The passage we will hear today centers around one of the most common debates in the early church. Do you have to be Jewish first to be a Christian? The very first believers in Jesus were, like him, faithful Jewish men and women. What they believed about what was happening they believed through Jewish eyes, Jewish hearts, and the Jewish faith. They didn’t think of themselves as pioneers of a new faith, just a continuation of a very ancient one.
However, when the news of what had happened began to travel outside of Jewish territories and when people began to actually BELIEVE what they heard, the folks back in Judea, started to ask, “What does it take to be a follower of Jesus?” Many of them believed that to be a follower of Jesus, one must become a Jew, meaning one must submit himself or herself to ALL of the Jewish faith, not just the parts about Jesus. They expected Gentile converts to begin to keep the seventh day as a Sabbath (as well as gather with other believers in Jesus on Sunday morning for resurrection celebrations), to keep the food laws that prohibited the eating of unclean animals, even for men to submit themselves to circumcision as a sign of inclusion in God’s covenant with Abraham. You can imagine some of these didn’t go over so well with newcomers to the faith.
Listen now to how Peter responded to the questions of his community of faith in Jerusalem (and their reaction) after spending time ministering among the Gentiles.
The early church wasn’t as rosy as we sometimes like to think, especially as we are faced by the contemporary controversies of the church and wonder why we can’t just go back to the old days when people just believed in Jesus and didn’t worry about the rest. This question about who a real Christian is was just as difficult as similar, yet more contemporary questions during the Reformation about who receives God’s grace, questions in this country in the 1800s about slaves being real people in God’s eyes, questions in the last 100 years about women being called to offices of the church, the question today about the ordination of homosexuals. So yet another question remains to be asked, “Why should this VERY post-Easter church in 2010 turn to the account of that BARELY post-Easter church of the 1st century for ‘advice’ when they seem to be as messed up then as we are now?” What does this account tell us about being the resurrection church?
First I think we learn that the resurrection church is made up of human beings. It was made up of humans 2000 years ago when it was first coming into being. It has been made up of human beings throughout our rocky history. It is STILL made up of human beings as we debate in our denomination, as in others, about the role and interpretation of Scripture and how that is applied in our current culture.
I have seen a bumper sticker (admittedly not my usual source for sermon support material) that says this, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” The church is not perfect. It never has been. The church 2000 years ago was made up of imperfect human beings just as when we look around the church today we see the exact same composition - - imperfect human beings trying our best with what we’ve got to live the life of faith as we understand it, as we experience it, as we have been given it, and as we see it growing and changing right before our very eyes. Ultimately, we don’t look to the early church for insight because of who they are. We look to them because of what God has done with them. We look to them because somehow through these completely imperfect human beings, Jewish and Gentile alike, the church did grow.
The church did figure out how to reflect the resurrection life of Jesus inside itself and to the world. The church did realize, as Peter said, “The Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.” The church, I might say, was FAT. Of course, I don’t mean heavy or overweight, unhealthy or at risk of heart disease. FAT is an acronym I first learned in high school in a discipleship group of which I was a part. We used it in that setting to talk about individual disciples and followers of Jesus, but I like it as much, if not more, as a guide for the community of Jesus’ followers who somehow have to work TOGETHER to do more for God’s mission than any one of us could ever do alone. So, FAT is what I think the early church was that helped them be the ones through whom the Spirit worked in the world, particularly in this account, the established, Jewish portion of the early church.
First they were FAITHFUL. They may have been faithful to a fault, but they were faithful to what they knew and believed. They knew that for them following Jesus was one and the same as being faithful Jews. They knew this meant bringing their infant sons for circumcision. They knew this meant avoiding certain foods or food combinations. They knew this meant honoring particular holy days and celebrations. They were knowledgeable about their tradition and faithful to God whom they knew through this tradition. They were faithful to God who had saved their people from the Egyptians through Moses, from the Philistines through David, from the Persians through Esther, from their imperfect selves through Jesus of Nazareth. They may seem argumentative and exclusive to us right now, but let’s not forget that it was their faithfulness that instilled in them such strong feelings, such worry about changes to “the way things have always been.”
However, if faithfulness to their tradition and their long-held beliefs was all that the early Jewish church possessed we very likely would not be here today. In addition to being faithful, the early church was also AVAILABLE. I don’t mean that they all had gobs and gobs of free time. Many of us would be in trouble if that was the key to a vital and Spirit-led church. Free time isn’t the only thing availability is about.
Peter, for example, was available to the Holy Spirit before he ever gave up any of his time. He was praying, opening himself to communication with God and not just talking to God, listing his own prayers of thanksgiving, worry, desire, or even praise. He was waiting and listening for God. He was open and available to the possibility that God might have something to say to him. Likewise, so were his brothers and sisters in faith when they came to hear his report. They may have come, it seems with contention on their hearts, but they were open and available to hear what Peter had to say. They didn’t fight back with ready-made arguments and h slogans to counter what he said. The early church sat and heard what he said, and even kept silence to truly understand what was happening before they responded. They were available and ready for God, who just might be doing a new thing in their midst.
Lastly, the church was TEACHABLE. We see it in Peter individually as he comes back to share his story with his own change of attitude and belief, but we also see it in the whole church itself. The climax of the story is their teachability (I know that’s not a word, but I need it to be one). The climax of the story is when the apostles and believers who were in Judea, who had heard (with great suspicion) of these Gentile converts, who had been so faithful to the traditions they had always known, who had believed that God’s word was exclusively for them, who had felt the special anointing of the Spirit, who had understood themselves to be chosen by God for this unique revelation - - the climax of the story is when THESE apostles and believers broke their shocked silence and praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
They have heard and even out of their brokenness, even out of their intense faithfulness to tradition, actually BECAUSE of their faithfulness in God who works in unexpected ways through unanticipated people, because of their availability to the unpredictable Spirit, because of their willingness to be taught and changed, they are led forward in faith to the future. This is why we look to the early church. This is why their experiences and struggles are recorded in Scripture and shared among us as we look to forge our own way in a culture that is changing and challenging. This is why accounts of their birth and growth have been given to us by the living Spirit of God and the church before us – because their example shows us the way forward for our own Easter church today.
May we have the same wisdom and courage in our time to be the faithful, available, and teachable people of God that they were in theirs.