Sunday Note: Who Belongs? Pt. 2


Acts 10:44-48 & John 15:9-17

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.


 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other."

Note: Who Belongs? Pt. 2

One of the hardest questions for the church to answer-- from the earliest gatherings in the first century up until today-- is: Who belongs with us? It is the question of all movements, all nations, all tribes, all families, all social and political and meaning-making groups: Who is in and who is out? At it's heart, the question is one of group identity. Who are we?

This question of belonging was at the forefront of the Jesus movement in the first century. Before there were statements of faith, New Testament Scriptures, or ordained church officials, the apostles of Jesus had little but story, prayer, and consensus to determine these big questions of identity and belonging that would set the course of Christianity.

Last week, the lectionary text in Acts told the story of a Philip and an Ethiopian man, who was a eunuch. This unnamed man was an outsider according to the Torah, but would be welcomed into the fold as a child of God, according to Isaiah. And Philip choose on behalf of the Jesus movement that Isaiah's prophecy would be fulfilled, and the circle was opened to eunuchs in the moment. Philip continued by opening the circle of belonging to a Samaritan and a sorcerer. Then the apostles in Jerusalem open the circle to Saul, a former persecutor of Jesus-followers. And in our text today, we reach the climax of belonging: Do Gentiles-- not just wayward Jews or one guy on a road-- but Gentiles as an excluded group, belong? Are they in or out?

The answer comes, not from arguing finer points of theology and Scripture nor from a vision of the future Christian movement, but rather from the recognition that God had already encircled them. There was no argument to be made: God had already included Gentiles. They already belonged. The Spirit of God already choose to dwell in them.

Just as God had already loved, accepted, and acted in the lives of Saul and the Samaritans and Simon and the Ethiopian God already loved, accepted, and acted in the Gentiles-- those formerly defined by their outsider status.

As Peter would later say to the leaders in Jerusalem:  If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?

Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Roman soldiers, tax collectors, prostitutes, Pharisees, zealots, women, children, eunuchs, those in Judea, and those in the far corners of the earth-- ALL BELONG. People of color, white people, LGBTQIA identifying persons, blue collar workers, academics, the poor, even the wealthy, developers, community organizers, Americans,, Afghans, Australians, and ALL nations...ALL BELONG.

The question arises: If all these people who we thought were out are actually in-- Who are we? What is our identity? If everyone belongs, does belonging even matter?

And here we turn to the words of Jesus in John 15:
Remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands and remain in God's love. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you...I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit...This is my command: Love each other.

Jesus loves us all. Jesus choose us all. We belong to God through Jesus. Our identity is those who are loved by Jesus and love others as Jesus has loved us.

This way of belonging that Jesus teaches requires a shift in our paradigm. There is no "in" or "out." There is, instead, proximity to love. Remain in love, and you will love all those who belong to Jesus (read: everyone), and that love will bear fruit in this world that will last. Stray from love, and you will not love all those who belong to Jesus, and you will not bear lasting fruit.

So often, those who belong in God's love, stray, and find meaning and belonging in fear, hate, worry, pride, or envy. You may find yourself there now. Or feel the frustration of seeing others far beyond the center of love, out in the field of fear. 

We are invited and called to come back to God's love. To remain in the love that has been tangibly shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God's love that is defined by the actions of Jesus. That is our truest identity-- as Christians and as humans.

All belong to God in Jesus Christ. This does not water down belonging or identity-- it is an invitation to our truest identity; it is an invitation to remain in God's love and invite others closer to love. It is a way of being in the world that looks with compassion and love on others, rather than building up walls to keep them out.

We belong. So may we remain in God's love, bearing fruit that will last, and loving one another in the way of Jesus that all people may know that they, too, belong to God and to us.

Sunday Note: April 29, 2018

Text for Today

Acts 8:26-40

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
    and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?
    For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.


Sunday Note: Who Belongs?

The book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible contains a section that English translation, the New International Version, places under the heading:Exclusion from the Assembly. Eight verses of exclusions follow-- these are the people who do not belong to the people of God. These are the people who are not us. The first of these exclusions reads, "No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord" (Dt 23:1). The text continues, naming those born of a forbidden marriage down to the tenth generation, Ammonites, Moabites, descendants of those foreign enemies, descendants to the third generation of those born to OK foreigners.

The Bible has many, many threads of theology in it's vast recordings and varied genres of writing. It is the sacred text of humans encountering the Divine, and wrestling to put into words the implications of Divine encounter. Inspired is a beautiful word for the work of the Spirit and human creation of a text that draws us into the deepest questions of existence, even through Scripture that can be translated:  He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:1 in the King James Version of the Bible...seriously)

Two of the threads that compete throughout the Scriptures are of Exclusion-- purity, holiness, chosen-ness-- and Belonging-- a God of all tribes and nations, forgiveness, blessing. When read flatly, meaning all parts of the Bible having equal weight and equally impacting our understanding of God and creation, the Bible is in an impossible argument with itself. Just as Deuteronomy says that those who have been made eunuchs cannot enter the assembly of God-- or more plainly, eunuchs are not a part of God's people, our story today shows Philip baptizing a eunuch-- the sign and seal of belonging to God and to God's people.

This is not the only instance. Acts 8-11 seems to be written as a direct challenge to exclusion itself. 

Samaritans? Belong.
Sorcerers? Belong.
Eunuchs? Belong.

The man Philip encounters along the road was reading from Isaiah 53. Philip explains to him the ways this ancient text was embodied by Jesus. If they read on just three more chapters, they would have come across this,

Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say,
"The Lord will surely exclude me from God's people."
And let not the eunuch complain,
"I am only a dry tree."
For this is what the Lord says:
"To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, 
who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant--
to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters
I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.
And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve God...
I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer."

Just as the words of Isaiah 53 would be embodied by Jesus and the story told by Philip, so too would the words of Isaiah 56 be embodied by this Ethiopian eunuch and the story continued to be told by us today. 

The story of Divine encounter, of the people of God wrestling to put into words the implication of this encounter, is not flat. It is dynamic; it requires repentance-- rethinking everything in light of new revelation; it has been embodied for us to more fully know. And in Jesus, the Word made flesh, and in the Body of Christ, the people of God, we see the embodiment of expanding belonging. Deuteronomy does not have the last word.

So, dear reader, know that whatever your perceived impurities, whatever your doubts, whatever your background, whatever your family story, whatever your skin color, whatever your sexual orientation, whatever your gender expression, whatever your language, whatever your past failures, whatever your questions, whatever your limitations...

You belong to God. You belong to God's people. You belong.