Sermon on ACTS 15:1-11 August 18, 2013
The Rev. Dr. Keith A. Spencer
I have a friend who has not spoken to me in nearly 20 years. Every year or two I send him an email, that goes unanswered. We shared a house together when both of us were in the navy attending school. We studied the Bible together. We made and shared meals together. But when I told him that God was calling me to attend seminary and become a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, everything changed. He looked me in the eye and said, “They don’t teach the word of God there.” The last thing he did was to hand me a book to back up his claim that I was making a big mistake. For him, there was only one right way to be Lutheran and if you weren’t following that way, you were wrong. Dead wrong.
Paul has been bringing the good news to gentiles throughout his missionary journeys, training up groups of believers, forming churches, encouraging them. And yet, scripture tells us that where Paul went, others followed to argue that Paul wasn’t getting it right. You have to become Jewish to become truly Christian they said. Get circumcised. Paul is watering the faith down. Making it too easy. If you want to be real Christians, to truly be saved, listen to us, not him.
Most funerals that I do include a reading from John 14 - Jesus, on his last night with his disciples before his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion shares foot washing, a meal, and conversation with his disciples. That conversation becomes in the Gospel of John a prayer between Jesus and God for the sake of those disciples. Jesus wants them to hear what he is asking of God. That they might be one. That God would keep them in the world and watch over them. In Chapter 14, before that prayer gets going, Jesus is explaining to the disciples that he must leave them. And you know the way to the place where I am going,” says Jesus. But Thomas says, Lord we do not know where you are going, so how can we know they way.” And Jesus responds, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Scripture tells us that early Christians were known as “People of the way” meaning the way of Jesus.
Ever since, people have wanted to define that “Way.” To define what it means to be Christian, to be part of the one Christian church that gets it all right, teaches purely, defines and defends the doctrine. But the thing is, that there has never, ever been a single way to be church or to be a Christian. Never. Groups of believers have been wrestling with the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus since that first Easter and continue to do so today and their answers have birthed many different Christian churches.
I will be honest with you, I struggle to be patient with people who claim to know what a real church is and does and that they so happen to belong to it and that all of the others churches are getting it wrong. A friend of the family encountered a group of such people recently. They questioned her salvation, her faith, and the validity of her church because her church was different from theirs, and her understanding of faith differed from theirs and her understanding of salvation differed from theirs. Just because one can quote scripture doesn’t make your argument more valid or your faith more true, or your church more Christian.
But I also have a problem with the notion that “anything goes.”
Hear Paul in his letter to the believers at Corinth:
Some of you say, “We can do whatever we want to!” But I tell you that not everything may be good or helpful. We should think about others and not about ourselves.
As part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America we count a long, robust and rich tradition of understanding about scripture and faith, about the nature of the church and what it means to be followers of Jesus. Ours is not the only way, but it is a way that speaks deeply to us as a people saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. To be Lutheran or Catholic, Baptism or Episcopalian or Methodist or Presbyterian, Assemblies of God or any other particular people of the Way, gathered around a set of beliefs held in common about following Jesus, requires humility of great magnitude. And when folks approach scripture with a lack of humility then they will find it impossible to embody that which Christ holds up as the clearest and most important defining attribute of being people of the Way: that we express our love for God in loving others as Christ loves them. And Christ spent his life tearing down boundaries that divide, calling out actions that distance and hurt, of seeking out the broken, the lost, the most vulnerable and reconciling them in and through his own life back to God, of declaring to them that God is for them. Christ never says that there is only one way to be the church, he simply says “follow me” and we in time we learn that following Jesus means learning to love God by loving our neighbor, especially the ones who will not, cannot love us in return.
Jesus does not call us to look upon other Christians and figure out why we are different. Jesus calls us to love in his name. And that, my friends, is more than enough work for us to do for a lifetime.