24 April 2008

Seeking God in the unexpected place, Acts 15:7-21

Throughout the last five weeks of Eastertide the Church has been reading through the book of Acts. We have been following the story of the early church's growing pains, and a learning curve that has been slow and painful going at times. At every turn the disciples and the fledgling church had to come to terms with a God who worked in unexpected and surprising, even scandalous ways.

At first the challenge was to believe that a man they thought was messiah could die. Beyond this they had to come to terms with the fact that in Jesus, a man crucified as a blasphemer, one who therefore died a godless death according to the God-given Law they cherished and honored was actually vindicated by God; he was raised BODILY from the dead and then ascended to sit at God's right hand --- meaning he was present now in power! Believing in the events was one thing, but coming to accept all they implied about God and the way he worked in the world, as well as what these events meant for established traditions and praxis was another whole challenge. All of these events meant that the channels of grace they had treasured and honored were no longer the privileged place where God was to be found. The Law was no longer the privileged Word of God, the Risen and ascended Christ was. No longer was the temple the place where heaven and earth met and God dwelled; the risen and ascended Christ was the new Temple. No longer were the Jews alone to constitute Israel, but instead all who came to Christ IN FAITH and lived in him were the new and extended people of Israel!

It was somewhat analogous to our having another Catholic come to us one day and saying: "God has done a new and unexpected thing in the life and death of so-and-so! As a result, HE is the privileged channel of grace for us now! Our Sacraments have been relativized; they are no longer the privileged way God comes to us, the privileged way he is mediated to us. THIS MAN IS!" It would be a tremendous amount to take in, a lot to get our minds and hearts around --- just as the Christ event and all it implied was a tremendous amount for the early church to get their minds and hearts around. I think we can appreciate the kind of learning curve this would occasion --- and the kind of crisis!!

In today's first reading, we see the church facing such a crisis and coming to the critical point in this process of growth, this learning curve she has been on. Paul and Barnabas have been preaching the gospel to the Gentiles without demanding they take on the burden of the Law and circumcision --- that is, without becoming Jews in the process of conversion. They were allowing Gentiles to become part of the new and extended Israel without becoming Jews!!! In fact, he was insisting that this is what the Gospel of Christ called for! Others of course, in this case the pharisaic party of the community of believers, insisted otherwise and were harrassing the Gentile Christians with all kinds of demands Paul considered anti-Gospel! So Paul and Barnabas came to Jerusalem to resolve the issue, and what we have in today's readings is Luke's account of that event.

An image central to today's first reading is that God has purified the hearts of the Gentile Christians. What Luke is doing here in this reference to purification is calling to mind the tearing of the temple veil and noting that the boundary or wall between sacred and profane has been torn asunder. Peter's speech cannot be heard without also hearing echoes of the dream he had back in chapter 10 where a large sheet or sail is lowered and all kinds of animals are contained in it, both clean and unclean, and Peter is told to eat from it. Horrified Peter refuses, but is told essentially, "What I have rendered clean (what I have purified), don't you dare call unclean!! What I have made sacred, you do not call profane!"

And this is the final thing the early Christian had to get their minds around in terms of the Christ event, not only that he who was crucified has been raised and vindicated by God, but that through his death, resurrection, and ascension, the boundary between sacred and profane has been torn asunder. In Christ God entered into the realms of sin and death and transformed them with his presence. As a result, he is found in the unexpected place, the place where he once could NEVER have been found. In terms of today's reading, he is found active and powerfully present in the Gentiles, and he is so apart from the Law, apart from the temple system, apart from all those things which were sacred and once the privileged mediators of the sacred! Salvation comes to everyone equally and in the same way, through faith in Jesus Christ!! Through faith ALONE, not through law and temple, not involving circumcision!!

And of course, some Jewish Christians found it hard to affirm this original instance of "Through faith alone!" They demanded the imposition of the whole Law and circumcision to the Gentile Christians. But we know how the story ends: after long debates and listening to accounts of God's work among the Gentiles it was decided not to impose these demands, to allow them to be part of the new Israel without also becoming Jews! And as we hear from Jame's speech, a few conditions were applied, but minimally and just enough to insure that Jewish and Gentile Christians could come together around the table of the Lord. Jewish Christians compromised by letting go of Traditions and interpretations of Scripture they treasured, and Gentile Christans were asked to refrain from anything smacking of, or touching upon idolatry --- all so they could all comfortably come together around the Lord's table and share in covenant fellowship! It was an astounding and inspiring resolution.

Several things about today's reading struck me, especially regarding how this fledgling church faced and resolved the crisis.

First, despite (and through) all the arguing and debating, this is an inclusive church seeking to do all she can to bring about legitimate unity and fellowship. She is not trying to exclude people from table or covenant fellowship. She is seeking to find ways to make it happen, and in doing so she compromises; she lets go of treasured traditions and reinterprets Scripture in light of what God has done outside her visible or accepted boundaries. Secondly, she is a discerning church. She is concerned with seeing where GOD is at work, not with defining where he CANNOT be at work, cannot be found. She looks for him in the unexpected place because that is what the Christ event teaches her to do. Thirdly, she is a docile Church, willing to be taught by those outside her accepted or visible boundaries. In today's reading the heart of the Gospel --- that salvation comes to all by faith, and that God works in the same way among all people --- is re-taught to this church by Gentiles. And fourthly, therefore, she is a humble and obedient Church, one who listens for God's voice and submits herself to it, no matter how unexpected the place it comes from, and no matter how difficult that may be.

The challenge today's first reading present us with is immense. We must be the kind of people who constitute THIS KIND OF CHURCH: intentionally inclusive in a seach for legitimate unity, discerning of the God who comes to us in the unexpected place, the unexpected person, the unexpected religion, etc, and docile: willing to be taught by those we thought could NOT teach us, willing to humbly listen to and submit to the Word of God however it comes to us. The veil between sacred and profane has been torn asunder by Christ's life, death and resurrection. He comes to us now bodily raised and present in the power of the Holy Spirit --- a spirit that "blows where she will"! As a result, we MUST BE a people who seeks God and allows ourselves to find him (and be found by him!) in the unexpected place, and not merely through the accepted and privileged channels of grace we know so well --- no matter the cost. This is the God today's first reading proclaims and the challenge it sets before us!