Date: April 10, 2016
Text: Acts 9:1-20
Site: Bethany United Church – Halifax, NS
The buzzword of our time is diversity. You hear it all the time. As Halifax has sought to reinvent itself and plan for a new day the word consultants, politicians and citizen forums like to use is diversity, as in we need to become more diverse. The same holds true for our many universities in this city, the same for our city council and yes, the same for our churches.
A while back I was asked to work with three neighbourhood churches who were invested in Strategic Planning. And when we sat down together to discover what it was they were planning to become the most common word used was “diversity”. And so I arranged for representatives of these churches to join me as we worshipped at diverse church communities, spoke to lay and clergy leaders of these diverse church communities and reflected on our experience being in the midst of diverse church communities.
The first church we visited was an evangelical church. After we had worshipped and met their leadership team I asked my team of United Church planners what they had liked about the experience. To a person each voice told me they were thrilled to see a diversity of age groups and ethnicities. The group desperately wanted their churches to be as diverse as this evangelical church. But there were limits on their desire for diversity. I asked the team what they had not enjoyed about the experience. Every one of them told me that the emotional displays; some worshippers were waving their hands above their heads, some worship leaders openly wept and shared personal stories, some participants fell to their knees in both ecstasy and sorrow, were disconcerting. Watching all of this my team was deeply uncomfortable, felt the people in that church were slightly “unhinged” and did not want that kind of diversity in their church life.
The second church we visited was located in a part of the city where there was a lot of poverty and crime. The church we visited was known as a place where persons who had been in conflict with the law had sought refuge, where the congregation was committed to something known as “restorative justice”, where victims of crime and those who committed the criminal acts came together, where the person who committed the crime heard directly from the victim, how the victim had been traumatized and life had changed forever. With the support of trained personnel, church members, real reconciliation was possible. Moreover, some persons attending that church had spent serious time in prison for very violent acts and the church had formed circles of care for these persons as a means of accountability, support and truth telling.
Once again I asked my team what they had enjoyed in this diverse church community, in particular the worship experience. The team was moved by the authentic and diverse community they witnessed, at how one’s faith became acted out in a powerful way that had profound effects on all of the different members of that faith community. Worship at that church was not merely pious. It took disciples to a deeper level of trust and dedication. I asked what the team did not like about this kind of diversity. It will not be a surprise to learn that team members expressed real anxiety about not knowing if the person in the pews next to them was a thief, a violent criminal, or worse, a pedophile. This form of diversity was a bridge too far for the team.
Finally, we visited a church known for its outreach and community support to gay, lesbian and transgendered persons. As we sat in the church we heard stories of heartbreak, injustice and outright hatred that the LGTB community had experienced. We heard about families that had endured pain and separation only to be reconciled, where deep understanding and learning had taken place, where LGTB persons had only their Christian faith to support them in the midst of their challenges. When I asked the team for their impressions of this form of diversity they shared how much their eyes and heart had been opened, how being in the midst of an oppressed community gave new meaning to being a persecuted church. When I asked the team what aspects of the worship had made them less than comfortable they all pointed to physical displays of intimacy, they were just not “there” yet. When I pointed out that straight couples sitting in church often hold hands, embrace, share moments of intimacy, the team acknowledged the inconsistency of their reflections.
In the Book of Acts chapters 8 and 9 we hear three successive stories of conversion, where God initiates a bold change in the life of an unlikely convert sending a signal to the early church that God was not content with the limits of Christian community. In Acts 8:14-17 http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Acts+8:14-17&vnum=yes&version=nrsv
Peter and John lay their hands upon some Samaritans and bring them into the Christian family. Samaritans were half gentile and half Jew making them an enemy to the Jewish people. Thus Jesus uses the Samaritans as the surprising heroes in many of his Gospel stories, opening our eyes to what God can do.
In Acts 8:26-40 an Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip to be baptized.
A eunuch was a man who has been castrated, especially one employed to guard the women's living areas in some imperial court. In the time this text was written persons like eunuchs were look down upon, seen as lesser than, because there was no possibility of procreation and fertility. One’s ability to have children was seen then as a sign of God’s blessing, and someone without this ability was viewed as cursed by God. Many scholars draw parallels between the eunuch then and the LGBT community today, and see this baptism story as a helpful text in our navigation of issues around human sexuality.
And in today’s lectionary text Acts 9:1-20 http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Acts+9:1-20&vnum=yes&version=nrsv
we hear the familiar story of Saul’s conversion, how Saul became Paul, how a persecutor of Christians became the most prolific author of the Bible, the earliest recorded texts in what we refer to as the New Testament. William Willimon in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching The Book of Acts sees a pattern in the conversion stories of Luke-Acts. “Beginning with Acts 8:4 we have read about the conversion of the Samaritans, then an Ethiopian, and now the conversion of Saul. With each story the conversions become more dramatic, taking us further from the nucleus of the original community in Jerusalem. We see this story as part of a series of accounts where the Gospel moves to the ends of the earth.” In other words Willimon believes Acts 8 and 9 are reminders of God’s intent to take the Gospel and the experience of Christian community out from the familiar faces of the early church and into the wider world, to stretch and challenge the limits of diversity.
Willimon continues, “Saul joins a long list of reprobates (Jacob), murderers (Moses), and odd characters whom God has chosen as vessels for God’s work. You did not choose me, but I chose you (John 15:16).” And note how the faith community supports and accepts the initiate (Saul/Paul) into their life together. The newly converted (Saul/Paul) is welcomed, baptized, and shares in the table fellowship of the church. Diversity in the emerging church of Acts is supported by an organic faith community, focused on the life, teachings and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and represented in the leadership and vision of the church as it seeks to spread its message of new life and hope in and through Jesus.
The Church has always struggled with diversity. The early creeds of the church focused on the common identity of “Jesus is Lord” and only when the Church became institutionalized did creeds become documents designed to weed out heresy. There is still a lot of healthy room to argue about the truth of the Gospels and what constitutes authentic living out of Christian discipleship. But the Book of Acts reminds us that in the midst of those debates God was calling people into Church who traditionally had been labeled outside the boundaries of God’s love. Samaritans, eunuchs and murderers like Saul were all somehow drawn into this mysterious, flawed and yet Holy Communion of saints and sinners we know as the Church.
So I ask you, what is the limit of your diversity, who is God calling to exercise ministry that you dismiss as “other”? What blind spots do you, do we, carry forward that prevents us from hearing the wisdom of the new convert? Who is the Samaritan, the eunuch, violent Saul, among us now? Are we ready for that kind of diversity? May God give us ears to hear, eyes to see. Amen.