Last night at the church where I serve we wrapped up a Newcomer’s Series on The Episcopal Church. In addition to covering the final chapters of the study guide, we committed to answering questions posed at the beginning of the series that old timers and newcomers alike had posed. A variety from ‘what is a Senior Warden,’ to ‘when are we to stand or kneel or sit’ in worship? ‘ to ‘what does apostolic succession mean? were discussed.
I addressed questions about TEC history and the current state of the Anglican Communion in the world – who was in, who was out – and why. The broken state of the Anglican Communion has been an unsettling reality for our church for over a decade. In recounting the history to these new Episcopalians, I was aware of how ‘institutional’ of an issue this was and is – meaning much ado about how we ‘do’ church and not much at all to do with the church God planted on the day of Pentecost.
And it occurred to me last night, and again this morning at the reading of Acts, how the institutional church has been beleaguered by this question – who is in, who is out – and this kind of judgmental thinking since the church was born by the power of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
For the past weeks the Sunday gospel readings have had God’s people – and God’s church – thinking about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and about kingdom living on earth. Jesus has used one parable after another to describe kingdom living – not as a destination but as a way of living in the here and now, transforming the world one stalk of wheat at a time. We’ve heard much about – seeds of it, who sows it, where it falls, wheat and tares. We have learned to look at the soil of our own faith lives to see how well prepared it was for the seed to grow, we have been encouraged to be patient, to trust the Lord’s way, and to not judge our neighbors, but to love them. Darnel (tares, weeds) looks pretty much like the wheat it grows alongside, the wheat that would be weakened should the weeds be torn out too soon, if at all.
I have found the Daily Office Readings from the Book of Acts a nice complement to the Sunday’s gospel from Matthew. Both speak to our individual lives as Christians but also our lives as part of God’s church, part of community. Both are speaking to how we live in community with one another – loving and not judging, growing stronger, being God’s person and church in the world.
The Book of Acts describes in part the formation of God’s church – how the seed was scattered, where it has landed and which people received, who sowed, who rejected, who watered. And when it – the church – will be harvested and who will separate the wheat from the tares. Spoiler alert – not us.
This is what Peter gets at in today’s passage from Acts – we cannot do the sorting. Seeds were scattered and planted in places and in people none of us could of imagined. And the Word has taken root in many of those places.
The way of circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses to distinguish the wheat from the tares – who was in, who was out – no longer has agency. But it was how the Pharisees thought, asserting their priestly authority to make a judgment on worthiness based on what they observed. From the Book of Acts in today’s reading:
5But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.’
It seems to me that church leaders through all time up to and including ours have been far too eager to make judgment calls as the Pharisees attempted on the composition of God’s church. Like hard-nosed, eager beaver, self-righteous Lucy, here.
I think of all the groups that have ‘broken away’ from mainline institutional churches and I see eager beaver Lucy types. Righteous or Evil? I can make that call. In or out? You bet, I know the wheat from the tares! Teaching and worship aligned with God’s Word? Yep, it’s black and white, I know!
Except you don’t. Anymore than the Pharisees thought they did. That call there? That is God’s call. He is the one ‘who says‘. God’s the one who knows. That burden – that judgment yoke has not been put upon any of us – Pharisee or not, Episcopalian or not.
I didn’t have this passage from Acts to refer to last night as I was explaining to these new Episcopalians why some believers have left the Anglican Communion, suggesting a weakening of our presence in the world. It would have been a good one to put in context the exit of a few, helping us all to see how God’s church is not impacted, and the institutional church only temporarily thwarted by the self-righteous,
…Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers,* you know that …God, who knows the human heart, testified to (the Gentiles) by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.
10Now 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? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’
We – us, them – all in God’s church – are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.