January 19, 2020

Let’s Take a Walk
Epiphany 2, Year A
Becky Robbins-Penniman


What are you looking for? This is THE human question. At one level or another, every person I know or know of is looking for something. Hungry people are looking for food, endangered people are looking for safety, suffering people are looking for comfort, lonely people are looking for companionship.

In our psalm today, a person near death is looking for God to restore life. In the reading from Acts, foreigners have been looking for faith. In the gospel reading, John, Andrew and another disciple were looking for the Messiah of Israel. How wonderful that at the same time, Isaiah tells us that God, too, is looking: God is looking for the entirety of humanity, all the nations to the end of the earth.

Now, I’d think that if we’re basically all looking for the same thing, we’d have found each other by now. Needless to say, that has not happened. Why not? The clue comes from the reading from Acts. In the Book of Acts, James is the head of a council of leaders in the brand-new Christian church in Jerusalem. At this point in the life of the church, nearly 100% of the Christians in Jerusalem were Jewish. But outside Jerusalem, it was a different story.

Paul had been gadding about the middle east preaching not only to Jews but to heathens, pagans and other assorted riff-raff about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and how they were included in God’s grace. He baptized these people. Shocking. And, more to the point, it was against the rules.

The rules. For 5,000 years, humanity has found the need for rules to organize our common life. The idea that no person, not even a king, is above the law is a hallmark of true civilization. It’s a very good thing. BUT, ideals and practice have a way of getting muddled. With systems of rules, sooner or later the rules start favoring one side over another. Israel went from ten basic commandments anyone could agree with to 613 Mosaic laws that gave Israel its identity: those who followed them were IN, and their demanding stringency kept the riff-raff OUT. Indeed, the very gate of the mighty Temple in Jerusalem had this inscription: No other-born [a foreigner, a non-Jew] is to enter the Temple upon penalty of death.

But there’s Paul, baptizing the non-Jewish foreign riff-raff and claiming they are equal before God with the law-following Jewish Christians. This will not do. One side wants a new rule: before anyone can become a Christian, they must become Jews, be circumcised, commit to follow all those rules. The other side thinks making Gentiles follow the rules empties the Cross of Christ of its power. To settle matters, there’s a hearing before the elders. (We’re having a hearing in our country right now. As I have said so many times: today’s headlines in a 2,000-year-old book.)

James, the chief elder, listens to one side, to Paul and Barnabas, talk about signs and wonders, about how the power of God’s Holy Spirit is present in their work among the riff-raff. James also listens to the other side, accusers who complain that signs and wonders or not, everyone needs to follow all the rules because they were instituted by Moses, and are the essence of belonging to God’s chosen people. James then listens to Peter, the rock on which the church is built, (“Cephas” is an Aramaic word, and “Peter” is a Greek word; both mean “rock) who, as we heard last week in Acts 10:34-43, said God shows no partiality of one group over another. Both have their merits, both were valid ways of being Christians. This was a third side.

James also reads his Bible, the same one with those hundreds of laws but also with the promises of the prophets, and he finds this gem from the prophet Amos, who said almost 800 before Jesus was born that all the Gentiles belong to God. Plus, I suspect, James looked at the life of Jesus, a life he knew first hand. He remembered how Jesus had all kinds of disciples, fishermen and businessmen, patriots and revolutionaries, hotheads and poets, men and women. These things together persuade James that “all Gentiles” means “all.” James goes for the third side and blows the doors off of the tidy private club of the church in Jerusalem.

James declares: Don’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God. Another way of translating this is: Don’t cause trouble for others who are seeking God. Paul picks up his staff and goes for a walk, one that took him all over the known world of that time, to tell those outsiders that God is seeking them to give them life, hope, and healing – in other words, salvation. James’ wise decision brought peace at first, but humans are funny. We keep wanting to create rules and shut those church doors. Why? because we are afraid of people who are different from us. We fear the unknown. We want to know who is IN and who is OUT. We want to feel safe more than we want to share God’s grace…

For the full sermon text, click HERE.

Watch the 10 AM service live: