No More Outsiders

by susan on May 31, 2017

[This message was shared on Sunday, May 29th in response to Acts 15:1-19.]

What’s it like to be an “insider”? What’s it like to know the rules of the group, to fit in neatly, to know you belong?

On the other hand, what’s it like to be an “outsider”? What’s it like to wonder what else you need to do to be accepted, to never quite feel like you’re enough, to want to give up on ever truly belonging?

If you lived at all, you’ve experienced both scenarios.

And, as much as we claim to value unity & togetherness,
we can all be guilty of perpetuating the insider/outsider divide
even when it keeps us from fulfilling our mission & purpose in this world.

The “outsiders” mentioned in today’s scripture reading are Gentiles or non-Jews. Gentiles were people who were hearing and receiving the gospel of Jesus Christ, but were not raised or reliant upon Jewish cultural norms. They were separate from Jews geographically & culturally. They were outsiders because they were not the original recipients of the good news – they heard it second-hand. And they were often treated like second-class citizens.

But, nonetheless they were receiving it with great joy. They were experiencing conversion – like the Ethiopian Eunuch we encountered last Sunday, they are being baptized into the way of Jesus.

The apostles who were themselves eyewitnesses to the miracles and teachings of Jesus had been told to continue his work and to make disciples of all nations and they were doing just that. And there was resistance. The NRSV translation tells us that “certain individuals” came down from Judea and were teaching that for these outsiders to truly become insiders, they had to be circumcised.

So, let’s get this right – last week we heard the story of a castrated Ethiopian being included & baptized & now, 7 chapters later, we are back to square one. We are back to being told that only those who have been circumcised can truly belong. This was not the first, nor would it be the last time we would struggle to grasp the width of God’s embrace.

“If you’re not circumcised in the Mosaic fashion, you can’t be saved, ” these men claimed.

Talk about being stingy and stuck in your ways…
talk about raining on the Paul & Barnabas evangelism parade …

these self-appointed custodians of the law were real jerks or maybe they were just scared and worried that if it was not in keeping with the Law, the whole Jewish community would suffer (not like that had ever happened before…).

So, before we get too critical of them, let’s admit something. Let’s be honest that we can also be reluctant to allow just anyone to join our circles. As open & welcoming as we are & are learning to be, we too have our personal preferences, our criteria, our unofficial standards, our expectations.

They may not come from ancient laws, but they do come from our experiences, what our culture informs us is acceptable or not, from what parents or friends other authorities have told us.

We, too, create barriers to belonging.

Those who came along demanding circumcision by the Gentiles create quite a stir. They did not just say, “hey this would be good idea”, they say “you can’t be saved without it.” And Paul and Barnabas are not having it. They immediate make a plan to go from Antioch to Jerusalem to discuss this matter with Jesus’ most learned followers. They want to make sure they are right in saying that this Jewish custom is a non-essential for new believers. They seem to want to deal with this matter quickly so they can carry on & continue to share, to tell the story & to resume the essential work of Jesus.

It would help us to pause for a minute and
remember why this might be of such importance to Paul.
I imagine it has to do with his own story.

If anyone knew the insider/outsider divide, it was Paul. He so firmly believed that Jesus and his followers were outsiders to salvation that he violently persecuted them. He thought they were worthy of death. When he had his drastic conversion experience though, his beliefs may have changed in a minute and his murderous ways may have been overturned, but now people were afraid of him.

Ananias, the man sent by God to open Paul’s eyes, would hardly go because he was so afraid of Paul. Everyone knew what Paul was capable of. Later, when Paul was told to go learn firsthand from the disciples, they too were reluctant to teach him.

Paul knew what it was like to both persecute outsiders, and to become one himself. And, Barnabas who had been Paul’s right hand man, had also witnessed these experiences. So, when certain men came along trying to make access to God’s healing and belonging more difficult, they were not messing around.

As they head to Jerusalem, they tell about what they have been experiencing – about how many non-Jews are being transformed by their witness to the way of Jesus. Everyone else seems excited by this news.

When they finally make it to Jerusalem, they meet with the apostles and the elders. There is much debate.

No. Way. Not in a church meeting!?! Debate can be a really good thing. It can also be exhausting (aka – the reason so many people don’t like church meetings).

Here though, they are not talking about what color carpet to put in the sanctuary, they are talking about the main thing. They are talking about salvation. They are debating the meaning of being “saved”. If we were to boil it down, they are trying to decide if obedience to the laws of Moses or a changed heart & life were essential. In essence, they were debating the meaning of the word “saved”.

What does this word mean to us? I’m sure our answers would not all be the same.

The word “save” used in this passage in the Greek is “sozo” and it means to rescue, to deliver, to keep safe, to make well or whole. Jesus used the word on occasions of physical or spiritual healing during his ministry, like when he healed lepers or the blind.

Sozo meant that not only was someone made well,
but that they could be returned to community –
that they were no longer outsiders.

This was an important conversation. The apostles take it very seriously.

Like he often did in conversations with Jesus, Peter speaks up first and then James has his turn. They both speak with heart & conviction.

As they wrestle with their decision, they reflect back on God’s movement up to this point:
Including the Gentiles is what God told us to do.
They received the Spirit just as we did.
They have been experiencing changed hearts & lives.

They also listen to the stories of Paul and Barnabas. This sounded like the work of God to them. They keep silence. They look to their scriptures. It’s a beautiful model of discernment really & one we could stand to learn from.

Then they come to a decision:

Instead of unnecessarily burdening these non-traditional believers with old laws, we will tell them enough is enough. Their healing does not come from rigid law-keeping, it comes from Jesus.

These Gentiles are not to remain outsiders because they are not circumcised.
They are included – they belong.

I do not think this was the church’s way of saying: “now these Gentiles are insiders along with us”. :They are part of the club, too.”

No, I believe that the early church was a witness to God’s decisive movement toward there being no more outsiders vs. insiders, no more us vs. them and no worthy vs. unworthy of belonging.

All are invited to come and follow.

We are not told how these “certain men who came from Judea” responded, but we can imagine they were not too thrilled. Change is never easy. Fear is hard to overcome.

As much as we love being insiders in faith & life (it feels good doesn’t it? we benefit from it, don’t we?), God was & is moving us in a new direction.

What are some things we do that make people feel like outsiders?
How will we respond to this witness of ever-expanding inclusion?
Will we shrink back in fear or will we listen deeply,
wrestle together and remain open
to the movement of God’s Spirit?

Will we dare to be relentless break-downers of barriers, eliminators of divisions & of anything that tries to block people from hearing, knowing,experiencing & living into the kingdom of God?

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