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Sunday, July 22, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
“A Spirit Revolution”: A Sermon Series on the Acts of the Apostles
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
We, like the Judean disciples, are tempted to control the unknown and domesticate difference.
Willie James Jennings
I am loving the current season of a podcast called Startup. Any Startup listeners here?
Startup is an audio show about what it’s really like to start something new, like a business. Only the current season is about a church, a startup church, a church plant.
It’s tough to start a new church. The challenges of money and leadership and buildings and marketing are never-ending. And you have a very small window of opportunity to grow—like twelve months—before, most research agrees, it’s just not going to work.
So Startup is following one particular church plant in Philadelphia in its first year of trying to get off the ground and fix itself as a sustainable presence for the benefit of its neighborhood. It’s really fascinating.
There is your podcast recommendation for the day.
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The church in Antioch is a startup.
We first learned about it back in chapter 11. Persecution in Jerusalem drives some of the believers out of the city and into places like Antioch. Mostly these scattered disciples shared their gospel about Jesus in the same way they had done in Jerusalem—that is exclusively to their Jewish compatriots.
Some of them, though, started talking to Hellenists in Antioch—that is Greek-speaking non-Jews: Gentiles. “The hand of the Lord was with them,” the story reports, “and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.”
Boom. Now we have Greek disciples in Antioch. That. Is. Something. The church in Jerusalem gets wind of it, and they send Barnabas to check it out.
And what does Barnabas do? Does he come in with a Book of Order to shut them down? No. He celebrates what they’re doing and encourages them to keep it up. Soon he is joined by Saul, and in pretty short order—maybe a little longer than twelve months—things start to happen that have not happened before. Anywhere.
First, they begin to be called “Christians.” It means “little Christs,” and some scholars think it’s a derogatory term. It’s stuck though. It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.
Second, this little Antioch startup sends aid to believers in Judea. They learn of a coming famine in Judea and decide to send the believers there money to help. It is the first instance in the New Testament of churches offering aid to one another, and the aid goes from a Greek church to a Jewish one (remember that).
And then they commission missionaries. If you were in worship last Sunday you heard some of this story; it’s in chapter 14. Somebody discerns the Spirit telling them to set apart Saul and Barnabas for some special work. So they do. These are the CEOs of their little startup community, and yet they let them leave to go share this gospel about Jesus far and wide. Saul and Barnabas go and have lots of adventures and make lots of new disciples and get in lots of close scrapes, and then they return to Antioch, call the church together, and tell the tale to everyone’s delight.
I tell you what, this little startup in Antioch is a force. The world has literally never seen anything like it.
And that’s not good news to everyone. Because “certain individuals” come down to Antioch from Judea to say, “Now hold on a minute. Everything you all are doing is great, but you forgot one critical thing. You forgot to get circumcised. And without that, none of this matters. In fact, without that you can’t even be saved.”
And you know what? They kind of have a point. We are talking about the central feature of an ages-old identity, the practice that distinguishes us from everyone who is not us. It goes back centuries, all the way back to Genesis and God’s covenant with Abraham.
The early church is at this point still mostly ethnically Jewish, and though the disciples have recently been astounded by the revelation that the Spirit is being given to Greeks who are not Jewish in the very same way that the Spirit has been given to them who are, nobody is talking about getting rid of the things that serve to distinguish these disciples from the “pagan” world around them.
Distinctions are important. They tell us who we are. Our borders, both literal and figurative; our language; our foods; our customs—they are all a kind of glue that holds us together in the faces of forces that would tear us apart.
And how much have these “certain individuals” already given up to follow Jesus; when the story moves to Jerusalem we will learn that some of them are Pharisees.
I almost missed it, but that’s kind of astounding. Pharisees in the church? Almost every interaction Pharisees have with Jesus is negative and combative. For some of them now to have come to believe in Jesus and his mission, to join themselves to the disciples that they before were trying to get rid of—can you imagine what they’ve given up already? Can you imagine what it must feel like for them to consider being OK with abandoning such a central element of their identities?
To give up one more thing? To give up this thing specifically? It must feel like a step you can’t come back from.
I was very fortunate to spend about nine months in Northern Ireland right after the Good Friday peace accord was signed, and nearly everyone I met—Protestant/Unionist, Catholic/Nationalist—was struggling to cope with the removal of distinctions, distinctions of language and borders and politics, distinctions that, for as long as they had been alive, had been their identity. Giving them up, even though it was for the sake of peace, was no easy matter. In fact it was genuinely terrifying for many people.
So these individuals who come down to Antioch really have a point. Distinctions are important.
But the story of Jesus is a story of distinctions being overcome. So the believers in Antioch have a point too.
So now you know what we have on our hands, right? Church fight!
It is a simple fact: you cannot have a church without church fights. In fact, if the early church weren’t so given to conflict, we wouldn’t have half the New Testament, since so many of the epistles that make up the second half of it were written to address conflicts in particular churches.
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Some rescue crews discovered a castaway on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean. She had been there for five years before they found her, and when they found her they discovered that she had seen fit to construct for herself three buildings, using only sticks and vines. They asked her about them.
“Well, that one is my home,” she said, beaming with pride. “And that one,” pointing to the structure directly next to her home, she said, “is my church.”
“Well then, what’s that third one?” asked the lead rescuer.
“Oh, that’s the church I used to go to.”
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Wherever there is a church—even if it’s a church of only one person—there will be church fights.
This is a lamentable truth, isn’t it? After all, aren’t churches supposed to be filled with Christians? And aren’t Christians supposed to love one another? Alas that’s easier said than done. People may look at a church in conflict and dismiss it with a wave of the hand, like, “They fight with each other just as bad—if not worse—than the rest of us do!”
If you’ve ever been part of a church fight, you know what I mean.
But Luke, the author of Acts, doesn’t seem bothered by a church fight at all. There are no villains in this story. Just people of faith trying to find a faithful way forward.
Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan observed that there are official church fights and ordinary church fights. Official church fights produce authoritative results. They gather in assemblies or councils (our denomination just had ours last month in St. Louis) and take votes to decide disputes. Most of the creeds and confessions that this church accepts as authoritative came out of just such councils, from Nicea in the fourth century to South Africa in the twentieth century. These are really critical expressions of life together as a global community of faith.
But what’s happening in Antioch is more like an ordinary church fight. Somebody does something. Somebody else says, “Um, I’m not sure you can do that.” Debate and even dissension ensue. That’s not bad. In fact it’s necessary.
You can’t have a church without church fights. Listen to how the decree of one of those early church councils put it, the Second Council of Constantinople:
It was established as certain that when the disputed question is set out by each side in communal discussions, the light of truth drives out the shadows of lying. The truth cannot be made clear in any other way when there are debates about questions of faith, since everyone requires the assistance of [their] neighbor.
Dissension and debate are critical if we are to be a vibrant church that seeks to know and live out the truth.
Sometimes the disagreement isn’t even about what’s true. Sometimes everybody agrees on the truth of the matter, and the debate is about how to apply that truth faithfully to a specific situation.
Take the case of the shower ministry of this congregation. If you didn’t know, there are showers in the basement of this building, and a couple of years ago now some compassionate, enterprising folks in this church said, “You know what? We could offer those showers to people who don’t have access to showers, people for whom a hot shower would make an absolute world of difference in their life.”
And the response was overwhelmingly, “Yes. We could totally do that.” There was no disagreement about the truth of the opportunity for ministry that was before us in that situation.
But then you have to figure out how. How do you schedule it? How do you let people know about it? How do you pay for the things showers need, like soap and shampoo and towels? How do you staff it, so that people using the showers get to encounter a caring person from the church who shows them where the shower is and gives them those things they need?
There was a lot to figure out. And there was some disagreement. But the disagreement produced the ministry we have today, which I think is one of the coolest things to happen here, at least since I’ve been here (and I don’t have anything to do with it).
The truth of the question about the distinction between Jews and Gentiles is already settled. The young church has already rejoiced in the discovery that the Holy Spirit is given to Greeks in their own right and that God is making no distinction between them. We’re not arguing about whether God has made us one in Christ. That truth has already had its way with us. We’re arguing about what that truth means for our life together.
And that argument needs more than debates and votes, as critical as those things are. Discerning together what the good news of the gospel looks like when it is expressed in our common life needs testimony. It needs our stories.
So Peter, as he has done so many times in the story of the early church already, stands up and addresses the assembly. “You know,” he says, “that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as [God] did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith [God] has made no distinction between them and us.”
The truth Peter is pointing to is inextricably bound up with his own personal story. It’s not an abstraction. It’s not a theological principal or a Bible verse. It’s his story.
It’s the story of how the Spirit told him to go to Cornelius’s house and to eat with him, though Cornelius is a Greek Gentile, rendering both his company and his food unlawful for Peter. The church already knows this story. He’s already told it, and they rejoiced to hear it. But the truest stories bear retelling, and so now, in this disputed moment, he comes back to it. He doesn’t appeal to the authority of apostles to make decisions, and he doesn’t put things to a vote. He tells his story. And that makes all the difference.
Testimony is powerful in the church. In moments when the Spirit is doing something new and we’re not sure what to do with it, our personal experience is a critical guide. Added to the guidance of the scriptures and collective wisdom of the church down through the centuries, the testimony of the faithful helps to clarify what God is doing in our midst.
We need to tell our stories to each other. Our life as a church depends on it.
You have a story. We need you to tell it. We, this community that is trying to follow the Spirit into the future, need to hear your story. We may not know what to do without it.
“We believe,” Peter concludes, “we believe that we will be saved by the Lord Jesus.” That’s it. Peter reminds the church what it believes. The question the story started with, the question of being saved, comes all the way back around here.
We believe that we will be saved by the Lord Jesus. Not by our distinctions. Not by our ethnicities. Not by our languages or our borders or our customs. We believe that we will be saved by Jesus.
This is what we believe.
That settles the question then. Peter and the other apostles and elders send a letter to the startup in Antioch that says, “Don’t worry about circumcision and the law.” They offer some broad guidance about avoiding some of the worst expressions of Greek cultural religion—things to do with sacrifices made to idols and fornication—but beyond that they impose no further requirements.
They remembered what the church believes: that in Jesus the dividing lines of hostility are being broken down, that the old distinctions are fading away, that we will be saved by the Lord Jesus.
Remember, church, what we believe.