A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
April 24, 2016
The musician Prince passed away this week at the age of 57. I know there are lots of other people in the world, in our own community, who died that day and who won’t be getting non stop coverage on the news, but confess I was more affected by Prince’s death than I would have imagined. He was a celebrity I didn’t know, but his music was the soundtrack to my high school and college years.
And Prince helped me discover truths about myself. As an artist, he defied labels. His music was sometimes pop, sometimes soul, or R and B, or funk. He dressed like nobody else. He even went so far as to change his name to this symbol.
At the time, he said “It is an unpronounceable symbol whose meaning has not been identified. It’s all about thinking in new ways, tuning in 2 a new freequency.”
Prince forced me to reconsider what I thought I knew about so many things. And when he died, I realized how grateful I am for the way he challenged the preconceptions of my generation.
Prince once said “Despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people.” In other words, you can’t control the labels they put on you. You just have to be who God made you to be, no matter what other people, even well intentioned other people, say. Prince taught us that there is no one, right way to be a musician, an artist, a man.
And so I thought of Prince as I read this text from Acts, a story that reveals the early church’s struggle about the one, right way to be a Christian.
As we talked about last week, Peter, Paul, and the other disciples had great success, and a few trips to prison, taking the gospel to the corners of the known world. Some Jews in the synagogues responded. Many Gentiles responded.
And God, with that quirky divine sense of humor, decides to bring them together into one family.
And I’m not sure we fully appreciate the differences between Jew and Gentile back in the day. They didn’t hang out together. They didn’t have the same customs.
Peter eats at the home of Cornelius, who was a devout man who loved God and gave generously to the poor, but was also an uncircumcised Gentile who worked for the Roman military and who did not carry out the kosher dietary habits that Peter and the other Jewish followers of Jesus did.
Peter eats with Cornelius at his Roman, military, non-kosher table and gets called on the carpet by church leaders in Jerusalem.
Explain yourself, they say to Peter.
So he tells them of his vision.
Peter tells them, “I was dreaming when I wrote this, so sue me if I go to fast… This wasn’t my idea to eat with Cornelius. It was God’s. The Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles too. I saw it happen, just like it happened to us. If God is calling something clean, we can’t keep calling it profane.”
I wonder about that conversation Peter and the Jerusalem leaders had.
Once you’ve told people they don’t have to follow your rules in order to practice the faith, do you begin to wonder why you have those rules?
Or do you wonder whose rules they are? Were they your rules or were they God’s?
Do you wonder if they used to serve a purpose but maybe now are getting in the way of the commandment to love each other?
If God can change God’s mind about the rules, can’t we?
I think much of the challenge faced by the church over the scope of church history has come from navigating those moments of changing rules. We’re in a phase like that right now, actually, where some christians have discerned that God is calling the church to change and other christians are digging in their heels and have discerned that the rules are still in effect.
The great irony, of course, is when the argument not to change rules is “the Bible says it”. Because the Bible says lots of things, including from today’s passage: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’
I’m not saying rules and traditions don’t matter and should just be tossed out when the winds of cultural change blow through. I think the struggle the early church faced, and that we’ve been facing ever since, is a faithful struggle. It is worth the wrestling and the discernment.
But when your love of the rules is stronger than your rule of love, the church’s ability to witness is weakened.
Peter’s vision, and his observation that “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” is a reminder that every time we want to limit who is included in God’s family, God throws out the rulebook and tells us to leave our labels and rules in the past if they get in the way of welcoming people in God’s name.
God reminds us that our welcome has to be bigger than we’re comfortable with.
Because, from the other passage we heard this morning, Jesus gave his followers a new commandment the night before he was killed:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Love, sacrificial love that leads to death on the cross—this is the “rule” by how to measure how disciples are living their faith.
Imagine if the church leaders in Jerusalem, when asking Peter and Paul about the new churches, asked about their love instead of asking about their rule following.
“So Paul, tell us about these believers in Thessalonica. Do they love one another?”
“Peter, tell us more about the believers in Joppa and the way they welcomed you, cared for you, and loved you. They truly must be disciples, the way they have love for each other, and for you.”
Is that how we see people? Do we label them by acts of love or by how they follow our rules?
The implications for the early church were the same as they are for us today. Will we continue in our divisions, with many different ways to practice the faith, dividing us into ever smaller factions? Or will we, like the early church, figure out how to bring people together so God’s love can be shared and people can flourish as God is dreaming for them to do?
There are a few pieces of business headed to the church’s General Assembly this summer that would seek to lift up one way of being Christian over another. And they are coming from both sides of the church, progressive and conservative. Some of them would reverse the changes to our polity that allow for ordination and marriage equality. Another one, though, would ask the church to apologize for harms done to LGBTQ Presbyterians. And I certainly deplore the harms that have been done, which is why I’ve been working in the church for the changes I don’t want to see rolled back. But I also value the Presbyterians who have discerned a different way to live out the faith. I think we’re better when we’re together. And that kind of apology doesn’t allow for our differences. I don’t think God is calling us to same-ness, but to unity.
Jew or Gentile, Conservative or Progressive—those labels get in the way of the new commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us. As Peter said:
If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’
This struggle is bigger than just a church issue. In my life, I can’t remember a time of such division and rancor in our nation. And as this seemingly endless political season moves toward the election in November, I’m praying for the wisdom to love one another as Jesus has loved us. And I’m praying for unity, despite our very real differences. Because when we’re divided, we fall. When we’re united, we can do great things.
I heard a story this week about a young boy from a small town who wandered away from home. Once his parents discovered he was missing, they began a frantic search. After a couple of hours, they called the police who joined the hunt. Soon there were neighbors, Boy Scouts, and other townspeople looking for the child. Through the afternoon and into the night hundreds of people combed the prairie hoping to find the boy before the harsh elements overcame him. At sunrise the next morning, they resumed the search, but there was no sign of him. They felt as if he had just vanished.
Then, one of the searchers said, “Let’s get together in one long line. We will join hands and sweep up and down the prairie until we find him.”
They formed a line a quarter of a mile long. It was an amazing sight to see this long line moving across the prairie holding hands. On the third sweep, they found the boy lying in a small ditch behind some brush. He was not moving. A paramedic jumped into action and found a pulse. The boy began to stir. He was dehydrated and disoriented, but he was alive. They carried the boy back to his parents who were overjoyed. The mother started hugging everyone and asked, “How did you find him?” And a man standing nearby said, “Honestly, we never would have found him in time, if we hadn’t joined hands and walked together.”
What might that kind of love that leads to unity look like here in this community?
What could we do, hand in hand to make this neighborhood stronger? What can we do, hand in hand with other churches, to strengthen the witness of the gospel in the community and in the PCUSA, sharing God’s love as the early church leaders did in the Book of Acts?
Let’s go from this place in unity, if not in uniformity, and love one another as God has loved us. It’s all that easy, and it’s all that hard.
And here’s a video about Prince’s humanitarian work: