“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus
Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
You just never know who will come knocking at the door.
On Friday, Deanne and I went to the movies. We saw “True Grit.” Mattie, a 14-year old girl, knocks on the door and rouses the old marshal Rooster Cogburn. Together they form this team of justice and grace. A good movie with deep religious significance – although, of course, I see religious significance in almost everything.
The past two weeks we have all been attentive to those who knocked and refused to leave Tahrir Square until the collective voices of millions of Egyptians were heard and the door to democracy was opened.
Jesus said, “knock and the door will be opened for you… and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened.” (Matt. 7:7,8)
We have just participated in the most precious of sacraments – baptism. Little Lola Rose and Cole Patrick, beloved children for whom Christ died, have come knocking at our door. We have welcomed them for they are Christ’s own. They have entered into a world wide fellowship of peculiar people who trust God. We don’t know what will become of them. Will they be successful and happy? No guarantees. What triumphs will they celebrate, what tragedies will they have to suffer? No clue. They might indeed decide that Christian faith is irrelevant to them – but they have been marked indelibly by us today. Did you hear those words? Claimed by God, freed from sin and death, made members of the church.
You just never know what happens when someone comes knocking at the door.
Some would say that Lola and Cole are living at a very precarious time; it is not a good time to knock on the door of a Presbyterian church. The denomination has lost half its members since the 1970’s; lots more leaving than coming.
Although at Forest Hill we have institutionally declared our intentions to ordain those who have the gifts for ministry no matter sexual orientation – our denomination continues to be divided. And once again, an overture (instigated by our presbytery I believe) is being voted on across our denomination which would change our Book of Order; this time, allowing churches and Presbyteries to ordain women and men who they believe have the gifts and qualities needed to lead the church – regardless of sexual orientation. Do we let folks in who are knocking on the door? More liberal church could ordain. More conservative churches would not be required.
This reasonable solution is causing much consternation. A group of pastors have written a letter to the church entitled “Time for Something New.” And they begin the letter with these words; “Conflict has debilitated the PC(USA)…we believe we will not survive without drastic intervention… the PC(USA) is in trouble on many fronts.”
You know the arguments by now – it is about how we interpret the Bible, how we declare its authority, how we witness to Christ. There are Christians who see this ordination issue as the beginning of the death of the church and who grieve deeply about what seems to be the denial of Biblical teaching and Reformed Theology. And there are some who see this whole issue as the beginning of the death of the church, and they feel fine – for in the crisis is a new beginning, a spiritual re-birth of the Pentecostal freedom. And I am one of those. I, for one, am not that concerned about yet another split in the church, one more schism – the church has been there before.
The author of Acts, we will call him Luke, wrote at a time of great church division. St. Paul wrote letters to churches that were divided on just about everything. Paul realized that unity in Christ does not mean unanimity but the desire to love Jesus. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It is no coincidence that we are reading from Acts 11 this morning. It couldn’t be more timely, more contemporary, more exactly what we need to hear today.
It is no coincidence that Luke places this story of Peter and Cornelius right in the heart of Acts. Luke devotes chapters 10 and 11 – right in the middle of his narrative – to this event when Peter changed his mind about who was in and who was out. Peter catches a glimpse of the largeness of God’s intention. Institutions cannot contain God’s Spirit. The Christian gospel is about extending the boundaries – rules will be broken, expectations will have to change, certainties are shaken, tables are overturned. It all started with a knock on the door.
Peter, the prince of the Apostles, the one hand-picked by Jesus himself to be the rock upon which the church would be built, is having a crisis of faith; he stands at the door not knowing exactly what to do. St. Peter was a Bible believer – he knew well, from his childhood, what the scripture said about Gentiles (not bad people – but not of the promise). Good Bible-believing people, like himself, didn’t eat with Gentiles – it was unclean. Good Bible-believing people, like himself, knew the food laws and there were some foods that you simply did not eat. And so, St. Peter, a good Bible-believer, responds to the voice that comes to him by night to “Get up, Peter, kill and eat,” with the words; “By no means Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
Don’t you just love it when faithful people get holier than God?
Peter’s colleagues, the other “apostles and believers,” would have bolted the door. They criticize Peter’s decision with the eight great words of the church: “We have never done it that way before!” They say: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” What they mean is: “It is not only an unclean thing to do, it is bad for the reputation of the church. It is not according to the Bible.”
And then there is Cornelius, the Gentile, the outsider – and guess what? God is already talking to him; like God needs the church’s permission? The Spirit is already being given to one outside the boundaries; we have seen this before: Ruth, for example. So Cornelius sends three advocates who stand knocking at Peter’s door; they simply won’t go away.
You understand where I am going with this, right? Even though St. Peter is a Bible-believer and he wants to follow the word of God simply, plainly – Peter has this mind-blowing experience – as he is speaking to the three men from Caesarea, maybe treating them as we treat Jehovah’s Witnesses at our doors – the Holy Spirit falls upon them, as Peter says, “just as it fell upon us at the beginning.” Here we are witnessing a mini-Pentecost; a mini-Creation.
Peter challenged the church of his day to re-think how to read what God was doing, how to re-interpret what God intended, how to re-form what the scriptures and confession were teaching for their day. And the essential question that rocked Peter’s world was – what do you do when the Spirit moves and gives gifts, when those who don’t belong are doing the same things you are doing? What do you do when the outsider comes to your door and says “Let me enter!” “Baptize me!” “Let me use my gifts.” “Let me be who I am to the glory of God.” “Ordain me.”
I believe to the core of my Christian being, in all humility – that the lesson seems so powerfully clear: who are we to refuse to accept those to whom the Spirit has been given? Who are we to refuse those who come knocking at our door? Of course we test the spirits – not everyone is called to leadership.
And, of course, there are a few passages of scripture that seem to be clear about particular issues of faithful living. I know that. But we are in that delightful tension that calls us to interpret, to engage with the scripture.
Here is one thing I do when confronted by conflicting scripture passages, and it is as old as the rabbis: interpret the narrow passages by the broader ones, rather than the other way around. The very few verses that even talk about sexual orientation are trumped by this story of Cornelius, by the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, by the words of St. Paul that in Christ Jesus there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. They are trumped by Jesus himself when he said to the question “What is the most important commandment?” – “Love the Lord God with all your heart and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Here is another practical thing to consider, to help frame the argument: The Bible is not just a series of propositions about how you get into heaven. The stories of the Bible are living narratives of faithful people encountering God in real time, wondering what in the world God was doing and then hanging for the ride in trust – that in all things God is sufficient, and God is good, and God is God. That is why we have to engage with the Bible.
So, I am not fearful about this world. I am not fearful about our church’s future. I am not fearful about the present crisis. I am not fearful for Lola and Cole, they will be fine.
This is why I am a Christian, because I believe that the Spirit of Christ is still working out in us, through us, with us, despite us – the unfolding of the greatest story ever told and you and I are actors in it – it is not for us to defend, or kill the living word by clinging to the noose of inerrancy – it is for us to let go of, and take each step with awe and wonder at what God is doing, and work on your own story of faith and tell others about the good news, about the welcome, about the fellowship; about the boundaries being expanded and the door being opened.
It is just the way I see it. I am sure I am not completely right. But I know that I am not completely wrong either. I trust God. I want the bravery of Cornelius to say “why not me?” and to go knock on, maybe even knock down, some doors. I want the bravery of St. Peter who has the grace to open up the door when something bigger is on the doorstep and so I too open it in awe and wonder to see what God is going to do.
It is all about gifts, it’s all about trust.
And as St. Peter himself says: “If the God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
You hear someone knocking on the door? Open it!