At Thursday Night’s Common Ground we began with these words of welcome:
Good evening everyone and welcome to Common Ground.
Tonight, as we cook and eat and pray and sing together we hope to make some thing holy together. We hope to make church together, which connects beautifully to our theme for this evening, because the truth is that church has always been something we have made together. Christianity has always been a work in progress.
Contrary to popular institutional opinion, there was no blueprint handed down to a chosen few the day Jesus ascended into heaven. There was no instruction booklet left behind with all the rules and creeds and rituals and traditions of our faith laid out for all time.
What was given, what was handed down to us, were stories…stories of hope and healing, stories of peace and reconciliation, stories that included commands like:
“do not judge,”
“forgive as you have been forgiven,”
“love one another as I have loved you.”
The central question for those who would follow Jesus was and will always be, how best to do that. And so, from the very beginning of our faith, our ancestors wrestled with the same tensions and questions we wrestle with now:
How do we create religious community that is both clearly defined and yet welcoming of all.
Can our identity as a Christians be used to help create common ground with others, or does identifying as Christian – or strongly identifying as anything for that matter – automatically require that we exclude or alienate or in some way devalue others?
Is the very idea of Common Ground even possible? or as Anne McKinnon put it so beautifully: “Is there Safe Space at the Open Table?”
And then after dinner we segued into our Scripture and sermon for the evening….
I want to begin tonight by telling you a story from the book of Acts.
The story begins in Caesarea, in the home of a Roman Centurion by the name of Cornelius, who by all account is a good man who loves God and is generous with the poor. He’s just minding his business when, at 3:00 in the afternoon, an angel appears and tells him to send to the town of Joppa for a man named Peter. So Cornelius sends two of his slaves to find this man Peter.
Meanwhile, over in Joppa, Peter is just hanging out, praying on the roof of his friend Simon’s house, when low and behold he has a vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven upon which writhe snakes and birds and all sorts of decidedly un-kosher animals, and a voice tells him to “Get up, kill, and eat.” Peter, being Peter, refuses. He begins to argue with God. “By no means Lord;” he says, “for I have never eaten anything profane or unclean.” The voice says, “What God has made clean do not declare profane.” But Peter refuses again. This happens a total of 3 times and then the sheet drifts back up to heaven.
While Peter is sitting there confused, a knock comes at the door. The slaves have arrived to bring Peter to Cornelius. The Spirit tells Peter to go with them and so he sets out with them the next day and makes the journey all the way to Caesarea. When he gets to the door, he says, “You know as well as I do that it’s unlawful for me, a Jew, to associate with you a gentile, but I think God has just shown me that that’s not the way things ought to be anymore, so I’m here.” Cornelius has assembled his whole household and he asks Peter to teach them. “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right., and then Peter tells them all about Jesus. The whole assembly believes and receives the gift of tongues and Peter baptizes them there on the spot. But, when Peter get back to Joppa, to all the Jewish followers of Jesus, they’re upset. “How could you go and be with them, eat with them, accept their hospitality and baptize them? Peter tells them the whole story and says two really interesting things. “The Spirit told me to go (to them) and not make a distinction between them and us.” “If God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who was I to hinder God?”
“Who was I to hinder God?
Throughout the stories of the early church there is this move toward radical inclusion, which really shouldn’t surprise us when we think back to the stories of Jesus. Just as Jesus was always looking to reach out with healing and hope to outsiders, we encounter stories like this one about Peter and Cornelius, or Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, or the most famous convert of all, Paul. He begins the book of Acts hell bent on terrorizing and wiping out the followers of Jesus, but upon his conversion, even Paul is welcomed into the fold.
There is this move toward radical acceptance that seems to capture and embody the Spirit of Jesus, and at the very same time there is still something, at least in the writings of his earliest followers, that resists this impulse. For every universalist verse you can find about God loving all and accepting all, there are at least as many about who is in and who is out.
Some might see that as contradictions within these scriptures, but I love that idea we encountered in Brian McLaren’s “Great Spiritual Migration,” that the inconsistencies we encounter in the Bible aren’t contradictions so much as contractions – the natural side effect of people laboring to understand and grow toward a God is who is always just ahead of us, always pulling us toward a more generous and loving way of being in the world
The first disciples struggled mightily to try and figure out was was essential and unique to their new faith even as they struggled to discern what rules and traditions and values they could leave behind. And it was hard and it was messy and they didn’t always get it right, anymore than we do. In large part because we humans seem to be instinctively tribal. We crave labels and boundaries and clarity.
Which is why following Jesus is so complicated because he has a tendency to bust through those walls the moment we erect them. Jesus seemed intent on giving us tools to rise above our tribal impulses… to see everyone- even our enemies – as our neighbors. “As Peter learned in his encounter with Cornelius, the Spirit wants to break down walls of prejudice and hostility so that we stop judging us as clean and them as unclean…” It’s a move Paul encapsulates so beautifully in Galatians when he says that now: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
But if we’re not this and we’re not that, than what are we? What does it mean to all be one in Christ Jesus, and is there a way to acknowledge that oneness that doesn’t itself become a marker of who is in and who is out?
I find myself going round and round with these questions. Identity feels like both a gift and a trap to me. It’s a precious thing to finally find our tribe, our people, the ones who think like we do. But too often that sense of belonging comes at the cost of rejecting those who don’t think like we do. It’s as if in order for us to be us, we need others who are clearly not us to be a them, and we all know how dangerous that can be.
At the same time, what we believe matters. What makes us unique is important. So often, in our attempt to be more welcoming or accepting of people of other religions we feel the need to water down or be less specific about our own doctrines or theology. But what if, at least in the context of Christianity, this is a fundamental mis-reading and misunderstanding of what our faith was intended to be?
Given the pluralistic world we live in, I think it is high time we revisited old doctrines, rituals, and scriptures and ask if the us vs. them interpretations we inherited are accurate or if our doctrines and rituals can be re-interpreted and redeemed in such way that they don’t loose their power but gain even more power to help heal the world?
Let’s take communion, for example.
Many of us inherited an understanding of the eucharist – literally the good gift – that is colored by the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Very briefly, there is the idea that God is equal parts just and loving. Because we have all sinned, God in his justice must punish us to appease his wrath. But because God is also loving, He sent Jesus to bear the consequences of our sin for us on the cross.
Thus Christians – those who confess belief in Jesus saving work on the cross- are saved – covered by the blood of the lamb – and will escape the punishment we all deserve…. yay team! Unfortunately, this idea leaves the rest of humanity up a creek… still subject to the wrath of God, outside of God’s grace and mercy and by extension not particularly deserving of our grace and mercy either.
Those who believe in Jesus and this understanding of the eucharist are welcome at the table to re-enact this incredible sacrifice that was made on our behalf, and those who don’t believe should have no part in it any more than they will have a part in our salvation. Notice that there’s a very clear us in this scenario and a very clear them. A very clear sense of who is welcome and included and who is not.
But what if that’s not only a fundamental misunderstanding of what Jesus was doing on the cross but also what Jesus was doing at this table? What if what Jesus was trying to show us all along is that God is not angry? What if this table was meant to be – not a symbol of a sacrifice to appease an angry God, but the sign of a God who will eat with anyone no matter what their transgression because God loves us and forgives us already?
Perhaps, when Jesus said, “do this in remembrance of me,” what he really wanted us to remember was that he broke bread with one who would betray him, one who would deny him, and 12 who would abandon him before the night was over?
If God could love someone like Peter, if Jesus could break bread and wash the feet of someone like Judas, perhaps there is no one beyond the reach of God’s love and forgiveness and therefore nothing to stop us from loving and forgiving all people either?
So I’ve come to see this bread and wine that we break and share as a sign of the kingdom, a sign that in God’s commonwealth, everyone – no matter what – is welcome at this table and no one should be sent away hungry.
We practice open communion and welcome all to this table, not in spite of the fact that we are Christian, but because as Christians we are trying to emulate and remember the radical love and forgiveness Jesus demonstrated at this table. To paraphrase Peter, we are trying not to hinder God.
And communion is just one piece of the puzzle.
What are some of the other beliefs, traditions, or rituals you think we need to re-examine or re-consider?
As a community what work do we need to do to make this a safe place for all?
In what ways do we inadvertently hinder God?
How do we create religious community that is both clearly defined and yet welcoming of all.
And we closed with this excerpt from a recent post by John Pavlovitz:
“The Kind of Christian I Refuse to Be.”
“In this day and age, with so many high profile Christians in the public sphere behaving in decidedly un-christlike ways I have a choice… (I can) abandon the idea of claiming Christ altogether to avoid being deemed hateful by association in the eyes of so much of the watching world—or (I can) reclaim the name Christian so that it once again replicates the love of Jesus in the world.
I am trying to do the latter.
Yes, I am a Christian, but there is a Christian I refuse to be.
I refuse to be a Christian who lives in fear of people who look or speak or worship differently than I do.
I refuse to be a Christian who believes that God blesses America more than God so loves the world.
I refuse to be a Christian who uses the Bible to perpetuate individual or systemic bigotry, racism, or sexism.
I refuse to be a Christian who treasures allegiance to a flag or a country or a political party, above emulating Jesus.
I refuse to be a Christian who is reluctant to call-out the words of hateful preachers, venomous politicians, and mean-spirited pew sitters, in the name of keeping Christian unity.
I refuse to be a Christian who tolerates a global Church where all people are not openly welcomed, fully celebrated, and equally cared for.
I refuse to be a Christian who speaks always with holy war rhetoric about an encroaching enemy horde that must be rallied against and defeated.
I refuse to be a Christian who is generous with damnation and stingy with Grace.
I refuse to be a Christian who can’t see the image of God in people of every color, every religious tradition, every sexual orientation.
I refuse to be a Christian who demands that others believe what I believe or live as
I live or profess what I profess.
I refuse to be a Christian who sees the world in a hopeless spiral downward and can only condemn it or withdraw from it.
I refuse to be a Christian devoid of the character of Jesus; his humility, his compassion, his smallness, his gentleness with people’s wounds, his attention to the poor and the forgotten and the marginalized, his intolerance for religious hypocrisy, his clear expression of the love of God.
I refuse to be a Christian unless it means I live as a person of hospitality, of healing, of redemption, of justice, of expectation-defying Grace, of counterintuitive love. These are non-negotiables.
Yes, it is much more difficult to say it these days than it has ever been, but I still do say it.
I am still a Christian—but I refuse to be one without Jesus.