The Wisdom of Gamaliel
Pentecost 15 – Narrative Lectionary Summer Series
August 28, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
“…[I]f this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5.38-39)
This summer, I was able to read and finish (finally) former Presiding Bishop Herb Chilstrom’s autobiography, A Journey of Grace. Chilstrom was the first presiding bishop when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed through the merger of the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The book is an elegant weaving together of Chilstrom’s person history, professional history and church history. In it he describes how he went from totally opposing women’s ordination in the 60s to fully supporting it in the 70s. Chilstrom also notes the irony that his wife, Corinne, who trained as a nurse, went to seminary and become ordained many years later. This was one of several incidents of being persuaded God was doing something new. Chilstrom said that his basic core theological beliefs did not change; rather how those were lived out grew as his understanding of God grew.
I resonated with Bishop Chilstrom’s stories of personal and pastoral growth and the story of Gamaliel has been instrumental for me. Following Jesus’ death, the religious leaders of Israel had to contend with his disciples, now apostles sent to proclaim the good news of Jesus crucified and risen. Known as the Sanhedrin, these folk were responsible for the religious life of Israel. They were flummoxed because it seemed this religious movement wouldn’t die (pardon the pun). No matter how much they imprisoned and beat the disciple-apostles, they gleefully kept on going. Gamaliel, a highly respected Pharisee, offers them a wonderful piece of wisdom: “…[I]f this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5.38-39) Theologically astute but also highly practical Gamaliel reminds them that God works surprisingly and in God’s own time.
I have told a little fib today. The story of Gamaliel is not my favorite story, but it is an important one in my personal and pastoral faith journeys. I came across Gamaliel about 10 years ago when I was struggling with an issue many of us wrestled with, the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. Our church was struggling, too, and also like many of you I read much information on both sides of the issue. My stance then was pretty traditional: I didn’t think that homosexuality was God’s intention for humanity. But I kept encountering people like those apostles in Acts 5 who claimed God was doing a new thing in our church. Indeed, as I looked around I saw people in committed, healthy same gender relationships who seemed to love Jesus and be living with integrity.
Then Gamaliel came along and his wisdom helped me see a way through. If loving, committed same gendered relationships were of God, I couldn’t stop them. If they weren’t, then we would know eventually, though it may take some time. That’s one reason why I supported the decision of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, which gave congregations who believed they had a ministry to, with and through gays and lesbians permission to do so. Those that didn’t have that call would be honored as well. We continue to work our way through issues of gender identity, but I believe that God is still in this with us.
In closing, here are some important points: First, like Bishop Chilstrom, my Lutheran theology hasn't changed. I still hold dearly the belief that God took on human flesh and walked among us, that he took all of our sin and brokenness as well where it was crucified on the cross. In exchange, we received new life available to us now and in the future. Furthermore, I believe that God is a living and active God who is still working in, with and through us. However, in 20 years of ordained ministry, my understanding of how that’s lived out changed because I tried to be open to God. I'm not a hero or super-Christian. I'm just someone like you who is trying to live a faithful life. Second, it doesn’t mean I was wrong (or that you’re wrong) before; I was in a different place. And chances are that many of you are in different places right now and that’s okay. This is the story of my faith journey; yours is different.
Third, we need to have compassion for the religious leaders in our story because there is some of them in all of us. We all have those things that God is trying to make new. Finally, our culture to the contrary, it’s okay to change our attitudes, because God’s always working in our lives prompting us to grow. As Pastor Rob Bell notes, our faith is not like a brick wall where the disruption of a brick causes it to crumble. Rather, our beliefs are like springs on a trampoline that allow us to have a lively faith.
So, who are those like the apostles who speaking to you, indicating that God is doing something new? Who is speaking wisdom like Gamaliel? I invite you to ask God for the grace to be open to the new things God is up to. Amen.