This sermon was preached on April 24, 2016. it is the fourth in a series of six sermons that I offer as reflections on our study of I REFUSE TO LEAD A DYING CHURCH, a book written by Paul Nixon that we are studying in several small groups. You are invited to join one of these small groups, which meet on Tuesday mornings in my office at 9:30 am, and Sunday after church at the manse. All are welcome.
We face six big choices as a church. Here is the fourth.
“Choosing BOLD Over Mild”
A Reflection on Acts 11: 1-18
So, the early church had a meeting, and guess what it was about? Who was “in” and who was “out!” Does this sound like cliques in the high school cafeteria? Yes, that’s right, the church has not changed much in 2,000 years! “Headquarters” in Jerusalem was in a tizzy over the report that Peter had been breaking some very important rules and boundaries in his ministry with the Gentiles. Now what was this big scandal about? One might expect that it was over some deep theological controversy, that some were scandalized that he baptized them, or preached to them, or even healed them. But, no, the first question out of their mouths was, “Why did you eat with them?” The lines were very clear in those days, and so were the rules. You couldn’t eat unclean food and you couldn’t eat with unclean people, and the Gentiles were unclean people. You could not eat with just anybody in those days! There were limits to hospitality.
What strikes me in the text is the transformation that has happened with Peter. When we last saw him, in John’s gospel, he was denying three times that he even knew Jesus.
But now we see a different Peter, standing before his challengers. He has already worked through this stunning reversal of everything he had formerly believed and practiced. His understanding of God’s will is not just for his personal life and faith practice but for the life of the church, and its core identity, through his boldness, was transformed. The church becomes a new, welcoming, inclusive community of love and extravagant hospitality to strangers. Peter meets the challenge of a new day with boldness. He does not retreat into the safety and rigidity and orthodoxy of the past. He chooses bold over mild.
Imagine what might have happened if Peter kept doing what he had been doing—eating with gentiles when none of his fellow Jews were around, then leaving the gentiles table in mock horror and hypocrisy when they showed up! Trying to be all things to all people, Had he done that, Peter would have have offended everyone.
The message seems clear: The church must decide who it is and declare it with boldness. Mildness muddies, boldness clarifies. The church in the middle of the road is roadkill.
That is the theme of Chapter Four of Paul Nixon’s book: Choosing Boldness Over Mildness. He begins the chapter with observation about American eating habits, which have changed over the past few decades. Starbucks challenged McDonalds for the best cup of coffee in town, ramping up a simple cup of joe to a dazzling array of hi-octane choices. McDonald’s countered by offering Premium coffee. The battle goes on, but guess who lost? Mild mannered coffee. Boldness won.
Mild mannered Anglo Saxon eating habits in middle America have given way to a bewildering array of ethnic choices, from Mexican and Cajun to Thai, Indian, and Pakistani, not to mention Portuguese, and a happy guy named Emeril on the Cooking Channel keeps preaching to us to “kick it up a notch.”
In politics, we’ve seen the disappearance of moderates, as Americans flock to mad-dog populist passion, reminiscent of Martin Luther, who boldly took his stand against the pope and religious establishment of his day declaring, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”
This boldness used to be characteristic of us as Protestants. The Reformation, which is our theological heritage as Congregationalists, was a bold movement that challenged and reformed the status quo in Rome, risking life and and honor and fortune for what the reformers believed were things willing to die for. They were set on fire by the Holy Spirit as surely as the apostles were on the Day of Pentecost. In fact, the church was born in boldness, as on that day tongues of fire burned brightly and people spoke in tongues not their own in a display of unity and witness and communion that shook the world to its foundations and launched the Church of Jesus Christ, taking the gospel to every corner of the earth.
Boldness is nothing new. Boldness is our heritage. In the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit rushed like a gale-force wind into the mild mannered religion of the day, stamping people with a bold new brand of faith. What has happened to mainline Protestant churches? Why have we embraced mild, when our origins are revolutionary?
Beginning in the 1700s, freedom movements and democratic uprisings toppled monarchs and empires. In place after place, the ancien regime and the mildness and inequality and social stability of the old world was tossed out in favor of risky, messy, democracy—one of the boldest and most audacious forms of government one can imagine. And we in the Protestant congregationalist movement are the heirs of all this, choosing self government and autonomy rather than submit to centralized authority, rejecting pope and bishop in the name of democratic rule and governance, choosing boldness over mildness, on fire with the gospel and determined to change the world.
Friends, we need a return to the boldness of the early church and the boldness of our Protestant forbears, to rally a base of passionate supporters who are sold out and committed to Jesus, even when their boldness may seem a bit controversial or offensive to some. Now, this does not mean that we should be overbearing or overtly offensive—choosing bold over mild doesn’t mean we have to choose stupid. It DOES mean we need to kick it up a notch. Paul Nixon makes it clear that NO institution will survive long in the 21st century without a passionate core of community support, which reaches into the current young adult population and has a mission far bolder than preservation of the status quo. Young people will not be drawn to the message of, Oh, hi, we are the Church in the Highlands, like, um, we have high heating bills? and a big sanctuary to fill? Would you maybe possibly, oh I’m sorry to be asking but, think about joining us and help us to survive a little longer before inevitably we die? Who would rally to that! The message should be, come on, hurry, Jesus is up ahead of us, he’s taught us to love and serve our neighbors, Look! The Risen Christ is walking with us, accompanying us, he has given us a mission, come with us and help change the world!
In 1983, John Scully was a successful CEO with Pepsi, when Steve Jobs from the fledgling Apple company approached him with a legendary pitch. Steve Jobs said, “John, do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?
In the Book of Acts, the boldness of the Holy Spirit was mission driven. It propelled the young Christian church out of the upper room where they had been hiding in fear, and into the streets of the city, taking the good news of the gospel not only to synagogues but to the halls of Roman power.
The bolder a church’s vision, the more engaged that church will be in its own neighborhood and community. The milder the vision, the more the church will resemble an episode of Mister Rogers on TV, boring people to death, where people sit quietly in rooms decorated to our grandmother’s tastes and moan about the budget and settle in for inevitable death. Many mainline Protestant churches look more like funeral homes than centers of revival. We are to be a hospital for sinners not a museum for saints. We worship the Living Christ not a dead orthodoxy. We need to take it to the streets.
So, this week a small group met in my office to discuss this chapter of Paul Nixon’s book, and their response to the book delighted me. What if we organized a community forum, and once a month we hosted a community gathering to discuss matters of urgent concern in our community? What if we did this in collaboration with our sister churches in the area—Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, white churches and black churches and Jewish temples working together to help sponsor it, promote it, and serve refreshments afterwards?
What if we formed a food ministry and called it, “The Largest Table,” and invited every segment of society in White Plains to come to church for lunch, serving locally grown organic food, with local musicians playing in the background and local artists and artisans displaying their handiwork?
In the short time that we have formed our small groups to study I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church I have noticed new ideas percolating, new visions being born, new dreams being dreamed. Some are excited about creating a quiet and beautiful space for meditation—that group should meet today after worship to plan next steps. Just grab some refreshments and sit at an open table and begin planning. Some have expressed an interest in a midweek gathering for food, fun, and fellowship each week. Some might like the ideas I mentioned today about a Community Forum and The Largest Table. Let’s get started! Do it now rather than later. Later may never come. If God is calling you today to be engaged in some ministry that opens us up and moves us out into the community to serve, get going! Call a meeting, do some planning, get busy for God. Isn’t that what it means to be a Christian, to share the good news with our neighbors? Once you catch fire and move with the vision God gives you, you will never go back to church meetings that waste time trying to decide who’s in and who’s out. We are all in. Catch the vision. Get out of meetings and get to work, church. Amen.
- Source: Paul Nixon, I Refuse To Lead A Dying Church, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006. This sermon is drawn from ideas in this book. I am grateful to Paul Nixon for his ideas, and excited that many of us are reading this book together.