By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Acts 15:1-2, 4-11
In my late twenties and early thirties I suffered terribly from migraines. Britt had just entered his Ph.D. program. We were living near Chicago; far from home in a wealthy suburban community and my church appointment as an associate pastor was enormously challenging.
All the stress exacerbated my medical condition. The number of migraines I was getting and the amount of medication needed to treat them was at an unhealthy level. As we know, migraines are a vascular condition. A therapist in my congregation knew a psychiatrist who used biofeedback with migraine patients, training them to influence their own vascular process; to relax the vessels and disrupt the migraine cycle. I had health insurance so I assumed that, since the psychiatrist was in my network, my insurance would cover the treatment. We began the weekly meetings. Near the end of the treatment regiment, he received final notice that my insurance company considered these treatments – from which I was already deriving significant benefit – “experimental” and would not provide any coverage. The doctor knew my level of stress and that finances were a big part of that stress. He’d been collecting the smallest deductible associated with any plan; so I’d been paying a pittance. I remember that final appointment and his announcement that insurance was not covering any of this and my feeling of sheer panic. But then, he told me I could pay that day’s deductible as I’d been doing all along and that would be it. He wasn’t going to bill me; he wasn’t putting me on a payment plan. He didn’t even hand me his business card and admonish me to send him money someday when my financial condition improved. He simply reviewed with me the new practices I had learned to influence my vascular process; he bid me well, and sent me on my way. I can’t recall the cost of those treatments. The figure was staggering. Now, he had a thriving practice near Hinsdale, Illinois so I’m sure he was doing fine. But, there was nothing I did to deserve such a lavish break. Putting me on a payment plan (that would have probably stretched out over a decade) would have been perfectly reasonable. But he didn’t. He just let me walk right out the door.
For me, that experience is a story about grace. There was nothing I did to earn forgiveness for the bill I’d racked up. I didn’t even have to ask. The doctor knew my need and he forgave my debt.
Before United Methodist clergy are ordained, we must undergo a written and oral theological exam that includes questions about grace. We must demonstrate a clear understanding of God’s grace received by faith, or trust, in Jesus. Yet, I believe, grace can’t really be understood unless we have experienced it; lived it.
The most popular hymn of all time – one of the most popular songs in the world – is the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It is, perhaps, so popular because of its very personal nature. The opening line, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” is autobiographical. As you may know, the British lyricist John Newton was quite the scoundrel. His devout mother died when he was very young. He joined his father at sea and became a notorious sailor. He tried to ditch the navy and was flogged as a deserter. He wound up a godless captain of a slave ship. But over time, he was impacted by the writing of St Thomas a Kempis, a near-death experience at sea, and relationships he developed with people like John Wesley and the abolitionist William Wilberforce. Eventually, Newton repented of his lifestyle, began theological studies and eventually was ordained to ministry; he, too, became an avid abolitionist.[i] “Amazing Grace” is Newton’s personal witness to how his experience of God’s grace transformed his life from wretchedness and sorrow to holiness and joy.
Today is the last Sunday before Pentecost, the birthday of the church. Over the past four weeks, we’ve been looking at scriptures from the Book of Acts about the birth and growth of the early Church.
The Church began with Jewish followers of Jesus, a Jewish Messiah. Now, even in Old Testament times, the Jewish people were told that they were intended to be a light to all nations. When God promised the barren, elderly couple Abraham and Sarah that God would bless them with a son in their old age, God’s announcement included the promise that – through that child and his descendents – all the families of the earth would be blessed. Likewise, after Jesus rose from the dead – and before he returned to heaven – he told his Jewish followers that his message and his movement would extend to the ends of the earth.
Yet, it seems those first followers of Jesus still weren’t ready for their religious movement to “go viral,” so to speak…
Whatever your view on the most recent issues with Facebook and its privacy problems, we all have to admit that the world in which Mark Zuckerberg launched his social networking site in 2004 could have never anticipated the problems we face in 2018. For sure, there were plenty of warning signs along the way – especially in recent years. But in 2004? Who could have envisioned what Facebook and our broader social network and cyber-culture would become in a mere 14 years? Anything new that grows quickly takes its founders by surprise and presents unanticipated challenges and often heated debate. And that was what happened in the early Church. It grew quickly in ways those early Jewish apostles would have never imagined.
One of the most significant challenges was its expansion to include those who were not Jews. Three weeks ago, I preached about the Greek-speaking widows in the early Church who were being overlooked when food was being distributed. At that point, the Jewish apostles designated some Greek-speaking guys (members of the congregation) to join this feeding ministry so they could insure there wouldn’t be bias in the distribution of food. Those guys were basically relegated to working the food pantry. Yet they began to preach. It’s really interesting. The whole reason these guys were brought on board was so that the original Jewish apostles could focus on preaching and leave the food pantry work to those other guys. But apparently the Holy Spirit had other plans. Those guys working at the food pantry wound up being powerful preachers and evangelists and missionaries. One of them – Stephen – even became the first Christian martyr.
Last week, we read the story of God directing the apostle, Peter, to go to the home of a Roman military leader named Cornelius to proclaim the good news of Jesus; then right before Peter’s eyes, the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and everyone in his household and they all began to praise God in different languages. The same thing happened to that house full of Gentiles as happened to the original Jewish apostles on the church’s birthday, Pentecost.
So a tension is developing as the Church is growing. There are problems and challenges that just weren’t anticipated and they stir up heated debate. There are murmurings and people begin to break into factions. Is what’s happening really acceptable? As soon as Peter returns from the home of Cornelius, he’s questioned: Why has he been fraternizing with these Gentiles? Why did Peter even enter Cornelius’ home? Why did he eat with them; after all, they’re unclean Gentiles and Peter is supposed to be godly and holy? But Peter gives them the whole story and, once they hear what happened, they’re super excited about it. They come to see things differently after Peter shares his personal experience of the grace of God at work in Cornelius and his friends. Peter saw the Spirit at work; Peter saw the grace of God poured out. So, as readers of the story, we might figure that’s the end of it… but, it’s not.
Halfway through chapter 11 of Acts everybody seems excited about the Church being opened up to Gentiles. By the end of the chapter a church has been founded in Antioch and Barnabas has been sent there as their founding pastor and teacher. He gets the apostle Paul to come join him and they spend a whole year establishing the congregation. One day during worship, the Holy Spirit comes upon them and instructs them to go on a missionary journey. One of their stops is in Pisidia. They speak in a synagogue there but, when local Gentiles show up and turn it into a standing room only crowd, the members of the synagogue are really ticked. They’re so mad they take it out on Paul. Over and over again, the early evangelists come up against this problem of bias. And it all comes to a head in chapter 15 at something church historians have dubbed the Jerusalem Council.
There needs to finally be some kind of decisive resolution to this problem that keeps rearing its ugly head. Is it really OK for the Gentiles to be a part of this Jesus movement? It started out as a Jewish movement, so do they need to become Jews in order to be Jesus followers? The church leaders don’t want this debate to tear them all to pieces.
Now it is Peter and Paul and Barnabas who do most of the talking during this council meeting and what they talk about is their own personal experience with God’s amazing and inclusive grace. They have seen the grace of God at work among these Gentiles just as they’ve seen God’s grace work in the lives of the Jewish people. In fact, in chapter 11 of Acts right after Peter explains what he saw happen at the home of Cornelius, we read about Barnabas going to Antioch and here’s what we read that “When Barnabas came [to Antioch] and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion…”[ii]
So what about you? What is grace to you? Do you know what it looks like; can you recognize it when you see it? Grace, my friends, needs to be more than just an abstract theological concept or a word we associate with church. You can’t just rely on some definition you read in a book or hear on a podcast. Grace is a lived experience: a personal encounter with the kindness and goodness of God that changes us. It changes how we see ourselves; it changes how we see others. Right now in our United Methodist Church and in some other churches as well, folks are struggling to decide who is in and who is out. This struggle to capture a broader vision of the church is reflected in this year’s Annual Conference theme: “See All the People.” Where should we be flexible and where should we stand firm? In the early Church, they faced those same kinds of questions and, to reach wise conclusions, they focused on identifying God’s grace and God’s Spirit at work. They identified the presence of God’s grace and the movement of God’s Spirit within people and among people. Wherever grace and the Holy Spirit abound, we have Church. If grace and the beauty of the Spirit are lacking, it can’t be Church. Grace is about recognizing that, because of Jesus (who he is and what he does for us), we’ve received far better than we deserve and – because of that – we can offer others far better than they deserve too. That’s grace in a nutshell. Grace, by its very nature is expansive, not restrictive. In various places in Acts, we read about what grace looked like in the early church: people listen and learn God’s Word, they eat together and pray, they share what they have and even give up what they have in order to help one another, they give thanks to God; and in that atmosphere of openness and generosity, God’s grace continues to reveal itself in ways that are awesome and wondrous.
Friends: without attention to God’s grace – if we’re not attentive to the presence of God’s grace, then the church’s ministry gets hijacked by personal preference and personal comfort. And frankly, if that had been the driving force in the early Church, none of us would even be here this morning since we are – I’m assuming – all Gentiles. The early apostles focused on grace. They shared and celebrated their personal experiences of where and how they saw the grace of God at work; even in unexpected places, even among unexpected people. So, what is grace to you? Do you know what it looks like; can you recognize it when you see it? It needs to be more than an abstract theological concept. Grace is an experience: our personal encounter with the kindness and goodness of God that changes us. It changes how we see ourselves; it changes how we see others. And that’s what makes it amazing.
[i] Information taken from https://hymnary.org/person/Newton_John and https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=894060
[ii] Acts 11:23
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