Friday, May 15, 2009

Sermon: 6 Pascha/ 6 Easter (17 May 2009)

Sermon: 6 Pascha/6 Easter (17 May 2009)
(Acts 10:44-48/Psalm 98/1 John 5:1-6/John 15:9-17)
Who’s In / Who’s Out

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

The reading from Acts 10 confronts the church with the challenging topic of inclusion, a topic surrounded with much heat and little light in the modern church. Miscommunication is more likely than understanding, in part because not everything that should be said can be said in the limited time available in sermon or lesson. Clarity depends largely upon shared history and a hermeneutic of trust in the church, and also upon the opportunity for give-and-take.

I have chosen not to preach from Acts 10, but rather to teach from it and to lead a discussion on this important issue for the church. What follows, then, is a very truncated summary of some of the issues we will address on this sixth Sunday of Pascha. I offer it simply to encourage your own thought and exploration of Scripture and the faith and practice of the church as we continue to announce to the whole world the good news that Christ is risen.

You notice an advertisement for a church – perhaps on a billboard, or in the newspaper religion section, or in the Yellow Pages – it makes little difference where, but you notice an advertisement that reads:

An Inclusive Faith Community

Now, clearly, code words are being used in the advertisement, particularly “inclusive faith community.” What are we intended to hear in those code words?

If our ears are attuned to current concerns – the past twenty years or so – we likely hear inclusive faith community as “GLBT accepting and affirming.” Saint Somebody’s probably welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons, affirms their sexuality, and incorporates them fully into the life and leadership of the church. Of course, there is a spectrum of belief and practice among inclusive churches, but I think this fairly captures the intent of the words as I’ve seen them used.

But, forty years ago, the debate in the mainline churches was not over accepting and affirming gays and lesbians; rather, it concerned the role of women in the life and leadership of the church: 1974 was a turning point and marked the beginning of female ordinations to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. For a few years following, “inclusive faith community” might well have meant accepting and affirming of female ministry and leadership. Context and timing are everything, aren’t they?

Go back even farther into the earliest decades of my childhood in the south, particularly the 1960s. A hypothetical Baptist church in Mississippi or Alabama with a sign outside proclaiming it “an inclusive faith community” – though they would not have used those words – would have been making a bold and dangerous racial statement: Negroes are welcome here and are accepted as brothers and sisters in Christ. I still remember as a child listening to the “old men” – my grandfather among them – standing on the church steps between Sunday School and Preachin’ debate what we should do if a Negro showed up at our church. I’m not proud of some of the discussion – at least as I remember it – but those were very different times and it is perhaps not fair to judge them by our modern perspectives.

We could go back farther, still, to the infancy of the church, to the first century. James, bishop of Jerusalem and brother of our Lord, admonished the church to be an inclusive faith community. What did he mean? Welcome and include the poor.

2My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors (James 2:1-9, NRSV).

I mention these few examples – and many others could be cited from throughout the church’s history – merely to show that inclusion has always been a difficult issue for the church. We grapple – as did our fathers and mothers in the faith – with fundamental questions: (1) To whom is the Gospel accessible? and (2) What are the requirements for and the limits of Christian fellowship?

In the first reading appointed for this sixth Sunday of Pascha (Acts 10:44-48) Peter is confronted with these very questions as he finds himself addressing a roomful of gentiles in the home of the God-fearing, Roman Centurion, Cornelius. (Acts 10 details how God arranged this meeting for Peter.) As Peter proclaims the Gospel to these gentiles – really an unthinkable act just days earlier – the Holy Spirit fills them in a second Pentecost not unlike the first one in Jerusalem. God has spoken: first in the Great Commission, next in Peter’s vision in Joppa, and now in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Do not call unclean what I have cleansed. While the Gospel is the fulfillment of the Jewish Law and Covenants, it is now accessible to all people, to all nations. Through Abraham and his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

It is there is the Psalm.

98 Cantate Domino

1 Sing to the Lord a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.

2 With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.

3 The Lord has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in
the sight of the nations.

4 He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to
the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the
victory of our God.

5 Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.

6 Sing to the Lord with the harp, *
with the harp and the voice of song.

7 With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the Lord.

8 Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.

9 Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,
when he comes to judge the earth.

10 In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.

Sing to the Lord a new song. Why? Because in Jesus he has done a new and marvelous thing, and the old songs won’t do to describe it and to sing God’s praise for it. With his right hand and holy arm he has won the victory and has made it known in the sight of all nations. His mercy and faithfulness to Israel He has now extended to the ends of the earth.

To whom is the Gospel accessible? For whom is it intended? For Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female, white and Negro, gay and straight – for all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, for all whom the Lord our God shall call. In light of Pascha we have great, good news: Christos anesti! Alithos anesti! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. He has conquered sin, death, and hell. He has inaugurated the Kingdom of God and has begun to put all things to rights. He has reconciled man to God and incorporated man – male and female – into the divine life. And he has done so on behalf of all and for all.

But to say that the Gospel is intended for everyone is not to say enough. We must also say that, if the Gospel is for everyone, then it is for everyone in the same way. Just as there is no distinction in who may come to the Gospel, there is no distinction in how we must come to the Gospel. The way of inclusion is the way of faith, repentance, baptism, and conversion. Writing an explanation and defense (apology) of Christian faith and practice in the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr gave the parameters for Eucharistic fellowship:

And this food is called among us Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined (Justin Marty, First Apology, Ch. 66).

All may be included in the Gospel, but only those are included who share the faith once for all delivered to the saints, who change the direction and focus of their lives, who die to sin and rise to new life in Christ through baptism, and who walk the path of life-long conversion, living as Christ himself and as Christ through his body the church has taught.

The church is and always must be an inclusive faith community in these two ways: that it offers the Gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone – no exceptions, and that it requires from everyone faith, repentance, baptism, and conversion – no exceptions.

Thanks be to God for his mercy and faithfulness, for his victory which has gone out into all the earth. Amen.

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