Thursday, May 18, 2006

Scandalous! - Lectionary Thoughts for Easter Six

In Acts 10:45, when Luke notes that the Holy Spirit was poured out “even on the Gentiles,” he is emphasizing the shocking inclusivity of the Gospel. The notion that God’s grace would be available to someone other than the chosen people was scandalous. Yet Peter taught them that it would be wrong to withhold baptism from these people whom God has so scandalously chosen to include in the circle. Later (Acts 11:18), this is confirmed when the church leaders in Jerusalem accept the reality of the Spirit’s inclusiveness.

The practical implication is, we need to be very careful about excluding others.

But Jesus excluded others, didn’t he? I remember him saying somewhere that only he was the way to get to God, right?

When Jesus said, “I am the way,” that is what he meant. Him – and only him. I have no problem whatsoever saying “Jesus is the way.” But Jesus did not meant that Andy Bryan’s way is the way to God or that Jerry Johnston’s way is the way to God or anyone else’s way other than Christ himself. How dare we try to limit who Jesus is by saying that only OUR way is the way! How dare we use Jesus as the bouncer at the door of the Divine Discothèque (idea from Donald Miller?). When we say, “You can’t come into our club because you are not doing things Jesus’ way,” we are presuming that our way and Jesus’ way are one and the same, and that is a very big presumption to make.

So as far as it depends on me, I err on the side of inclusiveness.

So, you are just saying “anything goes” – whatever anyone does or thinks or says is okay no matter what?

No. Inclusiveness does not mean “anything goes.” I have never met anyone who thinks that “anything goes.” Even people who may say “anything goes” do not think that everything goes. For me, hatred, violence, prejudice, greed, reality television, etc. most definitely do not “go.” When I see these things, I am going to speak out against them.

But my speaking out is conditional, based only on my limited, fallible, “in a glass darkly” kind of knowledge of God as revealed to me in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. All I can say is, “I believe that my way is as close to Jesus’ way as I can get at this time in this place.” I would never dream of equating my way directly with Jesus’ way objectively and for all time. How could I possibly know that? That kind of knowledge is the venue of God, not me.

There are enough stories in the Bible (Acts 10 – 11 included) in which the lead characters are scandalized by how broadly God’s grace extends, that I simply cannot try to narrow it’s scope in any way. It is always amazing, shocking, and even scandalous to witness the power of God’s grace at work. And when I see it, I can either respond like the Pharisees did with Jesus or the believers did with Peter – either refuse to acknowledge it and militantly defend my personal perspective as the only option or shake my head in amazement and accept the undeniable truth that God’s ways are mysterious and wonderful to behold.

And Gentiles are thankful, because we are the ones who have been included. Relationship with God is a covenant, and it is a relationship that was not offered to Gentiles first. It belonged to the Hebrew people long before we ever came on the scene. How important is it to understand that when Peter’s peers say, “Even on the Gentiles?” they are talking about US! It was the Jews that God chose to be in covenant with, and we have access to this relationship only through the person of Jesus. If God’s grace was not scandalously inclusive, we ourselves would be excluded from it.

John 15 reminds disciples that we were chosen by Christ, and not the other way around. It is Christ’s job to do the choosing, not ours. To try to choose on behalf of Christ is to limit the scandalously inclusive power of God. Ours is but to simply let God be God, while we do our best to be God’s children.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Andy. Maybe I am just hearing this how I want to hear it, but I really NEEDED to hear it. Everyone is such a fun word to say, and excluding others takes a lot of energy that could be better spent doing something positive for the world. Again, thanks.

Shelly :)!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the previous post -- maybe I'm just hearing what I want to hear. I'm looking forward to Sunday's sermon where I am sure you will have more to say on the subject.

One member of your wonderful congregation!!!!!

BruceA said...

I am reminded of this passage:

John said to Him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward.
- Mark 9:38-41

Even the first followers of Jesus had trouble understanding the call to inclusiveness.

Michael said...

It could not have been better stated, Andy. And Shelly's perspective is extremely profound. Imagine the energy we WASTE.

Anonymous said...

Who decides "what goes and does not go?" If what goes for me doesn't "go" for you, and what "goes" for you doesn't "go" for me, then we both have a problem. I think we should let the Bible define what goes and doesn't go for us. As far a excluding others, there are some things that the Bible says do not "go" in the life of a Christian and they need to be paid attention to, but like you, I think it is the job of the judge of the harvest to decide who the wheat and tares are.

stephanie said...

<<<< I would never dream of equating my way directly with Jesus’ way objectively and for all time. How could I possibly know that? That kind of knowledge is the venue of God, not me. >>>>>

While I agree with much of your post, I would also add (in reference to the above quote) that we should seek out that knowledge. We should chase after the truth of what God's way is.

It's easy to exclude, isn't it? I find myself doing it - sometimes just to make myself feel better and more important than others. Jesus never did that, so shame on me.

Kansas Bob said...

Great post Andy. It is a sad fact that many in the church today want to call down fire on those that are different. I am glad that Jesus came to save and not judge.

Larry B said...

Thought provoking post and thanks for the opportunity to comment on it. For what it's worth, I think the idea of scandalous inclusion is a mistaken notion we bring to the scriptures because of the current debate about inclusivity for all that has been defined by our own Bishops. In my opinion the Bishops define inclusivity as the absence of exclusion. (Which is - in a logical sense - not a definition.) So in this context when someone reads a passage like this and sees "inclusion" they then infer that this supports the no exclusion idea.

If I understand the context of these texts correctly, what is "surprising" to the persons listed here is that the outsiders (ie gentiles, etc) had not converted to judaism before following Christ's way. Their fundamental question isn't that the gentiles can never be included, but that following of Christ's way would have been a result of a conversion to judaism first.

Judaism is often cited as an exclusionary religion and yet it is entirely not so. Some Christians often characterize it as such to build a case that Christ was a "radical inclusionist" when compared to his own people. Yet if I remember my Jewish history correctly, Ruth, the mother of King David whom Jesus descended from, was not born Jewish, but she was a converted Jew. The idea of inclusion was not foreign to Jewish people and was an important part of their history. Their messianic view is that they will be the bringers of peace to all peoples on the earth. That is a very inclusionistic vision.

So returning to the passages in question, sure it was surprising to these Jewish people that the Holy Spirit had come by a different route, but it wasn't nearly as radical as some would have us believe.

What is mostly inferred from these passages, and I think this what Andy is getting at, is that there are very few if any conditions to this inclusion. However if you look at the rest of the story, you'll find that later Peter has backslidden from the intial stance that gentiles can be fully included without conversion to Judaism, and Paul has to confront him about this when Paul comes to the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. The result of this is that the "radical inclusion" turns out to be a conditional inclusion which hinges around only a small portion of the Torah, citing a few chapters from Leviticus. Paul later enforces these ideas by telling the church in Corinth to expel the immoral brother who violates the commandments that were deemed inviolate by the Jerusalem council.

Thus, I woudl disagree that we cannot establish boundaries and limits to the inclusiveness of the church. There is clear scriptural teaching and examples given on what constitutes separation from the church as well as the idea of what constitutes inclusion in the church.

Long post - thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Larry B.
Now that was an excellent post! Scholarship trumps dogma, at least with some of us.

Seamhead said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Seamhead said...

United Methodism has already decided that Paul is wrong about some things. In an instance like this one where he contradicts himself it seems even more import to err on the side of inclusion.

Larry B said...

Seamhead, you offer an interesting generalization - one I had not heard before. I'm not aware of any proclamation by the Methodist Church proper that states that Paul is wrong about any particular subject.

I do know of people within the Church who hold the opinion that Paul is wrong and it is a common opinion among activist groups advocating particular causes. For example if you read transcripts from the recently held Hearts on Fire conference, which was held as a conference for Methodist people, you will find Methodist speakers who discuss their interpretations of Pauline writings as incorrect and misguided. They most often refer to Paul as a misogynist. That, in my opinion, is an experiential interpretation of scripture.

As far as I know, these are not official Methodist views, but the views of a specific person. Just as anything I posted should be considered a personal view to be compared against official Methodist doctrine to ascertain it's veracity.

It is assertions like yours that point to what I think is the fundamental divide deepening in the Church. For those who put other factors above scripture and use those other factors to interpret scripture, their understanding of how we should live as Christians will never agree with someone who places Scripture as the prime factor for understanding and using scripture to interpret experience.

Consequently arguments develop such as the one you posit where you claim Paul contradicts himself because you experience inclusiveness as a prime value and therefore scripture should conform to the inclusive ideal or be considered wrong if it doesn't.

However, I draw the conclusion that I see no contradictions in scripture and find the contradictions with a claim that inclusiveness is without any forms of exclusion or if there are exclusions we can't know them.

It's an intractable argument because we are approaching from totally different standpoints.