Ritual is Just the Beginning: Acts 15.1–18

2017.5.14 our courseDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 14, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.

AVOIDANCE
Since resurrection day I’ve focused on a succession of new characters in our passages from Acts of the Apostles: Cleopas, Stephen, Philip the Evangelist, and the Ethiopian. Today we have two more, Paul (though we saw him briefly, earlier, under the name Saul) and Barnabas. But there have been two recurring characters or elements that I have avoided until today: male genital modification and the Holy Spirit.

PENISES AND SPIRIT
The Ethiopian is a eunuch. He is a man who has been castrated. This week we have Jewish followers of Jesus stating that the Gentile followers of Jesus must be circumcised as they had been. We have also had talk of metaphoric, or spiritual circumcision. Stephen decries his co-religionists:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. (Acts 6.51)

Stephen is saying they have failed to cut away what prevents them from hearing and loving God, from being led by the Holy Spirit.

Paul is also concerned with the work of the Holy Spirit. When he pushes back on the Jewish followers of Jesus, it is through Spirit:

 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us; (Acts 15.8)

Throughout the Acts of the Apostles there are moments when the Holy Spirit comes upon people, sometimes at baptism, sometimes later. Sometimes the Holy Spirit “falls upon” a whole group at once, sometimes on individuals who have been physically touched by those who have already received the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is, by this account, wholly unpredictable.

PREDICTABILITY
Predictability may be one of our biggest problems as humans, at least for we humans who want to rise above our humanity, even just a little bit. The Bible is, in its entirety, a testament to our predictable shortcomings. We want so badly to do better, and yet…

Remember how Abram and Sarai went out into the wilderness to show their faith in God? For decades they wandered. And for decades God promised them a child. But they became impatient. Abram and Sarai let their impatience over take their faith, so they forced the slave Hagar to bear their next generation. As a result, their wanderings extended.

When God made the promise of a child again, it came with two markers: a change in their names to Abraham and Sarah plus circumcision for Abraham and all the men in his household for all time forward.

It is as if our Biblical forebears are saying we need to have some literal skin in the game or we will be lost and aimless forever.
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Hesed: The Book of Ruth

Our work iDelivered at Ames UCC on October 18, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship at 10:45 a.m. on Sundays.

REDEMPTION
As Christians, the word redemption has had a pretty specific meaning, historically: that Jesus paid for our sins through his death and resurrection. As we learned a couple of months ago, that definition is not the consensus in the United Church of Christ at large or Ames UCC in particular. But I would hazard a guess to say that most of us, at least on first hearing the word, associate redemption with sin and our souls.

That is not the case in today’s story or the world it reflects. In the Hebrew Bible, the Bible Jesus knew, redemption is part of a larger social contract for the needy. The most detailed information comes in the book of Leviticus, chapter 25. Essentially, kin are obliged to buy land from family members if those family members need to sell it due to hardship. Those struggling kinsfolk then have the right to buy it back, at any time, at fair market value. And, while the more affluent kinsfolk own that land, the poorer family members who had to sell it still get to make money off of it. Essentially the rich uncle owns the land but the poor nephew still lives off of and makes profit from it. If the poor family members are unable to eventually buy the land back, it will be restored to them during the year of Jubilee. Jubilee was to occur every 50 years, with land laying fallow and all wealth redistributed and debts released. We have, in Leviticus, a Biblical mandate to keep the rich from getting richer and the poor from getting poorer.
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