Billy B. was seven or eight to our ten or eleven. We spent most spring Saturdays at the Little League field. Sometime during the day we’d have our game, the rest of the day was spent goofing off, snacking, playing a pick-up game. That’s where Billy B. came in – he was usually the only one with a bat and ball. So he had to play!
The other thing we all remembered about Billy B. was his temper-tantrums. If he got out, or struck out, or got mad for who knows what reason, he would cry and threaten to take his bat and ball and go home. It was quite a sight to see a dozen or so older boys pleading, begging, cajoling Billy to stay. Usually it meant some form of rule bending in his favor.
I’ve thought a lot about Billy B lately. It seems everywhere we look folks are getting mad and threatening to leave something, or take their proverbial bat and ball out of the game, so they can’t be used. Often it seems because they don’t get their way or don’t like a point of view.
So we are engaging more and more only with people who think like us, look like us, and believe like us. More and more we shy away from the other, the different one. It is a phenomenon known as tribalism. Tribalism allows us to avoid the difficulty of having to engage with the other.
In telling the story of the early church, Luke shares stories of a budding church with growing pains, trying things out, rejecting what did not work and seeking ways to move on. He also writes of a struggle over tribalism as the church worked out the nature of its mission.
“But then some men came down from Judea…” With that Luke interrupts the joy and peace of Paul’s first gentile mission with a story that threatens to fracture the whole endeavor. The issue is whether gentile converts should be circumcised and become Jews before they become Christians.
Yet instead of fighting, pulling up stakes and splitting the church, church leaders called for a council to debate and discern God’s way for them. The story of the Jerusalem Council is a model for the church today discussing, thinking, praying, over decisions that are difficult, painful and cause no small amount of dissension.
As in one of our frequent divides today, you can even see in this debate perceived liberals and conservatives. Paul and Barnabas are the progressives seemingly lobbying for a new way. The folks from Judea, lobbying for circumcision, conservative reactionaries. Before the council meets, Paul even calls them “false brothers” (Gal. 2:4).
That’s always the way, isn’t it? To reduce our complex arguments, debates and divides to simple definitions, labels, allowing us to easily demonize and dehumanize the other. This more easily allow us to justify taking our proverbial bat and ball home.
The reality of the Jerusalem Council, however, is that both sides were certain of the mission to the gentiles. Both sides knew from Genesis that Israel’s covenant included blessing to all the families of the earth. To date the sign of that covenant was circumcision, something Jesus himself had participated in. Without circumcision, how could a gentile possibly participate in the blessings promised to the covenant community? In short, how could, they be saved? That’s what they struggled with, not racial exclusion, but covenant inclusion.
To sort this dilemma out, they hold the council. As they debate, they discern, in Luke’s telling, that Jesus has separated salvation from the Torah, yet this inclusivity is tempered by Christian love to consider the sensibilities of Jewish Christians. In effect, they discern a new way to interpret the sign of the covenant. Gentiles are included, with the request to observe four things, not to eat meat sacrificed to pagan gods, abstain from incestuous marriages, eat no meat strangled and abstain from partaking of blood. These were the same restrictions set in Leviticus for non-Jews to be welcomed at table with Jews. Through discernment, discussion, and faith, this new way was found to have all at the table. At the Table of the Lord, we gentiles continue to be guests of a Jewish host.
Like the Jerusalem Council, many of you are aware that our session leadership has entered a season of discernment over two significant issues: how to effectively steward for God’s ministry a gracious gift of $494,000 and how to respond if we were to receive a request to hold a same-sex marriage on our campus.
As we wonder in amazement at the graciousness of a single person’s generosity do we invest in debt reduction, our property or ways to enhance our discipleship.
The Commonwealth of Virginia and the Book Of Order have opened the door for congregations to host same-sex marriages. It is up to each individual session to discern whether they will do that or not.
These are complex and ongoing discussions and as with the Jerusalem council, the discussion must be allowed to work itself out trusting God’s presence, particularly with the elders, our session. Yet like the upset folks in the church in Antioch, folks here have offered initial response to these discussions, some by saying if the church does this or does that, I’ll leave. When that is our first line of rationale for faithful action, we are concerned about numbers and pleasing opinion not trusting God or being faithful disciples.
Christian friends, regardless of how either of these discussions resolve, that is the way of the world, not the way of the faithful. It has become all too easy to label one with differing views of faith as unfaithful. We are constantly tempted to divide and separate. I implore you to resist such wilderness temptation.
Jesuit Richard Rohr notes: “Jesus was consistently inclusive. There is no time in scripture when Jesus intentionally excluded someone or separated someone. He will name their relationships honestly and correctly, but he never creates “in groups” and “out groups.” And almost every time Jesus sat at table to eat, he seems to be eating with the wrong people, at the wrong table, saying the wrong thing, saying something others disagree with and not washing his hands ahead of time.”
As we gather this day around the table of the Lord, we model for the world a different way, Jesus’ way, that all are included, those who look and think like us, and those diametrically opposed to us. Here there are to be conservatives such as the Judeans, and progressives like Paul and Barnabas.
The Book of Order tells us that “coming to the Lord’s Table the faithful are actively to seek reconciliation in every instance of conflict or division between them and their neighbor…and each time (we) gather (we) commit ourselves afresh to love and serve God, one another and our neighbor in the world.”
Theologian B.A Gerrish notes that when we gather around this table and the bread and the cup are extended to us they are to be seen as life-giving nourishment that seals and confirms the promise of Christ for us, it is food for our souls. Nourished around the table then, we find the fullest expression of connection with Christ and with one another. Here there is two-fold self-offering: Christ gives himself to his people and we in turn present ourselves as a living sacrifice to God.
This table, the table of the Lord, Jesus’ table, beckons all, all of us, and all of “them.” That is the only way we can fulfill Jesus’ invitation to the table, to dine with all. Won’t you share, together, in the bread and the cup, from this day forward?