Narrative Lectionary, Year C
The disciples are determining the purpose of their congregation. Is it to make Gentiles (Greek, Roman, any non-Jewish believer) into Jews? Or is it to take people of all stripes who are prepared to act in the name of Jesus and to move forward and out in faith? The purpose might seem clear to us, but it was as fraught a discussion as we occasionally find in congregations and in denominations today. This is the first synod assembly (so to speak) recorded in the early church and they have real issues on their hands.
They have to determine the boundaries of God’s grace and the marks of the recipients of that grace. They are trying to respect the traditions and history of those gathered, history that is part of how God’s work and presence in the world has been revealed. The disciples are also trying to understand the exponential pace at which the Spirit is bringing people into faith.
In this critical time, they are trying to determine how to tell who is included and what is required of those who say they believe? Should they be brought into the community of faith via circumcision, the sign of one of God’s earlier covenants with Israel? Are there dietary restrictions or certain worship rites? How will the new believers show their dedication to the Way of Jesus?
How do we know who has received God’s grace? If there are no visible physical markers, perhaps there are markers in one’s life. Surely a person who is especially blessed has received God’s grace. After all, we hear that phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I” applied to people for whom we have sympathy, who are struggling in some way. When the nuance of that phrase is unpacked, it reveals that if God’s grace has kept us from a certain circumstance, then any unfortunate suffering soul is clearly without God’s grace. There, but for the grace of God… implies that there are places and people that are without God’s grace. And we can tell because of how they are suffering.
The family that can’t receive food stamps (SNAP) because they are a few dollars over the income limit… The woman or man who makes the choice to sell sex because it seems easier than other options… The person who gets hurt or killed on a trail you’ve hiked many times… The person who gets caught in a bad spot that you went through only minutes before… The person who took the flight that crashed, but you just missed… The person who dies from suicide, a desperation you’ve felt before… The person who dies from complications of a surgery that you sailed through…
There, but for the grace of God… except were any of these people without God’s grace? Would we dare, would we presume to say that God did not care about these people? That God’s Spirit was withdrawn from them? That they were forsaken? Either the grace of God is open and expansive and all-encompassing… or God is capricious and malevolent and extends mercy to a select few (who can live into very exacting standards).
We want to believe the former- in a gracious God. And yet we live in a world that acts on the latter premise- that God’s favor is spotty. If it was expansive, why would there be suffering in the world? And then the worst of both beliefs- that God’s grace is for all, but you have to reach a state by pulling yourself to it.
This is precisely the problem that Peter points out in Acts, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
We are specifically warned against testing God’s grace through judging our neighbors circumstances. Specifically warned against believing that a person’s struggling, suffering, pain, or despair is reflective of God’s opinion of them. There is only one way to show that we are not testing the grace of God. We trust in grace and so we act upon it. God’s work in our hands… God’s grace in our actions… God’s mercy in our words and deeds.
By trusting in God’s faithfulness, as revealed in Jesus, we are brought into the same river of faithful action that swept up the first disciples. The grace of God extends to all, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. In the community of the Way of Jesus, here and elsewhere, we preach the love of God for all and we practice it with one another. Then we carry it out to the world that wants to believe that physical health, financial well-being, and mental stability are the obvious markers of God’s grace, when any of these things may fail. There, but for the grace of God… goes no one. Surely a God who would go to the lengths of coming into the world as person to teach and to heal and then to be resurrected… surely that God desires that all people should experience the light of grace.
The purpose of this assembly is steep ourselves in the faithfulness of God, to absorb trust and hope and then to stride out- refreshed by Word and water, community and communion. Strengthened, we set to the work of revealing that no one is outside of God’s grace. We feed, we clothe, we advocate, we listen, we invite, we pray.
If we are not doing these things, then we are testing God. We are testing whether God’s grace is sufficient for all people. We are hoarding the gifts we have received and waiting to see what the Lord will do. God does not fail tests. God will not fail our neighbor, but we can shortchange ourselves in responding to God’s invitation and being frontline witnesses to the way that God’s grace makes all things new.
The purpose of the church is to bring people together into the Way of Jesus and then to live that Way in the world. The inclusion of Gentiles, as they were, into the community of the faithful was a revolution we cannot comprehend. The Spirit does not stop its work of reformation and renewal, of provocation and invitation. The grace of God is on the move and disciples, then and now, are called to be at the frontlines of the work of boundary expansion.