But some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” Acts 15:5
Sometimes it takes the Church a while to get in sync with what the Spirit is doing. That’s nothing new. You don’t have to read too deeply into the Book of Acts to see that this has been the story of the Church from the very beginning. The Holy Spirit keeps surprising the members and leaders of the nascent Church by inviting, inspiring and embracing persons they would never have thought to invite into their movement. The apostles keep trying to do the right thing as they see it, but the Spirit often has other plans.
Take the appointment of Matthias, for instance. In the first chapter of Acts the disciples decide that they need to replace Judas. Apparently they’re just uncomfortable with a core leadership of eleven. Twelve is a better number—much better mojo than eleven. So they find two men who meet the job qualifications, Justus and Matthias. They roll the dice and Matthias wins the job. And then he promptly disappears from the pages of the New Testament. The Spirit, it seems, had other ideas about who the new 12th Apostle should be. We’ll come back to that.
It takes the Church a while to work things out, to figure out who they are, to figure out that the Spirit is radically inclusive in ways that push their buttons and stretch their boundaries. It takes them a while, for instance, to accept that the Holy Spirit is embracing both Hebrews and Hellenists, two Jewish groups who were pretty good at finding reasons to dislike each other, into Jesus’ family of faith. You can find hints that it’s not all peaches and cream between these two groups in chapters 6, 9 and 11.
Imagine how startled they all are when Philip baptizes a Samaritan sorcerer named Simon (chapter 8). Is new life in Christ available for Samaritans? How can it be possible that a magician is acceptable? Doesn’t Deuteronomy 18 clearly say that we’re to have nothing to do with magicians? Doesn’t Leviticus 20 say that they should be put to death? But Philip just goes and baptizes him because the Spirit moved Simon Magus to believe in Jesus!
Oh, and then there’s the Ethiopian eunuch. Talk about a guy who’s cut off! This is a guy who had to stand outside the temple to pray (Leviticus 21, Deuteronomy 23). But the Holy Spirit hand delivers Philip to the side of his chariot so he can lead the Ethiopian through a Bible study in Isaiah and explain that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophesy he’s reading. And once again, thanks to a handy pool at the side of the road, Philip goes ahead and baptizes him—makes him part of the Church! He’s not allowed in the temple, but Philip brings him immediately into the company of Jesus whether the company likes it or not.
This is the repeating thread of the Book of Acts. The boundaries are stretched. The door is pressed open a little wider every time. The Spirit pushes aside their preconceptions of just who can be part of the movement, just who can belong in the Church of Jesus. And apparently the invitation is open to people you would least suspect or ever imagine.
Let’s go back to Matthias. The Spirit certainly put Matthias to good use. Tradition says he preached in Judea, Cappadocia, Aethiopia and, eventually Georgia (the one next to Russia, not the one next to Alabama). But useful, honorable and productive as he was, God had someone else in mind to be the designated hitter and it turned out to be someone that the other 11 would never have thought of in a million years.
If you had told the apostles on that chapter one day as they rolled the dice for Matthias that Jesus was going to make a guy who was viciously persecuting the church, a guy who would stand approvingly as the official witness as one of their own was stoned to death—if you had told them that a guy they feared more than anyone would end up being tagged by the Spirit to become the most enthusiastic and productive of all the apostles, they would have thought you were possessed. And not in a good Holy Spirit kind of way. But resurrected Jesus, himself, appeared to Saul of Tarsus and set him on a path that would convert him from Persecutor Saul into the Apostle Paul. Jesus invited the Church’s worst enemy to become one of its greatest leaders. You’d better believe it took the Church a while to get used to having him around and to accept that he really was one of them. See Acts 9 for details.
And then came the most difficult transition of all. In chapter 10, Peter has a vision where God shows him every kind of animal and invites him to “kill and eat.” Peter protests that he has always kept kosher and, gosh, thank you, but “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” says God, and repeats the lesson a couple of times just to be sure Peter gets it. Then the Spirit sends Peter to the house of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. An Italian. A gentile.
I don’t think we can adequately grasp in our day and age just what a huge leap this was and just how difficult it was for the Church, which still understood itself as a Jewish movement, indeed, saw itself as the fulfillment of all that it meant to be Jewish—how difficult it was for them to accept that Gentiles were being invited to join the fold. We can get a hint, of course. In chapter 11, Peter is called to task and has to defend his decision to baptize Cornelius and all his household. In chapter 15 the apostles all assemble in Jerusalem in the first Council of the Church to decide if gentile believers have to be circumcised and keep Jewish dietary laws. And even after the Council makes its decision the issue isn’t entirely put to bed—it continues to rear its head in Galatians, Ephesians and Romans. And that’s part of the problem. Instead of seeing them as persons whom Jesus loves and the Spirit has called, some believers, especially the Pharisees, continue to see them as an issue. But the Spirit blows where it wills (John 3), and the door gets opened ever wider.
This is the history of the Church: the Spirit opens the door ever wider. It takes time, sometimes, for the Church to catch up. It takes time for people to realize that women and men can sit together in worship. It takes time for people to accept that worship doesn’t have to be conducted in the language the grandparents brought from the old country. It takes some getting used to the idea that Germans and Swedes and Danes and Norwegians can all be part of the same denomination or even the same congregation. It takes time to agree that women don’t have to wear hats. Or gloves. It takes time to accept that persons of all races and ethnic backgrounds can sing together in the same choir and sit together in the same pews. It takes time to agree that divorce is no reason to exclude someone from Christ’s table. It takes time to realize that 1950 has come and gone and that’s not a bad thing–good riddance to it. It takes time to realize that these other people who puzzle us or make us wary are also called by Christ and moved by the Spirit to participate fully in our family of faith. It takes time to stop thinking of them as an issue and start to see them as persons. And yet the story of our faith from the Book of Acts to the present day is a story of God opening the door ever wider no matter how often we try to close it.
In my own congregation we are taking steps toward becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. That means that we would make a positive statement of invitation to our LGBTQ neighbors and actively invite them to join us at the Little Church With A Big Heart. I wonder, though, if we aren’t being too careful in our process, in our efforts to give our members a chance to ask questions and state opinions and voice their anxieties. As I read the Book of Acts I note that God did not call a congregational meeting or present a series of articles on Evangelizing the Stranger before sending Philip to Simon Magus and the Ethiopian eunuch. Jesus didn’t take the church through a Bible Study on Conversion before yanking Saul off the Damascus Road and drop-kicking him into leadership in the movement he once tried to destroy. The Spirit did not prepare a series of instructive sermons on inclusiveness before sending him to the Gentile Roman Commander with the words “You must not call profane what I have made clean” still ringing in his ears.
We must not call profane what God has made clean. I must not think of anyone as an “outsider” if God is inviting everyone inside. And most of all, I need to remember that in this strange and wonderful organism called the Body of Christ there is room even for me. A gentile.