Removing the “Unlesses”
Readings: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10,22-21:5; John 14:23-29
What a mess the early church really was! There was little organization and no control. Anything and everything could and did happen. As with any new sect it usually arose because of the over enthusiastic fervour of the adherents. There were those in the early history of the church whose enthusiasm for the faith had them rushing headlong into disaster. Couple that with their belief that the coming of the kingdom was imminent. That gave them a sense of urgency that made them less than diplomatic in their care and concern of others. They used the claims of truth as they perceived it to justify abuse. Paul could be as vicious in his defence of the fledgling faith as he had been in his zealotry to guard the sanctity of the Jewish faith. It is not surprising that things became totally conflicted.
The early church faced some serious difficulties. The early Christians were Jewish. To be a Jew meant more than simply religious affiliation. It involved every aspect of Jewish life. Judaism is not an evangelical faith. They do not proselytize. One is not converted to Judaism. One is born a Jew. One is a Jew, not primarily by faith, but by nationality. That was the main problem for the early Christians as they tried to maintain their allegiance to Judaism and live out the Christian faith at the same time. How could they remain faithful to their Jewish roots and still open up the faith to include the gentile world?
And so they came up with a way. "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses," they told the new converts, "you cannot be saved." Always beware of a statement that begins with "unless". Anything that begins with the word "unless" is bound to pose problems. Because what "unlesses" do, is to exclude. This particular "unless" excluded the new converts, quite emphatically. For circumcision was abhorrent to the Greek world. And as you can well imagine, the debate grew quite heated.
It took a gathering of the early Church, a kind of Synod, to deal with the mess. Paul and Barnabas were sent back to try to rectify their previous failures. It was a turning point for the Church. Had Paul not stayed with his failures he would never have lived out his vision for the Church. People like Lydia, the first convert in Macedonia would never have been converted to Christianity. He would never have had the impact on the Christian faith that he had. Had the mission of Judas and Barnabas not taken place the changes that made it a universal faith would never have happened It was a decision to make a great change, one that affected Christianity for all times. It laid out the essentials, not for the faith. Those essentials were laid out by the teachings of Jesus, but the essentials of what it meant to live the Christian life. And those were simple. The new converts were to abstain from eating idol meat and from fornication. Period.
It is difficult for us to even begin to comprehend how drastic a change that was. It went against culture, against tradition, against religion, and probably for them against all reason. I can only imagine the kinds of arguments that took place. Every aspect of life changed for them, so much so that it would ultimately cut them off from their very roots.
Yet think of the implications for us if they had not been open to such change. Their openness allowed Christianity to become a world religion, instead of a tiny sect. In all likelihood we would not be here worshipping today if they had not made such a move.
As Church, we often make a mess of things. Hopefully we have learned the lesson of the early Christians. Hopefully we go back and try to clean up after ourselves. What are the "unlesses" that we come up with in the church today? Inclusion is a lesson that we continue to learn. The church continues to clarify its role in a changing society. We certainly see the results within our own denomination. As a teenager, I had a strong sense of vocation, but I certainly did not voice any such thoughts. I didn't even voice the opinion that I ought to be allowed to be a server at the altar. When I got my first position as an organist I was told what a great achievement that was for a young woman. After all, the organ was in the sanctuary.
We can be proud as Anglicans that we have such a sense of unity through diversity. We can be proud of the inroads we have made in addressing problems of gender, of culture, of class, of race. But I am not certain that we see the importance of such issues. We are quick to argue that it does not affect us. That it does not matter. But such issues are at the root of the faith. They are issues of justice. And over and over again in Scripture, it is justice which brings about the kingdom of shalom, God's kingdom. And isn't that what we want?
That vision of shalom, that vision of peace that Jesus spoke about to the disciples, that peace not as the world gives it, but as God sees it, is almost impossible for us to comprehend. John the Divine captures it in his wonderful vision of the Holy City. His vision articulates the perfect society, a society completed by God, a society where our vision and God's vision are one and the same. A society where there is no temple. There is no need of such a place, for all places are set aside as God's. All life has become a temple of the presence of God. The glory of God lights the city. Its gates are open. There is no night there. No poverty, no hatred, no injustice, no oppression, no intolerance, no inequality. A kingdom of shalom, of perfect peace.
There is a long road ahead of us before we come even close to that vision of John's perfect society. A large part of it depends on our ability to see the injustice of our actions and to change, to remove the "unlesses". If that kingdom of shalom is to be a reality, then we must be clear about our response to God. It is through loving God, and allowing the Spirit to work through us, that we will begin to know the peace of Christ.
This year's FaithWorks campaign has a wonderful theme. We pray it at the end of every Eucharist. It comes from Paul's letter to the Ephesians. “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do more than we can ask or imagine.” That prayer has a profound effect on me every time I say it. It reminds me that I am not alone on this faith journey. I am part of an amazing community of faith that reaches back throughout the history of the Christian Church and forward to the coming of God's kingdom.
We have so much uncertainty to face in our parish life during this coming year. It is a time in our life to seize that prayer, to pray it meaning every word. As we deal with the challenge of taking on new responsibilities within the Church Centre let us not forget that we are here to minister to our community. We may be tempted to let FaithWorks slide. We may be tempted to look after our own needs. Let us see the opportunities that lie ahead of us, opportunities to reach out to those around us, to offer sanctuary and a place of peace amidst the noise and bustle of the world, to give help and solace to those in need, to see Christ in those we meet.
Glory to God!
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