have a strong community like they had in the first chapters of Acts, but I don’t want the problems they had.

I know I’m jumping ahead, and we’ll get back to this later, but when Paul became a Christian it took a miracle for the Christian community to forgive and accept him. Paul, as you remember started the story as one of those who persecuted the church, but he had an encounter with a blinding light and the voice of Jesus. The Voice sent him to a Christian who would pray that his sight be restored. It took more than Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, however. In order for Paul to be accepted by the Christian community, a member of the community had to have the same kind of experience that Paul did — a vision commanding him to accept Paul. Not only did Paul need correcting, but Ananias did as well.

Community is important, but when we idealize the church in the first few chapters of Acts, we miss that even their community had to grow and change. They were bound together by fear of persecution and a common enemy — but God called them to forgive their enemy, and to accept him as a member of the community. Things change, and God changes hearts. I’m not completely sure what the perfect church community would look like; I know that it would be a community where people shared their faith, and they looked after each other, but I really don’t feel I could say much beyond this. I believe, however, that the church is ultimately the community of people who do their best to live with Jesus; and to help each other live out everything that this implies. I also believe that we won’t always get it right; there isn’t a time we can look back on and say: “We always got it right then.” What we can do is keep trying, and keep encouraging each other. Ultimately, if we do that, we will be a community.

Whatever you did to the least of these

My church, Raysville Friends, has had a relationship with Iglesia Amigos from the time when it was only an idea.  One of our members was part of the planning committee for the church plant.  On May 3, I and others accompanied Sonia to a routine check-in, where she was taken into custody and transferred to a holding facility in Brazil, IN.    I suggest reading the words of her pastor, Carlos Moran:

Today we have lost one of the pillars, she was one of the founding members of our church. Sonia is very special, one of the best sisters. She was generous, she gave her time and her money to contribute with any project we had going on in our church. She was always present she rarely missed a service unless she was severely ill or out of town. She did not only say she loved her church, her life said so. At church we sing a song that speaks about the poor widow who gave everything she had, Sonia did not only sing the song she was that poor widow, she embodied that women Jesus noticed at the temple. Sonia will not only be missed by her family and her church, she will also be missed by the community around her. She raised funds for other members of the community who had been deported, she provided child care for other children; one child in particular is the child of a single father. That father told her the day before she reported to her check in: what am I going to do with my daughter if you are deported, who will watch her as I work. Sonia was always volunteering or helping someone in her community, whether it was through Faith in Indiana, helping clean the church building or running an errand for a friend, she was always there to help. Sonia was one of those persons that embodied God first, God second, God third, and God always because of that she gave herself fully to her brothers and sisters who bear the image of God, her family, her church and her community. We know that Sonia sometimes would go with out in order to help another person, and for that reason we are now willing to go with out to help her and her family. People can come and go but this absence will truly be missed, simply because her life said to God here I am Lord use me. The blessings we received through her life is prove that God is real and good, we have truly experience the presence of God through her life.

This is morally wrong, this is what hate looks like. Children coming home from school and a father struggling to tell them that their mother is behind bars and that she will only be released in El Salvador. This is the work of the devil, to divide and right now he must feel victorious as yet again a family has been ripped apart, as yet again the church has lost one their pillars as yet again a light has been shut down in the community. I am praying that on the day of judgement God will have mercy on this country, I am calling my brothers and sister to repent because we have done wrong and the children are the ones suffering. It is still time to remember Jesus words: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ We still have time to repent before the King tells us: Depart from me,you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. — Carlos Moran, Pastor Iglesia Amigos (Indianapolis)

Sonia’s children are born in the United States, and are American citizens, but they will either seek asylum in El Salvador, or they risk becoming wards of the state.  This is a case that affects my Church community, however there are many similar cases, and the number of such cases will only grow as people who had status under TPS or DACA lose their status.

As Carlos Moran said “This is what hate looks like”, hate makes American citizens into political refugees who must grow up in a foreign country.  A go fund me account has been made to help with expenses related to Sonia’s detention, likely including funds to help the children resettle in El Salvador.

https://www.gofundme.com/solidarity-with-sonia

Acts 1-2:13 — First days of the church

Reading:  Acts 1:2:13

Last week, we finished our study of Luke but, Luke’s gospel is really part of a two part unit by the same author. Luke ends talking about what Jesus did after the Resurrection, up to the day that Jesus ascended into Heaven, and Acts starts with Jesus giving the great commission, telling the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit, and then being taken up into heaven. One tells the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the other tells the story of the newly emerging church. Both stories have 7 weeks of overlap — I’d like to talk about these seven weeks

Acts opens with Jesus meeting with the disciples near the end of the 40 days that Jesus stayed with the disciples between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Acts tells us that Jesus gave some final teaching about the kingdom of God, and ordered them to wait together in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, and after they received power, to become His witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but also in all of Judea, in Samaria, and to the very ends of the world.

The thing that stands out to me the most of all is that after spending years learning from Jesus, and having over a month of special teaching from Jesus about the nature of God’s kingdom, the disciples still don’t seem to get it. I read the question: “will you now restore the kingdom of Israel?” as “is it time to fight the Romans yet?” Even the Resurrection was not enough to get the idea that Jesus was a another political savior out of the disciples minds. They might have been willing to die for this cause, but they didn’t really understand the kingdom of heaven yet. Acts starts with the disciples still clueless.

To be fair, I can imagine what the disciple who asked if it was time to kick out the Romans was thinking. Some of the disciples were prepared to die fighting Rome even before the Crucifixion, but after the Resurrection it becomes clear that Rome cannot win. The emperor only has the power to kill, but Jesus has the power to give life. If the power of the emperor can be reversed, then the emperor is powerless. Rome cannot win if the people they kill don’t remain dead. If I knew Rome couldn’t win, I’d be eager to start fighting too.

But, what Jesus did was told them to wait for the spirit to come and give them power. They were to spread Christ’s teachings and the gospel of the Resurrection, not to fight against Rome. Jesus called them to something that looked a lot less like winning. What Jesus teaches so often goes against the first thing that the disciples thought. Even in our experience, we often read what Jesus taught and ask if he could have really meant it. Like the disciple who was ready to take on Rome, we are not eager to listen to Jesus telling us to turn the other cheek and to love even our enemies.

Recently, I read Brian Zahnd’s book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, and in this book the author spoke about the struggle between early Christianity and Rome. Rome did fight Christianity, using the tools that they had to defeat the new faith, and they accomplished nothing. Anybody who suggests that you cannot accomplish anything without violence does not understand the power of good news, nor that a martyr has more power to spread the message than the sword that killed to silence him. In the book Zahnd speaks of New Jerusalem, described in Revelation 21, and he notices that the city is big enough to span the Roman Empire, and is as tall as it is wide. Brian Zahnd reads revelation as a prophecy that this tiny, persecuted bunch will grow until they are bigger than Rome, and he also writes that its height, which is tall enough to stretch out into space, shows that Heaven and Earth will touch.

I like this reading, because it really is what happened. The disciple was not entirely wrong; Jesus was going to conquer Rome, but the time and the method were not at all like they would imagine. First Century Christianity was small, and it was mostly people who had no voice, and no hope beyond the good news that the gospel gave them. Most Christian communities were simple house churches; and as most Christians were poor, these churches often met in small apartments. When the persecution started, the only thing people really know about Christians was that they were those weird people who didn’t participate in the religious celebrations of the cities they lived in. When Revelation was written, it was hard to imagine the Church bigger than Rome.

In just a couple centuries, Christianity became the dominant religious in the Roman Empire, and there were some changes to the nature of the Empire; though one might also say that there were changes to Christianity. Jesus didn’t exactly teach his disciples what to do when they became the majority and gained power; we’ve had to figure that out for ourselves, and, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that we’ve had a mixed record in this regard.

The point is that the disciple was wrong about the method, but he was right about what Jesus wanted. The kingdom of heaven isn’t looking to establish itself as a political empire, carved out by an army, and subject to falling to another, stronger empire. The Kingdom of Heaven is about what is right and just. Winning a war does not make a cause just. Might does not make right.

The brilliance of Jesus is that a growing number of powerless people embracing an unworldly kingdom of Divine justice instead of the harsh pragmatism of the world is that those who became members of the Kingdom of Heaven change the world — the brilliance is that we are all salt and light. Even when we seem powerless, we are powerful because we are people of the good news. We are the community of the Resurrection, our Kingdom is not of this world, but our Kingdom is the one where Jesus is king; the truth is, we are still bigger than Rome ever was — and even if us Christians lose our political influence, we still have a gospel that brings the transformation of hearts minds and lives.

The power Jesus brought is the power of Resurrection — we who were dead in our sins are raised up to a new life in Christ. The thing that gives me the most hope in my Christian life is the belief that God has not abandoned us. The story of God’s work didn’t end with Jesus on the cross, nor at the Ascension. The opening of Acts goes from Jesus leaving to the Holy Spirit coming to the church in a powerful way.

Just as Luke was the story of how God showed himself to the world, and worked powerfully through the incarnation; Jesus was God in the flesh, Acts was about the continuation of the story. Pentecost is where the Holy Spirit is there for all of us, and the Church is empowered to do God’s work on Earth. Luke is about Jesus, Acts is about the community of people who are saved, and brought into God’s kingdom through the Jesus’ work, and it is about how the church continues doing God’s work. Acts is the origin story of the great world-wide community that all Christians are part of.

I believe God is still here, changing lives, healing brokenness, and bringing sinners into salvation from themselves. The most important thing I find as good news is that we are invited to enter God’s kingdom. We might never see tongues of fire descend upon us, but I still believe that the Holy Spirit is active in our church and our world. The story of Easter, the story of Pentecost, and the continuing story of the church all tells us the same good news: God does not abandon us.