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Sunday, July 22, 2018 | 4:00 p.m.

“We the People”

Nanette Sawyer
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 116:1–9
Acts 15:1–12


“We the people.” Who is that? It’s an age-old question. What makes us us?

There are good reasons to ask this question and good reasons to create bonds and relationships to keep us connected to each other.

We are much more likely to survive if we have connections, people we can turn to for help or for defending ourselves against forces that would harm us. Being connected helps us feel loved and valuable; it can meet our emotional needs as well as our physical needs. There are good reasons to be part of a “we.”

But God seems to tell us again and again that our “we” is too small. Especially in the book of Acts we get this message repeatedly. Acts tells us about shifting boundaries and changing identities, expanded networks of relationship, and increased inclusion in the community of followers of Jesus.

At Pentecost, in the second chapter of Acts, people speaking many languages from many places come together and are filled with the Holy Spirit, miraculously understanding each other. The number of disciples expands from those who fit in a small upstairs room to those who fill a large public gathering place. God’s grace falls on people who speak different languages. They, too, are part of us, the disciples learn.

In the eighth chapter of Acts, we hear of an Ethiopian eunuch, an African man from the court in Nubia, who receives the Holy Spirit and is baptized by Philip. God’s grace is not just for the Hebrew-speaking people of Judea and Samaria. It’s for people of different ethnicities, from different countries. They, too, are part of us, scripture reminds us.

In the tenth chapter of Acts, Cornelius, a Roman soldier, receives the Holy Spirit and is baptized by Peter. God’s grace is even for people involved in the Roman Empire. They, too, are part of us, and “we” are bigger than we knew.

Now we’re in the fifteenth chapter of Acts, and we hear more of the argument about whether Greeks, who are not Jews, can be part of the community of followers of Jesus. Since Jesus was a Jew and all his first followers were Jewish, this question comes up. Do you have to become Jewish to follow Jesus?

Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch arguing that a new thing was happening, that Greeks could also follow Jesus without taking on all the identity of the Jewish followers. Antioch was where the Followers of the Way of Jesus were first called “Christians.”

This is the story of a new religion being born, and it’s painful. The Jewish Christians and the non-Jewish Christians were learning how to come together into a new community.

Coming up later, in the seventeenth chapter of Acts, Paul will preach his famous sermon at the Areopagus, in which he says, “From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us.  For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’”

Other translations say that God created all peoples “from one blood.” From one ancestor, from one blood, we are all part of the same human family, all God’s offspring.

We are connected, but we are not the same. We have differences, and we have conflict. We see that in today’s story. Paul and Barnabas “took sides” and “argued strongly.” They “gathered to consider” with others in Jerusalem, and there was “much debate.”

That is what community is like. That’s a good description of the fabric of society, especially in a democratic society. In an ideal world we disagree but we work together. We share our experiences and tell our stories; then we consider what we have learned. We wrestle with ideas and with each other’s perspectives.

We come to know each other more deeply, and we establish connections that we didn’t have before. This strengthens the fabric of society, and we feel more like “we”—a connected community.

As Paul and Barnabas traveled, they told the stories of what had happened to the Greeks, the Gentiles, and how they had been touched by the Holy Spirit. These stories “thrilled the brothers and sisters” who heard the stories, scripture tells us.

Something was happening through all this storytelling: hearts were being changed. What happens in the heart is not just emotion. Knowing something in our heart means integrating many different ways of knowing things into a core place in ourselves.

There’s a famous thought experiment that philosophers do that relates to this. Suppose there is a woman named Mary who lives her whole life in a black-and-white world. She’s brilliant and can understand everything about science and biology. She knows how the brain works and how eyes function to see things. She understands how humans see color, but she has never seen any colors.

If you brought her out of her black-and-white home and showed her a bright, red rose, she would see color for the first time. She might have already understood what would happen inside her eyes when color was placed in front of her, but the first time she actually saw a red rose, something else would happen. She would experience red, not just know about it (www.philosophy-index.com/jackson/marys-room).

Where in her body is she experiencing that red rose? Is it all in her brain? Some scientists and philosophers say yes, it’s still just in her brain. But others say that our experience is more than just brain waves, that consciousness is more than just physical, more than just mental.

Whatever you believe about the underlying biology, the point I’m trying to make is that there is a holistic way of knowing, and it includes our experiences. It includes our stories. It includes our emotions and our intuitions. What we know is more than just ideas.

One Quaker author and teacher, Parker Palmer, describes it this way. He says, “When we learn to ‘think with the mind descended into the heart’—integrating cognition and emotion with the other faculties like sensation, intuition, and bodily knowledge—the result can be insight, wisdom, and the courage to act on what we know” (Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, p. 55).

Palmer is describing how important it is to pay attention to our hearts and the hearts of other people. We do this partly through story, through telling our own stories and listening to the stories of others. Palmer writes about developing habits of the heart that can strengthen the fabric of our society and help us to heal socially and individually.

The first of his five habits of the heart is to develop an understanding that we are all in this together. This is what we hear in Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus when he says that God has created all nations from one ancestor, from one blood. We are all in this together.

The next two habits of the heart are developing an appreciation of the value of “otherness,” and developing an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.

We see both of these habits of the heart being lived out in today’s story about the Jerusalem Council and the controversy about who is in and who is out. The disciples had different answers, but they were all asking the question: “Who are we, and what defines us?”

There is an otherness between people groups in the story, but that otherness is held in tension with the fact that God has already reached across boundaries and given the Holy Spirit not just to us but also to those others.

The story reminds us that in some ways we are the same and in some ways we are different. Holding this awareness in a creative tension allows us to learn more and expand our understanding. It helps us to expand our world, expand our compassion and our connection. The creativity in creative tension comes in through the telling of our stories, which is how we come to know the true value of diversity.

To tell our story and to listen to the stories of others, we need to develop the fourth habit of the heart. This is having a sense of personal voice and agency. This means that I can speak my truth, and you can speak yours. It means we each have the power to be full participants in our own lives and we learn from each other by doing that.

In our scripture story, they did that by telling the stories of how God was working through the lives of the Greek converts and how the actions of Paul and Barnabas and others was affecting change.

God worked through the actions of those disciples, and God can work through our actions too. But we have to put our voices out there, and we have to believe that our voice matters. We might have to practice believing, but it’s the practice that makes it a habit. My voice and my actions matter. Practice believing that.

The fifth habit of the heart that Palmer describes is the capacity to create community. This can be big or small community. It could just be two or three people that you trust and that you commit to spending time with. That steady companionship can give you the courage to speak up and participate in society.

These five habits of the heart are things that can strengthen the fabric of society and strengthen any community. I find these habits reflected in today’s scripture reading, and I think they can help us to be better Christians, too.

Palmer’s book is about healing the heart of democracy and addressing the fracturing in our society. Churches are one location where we can prepare ourselves to heal the heart of democracy. I think doing that is also a way to heal the heart of Christianity and to heal our own hearts, too.

Healthy habits of the heart will help us answer the big questions of our faith and questions of our lives. Who are “we” when we say “we the people”? And who are we when we say that we are “the people of God?”

Can we remember that we are all in this together, while appreciating the value of otherness? Can we hold our conflicts and our tensions in life-giving ways while showing up with our own voices and our sense of possibility? Do we have the capacity and the commitment to create community—to stay connected and to get connected with others who can support us in developing all these habits of the heart?

Democracy is very much based on Presbyterian ways of being. We believe that all voices matter and that we need each other, with all our diverse opinions, in order to more accurately perceive and understand God’s will for us. Democracy, too, is based on the idea that all voices matter. To make it work, though, we have to have strong habits of the heart.

Tension and conflict and changing boundaries and identities are all disorienting things and challenging. It’s not easy to go through it all. But in the end, it will make us stronger and better and clearer.

God knows the hearts of all people: Greeks, Jews, Romans, Ethiopians—to name the ones in our stories today—and us. Everyone. And as we consider important and big questions about who we are, we do well to engage our hearts, know our hearts, and also learn about the hearts of others.

We the people, the people of God, the people of planet earth: we are all in this together. Amen.