So I had a really hard time getting traction on this week’s text. And I finally realized, it’s because it is the minutes of a committee meeting. And that just doesn’t preach. I have to come up with something to say about something that most of us seek to avoid at all costs. But when I thought about what committee it is that’s meeting, I realized it was the membership committee, and that reminded me of several stories that have been in the news lately. There is a church in Seattle, a large non-denominational congregation called Mars Hill, that has cut off a member from the community because he had an extra-marital affair. The pastor has threatened everyone in the congregation with the same fate if they have contact with this man for any reason other than to admonish him for his failings and encourage his repentance. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a court has just decided to turn over the keys and the ownership of a congregation to the 67 members who remained affiliated with the ELCA (our denominational body here at Peace), while over 700 others were shifted to “associate” member status, because they had affiliated with a new Lutheran denomination in reaction to the ELCA’s change in policy regarding ordination of gays and lesbians. In St. Clair last year, a UCC congregation was kicked out of the softball league because their pastor was openly bisexual. Two weeks ago, the Facebook pages for ELCA clergy lit up like Times Square when a synodical bishop was arrested for vehicular manslaughter and driving while intoxicated. Reactions ranged from grief to vitriol, as people struggled to understand how someone so connected to our hierarchy, could fail so badly.
In a way, the whole Bible could be read as the minutes of the membership committee.
Four thousand years ago, God spoke to Abraham and gave him a promise. It’s recorded in Genesis 12 – “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And God gave Abraham a sign, the mark of circumcision, to identify those who were his descendants, members of this great nation, the in-crowd. And so began the debate over who counted as descendants of Abraham, inheritors of the promise.
Thirty-five hundred years ago, God spoke to Moses, and gave him a promise, a promise to share with all the people of Israel. It’s recorded in Exodus 20 – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” And God gave the people a sign, the law, to identify this people as God’s own, as those who owed allegiance and worship to no one else, as a free people. And so began the debate over who kept the law well enough to be considered in, who kept the law well enough to be counted as saved, who kept the law well enough to be called free.
Two thousand years ago, God became human, became Jesus of Nazareth, and lived among us, and died on a cross, and broke the bonds of death for us. And before he died, he established a new covenant, made a promise. It’s recorded in several places, but we read it most recently on Maundy Thursday, in Luke 22 – “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” It is the promise of forgiveness of sins for all people. And a sign was given for this promise, too. The Holy Spirit, who works faith in us, faith that we live out when we celebrate the sacraments of baptism and communion. And so began the debate over who could participate in these sacraments, who was in and who was out, what it meant to be saved, who could be in the community of the church, who could be called Christian.
Some have said that Acts of the Apostles, could have been called Acts of the Spirit, which is true. But I think it could also be called Arguments of the Apostles. Because so much of this book is the story of how the Apostles are busy arguing while the Spirit is busy acting. How the Apostles are constantly having to run to keep up, as God’s Holy Spirit runs ahead of them, drawing everybody in, while they sit around holding committee meetings about whether this is okay or not. As they are in today’s reading, while the Spirit is out claiming Gentiles for faith, the sign of the new covenant. And the apostles run to catch up, stumbling over their own notions of God’s proper activity, stumbling over their own preconceived ideas of who is in and who is out, based on what we can do, rather than on what God has done.
But this is, in many ways, the story that we have claimed. The story of God read through the minutes of the membership committee. But that is not the only story here. Because, while we humans have been busy paying attention to our own actions, the things that we can see and do for ourselves, things like circumcision and keeping the law, however imperfectly, or raising up kings, or baptizing and sharing bread and wine where we see fit; while we people have been steadily excluding and eliminating people from our activity, God has been running ahead of us.
God blessed Abraham, so that all nations would be blessed through him, blessed to be a blessing.
God freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt so that they could share that freedom with others, welcoming the widow and the orphan and the alien, and caring for them, taking care of others who have been oppressed or forgotten.
And then, in Christ, God fulfilled these promises. God blessed all nations through Abraham’s descendant, David’s descendant, Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, freed all nations from the slavery of the law, writing the law on their hearts and giving them the authority to share that salvation with everyone. At the beginning of the Book of Acts, the risen Christ tells his disciples to take this good news out, to share it, to spread it far and wide. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s not a command. It’s a promise – you will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth. And the sign of this promise is not like the others – it is not something that we can do, though we try; it is not something that we can prove, though we would like to; it is not something that we can test in others, though we do our best. The sign of this covenant, of this promise, is faith. It is the work and action of the Holy Spirit, bringing each person to faith. And as much as the early church wanted to, as much as we want to, it is not something that we can measure, not by circumcision or by the measure of the law or by the raising up of kings. It is not even something that we can asses in the breaking of the bread or at the waters of baptism. Because faith is a relationship, a relationship with the living God. It is not to be judged, it is to be lived.
Which is where community comes in. The community where people are invited to live out their faith, to experience their relationship with God as a gift of the Spirit. To experience the love of God with others living out this covenant, this promise that we have received. The Christian faith community is invitation, rather than exclusion. The life of the Christian community is about recognizing the boundaries that the Spirit is already breaking down, and pushing through them, knowing that God is leading the way. The Spirit is in charge, and we are given the privilege of going along for the ride. This is the promise of faith, this mark of the covenant. You have been marked for this gift. You do not have to do anything more, faith is being worked in you, even as you sit there wondering and doubting and listing to yourself all the ways that you have fallen short.. You do not have to decide who else is worthy, who else has been marked, who else has the sign. That is the Spirit’s work. And God’s grace, the grace that we saw so clearly on that Easter morning 2000 years ago, that grace that we experience at this table and in the waters of baptism and in the life of the community, that grace is busy reconciling everyone and everything to itself; That grace is at work in the life of the church – in Seattle, bringing hope even in the life of a community torn by judgment; in Wisconsin, bringing unity even in the grief of a community broken by disagreement; in St. Clair, bringing a way forward even for a community shattered by doubt; bringing forgiveness and grace to the life of a bishop struggling with addiction, pain, and heartbreak; here in this community, here in you, forgiving you, embracing you, inviting you in. The grace of the Spirit goes ahead of us, paving the way for us, even as we, in our broken fumbling, stumbling way, try to keep up.