My sermon for this week was based on Acts 11:1-18.
When I was a kid in school, we would sometimes go on field trips. Without fail, our teachers would always sit us down before we left, look at us sternly, and say, "Remember children, when we are out there in the world, you represent our school. People will judge our school based on how you behave. If you behave badly, what does that say about our school?"
As I recall, not many of us cared much what people thought about our school or about us, but as I get older and (hopefully) wiser, I realize that it does matter at least to a certain extent what people think of me and the organizations to which I belong and/or represent.
Don't get me wrong, I don't care what people think of my choice of clothing or music, or that they like my sense of humour. But I do care that people see me as someone with integrity, and I care that people see the church as an organization with integrity, inhabited by people with integrity. An organization without integrity, populated by people without integrity is not an organization I or anyone in their right mind would want to be part of.
Are we aware, I wonder aloud and quite rhetorically, that people will and do judge us as Christians, our church, our religion and even our God based on our behaviour?
For example, we call ourselves Christian and we speak of "Christian morals and ethics", but I know so-called Christians who act in the most reprehensible manner at times. I have done so myself. If we walk around calling ourselves Christians, but we act in a profoundly un-Christian way, what does that say about our own personal integrity, and what does it say to others about the integrity of our church, and yes, even our God?
Nothing good, you can be sure.
One of the things that vexes me most about modern Christianity is our exclusivity. Over the centuries, the church at large has excluded just about everyone but white, heterosexual males. In my lifetime, I have seen people excluded from the church for being gay, having mental health problems, having addiction problems. Many of you have probably witnessed people being sidelined or dismissed because they were too young, too old, too new to the church, too this, not enough that.
This is ironic because if Christ showed us anything about God, it is that God is characterized by radical inclusivity, and this is a point that is driven home by Peter's vision which he recounts in the reading from Acts.
Contrary to popular belief, Jesus was not born with a fully-formed religious manifesto in his hand. He didn't even have one when he died. The Apostles struggled to find the right path after his death, as we still seem to be doing today. One of the earliest struggles they had was what to do with Gentiles.
It must always be remembered that Jesus was not Christian. He was Jewish, well-steeped in Jewish tradition and as far as we know, quite observant, although he did play pretty fast and loose with many points of orthodoxy. Every single one of the Apostles and the overwhelming majority of his followers were also observant Jews.
But partway through his ministry, he opened his message up to the Gentiles, and after his death, this movement began to attract a significant number of Gentiles.
The problem was that these Gentiles were not circumcised and did not follow ritual purity laws or food laws. They ate things and did things that according to Jewish Law made them ritually unclean. This was a cause for alarm for many Jewish followers of Christ who still followed the Law, and so they protested Peter's association with "the uncircumcised".
Peter answers by relating a vision he had of a sheet being lowered from heaven. On this sheet were all types of animals, clean and unclean. A voice tells him to eat, and he balks, saying, "Nothing unclean has ever touched my lips". The voice responds, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane".
This vision erased the line in the sand that told people "this people is sacred, that people is profane", "these people are beloved by God, those people are not". This vision told Peter that God was inclusive, not exclusive. I think this was one of the things Jesus demonstrated most during his life. Look at who he made it a point to be with: lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, Gentiles...all the people no one else in his culture would have anything to do with because they were unclean and therefore were believed to be unloved by God.
Although I am sure we would like to think that we are far more enlightened than we were 2000 years ago and that we have progressed, have we really? We still seem to be a people that delights in drawing lines. Two millennia later, we are still drawing lines in the sand. We have drawn lines in the past between men and women, between whites and aboriginal peoples of every land we have touched, between straights and LGBTQs. The church has excluded divorcees and single moms because this was regarded as sinful. All these lines still exist to a greater or lesser degree.
And what does that say about our God? What does it say to other people?
It says that God is exclusive. It says that God draws lines. It says that God is not, in fact, "steadfast in love and infinite and mercy".
How can we claim that God is love, that God represents mercy, justice, peace and tolerance out of one side of our mouths, and then curse refugees, gay marriage and people with addiction problems out of the other?
Short answer: you can't.
Let's play pretend for a second: let's pretend that someone who calls themselves a Christian thinks that to be divorced, to be refugee, to be LGBTQ or to be an unwed mother was actually a sin (I hasten to add that I believe none of those things, let's just pretend). By definition, that would make that person a sinner.
Jesus did say, "I came not for the righteous, but for the sinner", and "I came not for the well but for the sick".
If you would call yourself a Christian and believe anyone to be in sin, that would mean that it would be your responsibility as a Christian to redouble your efforts to make them feel welcome, to let them know that God loves them and that they have a place at God's table, not to ignore, sideline, exclude or dismiss them.
If we are to call ourselves Christian, every person we think is a sinner should be that very person we make an effort to talk to, to whom we should be most hospitable, to whom we make every effort to welcome, to whom we make every effort to love. It is our responsibility to go around erasing lines in sand rather than draw them and stand on opposite sides.
A wise man once told me, "If you have a problem with someone, you're the problem". It is easy to love those with whom we agree or have much in common, which is generally why people gather at church, because we generally agree with one another. But the true test of Christianity is how we treat those with whom we don't have much in common, those who me might dislike, mistrust or fear.
Today, my hope is that we can all do our best to erase the lines we have drawn or that our churches have drawn, the lines that tell people who is "in" and who is "out", and let them know that everybody is in.