Becoming Church: Narrative

One day, they are small, adorable little tykes with a mischievous grin and an insatiable need for hugs and cuddles. The next, they can look you in the face, are irritable, and spend their time behind locked doors brooding beneath posters of pop stars, immersed in social media. In between these times are times when their bodies become simmering pools of growth hormones, stretching bones, and expanding muscle. 

These lovely times are the result of growth spurts, “short periods of time when your child experiences quick physical growth in height and weight.”[1] They happen periodically from birth to maturity taking a person from newborn to adult. Most of us have some memory of going through these phases or can at least remember seeing children in our families go through it. 

Through the years, our family has found somewhere in our home to mark this passage of time with our height. According to the semi-but-not-quite scientific markings on the doorframe in our dining room, our family has not gotten much taller. Heather and I are the same height we’ve been for years now and Avery has managed to grow an inch or so. Donovan, however, has grown six and a half inches from fourth grade to now. If he keeps that average, by the time he gets to eighteen years old, he’ll be an inch or so taller than me. 

While most of us consider growth spurts to be something happens to our bodies, they also happen to our minds. We go through periods where we are exposed to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Most of these things happen at school or at work. We accept this kind of teaching as normal, just part of growing up, part of learning to be a person. We are expected to learn these things and rewarded with good grades and good job when we do. 

We struggle with looking at church the same way. We find an example of this in the scriptures we read from Acts 15. Scholars have come to call this the Jerusalem Conference or Council, one of the earliest recorded gatherings of the church. Followers of The Way came together to discuss the issue of Gentile circumcision. The issue was simple, Judaizers believed unless you were circumcised according to the Jewish law (a sign of covenant with God) you could not be considered a Follower of the Way. 

Paul, and those who ministered to the Gentiles outside of Jerusalem and the surrounding area, saw this is unnecessary. They traveled to Jerusalem to put the question to the elders and apostles: Did Gentiles need circumcision to be true disciples of Jesus? The question was argued back and forth, Pharisees among the elders insisting on circumcision and Paul and the missionaries insisting it unnecessary. During this, Peter stands and tells them,

God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.

The Methodist in me wants to applaud. Peter says it’s grace—divine favor shown to us—that reconnects us to God and gives us the ability to live into the calling of discipleship. There is no us and them, there is only grace for all who will receive it and live by it and in it and through it. The council agrees and sends a letter by Paul, Barnabas, Judas, and Silas. The letter says,

The Holy Spirit has led us to the decision that no burden should be placed on you other than these essentials: refuse food offered to idols, blood, the meat from strangled animals, and sexual immorality.

In other words, circumcision is not an issue according to the Jerusalem Council. So, we’re all in agreement and everyone is on the same page and everyone goes along, right. Yeah. We’re human beings and one thing human beings hate is being told they are wrong. Especially about something they have long believed was true. So no, even after this decision was made, it didn’t mean everyone agreed with it.

Paul ran into Judaizers (those who believed Christians should follow the Jewish law and become circumcised) in Galatia and Jerusalem well after the Council. These Judaizers felt they were doing what was right by scripture and tradition as Jews. They were willing to accept Jesus as prophet and even Messiah with a new understanding of that word. But they could not let go of their roots. They were taught the Law of Moses and those roots would be hard to dig up. For many, they would never give up those beliefs. 

Yet, the followers of Jesus—Peter, the apostles, and others among the leadership—had done just that. The scriptural interpretation of Paul and those who accepted the Gentiles made them the liberals of their day, doing a strange new thing (see Paul on Mars Hill, Acts 17). The Judaizers holding on to the Law of Moses made them the traditionalists, following what they had been taught and incorporating the teachings of Jesus into that. If we take a backward-looking stance—seeing something in history considering what has happened since—Peter, Paul, and the others who are with them seem normal. Of course, they accepted Gentiles without circumcision, why wouldn’t they? From a forward-looking perspective—seeing an event in its time and place—this acceptance of the Gentiles is harder to deal with. 

All well and good, but where does the rubber meet the road, so to speak? What am I saying in saying all of this? I’m saying we all took different paths to get to where we are right now. We all grew at different rates spiritual and emotionally. Some of us are still trying to grow. Some of us decided long ago we were comfortable with where we were at. But none of us in in the same place. We are all moving toward or away from God at varying rates and in varying directions. We need space to grow in our faith, safe space. Churches are supposed to be that safe space.

The problem is most churches have become castles instead of gardens. Instead of being open places to grow and mature in the light of God’s grace we have become bastions of rigid ideas, defending the things that grew us to the place we are without asking if we have any further to go. We invite people in but when they get to the gate, the gatekeepers give them lists of demands on what to think, how to act, what they can do. These castles and their gatekeepers block out the light and make sure nothing gets in except those things that they deem belong. And the people begin to die for lack of light and space to grow. As disciples, we must be able to try new ideas, new things. We must make space for those who would come and seek Jesus in ways not our own. We must tear down the castles of fear and mistrust and build gardens of grace and growth. 

Some of you will hear this and agree. You have your gardening supplies ready, and you have been waiting for permission to get started. Permission granted get started. Some of you are hearing this and it will be no different than a thousand other sermons you’ve heard. You’re bystanders. This will go in one ear and out the other and you will go on with your lives in the same manner you always have. Some of you are castle builders and gatekeepers. You are seething right now, angry that I would even suggest such a thing, angry that I would ever question any of this. Well, you’re welcome. Whether you think I’m right or wrong, you can’t argue with the Spirit of God. You gatekeepers, you castle builders, you bystanders, when was the last time the spirit of God moved in you? When was the last time you heard the voice of God instead of your own voice? When was the last time you acted out of love instead of fear?