“God’s Expansive Goodness”

“God’s Expansive Goodness”

Easter 5 (NL3) John B. Valentine
Acts 15:1-18 May 2, 2021


Wow! It’s GOOD to be back!

• Back in this space ... with people in the pews!

• Back to in-person worship ... with the ability to interact with others!

• Back to “being church together” ... rather than having to be church together at a distance.

I don’t know about you ... but:

• I was pretty tired of not seeing your faces while standing here in the pulpit.

• I was pretty tired of not hearing your voices when we’re singing or maybe praying.

• I was pretty tired of not being with you ... physically with you ... on any given sunday morning.

And ... honestly ... I was sick-and-tired of:

• Shooting video all Saturday morning ... and

• Editing video all Saturday afternoon ... and

• Uploading video most Saturday evenings ... and

• Worrying ... stewing ... praying ... every Saturday night that the worship video we’d put together would actually be accessible come Sunday morning.

But if there’s one thing that we’ve discovered over the course of the past fourteen months ... its that there are times in the life of the Church wherein we’re called:

• to try some new things ... and
• to learn some new things ... and
• to experiment with some new things ...

• for the sake of the Church ...
• for the sake of the Gospel ...
• for the sake of ministry ...
• for the sake of the people of God.

So I guess it’s only appropriate that ... on a day like today ... find our Scripture Lesson taken from the Book of Acts.

+ + + + +

You see ... the book that has been handed down to us as “The Acts of the Apostles” is THE book of the Bible wherein the earliest Christians discover for the first time what it means to be the Church.

• They’re not called to be a social club ...

• They’re not called to be a service organization ...

• They’re not called to be a spiritual self-improvement program ...

• They’re definitely not called to be a political lobbying organization ....

They are called to be “church”.

But they have no clue what it means to be “church” ... until ... in the Book of Acts ... the Holy Spirit shows them.

And so ... it’s in this Book of Acts that they come to discover that “being church” means being people who ... in partnership with the Spirit of the Living God ... work together to:

• experience God’s goodness and ...
• appreciate God’s goodness and ...
• attest to God’s goodness and ...
• extend God’s goodness ...

Further and further and further out into the world.

+ + + + +

Anyhow ... this morning ... in that text which Ed read ... we’ve been dropped right smack dab into the middle of ... of all things ... a Church Council meeting.

• You see ... in the story we focused on last week ... in Acts chapter 8 ... an Ethiopian ... an African ... and a sexually-disfigured Ethiopian at that ... was baptized by Philip out on the road that led from Jerusalem to parts south.

• And then ... in Acts chapter 9 ... Saul of Tarsus ... Saint Paul ... the one who had been in charge of persecuting the first Christians ... Saul/Paul is converted into seeing that Jesus is the Way of Truth.

• And then ... in Acts chapter 10 ... there is this story of the conversion of Cornelius ... a Roman soldier ... who becomes a convert to Christianity ... apparently along with the whole of his household.

In short order ... there’s:

• A dark-skinned sexually-mutilated fellow who gets baptized ... and welcomed into the church ...

• A guilty-as-all-get-out religious leader who gets baptized ... and welcomed into the church ...

• A leading member of the despised Roman occupation force who gets baptized ... and welcomed into the church.

It’s as if the Spirit ... the Holy Spirit ... seems to keep pushing out the boundaries as to what it might mean to be part of the people of God ...

Until some already IN the Church seems to say “Hold on!” ... “Not so fast!”

+ + + + +

You see ... our text says that “certain individuals” showed up and said “Wait a minute. This can’t be. You can’t be a part of this Church unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses.”

Now ... to my experience as a pastor ... just that phrase “certain individuals” ought to constitute a HUGE red flag unto itself.

Because anytime “unnamed individuals” and “people who wish to remain anonymous” and “some people” and the like get referenced ... malevolent forces seem to get unleashed.

But what makes this particularly problematic is that these “certain individuals” are absolutely insistent that these new things that are happening are NOT in keeping with the traditions of the church.

“You cannot be saved .... you cannot be a Christian” ... they insist ... “Unless and until you become a Jew first.”

And what ensues is “no small dissension and debate” .... and a whole lot of discussion and disputing ... about the issue that will ultimately share the trajectory of the Church in the world.

And so it comes to pass that Paul and Barnabas and some others go to this Church Council meeting in Jerusalem so as to get the issue sorted out.

Ultimately ... I suspect ... if your strip away all the particularities of the argument ... the question that the early church has to come to grips with is this one:

• Is what happened on Good Friday and Easter morning good news for Jewish people?

Or ...

• Is what happened on Good Friday and Easter morning good news for all people?

And ... surprisingly ... it’s Peter ... hard-headed, lunk-headed Peter ... who shows the way when he makes this amazing declaration that the ONLY test that matters ... the ONLY matter that matters ... is FAITH!

God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.'

It’s not that Peter isn’t saying that change is hard ...

It’s not that Peter hasn’t cherished his cultural identity as a Jew all of his life ...

It’s not that Peter isn’t proud of the traditions of his ancestors ...

But it IS that Peter is saying that sometimes the Church has got:

• to try some new things ... and
• to learn some new things ... and
• to experiment with some new things ...

• for the sake of the Church ...
• for the sake of the Gospel ...
• for the sake of ministry ...
• for the sake of the people of God.

+ + + + +

This is the way it is with being “church” ... folks.

That God is stretching us to see bigger possibilities and broader opportunities than we could ever either want or imagine.

That OUR qualifiers ... and our qualifications ... for participating in the amazing grace and goodness of God are not God’s qualifiers and God’s qualifications.

You know the sort of qualifiers we hang out there:

• No fanatics ... no homosexuals ...
• No Republicans ... no Democrats ...
• No lazy people ... no reactionaries ...
• No liberals ... no bigots ... no Pharisees ...

Unless ... of course ... they first ... [fill in the blank].

• We have fences to maintain ... after all.
• We have litmus texts to administer.
• We have standards to uphold.

But Peter here discovers that there is only ONE standard ... ONE limit ... ONE litmus test ... as it were.

That God is better to us than we are to ourselves ... and that everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ “receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

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You know ... I’m not quite sure why ... but as I’ve sat with this text all week ...

Thinking about what Peter says here ... and about how Peter discovered that God’s goodness was broader than Peter had ever previously imagined ... and who susceptible that expansive goodness is to human limitations ... I find myself thinking of a fellow named Martin Niemöller.

You see ... Martin Niemöller was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian back in the 1920's and ‘30's ... and like many of his fellow clergyman in the country at that time ... Niemöller was a strident anti-Communist ... and initially found himself a supporter of Hitler's rise to power.

But when — after he came to power — Hitler insisted on the subservience of the church to the state ... Niemöller became disillusioned ... and began to speak out ... and in 1937 he was arrested ... and eventually was sent to Dachau.

And it was there that Niemöller formulated these words which haunt us to this day:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left to speak out for me

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You see ... at the end of the day ... the church’s job ... even to this day ... is plain and simple:

• to experience God's goodness and ...
• to appreciate God's goodness and ...
• to attest to God's goodness and ...
• to extend God's goodness ...

Further and further and further out into the world.

May it be so among us!

“God’s Expansive Goodness” was a sermon preached by Pastor John Valentine in conjunction with worship on May 2, 2021 – the 5th Sunday of the Easter Season.  (It was also the first day of returning to corporate worship after nearly 14 months apart from one another!)  Please be patient with the video rendition of this service, as we are working out a number of kinks related to live-streaming our services.  (The actual service starts at about the 15:00 minute mark.)