Thursday 25 April 2024

What we put in the way

In Christian scripture, the Book of Acts tells the stories of the earliest days of the followers of Jesus after his departure. It’s often referred to as the story of the earliest days of the church, the struggles and successes, the founding of faith communities and some of the issues they encountered.

I wonder if that’s fair, though, “the earliest days of the church.” I don’t know that it was anything like we’d call “church,” and I wonder if our trying to see it that way might mislead our thinking about it. They were finding their way, establishing communities and trying to figure out how to do things. There were struggles and conflicts as they tried to be Jesus in community, interpreting and learning what that even meant. They tried to establish criteria for being part of the community, jews and gentiles, different cultures, different status in society, genders, ages … Oh. Wait. I see it now. Yes, that does sound like church: establishing boundaries and criteria for membership. Sigh.

Except, back then, they didn’t have centuries of “tradition” to consider. Not as a “church,” anyway. There were certainly ideas, traditions, rituals to be addressed from their prior experience, but how did this fit into the teachings of Jesus, into this new thing that some were calling The People of the Way and will one day be called Christians? 

There are stories in Acts about how the spirit moved through some of these moments. There’s a story about Phillip, not the apostle, but one of seven people chosen to care for the poor. Think of him as one of the first elders or deacons. He’s later described as an evangelist - someone who proclaimed the story of Jesus. The story goes that an angel told him to go to a certain place on a road where he meets an Ethiopian official on their way home from worshipping in Jerusalem. He’s also a eunuch and head of the Ethiopian Treasury, an important position. Philip sees that they’re reading from a scroll which is the book of the prophet Isaiah. The spirt moves Philip to talk to the Ethiopian and share the story of Jesus. The Ethiopian is so moved that when they spot some water by the road, they ask “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip baptizes them, and they go on their way “rejoicing” while Philip is “snatched away” by the Spirit for other things (Acts 8:26-40). 

Thing is, if you’re reading this as a story of church, there’s a lot to prevent them from being baptized. Philip didn’t tell them they had to attend church for a certain number of Sundays, attend classes, take a test or pass an interview, sign a statement of faith, make a minimum donation or a financial commitment to the church. He also doesn’t engage in the not-so-well hidden prejudices of culture, gender identity, sexual orientation, spiritual beliefs, ability or economic and social circumstance. He simply does what Jesus would do: acknowledge, welcome and affirm a child of God just as they are. You know, the real point of baptism.

I wouldn’t tell a church or a faith community that they shouldn’t have any criteria for membership, you’re welcome to that. Just consider that your criteria might be a barrier and that all that’s being offered is membership in your group, not in the worldwide community which is the family of Jesus. We all already have that because we’re all children of God, just as we are. And that’s more than enough.

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