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Sunday, June 17, 2018 | 4:00 p.m.
Loyalty and Power
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 9:1–2, 8–11, 13–20
I have a wish that there would be no conflict in the world. I wish that everything was fair and just, and that all people would be happy and free. I wish that all on this planet lived with a sense of abundance and that we would all share willingly, knowing that there is enough, and knowing that our security lies in our care and concern and love for each other.
I know that this is a naïve wish, and there are plenty of people who will remind me that it is naïve. Nevertheless, this is my wish for the world as is “should” be, or as it “could” be.
It is my belief that God has a similar wish, a similar dream for the world. The Bible calls it the Kingdom of God and describes it in the Book of Revelation as a new heaven and a new earth in which there will be no more tears.
The early disciples of Jesus tried to live into this vision and seemed to have succeeded to a degree and for awhile. In the second chapter of Acts, the Bible describes the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the people gathered from many parts of the known world, all of them speaking and understanding different languages, coming together into a new community, a new household of faith (Acts 2:1–36). We celebrate this at Pentecost.
As the community gathered and grew, it is described like this:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread [from house to house] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44–47)
The Bible describes this vision of possibility, but it also describes the complications of life that quickly arise.
By the sixth chapter of Acts, our reading for today, a complaint arises between some of these same diverse peoples of different cultures, speaking different languages, who are trying to come together as disciples of Jesus Christ. They are trying to be a community. But it’s not easy, and we human beings quickly bump up against our own limitations.
“Hey,” the Greek speaking disciples say to the Aramaic speaking disciples. “You’re not caring for our widows the way you are caring for your widows.”
The twelve presumably Aramaic-speaking apostles could have responded in a number of ways. They could have denied it. They could have said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course we care for your widows. If they’re hungry, it’s just because they’re not coming to the places where we’re serving food.” But they didn’t say that.
They could have responded with defensiveness, saying, “Hey, we try. We’re good people. We’re doing the best we can. Don’t accuse us.” But they didn’t say that.
The apostles could have deflected, saying, “It’s not our responsibility. They can go to the Greek-speaking food pantry down the road and get fed there. Or they should go to their own families to get help.” But they didn’t say that.
The apostles could have responded from a scarcity mentality, saying, “Our widows will not have enough if we care for your widows too.” But they didn’t say that, either.
Instead, they understood that the complaint, the conflict, surfaced a problem that needed to be addressed.
And they responded by listening toand believing the testimony of the Aramaic-speaking disciples. They responded by acknowledging that there was a problem and admitting that they couldn’t fix it by themselves.
And they responded by empowering the very people who came forward to point out the problem to them. They discerned the gifts of God given to different people in different ways and then empowered people to use their gifts to serve the community.
This is the story of the creation of deacons. In the Presbyterian tradition, deacons are the members of the community who take on the task of caring for the well-being of the community.
We ordain our deacons: we lay our hands on them and bless them and commission them to the tasks of caring. Deacons make an ordination vow in which they promise that they will be faithful deacons through “teaching charity, urging concern, and directing the people’s help to the friendless and those in need.” Deacons pledge to do their best to “try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ” in all they do (Book of Order, W-4.4003).
The creation of this role in a church comes from “a complaint” that arose. Some among the disciples pointed out a failing of the community and the community adapted. The community reorganized itself, improved itself.
Through this story of the origin of deacons, we are given inspiration. We are not given a simple blueprint for life because there is no simple blueprint for life. Life is not simple. But we are shown a pattern of faithful response and adaptation. In a community based on grace and forgiveness and generosity of spirit, there is room to grow. It’s what we are all about—becoming more and more the people of goodness that God imagines us to be.
New problems arise all the time. We see what we have not seen before and we need to adapt. We need to listen to new information and acknowledge where we have missed the mark, what we overlooked, or even what we avoided or what we didn’t share with our neighbors because we were so focused on our own concerns.
The Bible describes for us a spirit of faithfulness and suggests a method for discernment. This week we need to apply that spirit of faithfulness and that method of discernment in considering another biblical text that is going around the news outlets. As Christians we have a responsibility to think about and to talk about how our Holy Scriptures are being used in society.
Romans 13 is being cited as a rational for policies enacted by our government in relation to immigration. In the beginning of Romans 13 the Apostle Paul says that people should obey the government because the government is put in place by God. It says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1–2). This is being used as a rationale for separating children from their families.
We should read Romans 13 ourselves this week, all of us. But we have to read it all the way to the end of the chapter, taking special note of verses 9-10, which state, “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.”
As disciples of Jesus, and as students of the Bible, we have to ask ourselves some questions about this text.
What if obeying the government, as mentioned in verses 1-2 is in conflict with loving and caring for our neighbor, as mentioned in verses 9-10. Then what do we do? Then how does our Bible guide us?
How can we apply the Spirit of Love to our interpretation of the Bible? And how can we use the methodology that the apostles demonstrated in their dealing with a complaint that arose in their community, involving people of different cultures and languages?
Some of our political leaders are suggesting that the verses they lift up are a simple blueprint for life—that good Christians should obey the government no matter what.
But even the Apostle Paul did not obey the Roman government when the government required worshiping the emperor as God. There are some laws that are not Godly, and we have to figure out which ones those are. We have to figure it out. We have to apply the spirit and the methodology that our founding apostles modeled for us.
In Acts chapter five, the context for today’s reading from chapter six, it says
The apostles were brought before the council where the high priest confronted them: “In no uncertain terms, we demanded that you not teach in [Jesus’] name. And look at you! You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. And you are determined to hold us responsible for this man’s death.” Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than humans!” (Acts 5:27–29)
So, taking a cue from the apostles, we have to discern, we have to figure out—when are our human leaders leading us in righteousness, and when are they leading us away from righteousness? When are our leaders forcing us to choose between following them and following God?
Ideally trusting in the authority of government would be in alignment with trusting the authority of God. But what happens when human leaders fail, as human beings do?
We Presbyterians have a motto that says, “God alone is Lord of conscience.” It means we have a responsibility to follow our conscience, to discern what we think is right, and to do everything in our power to do what is right.
And when we disagree about what is right, then what? Because complaints will arise within our community. And conflicts will arise among and between us. Then how will we talk about that, and how will we get through that, as a diverse community of disciples?
Will we deny, deflect, defend, and say there are not enough resources in the world to share? Or will we listen, acknowledge, and discern how to mobilize the gifts that God has placed in our human hearts so that some of us may preach and some of us may feed and some of us may serve and some of us may teach charity and urge concern, and direct the people’s help to the friendless and those in need. Can we all take on the mantle of deacons and pledge to do our best to “try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ” in all we do?
Will we empower the disempowered so they can be part of the solution? They too want justice and abundant life, just as the Greek-speaking disciples wanted justice and abundant life for the widows in their community.
The Bible does not provide an easy blueprint of solutions because the challenges of life are not easy challenges. But as disciples we are called to follow Jesus down all the difficult roads on which he walked.
He broke the religious law when he healed people on the Sabbath day and when he fed his disciples on that day, too. Caring for people, and bringing abundant life wherever and whenever he could was more important to him than following rules that undermined life.
Jesus was killed as a traitor to the Roman Empire. When tested about his loyalty with a question about taxes, Jesus said, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”
With wisdom Jesus made clear where his loyalty rested. And we too will have to be clear about where our loyalty lies and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ today.
Maybe we can learn from the twelve apostles who listened to a problem, acknowledged it, and empowered new leaders in the community to do the vital work of serving and caring.
And so I ask you to consider: what gift has God given to you; what calling has God placed on your heart; what role can you play in the healing of our world?
I pray for clarity and for courage for us all. Amen.