What rules should stay and which can be changed?
Isn’t that a fantastic, 21st century question? Well, it was also a first century question and a second century question… a third century question… a fourth… a fifth. Actually, it’s an every time question, especially as it pertains to faith. The church is, as the Reformation taught us, semper reformata—always reforming. The question is, as always: Which parts?
Is it necessary that I preach from the pulpit? Most of you maybe don’t care. But at what point in the aisle does it become a little too Pentecostal? Where’s the point where I’ve taken it a little too far?
It’s an interesting question.
Or how about what we teach in the church? How about Confirmation? Most of our ideas about what Confirmation should look like have their roots in what Confirmation was for us. So, how do we take what Confirmation was for us and make it something that works today?
We can do this for everything we do as a church: Rules about communion… about who can serve in leadership roles… who can get ordained. It goes on and on.
Whatever your opinions about these things you have all seen these practices change in the last twenty or thirty or fifty years, and many other practices have followed in a similar vein.
The early church had even more dramatic shifts. For the first time, in today’s reading, they decide that Gentiles—uncircumcized, non-Jewish people—were able to be part of the church. This is revolutionary because they are saying that the thing that united the people—their Jewish faith, culture, and ethnicity—was now not the only way to be part of a shared faith. If Greeks could be part of the church then Lord only knows who else could be? Romans… Africans… people from the east. This is crazy stuff; it’s a giant change in the practices of the church. But Peter persists: Salvation is by grace, not ethnic heritage.
Ethnic heritage questions have not gone away in the last two millennia. Our churches still claim certain heritages. The real question is: At what point does our celebrating of our heritage constitute exclusion of others who don’t share that heritage? It might seem odd to you, but most people in the world don’t go out of their way for lefse bakes… or know what lefse is, for that matter. I was reminded of this when I typed “lefse” in Microsoft Word and it put that squiggly red line underneath, telling me it wasn’t in the dictionary. People don’t know what this stuff is. Now, I’m not saying it’s a problem to make lefse… or celebrate St. Lucia Day… or whatever ethnic festival is important to you—not in itself—but Peter, Paul, and Barnabus remind us to be aware of all the ways we subtly exclude by suggesting that who we are ethnically is more important than the faith we share.
A few weeks ago I asked our Confirmation students to brainstorm and highlight the things that make Lutherans Lutheran. Their answer? The one thing they could agree on was church-defining for Lutherans: potluck.
Now, I love potluck, but if potluck is what it means to be Lutheran than Confirmation just got a lot easier for me. Weekly potluck. Wonderful. We should probably ask ourselves: Why do they think that? And I think the answer is pretty straight-forward. What do we get most excited for? What do we excitedly wait on? Where do people come together? Potluck! Food! That’s what excites us, makes us nervous—Will there be enough? It’s what connects us.
But Jesus didn’t die for potluck—not for Jell-O salad; not for string beans; not for deviled eggs. No, Jesus died for us. Jesus died for a church that looks outside itself to ask what is essential. The church exists not for those that have been, but for those that might be. Jews, Gentiles; Christians, not-yet-Christians. What is essential for such a church? One thing, according to Paul: The essential point of church is to proclaim that it is grace that saves us. It does not matter if you are Jew or Gentile because it is grace that saves us. Grace saves us for the times we are not the church we should be. Grace saves us from our own comfort in being part of a tradition where people look and sound like us. Grace saves us from our complicity in systems that keep it that way. Grace saves us because that’s what we are about, and the sooner Lutherans can claim that, get excited about that, and wait in eager anticipation of that, rather than potluck and coffee hour and anything else Garrison Keillor sorta-kinda mocked for his entire career—the sooner we can claim was is essential, the more we can actually share in what is not.