SCRIPTURE – Acts 2:42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
We’re All in This Together
October 7, 2012
We had a wonderful regional assembly this past weekend in Louisville at Beargrass Christian Church. It reminded me all over again why I’m so glad to be a Disciple. We shared in inspiring worship with some top-notch preaching, including our own Tanya Tyler. We sang together and shared in communion with our brothers and sisters from across the state. We networked and fellowshipped and ate – boy, did we eat! I can report back to you that Kentucky Disciples are alive and well, although some may have indigestion.
We also conducted business, always an important part of the assembly gathering. More specifically, we voted on two resolutions, both of which carried their own level of controversy. One resolution was to build a central camp and conference center in Kentucky, eventually to replace our two current camps. Surprisingly, that resolution passed unanimously with no one speaking out against it.
The other resolution was more difficult. We voted affirmatively to rescind a 1978 resolution which forbade the Kentucky region from ordaining gays and lesbians. This current resolution didn’t take a stance on whether or not the region should do this; it simply put the power of the decision in the hands of the individual congregation. While this was really a question of polity, there was no way to avoid the strong emotions and convictions associated with this issue. Faithful Christians spoke passionately for and against the resolution. There is concern that some people, and maybe even a church or two, might leave the denomination over this vote. I’m proud of our regional leaders for how they handled this resolution and for the civility with which it was dealt. And yet, the issue remains a divisive one.
But here’s good news: We’re not alone in this, because the church has been dividing for centuries! OK, maybe that’s not such good news. Almost every church can tell the story about a rift in the congregation’s history, when Pastor So-and-So decided the church should have blue carpet instead of red carpet or should use Hawaiian bread instead of an Italian loaf for communion, and before you know it half the congregation has left to start a new church up the road. It happened to my home church in Jeffersonville. Thankfully, Crestwood doesn’t have such a chapter in its history. But to be safe, I’m not planning on changing the carpet color anytime soon.
The church’s propensity for divisiveness is completely antithetical to what we read in today’s passage. This snapshot of the early church doesn’t tell us about fistfights or contentious board meetings. Instead, it’s a picture of harmony, as early Christians devoted themselves to being the people God called them to be. They learned together, fellowshipped together, shared stuff together, broke bread together, prayed together, praised God together and grew together. Those early believers really knew how to be church, didn’t they?
Not really. Don’t let Acts 2 fool you. In fact, before they even actually become a church, they started fighting. The Jews who believed in Jesus thought the Gentiles coming into the congregation should be circumcised, because the Bible said so. Gentiles weren’t too keen on that idea and said that just because the Bible said it didn’t mean they had to do it, because Jesus had brought a new commandment of freedom from the law. Then one of the Jews pulled out a swatch of red carpet and a Gentile pulled out a swatch of blue carpet, and before you know it, we have our first church split. And these weren’t genteel intellectual debates. Paul, writing about this issue and his disagreement with Peter, says, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face.” Can’t you just see Peter and Paul finger-pointing and chest-bumping? The church’s natural inclination to splinter started in its infancy.
At least it stopped there, right? Well, for awhile it did. Once Christianity became the state religion, the church didn’t get a lot of opposition. Nothing promotes loyalty like burning your enemies at the stake. Then Martin Luther came along and challenged the church on its carpet color and 94 other things, and the Protestant Reformation is born. And then all Hades broke loose! As soon as people were able to interpret scripture for themselves they found out just how much there was to disagree about. They started reading the Bible together – “In the beginning” – and someone asked, “When was the beginning? What was before the beginning? Was there a God before the beginning?” and it went downhill from there. And that was only the first three words! It was a long way from the Acts 2 church.
Our own denomination was founded in response to this splintering. Thomas Campbell, one of the founders of the Disciples, got fed up pastoring the Old Light Anti-Burgher Seceeder Presbyterian Church, probably because his business cards were the size of billboards. Each name in that title represents a split within the church, and Campbell and Barton Stone believed that unity should be the polar star of the church. So they joined together to form the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a denomination that strives for the unity of all believers – and that has at least two groups split of from it in its history. Even we can’t quite get it right.
When you look at all of the disagreements down through church history, many of them center on one fundamental question: who’s in and who’s out? That was at the core of the disagreement between Paul and Peter over circumcision, it was at the core of many of Luther’s charges against the Catholic Church, and it was at the core of our discussion this weekend at Regional Assembly over ordination. Who’s in and who’s out?
The problem is the Bible’s not real clear on this. Our divorced people in or out? Are uncircumcised Gentiles in or out? Are gays and lesbians in or out? Are sinners and tax collectors in or out? You could make valid arguments on both sides of the issue based on scripture, and that’s not helpful. We want clarity so we know where to draw the lines.
When I lived in Indiana, I used to golf at a course that was right next to a farm. I don’t think the farmer was a golf fan, because posted along the fence line separating the course from the farm was a series of signs that simply said, “Private Property” and then showed a picture of a shotgun. Now that’s a clear message. I can’t tell you how many golf balls I hit across that fence line, but I can tell you how many of them I retrieved. Zero! The farmer made it very clear who was allowed in and who wasn’t.
That’s the kind of definitive clarity we seek in the Bible. These people are in and these people are out. Wouldn’t it be easier if Jesus made a pronouncement on abortion or capital punishment or the best color of carpet for the sanctuary? Instead, Jesus says things like, “Love your enemies” and “Blessed are the peacemakers” and then leaves us to work out the details in community with each other. And we’re not always so good at that.
So let’s go back before all of these splits and splinters, back to the brief moment in time when the church actually got along. What does Acts 2 tell us about who’s in and who’s out? What can we learn from them about being the church? Verse 44 says, “All who believed were together and had everything in common.” That sounds to me like everybody was in. No exceptions. No exclusions. The church shared what they had with each other, and everyone was invited to the fellowship picnics, everyone was invited to Sunday school, and most importantly, everyone was invited to the table.
That may be the one thing we’ve continued to get right. Everyone is welcome at the table. No criteria. No entrance exams. No determination of spiritual fitness. It’s a “y’all come” invitation, a lavish extension of radical hospitality where everyone is in and no one is out, like Edwin Markham’s poem, “He drew a circle that shut me out —Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in.” Christ has drawn a circle and we are all within it.
That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everyone who’s in our circle. In fact, I think our community is made stronger by the diversity of beliefs contained within it. The beauty of who we are – or at least who we are striving to be – is that there is room for every voice here. We don’t have to all believe the same things or vote the same way to be part of this family. We are included by virtue of the one who drew the circle, the one who has no beginning and no end, the Alpha and the Omega.
Who’s in? Everybody is in. That person who thinks differently than you? In. That person who forwards you every single email with pictures of cute kittens? In. That person whose political perspective is both wrong and obnoxious? In. That person who you do your best to avoid when you see them? In. That jerk? In. That person who roots for a team other than your team? Sigh. In.
We may have strong opinions about who we believe should be in and who should be out. And that’s OK. We’re human, we can’t like everybody. In fact, there’s probably one person – maybe more than one – who thinks YOU shouldn’t be in. How about that? It’s a good thing God’s drawing the circle and not them, isn’t it? Because when God draws the circle, there’s room. Room for me. Room for you. Room for everyone. Everyone. How big are the circles we draw? Is there room for everyone? “All who believed were together.” May we do our best to make it so.