Who's in? Who's out?
Luke 7:1-10, Galatians 1:1-12, May 29, 2016
When we sat down to talk about these two lessons on Tuesday I confess I did not see how they were—or could be—related to each other.
The gospel lesson has Jesus in Capernaum, a town at the northern end of his home region of Galilee, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had just finished “The Sermon on the Plain,” which is a whole lot like The Sermon on the Mount that appears in Matthew’s gospel. He’d been talking a long time when he went into Capernaum.
When he got there, the reader learns that the centurion in town, that is, the Roman soldier who represented the power of colonial Rome, a very important, prominent, powerful and wealthy man, had a slave who was important to him, a valued and trusted servant, and the slave was very sick, close to death. The centurion sent some of the Jewish elders, leaders of the synagogue, imagine something like our Session, to go to Jesus to ask Jesus to come to his house and heal this slave.
This is the most powerful man in town. One might think he could just send a soldier to bring Jesus to his house. Instead of using force, however, the centurion uses what we might think of as “soft diplomacy” to get Jesus to come heal the slave. The elders vouch for the centurion, they pressed Jesus, “saying ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it was he who built our synagogue for us.” In Chicago one would say the centurion has clout. He’s powerful, but he’s also built a lot of goodwill with the Jewish community. We know the centurion is wealthy. He’s also generous; he might even be kind. Jesus went with the elders and headed to the centurion’s house.
Before arriving there, Jesus and the elders encounter some friends of the centurion with a different message, the big guy says, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof…” Here is the richest, most powerful person in town acknowledging Jesus as being too good to come to his home, probably the most luxurious home in Capernaum.
The centurion’s messengers explain that the centurion understands authority, and that Jesus has power, or authority to heal, such that he does not have to be physically present to heal the slave, just a word from Jesus, the centurion believes, will be enough to heal his trusted slave. And it was. And Jesus marveled that it was a Roman who showed such confidence or faith in him. The centurion’s faith was greater than he’d found among his own people.
Jesus held up an outsider as a model of faith. And Jesus showed that his power, or grace is available to everyone. He crossed a lot of societal barriers in this brief passage.
The passage from Galatians is another story completely. Christians do something kinda strange, we read other people’s mail. Our lesson from Galatians is Paul’s response to some news he got from someone in the church in Galatia. We have to use our imaginations to fill in the gap, because we can’t see the letter that Paul is reacting to, we just know his reaction. The first five verses are the standard greeting to a letter in the first century. Sort of like “May 29, 2016, Dear friends in Galatia…”
But then Paul starts to rant…”have you people lost your minds?! Have you started listening to ideas from crazy, delusional people? I heard that you’re not following the simple, pure gospel that I shared with you.” Now I’m going to switch from Tom’s Standard Version to The Message: “Let me blunt: If one of us—even if an angel from heaven!—were to preach something other than what we preached originally, let him be cursed. I said it once; I’ll say it again: If anyone, regardless of reputation or credential, preaches something other than what you received originally, let him be cursed.”
Paul is entering into a controversy at the very heart of the Christian church: Who is a Christian? Who’s in? Who’s out? Who belongs? It’s an ancient question and it’s a modern question. I’ll say a little more about the ancient part—then give you something to think about with me in the next few weeks:
The Christian church started in the Jewish community in first century Palestine. Jesus was a Jew all his closest followers were Jews. Two weeks ago we marked the start of the Christian church on Pentecost. Pentecost is a spring harvest festival for Jews, that’s why there were Jews—and proselytes—that is converts to Judaism—from all over the world, in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit came into a bunch of Galilean fishermen and they could tell Jews about the good news in Christ in all kinds of languages. It was a miracle. In Jerusalem, among Jews from all over the world.
About 20 years later the gospel of Christ has spread from Jerusalem, to places like Galatia, Rome, all the names on the epistles are places where Christian churches have started. And lots of non-Jews have heard the good news and decided to follow Christ. And you might think this is a good thing, but it also created some tensions among the first Christians. In Galatia, it appears that someone visited after Paul had started the church and told them that in order to follow Christ, one must first become a Jew. This made some sense. The first Christians were Jews, Christ himself was a Jew. They had an identity, faith, culture and scripture. Those who heard about Christ without that background were profoundly different from the first Christians.
Paul himself was not just a Jew, but a Jew with strong credentials. He was faithful, knowledgeable and respected. And yet he was the one who was called to share the good news of Christ among non-Jews. So the Galatian church, after he left, was divided over following what he had said—that faith in Christ is the most important identity one can have, such that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male of female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.” And what others had led them to believe, that one must first follow what we know as the Old Testament before embracing Christ. Paul disagrees with them passionately, and that passion spills off the pages of his letter to the Galatians.
Today we also struggle with who’s in and who’s out. Who’s included and who’s kept out. One of the “hot button” topics in this year’s political campaigns is immigration. Whom should we welcome into this nation and whom should we keep out? And a subset of that topic is which and how many refugees should we admit to this nation?
But this morning, I want to look at inclusion at a much more local level: Who is welcome here in this church? It’s something we have to work on all the time. All the time.
Most of us are what I call “insiders.” We know where the bathrooms are; we know how to get a prayer request mentioned in worship; we know where coffee hour is; we know what BBBE stands for. And because most of us know these things we don’t consider that maybe someone else, who’s new to the culture of this congregation doesn’t know and feels left out, excluded. I make a point of asking new members and frequent visitors to ask questions about how things work around here. We need their “new eyes” because the eyes of the long-standing members don’t see barriers to inclusion anymore.
And sometimes, barriers can be really subtle. About ten years ago we had a new student, probably a 4th grader, come to our Wednesday afterschool program. We learned his name and included him and he had a good time and we expected him to come the next week. His mother came to pick him up and he asked me, “Can my mother stay for supper?”
“Of course, she can! We’re Presbyterian! We say ‘I love you’ and ‘You’re welcome here’ with food.” You’ve heard this spiel from me…
“But, Pastor Tom,” he said, “She needs a plate!”
His question wasn’t one of inclusion, it was much more practical. But a barrier all the same.
I found a plate, and Mom was fed, and included.
Yesterday we held the monthly Community Breakfast, and I am always gratified to hear that our guests feel very welcome in our building and are very grateful and they appreciate how nice the room looks. We do a good job with that. The fourth Saturday morning of the month is really the church at its best. And yet I wonder, who’s not here? Who are we missing? Who is missing us?
The question “who is in?” is central to every organization, every group of people. And as a denomination we will debate next month this essential question. As a Commissioner to General Assembly, I’ve been reading a lot of things like these next three slides lately. I’m not being playful or facetious when I ask you to hold me in your prayers as I prepare to travel to Portland, Oregon in a few weeks.
The Presbytery of Southeastern Illinois respectfully overtures the 222nd General Assembly (2016) to direct the Stated Clerk to send the following proposed amendment to the presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes:
Shall W-2.4011 be amended as follows: [Text to be deleted is shown underlined; text to be added or inserted is shown as italic.]
“a. The invitation to the Lord’s Supper is extended to all who have been baptized seek the presence of Jesus Christ, remembering that access to the Table is not a right conferred upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance, and love. In preparing to receive Christ in this Sacrament, the believer is to confess sin and brokenness, to seek reconciliation with God and neighbor, and to trust in Jesus Christ for cleansing and renewal. Even one who doubts or whose trust is wavering may come to the Table in order to be assured of God’s love and grace in Christ Jesus.
“b. Baptized cChildren who are being nurtured and instructed in the significance of the invitation to the Table and the meaning of their response are invited to receive the Lord’s Supper, recognizing that their understanding of participation will vary according to their maturity. (W-4.2002)”
This is a proposed amendment to The Directory for Worship in the Book of Order. Let me explain its significance—and my transgression.
The current policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is that every baptized Christian is welcome to join whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. When I invite people to the table, I usually remind everyone that I’m not the host of the feast, that Christ is the host. Membership in this congregation is not required, membership in any congregation is not required. The mere desire to follow Christ is all that one needs to participate. The words I use typically, are more inclusive that our denomination permits. You should know that. And you know it now. And if you want to you could bring this to the Presbytery’s Commission on Ministry and I could be disciplined. I know it. You know it. And the Presbytery doesn’t…yet.
This is a very, very personal topic for me. My mother did not have my brother or me baptized as infants. She believed that one should make that decision for oneself. That meant that until I was baptized at the age of 15 when I completed Confirmation I could not celebrate communion. I was excluded. I knew that. From a very early age I knew that I could not join in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper because I hadn’t been baptized.
I remember sitting next to my mother at about the age of ten, on Maundy Thursday. The bread tray was passed. Mom took a piece and passed the tray to me, I passed it to the usher. Mom ate the bread and bowed her head in prayer. The same thing happened when the little cups of grape juice were passed. I knew not to take one. Looking back I remember feeling that my mother was having a very intense experience, and I was completely cut off from her. I don’t remember feeling cut off from the body of Christ, excluded from the church, I remember feeling cut off from her.
The proposed amendment that I read and will vote on next month would bring the denomination into line with what I am already comfortable doing here. I want to err on the side of inclusion. I want as many people to be “in” as possible. Jesus’ power to heal was available, even remotely, to the slave of a non-Jew, as our gospel lesson indicated. The Galatians were deeply divided over who could be a Christian and Paul said clearly, passionately, even angrily, that new life in Christ is more important than anything else. And new life in Christ is a gift offered to everyone everyone everyone.
And still, I am not sure how I will vote on this proposed amendment. First of all, I believe one should make an honest commitment to hear all the debate with an open mind. I believe the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to change my mind.
Second, admitting unbaptized people to the table who put us out of step with a lot of other Christians. It really could cause division among Christians in the name of inclusion.
Third, I am afraid that taking this action may make baptism a less significant sacrament.
I’ll close with this observation from my Baptism & Eucharist class in seminary more than 25 years ago. We were talking not about infant baptism but whether and how to include baptized children in the celebration of communion. Officially any baptized person can receive the sacrament, which means children who are not yet eating solid food, who have been baptized can partake. Parents are the ones who determine whether their child should receive communion. So someone in class asked about a 5 year old who was being a brat and pouting because her father told her she couldn’t have any bread and juice at church.
And the professor asked, “So the girl was old enough to know that she was excluded? Perhaps she was being a brat because she wanted to be on the inside?”
I am very proud that Presbyterians have what is known as “an open table.” And I have heard from many of our members who feel insulted when you attend worship at another Christian church and are either not invited to celebrate the sacrament—or expressly forbidden from celebrating the sacrament. I understand all that. And I’m inviting you to think about these questions with me. Who should be in? Who should be out? Amen.