Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

About Boundaries

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Acts 10:44-48

In 167 BCE, a Greek ruler took over the temple in Jerusalem. Trying to force Greek customs and religion onto the Jewish people, he converted the temple into a shrine to the Greek god Zeus by sacrificing a pig in the Holy of Holies.  Then, to eliminate opposition, he sent his soldiers throughout the countryside, rounded up the inhabitants of villages, and forced them at the threat of death to eat pork in clear violation of the Old Testament dietary laws. Some refused and were killed, but many complied.

Finally, in one village a priest and his five sons not only refused to eat the pork but rose up and killed the Greek soldiers and fled to the mountains. This began the struggle known as the Maccabean Wars. When it was over, the Temple was back in Jewish hands.  The recapture and rededication of the temple led to the festival now called Hanukkah.[1]

That is recent history at the time of the book of Acts.  It is as close to the people of ancient Palestine as the Civil War is to us today.  For Jewish people, keeping the dietary laws is a matter of obedience to God, but also it is a matter of identity.  It is something that their ancestors gave their lives to protect.

That dynamic underlies the story we read from Acts 10.  This is one of those events that keep happening as the Jesus movement spreads.  The apostle Peter, along with some other Christians from Jerusalem, has followed the prompting of the Holy Spirit and come to the home of Cornelius.   Cornelius is a God-fearer, who has been praying for a guide to a deeper relationship with God, and Peter has been sent by the Spirit.   God has prepared Peter with a vision.  In that vision, Peter saw all kinds of animals forbidden by Jewish dietary law and a voice commanding him to eat.  This happened three times and every time, Peter said, “No way.  I would never break God’s law.  That is not who I am.”  And three times, the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Right after that vision, Peter is sent to meet Cornelius.  As they talk, the lightbulb goes on and he understands the meaning of the vision.  The meaning is that Jesus message is for Gentiles as much as it is for Jews.  Gentiles, who eat meat considered unclean by Jews, are not to be considered unclean themselves. The Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius and his household and it looks just like it did when the Spirit came upon the Jewish Christians.  Peter’s companions did not receive his vision and so, vs 45 says “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles,” 

There are two clearly identified groups here.  Group 1 is the circumcised believers, also known as the Jewish Christians.  Remember that Jesus was Jewish.  His teaching took place in a thoroughly Jewish context.  It makes sense that the first generations of his followers were predominantly Jewish. 

Group 2 is the Gentiles, these people who have received the Holy Spirit, to the astonishment of Group 1.  What is hard to grasp is that the Holy Spirit comes to them while they are still Gentiles.  The expectation probably was that they should convert to Judaism first and then become Christian. But what just happened?  -- can it be that God does not require them to give up their Gentile identity in order to follow Jesus?  That appears to be the case.

This was a real difficulty for the early Christians.   Who is in?  Who is out?  These are still questions we face today, although in a different context.  In those days, the need for a boundary was different.  You needed to know who was in, because you depended on them.  The insiders were the ones who gave up their possessions if you needed them.  They were the ones who would protect you from the persecuting authorities, unlike the outsiders, who might just turn you in. 

When Peter went back to Jerusalem and the other circumcised believers heard this story, they were distressed.  To them it must have seemed that Peter was recklessly abandoning their faith, carelessly throwing away the identity that their ancestors had fought to protect.  

The world is rich with peoples and languages and cultures.  From our place in history, we know that some of that richness and beauty has been destroyed through colonialism and one culture’s violent dominance over another and outright genocide. So, when we read of the conflict between the circumcised believers and the Gentiles in the early church, we should remember that what is at stake is no small thing.  If the Gentiles are allowed in, just as they are, with no expectation that they will adhere to Jewish faith, it could change the identity of God’s peculiar people irrevocably.  From our place in history, we know that it did.

Many American Protestants have a theology that says, in effect, that there should be no boundaries around faith communities.  We say that everyone is welcome.  I say that about Emmanuel, and I mean it. I think we are sincere, but we don’t always take into account all the implications of that statement.

True story:   Mennonites are part of a group of Christians who have a distinctive identity.  They are the historic peace churches.  One of their central beliefs is that the New Testament forbids Christian participation in war and violence. When we lived in Kansas, I knew a number of Mennonites.   We lived about 18 miles from an Army base. While we were there, an active-duty soldier had declared his conscientious objection to war.  He was trying to be released from his obligations but was facing charges of dereliction of duty by the Army.  He attended the local Mennonite church, but the church did not support him. This was at the time of the First Gulf War. I asked the Mennonite pastor about it.  The pastor said that this congregation did not really know their history.  While they understood themselves to be Mennonites, they were not living into the historic peace church identity.

I don’t know how that came to be, but I wondered, if they had said, “Everyone is welcome here.  Even soldiers.”   I wondered if people came in who did not know the Mennonite identity and were never taught to embrace it, and so, for that congregation at that time, that identity was lost.  I found that very sad. It seemed to me that relaxing the boundaries had diluted the strength of that congregation’s witness.  Please hear me carefully.  I am not saying that they should have turned anyone away.  I am suggesting that in welcoming people, they might have been clearer about the nature of the group they were joining.

Another true story – this one from Georgia in the 1950’s.  The Koinonia community was Christian farm where African Americans and white folks lived and worked and shared life together.  It was a radical thing for its time – and for ours (!) They heard about an integrated church in the region that was growing and thriving, which was highly unusual then. So, one Sunday some of the Koinonia people piled into their cars and trucks to check Sunday worship there.  Sure enough, the church building was packed with black and white, young and old, families and single people, all intermingled and full of the Spirit.  Just by chance this was the Sunday of the church picnic, too.  Despite the happy mix during worship, the visitors suspected that when people set out their blankets and began to play games, the crowd would separate down racial lines like the rest of Georgia in those days.  But it didn’t happen.  Blacks and whites shared blankets and chairs, food and childcare, stories and grills.  God abided in that community in a way unlike anything the folks from Koinonia had ever seen outside their own farm.

They asked the pastor for his explanation.  The pastor, a white man, told them he had felt called away from his life as a dirt farmer, to be pastor of this church.  But, he confessed, he was unable to read, so he had to have the Deacons read the scripture to him, so he could preach.  One day, as they made their way through the New Testament – it could have been Acts, it could have been James – the text declared that God shows no partiality between people.  Convicted by this, the pastor began to preach that if God shows no partiality, then Christians couldn’t continue to live and justify racial segregation.  He preached it more than once, and when the Deacons told him to stop that preaching, he refused.  So, they fired him.  Except, he realized, they couldn’t fire him because they weren’t paying him anything!  Instead he, as pastor, saw only one way forward.  “I fired those deacons.  And then I preached that church down to about six people,” he declared, “When the message we were preaching here got out, that’s when new people began to come.”

Two true stories. One church tried to be more welcoming to the culture around them and sacrificed an important piece of their own identity.  The other one, chose to give up who they had been.  They sacrificed their standing in the community and even a whole lot of members, in order to live out the new, vital life that God was calling them into. 

I tell those stories to make two points.  First, I want to appreciate the courage of the early Christians who were willing to make some hard choices.  They followed the Holy Spirit’s lead to relax their boundaries and widen the circle of grace.  They did that in the midst of a time of uncertainty and hardship, which is often the kind of time when we want to cling more tightly to whatever certainties have made us feel secure in the past. 

Second, I noticed that receiving the Gentiles does not mean that all boundaries are erased.  Accepting the Gentiles as loved by God does not mean accommodating the worship of Roman gods, for example.  The early Christians continue to proclaim “Jesus is Lord” in defiance of a culture that worships Caesar. 

There are still circumcised believers and Gentiles.   One does not take on the identity of the other.  Each has to discern how to practice their faith in ways that are appropriate for their context.  Each has to let go of practices that might have been perfectly appropriate at another time, but which hinder the mission of the gospel in this time.  Each has to forge a new identity in light of the inclusion of the other.   

My usual take-away from this story is that God breaks down all kinds of boundaries.  My usual take-away is that God is always widening the circle, inviting more and more people in.  I still believe that.  But today I have an additional understanding, which is this:  Every piece of our identity is always subject to the Lordship of Jesus.  Our race matters, our sexuality matters, our cultural heritage, our family stories – all of those are part of the individual people we are, part of how we bear the image of God.  But nothing else about us is as important as the ways in which we align ourselves with Jesus and imitate him.  

This is the challenge of attending to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is alive and moving, like fire and wind and breath.  Finding our identity in Christ means having that same liveliness.     This is the challenge of being obedient.  This is the work of discerning our identity -- who is it that God is calling us to be now,  in our time and place?   Sisters and brothers, may we be found faithful.  Amen.   


[1] Dennis Bratcher at http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Ceaster5ac.html