May 2, 2010
Commentary by Bruce G.Epperly
See also: [Year C Archive]
Today’s readings integrate diversity and intimacy in light of the unitive power of love, both God’s and our own. A commitment to loving one another, despite our differences, may deliver us from the rampant acrimony that has infected politics and church life. God seeks diversity in non-human and human life, and faithfulness to God calls us to embrace difference, even theological and liturgical, as a gift from God.
The reading from Acts reveals that diversity can lead to schism or to stature. As one my professors Bernard Loomer noted, stature is the ability to embrace as much diversity as possible as a person or community without losing your identity. The reality of stature reminds us that identity is a process and not a static reality. As we embrace more reality, we grow in wisdom and stature, as the scriptures say of Jesus, and become transformed by our embrace. Another professor of mine, John Cobb, refers to this as the process of creative transformation, reflective of Christ’s presence in our lives.
Acts 11 presents a key moment in the life of the church. Will it turn inward and remain a Jewish sect or move outward to become a world faith? The other apostles had good reason to be concerned: they knew deep down that welcoming the Gentiles as equals would change their theology, ritual, and emerging ecclesiology. In fact, the church had already been changed – the mere fact that Gentiles “had also accepted the word of God” already transformed the church’s understanding of salvation and revelation. The new Gentile believers had experienced the “spirit” which spoke from within them, awakening them to their new life in Christ. Narrow doctrinal or ritual faith cannot hinder God’s spirit.
In response to the apostles’ critique of his ministry of hospitality, Peter shares his visionary experience in which, despite his own desire to cling to a narrow understanding of faith, God tells him to “call nothing unclean,” that is, to embrace Gentile believers as full-fledged Christians, beloved by God and open to the gifts of the spirit. The ground of their inclusion is their encounter with God’s spirit. God is working in their lives, too, inspiring and transforming them. Their hunger for meaning has been met by God’s grace. They know the same Christ as the Jerusalem apostles and believers.
The challenge for churches is to critically and creatively embrace diversity. While we need to affirm our identities and theological and ethical points of view, we also need to look for the gifts of other positions. This does not mean that we accept outrageous comments without response: for example, Glenn Beck’s negative comments about churches involved in social justice; Pat Robertson’s identification of 19th century voodoo practices with divine punishment meted out in Haiti’s earthquake; or the racist, violent, and homophobic comments made about congressional representatives by hecklers surrounding the passage of the Health Care Bill. Such theology and discourse is unacceptable within Christian community. Still, we need to respond to diversity with humility, following Reinhold Niebuhr’s dictum, to look for the truth in our neighbor’s falsehood and the falsehood in our truth. Though at the moment, we may believe that Beck, Robertson, and the hecklers have strayed far from God’s embracing love, God is somehow still at work in their lives, calling them to a larger vision, even if this vision may not fully mirror our own.
Psalm 148 describes praise coming from diverse quarters of the planet and the universe – from galaxies and stars, clouds and atmosphere, fish, mammals, whales, weather, wild and domestic animals, and humans. The hopes we have for transformation are not isolated in the universe: the abundant love of God is at work at things, speaking within each breath, inviting each one to rejoice in life. Divine transformation is galactic and personal.
The reading from Revelation describes divine intimacy with humankind. “The home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s people.” God is with us in a healing intimacy – God will wipe every tear, comfort mourners, refresh the thirsty, and put an end to death. These words were good news to persecuted Christians. The challenge for those who preach and hear this passage today is: When will this transformation happen? Is this purely post-mortem? Is there hope to live this out in our lifetime, in which there are too many tears and too much death? Must we wait for the end of the world for justice to be served and cancer cured? All these are appropriate questions for “mortals” and for us today as we ask “where is the resurrection springing forth in our lives?”
Perhaps, the challenge of these questions is for us as church to be resurrection people that is, to embrace our mortality, the reality of death and social evil, but not succumb to hopelessness, fear, or antagonism. This is John’s antidote. We find our fullness as persons, communities, and social change agents when we “love one another.” This is not “cheap love,” but love that seeks to understand and embrace the other, to welcome diversity, and yet to love oneself and affirm the gifts of one’s own and one’s community’s life.
Perhaps, a fitting poem for today’s preacher comes from Edwin Markham, a Disciples of Christ poet living in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
He drew a circle that shut me out -
Rebel, heretic, thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in.
Let us be circle drawers, whose love spirals forth to include and grow by our inclusion in our personal and congregational lives.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education and co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure:41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy:The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry (with Katherine Epperly). This book was just selected Book of the Year byt the Academy of Parish Clergy. He may be contacted for speaking engagements, retreats, and workshops.
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