Even to the Gentiles

Even to the Gentiles

Acts 11: 1 – 18

Andrew Foster Connors
Associate Pastor, Idlewild Presbyterian Church
Memphis 

Sermon to the
2002 Covenant Conference
Morning Worship, November 8, 2002

 

Surely Peter must have known that this is not the best time to push a divisive issue in the church. Surely Peter must have known that you can only rock the boat so far before people start jumping ship. These are difficult years for the church. Peter knew that. Budgets are tight, new members are hard to come by, and Christians of all sorts are struggling to stay alive in a culture that does not support their faith. Parishioners do not want to hear their church debate its law; they want the leadership to show them how to survive.

This is not the time to lobby for a more hospitable church. This is not the time to advocate for a Gentile special-interest group. Who cares about the rules of table fellowship when your world is on the edge?

I’m not sure that Peter thought this whole thing through when he decided to break bread with a bunch of uncircumcised men. And I wonder if he struggled with what he was going to say to his colleagues as he made his way to Jerusalem. I wonder if he questioned his own commitment to this inclusive church business. Why push the issue now? Why jeopardize the peace, unity, and purity of the church at a time when the church desperately needs to stand together?

I wonder if Peter thought about himself. I wonder if he worried about his own future in the church. Peter loved his vocation — he loved preaching and teaching; he loved baptizing new believers and caring for the sick. This was his calling and he was good at it. Why jeopardize everything that you love for this Gentile issue?

But it’s a little late for Peter to be second-guessing himself because the deed is already done. The law has already been broken. And knowing what I know about church politics, Peter needs a good defense. He needs a case built on solid biblical exegesis — the Hebrew word for Gentiles has several meanings; He needs an argument constructed from the best theological points — maybe being a Gentile isn’t what the commandments are after; it’s behaving like a Gentile that’s forbidden; He needs a line of reasoning supported by a solid ethic — under certain unusual circumstances it might be acceptable to eat with a select group of non-practicing Gentiles.

But Peter doesn’t offer any of that. He gives the most flimsy argument I have ever heard in the church: “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us”; “The Spirit told me to”. –No complex theological claim, no serious biblical exegesis, no guiding ethic. Just six brothers in the faith to corroborate his story. It sounds like situation ethics to me.

And it doesn’t take long before you wonder if these Jewish-Christian leaders in Jerusalem know anything about leadership. What kind of leader is going to let the laws of the church get trampled like that? What kind of leader is going to open the door to all kinds of disorder in the church — they’ve already opened the door to Ethiopian eunuchs just three chapters back — what is going to be next? What kind of leader is going to let one guy’s impulsive actions overturn centuries of solid theology and ethics? What kind of governing body is going to put their trust in the testimony of one person?

But that’s exactly what the church leaders do in Jerusalem — they trust Peter. And I don’t know what to make of that kind of trust in this text, because it doesn’t work that way in our church. Why don’t our Presbyterian Coalition friends trust us when we say that we have seen the Holy Spirit fall on our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who believe in Jesus Christ? Why don’t the PfR folks trust us when we tell them about all the gay youth whose lives were saved by words of grace from a minister of the gospel? Why don’t they trust us when we tell them about the gay men and women who have suffered the humiliation of presbyteries asking about their sex lives, who have endured committees comparing them to drug addicts, who have listened to elders telling them to stay away from their youth — all because they are confident that God has gifted them to preach and teach in a church that doesn’t even want them?

Why won’t they trust us?

It all ends so nicely for Peter. They believe him. They trust his testimony. But I’m not so sure when or if that fairy tale ending is coming our way. Because the church is raising a new generation of ministers who have never experienced trust in our presbyteries. We’ve seen solid candidates for ordination cut down on the floor for admitting their doubts about the ministry. We’ve seen weak candidates whisked on through to ordination all because they learned how to use the same old recycled language about Lord and Savior, and sovereignty, and order, and obedience whether they believed it or not. We’ve seen friends grilled about their personal lives without a single question on theology, the Bible, or ethics. We’ve watched big budget churches violate the rules and get away with it because they can. And we’re supposed to know how to trust each other?

I’m not sure that it is possible for us to trust each other in our church. A marriage can only take all the yelling, and crying, and carrying on before somebody decides, “I don’t need this.” “I don’t deserve this.” Maybe divorce is not always a bad thing if you decide to do it to protect your children from all your ugliness.

I’m not willing to build any bridges on the trampled bodies of my gay and lesbian friends in the church. I’m not willing to open up my heart to anyone if means locking up my convictions in a closet. And I’m not willing to purchase peace, unity, or purity by selling out the Gentiles in our churches who don’t have any seats on the council in Jerusalem.

It’s hard for me to see how Peter had so much trust from the folks in Jerusalem. How can you trust someone who has so little respect for church authority? Peter did not wait for a definitive guidance on “the Gentile issue.” He did not take “the issue” to a special commission to be studied, picked apart, debated, and voted on. The law was clear and he flat out disobeyed it. And I don’t see how the leaders in Jerusalem can trust Peter with behavior like that.

But I don’t think Peter disrespects the authority of the church. I don’t think he’s insensitive to those in Jerusalem who criticize him. Peter knows that he is accountable for his actions. He goes up to Jerusalem to face the criticism; maybe even to face a trial. But Peter goes up to Jerusalem knowing that he’s got good news to tell. The Holy Spirit is at work again! God has given, even to the Gentiles, the repentance that leads to life. Even the Gentiles have been baptized into the faith. Even the Gentiles believe in Jesus Christ. Peter has seen the Spirit of God tearing down all the distinctions that the powers in this world build between us. And what else can you do when you’ve seen that kind of good news? What else can you do but run back to your church home and tell everyone what miracles God is doing. What else can you do but praise God for the gift of the Spirit?

What else is left for us to do in our church? We’ve presented our powerpoint presentations. We’ve given our theological statements. We’ve brought our expert letters from psychologists and theologians and seminary scholars. We’ve argued our polity arguments. There is nothing left to do but keep telling the church how we came to believe what we believe step by step. –That the Spirit has told us not to make a distinction between gay and straight; because we’ve seen the Holy Spirit fall upon gay and straight alike.

We’ve seen God give those who we ban from ordination the same gift that God gave us when we were called by Jesus Christ. And if God gave them the same gift that God gave us, who are we that we should hinder God?

If we risk anything by sharing that good news, it will not be the church’s authority that we risk. –Good news will never be a threat to the church’s authority. It will not be the peace, unity, and purity of the church that we risk. –Good news will never be a threat to the unity of the church. If we risk anything, we will only be risking ourselves for the conviction that the only distinction that should matter in the church is faith in Jesus Christ.

I would like to think that we can build trust around that conviction. I don’t think we can build trust on anything else. Peter had only six witnesses. How many more do we need?

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