How do you know a real Christian?
A sermon on Acts 11: 1-18 by Nathan Nettleton, 14 May 1995
God breaks down all social barriers and differentiates between us on love alone.
As strange as it may seem, I hope that this church can be one that attracts a lot of criticism and causes a lot of controversy. I hope we will be the kind of church that is frequently denounced as irreligious, scandalous and to be avoided at all costs. I hope there are arguments over whether we should be kicked out of the Baptist Union. I hope that people write to the Witness or condemn us at the Baptist Union Assembly saying that we are only popular because we have sold out to evil and are driven by demons.
Now before you think I have a death wish for myself and the church, let me explain. It is not that I like being hated, criticized and abused. It is that I have a passionate desire to see us being radically faithful followers of Jesus Christ, and if we are doing that we will attract a lot of controversy and abuse. The Christ we follow was called blasphemous, irreligious, scandalous, libertarian, demonized, and a threat to public order and national security. Those who will truly follow him can expect no less.
This story is impossible to make any sense of unless you have at least a little understanding of Jewish religious history and Jewish religious customs. They are what the argument in the story is over. Peter is accused of defying important customs and thereby putting the integrity of their religion at risk, and he has to defend himself against those charges.
Let me try to briefly explain why these customs were so important to the Jewish people. In the history of Israel, going back to the most ancient times, the Jews have always been living in a multi-cultural society where their religion and culture were practised along side others. And frequently they have been under the thumb of some other nation, first Egypt, then Assyria, then Babylon, then Persia, then Greece, then Rome, and recently Germany. They have had several long periods of exile from the land of Israel.
They are the only minority ethnic group in the world who have managed to maintain their culture and religion through such a history. Every other similar group has been gradually assimilated into the dominant cultures until nothing distinctive remained.
There is a reason for this cultural survival.When the Jews went into exile in Babylon about six hundred years before the time of Jesus, they knew that it was a major threat to their identity, so they set about putting in place some customs and social laws that would mark them off from other people and keep them distinctive. These customs fell into four main areas and you don't have to have much contact with Jews even now to be aware of them, two and a half thousand years later. Can you tell me what they are?
- Sabbath keeping, very strict about what you can and can't do on a Saturday.
- Food laws, have you noticed that they have to have separate butchers and chicken shops?
- Circumcision, not so obvious to the outsider, but a permanent reminder to the owner of the penis.
- marriage and social contact laws, especially eating with others.
Now all these things seem a little strange to us, but they worked. They served as the boundary markers between one group of people, the Jews, and everybody else. And any group that wants to survive has to protect its boundary markers, the things that keep it distinctive. For the Jews, these boundary marking practices became deeply ingrained in the psyche. For a Jew it became unimaginable to eat foods that were considered unclean, that were outside the law. You've all heard about Jewish attitudes to pork or ham. It's not just pig meat, there is a whole range of them, and to a good Jew the thought of eating them would not only be a threat to identity, but it would probably be nauseating.
So if we go back to our story, you can see why Peter was so resistant when he was told in a dream to eat unclean animals. The idea was abhorrent to the core of his being. He would have felt that the ground would open up and swallow him, or a lightening bolt would strike him down or something if he did it. But the voice of God tells him, If God says it's clean, who are you to say otherwise. Don't call it profane if God says it's good. Even with instruction from God, it took three times before Peter would eat.
And the next day he discovers that God was preparing him for something. The next day he receives an invitation to dinner in the home of gentile people, who the customs said he couldn't eat with. They wanted to hear about God from him. So having been prepared in the dream, he didn't have the conscience battle now and he went. But when he got back to the church council at Jerusalem, they had a problem with it, and Peter is called to account for his outrageous scandalous behaviour. People think he's sold out and abandoned his faith. They think he's behaved in a grossly offensive and irreligious manner. And Peter has to explain that God is changing the rules. The times are a changing. So where are we in all this?
One way of describing the history of the church is as one long struggle over the boundary markers. Who's in and who's out. Pretty much every major dispute in the story of the church, and there's' been some doosies, has been about whether certain beliefs or certain behaviours meant you were un-Christian or not. Some of the earliest of those fights in the Christian church happened while the New Testament was still being written and you can see some of them being fought out in the Bible.
Can you think of what some of the ones that get a guernsey in the Bible are? The reading before will give you a clue to at least one.
- Keeping Jewish Law.
- Relationship between wealth & poverty.
- private property.
- Jesus, human or spirit.
Others were fought out in the major Church councils of the first few centuries. Things like the importance of believing the doctrine of the trinity were argued over endlessly. The protestant reformation was a major spat over who was in and who was out and how you came to get in or out. In recent centuries we've had some really big ones. In America there was a long running war about whether a slave could be accepted in the church, and then as slavery was recognized as the evil it was there was an argument over whether a slave owner could be accepted in the church.
In the last thirty years there have been some more fights over where the boundary markers are; over what sort of person or what sort of behaviour would put you inside or outside the community of faith. What are some of the ones you can think of? I know a few where even here in this group, some of them have snuck up on people. What have been some of the arguments?
- smoking and drinking
- dancing and movie watching.
Now let me put it to you that at each of these disputes as we have broken down another barrier, we have in fact become more Christian, and that we need to be constantly vigilant that we are not putting up new ones. And we need to be constantly listening to the voices of anyone who feels alienated form us or excluded by us to see whether we in fact have some barriers up that we were unaware of.
The Christ we have chosen to follow was, more than anything else, on about inclusiveness. His message was that anyone can be close to God and accepted by God, and that those who had been most excluded by social and religious customs were most welcome. If you read the gospels, you will find that the things that Jesus was repeatedly in trouble over, and that he was eventually executed because of, were mainly about this. Either he was associating with and accepting people who had been previously excluded, or he was allowing people to behave in ways that would have previously had them kicked out of the community.
And his practice of accepting people and advocating acceptance doesn't seem to have been as conditional as we often think. Certainly Jesus was someone who advocated repentance and change and growth. But he doesn't seem to have ever made it a condition of acceptance. Jesus is accused of partying with prostitutes and sinners, not ex-prostitutes and ex-sinners. And in one particular argument with some religious leaders who were specialists in deciding who to keep out, he said that the prostitutes and tax-collectors were going into the Kingdom of God before them. And once again he didn't say repentant ex-prostitutes. He was saying that a person who is still involved in prostitution has a better chance of being accepted by God than a pious religious leader who is too judgmental and condemning.
The gospels contain story after story of Jesus welcoming and accepting people who had been pushed aside by church and society. Prostitutes, tax collectors, publicans, the blind and disabled, the mentally ill, the foreigners. Again and again every boundary is pushed back or broken down. Were women excluded from participating in religious life? Jesus welcomes them into his circle of disciples. Were those of other races considered second rate to the chosen people? Jesus goes to them to preach about acceptance by God. Were children considered nobodies in the community? Jesus welcomed them and said the Kingdom of God belonged to them and those like them.
If you want to find words of condemnation from Jesus, words where he says someone is putting themselves beyond God's acceptance, you can find them, but who are they for? What do you reckon? (The religiously exclusive and oppressive and the economically exclusive and oppressive.)
Now if all these laws and customs functioned as boundary markers and were about maintaining the identity of the community, you can see why Jesus was unpopular. You can also ask the question what is going to distinguish the community. If we follow Jesus in breaking down all the boundaries how will we know who is Christian and who isn't, who is part of God's family and who's not. These are hot potatoes. I had a youth leader once who told me how when he was a teenager he had taken a Christian girl out in the days when many Christians still thought going to movies was a sin. And when he arrived at her place to pick her up she and her father were both in tears and having a terrible argument about whether she could go out to a movie or not. And in desperation the father said, But if we Christians start going to movies there'll be no difference between us and the world. Now it sound's crazy to us now, but it was a clear boundary marker to him, and he needed to know where the markers were. If they're all gone, who are we? The same fear worried many around Jesus as he dismantled all the boundaries. What distinguishes us?
When we are male and female, black and white, rich and poor, celibate and promiscuous, perfumed and smelly, smart and retarded, old and young, beautiful and disfigured, temperate and beer swilling, homo and hetero, sane and psycho, serious and joyous, dressed to the nines and dishevelled, professional and welfare dependent, clean living and drug addicted, carnivorous and vegetarian; who are we? How are we distinguished from those who haven't responded to the grace of God?
And Jesus gives just one answer, and one only. Love one another. As I have loved you, so you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. That's it. There is no other distinguishing feature that is not directly related to that. Yes we are a people of justice, we are a people of mercy, we are a people of compassion. All that is love in action. Love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. This is the boundary marker. Any other boundary marker that is not directly related to this is not Christian.
And so Peter when he reported back to the church council at Jerusalem had to say, I know these people were supposed to be outsiders based on all we had ever known, but God was clearly at work among them, and if God accepts them and they accept God, then I reckon the rest of us better get out of the way and let God's will be done.
There is no other distinction. Jesus said, By their fruit you will know them. If the fruit is love, then the are living in response to the Spirit of God, because God is love. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.