You might know well about the situation that those in our story today were in. Not that all of us has a great understanding of the first Jerusalem Council but perhaps you have been in a church meeting that had no less than two opposing forces, at least some of which had pre-planned their arguments in the parking lot before the meeting started. Maybe not this community, you all are great. So maybe you’ve heard of other churches… or communities, city councils, school boards, that fight out what it means to be their community, what are the values that they will hold, what the future will look like. Like where money will be spent or if kids should still have to wear masks in school.
The earliest days of the people of the Way, the followers of Jesus, the people who were just recently called Christians for the first time, was filled with trying to work out how they were going believe, live, interact with each other and the world around them.
See, Barnabus had gotten Paul, and the two of them had long left the safety of the Jerusalem community and traveled north into Antioch, which doesn’t exist as an active city today but rather as an archaeological site in southern Turkey. And while we like to think of ourselves and our time in history as unique with our ability to travel and connect, the ancient world, especially but not limited to the Roman empire was filled with travel and trade, last week we met the eunuch from Ethiopia, 2000 miles away who had traveled to Jerusalem, Turkey is much closer.
But unlike the other cities that we have visited in our stories as we traveled with Jesus and those first disciples, Antioch was decidedly not a Jewish city. The story of Jesus was expanding, the good news was told in new places, but along with that came complications and issues.
I’m sure it didn’t with circumcision, I’m guessing the Pharisees, at least some of whom had been followers of Jesus from nearly the beginning, thought that they had been very flexible. They were reaching out to non-Jewish people, they were reaching out, they were expanding their thinking. Peter had this experiences not so long ago with gentile name Cornelius, it began with a dream of food, of God calling all things clean. There was change happening. It just got to be so much change.
So, yes, there were those who were teaching that the way that this community was to exist, what was going to define the community, what was going to mark them, as they had always been, separate and connected to God. Some of these evangelists were asking the new believers to be circumcised, as a mark of the their place in the community. Can you imagine such a demand? to go through such procedure, in the ancient world, as an adult. It seems unpleasant. It seems like it might have been a reason that some might not become fully invested.
It has been commented on in the recent decades that the Christian church is obsessed with sex, but with this lesson, and last week’s with the eunuch, I don’t think the early church was immune. The world often keeps repeating in new ways.
13 years ago this week, as my phone reminded me, whale I was a student, I attended the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, which is an international business convention. While the UCC is super decentralized and congregational based and our national meeting is focused on worship and resources, the UMC has a centralized government that decides all the things in the church. And this Conference, is marked with debate, discussion, passionate stories. Also, groups connect ahead of time to plan their position, and there have pamphlets suggesting who and how to vote. Sometimes it didn’t feel very good. And even now they are working through what it means to them to be in their community, who is allowed in and who is not, what is required for participation. It’s amazing how much the same things are as they were before because…
When the Christian leaders gathered in those early decades after Jesus was resurrected, they had debate over how one would enter the community. Peter told his story of his dream from God and experience with Cornelius. Paul and Barnabus told of how the Spirit has been present and moving in the lives of the gentiles. And James, James was the one who reached into their own past to bring forth their scripture, with their prophets, quoting Amos and the opening up the worship and relationship with God to the Gentiles. But here’s the thing: it hadn’t always been interpreted this way, it hadn’t always been used this way, it hadn’t always been quoted to expand fully include the gentiles in the way that they were being included that day. And yet, it was still honoring the God that they had been meeting again and again, the God of their ancestors, the God revealed in Jesus, the God who is love. James took Peter’s revelation and Paul and Barnabus’ experiences of Spirit, and James filtered them back through scripture, back through the story of God. And then taking each of these pieces and creating something new, that remembered and brought with it the past, and was filled with the promise of the future.
This last year in quarantine, especially during the winter months, my mom brought out all her sewing and every scrap that she held onto over the years. She has made beautiful and completely pre-planned things. But then there is extra. Bits of fabric that carry memories of babies being born and growing up, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, sicknesses, loses. Over the winter, she took the pieces, the scraps, and she started piecing them together. She has made small things, and full quilts out of the pieces that had been left behind. It’s a piece of the fabric of grandma’s 8th grade graduation dress and the quilt my mom made for my graduation, next to a piece from the baby quilt for my niece and the one for my cousin. These pieces come together, creating something new, that remembers and brings with it what had gone before and is filled with the promise of the future.
It’s what we see with those who gathered in Jerusalem to understand, to make plans, to make room for this new community of believers. They took these pieces: Revelation, Experiences, they took those, along with their experience with and of Jesus and reflected them back into scripture. It wasn’t necessarily the same interpretation that they might have had before, but this is the honest experience of how we interact with sacred texts: living text that lives with us, that is always opening up new understandings, new ways of living in this world, new ways of loving and caring for each other.
James is pulling pieces like my mom pulls fabric and in a beautiful moment is quilting together scripture with the still speaking God, not necessarily for the benefit of the Gentiles to keep them from this very uncomfortable action, but to free the Jews for table fellowship with the Gentiles. He is quilting a interpretation of scripture that reflects the revelation of God who is love, is revealed through Jesus and the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who would follow. He is quilting a new community, with each new person, community, nation, and each generation the adds new pieces, new people, new color, new textures, it changes the whole thing.
The future of the church is diverse. The future of the church has always been about diversity from the time that Jesus was welcoming people and the interaction with Cornelius and with the Ethiopian Eunuch and this moment at the Jerusalem Council and the moments to come as folks shared their love of God.
We are pulling pieces and are quilting together scripture with the still speaking God, for our growth, our learning, our expanding and changing. We are quilting an interpretation of scripture that reflects the revelation of God who is love, is revealed through Jesus and the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who would follow. We are quilting a new community, with each new person, community, nation, new color, new textures, it changes the whole thing, we adjust to make room for each other.
The future of the church is diverse. It is a diversity of races and sexualities and genders and theologies, where each is respected, each is loved, each is made space for, each is integrated into the whole, and the whole is allowed to change, grow, shift, become something beautiful. As we quilt our church together, as we weave our faith, as we grow and become and continue to live into our future, with all the colors, all the textures, all the shapes, all the diversity of fabrics, of people, of community that God has made in our world.