Jesus came to Nashville announcing God’s Good News: “The time is now! God’s kingdom is coming. Change your hearts and lives, and trust the Good News!”
Is our world in need of Good News? Now is the time for faith, hope, and love. Now is the time to temper our speech, soften our hearts and sharpen our minds. Now is the time to yield our hardened hearts. The world needs mercy, peace, and justice will we share it?
Fifty years ago, Doctor King preached, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” (from “Beyond Vietnam”)
Christianity stands at a crossroads. The church is divided, rule-bound, at odds, and lacking good news. This is a time for vigorous and positive action!
In 40AD, the church was divided. Acts 15 comes as a defining moment in church history. It tells of the church’s first General Conference. Paul and Barnabas come as delegates from a diverse church in Antioch. They represent the leading edge, as missionaries planting churches in major trade cities along the Mediterranean Sea. They will preach in pagan temples, leave the synagogue, plant house churches, commission female clergy like Lydia and Phoebe, baptize the uncircumcised, eat with those called unfit by the orthodox, and generally “‘turn the world upside down.” (Acts 17:6)
But “some (unnamed) people”, it’s always some people, came teaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.” Now, let the minutes reflect that, Paul and Barnabas “took sides against the Levitical faction arguing strongly against their position.” Ponder that just for a moment- arguing strongly against the long held orthodox understanding. Did not Jesus do that? Jesus spoke against unyielding hearts, loving rules more than principles or people, majoring in religious minors, and judging. Jesus warned that if we venerate the old prophets too much, we “testify against ourselves”, that we are the ones who will prosecute and even crucify the prophets God sends our way! (Matthew 23:29)
After much debate, Bishop Peter spoke, “Fellow believers, you know that God chose me to first preach to and baptize the Gentiles. God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed their status by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us. God made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.” Last Sunday, we read in Acts 10-11 how the Holy Spirit through a heavenly tablecloth guided Peter to understand, “Do not call any impure that God has made clean.” As Peter heard Cornelius’ story and the Spirit fell in power, God changed Peter’s “absolutely not, Lord, I have never” into “who am I to resist what God is doing?”! Peter widens the boundaries, by setting aside dietary laws, circumcision, and other burdens. Peter embraces folks he once considered profane “outsiders”. Peter closes his argument saying, “we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.”
Evidently, some delegates chatted as Peter spoke, for Barnabas and Paul begin to tell stories of lives being changed by Christ, “the whole assembly kept silence”. These risky spiritual innovators told how those once counted as “absolutely nots” were being transformed by the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ. People were leaving idols, finding compassion, becoming generous, and living lives of joy and loving-kindness. Hear this Belmont, your story matters! The first General Council listened to people’s stories.
Is God done speaking through people’s stories? Is not the Bible a story of God speaking through people: Abraham and Sarah, Ruth and Naomi, Peter and John? Will we like the holiness preachers, who welcomed women preachers, not because they lined up Bible verses to shoot down 1 Timothy 2:12, but because they saw spiritual fire and fruit flowing from their sisters’ ministries? Could our stories guide us as we discern theological issues today, or do we only move around the verses, without any new wind from the Spirit or new wine from Jesus?
After hearing people’s stories, James offers up some Scripture. The selected verse have almost nothing to do with circumcision. The passage speaks of God’s desire to rebuild and include “all” people! In Acts 15, the church discerns a new way forward without addressing the specific Levitical laws they choose to set aside.
The church sends out an Episcopal letter: “The Holy Spirit has led us to the decision that no burden should be placed on you other than these essentials: refuse food offered to idols, inhuman butchery, and pornea. You will do well to avoid such things. Farewell.” On what grounds does the church set aside a defining practice as old as Abraham? I like how the NRSV renders their discernment process: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”
Do we believe that the Holy Spirit can come into our midst and that Jesus has given us the keys to the kingdom, so that we might even set aside rules that are harmful burdens or changed by what we are learning in the Holy Spirit? (Acts 1:8, Mark 3:4, Acts 11:34, Matthew 16:18; 18:29) And what of the word “to impose on you no further burden than these essentials”? I wonder how something Jesus never mentions, can be called an essential?
Now after Acts 15, some people will keep on eating strict kosher diets, some will carefully keep the law of Moses, but some will move worship to Sunday and serve food offered to idols. Paul will challenge the General Conference’s rule about meat sacrificed to Zeus or Athenian, which poor Christians bought from the discount butcher behind the pagan temples. He will say of food offered to idols, “We all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8)
John Wesley’s preached in “Catholic Spirit”: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” Do we remember Jesus’ anger at our unyielding hearts? ( Mark 3) Can offer loving and loyal disagreement to our deeply divided world?
Friends, I believe the time is now for Belmont to proclaim the Good News. The time is now for us to refute a mean, legalistic, and excluding trend in contemporary Christianity. The time is now to announce the welcoming path of Jesus, who always leads with compassion and charity. The time is now to make space for those crushed by church-based legalism and judgement. Let us remember that religious people, deeply worried about orthodoxy, crucified Jesus. They opposed Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, eating with unclean hands, dining with those called sinners, welcoming the misfits, pronouncing forgiveness too liberally, turning over tables in the Temple, standing with the poor, healing the sick, loving the sinner, and generally challenging the orthodoxy rulebook.
“The time is now! God’s kingdom is coming. Change your hearts and lives, and trust the Good News!” Will you speak for Jesus? Will you invite your friends to church so that they might find grace and welcome? This is no time for complacency, apathy or excuses. This is a time for vigorous and positive action. The world is suffocating due to a lack of faith, hope, love, mercy, compassion and justice, Let us share a loving image of Jesus.
I wrote in my Charge Conference report: “Six months into our common work, I believe we need to become better at reaching the many people moving into our village. We need to share our progressive understanding of the Gospel in this age when many people of goodwill are disillusioned by a loud politicized pseudo-Christianity. Jesus went about proclaiming, “The time is now. Hear the Good News.” (Mark 1:15) As we follow Jesus, who fed hungry crowds, brought healthcare to the masses, welcomed those named religiously unclean, and taught us to love God-neighbor-stranger-enemy, we must proclaim the Good News.”
To me, Belmont at our best offers spiritual space that allows people to move closer to God. We practise a kind of “no-judgement zone” like that fitness place. A wide space helps those feeling turned around and turned off find their way to Jesus. If we obscure Jesus with rules and exclusions, those rules erect walls, that keep people from seeing the love of God poured out in Christ. People can’t see over the rule to see the Love of God. Let us not mistake Jesus for an “ought”, “must”, “shall not”, “I never”, or an “absolutely not.” No, let us gently offer the wider and more open path that Peter found when he said, “Who am I? Who am I to stand in God’s way?” Let us sing to our village Peter’s sermon refrain, “I am learning that God” is love, come and travel with me!” Belmont holds a long-held desire to welcome all people, without judging them. Let us proclaim that God’s grace, manifested in the community of faith, can woo people towards the love of God. Let us be intentional in helping our neighbors hear our hopeful-progressive message.
We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action. Jesus came preaching: The time is now- change your heart- trust the Good News.
Now is the time for a Christianity that acknowledges that “we are learning”.
Now is the time to join Paul and Barnabas in “arguing against” Christianity as a set of rules.
Now is the time to knock down dividing walls and make a wide space so others can see Christ.
Now is the time to make room at the font, table, kneeler and pulpit for everyone the Spirit calls.
Now is the time to remember that the Bible is a series of stories where God speaks to people.
Now is the time to listen as God speaks in our stories and struggles.
Now is the time to check the hardness of our hearts asking, “Who am I to stand in God’s way?”
Now is the time to offer any hardness, rigidity, unforgiveness, or blockage in our hearts to God.
Now is the time to yield our hearts to the boundless, mysterious, endless love of God.
Now is the time to find answers in God’s love that surpasses knowledge.
Now is the time to remember that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Now is the time to believe the Good News is enough to get us all safely home. Amen.