Text: Acts 4:32-35
The New York Times ran an article this past Friday titled: At Age 19, From Utah to Uganda. It outlined the journey of 19-year-old, Jared Dangerfield, a young Mormon who is doing his two year missionary service in Uganda. The article was careful to note that Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States, with 14 million followers. The church gained nearly 400,000 members in 2010, about 70 percent of them converted by college-age missionaries like Dangerfield. Missionary work, the article states, “is not just a fundamental tenet of the faith; it is also a well-oiled operation. An army of 52,000 young Mormons proselytize around the world, from Boise, Idaho, to Mozambique, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In modern-day Mormon culture, men are expected to take up evangelism on their 19th birthday and serve for two years; less commonly, women enlist when they turn 21. Missionary work is not mandatory, but it is popular.” A church spokesman describes these two years as “a time of meaningful personal sacrifice, service, testing and growth.”
What caught my attention about the article was not so much the current statistics about Mormonism or even the story of this 19-year-old who put his college education on hold to do missionary service; but rather, it was this almost parenthetical paragraph that read:
Mormons are only one of a number of religious groups vying for local hearts and minds in this predominantly Christian nation…Today, ministries pepper the country, and religious conversion is common. There is even a community of Jews in the country’s east who preferred the Old Testament to the New Testament when missionaries introduced them to both.
It was that phrase “preferred the Old Testament to the New Testament” that stayed with me long after reading the article. For those of you who have witnessed my own faith journey these past twenty years, you know that in my early years I much preferred to preach from the Old Testament (or identified more accurately “the Hebrew scriptures”) than the New Testament. It was so obvious that even 7-year-old Stephen McKinney (Jack McKinney’s son) once asked his father, “Dad, why do you always preach about Jesus and why does Nancy always preach about God?”
For years, I was much more comfortable with the stories of the ancient Israelite people and their quest for God and meaning than I was with the lessons found in the gospels shaped around the teachings of Jesus. There is a mythological aspect to the stories in the Elder Testament, stories that reflect the deep questions of humanity in very real, raw, and human ways, and I find it easy to connect to them. Genesis deals with our origins—trusting in God and trusting our ego. The poetry and prose of the Psalms speak to our emotions; and throughout the Hebrew scripture there is the question of the absence and presence of God, a real question that we still struggle with today. There is clarity in the laws of the Old Testament—think of the specificity and absoluteness of the Ten Commandments. While all of us would say that we prefer a loving and forgiving God, there is something innate in us that immediately recognizes and relates to a God of judgment, power, and control—the God commonly seen in the Hebrew scripture. We read the story of Cain and Abel and we know all too well, from our own families and experiences, the destructive nature of jealously. Isaac and Esau reflect back to us our longing for blessing and the dangers of being untruthful and inauthentic in our attempts to get what we want and think we deserve. The story of Job is a powerful reminder that it is often in our darkest hour that we feel most abandoned by God. And the story of David and Bathsheba confronts us squarely with the seductions and temptations we face in life. It’s easy to see why many of us prefer the stories of the Old Testament. They are familiar to us. We see ourselves in them. The characters and the themes are all too real in the representation of our human struggles and vulnerabilities—our need for power, control, and privilege.
Now I know you Pullenites, and many of you are sitting out there going over all the stories in the Old Testament that focus on the goodness and blessing of both God and humanity. And yes, those stories are there, too. God created the heavens and the earth and declared it good. God created the waters and the dry land, the plants and all vegetation and declared it good. God created the birds and sea creatures and all living things, including humans, and declared it all good. God blessed Noah and his children, Abraham and Sarah and their descendents because they were faithful to the covenant they made with God. And God remained present with them. For certain, there are stories in the Hebrew scripture that speak to our divine nature as human beings—stories that reflect back to us our goodness and potential as God’s faithful people. We have to look no further than Moses, who, even in his feelings of inadequacy, lived out his divine calling as one of God’s faithful servants. I’m not saying those stories are not there in the Old Testament or that a loving God is not present. I’m simply suggesting that when it comes to seeing ourselves in the biblical story; and understanding who we are in relationship to God and others, it is often in the narratives of the Hebrew scripture that we see most clearly our story and the human story.
It’s when we come to the New Testament and to the teaching of Jesus that many of us have to look deeper to see ourselves. Consider where you find yourself and your story in words like:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Judge not, lest you be judged.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Or consider the story that we have heard read this morning.
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Can you begin to see how one would prefer the Ten Commandments or the holiness codes in Leviticus to the teachings of Jesus? In many ways, it is easier to follow a list of clearly defined rules than to try and figure out what Jesus meant when he said you have to lose your life in order to find it. It is a lot easier to decide that someone is not welcome because they have not followed the dietary laws or the purification codes or offered the right sacrifices; or that their skin is not the right color or they are not the right gender or their theology is too conservative or liberal, rather than do the work it takes to discern what it means for all to be included—to figure out how to be of one heart and soul even in our differences. It is much easier to live our independent lives, minding our own business, acquiring what we need to live comfortably, than it is to try and discern what distributive justice might look like in our world—what it might mean for the US to share our abundance of resources with other countries where people are dying because they don’t have enough. It is the stories of the New Testament like the one from Acts that we have read today, along with the teachings of Jesus, that challenge us not only to understand God’s vision of justice as preached by the prophets of the Old Testament, but to actually try to figure out how to live our lives in a way that makes real God’s kingdom here on earth. What does it mean to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and you neighbor as yourself? How do we understand what Jesus is asking us to do when he suggests we sell all we have and follow him?
When it comes to choosing between the Old and New Testaments, I prefer to hold the stories of the Hebrew scriptures alongside the stories and teachings of the New Testament. I need the stories of God’s people in the Hebrew scripture so I can see my story and the story of humanity. I need to hear those voices crying out in the wilderness in order to hear my own voice crying out. I need to feel their longing to be blessed by God in order to recognize my own longing to be blessed by God. I need to glimpse how God used them, not in spite of their humanity but because of their humanity, so I can catch a glimpse of how God might use me. And, I need the stories of the New Testament—those stories that challenge me to love those who are different from me, to not judge others, to treat people just and loving ways, to share what I have, to include everyone, to forgive, to reconcile, and to make peace.
Acts 4 verse 33 says, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” When we embrace our humanity knowing that we are created in the image of God as we are taught in the Old Testament, and when we seek to follow the Christ, to love beyond rules and laws, the way Jesus taught us in the New Testament, we give powerful testimony to the coming of God’s kingdom in the world today, and God’s great grace will indeed be upon us.