A message given Sunday, May 6, 2007
by The Rev. Scott Summerville
We human beings are creatures of habit. We like the fact that the sun rises in the morning and sets at night. We like comfortable routines. We take pleasure in eating our favorite foods. We are comforted by watching our favorite television shows and movies. We like to settle in to our favorite music. We think our favorite thoughts over and over. When our habits and our comfortable routines are disrupted, we are not happy; we resist.
For many of us coming to church and the activities that we engage in as part of the church provide us with comfort and with reassuring routines. Suggesting change in a congregation can stir up a hornet’s nest, because we may experience change in the church as a threat to the sacred rhythms of our being.
Churches tend not to change as rapidly as the rest of the world. Churches preserve things over time.
The songs on the radio change every few weeks. Television shows and movies change rapidly with shifting tastes and preferences of the viewers. The rhythms of the Church and the pace of change in the church take place much more slowly.
We may think of the Church as a place of preservation and tradition, but when we read in the New Testament about the beginnings of the Church, we see that the Church was at first perceived as disruptive and revolutionary and dangerous.
In the Book of Acts, which is one of our most important sources for looking at the very beginnings of the Church, we hear that the early Christian preachers and teachers were referred to as, “those people who have turned the world up side down.” Those people who have turned the world upside down. Jesus was a Jew; Peter and Paul were Jews; all of the first circle of Jesus’ disciples were Jews; initially the church was a Jewish movement. But as the church became established the great majority of the Jews saw Jesus’ followers as a threat to their deepest and most sacred traditions.
The followers of Jesus were introducing ideas and practices that were unheard of in more than a thousand years of Jewish life. For centuries Jewish people had defined their very existence by the practices that separated them from other peoples. Following the commandments of God they practiced the circumcision of males; they followed strict dietary requirements; and they had hundreds of specific ritual practices that define them as Jews and distinguished them from those who were not Jews. Their identity was that of a people set apart from all other people. Within a short time after the death and resurrection of Jesus a stunning thing happened. Spearheaded by a man named Paul, the Christians turned to the non-Jews, to the Gentiles, to seek converts. Peter and Paul clashed over this issue; the question was, does a Christian have to be a Jew first before being a Christian? Some of the first Church leaders said yes, to be a Christian one must observe the traditions of our ancestors: circumcision, kosher dietary requirements, and strictly regulated social interaction with those who do not do these things. Paul said no, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.
You may think that being a Christian provides for your life a comfortable and reassuring rhythm and routine, but I assure you that was not the way the Christian message was heard originally. To the great majority of the Jews in the time of Peter and Paul the Christian message was nothing short of an attempt to turn the world upside down.
What was the most outrageous, the most absurd, the most disruptive thing you could say to a Jew –
to these people who had suffered so long to hold on to their traditions? The most outrageous, the most absurd, the most disruptive thing you could say to a Jew would be: “There is no more Jew and Gentile; the two are one.” The first Christians asked people to accept nothing less than a world turned upside down.
No wonder our New Testament – the Gospels, the Book of Acts, and the letters to the apostles – are filled with so much conflict! We are creatures of habit. When our familiar and comforting routines are threatened, especially our sacred practices, we seldom react calmly.
This is a piece of history that Christians need to be aware of and to ponder. The Christian message and the Christian movement were experienced at the start as something deeply disruptive to tradition. Most people do not appreciate having their world turned upside down. In the reading from the book of The Book of Acts today, chapter 11, we find Peter himself going through a wrenching transformation. He was pulled in two directions powerfully: on one hand he was a Jew, and everything in his being rooted him in his Jewishness; he believed that the practices of the Jews should be a requirement for those Gentiles who would become followers of Jesus. On the other hand he was coming into contact with non-Jewish believers in Jesus; he was being invited to eat with them; he was invited into the fellowship of Christ with those who were not circumcised. This was the primal sign of Jewishness, a sign commanded by God ages ago.
In the 11th chapter of the book of acts Peter has a powerful experience; he has a breakthrough. It comes in a trance. In the trance he has a vision. Later he reports: “I saw something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.”
He goes on to say that he received divine instruction to eat with Gentiles – with non-Jews – and to make no distinction between his Jewish sisters and brothers and the Gentile followers of Jesus. For Peter the world had been turned upside down.
We assume that other people should be able to change quickly, to give up their ideas, to give up their traditions. But none of us gives up our ideas and our traditions easily, without resistance, without pain.
I am mindful today of two issues that confront us. One is the issue that confronts all of humanity. It is an issue that we resist because it feels like our world is being turned upside down. Ever since human beings evolved upon this earth, all those thousands of years, our species has made the world adapt to us. Right now, in this very time in which we live, we are being asked to shift our consciousness in a way that is unprecedented in the whole span of our history as a species on this planet. We are asked to think of ourselves as a living part of the earth – we are being asked to adapt ourselves to the rhythms of earth, after thousands upon thousands of years of asking earth to adapt to us.
Our survival depends upon this great shift in our brains. We are being asked to think of our human life in its connection to the entire web of life. We are being pushed to acknowledge that we are not, as our ancestors assumed, lords and masters of this earth; we are children of this earth, vulnerable children of this planet. We must think and act in brand new ways. We who are creatures of habit – we who are so comforted by the familiar – we who enjoy thinking over and again the same thoughts – we are challenged to change. Our minds – at least for those of us who are of a certain age – our minds are so set in the habits of the past, that we cannot quite believe or take in this new understanding of Earth and humanity. We say the words, but we have only begun to comprehend this shift in perspective.
I remind us today that there was a time when Christians were willing to turn the world upside down; they were willing to have their thinking so transformed that all things were seen in a new light. Realizing this may help us to live and to cope in this time of profound change.
I said that there were two issues before us: one the issue facing humanity globally, the other an issue facing the church. We have the story today of Peter: his trance, his vision, his breakthrough Before this breakthrough he could not imagine eating with and having full fellowship with a Gentile –
even a Gentile Christian – he could not imagine eating in any other way than his ancestors had eaten.
After the vision he has a whole new understanding of humanity. Peter comes out of his trance willing to have his world turned upside down and to be part of a movement where Jews and Gentiles break bread together.
There is a obvious parallel with the struggles the church is going through today in relation to the movement for full inclusion of gay, lesbian and transgendered people in the life of the Church. To some this movement seems natural and refreshing and good. For some people the reaction to these efforts is deeply disturbing in a visceral and intense way.
To me and those who are involved in the M.I.N.D. (Methodists in New Directions) organization in our annual conference, calling the church to full equality and inclusiveness feels like the Holy Spirit’s call in this moment to the church – a call to liberation and a call to live out of Jesus’ basic message to love one another, and an expression of Paul’s declaration that in Christ there are no distinctions.
To other individuals it does not feel the same way at all. What one person sees as justice and equality feels deeply threatening to other people. It feels to them like the overturning of the traditions of their ancestors, the forsaking of established truths; it feels like the world is being turned upside down. That is where we find ourselves. We live in an age in which the world as we have understood it is being turned upside down, and the church itself is divided over a new challenge to change.
So fasten your seatbelts friends; as we ride the whirlwinds of change. In the midst of it all, hold fast to Jesus’ demand that we love one another. We don’t have to always love each others’ opinions; but we can love one another. In the end we are all in the same boat; we are all creatures of the same earth
and children of the one God.
Grace and peace to you