Text: Acts 11:1-18
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are…If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
So writes Martin Luther King, Jr. to eight fellow clergymen from Alabama as he sat in the Birmingham jail—the year was 1963. While it is tempting to assign his words to a specific time and context, they still have the power to convict and challenge the church of the twenty-first century. Specifically, King’s words serve as the foundation for the essential question, “What is the role of the church today?”
For inspiration and courage, I often pick up the writings of the great theologians like King, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Buber. In a week when I felt like I needed a bit of extra courage and strength, it was King’s letter from the Birmingham jail that I turned to. And I wasn’t disappointed, for I was reminded once again why King’s letter continues to inspire and challenge. But it wasn’t just King’s letter that I was reading and studying this week. My attention was also on the Acts 11 passage that Roger has read to us this morning. When I picked up King’s letter, the words of Paul were already ringing in my ears. Specifically these words, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us…If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
“To make no distinction between them and us.” Sometimes, it feels like that is what our culture and society is all about—making distinctions. Some might even argue that it is an aspect of our innate human condition. From an early age, we are taught to sort—to distinguish parts and pieces from one another by color, size, and shape. Remember that octagonal toy that is red on one side and blue on the other and it pulls apart in the middle. All around the various sides of it are holes representing different shapes—triangles, circles, and squares. For each hole there is a corresponding plastic piece shaped like the various holes. I think those pieces were yellow. The task for the two-year-old, when handed this contraption, is to distinguish which yellow piece goes in each hole. The toy teaches us to distinguish a triangle from a circle and a circle from a square and a square from a rectangle. It is an important developmental learning. In adolescent years, as we begin to test our individuality, we practice making other certain distinctions about ourselves and from one another—the way we style our hair, the music we listen to, the friends we hang out with, and the activities we participate in. And we continue to carry those distinctions or differences into our adult lives—by the communities we live in and identify with, the social circles we engage in, the kind of church we join, and priorities we set. Some of the distinctions we make in life are necessary and appropriate. But others, those that separate us from one another as human beings—those that distinguish us as being better than or more deserving than or more right than—are dangerous and harmful to being the church and God’s people.
Recently, I experienced this truth. I was attending a remembrance service for a friend’s mother who had died a year earlier. This particular remembrance service was honoring my friend’s mother on what would have been her 90th birthday. The service was held in a church and the minister of the church presided over the service. A part of the liturgy was the sharing of communion. Standing behind the communion table, the minister gave a beautiful invitation to the feast of God’s love and grace, declaring that the table was set for all God’s beloved children. But as he stepped from behind the table with the elements in hand, he said, “Come, those who believe in and follow the teaching of the Catholic Church.” For a moment, my heart stopped and I sat there trying to figure out what I had just heard. All are welcome, as long as you are Catholic—as long as you believe a certain way. Now don’t jump. I’m not bashing the Catholic Church. There are plenty of Protestant churches, specifically Baptist churches, that practice closed communion. And, there are many ways in which the Catholic Church is open to God’s children that the Protestant church isn’t. My point in sharing this experience with you is to say that more times than not it is within the institutional church where we make the most wounding distinction between them and us. We make the absolute distinction of who is in and who is out of what we proclaim as the kingdom of God. We are a people—whether by learning or the innateness of our very being—that makes distinctions.
One of the reasons I came to Pullen was my sense that this church made fewer distinctions than most. I knew that Pullen was not perfect (and that has been confirmed over the years). But it seemed to me that Pullen Church was seeking to be faithful in welcoming all God’s children—young and old, male and female, gay and straight, conservative and liberal. And this, too, has been confirmed over the years. I shall never forget, not long after coming to Pullen, visiting Nancy Savage and asking her why she had stayed a member of Pullen for so long. Her response has been my stronghold for these eighteen years. She said, “Here at Pullen we try to live by the poet’s words: ‘He drew a circle that shut me out—Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle that took him in.’” That is the role of the church—it has been throughout the ages. And it is exactly what Paul is reminding us of in Acts 11. The church of all places is to NOT make a distinction between them and us—Jew or Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, male or female, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, rich or poor. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
King writes in that same letter from the Birmingham jail, “There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man.” Today, siding with King, I am convinced that the role of the church is to be “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” The role of the church is NOT to be merely a thermometer that records the ideas and principles of popular opinion; but rather a thermostat that transforms the mores of society. The role of the church is to make no distinction between them and us.
Yes, things are different now. But one thing remains the same. The role of the church is to be a strong voice with a certain sound for justice and the inclusion for all God’s people. We are called to challenge the status quo, to discomfort the comfortable. We, the church—Pullen Church—are still being called to make no distinction between them and us.
He drew a circle that shut him out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in.
This church has tried, maybe more than most, to live these words. We have not been perfect. We have not always gotten it right. But we have sought to be faithful. Where we have fallen and are falling short of living this truth, may we seek God’s forgiveness. For all the ways in which we have been faithful and are still being faithful in being a church where there is no distinction made between them and us may the courage of our past be our guide and our strength for the present and the future. After all, who are we that we could or should, in Paul’s words, “hinder God?”