It isn’t often that I will attempt to write as I am now; I usually leave that to the many preachers in our area. But for once, I would like to try to relate a portion of the Bible, Acts 13 and 14, to modern times. But first, let me bring you up to date in case you aren’t familiar with these passages. In Acts 13 and 14, Luke tells of some of the experiences of Paul and Barnabas in their journey to Antioch (now Syria) as well as their departure. When our travelers arrived and announced that Jesus, the Messiah had come, they (the Jews) were anxious to hear more. But when they learned the Gentiles, who were or had been idol worshippers, were also invited to hear the news and be a part of the people of God, they resented it. These were the elite Jews and they couldn’t tolerate the “unclean” being a part of their religion.
As you understand this, it is relatively easy to see we sometimes encounter the same situation, i.e. the more religious we are, the more the danger. We all know it’s not easy to be a Christian in today’s world – our society frequently goes against our Christian values. We use violence as a means of resolving a conflict or we climb the ladder of “success” at the expense of others. So in order to justify ourselves, we try to show how unique and special we are to the rest of the world. The danger I’m referring to is that we, like the Jews of Antioch, become so possessive of our own religion that we may be jealous or resentful of others who want to unite with us as God’s people – especially if they are “different.” Different is not just racial, but religious, political, or economic applies equally. Churches have sometimes been incapable of welcoming others into its membership of God’s people because of one of these differences, and, as a result, have been unfaithful to its purpose. After all, churches are people.
There was a church I grew up in, was baptized in, my parents were married and continued to be active in. It was a large church, of gray stone with fine stained glass windows; and for many years served the area. But the city started changing; we had moved out to the suburbs, but still drove back to “our “ church every Sunday. New people started coming in, and like us, many of my parent’s friends had moved to other parts of the city. For a while I would go to the youth meetings on Sunday evening, but having no friends in the area found it to be more exclusive to the local youth who were also friends in school. The area around the church had changed – it wasn’t as safe at night as it once was. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a different ethnic group, but it was a different group of people with different ideas about the church. The pastor and remaining members welcomed the new arrivals as it offered new hope. But this new group didn’t appreciate the old building; there were new foods, activities and yes, even odors.
Imagine for a moment that it was your church. How would you react? What would you do? Perhaps now, you can understand how the Jews of Antioch felt and reacted.
Now, again, turn the story around. Think of yourself as one of the newcomers. You have come to a church and found receptiveness as well as faith and hope. But you have also found controversy and eventually saw the pastor who welcomed you driven out by those who resented your arrival. What would you think? How would you feel? Could you still hold on to faith or would you become sad and disillusioned?
It is a sad fact of life that we sometimes can’t see both sides of a situation and search out a common ground. And if we can’t, finding common ground is impossible. It is especially true in politics and religion, areas where it should be most readily available if only we had the faith to reach for it.
The story I told about the church I grew up in is true. It is now no longer a thriving church. It closed its doors several years ago. It is this very church that on the cover of its Sunday bulletin, every Sunday, had these words on it: “A divided church cannot worship; a worshiping church cannot be divided.” The Bible has many messages for us today, if only we would listen.