Borders, Bridges, & Bodies – The Seduction of Segregation

Rev. Donnell T. Wyche – October 11, 2020

We are continuing in our sermon series: Borders, Bridges, and Bodies as we follow Paul and his companions through missionary journeys in the book of Acts to introduce the story of Jesus in various cross-cultural settings.

Paul’s answer to the divisive differences between human bodies and the power dynamics of culture, gender, government, and money is the bloody, disconcerting, riot-inducing reality that in the radical welcome of Jesus’ crucified and resurrected body everyone, anyone, who believes in him is set free from every sin (cf Acts 13:38-39).

At the end of Acts 14, Paul was stoned, left for dead, before being restored by the community of disciples who prayed and worshipped as God.

So, Paul and Barnabas return from their missionary journey back to their home church community in Syrian Antioch. From here they receive emissaries from Judea, who have a clear word and message: if the Gentile come into the faith they will lead us hurling towards idolatry because that is their way.

“Unless you are circumcised (which was a sign of the covenant), according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. (Acts 15:1-2)

What’s at work here in this message from these emissaries?

Fear. There’s a fear that without a bounded set we don’t have an identity anymore. There’s value for and attachment to easy “borders” that mark (in this case, male) bodies as being in or out. There’s reverence for tradition and an assurance that if God’s law was good for our ancestors and us, it’s good for them too. God is doing something new, so they may also be experiencing shame and discomfort to be breaking rules they inherited. Then everything is in flux, which leads to competing interpretations, and competing interpretations on where Jesus stood on these issues.

But, remember what Paul said quoting Habakkuk 1:5:

41“ ‘Look, you scoffers,

wonder and perish,

for I am going to do something in your days

that you would never believe,

even if someone told you.’”

That’s what’s in the way, our limited imagination. But God through the Holy Spirit is at work doing a new thing.

19See, I am doing a new thing! (The prophet Isaiah writes)

Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

I am making a way in the wilderness

and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43:19)

What’s the new thin that God is doing? Tearing down barriers. Inviting those outside, in. Speaking a new word. And Luke, the author of Luke-Acts is trying to capture this new move of God. He’s trying to capture the tensions around submitting to and being obedient to the Spirit that draws us into God’s desire to commune with us and creation.

2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. (Acts 15:2)

Paul and Barnabas were in sharp dispute and debate with them, the scripture says. We don’t get a lot of insight into the debate, how long it lasted, and or the emotions that I am sure ran high. We know that Paul and Barnabas have been preaching the Word to both Jew and Gentile with varying success. Some Jewish believers would convert, some Gentile. But the emissaries message is clear: if you join this movement, you have to convert to it.

I would say this is about HOW to belong more than who gets to belong. No one is saying the gentiles can’t join the church, just they have to join on jewish terms. To some extent this is a debate about the line between culture and religion/morality—is Jewish culture inherently more pleasing to God, and Gentile culture inherently idolatrous? And after centuries of holding an inescapable either/or distinction between Jews and Gentiles, it seems impossible for at least one group not to have to give up their identity. There is no common ground or grey area. Seems very sticky to sort out in theory, but since Holy Spirit has crossed these borders so freely that settled it pretty good for those who were sorting it out in practice.

The in-group has the upper hand and that’s what we seeing here. These are our traditions, you are welcome to join our movement, as long as you don’t change anything. If you are in the out-group, it can feel like you are being asked to give up your identity in order to participate.

What’s at stake in this debate? Belonging. It’s not that the Gentile believers cannot join the church, it’s how do you belong. Does your belonging also require a shedding of your identity? We can understand this debate because it’s a distinction between culture and religion/morality. There are those who believe that the Jewish approach is more pleasing to God, the Gentiles less so. The emissaries showed up with this clear vision of the risk, if we let these Gentiles believers into the faith they will lead us to idolatry.

If you have been around the church for a long time you may have been caught up in a similar debate about which instruments are pleasing to God in worship. Are drums allowed? How about a strong bass line? The message here is clear, there’s no both/and, just either/or. It’s a high stakes debate because both sides feel that they are being asked to give up their identity.

But Paul and Barnabas know what these emissaries don’t. God is at work and Paul and Barnabas are barely keeping up. Every time they show up, preach the Gospel, the Spirit meets them. Then the Kingdom breaks in with healings, deliverances, and transformations, with hope. Paul and Barnabas debate. In their debate they don’t otherize these emissaries. They just want them to know what they know. That the Kingdom is breaking out everywhere they go.

Another observation is who is missing from the debate. It’s not clear from Luke’s account here whether the new Gentile believers are involved in this debate on what it means to belong.

This is a key oversight.

The Gentiles are there, but not there, spoken about but not spoken with. As Willie James Jennings says in commentary on Acts, “This is a scene of the Gentile-in-theory, not the Gentile-in-reality in conversation, in reciprocal and mutual interaction.” There is a danger as we cast vision for those we are welcoming that our pragmatic approach can blind us and allow us to normalize the absent voice of those we hope to reach.

I’ve been processing this as Black families have left our church. We are a diverse church. But we also ask a lot of those who coming in from the outside. There is a cost. As the country started to polarize more and more, things we thought we held in common where being challenged, day after day, week after week, some of the new Black families, scheduled meetings with me. They were meeting with me to break-up with the church. As we met in my office, in coffee shops, or over meals at my table they told me a familiar story. It’s become too hard to stay connected here at the Vineyard. Our Black families reported the increasing fear that someone they were sharing communion with might tell a racist joke or someone would say something that would be insensitive or offensive forcing these families to confront the offense. They also reported that their cultural needs were being met at the church. They reported having to give up too much for the promised of the multi-ethnic church. Let me tell you, these stories of pain, and a lack of belonging, broke my heart. In most of these conversations, I just cried. I couldn’t promise them things would be better. All I could do was listen, and grieve. It’s not just happening at our church, the NY Times did a feature article about the Quiet Exodus of Blacks from White Evangelical Churches. At the end of the day, these families were asking if we would validate their lived experience in a racialized country. Would we validate their pain, sorrow, oppression, and suffering?

I think this is why we see Paul and Barnabas spending considerable time with the community they are preaching in. They are translating the hope, and restoration of the Gospel into the context of these communities. People who have struggled with belonging, with purpose, when they feel seen, heard, and loved, they open up. They open themselves to hope–a better vision of the world. This is why entire cities are being converted. Not just a person, a family, but an entire community because that what the Gospel unleashes: a reordering. Something new.

What would the emissaries have learned had they created space to hear the testimony, the witness, the transformation, of these new Gentile believers? How would these testimonies have shaped and impacted what they read in scripture. How would these Gentile believers have taught these emissaries about God that was hidden from them because they never had to ask the question of whether they belonged?

Would the clear message that circumcision is required for how to belong, would that hold up? What would the Gentile believers have to teach the emissaries about God? About community? About humanization? What would the emissaries learn about the dangers of turning bodies into objects?

So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.(Acts 15:2-4)

Paul and Barnabas realize quickly that the debates aren’t getting them anyways, so they tell stories instead. Story of the in-breaking Kingdom looks like among the Gentiles. This forces the Jewish Christians who are struggling with identity tied to circumcision to reimagine how to belong. Paul and his companions introduce the activity and indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a new identity marker for the community, and that got people excited. It activates imaginations and creates a sense of continuity in the work God has always been doing rather than this being a break from it.

Peter catches the vision and rises to offer this,

7After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:7-11)

As the debate occurs, let me note: no one is demonized for having a different opinion, a different belief. A deep commitment to their identity marker. And because they were committed to each other and the Holy Spirit, no one left the fellowship. No one was cast as evil.

There are times in the New Testament when someone gets kicked out of church for profiting off others or willfully misleading. But here in Acts 15, it seems like when people disagree while remaining “in the arena” together, there’s no logic to kicking people out to get to consensus about who belongs.

Instead, they put aside their differences for the sake of God’s preexisting and unstoppable work.  When God has chosen someone to belong, we can’t say we’re speaking for God when we reject them. We honor others in the Body of Christ by de-centering ourselves and centering Jesus instead.

There is the rub. Are we willing to decenter ourselves for the sake of joining God’s pre-existing and unstoppable work? Are willing to sit together in discomfort, so that we might learn from others? Are we willing to partner? Are we willing to validate as real the pain, suffering, and oppression of those around us? Are we willing to give up our belief that we are right and they (who ever they are) are wrong?

There is so much at stake when the Gospel is preached. Acts 15 reveals the seduction of segregation. Here at the birth of the multiethnic church something is in the way, our differences, but these differences don’t invite God’s anger or wrath, instead our differences welcome God’s delight. “Finally, you see what I’m doing. I’m revealing the mystery of creation, each of you reveals who I am, and I am bringing you together in the name of my son, Jesus, I’m creating something new, something you wouldn’t believe, even if I told you so. So, will you plunge into this adventure with me. Will you lay aside what’s in the way that you might realize my vision, all of the family members I’m inviting. The prophets have been nudging you on this path, revealing that I am your God, I am the God of the Gentiles too. These differences aren’t in the way, they reveal the way, a deeper and richer communion with divine life.” God asks,  “Will you join me?”

So, James, the brother of Jesus and a leader of the church in Jerusalem writes,

28It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements… (Acts 15:28)

So Acts 15 asks, “Will we love just our own people, insisting on centering our story?” Or “Will we join the Spirit in God’s preexisting and unstoppable work creating a love that creates a people?”

If so, friends, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to come.

Come and forgive us.

Come and lead us.

Come and discipline us.

Come and empower us.

So, we can join God already at work!