Sunday, May 2, 2021

Phil Kniss: Believe the Good News!

New chapter, ancient story, same thread — Easter 5: The Church Listens, and Moves
Acts 15:1-18

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As I said last week, the sweep of our biblical narrative is winding down.
We began last fall in Genesis,
and we end in a few weeks on Pentecost.
But really, there’s no end in biblical narrative.
The story rolls on.
The story shapes us and our life in the world.
And life in the world shapes how we read the story.

The church of my childhood read the story differently than I do now.
For that matter . . . it read the story differently
than did the church of my great-grandparents,
and the early Anabaptists,
and the church in Acts 15.
This is a dynamic relationship—
between God’s people and God’s word.

And it’s on full display in Acts 15, the famous Jerusalem conference,
the mother of all church conferences.
First of countless times the church gathered to sort out differences.
A few hundred years later the Council at Nicaea
produced the Nicene Creed,
and later, Councils at Constantinople, Chalcedon, & more.
The Protestant Reformation held major disputations and councils.
The Anabaptists held a significant, and secret, one in 1527,
in Schleitheim, to unify their scattered movement.
Catholics had their Vatican Councils.
In the 1960s Vatican II brought massive change.

In all these,
the church is trying to work out the dynamic relationship
between God’s people in a changing world,
and God’s will and word revealed in scripture.

As long as the church exists,
we will need these Councils and Conferences.
It’s just a fact.
Because our faith is not wooden.
It is not abstract.
It is not a pure intellectual exercise.
It is grounded in the real world,
and applied in real relationships.
Therefore, it moves.
Our faith, and its expression, is subject to change,
because we live it out in this world, not that one—
here, not there,
now, not then.

Are there constants? Yes.
Should we be guided by our past? Of course.
Are there unchanging principles? Yes.
But generally, I think,
they are fewer in number than we would like.

And . . . you might then ask . . . does God change?

In many places, scripture answers with, “No.”
Hebrews 13: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Malachi 3: For I the Lord do not change.
1 Samuel 15: God is not a man, that he should have regret.

In many other places, scripture answers with, “Yes.”
Genesis 6, before the flood: The Lord regretted
that he had made human beings on the earth.
Exodus 34: God declares he will do away with his people.
Moses begs and pleads, and scripture says,
“God repented, God changed his mind,”
and did not carry through on his plans.
Same in Jonah, about destroying Nineveh.
Over and over, scripture tells us God “relented” or “was sorry”
or “changed his mind.”

Does God’s will change?
Scripture has an internal debate about that.
There’s a biblical yes and a biblical no.
So both must be true in certain ways.

That, at the least, should make us humble about knowing God’s will.

Yes, we know certain things about God’s character,
and I’m willing to stake my life on those—
God loves us deeply, and unconditionally,
God desires our wholeness and shalom,
God is just and righteous,
there is a special place in God’s heart
for those who suffer, or have their humanity diminished.

But get much more specific than that,
and I say let’s hold that in an open palm,
not a closed fist.
Let’s keep examining it in the faith community,
opening ourselves to scripture, and
opening ourselves to the living and dynamic Holy Spirit.

The Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15 was exactly that kind
of open-palm moment.
The church decided God’s will for them, at that time and place,
had changed from what they knew earlier,
from their holy scripture.
They decided some commands in the Torah—namely circumcision
and some other Hebrew practices
were now, in this context,
being set aside because the Holy Spirit was evident
in the changes.
They saw evidence of the Holy Spirit at work,
not just in Samaritans,
and Jewish people from Ethiopia,
as we saw in Acts chapter 8 last week,
but also in outright Gentiles,
who did not follow the law God gave them through Moses.

We cannot overestimate this.
The theological ground on which they stood, shifted.
In other words, this was an earth-shaking decision.

From Acts 15 on,
as the Jesus movement spread far from its Jerusalem origins,
and went throughout the Roman Empire and well beyond,
their unity would be tested over and over again.
Not because they were walking away from their faith in Jesus,
but because they needed to keep asking,
what does faith in Jesus look like here? and now?

You think we have trouble maintaining unity
in this age of polarization, and culture wars,
and radical social and political divides?
Think this is new?
Then you have not put yourself in the shoes
of Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus in Acts,
both belonging to the same house church,
trying to sort out moral and ethical questions of the day.

We should all be familiar with this conference in Acts 15.
Read the rest of the chapter after our service.
They set the bar for us.
They showed us to hold to the core,
and watch for the Spirit’s new move.
They believed the Good News!
They identified the good things the Holy Spirit was doing,
and believed those good things,
and acted on them.

When scripture says “believe the Good News”
it’s not a call to some abstract intellectual system of beliefs.
It’s a call to believe what our eyes are seeing.
To notice where people are coming alive,
are finding hope and joy,
and then move toward that,
instead of shut down God’s activity
because it doesn’t fit our framework.

This is hard work, but important work,
and it happens every time the church grows.
This whole conflict the Jerusalem Conference tried to resolve,
would never have happened,
were it not that the movement spread,
and more people came into the church.

The church is not like other membership organizations.
Our metaphor is a body.
We’re a living organism, not a chart on the wall.
When a new member gets grafted into the body,
our body itself changes.

When we as a church are invitational, are missional,
we are not saying,
come into our space, and do as we do, and become just like us.
We are saying,
be grafted into our body,
and help change us from what we are without you,
to what we will become with you.
Any church that assumes an invitational posture,
is also inviting conflict and change.
It comes with the territory.

Reminding us of this beautiful, and unsettling, truth,
is especially appropriate on this day of two significant rituals.
We received three new members today,
so our body just changed.
And together, with these new members,
we now come to the table that unites us,
the Lord’s Table, where all of us are on level ground,
in need of God’s transforming grace in Jesus Christ.

The new members, by the way,
were delivered a fresh loaf of bread, and some juice,
yesterday, by Pastor Paula,
as our way of saying to them, you are part of the whole,
thank you for helping us become.

I invite our attention now to the table in the front,
as I recall the words of Jesus to his disciples . . .

The Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed,
took a loaf of bread,
and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,
“This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Now, wherever you are, whether you’re alone . . .
or whether you’re a family with children running around,
gather together, invite everyone to join in,
take the bread and cup and partake,
remembering your part in this body,
and remembering Jesus’ invitation.

It’s a daunting invitation to a challenging life.
But God says to us,
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you,
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,
The river shall not cover you.

Now, eat, drink, and meditate as our 2019 church choir sings.

—Phil Kniss, May 2, 2021

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