Sunday, April 24, 2016
8:15 Sunday Morning
Acts 11:1-18 (NRSV)
"Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, 'Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?' Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 'I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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 they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, 'Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.' "
"No Girls Allowed"
At least that is what the handmade sign said that hung on the doorknob. This is just the way it had to be. This space was set up in a certain way and girls would not understand, and they might just try to change things. And they had cooties anyway. We had boy things to do. We had boy things to say. We didn't have time for those girls. So, we knew that making this sign would keep even the oldest of the girls away.
That is, until, until, she gave two knocks and dared to just open the door without waiting for a response. "Boys," she said, "boys, you are making entirely too much noise."
"Mom," I said. "Can't you read the sign?! 'No girls allowed!' This is the boy's room."
And then she gave me the look.
You know the one. The mom look that carries the weight of more than nearly a thousand words. She reached around behind her; took our sign; and said, "You are making entirely too much noise. And I would greatly appreciate it if you would leave this door open." One last mom look was shot my way and locked onto my eyes even though I was working my hardest to avoid her gaze all together. And she looked into the depths of my soul as if to remind me that the little boundaries I had set up were not acceptable to everyone and actually did more harm than good. Most importantly, mom was not happy. As she left the room, I tried to act cool and hoped that by the time my friend had to leave for the day she would forget my little transgression and our little exchange so that I wouldn’t have to endure another uncomfortable silent conversation. Lesson learned.
Sometimes my self-imposed boundaries on others aren't helpful and actually cause more difficulties than they solve.
Sound familiar? This seems to be a common occurrence.
Aren't we all guilty of doing the very same thing?
Aren't there times when we all want to hang up handmade signs defining the boundaries we have set? As if to say, keep out!
Building fences between us and those we don't understand, those who we perceive as different, those who we see as a threat, those we have been nurtured to dislike. Our brains like the construction of these binaries because they help us define who we are and who we are not. In fact, in times of fear and uncertainty, like the one in which we currently live, the tendency to see the world in such a black and white manner is greater.
This is where our text meets us this morning. The author of the Acts of the Apostles tells the same story two times in succession to the first century church, and us by extension, about the movement of God, the abandonment of black and white thinking, and the expansive world of unbound grace. He tells it twice as if it somehow was too important to miss. This story is of a vision that changed things forever in the mind of the apostles and in the manner in which the first century church went about spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.
Let's set the stage for Peter's unusual vision and radical message. We are all familiar with Peter, the apostle, one of the most important figures in the developing Jesus group in Jerusalem. He was a devout Jew who followed the rituals and laws of his faith and family. One of the most important aspects of the communal faith and life practices of ancient Judaism were the Purity Laws which guided what a person would eat, and how a person would interact with their world. There were regulations about food as well as purification rituals. It was important as a community to understand that which was lawful for them to eat to keep the community healthy. The devout person of faith would never think of breaking these laws because of the risk that might pose not just to the individual, but more importantly because of the threat it could pose to the community as a whole. Foods, people, and behaviors were placed into two categories "clean" and "unclean". That which was declared as "unclean" was to be avoided without exception. If for some reason a person came into contact with something that was understood as "unclean" there were specific rules which the individual must follow in order to be made "clean" again.
As important as these laws surrounding purity were so too was the manner in which the people of faith understood the world. People and cultures were split into two categories - Jew and Gentile (sometimes referred to as Greek). There was no in between. You were either a part of the covenant community or you were not. Jews were not to marry, socialize, or eat with those who were seen as Gentile. There was a deep understanding that doing so defiled the individual and threatened the entire community in much the same manner that unclean food defiled the person. Such an action could be seen as erasing the exclusive status of the Jewish people as God's chosen nation.
It is into this religious and social setting that Peter received his radical vision. The vision of this large sheet being lowered from heaven while Peter was on the rooftop in Joppa transformed everything. We are told that on this sheet were all types of four footed animals that were understood as unclean according to the Purity Laws. And Peter was told by the voice of the Lord to get up and eat. He was told this three separate times. When Peter declined because of his faithfulness to the code which shaped his religious and social life, God said, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." Peter understood. This vision and this message were not simply about food. They were also about the people whom he had thought were outside of the original covenantal promise. As a result, Peter willingly went to Cornelius, a soldier, a centurion, a Roman. Peter shared God's message of grace with him and his entire household, broke bread with the Gentile in the Gentile's home eating the Gentile's food, and everything changed - there was no longer clean or unclean, Jew or Gentile. This was the story Peter told the leaders of the church in Jerusalem to help them understand his actions. The question he then posed to himself and to leaders of the church reshaped the way they understood their world, their place in it, and the breadth of divine grace. If we allow it to, I believe it could continue to have the same force for us today.
Peter asked, "who was I that I could hinder God?" Who indeed?
Joseph Harvard, former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC, wrote of this passage, "Have you ever been to a church meeting when you could feel the tension in the air? Such meetings often center around who is 'in' and who is 'out.' In the present case, the tension was between those drawing a narrow circle of inclusion around the gospel and others who were busy expanding the circle until all God's children had a place at the table...If God so loved the world that Jesus came not to condemn the whole world but to save it, who are we to try to limit the mission of God to redeem humanity? Every time we exclude someone from full participation in the redemptive efforts of God, Peter's question should trouble us and the church…Peter was persuaded that God the creator did not intend to exclude anyone from the community of God's care. His conclusion was revolutionary" (Harvard, 2011).
And yet, here we are two millennia later still being surprised by the movement of the spirit of the divine. We still find ourselves building barriers to define us against that which we are not and that which we believe would never be right for us to do. We draw circles to set up these parameters we think are necessary to define who's in and who's out. In so doing, we set ourselves up as the judge of that which is holy and of those who are chosen. George Boyle, former director of CenterPoint Counseling here at Second Presbyterian Church wrote about the danger of giving in to such a temptation in this beautiful poem entitled "Judgment". It reads,
When we judge
We usurp one of God’s exclusive rights.
For such is the power of judgment
That it is nuclear
In human hands
Those who exercise it,
Obscuring subtle distinctions.
Only what stands in bold relief,
Judgment melts differences
Which, given freedom of encounter,
Might, in an interplay
And a creative search
Produce humane conclusions,
Thus adding to the brilliance
Of the race’s soul.
Judgment gives no credence
To the truth of contradiction,
As if one color, by definition,
Or opposites create
Judgment confines each
Based on perceived characteristics
Generated by prejudice
Held with the tenacity
Of absolute knowledge.
Judgment confers unwarranted
Superiority upon the judge,
Obliterates the gift of self-awareness
That holds the balance
Between arrogance and self-effacement,
Which assures the twin nobilities of character:
Graciousness and the genuine.
Its evil is withering.
It countenances no possibility
Of worth to the judged
Or error to the judge.
Iron-clad, it repels
Appeal to reason
And dismisses all thought of value
To those outside
Its narrow orbit.
Thus judgment holds fast
A closed iron gate
Against the judged,
Condemning the judging to isolation
From the free, full, vibrant,
Vitality of life,
And from the dance of joy and love.
They but observe
While those outside the gate,
In building these barriers, in closing these gates, what really happens is that we isolate ourselves from the places and the manner in which God's grace is actively at work transforming people and the world in which we live. In our desire to control we lose sight of the beauty of God's grace. The radical revolutionary love of God is what Peter's vision and his subsequent actions are all about. It is what we are all called toward.
"God shows no partiality!" writes Will Willimon … A vision of the Lordship of Christ, ruling with the Creator of heaven and of earth, is the basis for Christian efforts at inclusiveness. One cannot have a Lord who is Lord of only part of creation … If Jesus Christ is Lord, then the church has the adventurous task of penetrating new areas of his Lordship, expecting surprises and new implications of the gospel which cannot be explained on any basis other than our Lord has shown us something we could not have seen on our own" (Willimon, 1998).
Who are the people, what are the people groups, and the behaviors that we have painted with letters of scarlet in an attempt to isolate them from God's grace and to draw a line that says the grace of the divine can only go this far and no farther. We are not the boundary keepers. We are not the ones who get to decide. God has a wonderful habit of redefining the boundaries of love and the reach of God's grace.
If the spirit of the Christ has become predictable, perhaps we need a bigger understanding of who God is and how this God might move. This is the audacious hope and grace of God. The circles of God's inclusion continue to broaden and expand and so must ours. We are called to be midwives of God's grace to all in the world because of what God has done. "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…" See, God is making all things new.
Perhaps Alan of Lille said it best "Christ is the one whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."
Our hope lies here in the audacity of a God whose love knows no bounds and whose grace has no end. As resurrection people, may we have the courage to bear this hope to the world. Amen.
Boyle, George. Awakenings. AuthorHouse, 2011.
Harvard, Joseph. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Vol. Year C. Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox, 2011. Print. Lent through Eastertide.
Willimon, William H. Acts. Atlanta: John Knox, 1988. Print.