Disciples TogetherPosted: May 1, 2016
SLIDE 3: NO GENTILES
The early Jesus movement faced multiple issues as they tried to discern their way into a new future challenging the Roman Empire. With the historical Jesus no longer among them, where could the followers of the Way find the spiritual guidance they needed to advance the “Jesus Movement?” In the book of the Acts of the Apostles Luke offers us a glimpse of some of the methods of discernment employed by the early leaders of the Christian Community.
One of the first challenges was over the status of gentiles in the “Jesus Movement.” All of the first members of the early church were Jews — no gentiles allowed. In order to become a Christian they believed it was first necessary to become a Jew including the ritual of circumcision for adult males — a requirement that limited the community’s growth. But as the movement grew they could not ignore the presence of people referred to as “God Fearers” in the synagogues of the Empire. “God Fearers,” were non-Jews who attached themselves to synagogues, because they admired the monotheistic teaching of Judaism, and the strong emphasis upon the relationship between ethics and spirituality in Jewish thought. In many synagogues God Fears were major contributors to the financial well being of the community. For instance in Capernaum the headquarters of the Jesus ministry during his life time a Centurion, a gentile, had contributed a major portion of the funds used in building the synagogue in the town.
SLIDE 4: PETER’S VISION
But how was the early church going to include God Fearers in the life of the Jesus Movement? Peter was wrestling with this problem one afternoon, when he laid down to take a rest in the seaside town of Jaffa before dinner. The air was warm, the sea breeze was cool and refreshing as he began to fall asleep — most of us know what it is like to be at the shore. And then in a dream Peter was confronted by a strange even disturbing vision. Coming down from heaven was a sheet of canvas, and on that sail were laid out all kinds of non-kosher foods — things, as a good Jew, Peter had never eaten — lobster, shrimp, baby back ribs, pastrami and cheese on rye, country fried steak with milk gravy, bacon! And in this dream God was saying, “You are hungry Peter, eat!”
But poor Peter could only reply, “Lord, God forbid, I’ve never eaten any of this stuff!” And with that the sail with all of the food disappeared.
SLIDE 5: COINCIDENCE OR SYNCHRONICITY
But as Peter continued his nap, the sail came down again, and God said, “Peter, if you are hungry, go ahead and eat!” And at that moment Peter woke up, because down below knocking at the front door, was a Roman soldier asking to see Peter! Now normally, this was not a good sign, a Roman soldier at your door, but bucking up his courage, Peter went down stairs. The soldier asked Peter to accompany him from Jaffa to Caesarea to meet his commander Centurion Cornelius, a God Fearer, who and a vision from God to seek out Peter. With some fear and trepidation Peter traveled to Caesarea and ended up baptizing Cornelius and all of his family and friends, the first gentile converts to the way of Jesus. Peter’s baptism of Cornelius and his household became the first expression of our core belief, no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.
SLIDE 6: GOD AT WORK UNDERNEATH THE SURFACE
Now we are reviewing this story about Peter and our scripture about Paul expanding the Jesus mission into Europe, because both of these saints of the church were trying to discern their way forward into new and uncharted territory. They were boldly going where Judaism and the early church had never gone before by seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit. They were listening to dreams, visions, learning to trust hunches and recognizing that sometimes coincidence is synchronicity — God at work underneath the surface of events.
SLIDE 7: LIVING THE WAY OF JESUS
As followers of Jesus today we are entering into a new world, where the church, and other human expressions of spirituality, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, have never gone before. Some commentators have written about entering into a Post-Christian era in the United States. I would prefer to talk about a Post-Constantinan era in which Christian symbols are no longer the established cultural expression of spirituality in our world. In some ways the demise of “cultural Christianity” is a blessing for people who actually want to follow the Way of Jesus. Rather than focusing on beliefs about Jesus we are now challenged to live the way of Jesus as misfit communities of faith seeking to embrace the Commonwealth of God in our world today.
SLIDE 8: SUBSTANTIAL COMMON GROUND
In the words of Eric Elnes in his book the Gifts of the Dark Wood: We are discovering a substantial foundation of common ground between adherents of many faiths. Even though the framing beliefs of these diverse communities remain distinct from one another, their core values are looking increasingly similar. While members of these communities claim to feel more Christian, Muslim or Jewish than ever, they are also looking more like one another than ever before. They show strong evidence of responding to the same Spirit, who is fostering similar core values within the differing beliefs that frame these values.
SLIDE 9: TRUSTING THE PROMPTINGS OF THE SPIRIT
When we move forward into the uncharted territory of the Post-Constantinian age as a misfit community of faith, we will have to learn to trust the promptings of the Holy Spirit. But how do we seek to follow the leading of the Spirit as a community of Faith?
SLIDE 10: LISTEN
First, listen! The voice of the Spirit is usually a still small voice that can only be heard, when we are quiet. Group silent prayer is not an easy discipline. We tend to squirm and become uncomfortable in the silence, and then someone coughs, or wiggles in their seat, and we think we have to say something. Be still and know that God is God.
SLIDE 11: HOLY SPIRIT CAN SPEAK THROUGH LEAST LIKELY MEMBER
Listening also means acknowledging that the Holy Spirit most of the time does not speak through those who are the loudest or most frequent contributors to the conversation. God often does not speak through the acknowledged leadership of the community, but rather the divine voice will often come from the least likely member of the community in the form of a simple word or phrase that says more than the clouds of words that are produced by those of us who are more verbal.
SLIDE 12: TEAM APPROACH
Listening also means learning a team approach to discernment. Teams of individuals who come together to work on an issue because they feel “called” to seek a way forward are most often more effective than established committees and structures who see themselves as gate keepers. So often in the life of the church, if we want to kill an idea, give it to a committee, who then has to get permission from two other boards, who then have to take a plan to a governing council for approval. Mentoring, team building and group discernment are the skills we need to find our way forward into the uncharted territory of spirituality in our culture.
SLIDE 13: COURAGE
Besides listening we have to have courage. Again and again as we are confronted with new challenges of faith, we will be asking ourselves, “What would you do if you were not afraid?” We cannot just fall back on tradition or the way we have always done it before, because we are boldly going where religious institutions have never gone before.
SLIDE 14: PERMISSION GIVING — FAILURE FORGIVING
So, we need to become a permission giving community. We need to be willing to say, “Yes,” even if a plan might fail. If you have ever gone fishing you know the more lines you put in the water, the greater the likelihood of success. When we pursue multiple programs, we do so knowing that some of them will fail, but that is the price of find the one or two lines of endeavor that will succeed. As an organization we have to be permission giving and failure forgiving.
SLIDE 15: WE ALREADY KNOW THE ANSWERS
I don’t want to emphasize the negative, but allow me to mention three common attitudes that prevent communities of faith from listening and following the Holy Spirit. The first is we often think we already know the answers. When we believe we already have the answers, then there is no room to be surprised by the Spirit. When the Holy Spirit calls a community to move forward, it is usually in some risky, unexpected way. Whether it is embracing “Open and Affirming,” building a Labyrinth, making mission a priority, like Peter and Paul the Spirit calls us to take risks and do new things.
SLIDE 16: TRUST DREAMS AND VISIONS
Second like Peter and Paul we have to learn to trust dreams and visions. I can just imagine Peter going before the Council of Jerusalem and explaining to all the “stand patters,” why he trusted his vision of the sheet with the non-kosher food and the coincidence of the messenger showing up from Cornelius as justification for baptizing a whole household of gentiles. Again and again we will hear the no nonsense rule keepers complain that we cannot trust things like dreams and visions. And like Peter and Paul we will have to keep insisting that the Holy Spirit calls us forth in new and unexpected ways, and what would we do if we weren’t afraid!
SLIDE 17: WE DON’T HAVE THE RESOURCES
Finally, we will have to resist the last defense of the “we’ve never done it that way before” crowd — we don’t have the resources. One reason why churches are always broke is do we can claim we don’t have the resources. Oh God, we would like to do that new, exciting, innovative ministry you are calling us to do, but we just don’t have the resources! Friends, we have the resources, we just haven’t given them yet. Think about it. God has indeed called us to be disciples together following the way of Jesus. If we are faithful and truly seek to listen and follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit some way, somehow we will find the resources.