Monday, August 5, 2013

Sermon for August 4, 2013

Good News That Connects: Welcoming

The story of Saul of Tarsus from Acts 9 begins at least two centuries before we ever even hear about him. Our story begins around the 170 years before the birth of Christ. A greedy and desperate king ruled what was known as the Seleucid Empire – one of the subdivisions of the Empire of Alexander the Great. This king needed money to pay tribute to Rome. The king heard gossip that the Temple in Jerusalem overflowed with riches. It served as a bank where the private deposits of widows and orphans were kept secure. Since this king needed money, he sent his treasurer on a journey to raid the holy place. The treasurer’s name was Heliodorus. Heliodorus set off with armed guards to plunder the temple. When the people of Jerusalem heard about it, they began to panic. The priests in the Temple threw themselves on the ground and called to heaven for help. People burst from their houses and gathered in crowds to plead for divine intervention because the temple was about to be dishonored.

As the story goes, when Heliodorus and his spearmen approached the treasury, the God of Israel made an awesome display. Heliodorus saw a vision of a horse with a fearsome rider, decked in gold armor. Two young men also appeared before him—of superb beauty, wearing magnificent robes and unmatched in bodily strength. It turned out to be more than a vision. These beautiful men stood on either side of Heliodorus and beat the tar out of him. Heliodorus fell to the ground unconscious. Some of the warriors from his entourage picked him up and placed him on a stretcher. The bully Heliodorus, who was on his way to rob God’s treasury with a fully armed bodyguard, was carried away helpless – rendered blind and speechless by his visit from heaven.

Some of Heliodorus’ companions rushed to ask the High Priest in the Temple to pray for their boss. The high priest was afraid that the Seleucid king might think the Jews had done something evil to his treasurer. So, with fear and trembling, the High Priest offered a sacrifice for the recovery of Heliodorus. While the high priest was praying, the two beautiful, angelic brutes who had given Heliodorus a heavenly whipping once again appeared by the side of the royal treasurer. The angels said, “You owe the high priest your gratitude. Because of him, the Lord has graciously given life to you. But you who suffered a beating from heaven must proclaim the great power of God to all.” Then they disappeared.

Heliodorus was a new man His sight and voice returned. He returned home, singing the praises of God. He reported to the King, “The one who lives in heaven watches over that place and will strike and destroy anyone coming with evil intent.”

Does this story sound a little familiar? A villainous persecutor with an armed escort is knocked down on the road, blinded, repents, and is healed by a holy albeit reluctant servant of the Divine? Change the names and a few minor details, and we get Luke’s story in the book of Acts -- a dramatic scene in which the risen Jesus knocks Paul off his horse on the road to Damascus. Paul, the would-be killer, is blinded by the light, comes to Jesus, is healed by a reluctant servant and becomes Christ’s spokesperson and defender. I think Luke “borrows” an older story from Jewish history and reworks it for his own narrative. So, either Luke is a really bad historian or he has a different agenda in mind. Given Luke’s tendency to rewrite much of the Greek Old Testament and Apocrypha, I vote for the latter. The story of Heliodorus comes from the book of 2 Maccabees. But the story itself is much older. The basic idea of a persecutor being converted despite himself by direct fiat of the God whose followers he has been abusing appears 500 years earlier, from the ancient Greek play The Bacchae by Euripides. Come on now – you remember it from your college English Lit. class, don’t you?

So, what’s Luke up to? If Luke’s description of Paul’s conversion to Christianity is not historically accurate, then why all the drama? In volume one of his writings, the Gospel According to Luke, we hear the story of Jesus, a Jewish leader who is baptized and anointed with the Spirit, goes about doing good, heals the sick, raises the dead, casts out demons, preaches in synagogues and finally making his way to Jerusalem where, after a uproar at the Temple, he is taken into custody. He is put on trial before the Jewish courts and Roman officials who declare him innocent but execute him to keep the peace.

In volume two, The Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us about Paul, a Jewish leader who is anointed with the Spirit, goes about doing good, heals the sick, raises the dead, casts out demons, preaches in synagogues and finally making his way to Jerusalem where, after a uproar at the Temple, he is taken into custody. He is put on trial before the Jewish courts and Roman officials who declare him innocent. Luke implies Paul is later executed in order to keep the peace. Paul’s life path mirrors Jesus. Luke is making a point – What Jesus began, Paul fulfills. The movement that Jesus started is best interpreted by Paul.

Some scholars think Paul might not have even been a persecutor of the early church in the first place. It was a legend that was added later. Why? Luke knew there was a movement to discredit Paul. And who would do such a thing? All of the stories seem to point to one person –  a man named James the Just. It seems Paul and James never got along. James led the Church in Jerusalem. Oh yeah, he was also the brother of Jesus, by some accounts. Talk about name dropping, right? This James, the brother of Jesus, was friends with the Apostle Peter. Peter was appointed as the head of the entire church by Jesus. Peter claimed the right to rule with what the church called “apostolic authority.” As Peter and James oversaw the new Jesus movement, it was very Jewish oriented.

When Paul came on the scene, he broadened the message of Jesus to include the Gentile world.  He was so successful, Christianity became more Gentile than Jewish. As Paul's churches grew in number, the traditional leadership in Jerusalem probably felt their influence diminishing. With explosive growth, there was less control.  It couldn’t be expected that everybody, everywhere would believe the same beliefs, sing the same hymns, read the same scriptures and tell the same story. So what did conflicting leaders do? They attacked each other and wrote letters and books to confirm their own version of the story. Paul wrote his first letter to confront his opponents and tell his personal story about how the Jewish law dissolves in the midst of God’s grace and forgiveness. Paul declared stridently, “We are saved by faith, not Jewish law.” James the Just wrote a letter and said, “That’s fine, but faith without the law is dead” (James 2:17). James disputed Paul, expressing the belief that Christians must show their devotion to God by following Jewish law and performing good deeds. We can see this political proof texting in the Gospels. The Gospel According to Matthew is very Jewish-oriented and seeks to make a case for the authority of Peter. Luke Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles are more Greek oriented and ultimately make the case that Paul walks in the footsteps of Jesus and fulfills Christ’s commission to bring the Gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

We tend to romanticize the beginnings of the early church. We were taught that in the midst of persecution, the church was all of one accord. A closer read of the texts tells a different story: fights and fraction, politics and polemics, popularity contests and power struggles. Some historians and theologians propose that the early church was characterized by “radical diversity.” We can’t speak of a unified “Christianity” during that time. The early church consisted of competing “Christianities.”

The Church eventually found ways to define orthodoxy and tamp down all these opposing versions of Christianity. Christendom created communities of conformity. But that was not the experience of the earliest church. Even though Peter and Paul disagreed, something held the church together. It was not a creed. It was not a droning doctrinal debate. It was a common spirit.

Instead of conformity, I am much more interested in creating communities of welcome. We pray with Jesus that we all may be one. But maybe the job of the church is not to be united in our theology. Maybe the job of the church is to unite around what we do rather than what we believe. Peter and Paul’s theologies of mission conflicted, but they found common ground in creating communities of welcome, communities of radical inclusiveness that redistributed wealth, rejected violence, and invited the “nobodies” to worship elbow-to-elbow with the “somebodies.” Maybe that’s still the job of the Church. We need to get over our tendencies to divide over doctrine as we offer true welcome – even if it means doing God’s work side by side with those whom we disagree.

If anyone can change community of conformity to communities of welcome, it should be the UCC. I typed in the words “unified church with diverse theology” into Google, and guess who came up first? The UCC. As individual members, we are free to believe and act in accordance with our perception of God’s will for our lives. At the same time, we are called to live in loving relationship with one another – gathering in local communities of faith. In the UCC, each congregation or local church is free to act in accordance with the collective decisions of its members, guided by the working of the Spirit in the light of the Scriptures. But each local church also lives in covenantal relationship with other congregations. We find ways to exist in these expanding levels of covenant, even if we don’t always agree with each other. Our ultimate vision is to welcome people – to invite people to enhance our worship life and mission life as full partners:
    Believers and agnostics
    Conventional Christians and questioning skeptics
    Homosexuals and heterosexuals
    Males and females, and those who are discovering or uncovering  their gender  identity
    Those of all races and cultures
    Those of all classes and abilities
    The optimists and the pessimists
    Traditionalists and Progressives
    Those who despair and those who have hope
We think the way we treat one another and other people is more important than the way we express our beliefs. We find more grace in the questions than in the answers. We discover the resources required for our work in the world: striving for justice and peace among all people, bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers.

We recognize that God’s Good News story includes and welcomes other stories -- more than we can imagine. The stranger, the forgotten, the weak, and the dispossessed – we make certain that there is room for all at the table. We make certain that we practice our belief that it’s more important to be loving than to be right.

The Underground Church by Robin Meyers

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