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Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148:1-14, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

Where are the boundaries? And what difference do boundaries make? This week’s reading from Acts is the story of boundaries and the easing of their effects.

Any time one is one thing, one cannot be the other; or can one? I belong to the Ogden family. It is not the Obama family or the Palin family. That doesn’t necessarily mean antagonism; it is just a fact of life. I’m a Christian, not a Muslim or Sikh. I am an American and not a Brazilian or Nigerian.

Any time one belongs to an organization or group there are definitions of who is in and who is out. What does it mean to belong to anything if there is no way to characterize those who belong? The Christian Church has asked repeatedly over the ages, “What defines a Christian?”

I seem to remember a law in logic about things that are contradictory. They cannot both be true at the same time. In the realm of religion, for instance, one can be inclusive—of everyone but one who is avowedly “noninclusive.” They are opposites; it is impossible for the one to encompass the other. Or is it?

Boundaries may sometimes lead to wars. Sometimes they become expressions of arrogance: My father is better than your father. It’s better to be an Ogden than a Palin. Sometimes the attempt to define boundaries leads to efforts to force you to become like me. If you want to play with me, you have to remake yourself in my image.

The early followers of Jesus were Jews. Jesus was a Jew. They worshiped and studied in Jewish synagogues and mostly followed Jewish ritual practices. Some Jewish groups were more inclusive and others were less inclusive. In my reading, Jesus is one who was on the side of inclusivism, but even he said, in Matthew 12:30, “Whoever is not with me is against me . . .” God’s love, though, is all-inclusive.

The early followers of Jesus were put to the test when Gentiles wanted to join their ranks, seen in this week’s lesson from the book of Acts. There had always been Gentiles who converted to Judaism—if they adopted the ritual practices of the Jews. What was going to be required now? There were a variety of issues—circumcision and food among them. It was determined that Gentiles who wanted to become followers of Jesus did not have to be circumcised, but what about food?

In Acts, chapter eleven, Peter reports a vision and experience that pulls that early band into a more inclusive position. In the vision, Peter is offered food which strict Jews would consider “unclean” and refuses to eat. He hears a voice say, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”—or “unclean.” (Acts 11:5-9) It turns out that the vision is not about food but about the inclusion of Gentiles. After the vision is repeated three times, some Gentiles who have also received a vision, knock on Peter’s door and take him to a Gentile household in Caesarea. It is God’s Spirit that prompts him to go with them, telling him “not to make a distinction between them and us.” (vss. 10-14) In this encounter, Peter senses the presence in them of the same Spirit that gives life to the followers of Jesus.

After his experience, Peter says to the leaders in Jerusalem, “If then 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?” (Acts 11:17) The boundaries have been broken down. Our differences do not need to separate us.

If we live by love, we are not in a position to impose requirements that keep out those whom God’s love includes. Such truth may reach far beyond the walls of our congregations. It may even have some implications for immigration law.

Margie and I recently attended Center Stage Theater’s presentation of The Chosen by Chaim Potok. It is the story of two traditions in Judaism, members of which seem to be in a state of that logical contradiction I mentioned earlier. The young Hasidic boy has to get permission from his rabbi father to have as his friend a boy who is not Hasidic, permission which is granted and later revoked. The narrator of the story, at the beginning and again at the end of the play, reminds us of a rabbi who once said, “There are these and there are those. They both are the words of the Lord.” In the mysteries and grace of God maybe even logical contradictions can be overcome.

I’m glad I’m part of a congregation which clearly stands for inclusiveness. In our inclusiveness, we need to continue to ask what it means to be followers of Jesus. If we hear the questions and challenges put to us by Pastor Rick on almost every Sunday, we cannot avoid reflecting on our identity as those who claim to be part of the Christian tradition.

What about the rest of this week’s readings? The Psalm, another Psalm of praise, has its own inclusiveness. Who is called to praise God?—sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and cattle, creeping things and flying birds, kings and princes, young men and women, old and young. (Psalm 148: 7-12) That’s pretty inclusive!

This week’s reading from Revelation deals with newness—a new heaven and a new earth. (Revelation 21:1) One seated on a throne says, “See, I am making all things new.” Wherever and whenever we are to find this newness—past, present, future, heaven, earth (or all of the above)—I find verse three to express the most central truth I see embodied in Jesus. The one on the throne says, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them . . .” Jesus told us that his realm is all around us. Can we see and enter into the new thing he is doing, starting now?

The passage from John, chapter 13, immediately follows Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. He tells them that his work on this earth is done and where he is going they cannot come. (vss. 31-33) Rather than pointing them to the skies, leaving them desolate, abandoned by the very presence of God’s love, he says, in effect, “It’s up to you now. You are to build that loving community I’ve talked to you about. I’ve shown you what it means to be loved and loving. I will not be gone if my love continues to exist in what you do, in the relationships you will build. ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’” Is that perhaps intended to say something about inclusion? Where God is at work, his Spirit is bringing into being an ever-expanding community of love.

Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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