Who's In and Who's Out?: A Sermon for Sunday May 15, 2022

The following sermon was preached on May 15, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here. Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

 

At the end of Sunday services I often include the following blessing by William Sloane Coffin, a cleric and activist who was chaplain at Yale in the 1960s and later the Senior Minister at Riverside Church in New York City. A few people have asked for the text so I thought I'd include it here before the text of yesterday's sermon:

May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short;

Grace to risk something big for something good;

Grace to remember that the world is too dangerous

for anything but truth,

and too small for anything but love.

And the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be amongst you and remain with you now and always. Amen.

 

Sermon:

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

The lectionary will plunk us squarely in the book of Acts for the next little while and I want to thank Willie James Jennings for his excellent commentary. It was a major influence on this sermon.[1]

Acts is a story of revolution. It’s a story told by a master storyteller about the “disrupting presence of the Spirit of God.”

Listen to how Jennings describes it:

“The book of Acts is like the book of Genesis. It announces a beginning but without the language of a beginning. Like Genesis it renders without pomp and flag-waving a God working, moving, creating the dawn that will break each day, putting into place a holy repetition that speaks of the willingness of God to invade our every day and our every moment.

This God of Israel waits no more for the perfect time to be revealed. Now is the time, and here is the place…God moves and we respond. We move and God responds… Cards are on the table and the curtain is drawn back, and God acts plainly, clearly, and in ways that are irrevocable. There is no going back now.” (1-2)

The book of Acts unfolds at a breakneck pace and each chapter shows the early Christ followers learning just how inclusive their new community was going to be.  Group after unexpected group receives the Holy Spirit and is added to their number.  Saul learns that he has been wrong to persecute the Christ followers and joins them instead. Phillip can see no reason not to baptism the eunuch from Ethiopia, and now it is Peter’s turn.

When Peter arrives in Jerusalem, the people have already heard about how Peter has recently broken a number of rules and they have questions.  Hey Peter, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (3)

Peter has some explaining to do.

They aren’t asking if Gentiles can become followers of Jesus, they have already discovered that they can, but their question is “We’ve accepted the new reality in which Gentiles are to be welcomed into our community, but don’t they also need to follow all of our Jewish customs as well?  Aren’t practices like circumcision and dietary laws important components of what it means to follow Christ?

In N.T. Wright’s translation of this passage verse 2 says, “So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, those who wanted to emphasize circumcision took issue with him.”

These men had a clear idea of what it took to be a follower of Christ, and circumcision was on the list.  It was one of the key ways to determine who was in, and who was out.

Every group has a list like this.

I was sitting at the table at the Mennonite Church I used to work at waiting for everyone to arrive when a volunteer approached me.

Her expression was deadly serious as she leaned towards me and gestured with her finger for me to lean in too so she could whisper.

“You know,” she said in hushed tones, “some Anglicans are actually Christians!”

The Alpha course, which was designed as a sort of Christianity 101 and became very popular in evangelical churches in the 90s was created by an Anglican.

This detail made a lot of people scratch their heads. It directly challenged some of the basic things they had always believed about so called mainline churches. Used to sizing up people and organizations to determine if they were in or they were out, they couldn’t argue with the fact that Nicky Gumble seemed to believe all the right things, and that the course he created seemed to be working.

It made no sense, but their experience participating in the Alpha course made it impossible for them to continue to believe that Anglicans couldn’t be Christians.

It may not have been the most important or powerful moment in the ecumenical movement, but the Alpha course did successfully covert many evangelicals to this new way of thinking, “Some Anglicans were in fact Christians!”

And to be perfectly fair, I could tell a number of very similar stories about Anglicans as well.

What does it take to belong?  In some communities the litmus test for inclusion might be skin colour, your views on abortion or whether or not you wear a mask.

It’s always something.

But God gives Peter a vision of inclusion. It’s a vision of hospitality and welcome in which God says unequivocally that everyone is welcome into the family. As they are. Circumcision and purity codes no longer apply. God says that everything has been made clean. Who can argue with God?

Well, Peter can.

It took Peter, the direct recipient of the vision, 3 times to get the hint. It took the people hearing Peter’s account of the vision significantly less time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Peter arrives in Jerusalem and he has some explaining to do. First, for accepting Cornelius’ hospitality and secondly for baptizing Cornelius and his household and thereby inviting them into full membership in the community without having to first become Jews.

Does Peter dazzle them with rhetoric or complex theological ideas?  No. He tells them a story.  A very detailed story of exactly what happened to him in Joppa.

If you’ve been reading along in Acts, you’ll know that this is the second time we get the details of Peter’s vision.   You may think, “Hey I just read this in the last chapter! Luke should have gotten himself a better editor who would have cut this unnecessary material!”

But the repetition is not an accident. It indicates the importance of Peter’s experience not only for Peter but for the entire community. In Joppa, God subverted Peter’s expectations and now, through the re-telling, God will subvert the community’s expectations as well.

Peter’s dream “… must be told in detail so the hearers can begin to see their lives in it. God spoke to Peter and now through Peter God is speaking to the saints gathered to hear.  The power of God is present in weakness, in the voice of one disciple of Jesus who simply tells the truth of what has happened to him and what God did through him.”(117)

Then, as now, there are few things more powerful than the story of a personal experience.

And so Peter begins to tell them about his vision in great detail. He was praying in Joppa and had a vision of a large sheet coming down from heaven.  The sheet is filled with all sorts of animals and a “voice from heaven” tells him to eat them.  Peter refuses because some of these animals were considered unclean and he has always honoured Jewish dietary laws. (4-8)

But the heavenly voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (9)

This process happens three times. (10) Is this a call back to other series of three in Peter’s life? The denial? Jesus’ questions on the beach? Is it simply a sign of Peter’s stubborn refusal to believe?

Whatever the significance, the sheet is lowered and pulled up to heaven three times and after the final time three men from Caesarea appear in its place. The Spirit tells Peter he is to go with them and also “not to make a distinction between them and us.” (12)

The men have also had a vision in which they were told to find Peter and listen to the message of salvation he would share with them.  Peter begins to speak but before he can finish, the Holy Spirit falls upon the men and Peter recognizes this as the fulfillment of the promise that “John would baptize with water but they would baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

As Peter is conveying the story he makes sure to highlight the work of the Holy Spirit throughout in order to make it clear that although his behavior has been unconventional, he really had no choice but to conclude that Gentile believers needed to be welcomed into the fold as they were.

I imagine him getting to the final line of his account and throwing up his hands and shrugging his shoulders as he concludes, “If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

In other words, “If you want to take issue with my actions, take it up with God, not me.”

With the benefit of historical hindsight, it’s easy for me to place myself on Peter’s side – to put myself by his side before this story even began actually – and to write off the men who want to emphasize circumcision as ignorant fools.

How on earth could they possibly have been so ignorant, so naïve, so self righteously exclusionary as to think that circumcision mattered to God? Keep up folks! God is making all things new!

But I have a friend who talks passionately about the importance of reclaiming her indigenous heritage.  She wants to learn her language and participate in ceremonies. But one of the horrible legacies of residential schools is that she didn’t learn these things as a child and there are very few elders who can teach her now.

She feels adrift without the language and practices that should anchor her identity. She grieves all the things that have already been lost and worries about the challenge of saving the things that still remain.  She wants to participate in the dominant culture, but she does not want to be assimilated into it.

Now the circumstances are very different, but I suspect this is part of what the men who want to emphasize circumcision are also worried about.  The Jewish people were a minority group and their practices were an essential component of their cultural identity. Their religious beliefs and practices kept them from being assimilated into the dominant culture.

Without the practices that helped to form and strengthen their identity as children of God, what will happen to them?  Would they lose their culture? A culture that had been given to them by God and that had sustained them for generations? (115)

These are valid concerns.

The people who favoured circumcision were asking these questions from a sincere desire to know what the right thing to do was. They had open ears and soft hearts. Softer, it seems, than even Peter’s because they know exactly what to do after hearing the story, second hand, only one time.

Peter finishes his story and the people fall silent. A silence that is broken, not by critical words, but by praise. Luke tells us, And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (18)

“This silence is a break in space, and time, and sound that God has orchestrated. This break does not silence Israel’s past, but it is a break in the musical sense, in the sense of jazz improvisation.

[Wynton Marsalis explains that] in the break the band stops playing and leaves space for a soloist to play. In the break the soloist is alone for a moment carrying the time, suspended in air and holding everything together in a single performance: ‘It’s the pressure-packed moment, because you have to maintain the time flow of the whole band by yourself: Our time because your time – yours and yours alone.’

Peter brings them to the break, but the Spirit of God carries the time, holding it in the silence. The moment of silence after [Peter’s] testimony reveals a God who has been keeping time beautifully and faithfully with Israel and now expects the hearers to feel the beat, remember the rhythm, and know the time… After the silence God’s love has modulated into a new key, but the rhythm and song of Israel continues. The beat goes on.  (118)

Peter tells his story. The people listen.  They spend time in silence and then recognizing the truth of what Peter has said, they adjust their thinking and praise God.

Their behavior is worthy of emulation.

When I watch the news it seems to me that more and more we are dividing into camps, building walls and throwing stones over the top.

We aren’t listening to other people’s stories.

Could we emulate those early Christians who listened to Peter’s story, fell silent, and changed their minds?

Can we learn to sing a new song of praise and invite others to sing it too? Just as they are.

May it be so.

In the strong name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

[1] From the series “Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible.”

 


Talking about Tomatoes

A piece I wrote about what growing tomatoes can teach us about living a full life was published by Faith + Lead. You can read it here.