Sermon thoughts on Acts 11: 1-18
History is a fascinating subject to share with your congregation. It connects us to the past and places Biblical events in a context they can identify with. When you tell a scriptural story, correlate it with world history, set the story so they can see the picture. The same is true for stories of United Methodist History. The origins of the United Methodist Church in America (then just the Methodist movement within the Church of England) is typically placed in March of 1736 when both Wesley brothers, John and Charles, arrived in Georgia. The United Methodist Church formally came into being on April 23, 1968 with the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church. It was not a smooth process, and took several General Conferences to work out all the details. You’d almost think the folks that develop the lectionary had this in mind when they selected Acts: 11: 1-18 as our scripture for this week.
Peter has gone to Jerusalem, bringing with him the good news of the Gentiles who have accepted Christ and are following his path. Unfortunately, the Jews are not so excited about this news. The way of Christ is only for Jews. These Gentiles must first become Jews before they can become Christians. Not only has Peter welcomed these dirty Gentiles into the fold, he has stayed in their homes and eaten their food. Gasp!
Share with your congregation the history that makes this such as stunning act on Peter’s part. The Torah is unapologetically anti-Gentile, requiring the Hebrews to engage in genocide and to expel the Canaanites without mercy (Deuteronomy 6, 20). It forbids inter-marriage between Jews and Gentiles and forbids them from adopting heathen Gentile customs, including their food preferences.
Jesus was raised to believe the most horrible things about the Gentiles, and yet he often engaged in positive ways with the Gentiles, including Mark 5 when he drove the demons out of the Gerasene man.
Peter was being inclusive in the way of Jesus, and yet the Jews in Jerusalem struggled to accept that Gentiles could be a part of the Jesus movement without being Jews first, which would involve circumcision and adapting all of the Jewish customs, including dietary laws.
Peter shares his dream with them, of God offering all types of animals for him to kill and eat. Peter protests: “Lord, I can’t do that! I’ve never taken a bite of anything that is unclean and not fit to eat.”
The voice from heaven spoke to him again, “When God says that something can be used for food, don’t say it isn’t fit to eat.”
Man’s laws (and at the time it was man’s laws, women were not involved) were not to take precedence over God’s laws, and God also has the freedom to change sacred laws. The merger of Jews and Gentiles into the community of Jesus was a struggle because of the history and traditions of both. No matter how deeply these traditions were held, they were secondary to doing the work of God.
The merger between the Brethren and the Methodists, finalized in 1968, was pretty difficult too. I’ve heard it best described as Ford ‘merging’ with Walt’s Garage. There were only 800,000 EUB’s trying to maintain their traditions and have an equal merger with the 10 million Methodists. The roles of Bishop and District Superintendent were treated differently in substantial ways, including how they came into position and how long they served. The rules pertaining to women as clergy were different. In 1946, women were denied ordination in the EUB but in 1958, the Methodist Church granted full clergy rights to women. In the merger, women would maintain their ordination rights, but how many churches would refuse to accept the lowly woman as their pastoral authority? There were differences in theology as well. The Methodists were rooted in Anglicanism, while the EUB’s tended more towards the holiness moment. The EUB’s were firmly against the racial segregation of Conferences practiced by the Methodist Church, and prevailed in their demand that those be dissolved. What happens in a small town with both churches? Who decides which one closes, which pastor stays, whose Bible sits on the altar?
And yet, with time and an intentional goal of building a stronger, united church to do God’s work, these issues were resolved and the two organizations became one.
As we look to General Conference 2016, we are looking at a merger of a different kind. Liberal vs. Conservative is one way to describe it. Perhaps those who believe the cannon of Methodism is closed vs. those who believe God is still moving in our doctrine and polity might be another way to describe it. This time it is not a merger of separate groups, it is a merger of ideologies, and without merger there will be division.
We have the United Methodist Church because differing groups came together to find a common cause. The Christian church exists because vital issues of tradition and law came secondary to carrying out the mission of the church. Distinctions between Jew and Gentile were not nearly as important as unity in God.
Sometimes doing the work of God means changing our traditions, recognizing that there was a time and place for everything, but times change. “We’ve always done it this way” are the 6 most deadly words to any organization.
We all face mergers. Marriage is a merger, welcoming children into the family is a merger, a new boss or employee is a merger. Somewhere along the way competition became more important than connection. Merger has become about conquering when it should be about connecting. What will be the theme of General Conference 2016: competition or connection?
The early Christians set a model for merger, for finding connection, for discerning essential from non-essential and coming together for a greater good. It takes humility and a willingness to not always be right, a willingness to put the voice of God above our own voices. It is not easy and it is not peaceful, but imagine what could be achieved?