August 15, 2021
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
The Church the World Needs | A Church Where Everyone Belongs
Acts 15: 12-21
There is a story about two American soldiers who got separated from their unit in the Normandy invasion. One of them died and his buddy couldn’t bear to leave him. He found a small Catholic church and asked the priest if he might bury his friend in the cemetery. The priest asked, “Is your friend Catholic?” The soldier said, “No.”
“In that case,” said the priest, “he can’t be buried in the cemetery. It’s for Catholics only. But,” he continued, “I can allow you to bury him jut outside the fence.” So the soldier did, and made a lasting marker to identify the grave.
Many years later he traveled back to France and went to this place to find the grave of his friend, but he couldn’t. He walked all around the border of the fence, but no grave. He couldn’t understand, so he found the priest serving the church at that time. The priest who allowed him to bury his friend outside the fence had long since died. The new priest studied the records and said, “I see what happened. He led the man to the grave where his friend was, inside the fence!” The man said, “I don’t understand.” The priest said, “Well according to the records, the priest at that time without any explanation enlarged the border of the cemetery.”
He couldn’t change the rules, but there was no rule that kept him from moving the fence!
That reminds me of the great line from Edwin Markham’s poem Outwitted:
He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic rebel, a thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win,
And we drew a circle that took Him in.”
We begin a series today called The Church the World Needs. Certainly the world desperately needs a church that draws people in and helps them experience the acceptance of God. Yet for many that is not their experience of church. In the book Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore the authors reference research that offers the top four reasons:
1—“I feel judged.” 87% of Americans label Christians as judgemental. And according to the book UnChristian, 91% of Americans say Christians are anti-homosexual. Obviously, if St. Luke’s is not that kind of church, then we have a lot to overcome in public perception!
2—“I don’t want to be lectured.”
3—“Church people are hypocrites.”
4—“Your God is irrelevant to my life, but I’d like to know there is a God and he cares about me.”
This is actually the opportunity the church has. For all the grim news, the vast majority of Americans say they believe in God and faith is important to them. The trouble is they just don’t believe in church. As Steve Hewitt says, “All of the reasons behind why the church is dying in America is centered on the fact that we have lost our ability to love others.” (p.68 Why Nobody…)
So what is the answer for the church? How do we reclaim our call to offer hope to a world that sees us as irrelevant and even opposed to their needs and values? Well, as the old saying goes, when all else fails, go back to the beginning and begin again. So let’s go back to a moment in the earliest days of the Christian movement when the church had to decide whether they would remain an exclusive, closed group, or open their doors to include all…
The Apostles have remained in Jerusalem overseeing the spread of the Christian movement. To this point Christians identify themselves as Jewish, believers in Christ who are Jewish. That means they keep all the Jewish laws. But then something happened north of Jerusalem in the city of Antioch. Christians there starting welcoming Gentiles, non-Jewish persons, into their gatherings. This was not only shunned in most Jewish assemblies, it was punishable by death in others. So some Jewish members began saying that Gentiles coming into the community had to be circumcised, the sign of belonging that went all the way back to Abraham. As you can imagine, for some Gentiles that was a deal breaker. Why should they have to change the way God made them in order to be a part of the church?
So this question was taken to the apostles in Jerusalem where they held their first conference to take up this question. Paul and Barnabas, the co-pastors of the Antioch Christians, testified that the Holy Spirit was actively present with the Gentiles, and they felt those Gentiles had as much right to belong as the Jewish members. After their testimony, James, the brother of Jesus, who was like the chair of the group, rendered the decision that the church would no longer require people to be circumcised. However, they would still require that people followed the sexual purity laws and not eat foods devoted to idols. This was a landmark ruling. They struck down what had for centuries been a key, identifying trait, but they upheld other values they believed important to Christian conduct. They widened the boundaries of grace without turning grace into an anything-goes license.
How were they able to do this? And an even better question, what can we learn from it?
For one thing they were able to reach this decision because they were not yet a church, and that was a great thing! They were not yet encumbered with rules and regulations and constitutional principles that could have made it difficult rendering such a quick and radical decision to extend God’s grace to people by overturning a centuries old requirement.
Now rules serve a purpose. They help groups know how to function well together. They keep you from getting in trouble. But rules can also become obstacles, obstacles to grace. And the longer an organization exists the more rules it develops, it’s just in our nature.
Take for example the beginning of Methodism in America. We became a church in 1784 at a conference in Baltimore. At that gathering we approved the first Book of Discipline. It had 35 pages. Now, more than 230 years later, our current Book of Discipline has 898 pages! The longer an organization exists, the more rules it adds. Again, rules aren’t bad, but in church rules have a way of becoming the religion.
CS Lewis said, “There exists in every church something that sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. So we must strive very hard, by the grace of God to keep the church focused on the mission that Christ originally gave it.”(Good News Magzine, “When Movements Lose Direction,” may/june 2021, p27)
That is what the apostles were free to do. They didn’t have to consult a Book of Discipline, but that doesn’t mean they were undisciplined! They didn’t have guidelines, but they had guidance. They were free to make decisions that were in accordance with the Spirit of Jesus as they knew and understood his will. In other words, they lined up an important decision according to what they believed to be true to Jesus.
And this the church must reclaim! Instead of holding onto manmade words in a book of rules, we must weigh the tough matters of our day according to the will of Jesus. The difficult decisions of our times, the overwhelming social ills of our day, are tough and mighty, but they aren’t too big for Jesus. We must turn to him with radical dependence and fall at his feet saying, “Lord, your will be done!”
I just returned from CO for our daughter’s wedding where we got be with a lot of family. One day I was talking with my brother-in-law Paul, who is a pastor in Topeka. He talked about the challenge of addressing issues of the past year, a pandemic, racial division, the split happening in our denomination. He said one day this man came to see him and accused him of pandering to the media and pushing a political agenda. Paul said to him, “Wait a minute! I am not pushing a political agenda. I am pushing Jesus. Now if you believe I am not advocating Jesus’ values or what Jesus would want, then please tell me.”
That’s what the leader in Jerusalem did. They listened for evidence of God’s involvement and activity and they made a decision that was true to the Jesus they knew.
But notice something else about this story. The Church practiced what I call Reverse Assimilation. What do I mean by that? When I started out in ministry assimilation was a big buzz word. Churches that were healthy had good assimilation systems to help new people find their way into the church. Assimilation meant helping people learn the behaviors and activities of the church so that they could become like them and fit in.
Now back in the days of Jesus, assimilation meant circumcision. That’s how someone on the outside got into the community of faith. Never mind the fact that this only involved men. Women didn’t have rights, so the men determined what it meant to be accepted.
So by throwing out what had long been an entrance requirement the church said, “We will change who we are to reach you where you are.” Reverse assimilation. The church
assimilated itself to draw people in. Isn’t that what Paul meant when he wrote, “To the Jews I became a Jew…to those under the law I became as one under the law…to those outside the law I became as one outside the law…to the weak I became weak. I became all things to all people so that by all means I might save some.” (1 Cor. 9:19-22)
You’ve heard it said that you can’t be all things to all people, but that’s exactly what Paul did and encourages the church to do, so that all people can find belonging in the family of faith and experience God’s life-changing power.
For many years St. Luke’s has had in our identity statement that we are an open community of Christians. We welcome all. But in recent years we elaborated on that statement to articulate what we mean by openness. We mention the full inclusion of women, LGBTQ people, and other races. People ask sometimes why do we need to that? Why can’t open just mean open? Why do we have to start naming specific groups we are open to? And the reason is the church has named groups its not open to. We have said in our past Books of Discipline we are not open to people of color having the same rights as white people. We have said that women do not have the rights to leadership and involvement. And we still say this today… “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” (Para. 304.3 2016 BoD)
We name that what openness means because we want to be clear. Some people say they have been in churches before that say “We welcome everyone,” only to find out once inside, that that’s not true. So hearing a church say they are open to everyone doesn’t mean they are unless they hear themselves named. We want to be clear that we mean it at St. Luke’s. Our new openness statement has been beautifully displayed in the West Passage next to the office beside the art work that was created for our series Becoming which we did earlier in the year. We just want to make sure people get it.
The more our world changes around us, the more diverse our community becomes, the more the church will need to practice reverse assimilation, changing who we are, to reach people where they are. Isn’t this what God does? God doesn’t say, become like me, and I will welcome you in. God became like us, assimilating who God is, to reach us where we are.
One last observation: when the church chooses to be welcome all, it gives us a mission. After the Jerusalem Council rendered their decision it says: “Then the apostles and elders together with the whole church in Jerusalem chose delegates, and they sent them to Antioch of Syria with Paul and Barnabas to report on this decision.” (Acts 15:22)
In order for the church to be a force of God’s grace that lets everyone know they belong, we have to get the words out. We have to make sure people know. We have to have a passion that every person is a child of God and matters to God and therefore matters to
us. We have to let it be known. We have to see that everything we do is not just for our own enjoyment or meaning, it is for what enables us best to reach others with the news that there is a Savior who loves them, who believes in them, who has hope for their lives, and wants to use them to give hope to others. And we will do whatever it takes to let people know.