When I first came to St. Paul’s UCC, there was an 80 year old woman by the name of Colleen Defraites who came to church every Sunday. She sat next to Ms. Penny Leonard in that third pew on this side. She was a quirky old lady, and if you got the chance to talk with her you were likely to hear one of her catch phrases, a memory or statement that she would share whenever it seemed she had run out of other things to say. At a lull in the conversation, apropos of nothing, Colleen would sometimes give this identity statement, “I’m German, and Lutheran, and a democrat, and I will be until the day I die.” It was almost as if she was reminding herself, this is who I am.
It is a good thing to know your identity, to know who and whose you are. History is a part of all of our identities, we all come from particular people from particular places with particular cultures. This people and places and cultures are shaped by their histories and they in turn shape us. We are products of our cultures and our histories. It was no accident that Colleen a German and a lutheran found herself at St. Paul’s UCC in New Orleans. Our history is one of German, Lutheran and Reformed people who immigrated to this country in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Among the churches that these German Evangelicals founded was Salem German Evangelical Church, which would eventually become Salem United Church of Christ. Salem, which still stands at Camp and General Pershing Streets, was the congregation that birthed St. Paul’s here in Uptown. We were founded by working class German immigrants and their families who wanted a place to worship God together, to raise their children in the Christian faith, to honor that which was good and pleasing to God within their culture and their religious background. It was a noble, honorable, Christian thing to do, and we are the beneficiaries of this great and kind Christian work of these working class German immigrants. Without them we would not have this congregation, this Fellowship Hall, this sanctuary, this rich history, and we would not be blessed with their continued presence in our beloved Mr. George Luft, and his son Jordy Luft.
I love this history, I continue to study it, and I am quite proud of it. But history and identity are not necessarily the same thing. Who we come from and who we have been we’ll always shape who we become, but it does not have to fully determine it. Let me show you a little what I mean by that. There stands today on the side of Salem Church a brass plaque that states that Salem United Church of Christ is a German American Congregation. I know that statement to be true about the history of Salem, and even mostly true about its present, and nevertheless I am unsettled by it. I’m unsettled by it because I worry that it is not only descriptive of the church’s past, but that it meant be read as prescriptive of the Church’s future. I worry that the sign might be read to say, This church is for German American people, now and until the day that it dies. If read that way, the sign doesn’t stop at honoring the congregation’s history, it allows that history to determine its future.
Jesus and his disciples were not merely dropped out of the sky one day, they too had a history, they came from a particular people, with a particular culture, and a particular history. Jesus and every one of his first 12 disciples were Hebrew, they were Jewish people. Even in the first century, the history of the Hebrew people was long and storied. They had produced some of the most incredible, insightful, and divinely inspired religious writings ever to be read by human eyes, most of which we now revere as our Old Testament. They had a history of kings and kingdoms, and also a history of resistance and survival under the oppression of foreign empires. They had a religious law and culture that had guided and sustained and blessed their people for centuries. Jesus, and his disciples, were rightly proud of their culture, their religion, their people, and their history. It had so shaped them and their worldviews, that the New Testament, and the Christian faith itself is literally unintelligible without an understanding of the religion and culture preserved in the Old Testament. The Jewish culture, history, and faith, were a central part of their identity.
And yet, it is also true that Jesus’ ministry involved the proclamation of something new, something novel, something utterly unprecedented in the Jewish faith. In the proclamation of Peter and Paul and the early church that Jesus Christ is Lord, there was introduced a new, unique, and absolute allegiance to Jesus Christ into a Jewish faith that had heretofore only recognized the ineffable God as Lord. In their proclamation of Jesus as Lord, the apostles and the early Church, had set up a new criterion for faith in God. Faith in God meant following the risen Christ, before anything else. It meant being led by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, wherever that Spirit might lead you.
In the story that we read from Acts this morning, that Spirit leads Peter into an awkward situation. It lead him to break the very religious laws that his faith and his culture had taught him, laws on how to remember God in daily life and to live faithfully. For centuries the Jewish people had maintained a separate identity from the peoples that conquered them, by strictly adhering to their food and sabbath laws. These laws helped them to remember that they belonged to God, and were always God’s people. Yet, the Spirit of Christ, the new criterion of faith to which Peter and the disciples had pledged absolute allegiance, came to him in a dream and instructed him to break these food laws, to eat food which his faith had always proclaimed as profane. Next the Holy Spirit went even further, it told him to go into the house of a Gentile, not just any Gentile but a Roman governor, the very Gentiles that dominated his people, and to make no distinction between himself and these enemies of his people. Remarkably, Peter obeyed. He went against his culture, his history, the teachings of his people, and instead obeyed only the Spirit of God. And when he did, things only got worse. Because then the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius the Roman governor and upon his Gentile household. God God’s self blessed and baptized these Gentiles. As much as this blessing of Gentiles went against everything that he had been taught and had believed, Peter nevertheless felt he could not oppose it. Not while maintaining his absolute allegiance to the Spirit of Christ. And so he said, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
When you go around breaking with tradition, violating cultural norms, and religious law, there is bound to be resistance. When word spread about Peter’s eating with Gentiles, visiting them in their homes, and worse, baptizing them, the others in the church in Jerusalem were upset. They wanted to know why Peter had done this, why he had broken with tradition, why he had broken their religious laws. The reason Peter gives is simple, God called me to do it. All throughout his explanation he insists on God’s agency. It was God who gave him the vision that all foods were clean. It was God who brought him to Cornelius’ house and told him to recognize no distinction between them. It was God who appeared to Cornelius in a dream and told him to send for Peter. And finally, it was the Spirit of God that fell upon the Gentiles and baptized them. The reason Peter gave for breaking with tradition, for betraying the norms of his culture, and violating the laws of his religion was simply that his highest allegiance was to the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit had led him there.
In welcoming the Gentiles into full communion in the Christian Church, the Holy Spirit, did not condemn the history, culture, and religion of the Jewish people. Peter and Paul, both of whom accepted Gentiles into the faith without their having to practice all of Jewish law, nevertheless maintained their own adherence to this law as much as possible. They were proud of their history, their people, and their tradition, and they kept practicing it as long as they could do so, without excluding or insulting their brothers and sisters in Christ from other cultures. What the Holy Spirit did was to let them know that God is greater than every history, than every culture, than every people. God and God’s gracious and loving will may be expressed and honored in each and every culture of the world, yet it is not and cannot be contained within any one culture. God transcends particular cultures and histories. God is always bigger than us and the love to which God is always calling us will always break the barriers that our histories and cultures and traditions place between us.
Here at St. Paul’s we have every right to be proud of our German heritage and tradition. And today, the week of Mr. George Luft’s 92nd birthday, we should celebrate that history and tradition especially as he embodies it: In his faithfulness and dedication to this congregation and to the Christian Church, in his kindness and openness to new people whom he has welcomed into this family of faith, and especially in his love for children. Mr. George embodies many of the aspects of our German history of which we should rightly be proud. Yet his welcome of Nigerian, Argentinian, Australian, Carribean, and Mexican people into this congregation also testifies to the God revealed truth that the love and grace and will of God are to be found in every human culture and as such they are all to be honored. My sincere prayer and hope for St. Paul’s UCC is that we will continue to honor the best parts of our history and tradition and culture, while also remembering that the Holy Spirit calls us to greater love and life precisely by the breaking down of historical, cultural, and religious barriers that separate us. May we look to the Holy Spirit as our ultimate allegiance and may we allow it to guide us to new life and greater love through relationships with peoples of all kinds. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast