Saturday, January 28, 2017

Church and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

                 If you were to survey most Christians, I would imagine the Sermon on the Mount would rank up there as one most remembered of the gospels.  Jesus has a crowd gathered, eager to hear his teaching.  The scene could not be more appropriate:  Jesus ascends to a place where he can speak to the masses.  The little cues of Matthew’s narration set up what is about to unfold.  Jesus assumes the posture of teacher, sitting down, attended by his disciples, and then what sounds like a minor detail:  he opens his mouth to speak.  This phrase cues Matthew’s reader that Jesus is one who speaks with authority, just like the “greats” who have gone before.
                  Speaking with authority is a difficult concept for us nowadays.  We live in the midst of a 24 hour news cycle, where matters of public discourse get turned into the grist mill of news commentary and pundits battling ideological differences, and then Stephen Colbert and others end the night, poking fun at the pundits.  (They do not want for comedy-worthy material from either side of the fence.)
                 Authority does not carry much weight.  We live in a time of distrust that any authority has much good to say, or if it sounds good, such talk needs scrutiny.  We look for bias.  We presume a subtext at work.  We frown, arms folded, skeptical that much good can come of this political speech or that ideological way of thinking.
                 Jesus has gathered for a multitude with very little distrust.  In fact, he seems to be rather harried with the adoration and praise.  He has started his ministry, gathered some disciples, but the groundswell of people interested in hearing more and receiving his healing touch is overwhelming.  He has struck a deep chord among the people of rural and coastal Galilee.

                 Fast forward to the end of this story called “gospel”, however, and you find that Jesus is alone, walking (as best he can) towards another place, one called “Golgotha”, or that is, “the place of the skull”.  The crowds that are around him are mostly hostile.  The disciples are nowhere to be found.
                 It could be said that what he says up there on the Mount is the first of many things that will not sit well with his detractors.  It is said that he is too controversial, too against the grain.  It angers them enough to the point they conspire to get rid of him.
                 Some people, called Christians, say that Jesus spoke with authority, unlike any other.
The Sermon on the Mount is part of that unusual message of Jesus.  In these nine short sayings, Jesus begins his task of imagining a different sort of world.   Imagine if you will that a major political speech began not with a critique of Wall Street, but with a story from a soup kitchen, or if a Congressional panel interviewed peace activists, rather than military generals, about the defense needs of the country.  Yeah?  I know, it sounds pretty far-fetched.  While it is not part of the world as we know it, the Beatitudes proclaim it gladly.

               Here, we find that different world of the Beatitudes at work.   For example, the grief-stricken are given promise of comfort.  The earnest humble type will be received gladly into God’s kingdom-reign.  Those who live in fear of persecution will have safety.  And the list goes on…..
The Beatitudes are an extension of what Jesus was first saying as his ministry began:  “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near”.  The crowds have gathered as Jesus has brought hope to the rural, mostly forgotten places of Galilee.  He is willing to share this teaching beyond his “faithful” inner circle.  Everyone is welcome to hear this word, yet the response will be mixed.  Can we live in such a world as Jesus’ beatitudes put forth?
              With Jesus’ teachings, there is an innate tension between the present and the future.  How will we be comforted from our grief?  How will we feel vindicated when the world seems against us?  How do we manage when there’s not much hope to be found around us?

             The Beatitudes have a curious grammar.  On one hand, Jesus names people who “are” in a certain predicament or live in a way less desirable to others (i.e. do you really want to be known as “meek” when the culture says, “be strong!”?).  In the same breath, he draws them into the future, a much brighter, hopeful time.  How hopeful is this future?  It is astonishing!
How so?  Let’s again look at the meek.  Imagine the quieter, less competitive type as the person ahead of you in the line to Heaven’s gates.  It goes against the story (or perhaps better said, myth) of life as we know it that you need to be aggressive and competitive to get ahead.  Yet, Jesus says those who are not the best players of that sort of game, or who choose not to be, are the ones who “get ahead” in God’s realm.
              In these beatitudes, Jesus is reshaping our expectations of what the future holds.  For those who feel like perpetual students of “the School of Hard Knocks”, there will be a reckoning, and for once, it will be one you want to come about!  The burdensome issues of the present shall give way to a future where the playing field is level, and a truly peaceable kingdom, one remarkably unlike Rome, shall reign.
             The grammar of the Beatitudes is subversive.  We are given a vision of the future as God will bring it about.  Jesus also intends for those hearing these beatitudes to work in the here and now as if that future is the pattern we follow in our present day actions.  We live as a people who decline to give in and let the “lesser” folks or the forgotten or the bereft or the condemned or the unjustly treated be left to arbitrary treatments.  The Beatitudes swing back and forth between “what will be” and “what we need to get things to be”.
             In our most common English translations, the Beatitudes describe various people in crisis getting their liberating word about God’s future for them by being called “blessed”.  In truth, the concept underlying the Greek word Jesus uses (Gk. makarios) is better translated as “esteemed” or “honored”.  The persons who have already lost the most stand to gain greatly, not only in alleviation of their predicaments or impoverishment but in their standing in the kingdom that shall last: the kingdom of God.  “Esteemed are those who grieve” or “honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” places a different spin on the Beatitudes.  The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann claims that such teachings of Jesus highlight the gospel’s belief in “the dignity of the poor” (The Way of Jesus Christ, pp. 99-102).  When Jesus pronounces blessings upon the vulnerable, he also provides a word about how strong the “weak” shall be when the Kingdom of God draws near.  Without these esteemed and honored peoples, the Kingdom/Reign cannot live up to its potential (cf. Moltmann, 101-2).   Such a far cry from the world where those perceived as “weak” are marginalized or tossed aside.
            A few years back, I became acquainted with a pastor who serves an American Baptist congregation in Florida.  The church named itself the “Church of the Beatitudes”.  It is known as one of the few ABC/USA congregations in Florida.  It is also known for its commitments to the community, social justice, and its stand with those less fortunate.  Over the years, the congregation has grown into the name they chose all those years ago.   They became who they called themselves to be.  They endeavor to be the followers that Jesus was looking for when he gave these beatitudes long ago.
           Sometimes, we Baptists name our congregations based on a variety of factors.  “Second Baptist” can mean they were the second one to form, or in many cases, the first one to split off of the “First” Baptist congregation.  (We have a habit of church planting by way of church split.) Other times, we name a church based on a neighborhood or a community name (I used to serve a Kansas City congregation named Brenner Heights.)  A few Baptist churches are named after noteworthy people (i.e. there are more than a few “Judson Baptist Churches”, so named after the renowned missionary).
          Curiously enough the same challenge is given to each congregation, regardless of its name or even its denomination.  For those who follow Christ, the question arises about the Beatitudes:  will you be part of the proclaiming of Christ’s word?  Do you live alongside those considered inconsequential by larger society?  Is your faith community a place where dignity is understood to be granted without exception by God, and not by whatever prevailing societal politics or ecclesiastical polity might say?  Each congregation that follows the gospel has to ask itself whether or not it is also “a church of the Beatitudes”.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Adventures in Repenting (Matthew 4:12-23)

"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
These words of Jesus come at the end of a very long introduction to Jesus and his identity as the Son of God and Messiah.  Up until this passage, Matthew’s gospel has been largely about “setting the stage”:  a lengthy genealogy with all those names from the Bible, meant to show Jesus as the culmination of God’s long involvement and investment in human history, as told by Israel.  (Really, that list is one of those passages we all hope isn’t scheduled the Sunday when you have to read scripture.  As we used to say back home when lists of tongue-twisting names came up in the readings, we would say, “And there were people”.)

After the “begats and begots”, then it seems a bit like Christmas, telling the story of magi wandering over the territory and Herod conniving to assuage his insecurities about competition, if it weren’t for that dreamer named Joseph who navigated the difficult social and political challenges of a miraculously pregnant virgin wife in a stone-throwing society and a royal court not beneath slaughtering innocents to protect the king’s petty fears.

Then it’s the pyrotechnics of baptism, as John the Baptist chastens the masses with his call to conversion and then gets a shock when it’s time to baptize Jesus.  It’s not just every day when the heavens open, a dove comes down and James Earl Jones does the voice over.  Toss in forty days and forty nights of testing and temptation out in the desert (dude with pitchfork included), you’d think the prelude is most of the story, yet the gospel is just getting underway.

Jesus steps to the center of the stage and in one short sentence, summarizes what has come before and what is just about to unfold.  The agenda and the tone for the gospel are set in these ten words, inviting those who listen to consider a new way of looking at the world and themselves.  These ten words constitute a challenge to those ‘kingdoms’ of the earth that their power and interests are not the timetable that Jesus and his followers will be living out their lives.  It’s the beginning of a story that continues to this day, the story of Jesus and those who would follow him.

Despite what you might think, the first word, repent, is all about a journey getting underway.  When I hear the word, I usually think of how the word is used among those who I would call the “evangelically strident”, Christians who use the word with a bit of edge in their voice.  When living in Kansas City, I would see them occasionally at a prominent traffic stop, walking up and down the street with microphone cords trailing back to small amplifiers.  The word “repent” was oft-used in the 30 seconds one might spend waiting for the light to change, and your lane of traffic just starting to get underway.  Such fervor really did not make much of an impression on most people waiting in traffic.  They sat there, trapped by the red light, trying not to make eye contact with the street preachers, perhaps cranking up their car stereo to drown out the preaching.

The word “repent” gets a bad rap, thanks to the sometimes artless ways the word is communicated.  Shorn of interpretative baggage usually framed by images of “sorrow and remorse”, the New Testament word “repent” by itself is quite a powerful word, as the word Jesus uses in the gospels (Gk metanoia) means “to change the direction of one’s life” (“Matthew”, New Interpreter’s Bible).  Such a concept asks much of the believer, yet such a concept can be that lifeline we have been looking for, a word that gets in edgewise of the “stuck” feelings we have about our lives, or when we dare to engage possibilities previously unexplored in our lives.  To repent is less the image of the penitent coming forward at a revival’s altar call.  To repent in the metanoia sense means that you’ve decided to go a different path with your life.  Repenting means you ain’t going back to the way things used to be, and you couldn’t be more satisfied with this new direction.

Could we think of “repenting” as the best thing that ever happened to you?  I recall a guest preacher at our seminary chapel.  As he spoke of repentance as “change”, he would talk about things that kept us down and then through a positive change in one’s life, how one could feel renewed or unburdened when making good choices about how one lives life.  He flourished it with a little leap in the pulpit, left to right, speaking of ways one lived before and then after repentance took place.  Making that leap, that change is indeed an occasion for feeling like life has stopped getting too heavy for its own good.  In joy, we can change our attitudes and habits, our sense of feeling stuck or unmoored.  Repentance is the beginning of an adventure you would not have found yourself on otherwise.  To repent is literally a transformative act

For the Christian believer, to repent means turning one’s life to the way of Jesus.  Rather than wearing oneself down running the well-trodden path of the rat race, the Christian seeks to trace her way through the contours and questions of the gospel.  Reading one’s way through Matthew’s gospel, you encounter a variety of people who decided to follow Jesus rather than stay in the midst of what they knew, even those things in life they were most comfortable doing.  Matthew gives up tax collecting, a life of easy money by extortion and graft, taking up the way of Jesus, who said “you should love your neighbor as yourself” and that the poor are the most blessed in God’s eyes.  (Don’t we all wish the IRS repented in such a manner?)  Peter’s headstrong attitude is given a test when he realizes he cannot walk on water.

Repentance stretches a person, as you continue down a path that you could not have previously imagined.  To choose repentance, the decision to reshape one’s life, is necessary if one is to choose Jesus.  Over the next few Sundays, we’ll hear the Sermon on the Mount as our reading from the gospel.  As we shall see, teachings that seem “simple” will ask very hard questions of persons as they live in the tension of the world’s ways and the ways of Jesus.

This mindset is needed if you are to live in the kingdom of Heaven.  To live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven is to live in tension with the kingdoms of the world, especially those to whom you would otherwise claim close allegiance.  Matthew’s gospel warns a follower of Jesus about maintaining a too-familiar relationship with the kingdoms of Herod and Rome.

This kingdom of heaven shall be a different sort of reign, where local demagogues (i.e. Herod who just hauled John the Baptist off to certain misery and death) and even the ones ruling from Rome are going to be declared second fiddle to this movement called “the kingdom of Heaven”.  Jesus selecting fishermen as some of his first followers demonstrates the “otherness” of the Kingdom of Heaven raising up those that the Empire and Herod’s court exploited and disregarded.

In turn, those following Jesus’ way are called to be just like him, living out his teachings and calling others to do likewise.  The disciple will be not only evangelizing the good news, the disciple will be the example for why Jesus’ teachings matter. In other words, a repenting and faithfully following Christian has many difficult choices to make about how to live faithfully in the world.

Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas suggests that we have a choice: are we admirers of Jesus or followers of Jesus?  Admirers might like Jesus from afar, yet followers are the ones who take up the Cross and follow the way of Jesus.  To illustrate, Hauerwas recounts a story from Clarence Jordan, a Baptist who worked for desegregation in 1950s era Georgia.

Jordan led a group of people committed to racial integration, living as an intentional community in Americus, Georgia. When his religious community experienced some legal problems, Jordan approached his brother who was a lawyer.  Jordan’s brother refused as it might harm his law practice and his political aspirations.  In their argument over the matter, Clarence pointed out that the two of them joined the Baptist church on the same Sunday when they were boys.  Clarence wondered if his brother had missed something along the way about Jesus being his Lord and Savior. Jordan wanted his brother to answer this question:  Do you just admire Jesus or do you follow Jesus?  (Cf. Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 57).

A man walks down the shoreline and summons fishermen to follow him.  They leave their lives behind and follow.  Were these fishermen in their right minds?   What sort of religion asks for such commitment without it veering off from “faith” to some type of fundamentalism or cult-like behavior? 

How do ordinary folks like you and me claim to follow rather than admire Jesus? The gospel narrative offers puzzling questions and leaves unsettling questions within us.  Is it bravery or bravado that one makes when choosing to follow Christ?

How does one repent and live to tell about it?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Remembering the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

This Monday, the legacy and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated as a civic holiday around the United States this Monday.  And it's more than "one day" alone.  For many churches and other religious and civic groups, the "MLK Weekend" is a time for advocacy, prayer, marching and initiatives promoting volunteerism and community building.
From my earlier days as a bookstore clerk, I know early January is the target date for many publishers to release their latest "King" related book.  Such releases are timed to educate and help readers enter into the tumult of the Civil Rights Era through the lens of scholarly retrospect and the efforts of a multitude of biographers and writers inspired by King to engage his thought while offering contemporary critique of what parts of the "Dream" have yet to be realized or are in danger of retrogression.

Personally, I gravitate toward reading again the modern epistle to America written by Dr. King while sitting in a jail cell.  The "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" speaks like the rest of the King corpus of sermons, interviews, writings and speeches:  searing words meant to evoke the prophets of old while not letting today's generation off the hook (that of King's day and those we live these days).  Here is one of the many links to the full letter online so you can read it as well:

In particular, I recall a section where King engages in a matter of rightly remembering the past. Too often, we tend to yearn for nostalgia and forget how things really played out, especially for those marginalized by the victor's narrative.  King preaches to the choir here, calling his fellow Christians to remember rightly:

"There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century...."

Powerful words from the 1960s continue to summon the Church and society alike.  Ponder with me what it means to be part of the faithful these days.  And do not keep Martin's legacy "past tense" (or worse yet, only remembered once per year with a service of worship or honored by just a single day of service). 

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Difference of Being Baptized (Acts 10)

Stained glass panel,
First Presbyterian, Nebraska City, NE
            The baptism of the Lord is a day set aside to recall the story of Jesus’ own baptism.  I find it remarkable that Baptists, of all the different Christian traditions, have not kept this day as a day to celebrate in worship life until fairly recently. 

           After all, the day celebrates the importance of baptism to the New Testament church, and our very name as a tradition comes from our historic commitment to baptism as “believer’s baptism”.  That is, we affirm the baptism of persons by immersion and at an age where the person makes his or her own decision to believe in and follow Jesus.  Observing the day in the Church year given to remembering this ritual so closely tied to our history and heritage is a most appropriate and fitting thing for Baptists to do.

          That being said, while we are a people who have been seeking an understanding of “church” patterned after the ways of the New Testament church, we have made some adjustments over the years. 

        Today, it is more customary for a person being baptized by a Baptist church to be baptized inside.  (An Episcopal friend from college claimed the Baptists have “holy hot tubs”.)   Previously, many churches I have known had a history of outdoor baptisms down the way, even during the Northeast's cold, "cut a hole in inches-thick ice" winter.  (Of course, if one wanted to go "old school" and be baptized in the river this month, it would be a test of discipleship….)

                 Baptist churches differ when it comes to membership, some who welcome Christians baptized in other traditions and even by the “other” way of baptism (i.e. “sprinkling”), and other congregations steadfast in their practices that you must be baptized by immersion only to be a member.  Ironically, while the Baptist tradition can be described as a people in search of the New Testament church, we might forget that the churches of the New Testament era were constantly being surprised by the Spirit, whom sends the faithful often in varying directions.  What seems "settled" can be "unsettled by the Spirit of God.

                  That’s where we find Peter in today’s reading.  The confident leader is tossed into the deep end of the unexpected. In the gospels, Peter is lifted up among the disciples, told by Jesus he is “the rock” upon which the Church will be built, a central figure in the gospel stories.  Yet, here is the “rock” himself, an original follower of Jesus, finding himself less the sure church leader and more like his earlier days, when thinking himself able to walk out onto the waters.  Indeed, he’s in the middle of a situation that has thrown him into the deep end.

                  Our reading today is just one part of a longer story about Peter of the inner circle and the one that should have been the odd man out: a Roman centurion.  Cornelius has become a God-fearer, that is, someone who has taken great stock in the religious beliefs of Israel.  Hearing the gospel, Cornelius wishes to follow Jesus and be baptized.  Indeed, he wants his entire household to become baptized.
                  The problem? He is a Gentile, aka “an outsider” or in more modern terms, “the other”.

                  Now, Peter, the great confident orator at the Day of Pentecost, finds himself fumbling for words.    What he has taken for granted (the faith is only for Jews and not non-Jews, i.e. Gentiles) was not the final word.  Even a gospel is spreading to the ends of the earth, the Church’s boundaries are being tested.
                  Reading Acts 10, we hear first of Cornelius when the centurion sends word that he would like to have Peter come to his house.  Peter is a bit puzzled, though he is told that Cornelius is a friendly person to the faith.  Up on the rooftop, Peter experiences a strange vision.  In this vision, a sheet descends from the sky, and Peter sees a variety of animals.  A voice tells Peter “to kill and eat” what he sees.  Peter is hesitant, as among the animals are those that he does not eat to keep religious purity, or kosher laws.   Three times, this vision comes to him.  Each time, Peter hesitates.  How could this be?
                  Now at Cornelius’ home, the puzzle pieces are starting to fall together. God has brought together this Gentile from Rome and this one-time fisherman from backwater Galilee.  Cornelius is not to be left out of the gospel’s good news.  What had been a “given” about the faith was not “the last word”.   Again and again, as the Church finds its identity in the book of Acts, the Spirit keeps shifting the direction of the early Christians, unsettling what might have been thought settled once and for all.
                  So it is now with Peter, beginning to do what is familiar (preaching the gospel) while learning on the fly what is changing about the faith.  In fact, Peter admits as much.  In the Greek text of Acts 10:34,   one scholar renders Paul’s words: “In truth, I am grasping that God is no respecter of appearances” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina, Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, p. 188).  Here, the book of Acts emphasizes how Peter “is just now grasping or coming to understand” (p. 191) the implications of what is coming to pass.  It is one thing to realize what God is doing.  It is quite another to realize that it changes what you have taken for granted.

               Peter, whose mind had been stretched by the parables and teachings of Jesus, is now experiencing another challenge, brought to bear on his own sense of the boundaries of faith.  Gentiles could express faith in the God of Israel, the same God whose prophets claimed would be drawn to the light of Jerusalem’s glory, yet deep down, Peter shared a degree of religious skepticism that Gentiles had much worth beyond these lofty ideals.  Now, the visions coming to Peter and Cornelius alike were the beginnings of a greater dream:  the gospel that goes well beyond the understandings of the faithful.  Writing in the mid-20th century, Southern Baptist scholar Frank Stagg observed, “There are those who continue to say that Peter opened the door to the Gentiles.  It would be closer to the truth to say that the Gentiles opened a door to the larger world for Peter.”  (Quoted in Barr, et al, The Acts of the Apostles: Four Centuries of Baptist Interpretation, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009, p. 486).

               Over the centuries, the story of Cornelius and Peter has been a wonderful tale of evangelism and a cautionary tale for the faithful.  The gospel goes forth, even if the “Church” lags behind out of disregard or disdain.  Baptist history is likewise a testament to the contrary word of the gospel to the sometimes reticent body of believers to open the doors too far, lest “those people” get in.

              On one hand, Baptist history reminds us of how severely early Baptists were considered outsiders and made to feel unwelcome by other Christians for holding less popular beliefs and practices.   An early Free Will Baptist traveling evangelist John Colby, a native to Vermont and New Hampshire, traveled across New England and subsequently “out west” (back then, the “frontier” was Indiana) on preaching tours in the early 19th century.  In his memoirs, Colby recalled a particularly one preaching engagement where most of us would have left discouraged.  Persons showed up to make his visit to a certain neighborhood very difficult, including locking one place he was to speak to a crowd and then hiding the key.  Colby’s opponents did not wish to let this preacher come into their town, as Baptist evangelists were not considered legitimate enough clergy bringing a message deemed worth hearing.

              In the midst of such difficulty, Colby persevered, recalling earlier that same week when he had the pleasure of baptizing four young men who heard his word gladly.  On that occasion, he referred to Acts 10:34-35.  While his memoirs do not record his sermon that day, Colby recalls that he felt empowered to speak “with more than common freedom of mind”, a remarkable witness to the Spirit who kept his spirit moving forward, in times of great success and times of great adversity.  Colby’s memoirs witness to Acts 10 as a text about Christians learning to welcome the gospel, even as some within the Church find themselves struggling to grasp that God is more inclusive than sometimes “the faithful” can envision.  (This excerpt from Colby’s story is referenced in Barr, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 475-6.)

             As we gather this day to recall the baptism of the Lord, Baptists celebrate what makes our tradition’s name so important:  the call to follow Jesus and to be baptized ourselves, to give continuing assent to the way of Christ.  Baptists celebrate baptism as a turning away from our sinfulness and living out our lives as faithful witnesses to the gospel.  So it is that we find ourselves in the midst of a local congregation, yearning to be with other believers and involved in the task of working together to serve the Lord.  Baptism signifies our desire for new life in Christ while it also levels the playing field that the world (and yes, even religion itself) prefer to keep more of an obstacle course that only the “right type” of people can traverse.  Bradley Chance, a contemporary Baptist biblical scholar, notes that in Acts 10 “the system of categorization” has changed.  Previously, it “would have discouraged Peter from associating with the ‘other’ peoples” (quoted Barr, et al., The Acts of the Apostles, p. 501).  What does it mean to follow God with such an expansiveness to divine welcome and inclusion?  Such a story from Acts 10 should be remembered, not forgotten, when we feel challenged by the stranger at our gate, the person who does not readily appear to fit in with "us" (and therefore is known as one of "them").

             The baptism of Jesus points to the new order being brought about in the Kingdom-Reign of God.  The gospel is given to the whole world in all its diversity, bringing together into one body the many.  In the search for “New Testament church”, we might find ourselves looking for some sort of “good ole days when things were better”, when in reality, the book of Acts shows us that even in our earliest days, the Christian faith was being schooled by the Spirit of God, who knows no partiality and presses us to keep our vision of “faith” and “church” ever flexible, ever humble, and ever expanding.