Gatekeepers

guard
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/vincealongi/1546867380/">Vince Alongi</a>

Acts 10:44-48

Before Peter finished talking, God’s spirit came over everyone who heard the news.

The orthodoxy police who had come along were shocked that God’s spirit had been given so easily, even to these heathen. But they heard with their own ears how in many languages they were giving props to God.

So Peter asked, “Since these folk obviously have God’s spirit, are you still going to bar them from admittance?” He gave orders that they should be baptized in Jesus’ name, and they invited him to hang out with them for a few days.

Every community has its gatekeepers. They’re the ones, often self-appointed, who take it upon themselves to say whose in and whose out.

The trouble is, especially in religious communities, when the gatekeepers start using the wrong criteria for making decisions about people. The original Greek in this passage is more specifically about circumcision: “The circumcised believers who came with Peter.” That was their litmus test. But it could be any litmus test that depends on the sacred cows of the gatekeepers.

Instead, the right question to ask when deciding whether someone is eligible for membership is, “Does this person get what God is doing?” Another way to ask it: “Does this person share the spirit of the community?”

The answer to that question will nearly always, as in this case, be obvious. Chances are, God is much more ready to extend the spirit of the community than we gatekeepers are. Truth is, those who have the spirit will have a good time with it, even if the orthodoxy police are shocked by it.

The sad irony is the ones who end up self-excluded are the gatekeepers.

The Communalists

pen, checks, and bills
Image credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/rmgimages/4882450962/">Ramberg Media Images</a>

Acts 4:32-35

Everyone in the community was unanimous. They considered each other the same as themselves, and nobody counted anything as their own, but as the community’s. Those who had been sent told their witness of the resurrection so convincingly that everyone was inspired to graciousness. So it was that nobody ever went without. Whoever owned land or houses sold them and gave the proceeds to the community. They gave it all to the those who’d been sent, and they, in turn, passed it out according to what needs people had.

Early Christians weren’t communists because they ascribed to an economic theory. They were communist because that was how they made sure everyone’s needs were met. It’s probably more accurate to say they were communalists.

Behind the community’s practice, it’s clear that there are two things going on.

First, there is an agreement that everyone really is equal, and that equality is understood, not in a theoretical “all are endowed by their creator” sense, but as a moral obligation to the other.

Second, there is a convincing witness of the resurrection that inspires graciousness. It’s not enough to simply assent to the idea that “Jesus is risen.” Lots of mean people will say they believe in the resurrection, but they don’t care about anyone but themselves. Not so convincing. A convincing witness to the resurrection is a story that inspires people to live in a resurrected way – to live graciously in relationship with others.

It’s not about the particular economic system of the community. It’s about the moral character of the community. Whatever economic system you go with, the same question applies: Is everyone taken care of according to their need? A community’s budget is a moral document.

Orwellian Equality

two women, one traditionally dressed, the othre in modern clothes
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/adam_jones/3774290540/">Adam Jones</a>

Acts 10:34-43

 Then Peter told them:

“Now I get it. God doesn’t count some people as if they were better than others. Wherever you come from, if you do what’s right, you’re OK with God. You know, by sending Jesus, God sent the Israelis a message of peace. But Jesus is the same message to everyone. Starting in Galilee with John’s announcement that God had sent Jesus with a different powerful spirit, it spread through Judea. Then he went all over the place doing good and healing everyone who the devil had ground down. God was with him, and we are witnesses to what he did in Judea and Jerusalem. They executed him, hung him on a tree. But three days later God raised him up, and made it obvious, certainly not to everyone, but to us, whom God had chosen to see it, and we ate and drank with him after he’d risen. He ordered us to tell everyone that he’s the one God has appointed to judge everyone, whether living or dead. All the truth-tellers say that whoever embraces him is forgiven all their wrongdoing because of him.”

The message of Jesus is, at it’s heart, peace. At the core of that peace is the kind of “doing right” that embraces a radical equality.

Peter’s speech is set at the first meeting between the Israeli contingent of Jesus followers and the first followers of other races and religions. Each of these groups considered themselves “better” than the other. Each had a long history of hostility against the other. The question is, how will they become a community together.

Peter’s answer to that question is given in retelling the Jesus story, ending with Jesus as the cosmic judge over “the living and the dead.” Already, in this retelling of the Jesus story a generation after Jesus, the emphasis has moved from Jesus’ treatment of all people as equal to Jesus enforcing the principle of equality as a divine judge. The motive has moved from emulation from inner conviction to conformity to the requirements of an external divine judge.

Furthermore, we see that the exercise of the divine judgment is becoming located more definitively in the say-so of the apostles, who claim a special, more personal connection with Jesus. Ironically, this speech attempts to enforce the practice of equality in the community by establishing a special better class of people.

The treatment of certain people as equal in God’s sight may be a new revelation to Peter, but at least as he plays it out in this speech, he still hasn’t really “got it.” He’s still stuck in the Orwellian bind of some people being more equal than others.

Look for God Beyond the Borders

woman standing on a cliff in the wind
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/squeakywheel/2255524253/">squacco</a>

Acts 1:6-8

When his disciples reassembled, they asked Jesus, “Master, are you going to restore Israel’s independence now?”

“First, God only knows when that will happen, and you’re not in on that decision,” Jesus said. “But when you get God’s spirit you’ll have the power to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and everywhere.”

Even after the resurrection, the disciples haven’t figured out that this whole Jesus thing isn’t about Israeli independence. Jesus’ response, “Only God knows… and you’re not in on that” is as much as to say, “forget about it.”

Instead Jesus tells them when they do realize where God’s spirit is taking this, it will lead them from where they are (just outside Jerusalem), beyond their own national borders (Judea) into a worldwide phenomenon (everywhere).

Against our tendency to reduce God’s activity to our own private bubble of concerns and issues, Jesus was always pushing us – and is still pushing – to realize that it’s not about us. At least, not just about us. If the spirit of God is really upon us, our circle of concern (and involvement) will always be widening.

[Bonus: This passage, if you’re looking for one, is the reason why Christian nationalism (doesn’t matter what nation) is bunk.]