Sunday, January 08, 2017

Same ol' (Auld) Lang Syne

Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

“[My servant] will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth, and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”  Isaiah 42:4

Peter’s vision (told in Acts 10:9-16 & retold by Peter himself in Acts 11:4-12) was as perplexing to him at first as it still seems to be to us today.  He did not understand what was being revealed to him until he arrived at the home of Cornelius. 

We are told Peter was getting hungry and that food was being prepared for him as he prayed on the roof, but we are also told that what The Lord revealed to Peter seemed to be an invitation to eat what was spread out before him in his hunger.  Let’s face it; this is where we stop reading, is it not?    

Reading it in its appropriate context, which involves all of chapter 10 as well as extending into chapter 11, we find that the vision had nothing to do with Peter’s hunger or what is fit to eat.  In fact we discover that the vision had nothing at all to do with food, Peter’s appetite, or even his faithfulness to Torah which prohibits the consumption of certain animals.

It may be an assumption many of us make whenever we pray; that the first thing that occurs to us in the midst of our prayers may be The Lord’s answer – when, in fact, it may be only an invitation to draw closer and listen more carefully.  Yet it may be more likely that in our devotions and prayers, we have a defined “start” and “stop” time – and when the time is up, we “stop”.

As Peter retells of his vision to the apostles and the “circumcised believers” (i.e., “Jewish Christians”), he affirmed in the face of their criticism of his having taken the Word of God to the Gentiles (11:1) that The Lord had revealed to him the vision was entirely about people rather than the “things” on the sheet; that those whom the Jews had once considered unclean and unfit for the Covenant had been deemed worthy of the Word by The Lord Himself. 

The vision occurred three times, and the first two times Peter refused to partake of what Torah deemed “unclean” – still missing what was being revealed to him, still answering according to his own cultural instincts.  When the visitors from Caesarea had arrived to call on Peter to come with them, it was the Spirit who told him not only to go with them but also to “not to make a distinction between them and us(11:12).  He then concluded to those gathered (apostles and circumcised believers) that “If God gave them the same gift that He gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  Their response?  “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

This is – or should be – the narrative of the Church.  It certainly is the mission as defined by Jesus in Mark 1:15 (“Repent, and believe in the Good News!”), and many ministries have been borne of this mission to lead persons to repentance and the Gift of Life.  It is unfortunate, however, that this narrative has been modified and muddled over time to the point that repentance is no longer an acceptable word (coming closer to fitting the culture’s definition of “hate speech” rather than of the hope of New Life) because it insinuates what most of us – maybe all of us – do not wish to hear; that we are called and required to change the course and direction of our lives; that “Just as I am” is nothing more than the title to a hymn.  It seems to have become, however, the entire narrative of the individualist, consumerist-minded Church.

But what happens to society when the narrative of the Church which leads to Eternal Life is so modified as to lose entirely its meaning AND its power?  What happens when repentance becomes little more than a prayer of apology and a plea for mercy but lacks any resolve to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8), to fully turn away from destructive behavior and toward building a life and a community of support and accountability more reflective of the original Narrative?  We have lost (assuming we ever had) a passion for leading souls to The Lord.

What has happened over time is the distinction between “us and them” has become even more pronounced and distinct.  We end up – as we have - with a host of persons or groups of persons whom we deliberately exclude from the Narrative, having judged them unworthy of our mercy, unworthy of our prayers. 

Rather than to “fix the problem” which we know clearly exists, we are more attuned to “fixing the blame”.  Consequently we end up with an entirely different narrative from the one Narrative handed down to us.  We have learned to live within a narrative strangely similar to the culture’s narrative of “Just as I am” – BUT – “them” must repent … not “us”.

Such social distinctions have split the Church throughout history more times than I care to count.  I have no idea how many different Christian denominations and non-denominations there are, but each one stands as a testimony to a narrative each chose to create for itself for the sole purpose of “exclusion”.  The United Methodist Church is no exception, and we should be especially concerned that the “Commission on A Way Forward” borne of the 2016 General Conference may try yet again to create a whole new – and alien – narrative from the One Narrative which gives Life but not necessarily comfort – especially if we have found comfort in the wrong things.

Peter was among those who was not okay with including Gentiles in this Narrative, the very inclusion expressed by the prophet Isaiah; i.e., “justice to the nations”, “light to the nations” – not “the” nation or “a” nation.  Peter revealed in his own vision a man who was unwilling to compromise what he believed to be good and right as it pertains to “things” (“Nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth”, Acts 11:8).  At first, and on his own, he missed the point entirely just as we still often do.

Make no mistake, however.  There is still what is good and right, and there is still what is evil and wrong.  Peter’s vision changed nothing of what has long been written in the Eternal Narrative.  What Peter initially failed to comprehend was that the vision was not at all about him; not about what is fit to eat, not about satisfying his own cravings, and not even about his own sense of righteousness. 

That very narrative we have created and embraced for ourselves must change.  If “Auld Lang Syne” can really be translated “for the sake of old times”, I submit that as conservative and as traditional as we may believe ourselves to be, it may be time for us to consider the theological and social value of whatever traditions we may embrace and whatever it is we hope to conserve – and whether what we hope to gain from our conservative, traditional values is not more about what we are already comfortable with and what pleases us but is, instead, entirely about reconnecting with the Eternal Narrative which invites everyone rather than deliberately excluding anyone.    

This mindset is, I think, a significant factor in the large number of persons walking away from the Church, a profound reason why there is seen of “church” little more than a burden of subjective traditions but lacking entirely the JOY in the “hope that is ours” (1 Peter 3:15); the JOY of serving The Lord and one another – even “them”. 

Can this be true?  That this HOPE is somehow missing and that the corresponding JOY is nowhere to be found within us or within the Body as a whole?  Can it be true that we’re just … here in the moment?  That we brought nothing to this moment and that we will also leave with nothing from this moment unless it fits our already-established personal narrative?

The vision revealed to Peter ran counter to the culture Peter had become familiar and comfortable with.  This was surely the reason why Peter was so uncomfortable with the vision.  Yet when Peter came to realize that the only narrative which had changed was his own, he was joyful and glad to know of the magnitude, the reach, the desire of His God … of our God.  That The Lord truly does love “all” and that Jesus died on the Cross for “all” … even those who put Him there.

Our challenge for 2017?  We must heed the call of the Spirit and be willing to get off the roof!  The “auld lang syne” we have become comfortable with is a false narrative assuring us we are safe as long as we stay on the roof, safe as long as we continue to exclude certain others, safe in our meaningless prayers that fulfill a religious obligation but do not call us from the roof and into mission to a dark world which, like Cornelius, is eager to hear the Word of God, the Narrative of Eternal Life!  It is only the Church capable of delivering such a Narrative; whether we are willing, however, remains to be seen.

We must stop telling the same stories and draw closer and learn to listen more carefully; for it is written for us to know that “the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare”, says The Lord.  Show us the Way, O Lord!  Amen.

No comments: