Sermon 05-15-11 – “Gatekeepers and Imperfect Communities”

5.15.11 sermon notes

Easter 4

John 10:1-10, Acts 2:42-47


During my sophomore year of college, 5 friends & I were selected to live in a townhouse on campus. Groups could apply for one of these coveted dwellings, proposing a service project they would work on throughout the year together.

6 of us in one small dwelling. Our own little kitchen. A living room! It sounded idyllic!! We were so excited!! But then….

Oh, the pile of dishes in the sink…

Oh, the bathrooms…

Oh, the disagreements about whose turn it was to clean them.

Oh, the different sleeping & study habits…

Living in community is not always all it’s cracked up to be.

In this text from Acts, Luke gives us a glimpse of the early Christian community. After a fabulous sermon (& some help from the Holy Spirit) the church has moved from handful of disciples to 3000 & growing. And here, we get a sense of what their days are like: teaching, fellowship, prayer, meals, acts of service.

All who believed were together & had all things in common. They sold their possessions & shared the proceeds freely according to everyone’s need. What they had, they shared.

This vision sounds so nice & always makes me feel a little selfish. I don’t do these things! We live in a world of “That’s mine. This is yours.” Everything my children own that leaves the house has their name written on it with a sharpie. I have a key to MY house, MY office, MY car, and YOU don’t.

We live in a world of boundaries, and this boundary-breaking vision of life in Acts seems too foreign, too impossible. And in many ways, it is. This model of communal living doesn’t even survive into the next chapter of Acts without some problems. But that doesn’t change the fact that their experience of the risen Christ transformed the way the early Christians related to one another. Day by day. And that still means something to us today.

But first, back to our world of labels and sharpies and locked doors: Perhaps the images of John’s text are more in keeping with our lives and communities today than Acts: I am much more familiar with gates and gatekeepers than I am with everything shared in common. Cynthia Jarvis reminds us that too often, if we see Jesus as the gate, the church has gladly stepped in to serve as the moral gatekeeper (Feasting, 445).

Far from the shared meals of Acts, it wasn’t that long ago that our Reformed and Presbyterian ancestors worshipped in a space with fenced communion tables – literally, there was a fence around the communion table. Ministers and elders thought that the consequences of an unworthy person receiving communion were so dire, they examined people before the service, so that only those deemed worthy were allowed beyond the barrier to approach the Lord’s table. Gate keeping at it’s best.

And more recently in the Presbyterian Church (USA) while membership and the table have been open to all, our pulpits & Session meetings have not been. Of course, not everyone is called to serve as a minister of the word & sacrament, or as an elder or deacon, so not EVERYONE should hold those offices. And for centuries, the Presbyterian Church has had a system in which individuals, congregations, and presbyteries discern together whether or not an individual is called to serve in these unique ways. But for the past 13 years, the gate into this discernment process was closed to anyone who was not in a heterosexual marriage or was not chaste in their singleness. We could not even have a conversation about whether or not certain individuals were called by God.

This issue of ordination and sexuality has been debated for decades. And over the past 2 years, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been considering and voting on a new proposed amendment that eliminates the gate of prohibition about sexuality. This past Tuesday, enough presbyteries voted in favor of this new amendment to make it official.

While there are understandably a variety of faithful reactions to this decision, I want to share with you why I think it is a good thing.

Rather than lifting up sexuality as the only barrier to ordination, this new amendment restores our ordination decisions to the bodies most directly involved – individual church sessions (for elders and deacons) and presbyteries (for ministers). To be clear, these bodies still serve as gate keepers. And that is ok. As I said, not everyone should be ordained – but not because of their sexuality. This is about allowing the Spirit of God to still move among us and discerning the gifts and abilities of those whom God has called. And I believe this new amendment actually holds those of us who are ordained to a higher standard. It is not who one does or does not sleep with that makes one eligible for ordination. This new language requires that all candidates for ministry submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in every aspect of their lives and that they exhibit the necessary calling and gifts for the office of minister or elder or deacon. This is no small task, and is far from a watering-down of our ordination standards. But now the church can ordain those whom God calls, and those whom God calls can live authentically. And the church will be stronger for it.

So, does this end the debate about homosexuality in the church? No.

Will every church and presbytery ordain gay and lesbian leaders? No (just as there are plenty that still do not ordain women).

Does this settle all disputes between deeply faithful people who find themselves on opposite sides of this issue? No.

But I do believe this helps the church get back to the business of being the church. Proclaiming good news, serving others, living as faithfully as we know how.

Jesus tells us in John’s gospel for today that he came so that we might have life.

And have it abundantly.

We are called to life abundant.

And we do not live abundantly in isolation. We are called into community to be the church – Christ’s body – to have life abundantly.

And as the debates about who is worthy of coming to the table and who is eligible for ordination show us, we do not always live this communal life as well as we should. But thanks be to God that it is not all up to us. God has an amazing ability to continue working through us, even when we fail. Dorothy Bass writes about the Christian community this way: “these communities are and always have been far from perfect; they are not dream communities but down-to-earth gatherings of sinners who have had frequent occasions to forgive one another (and who have often failed even at that). Even so, it is in and through earthen vessels like these that Christ’s gifts of grace, peace, and hope have been received and shared.” (For Life Abundant, 23).

By the grace of God, we are invited to live abundantly –

to live fully –

to seek those things that are

life-giving for ourselves, for those within our church community, for those outside of our church community. Life abundant is one overflowing with God’s love and grace. It is far from perfect, but we do it together, celebrating our unity in Christ that surpasses our differences. God calls us to life abundant, and God calls us out to love and serve in Christ’s name, as one. Amen.

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