Life Together.5

by admin on May 29, 2011

Reflection for 29 May 2011
Acts 10:44-48

The Once and Future church

Innocently unaware of the prejudices held against him, an old black man, staunchly religious, some years ago applied for membership in an exclusive church. The pastor attempted to put him off with all sorts of evasive remarks. The old man, becoming aware that he wasn’t wanted, said finally that we would pray on it, and perhaps the Lord would tell him just what to do.

Several days later he returned. “Well,” asked the minister, “did the Lord send you a message?”

“Yes, sir, he did,” was the answer. “He told me it wasn’t any use. He said, ‘I’ve been trying to get in that same church myself for ten years, and I still can’t make it.’”

Is it possible for god not to make it into church? Possible that the Almighty might not be good enough for some of those Sunday enclaves we call “church”? And if it’s possible for God to be standing on the outside looking in through the stained glass—what kind of church is it anyway whose membership rules are so stringent that even God can’t make it??!!

As stories go, it’s a true one—dogging the church of God from the very first days.

Who has a right to get in? Shouldn’t we keep membership standards high so as to prevent the usual suspects out?

If ever a book in the Bible ought to be read in a time like this, it is Acts. The doings of the apostles; the story of the Jesus movement that became the church.

As we’ve been reading through Acts, we have been discovering that there were problems from the get-go. Issues, challenges, obstacle that needed to be solved, resolved, compromised—all the stuff that makes human living so interesting—and frustrating.

Up to now the church was made up of Jewish believers in Jesus as the Messiah. They accepted kosher, synagogue, and circumcision. All the outward sighs of being a Jew. Simple enough: with signs like those it was easy to pick out who’s in the club and who is not.

Then Acts 10 rolls around. It’s called “Pentecost to the Gentiles” or—the church expanding her borders…or more to the truth—God pushes the envelope.

Acts 10 is about Cornelius, a pagan Gentile, who’s heard about the Jesus story and is more than interested in it. He is convinced that Jesus Christ is the answer to life’s key questions.

One problemo: he isn’t a member of the Jewish club. He stands outside the Promised Land; he isn’t kosher.

Peter is head honcho, now the spokesman deluxe. (That’s a whole other story: 6 weeks ago this same Peter was cowering in a corner out of fear.)

Peter has a dilemma: should I preach Jesus to this pagan and lower the standards of membership? Is it possible for God to reach out beyond the limits prescribed?

He does preach after many gut wrenching struggles and Cornelius and his whole household become Christians.

In today’s reading we hear that even while Peter is speaking the HS takes over and brings to completion the conversion process; not so much for Cornelius, but for the mouth wide open Peter and associates. These Gentiles get the same blessing of God.

Interestingly this story of Cornelius is the longest single story in Acts—66+verses. Next to Acts 2, it is the most important story in the early church.

Simply put: it means that Christianity becomes a faith of inclusion. That’s the movment of this story Jesus and the 12; then 3000+ Diaspora Jews; then more people, including Temple priests; then the movement away from Jerusalem after Stephen’s death; then an Ethiopian man; then Saul………how an individual came to belong in the church. Today—it’s a whole entire people.

But it doesn’t come easy. Four specific interventions by God in this story are needed. Four times God moves in a deliberate fashion to bring Peter and Cornelius together in the right place.

Now if we still believe in the Pentecostal power of God—and why let the Assemblies of God or the holy rollers have all the action and fun?

If that Pentecostal power is still around—and it is—then, this story is for us.

Three items of business are here:

1. The mission of the church is God’s mission. Plain and simple God is in charge. That comes as a shock, especially to those of us who are used to being in charge. But God is much more visionary than we are. He is full of surprises, letting in people who sure don’t pass our membership criteria.

This has a big effect on how the body of Christ approaches the world at large.

Many churches, reflecting a certain theology, think of God in the gaps of life. There’s a problem out there? There’s a hole in life? There’s a place where God needs to be? Fill in the blank with God. A kind of generic all-purpose answer to the test.

Acts 10 challenges that. God isn’t absent in the world until the right kind of Christian shows up; God has been there all along. In fact, it’s standard operating procedure that God is miles out front of the church.

Many of us who are not part of the church are part of God’s mission. God’s mission is connected to God’s heart—he’s got a passion for the world and her people. And God is filled with love to reach out, seeking to touch and heal the hurts of this great world.

In a nutshell: God’s mission is grace and mercy. Not schlock sentimentality, but skilled surgery that will cure the ills of life.

2. Peter had to physically leave Jerusalem to get to Cornelius in Caesarea; he had to symbolically leave his Jewish cocoon to embrace a Gentile in faith. Only as he moved out did his greater mission of God come to life in him.

Mission comes to life, then, as the spread-out people of God touch our surroundings. Our commitments are to the things of life in this world—our faith is lived out here.

To share the love and life of Jesus is the mission of Nova Faith. Not the building, not our little institutional life, not the coffee and cookies, but YOU, the people, members and those who belong.

It means: so see that no pain is unshared
No hurt unnoticed
No hunger unmatched
No loss grieved alone
No death unknown
No joy uncelebrated

3. They got baptized in the name of Jesus. Tons of arguments have been made about how to rightly understand baptism. So many, in fact, that while the Christians are busy fighting over who does it right, nonChristians are cheated out of the message of salvation.

We spend a lot of time on the urgent issues of church polity and not a whole lot of energy on the important. What this all means is that some how or other Cornelius and his family had a genuine encounter with the Christian tradition.

Baptized in the name of Jesus is not a formula; rather it’s about being incorporated into a community.

The name of Jesus grants forgiveness, places the baptized under his Lordship; gives the Holy Sprirt; brings a person into a community of other believers. It makes Jesus’ life our life once again: Nova’s mission to share the love and life of Jesus.

And if Jesus’ life was marked by grace, then the same goes for us. Grace is the gift of accepting life’s imperfections.

When we accept ourselves in all our weaknesses, flaws, failings we can begin to fulfill a more challenging responsibility: accepting the weakness and limitations of those we love……Then we can be able to accept the defects and massive shortcomings of those we find difficult to love.

This is a poignant reading from the Bible. One that sure challenges me to sit in the learners’ seat at the foot of God. I’m used to praying: God, bless what I am doing. In Acts when God pushes the envelope beyond the limits, our prayer can become: Help us to do what you are blessing.

In the current issue of Christian Century, the lead article is on church dismembership. How do we welcome people who are ambivalent about belonging to a church? If it ever becomes 1957 again, we will be ready, right?

Nova is birthing at the right time. I look at us as a base camp for operations we are all on a mission through the week. How will you witness to the love and life of Jesus this week? We need to be more interested in touching people lives, not gaining members. The assessment of our vitality is in the difference we can make with others out there. But there is something equally important about what happens here on Sundays. We are a community of common people gathered for a holy purpose and united by that sense of purpose.

What is God blessing among us? Continuing the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together as the Body of Christ today.

Stuff to check out
Amy Frykholm, “Loose Connections.” The Christian Century, May 31, 2011. 20-23.
Ernest Kurtz. The Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Bantam Books. 1992. [the opening story is from this volume]
William Willimon. Acts: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press. 1988.

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