Today we continue our study of Acts with another very interesting story about the continuing conflicts in the early church. And this one has to do with circumcision and following the other laws of Moses. It is important to put this in context and remind you all that at this point Christianity was not a separate thing. There were Jews who were followers of Jesus and there were Jews who did not see Jesus in the same way. But at this point in time, there still was no such thing as “Christianity” per se. It was not a new faith, a separate faith. But things were changing, and fast. For one thing, Judaism had been cultural as well as religious. And now, followers of Jesus were joining the throngs who were not steeped in Judaism, were not raised Jewish. Gentiles were joining the movement. And this was causing huge debates. Should these people, as they join in this new following within Judaism, should they have to obey all the rules of Judaism, too? Do they have to be circumcised as the Jews who had been raised in the faith had been? And is that really fair to adult men to force on them something that the long-standing Jews went through as infants?
They aren’t decided. They aren’t settled. They are fighting about something that deeply matters to the people, on both sides of the issue. Do these new converts have to follow all the rules and rituals and practices and even beliefs that those raised in Judaism had followed? This was the debate. And the outcome? Well, we heard it today. Peter states that God does not distinguish and differentiate between peoples in this way and we therefore can’t do it either. The Gentile converts therefore do not have to follow the same rules because they, like those steeped in Judaism, are saved by grace and grace alone.
Peter’s speech about this, his conviction about this is VERY interesting. First and foremost it is interesting because of the reasons he gives for his insistence that the Gentiles no longer have to follow all of the Mosaic laws. He does not say, “We should not insist on circumcision because it isn’t very welcoming of us to do so.” Neither does he say that the practices and rituals of the faith are unimportant. But what he does say is that this is not just about the people. This is about our very understanding of God. “Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear?”
He is pointing out that we LIMIT GOD by insisting on these rules, these practices, for all people. We are limiting God when we expect people to follow a set of rules that are too hard for them to follow. He isn’t just saying that people can’t do this easily. He is not just saying that we will limit our welcome, limit our congregation size, limit the numbers of those who come to church by these rules and regulations, rituals and hoops that we insist upon. It limits GOD, God-self when we block doors, and set up barriers between God and God’s people. And then he continues by saying, “On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.” God has created the door, God has created the opening into faith and into relationship with God. And that door is one thing only: that door is grace.
There is nothing that we can do, and there is nothing that we can fail to do, that determines salvation for us. Salvation, relationship with God, the life we experience through our faith, these things come through grace. They come through grace offered to all people. No one gets there without it. No one finds God, finds relationship to God without it. And no one fails to receive the grace that God offers when they open their hearts to accept it.
I found myself remembering a time at my last church when a woman came in wanting a tour of the church. I showed her around, told her about the many, many ways we were doing service in the community, told her about the amazing music program, etc., when she stopped me and said, “Bottom line: do you make sure that everyone here believes that Jesus is the only way to salvation?” Something about the way she phrased it caught me off guard. So I pushed a little, “I’m sorry. Are you saying that people have to believe that Jesus is the only way in order to be saved?” “Yes.” She said. I was confused by this. I know there are many Christians who believe that faith in Jesus is the only way they can be saved. But that is faith in Jesus as Lord. That is faith in Jesus as the WAY. It is not faith THAT Jesus is the only way. So I pushed a little further. “So, it’s not faith IN Jesus that saves, but faith THAT Jesus is the only way that saves?” “Yes” she said again. “Are there other specifics about belief that are also required in order to be saved?” I asked, just curious. “Oh, well, yes!” She said and began to list a whole bunch of things. I finally stopped her and asked, “And where does grace fit into this?”
“Well,” she said, “Grace is what picked you to have these beliefs in the first place.”
“Ah. So, God determined who would be saved and who wouldn’t, and God made those people believe certain things and thereby only extended grace to those few God had picked?”
“And the signal that they are saved is that they all have ‘right beliefs’.”
I was reminded of an Ann Lamott quote: “You know you’ve made God in your image when God hates all the same people you hate.” Or in this case, you know you’ve made God in your image when there is only one right set of beliefs and that happens to coincide with your own.
That is dangerous.
And, as Peter said, this doesn’t just limit who is included and who isn’t. It also limits God immensely. It says God is incapable of being present with people who believe differently than I do. It says God is incapable of “saving” those who have their own unique relationship with God. It says God cannot go beyond the boundaries that we have decided are necessary, perfect, specific.
But the conflicts, the fights, the arguments over what one must believe or even what one must do to be a part of the church continue even beyond this. Putting aside the conversation I had with that woman who visited my last church, there are arguments within our denomination about things that are more practical, rituals, the proper path of faith, like whether a person must be baptized before they take communion. You know where I stand on this. I know people who have come to faith through taking communion, through the taking of this bread and this cup and experiencing life and community through those actions. So, to me, the idea that a person’s faith must follow a prescribed path of baptism first and then communion seems absurd and again limits that faith path, that path to God and the possibilities within those decisions. We baptize children, but other faith traditions don’t, feeling the person must follow a specific path before they are baptized. The Presbyterian church requires that baptism be done in community, and that any parent who wants a child baptized must be a member of the church. We believe that the baptism of an infant is a promise by a community to raise the child in that faith. And if the parents aren’t members, we can’t very well make that promise to them. But again, some would argue that if baptism is a symbol of new life, why is this only offered in community? Some would suggest that we should trust that the parents are making a commitment to raise the kids in the faith, whether we are there to help or not.
We struggle, just as the early church struggled. And a lot of that struggle goes beyond beliefs and into the fact that our practices, our rituals, our rites, are meaningful to us. And they should be meaningful to us. There is purpose in them, there is history in them. Just like for the Jews who for thousands of years had practiced the rites of the church, including circumcision, our practices connect us to a long and important history. I am certain it must have felt that their practices were being discounted, that the meanings were being diminished. If it was no longer an essential part of their faith that their males be circumcised, what had it meant that they had done this for thousands of years? What had these practices and rules and structures and rituals been for, if they could so quickly and so completely be discounted in this way?
For us, too, these conversations carry the same concerns. In Bible study we had a conversation, for example, about the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. It is important to many people to use the words that they have always used when saying the Lord’s Prayer. It connects to a history, a tradition, a ritual that is important. For me, as you know, it is much more important that the meaning in the prayer be accessible. So, I choose to use the words of the Ecumenical version of the Lord’s prayer. These are words that are used in our common language (unlike “art”, “hallowed” and “thy”). They are words that feel more inclusive of children and the unchurched in our communities. So, the struggle, the divide remains between the tradition and the deep importance of those rites, and the accessibility and inclusivity of our practices.
What is challenging for all of us, and I include myself in this, is to see the next generation do things so differently than we have done them. And our call is to recognize the deep value in our rites and traditions without making them into idols of their own. And this is hard. The call is for us to be able to say, “This has been meaningful and continues to be meaningful for me, but that does not mean that I need to insist on it for those who are coming after me.” The call is to feel that another person’s choice to do something differently is not necessarily a judgment, a condemnation or even a dismissal of the way that we have done things before. And that is not easy. It is not easy for any of us.
I think about the conversations I’ve had with my own kids, for example, about things like marriage. Younger people are not getting married as often. It’s even acceptable now in our culture for a couple to have children together and continue to be in relationship without ever getting married. Does that mean my marriage is not meaningful? What about going to church at all? I know that it has been painful for many that their children don’t go to church. But the fact that they have a different path or relationship to God is not a dismissal of your path and your relationship to God.
The musical Fiddler on the Roof is a musical about this very struggle. As Reb Tevye said, “Our traditions have kept us balanced for many, many years….Without our traditions we would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” And throughout the musical he continues to hold on to many of his rituals and traditions, even as he must let go of others. He is faced with the challenge of choosing between his traditions and his relationships with his daughters. For his first daughter, Tzeitel, he finally allows her to break the tradition of having the Matchmaker choose her husband for her. She wants to marry the tailor who has been her friend, and finally Tevye allows it, though it hurts him to break tradition. His second daughter then asks for his blessing on her marriage, and breaks the tradition of even asking the father for his permission to marry. Tevye struggles with this as well, but eventually accepts that times are changing, that traditions change. For two of these conflicts, then, he chooses his daughters, letting go, though it is ever so painful for him, of his traditions. But this his third daughter wants to marry a Christian. And this breaks too many of his traditions, of his beliefs, of his practices. He cannot accept it. The challenge to his traditions pushes him too far. And in the face of his choice between tradition and even his daughter, he chooses his tradition. For us, too, we may come to a point where we feel pushed too far. But we are called to choose love again and again. And that love means looking for balance, determining what is most important to us, being willing at times to let go, and at other times to rejoice and find comfort in what we know, what is familiar and meaningful to us. We are called to choose love. We are called to allow God to bring change within us, both as the church and as individuals. We are called to sing a new song to the same God. And sometimes that will mean keeping things the same. And other times that will mean letting go and allowing change. Both will be challenges.
These are hard conversations. These are hard conflicts with which we struggle. But it goes back again to passages such as this, and the invitation we have been given to be open, to let God do the work that God does in ways that may astonish, may challenge, may confront us as well.
I’ve found myself, as I have struggled with changes my own children have made that have called me to see differently, to be differently, recollecting on the Kahlil Gibran essay on Children (The Prophet. New York: Alfred A Knopf. 1995, p 17)
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughter’s of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries from yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”
The next generation of church, the next generation of believers, the next generation of children will not be like us. We are called to expand our vision, and to see the ways we actually limit God by trying to keep things the same. At the same time, I invite you to be gentle with the struggle. The struggle has always been there. It has always been real. It started early on and it continues even now. The changes do not lessen your value for the ways we have always done things. The challenges are not judgments on what has been meaningful to you in connecting you with God, with your community and with one another.
Tradition and history, meaning and acceptance. They are all valuable. We just need to make sure that we are not limiting God in our valuing of either. Thanks be to God. Amen.