Sunday, June 15th, 2014 – First Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Acts 15:1-18
Hymns: “Praise Him! Praise Him!”, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”, “Come Thou Almighty King”, “Take My Life and Let It Be”
Special Music: “Above All”
“No Test But Faith”
About a month ago, there was a story going ‘round the Internet about a church known as Mount Ebenezer Baptist Church. A historically black congregation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, it was revealed that their pastor, the Rev. James Lamont, had decided that, based on the rather low giving the church was experiencing, they would begin charging a fee to attend church. Members would be allowed an annual fee of $60, whereas visitors would be charged a $10 admission fee for each person, or $25 for a family of up to four.
There are certain things that make the Internet explode with outrage, and this was one of them. Pastors and parishioners far and wide posted the story on Facebook, Twitter, and every other possible social media outlet, saying what a disgusting example of consumerist Christianity it was. And Facebook was the channel by which it found its way onto my computer one Monday morning. Among the clergy posting it and expressing their dismay and despair were a couple that I know, and the story alarmed me.
However, when I clicked on the link and read it, I immediately smelled something rotten. As I said before, this church was purportedly located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Now, having lived in Winston-Salem for three and a half years, I know a little bit about the city, and one of the things of which I was relatively certain was that there was no Mount Ebenezer Baptist Church. A Mount Zion Baptist Church? Yes. An Ebenezer Baptist Church? You betcha. But Mount Ebenezer Baptist? Not so much.
Furthermore, the source of the article was an interview that Rev. Lamont had given to local station WSTV. Now those who don’t know Winston-Salem might see that and assume that “WSTV” stands for “Winston-Salem TeleVision”, and they would be correct. However, WSTV is not a news station – it is the local public access station, whose primary purpose is to air city council meetings.
So I did a little digging and discovered that the origin of the story was a website called “NewsNerd.org”, which as it turns out, is a satire site. Nothing they post is real, it is all supposed to be comedy wrapped in the veneer of reality. And thus did I post the truth of the matter – that there is no Mount Ebenezer Baptist Church, there is no Rev. James Lamont, and no residents of North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad would be paying $10 a head to get in the door of their church on Sunday – and at least in my personal circles, the outrage quickly dissipated.
Here’s the thing, though – the reason there was so much outrage over this “shocking” news item was that it really didn’t seem that far from a realistic possibility. There are many, many churches today where, if you join, you are expected to do a LEGION of other things. Now sure, some of them are Scripturally mandated – for example, actually acting on your faith and doing good works within the church, rather than just sitting back and doing nothing – but others… well, let’s just say that there isn’t anything in the Bible about how you need to advertise the church by putting their bumper sticker on your car, and oh by the way why haven’t you bought a copy of the pastor’s book yet, available in the church bookstore for the low low price of $19.99 (plus tax)?
There’s also nothing in the Bible that REQUIRES you to be baptized, REQUIRES you to take communion, REQUIRES you to be confirmed, or REQUIRES you to believe in anything other than that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the source of salvation and hope for the world. Interestingly enough, though, some churches would have you believe otherwise. A few churches would have you believe that, in order to receive salvation, you have to accept Jesus AND a certain set of dogma that that church has cooked up. If you don’t accept that dogma, well, you don’t get to be a Christian.
This is nothing new. Indeed, this goes all the way back to just a few years after the ascension of Christ into heaven.
It was around this time that the apostle Paul was at his most prolific. Indeed, he had just recently established two of the churches that would become cornerstones of the Christian movement in the centuries to come – a church of Greek Christians at Antioch, and a church of Celtic Christians at Galatia. These churches were thriving, booming even, with ridiculous numbers of Greeks and Galatians coming to know Christ as a result of the establishment of these churches.
Enter, stage right: THE PHARISEES. Yes, indeed, Jesus has, by this point, been crucified, resurrected, and ascended into heaven, but this group of religious fundamentalists is still being a massive thorn in the side of His ministry. To make matters worse: the Pharisees that are causing issues are Pharisees who HAVE ACCEPTED JESUS AND HIS GOSPEL. These are Christian Pharisees, leaders of the Jewish people who have converted.
And these Pharisees saw the establishment of Christian churches that DIDN’T start as Jewish communities as a problem. You see, at this point, Christianity was still seen as a sect of Judaism, and the Pharisees who were part of the Christian community had a vested interest in keeping it that way. If Christianity expanded its reach to include people who were in no way Jewish, then they would be members of another faith, another religion entirely, and their power within the Jewish community would be lost.
Thus, the Pharisees demanded that each Gentile – as the non-Jewish people were called – convert FIRST to Judaism before becoming followers of Christ. This meant that they would have to follow the Mosaic law, including prohibitions on working on the Sabbath, establishment of a Kosher diet, and perhaps the worst one of all, circumcision.
Now, given that y’all are wise, well-educated people, I’m pretty sure that I don’t need to explain to you what circumcision is. At the time, it was required practice among the Jewish people to circumcise newborn males, in keeping with the covenant that Abraham had made with God generations beforehand. These Greek and Celtic Christians, however, almost all of them Gentiles, likely would not have had this procedure performed at birth. Thus, the Pharisees were demanding that a large number of ADULT MALES undergo circumcision in order to become Christians.
Here’s the thing. I know that Jesus said that part of the consequences of following Him COULD include persecution, suffering, even death, but even He didn’t say that in order to follow Him you had to believe AND undergo IMMEDIATE pain!
To put it bluntly, the Pharisees were being ridiculous. And Paul had, quite frankly, had enough.
Paul headed back to Jerusalem and rounded up the gang. The apostles and leaders of the church got together and had a little pow-wow about the whole matter. Peter sided with Paul on the issue, saying, “Why are you trying to make God angry by placing a heavy burden on these followers?” As far as he was concerned, followers of Christ were followers of Christ, and asking the Gentile followers to do something that was not part of their cultural norm was simply ridiculous.
Once everybody had given their testimony, the apostle James, who at that time was the leader of the church, gave his verdict, quoting from the prophet Amos: “Other nations will turn to me and be my chosen ones.” In short, the Gentiles who had come to know Christ didn’t have to hold to the Jewish practices. They didn’t have to become Jews in order to become Christians. All they had to do was believe, and be saved.
Fast forward two thousand years, and you’ve got Pharisees again. You’ve got people who insist on Christians following certain aspects of certain laws in ORDER TO BE Christian. In fact, the Christian landscape has become increasingly fractious, especially in America. We have reached a point where if you disagree with one thing or another, then in the eyes of the other, you CLEARLY must not be a Christian. It’s gotten ridiculous, and unfortunately, this time, we don’t have a Peter, a Paul, a James to stand up and say, “Enough is enough.”
Now, let me be quite clear on this: I am not saying that churches that require their members to do something extra are doing it WRONG, by any stretch of the imagination. When people join a church that REQUIRES them to be baptized, REQUIRES them to be confirmed, REQUIRES them to do certain tasks, they do so of their own free will. Nobody is telling them that they HAVE to do those things – it’s just something required of them if they want to be a member OF THAT DENOMINATION. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s when a denomination that requires something starts making noises about how another denomination “isn’t Christian” because they don’t require the same thing that you start having problems. A certain gentleman named Joseph Ratzinger – better known to you and me as Pope Benedict XVI – caused himself and the Catholic Church no end of grief back in 2005 when he said that the Catholic Church was the “only true iteration of Christianity”, and that the only other denomination that came close to being true Christians and weren’t heretics were the Orthodox churches.
Needless to say, the rest of the Christian world didn’t take too kindly to that. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 was referenced frequently as the heads of numerous Protestant denominations responded to Pope Benedict. It was not a pretty sight. Nearly a decade later, however, Pope Francis has been very intentional about reaching out to Christians everywhere – as far as he’s concerned, he’s fine with everybody who holds faith in Christ and is working toward the good of God’s realm, regardless of whether they’re Catholic.
That kind of conciliatory attitude is one that was at the basis of the formation of the Disciples of Christ, and one to which Disciples churches still try to hold today. With no test of faith but belief in Christ, we welcome all who would claim Christ as savior.
That is not to say that the Disciples are perfect. That is not to say that Pope Francis is perfect. That is not to say that the apostles who proclaimed that all persons who believed in Christ were part of the body of Christ were perfect. But the attitude held, the idea that anybody who believes in Christ should be welcomed as part of the body of Christ, is one that is advisable for all Christians. All we need do is look to John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever – WHOEVER – believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Christians hold to one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God of all. Let us remember that it is by our faith through God’s grace that we are saved, and nothing else. May the love of Christ be our guide – indeed, our polar star.