This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/27/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 15:1-11; 22-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)
Who gets to call themselves a Christian? Who gets to define what that means?
Back in 2006, I enrolled in the Earlham School of Religion – a Quaker seminary in Richmond, Indiana. I was a pretty new Quaker, and was still learning a lot about my faith. Like a lot of Quakers, I was drawn in by a sense of God’s presence in the meeting for worship, but I still had a lot of questions about what my faith actually meant.
I don’t know if this is normal, but I didn’t consider myself a Christian when I first arrived at seminary. Don’t get me wrong – I was wrestling with the Christian tradition. I was reading the Bible, and I was really impressed with Jesus. Reading about him in the gospels, I knew that in all his words and actions, there was life. God was present.
But I didn’t know whether I could call myself a Christian. I wasn’t sure I qualified. I wasn’t sure I was a churchy kind of person – or if I even wanted to be.
I did eventually get there. Early in my second semester, I realized that I could, in fact, identify as a Christian, a follower of Jesus, a part of the Body of Christ.
How did this happen? What made me think I could count myself among the saints, in the same community as Thomas Kelly, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, George Fox, and Francis of Assisi?
At that time, I didn’t know whether I could affirm the whole Nicene creed. I didn’t know what I thought about the resurrection, or how to understand the atonement. I didn’t have things figured out and sorted into neat and tidy boxes. No doubt there are people who wouldn’t accept me as a “real” Christian, even now.
But during that first long winter at seminary, in the midst of all my doubts and struggle, I came to call myself a Christian. I found myself saying, “Jesus is Lord.”
Jesus is Lord. What does that mean? For me, it means that Jesus is my leader. He’s my teacher. My master. He’s the person I look to with absolute devotion, absolute loyalty and obedience. He’s the one I want to be like. He’s the measure that I gauge my life by. He’s the cornerstone that breaks me open and exposes my cowardice and hypocrisy. He’s the way, the truth, and the life.
Jesus is Lord. I became a Christian when I discovered him, accepted him, came to obey him. Not doctrines about him. Not rituals meant to remind me of him. Not a form of church organization inspired by him.
Him. The heart of my faith. A living relationship with the risen Jesus of Nazareth, alive and present through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is Lord. This is the most basic article of the Christian faith. This is the heart of our confession. That Jesus is alive. He is present. He can be known, loved, and obeyed as teacher and lord.
Our faith is not a set of rules that we studiously conform to. We don’t place our trust in a law passed down from the mountaintop, written down on stone tablets, and forever adhered to without any further communication from God.
Our faith is the law written on our hearts by God. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit, guiding us. It is a relationship, as real and as tangible as any other relationship in your life – with your brother, your sister, your mother, your father.
Realer. It’s even more real than those relationships, because this relationship with our Holy Center redefines and illuminates everything else. This relationship unites us into a body, one people.
This is the life that the early church was experiencing when Peter and Paul and Barnabas discovered the outpouring of the Holy Spirit even among the uncircumcised Gentiles. “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us.”
The early church had a lot of really religious people in it. People who obeyed the law of Moses. People who followed all the rules. They kept the law.
But the big surprise, the great reversal, is that God doesn’t tie himself down with the rules. Many who are last will be first, and the first will be last. The eldest son who kept all of his father’s commandments is scandalized when the prodigal son is welcomed back with open arms.
The Gentiles – the unclean, sinful, wayward, godless Gentiles – are welcomed into the kingdom of God as first class citizens. Because Jesus is Lord.
The good news of Jesus is not a new law. It is not better rules. It’s not a more perfect religion. It’s the immediate, direct presence of Jesus in our midst.
The good news is not a program that we can accomplish. It’s not deeper meditation, or better activism, or even kindness to strangers. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s the transformation that comes when we hand our lives over completely to the living presence of God and say, “here I am, Lord – use me!”
The kingdom of God is a relationship. It is dynamic. It is contextual. And just like any relationship, it evolves over time. When God liberated the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt, he led them out into freedom in the wilderness. He gave them the law through Moses. Because that’s what they needed right then. That’s was where the relationship was at.
But as we read in the Book of Acts this morning, we see that the relationship evolves. In Jesus, God is moving us into a new phase. An age in which the living presence of God departs from the holy precincts of the Temple and takes up residence in his people, the church. In us.
Jesus is Lord. That’s the heart of the gospel. Our relationship of love and obedience to him.
Jesus is Lord. For us religious people, this can be hard to hear, because religion so often is about laying claim to having the best set of rules to live by. Do we dunk or do we sprinkle? Wafers or whole grain bread? Do we preach prepared sermons, or only extemporaneously? Do we tithe a tenth of our income to the church? Do we always give money to every person who asks for it? We like to have answers to these questions.
But here’s the only answer God gives us: Jesus is Lord. This is not an abstraction. God did not send Jesus to give us another legal code or set of rules. Jesus came and God raised him from the dead so that we would learn to listen to him.
The kingdom of God is listening to him. Knowing him. Becoming his friends. Obeying him, in a dynamic student/teacher relationship. We become a community in Christ when we hear and obey him together.
A legal code can’t do that. A “biblical worldview” can’t do that. It’s the presence of the Holy Spirit and our readiness to listen and obey that ushers in the kingdom.
That’s what the early church discovers in Acts 15. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing. The religious people were reading the words of the Bible and applying them as best they could. But in Jesus, we discover that we have so much more than a book. We have a savior. A resurrected, living, present savior who speaks to us directly.
The book can help us to recognize his voice – but the point is not to follow the book, it’s to follow Jesus!
This calls for discernment. It’s easy for individuals, and even whole communities, to mis-hear what the Spirit is saying. The early church knew this. So they held a big meeting in Jerusalem to listen, speak, and pray for God to direct them as a community. It was basically the same thing as Quaker meeting for business.
The whole church gathered to listen to what the Spirit had to say. And they found that God was blessing the Gentiles’ entrance into the church. And even those who had opposed the unorthodox lifestyles of the Gentiles were convicted by the presence of the Holy Spirit. What God has made clean, who can call unclean?
At this council of Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit clarified the minds and spirits of the apostles, the disciples, the whole body of believers. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to those present, that the rules had changed. Citizens of the kingdom of God are not obligated to keep the many and complicated purity codes of the Torah.
“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials…” Don’t eat food sacrificed to idols, or blood, or strangled animals. And don’t involve yourselves in sexual immorality. Other than that, focus on sharing the good news of Jesus and live in peace with one another.
Jesus is Lord. The life of the kingdom is a living relationship with the resurrected Jesus. Hearing him. Obeying him. Moving with him as he guides us and continues to evolve our relationship.
We don’t have everything figured out. We disagree about important things. But what binds us together is that Jesus is Lord. What makes us one body is the one Spirit of God breathing in us. Our unity is in listening to Jesus, following him as he guides us in our own time and place.
We have different challenges than Moses and the Hebrews, wandering in the wilderness with God. Our circumstances are different from those of the early Church and the early Quakers. Yet we live in times just as important and challenging as theirs. We don’t need a set of rules to follow, we need real-time guidance from the one who created it all. We don’t need a rulebook, we need a savior.
As we enter into a time of open worship, let’s invite the Holy Spirit to come and move in our midst. Teach us, God. Bind us together and show us how to be faithful to the life you’re calling us to in our time and place.