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Even As They
February 21, 1999

ACTS 15:1-11

Who is in and who is out has been a concern of too many people for too long. Barriers are erected to keep people out. Standards are set so only the right kind of people are admitted. Isn't it time, especially in the church, the body of Christ, for us to stop defining ourselves so as to keep out undesirables and those who are different?

The early church fought this battle and, thank God, the good guys won or you and I wouldn't be here today. Missionary work was very successful. The church spread throughout the Roman Empire in a relatively short period of time following the resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. As the church spread, as people heard about Jesus, the wrong kind of people responded! The mother church in Jerusalem, who were all Jewish converts, were very concerned when the news reached them that Gentiles were being baptized. There was quite a controversy with many saying that Gentile converts must be circumcised according to the law of Moses. In other words, Gentiles must become Jews before they could become Christians. Underlying this decree was a deep seated prejudice against Gentiles. Holy Jews would not even eat with a Gentile, much less invite a Gentile into their home, or into their church.

A meeting was held in Jerusalem. Barnabas and Paul told the apostles and elders of all the signs and wonders that God was doing among the Gentiles. Peter reminded them that he had been sent to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. He told them how God blessed the Gentiles with the Holy Spirit, how God cleansed their hearts by faith, and turned their lives around. "God has made no distinction between them and us," said Peter. There are no insiders and outsiders. God accepts the Gentiles so why does the church now want to impose Jewish laws upon them? Then Peter delivered a twist. "We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." Instead of saying, "Gentiles will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as we will," he turned it around and put their salvation first. "We will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." I like the King James Version of this verse, Acts 15:11, "But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they." Isn't it great that God would let us big-shot Jerusalem Jewish Christians be saved just the way he let those Gentiles be saved!

What is significant about the decision made in Jerusalem to allow Gentiles into the church is that we are here today. Christianity became a movement independent of Judaism. We do not need to subscribe to the Jewish law before we can belong to Christ. What is also significant is that the decision determined for all time that the church is open. There are no insiders and outsiders, all are welcome to come to Christ. God loves all people. There are no barriers.

But, the church through the centuries has not yet learned the lesson. The church, in its weaker moments, has tried to exclude people whose color is different, whose social class is different, whose language is different, whose culture is different, whose life style is different. Those of us in the church of Jesus Christ need to be very careful whom we consider to be insiders and outsiders, for God is on the side of the outsiders! Because they are saved, so it is our hope that we may be saved, even as they.

There is such a strong temptation to think of ourselves as superior to others. If we each described a Christian, wouldn't the description fit us? Wouldn't our idea of a Christian surprisingly resemble us? Many are bothered by an inclusive church. Surely God would not lower the standards to include sinners like that drunk lying on the sidewalk next to a wine bottle, or that unwed mother on welfare who may still be sleeping around, or the drug pusher, or the gay couple. After all, we are not addicts, our children were born in wedlock, we don't have a criminal record, surely that counts for something; surely we represent what Christianity is all about! But, Peter turned it around, through the grace of the Lord Jesus (not through our own deserving or merits or gold stars) we shall be saved, even as they!

Have you ever found yourself on the outside looking in? Were you ever rejected, teased, ostracized? Remember how it felt?

The current issue of the Teaching Tolerance magazine includes an article about children who are on the outside because of their physical condition. Listen to Trudy's story. She is nine-years-old.

Sometimes my life is kind of hard because people pick on me. Sometimes it's hard because of my medical problems (an intestinal disorder). There are a lot of things I have to do because of them, like getting calories through a pump in my stomach. I also have a pouch on my belly where my urine comes out, and most of the time it's OK, but occasionally it leaks. Now that's a problem, because the kids can smell it sometimes and they say, "Someone blew one." I just look around, too. If they knew it was me, they'd just make fun of me. One time in gym my pants slid down a little bit, and one of the boys asked, "Are you wearing diapers?" I just said, "So?"

Sometimes the pull-ups (diapers) make a crinkle noise when I walk, and sometimes the peg in my belly that the pump attaches to sticks out. Talk about embarrassing!

If I were the principal of my school, the first thing I'd do is to redistrict all the mean kids. There is one boy in class who helps me when kids tease me. He tells them to leave me alone. The problem is that he tells them that I'm really very sick. I'm not. I'm just a little sick some of the time, even though I've had 22 operations.

A third grader wrote, "This kid called me a human bowling ball when I came back to school without hair. I just told her that I sold my hair for a million dollars and that I was going to buy a kangaroo with the money, and of course, a zoo to keep it in!"

Are our arms long enough to embrace human bowling balls, people with pegs and pouches, people who are different? Are they welcome in our congregation?

Listen to the account of a mother whose son, Bobby, was gay.

When the Clergy condemns a homosexual person to Hell and eternal damnation, we, the congregation, echo "Amen." I deeply regret my lack of knowledge concerning gay and lesbian people. Had I allowed myself to investigate what I now see as Bible bigotry and diabolical dehumanizing slander against our fellow human beings, I would not be looking back with regret for having relinquished my ability to think and reason with other people...people I trust for truth and guidance in my life and the life of our gay son.

God did not heal or cure Bobby as he, our family and clergy believed He should. It is obvious to us now why God did not heal him. God has never been encumbered by His child's genetically-determined sexual orientation. God is pleased that Bobby has a kind and loving heart. In God's eyes, kindness and love are what life is about. I did not know that each time I echoed "Amen" to the eternal damnation, referring to Bobby as sick, perverted and a danger to our children that his spirit was broken until he could no longer rise above the injustice of it all. Bobby ended his life at age twenty.

It was not God's will that Bobby jump over the side of a freeway overpass into the path of an eighteen-wheel truck, killing him instantly. Bobby's death was the direct result of his parents' ignorance and fear of the word gay.

There are no words to express the pain and emptiness remaining in the hearts of Bobby's family members and friends. We miss Bobby's kind and gentle ways, his fun-loving spirit, his laughter...We can't have Bobby back; if we could we would say to him, as I say to all gay and lesbian people around the world, these benevolent words of Leo Buscaglia:

"Love yourself -- accept yourself -- forgive yourself -- and be good to yourself, because without you the rest of us are without a source of many wonderful things."

Would Bobby have been welcome in our church? Would Bobby have been welcome in your home? Are our arms long enough to embrace all the Bobbys?

Madeleine Alston, who died at the age of 17 from a horrible disease, wrote this poem, titled See Me.

You look

But you don't see me.

You see a crutch

A bald head

A scar

A disease

An object of pity

You don't see the person

The determination

The fear

The vitality

The passion for living

The capacity for love

Open your eyes

And look without prejudice

Look beyond my leg

Look beyond my illness

Look into my world.

See the many pieces,

not just one.

A complete person.

Open your eyes

And see me.

Marian Anderson, the famous black singer who, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, broke the color barrier in Washington, D.C., once said,

As long as you keep a person down,

some part of you has to be

down there to hold him down,

so it means you cannot soar

as you otherwise might.

There are no insiders and outsiders. They who think they are on the inside and draw lines in the sand to keep others out are going to be surprised to find they have placed themselves on the outside looking in, for God loves the outsiders. Jesus often lost his patience with insiders.

If there is anyone here this morning who has been treated like an outsider, or who feels like an outsider, who feels that you are not good enough to be in God's church, hear the good news: "Through the grace of the Lord Jesus, you will be saved." If there is anyone here this morning who thinks you have the inside track to God, who feels that you are better and more righteous than others, who try to shut the door to keep undesirables out, the good news is that the grace of the Lord Jesus can even save you, even as they!

© 1999 Douglas I. Norris