May 10, 2015

Acts 10:44-48
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

“Radical New Inclusion?”

When I began to plan for this morning’s worship a few weeks ago, I thought I would preach about the impact of Christian camping. My own experience at a Presbyterian camp as a teenager and young adult had a significant effect on my journey of faith and contributed to the discernment of my call to ministry.

A couple of lines in the Gospel passage stood out to me in my reflection… the part where Jesus instructs his disciples to abide in his love by keeping his commandments, and then he tells them, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

I thought especially about how my experience of camping ministry had grounded me in the faith, providing me with patterns of prayer, Bible study, and worship which I have treasured ever since. And I thought about how discovering my vocation as a Christian minister has not made my life simple or easy, but it has filled me with joy and peace many times throughout my life.

I thought I might encourage everyone today, not only to send your children and grandchildren to camp, and Vacation Bible School, and youth retreats, and other opportunities for them to be immersed in Christian community, but I hoped to encourage us all to do the same for ourselves.

Jesus invites us to immerse ourselves in his love, and his teachings – to abide in him, to remain in him, to make our home in him, and let his commandment to love one another shape and direct our lives completely. That’s how we will discover joy, Jesus tells us, when we abide in his love.

Sometimes I think that Presbyterians should go on retreat more often. Instead of working so hard, and studying so diligently, and having so many meetings, we should spend more time in quiet, in listening, and in prayer. When I reflect back over the last week, one of the best hours I experienced was one spent in conversation and prayer with four other women of our congregation who got together on Friday morning to pray for one another, for others, for our church and its ministries, for the wider church, and for the world in which we live.

We named a lot of people and situations, and asked for God’s help and guidance. We poured out our hearts to God with regard to our struggles, and questions, and fears. And we placed all our cares and concerns into the strong arms of Jesus, trusting that he knows, that he understands, and that he will help us through. And I, for one, felt the deep peace and joy that comes with abiding in Christ. My challenges were not resolved, but I felt renewed to get up and face them with the assurance that I was not alone.

A few weeks ago, I shared about an issue that will be under discussion at the upcoming General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. Numerous overtures have been made by sessions and presbyteries across the country, some calling for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the church, and the acceptance of same-sex marriage, and others calling for the affirmation of our Church’s 1994 Statement on Human Sexuality, including the traditional definition of marriage and the exclusion from ordination of individuals who are in same-sex relationships.

The Book of Reports for the General Assembly, including all the overtures to be received and considered was posted online this week, and as I read through them, I was struck by the range of opinion on the matter, as well as the strength of the convictions. I began to wonder, and worry, and pray about how our Presbyterian Church might navigate this discussion successfully.

One thing that I would like to be clear about is the fact that we already agree on a great deal, and that should help in holding us together. We agree that all people are welcome in the church. No matter what our age, background, culture, language, race, gender, or sexual orientation, God’s church and The Presbyterian Church in Canada are open to all people.

There is a generally accepted agreement in our society and in the documents of our church that sexual orientation is not a lifestyle choice, but an innate part of an individual – not something that someone can choose to reject, change, or correct. And a homosexual or bisexual orientation is not a barrier to any ministry role, including ordination as an elder or minister.

Another thing that we agree about is that sexual relationships are intended for couples in life-long, committed relationships of trust, care, and faithfulness. Although most Presbyterians aren’t laying down the law when it comes to our members having sex before marriage, we have not accepted the trend in our society and particularly on television that multiple sexual partners, one-night stands, and serial monogamous relationships are acceptable.

The part that we don’t currently agree about is whether same-sex relationships are an appropriate option for Christians who have a homosexual orientation. Should Presbyterians with a same-sex orientation be encouraged to remain single and celibate? Or is there space within our Christian understanding of love, marriage, family, and discipleship for gay and lesbian people to choose life-long commitment and faithfulness to a person of the same gender? If so, can we call those relationships “marriage,” give them our blessing, pray for them, and support them with the love and freedom they need?

As I reflected on this morning’s Scripture readings, I noticed that the first reading from Acts 10 is the end of a story about a radical new inclusion in the early Christian Church. Some of you will remember the story about Peter and Cornelius, and if you don’t, you might want to go back to your Bible and read about them starting at the beginning of Acts chapter 10.

The Apostle Peter, of course, was the main leader in the Church as it began to spread throughout the world. One of Jesus’ first disciples, Peter was a Jewish Christian who began his ministry by sharing the good news about Jesus the Messiah with fellow Jews. Although the revelation of God in Jesus Christ transformed the faith of Peter and other Jewish people, it was not a rejection of their religion and they continued to practice Jewish traditions and dietary laws in keeping with God’s Word in the Torah.

But then one day, Peter had a vision. He went out on the balcony to pray and fell into a trance. He saw the skies open up. Something that looked like a huge blanket lowered by ropes at its four corners settled on the ground. Every kind of animal and reptile and bird you could think of was on it. “Go to it, Peter – kill and eat,” a voice instructed him. “Oh no, Lord. I’ve never tasted food that was not kosher.” But the voice encouraged him, “If God says it’s ok, it’s ok.” This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the skies.

Just after that, Peter is called to the house of Cornelius, a God-fearing man, but a Gentile man, a captain of the Roman Guard in Caesarea. Peter explains that even going to visit a Gentile was highly irregular: “Jews just don’t do this – visit with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other. So the minute I was sent for, I came, no questions asked.” And then Peter preaches and shares the good news about Jesus with Cornelius and his household, just as they had hoped he would.

And as we heard in the reading this morning, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. They heard them speaking in other languages and praising God. Peter asked, ‘These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?’” And they were.

What strikes me about the story is that Peter and the others discover that the Gentiles can be included in the Christian family without adopting all the Jewish laws that the Jewish Christians kept and lived by. By the Spirit’s leading, there was space being made within the Church both for circumcised Jews who abstained from pork and shellfish, and followed the laws carefully, and for Gentiles who were not bound by those laws but who shared faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The vision Peter received convinced him that God’s love, and welcome, and call was meant for a much wider community than he initially thought, and that there were a variety of ways to live faithfully as followers of Jesus. I think that the question for our church today is whether or not the Spirit is guiding us to a wider understanding of how disciples of Jesus can live in love and faithfulness together – whether same-sex relationships are like the pork, and shellfish, and lack of circumcision of Peter’s time.

Based on the overtures that have been sent to the General Assembly, and based on our local conversation so far, I know that some will agree with that suggestion and others will think that it is misguided. So I am praying for God’s help and direction for the conversation that lies ahead. I am praying that we will all have the humility and patience to listen to one another, to read the Scriptures together, to pray together, to listen for God’s voice together, and to find the way forward together.

In the portion of the First letter of John that we heard this morning, the apostle declares that, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” That much we can certainly agree on. And then he suggests that, “everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” If we love God, we must love God’s children… All of them… not just the ones who share our perspective on difficult issues.

Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And indeed, the Gospel assures us that Jesus chose us, and made us his friends, and appointed us to go and bear fruit… fruit that will last. Although I must admit that I am wondering and worrying about how we will navigate this issue together, I am placing my hope and trust in that promise from Jesus that he appointed us to bear fruit that will last.

I am praying for the Spirit of God to guide and help us, to keep us in unity, and to help us discern what is right and good together. Let us remember Jesus’ other promise in today’s Gospel: that the Father will give us whatever we ask in his name. Let us abide in Jesus and his love as we pray. Amen.