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The practice of communal discernment…

May 2, 2010

Easter 5C
Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35

Sing Alleluia (Jennifer Knapp & Mac Powell music video)

That’s Jennifer Knapp.  She is a singer/artist who is well-known in the Contemporary Christian Music scene.  Seven years ago she dropped out of that scene.  She was doing 152 shows a year, working in the studio on a new album.  She got burned out.  She dropped out of the CCM scene and travelled around the country for a year, then moved to Australia for the last five years.  In the last month, her name resurfaced as she was interviewed by Christianity Today.  In the CT interview she talks about her journey of “coming out” as a lesbian.

Last Friday night she was on Larry King Live (transcript here).  I watched her talk about her journey.  After some initial questions for Jennifer, Larry King brought Pastor Bob Botsford, senior pastor, Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego.  The pastor expressed his views that Jennifer is living in sin and that what she is doing (by being open about it) is detrimental to the church.  Lastly, Larry King brought Ted Haggard into the conversation.   Ted Haggard, was a prominent pastor and evangelical leader who went through a sex scandal several years back.  He is now walking through a time of healing and restoration. 

These three individuals all identified themselves as people of Christian faith.  They all were referencing the Bible as an authority for their lives.  They all were seeking to interact with the other in love—in a way that faithfully represented their understanding of the world through the lens of scripture.  Was this communal discernment?

Our text provides a window into THE central issue for the early apostolic church after Pentecost.  Not only did Resurrection change the Story, but Pentecost totally messed with the tribal version of salvation.  But it’s not like everyone got what God was doing just because they had a Pentecost experience.  There was yet a steep learning curve…conflicting views that threatened to divide the community. 

The other week we followed Peter on this learning curve as he went to the house of Cornelius.  Today is part two of that story.  Now Peter is on his way back from Caesaria to Jerusalem.  He is text-messaging James to give him a heads up.  James, you’ll never guess what I just ate for lunch!  Shrimp tortellini!  What?!!?  Yeah, and you’ll never guess who I had it with.  A Gentile!  I’ll tell you all about it when I get to Jerusalem.  Tell everyone else I’m on my way.

So James updates his Facebook status with Peter’s report and within minutes there are 100 comments.  By the time Peter arrives, the community has gathered and they have a few questions for Peter.  In fact, the circumcised believers are quite upset.  Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?  What were you thinking?  You are a leader in the church!  You know what the scriptures teach!  So the communal discernment process begins.  Peter shares his story. 

He reports on his vision concerning all sorts of “unclean animals” and the voice of “the Spirit” that led him to “not make a distinction” between clean and unclean.  His story is about the force of God’s purpose deconstructing all established social protocols to make something new possible. 

He ends with a rhetorical question:  “Who was I that I could hinder God?”  Peter is nobody who could stop God.  Nor could his companions stop God.  Nor could the readers of this narrative, ancient or contemporary, stop God.  God is reaching out to include all who have been excluded or regarded as second class by our tribal sensibilities–our tribal boundaries.  Peter knew that he and all the followers of Jesus are under a new commandment that readily violates usual social arrangements.  Love.

Walter Brueggeman says:  The Spirit that crosses boundaries is the presence of the risen Christ.  We who confess Easter are recruited to move in generous love across all the boundaries of “clean and unclean”…citizens and immigrants, Jews and Muslims, gay and straight, rich and poor.  All are invited to sign on for the “new earth” that will match the “new heaven” that comes through specific acts of neighborly generosity.  All can “turn” (repent) toward God’s newness.

How do we see the early Christian community practicing discernment?  First, we notice that Peter is given an opportunity to share his story.  Judgment is postponed until the community listens to Peter.  Peter’s story is that what happened at Cornelius’ house is an extension of what God is doing at Pentecost.  Listening to stories is an important part of communal discernment.  How are we making room for listening to stories which echo the boundary-breaking movement of Pentecost? 

A second aspect of communal discernment in this passage is accountability.  Even apostle Peter does not place himself outside or above accountability within the faith community.  Even though he has had a vision from God validated in his experience, he comes back to Jerusalem to test this within the established church.  He shares his story step by step.  How are we (personally, SMC, as Anabaptists) accountable to a broader community of discernment as we follow the Spirit? 

The community recognizes in Peter’s story the movement of the Spirit.  They hear the compelling call not to hinder God.  When they hear Peter’s story they are silenced.  It is the silence of humility.  It is the silence that recognizes we are not the center of what God is doing in the world.  And sometimes we don’t get what God is up to.  It is the silence of a teachable spirit—one that acknowledges that the world may not be as black and white as we thought.  After this silence, comes praise for God who gives even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life. 

How is SMC being invited to practice communal discernment?  We practice communal discernment in many ways as a community, but let me just highlight three.

  1. We practice communal discernment around issues of pastoral care—including homosexuality.  What if Jennifer Knapp was a part of Sunnyside Mennonite Church?  What would that mean for us?  The other week, Dave shared his story of letting go in his relationship with his brother Dwayne.  How is homosexuality a matter of communal discernment?  It has to do with how we will embody the new commandment Jesus gives us—to love one another. 

That is what a letter from LMC bishops on January 29, 2010 calls us to do.  That’s why I included it in the current issue of the MC.  In that letter the bishops reaffirmed that we are committed to the current understandings on human sexuality as expressed in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995).  The letter also calls us to practice communal discernment in regards to how we express vulnerable hospitality as the Body of Christ.  Here is what the fifth paragraph of that letter says:

We believe that, as God’s people, we need to learn more about what it means to care for those God is bringing into our lives. This pastoral concern will include both those already in the church and those who come to us who experience same-sex sexual attraction. We confess that sometimes we act in ways that hurt people when we should be caring for them. We need to work at making our congregations communities of healing and hope. We need to create safe places where trusting relationships can be fostered and where persons can share their stories and experience God’s grace and love. The church should be a place where people can find healing in all areas of sexual struggles and brokenness. We as a Conference desire to provide our congregations with resources that help us minister healing and wholeness in the area of human sexuality.

I am part of an ad hoc group that has been invited by the bishop board to help us work at this.  The Mission Statement of this group is this.  To help shape a model for LMC congregations to become communities of healing and hope as a safe place for homosexuals to experience the same work of God’s grace as any other person needs for becoming transformed in Christ. 

So I am compelled, by the stirrings of the Spirit within me, not to avoid this subject.  I am compelled to invite Dave to share his story with us as a congregation.  I am compelled to listen to the story of Jennifer Knapp and others.  I call us as a community to practice open discernment, to practice radical patience as we listen to stories, consider scripture and seek to walk with the Spirit in Love.  I call us to be the church…and not be coopted by the political rhetoric of culture that knows very little about Easter Faith, Gospel Hope, or Cross-bearing Love.

2.  We practice communal discernment in our gathered worship.  Sometimes I am asked why we follow the lectionary.  Doesn’t that restrict the Spirit?  Shouldn’t the preacher just seek God in prayer and listen for what the Spirit wants to say each week?  Let me offer a few thoughts about why following the lectionary is an expression of following the Spirit in communal discernment. 

First, following the lectionary helps us listen to what the Spirit is saying through the whole of Scripture.  When we untether ourselves from communally discerned reading plans, we can very easily fall into reading practices that are narrow and produce a shallow understanding of the biblical story.  The lectionary helps us stay rooted in the whole biblical story.  It takes humility and discipline to trust that the Spirit can work through the community.  It takes a willingness to let go of our need to hear the Spirit independently. 

One last thing about the lectionary.  As I read the texts assigned by the lectionary each week, there is a lively working of the Spirit as I consider the text, our context and the Good News implications.  It’s not like my experience in sermon preparation is:  Man, this is dry…if only I could have the freedom to preach some other text. 

3.  We practice communal discernment as we engage in God’s mission.  The Cornelius story is all about God’s mission taking place in unexpected places among unexpected people.  The established church has to adjust in order to keep up with God.  What about us? 

Do you know what this is (SMC organization and structure)?  Do you know how many roles I counted in this document?  146, and that is not even counting inactive ones like Refugee Support Team or Bridge of Hope.  It is the fruit of communal discernment.  Which comes first, the structure or the wind of the Spirit?  Our structure only has life as we see ourselves organizing around the mission of God.  This is an ongoing process.  The Missional Experiment last year was one expression of communal discernment around the mission of God.  What about Pentecost 2010?

May we continue to grow as a discerning community that is open to the miracle of Pentecost which allows us to follow the Spirit to unexpected places…to be in relationship with surprisingly diverse people…to experience the grace of communion.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Shandra Stoner permalink
    May 2, 2010 5:49 pm

    Thanks, Brian, for this. I read your writings when I have time and I found this one especially challenging. I will try not to miss an opportunity to listen–with judging–to someone’s story this week.


    • just an apprentice permalink
      May 3, 2010 4:51 pm

      Hi Shandra,
      Thanks for your comment…glad this message was helpful.
      Take care,

  2. May 3, 2010 12:58 pm

    Brian wrote: “I am compelled to listen to the story of Jennifer Knapp and others. I call us as a community to practice open discernment, to practice radical patience as we listen to stories, consider scripture and seek to walk with the Spirit in Love. I call us to be the church…and not be coopted by the political rhetoric of culture that knows very little about Easter Faith, Gospel Hope, or Cross-bearing Love.”

    Thanks Brian for having the courage to challenge us in this way. As we move into the future, this type of discernment may be messy and uncomfortable but we shouldn’t expect the way of Jesus to be easy and comfortable.


  3. John permalink
    May 5, 2010 9:36 am

    Brian, I am again challenged by your grappling with issues that are vital to our experience of God and life in the church. The emphasis on listening is one for which I need constant reminder.

    I have at times pondered the experience of discernment in the early church on which you base your reflections. A couple of observations that may speak to how we do discernment today.

    1. Peter’s decision to go to Cornelius’s house was based on personal revelation and coincidence of events.

    How open are we, or should we be, to making moral and missional decisions on subjective and coincidental grounds?

    2. When Peter was called on the carpet for his actions, his defense was recounting his subjective perception of God’s will and the fact that Cornelius and his household had a Pentecostal experience similar to what Jesus had predicted for the disciples. There was no extended debate about the moral teachings of Jesus or Mosaic law.

    Most of the debate in churches today involves citing biblical texts and moralistic theology. Do this text point us in the direction of more subjective communal discernment of where the Spirit is moving? If it does, how do we change our approach and reach agreement where subjective discernment, both personal and communal, varies so greatly.

    Thanks for engaging a difficult issue.


  1. Scattering and gathering… « just an apprentice

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