Commemoration of James of Jerusalem – It’s a Big Tent (A very very very big tent)
October 23, 2016
When I was 9 or 10 years old,
I was in a club.
It was a small club – just a couple of friends and me.
We called ourselves the ‘secret club,’
And we met in the basement of a friend’s house.
We thought it was great fun – and this is what we did:
As we huddled in Sue Cooke’s basement,
we wrote the ‘rules’ for our club.
That’s all we did.
Write rules for ourselves.
We had rules for when we would meet,
And rules for what we would wear,
And I seem to remember that we spent the most time writing
Rules for who could be in our club and who could not.
It seems whenever two or three people gather….
We come up with rules for who can join with us and who can’t.
Our story from Acts is a tale of two churches and their rules.
One is in Jerusalem and one in Antioch.
At that time churches meet in homes,
And so they are just a handful of people.
Groups of churches have a bishop – a leader.
And James, one of Jesus’ brothers is the bishop –
the leader of the group of churches that meets in Jerusalem.
The church in Jerusalem of course is where it all started.
It is the oldest church.
They have been worshipping together for 20 years now –
It is roughly the year 50 AD.
Everyone who belongs to the church in Jerusalem is Jewish.
They go to synagogue;
They eat kosher;
And the men are all circumcised.
Of course they are circumcised!
They are good Jews!
It is a mark of the covenant.
It is commanded by God.
It signifies that they are God’s chosen people.
Well the other church in our story is in Antioch.
(Antioch, incidentally, was about 40 miles of modern day Aleppo, Syria.)
Antioch is the young hipster church.
Paul and Barnabas begin to preach in Antioch,
And the church is growing rapidly.
The people are enthusiastic,
They are living their faith and they are bearing fruit.
There are ‘signs and wonders’ to celebrate in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas say.
The church people in Antioch start to call themselves “Christian,”
Apparently the first time this word is used to describe Christ-followers.
There’s a problem though.
These Christians are not Jewish.
They don’t eat kosher.
They don’t go to synagogue.
And, the men are not circumcised.
At first, no one in Jerusalem thinks it’s an issue.
That can be fixed –
They’ll just become circumcised!
But apparently, the men in Antioch
Don’t want to be circumcised,
So Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem
To meet with the leaders of the church.
This council in Jerusalem
Is the first great Christian council…
Later there were councils in Nicea (where the Nicene Creed was formed), Chalcedon,
And of course most recently Vatican I and Vatican II.
But Paul and Barnabas,
Peter and James, and the remaining leaders of the church
Meet to decide on the ‘rules,’:
Who can be part of our group and who can’t.
It could have gone either way.
They are guided by Scripture –
But of course at that time, the New Testament hasn’t been written yet,
And clearly from the Old Testament, in Genesis 17, circumcision was part of the deal.
So here’s where James of Jerusalem comes into play.
James speaks to the council using words from the prophet Amos.
James says, “When God promised through Amos that the temple would be rebuilt,
God promised that it would be a temple not just for Jews,
But for all people who seek the Lord.
Gentiles too have been called by God.
So let’s not put a stumbling block like circumcision in their way.”
In an astounding display of leadership,
James says, I’ve listened to you and I’ve listened to Scripture
And this is how it’ll be:
We Christ followers will have a big tent.
We’re not about the rules,
We’re about welcoming those among whom the Spirit is clearly moving;
We’re about celebrating signs and wonders – celebrating where there is fruit – celebrating where people are truly living like Jesus, not talking about Jesus.
James says, the faithful in Jerusalem
and the faithful in Antioch may practice our faith differently…
But we are united in our lives as followers of Christ.
Well in the time since those two churches,
other churches have grown up over the years;
they have tried to impose their own rules about who’s in and who’s out.
Sometimes I think we could have used more leaders like James.
Saying, “Hey – we are a big tent – let’s be less about the rules
And more about following Jesus!”
This weekend there is an important conference taking place in Chicago.
It’s called #decolonizelutheranism…
And members of the ELCA are inviting us to consider what it really means to be Lutheran.
They’re trying to help us recognize that the Lutheran tent is much bigger than what some of us think…
That sometimes we mistake our cultural identity with our faith identity.
It started with some memes on the ELCA FB page
about what it means to be Lutheran.
You’ve heard them….
They start “You might be Lutheran if…”
You might be Lutheran if:
- You sang 4 part harmony in the church hymnal from childhood.
You might be Lutheran if:
- You have four different kinds of Jell-O at the church potluck.
You might be Lutheran if:
- Your relatives are named Ole and Lena.
They’re kind of funny –
If you are Scandinavian or German Lutheran.
But we are a global church…
So, some non-Scandinavian, non-German Lutherans pushed back with this conference.
You also might be Lutheran if you sing gospel and have never seen a hymnal;
And you might be Lutheran if you have 4 kinds of papusas at the potluck;
And you might be Lutheran if your relatives’ names are Jorge and Wasihun.
Lutherans have a big tent.
All of us who are Christ followers have a big tent.
James recognized that.
If he had a meme it would read,
You might be Christian if you are circumcised…(or not).
It’s not about rules;
It’s not about cultural identity.
Being a follower of Christ means just as it says:
We follow Jesus….our lives are modeled after his –
And when our lives are modelled after his,
There will be signs and wonders of God among us –
All God’s people will be fed, healed, cared for, welcomed and loved.
Let’s live the “big tent.”