August 26, 2018
The early Christians were Jews, who spent much time together in the temple, and then met in homes to pray and break bread and eat and share their stories of Jesus.
They followed Jewish law which required them to observe Jewish food laws, and men to be circumcised. It was unlawful for them to eat or associate with Gentiles.
Peter was the head of the church based in Jerusalem. He was firmly committed to a Jewish church - one made up exclusively of Jews. But with Saul’s conversion in ACTS Chapter 9, a leadership transition began to occur, from Peter to Paul, who travelled the Mediterranean bringing Gentiles to Christ. It signaled a new era, from a Jewish Church to a Jewish-Gentile Church.
But Peter had to be won over, and that’s where the spirit interceded. We are told the story of his God-inspired vision in ACTS Chapter 10, and here Peter repeats it as he defends his association with Gentiles to the church in Jerusalem.
ACTS 11: 1-18
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’
Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.”
And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 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?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
Phyllis Tickle, in her book “The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why”, suggests that every 500 years the church goes through a reformation. It can last 100 years. She refers to it as the Church’s ‘great rummage sale.” I’ve preached on it before, on the anniversary of the Reformation. You might remember.
I propose that even before Constantine declared Christianity the state religion, that the early Christians had their own ‘rummage sale’ of sorts, where Christians were baptized instead of circumcised; where all were welcomed to join and eat together. They had to let go of certain laws and practices in order to grow and create something new. It did not come easy. There were plenty of verbal battles, but eventually the Roman Church emerged.
The church has continued to change over the centuries, in both theology and practice, whether its members wanted it to - or not. It’s changed with the time and the cultures we’ve lived in. Those changes go hand in hand.
500 years ago came the biggest rummage sale of all, with Martin Luther and the Reformation. The entire continent of Europe was going through enormous change, not all of it welcomed, especially by the church. Decades before, a monk in England named John Wycliffe translated the bible into English. After his death Rome declared him a heretic and exhumed his body and had it burned.
His protege, Jan Hus, a monk from Prague, suffered an even worse fate. He translated the Bible into the vernacular and was burned at the stake for doing so. Change does not come easy.
Guttenburg invented the printing press and the bible became accessible to those who could read. Three different popes from three different countries declared themselves to be the successor of Peter. Who were Christians to believe? The selling of indulgences, a corrupt practice to begin with, got out of hand with the black plague.
All of this, and more, sent Luther to post his 95 theses on the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral. The Reformation did not happen overnight, but the great rummage sale had begun. Seven sacraments were reduced to two. No more confessions to a priest. People could go directly to God for forgiveness.
Reformers no longer looked to Rome and the pope for authority. Even the sacrament of communion took on different meanings, which they still disagree about today. “By scripture alone” became the rallying cry of those reformers. That is where they looked for answers and guidance.
Out of the Reformation emerged more and more splintering of Christianity into different denominations and independent churches, each with their own polity, traditions, theology and beliefs, and requirements for joining their brand of Christianity.
Today Tickle and many others tell us we are going through another Reformation. It started awhile back and will continue far into the future. I see evidence of that all around. We live in a different time and culture than Luther 500 years ago. For many of us scripture alone is not the answer to our questions. It does not satisfy our search for truth. A few weeks ago we looked to the Methodist quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, reason and experience, as a way to answer probing questions and determine the best action to take.
Maybe it’s just part of human nature that we humans are constantly searching for truth, for what to believe in. Is there a God? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? How are we to live our lives? Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there life after death?
For so many, especially younger people, the church is no longer answering those questions. They find it no longer relevant to their lives. They are searching for their answers in other places. That is quite obvious walking into many mainline churches today. Others are creating new ways of being church, often called the emergent church.
I put a quote from John Dorhauer, the President and General Minister of the UCC, on the front of the bulletin today, along with a picture from our flee market, to remind you it’s time to clean out your closets. A rummage sale is coming.
Dorhauer writes: “When a household decides to have a rummage sale, they don’t open the doors of their home to complete strangers and invite them to make an offer on anything they find in the house. Instead, they carefully, painstakingly evaluate which of their treasured possessions no longer serve the needs of the family. Often with some reluctance, these items are singled out and either sold or given away. There is never any question, though, that some items remain.”
This is happening today in Christian churches all over, in small and sometimes big ways.
Last week, the Spotlight blog from the Mass Conference highlighted our church in West Concord. They had a rummage sale. In looking to their future and who they wanted to be and serve in their community, they gave away all their pews and most sanctuary furniture to another church and replaced them with moveable chairs to create a flexible space to accommodate new ways of doing ministry, in their church and to the wider community.
I think the last line in Dorhauer’s quote is very important to remember as our churches face changes in the future, that whatever is given away or thrown out, “there is never any question that some items remain.” They are the ones that we consider essential to our faith and being the church.
As the Christian church moves forward to wherever this reformation is taking us, I think it’s important for each of us to ask ourselves two questions:
What beliefs are essential to you as a Christian? and What is so important to being the church, that, if altered, it ceases to be the church for you?
Answers to question 1:
We are called by God to serve one another.
Experience and action are more important than belief.
Belief in the dignity of every human being.
We live by God’s grace.
Have compassion for all.
Follow God’s commandments.
Commitment requires action
Never place a period where God has placed a comma.
Believing God listens to our prayers sometimes answered, sometimes we wait for answers.
Humans are God’s hands on earth.
We never walk alone.
God is love and wisdom.
Trying to find in myself the dignity that God has given to me to give to others.
Answers to question 2:
Our sign out front.
A place to worship.
Be the church 7 days a week.
Recharge the soul.
Continues connection to roots and history - connection to lives that came before me.
Acceptance of other’s ideas without judgement.
Learning from others and continue going in the right ways
Music, sacred music.
The bible, taken seriously, not literally, still important connection to tradition.
Being open to all people and beliefs - don’t have to adhere to a creed.
Community working together for the betterment of the world.
Worship together - connection
Equality - no hierarchy, pope, bishops.