(Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 4/24/2016)
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C
The apostles and the brothers and sisters throughout Judea heard that even the Gentiles had welcomed God’s word. When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him. They accused him, “You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!”
Step-by-step, Peter explained what had happened. “I was in the city of Joppa praying when I had a visionary experience. In my vision, I saw something like a large linen sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. It came all the way down to me. As I stared at it, wondering what it was, I saw four-legged animals—including wild beasts—as well as reptiles and wild birds. I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!’ I responded, ‘Absolutely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ The voice from heaven spoke a second time, ‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’ This happened three times, then everything was pulled back into heaven. At that moment three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered that man’s house. He reported to us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter. He will tell you how you and your entire household can be saved.’ When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”
Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, “So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.” (Acts 11:1-18, CEB)
I’d like to introduce a new emotion or feeling to you. My friends and I felt this emotion in college a lot. It’s called…
FOMO. F. O. M. O. Fear Of Missing Out.
You see, there are certain times in college when you decide to be a responsible student and stay in on a Friday or Saturday night to do homework or study for a big test. And when you do that, you experience this-FOMO. You’re afraid that you’re missing out. You know your friends are out having fun, you know you’re missing out, and you’re afraid of being rejected.
As a music major, I had to spend a lot of time in the practice room with my trumpet. During my freshman and sophomore years especially, I spent a good number of Friday and Saturday nights in the practice room. Now, this was self-imposed, but I still had this fear that I was missing out on something much more fun. I knew my friends were out having fun, I was stuck in a practice room, and I felt alone and excluded.
It really sucked.
It’s that experience of exclusion that I want to talk about today with that passage from Acts I just read for you. Now, I think we’ve all had this experience of feeling excluded and left out.
Maybe you’ve felt excluded when you found out your friends talk about you behind your back.
Maybe your family, or members of your family, planned a fun trip or a fun outing and you couldn’t go…or you weren’t invited.
This is something we can all relate to. We’ve all experienced exclusion and rejection. And this is what the reading from Acts was talking about.
So I read the passage for you earlier. That passage is really the last part of a longer story, so let me fill you in on what happened before Peter got back to the believers in Jerusalem.
There was a man named Cornelius. He was a Roman centurion, a military commander. The writer of Acts says that he was a Gentile God-worshiper, so even though he’s a Gentile-which means a non-Jewish person-he worshiped the God of the Jews, Yahweh, who’s also our God. So while he’s praying, he sees an angel in a vision who tells him to send for Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, could be seen as Jesus’ right-hand man.
Now this is important. Because at this time, in 1st-century Palestine, the Jewish people separated themselves from the Gentile people, the non-Jews. The Jews understood themselves to be God’s, Yahweh’s, Chosen People, and the Gentiles were not. Very obvious lines were drawn. The Jews could be around Gentiles, the Gentiles could come to the synagogue services and worship Yahweh, like what Cornelius probably did, but these Gentiles were not welcome in Jewish homes, at Jewish tables, and vice versa.
There was this strong idea in 1st-century Judaism that Gentiles, non-Jews, could not obtain God’s pleasure without first becoming Jews themselves, which meant circumcision for the males, following all the dietary laws, the whole nine yards. The understanding was that the Jews were God’s Chosen People, and the Gentiles were not. The Jews were pure and the Gentiles were not. The Jews were clean and holy and the Gentiles were not.
Real quick, I do want to say that this was an idea in 1st-century Judaism, it doesn’t really continue in our Jewish brothers and sisters today.
Now earlier, I mentioned that we’ve all been excluded and left out. And that hurts. But also, we’ve all been the ones who exclude others, who draw lines and boundaries around ourselves and our group to exclude everyone else. This is what’s going on here.
If you can, think back to when you were in high school. That might be harder for some than others, or you might not have to think back at all. This is what high school is all about-who’s in and who’s out. Who are the jocks, who are the nerds, who are the band geeks-all of that.
Now, when Cornelius gets this vision telling him to send for Simon Peter, Simon Peter is staying with Simon the Tanner. While he’s staying there, Peter goes up on the roof of the house to pray. And while he’s up there, he sees a vision from heaven.
He saw a large white sheet lowered down to earth by its four corners. The sheet was holding “four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds.” This is important because some of these animals had been declared unclean for Jewish people to eat, and had been understood as unclean for a long time.
Now in this vision, when Peter sees this sheet with all of these animals, some of them unclean, there’s a voice from heaven that says “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!” But Peter says that he can’t. These animals are unclean. And the Jewish people had laws that they believed came from Yahweh that said they couldn’t eat these animals. Peter had never broken that law before, most of the people around him hadn’t either.
I was trying to think of an example that would make this more understandable for us, since we don’t have these stringent dietary restrictions anymore-or at least they’re not coming from our faith. For us in this political climate, this situation might be like God telling a strong Trump supporter to go to a Bernie Sanders rally, and vice versa, right? Peter was being asked by God to cross a boundary he had never crossed, and no one he knew had ever crossed.
So of course, Peter says “No!” But the voice from heaven tells Peter “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” Now we know this vision is important, especially that last line about not calling anything unclean that God has made pure, because God has to show this vision to Peter three times. He just didn’t get it, I guess.
Now right when this vision is finished, people from Cornelius show up. Cornelius had followed his vision and sent people for Peter, to bring Peter back to Cornelius’ house. So the Holy Spirit told Peter to go with them, even though they’re Gentiles. The Holy Spirit told Peter to not ask questions, just go with them. So Peter goes with them. And Peter, a strong Jew who also believed in Jesus Christ, came to the house of Cornelius, an unclean Gentile. And there’s a crowd of other unclean Gentiles that Cornelius gathered there.
Cornelius explains to Peter why he’d sent for him, that an angel had told him to send for Peter. And Peter says this huge line: “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.”
Now this is HUGE. Because a key belief in 1st-century Judaism is that God does show partiality. The Jewish people were God’s people, God was partial to them, and all others were excluded unless they became Jewish. This is HUGE. But I can see Peter making the connection between this situation and his vision-Never consider unclean what God has made pure; whether it’s animals or people.
So Peter tells them everything about Christ’s death and resurrection, about how “All the prophets testify about [Jesus] that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
And when he does this, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone there, they start speaking in tongues, and everyone is baptized. Now it’s hard to overemphasize how huge and important this story is. Without this moment, without Peter daring to step over those boundaries and including even unclean Gentiles as God’s people, none of us Gentile believers would be here today.
But the believers in Jerusalem, who were all Jews who also followed Jesus, heard about this. And they were upset. I can hear them now:
“We’ve never done it that way before!”
They still understood following Jesus to be a Jewish-only thing. They were separate from the Gentiles. But Peter had gone into a Gentile home and eaten with them. He’d crossed a huge boundary line. This was a big deal
The Jewish believers were not just being tight wads here. This is what everything in their society told them. Their history as a people was full of Gentile empires conquering the Jewish people and oppressing them. In many ways, this drawing of boundaries was a survival tactic. So they couldn’t get away from this fundamental exclusion of Gentiles from Jews and Jews from Gentiles.
But Peter tells his story. He tells them about his crazy vision, and a heavenly voice telling him to eat unclean animals and telling him to not call them unclean anymore.
He tells them that the Holy Spirit told him to go with the Gentiles.
And he tells the Jewish followers that when he spoke to the Gentiles about Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as it fell upon the 12 disciples and the other Jewish believers at Pentecost.
And Peter said “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”
The Holy Spirit moved Peter and these early Jesus people away from exclusion and toward inclusion.
Now this is a message we need to continually hear today. Because we are so fond of drawing boundary lines, of declaring who’s in and who’s out. I mean, we’re Protestants. Since Martin Luther broke with the Catholic church in the 15th century, our history has been one of arguments and even wars about who’s right about God and who’s wrong. We spend so much time separating ourselves, the ones who are so obviously right about God, from those who are just wrong.
We spend so much time trying to nail down who God is and what exactly one must believe in order to find God, to be saved. Then we hold onto whatever idea or understanding we think up with a vice-like grip.
I’m right, you’re wrong.
I’m in, you’re out.
I’m saved, you’re not saved.
But the Holy Spirit keeps calling us out of this life of exclusion and toward a life of inclusion. The Holy Spirit called Peter and the early community of followers of Jesus to include the Gentiles, despite their history, culture, and parts of their faith. And the Holy Spirit continues to call us today to draw the circle wider. We serve a God who is bigger and more expansive than anything we can conceive. And we serve a God who loves everyone with a love that covers far more people than our love does. The Holy Spirit calls us to tear down the boundaries and barriers and walls that exclude others, and to love everyone with the all-inclusive love of God.
So, now that we’ve heard all of that. I have a question for you. Who are you still excluding?
We all have someone in our lives. “Well they aren’t a Christian! Do you see how they dress, how they act, what they look like, where they live? They’re liberal! They’re conservative!”
We might have a whole group of people we label like that. “Well, they can’t know God! They don’t believe like we do! They don’t think like we do! They don’t talk like we do! They don’t act like we do! My version of Christianity is right. Their version of Christianity is wrong, so we can’t include them.
But we serve a God who is more inclusive then we would like to admit.
So who are you still excluding? And what can you do to include them?
Maybe it’s a mental change. What work does the Holy Spirit need to do in you for you to stop labeling whoever those people are as those people? Where do you need to surrender to the inclusive work of the Holy Spirit so that you can understand that you are not in control of who is in and who is out? This is exactly the type of work that the Jewish followers of Christ had to do when Peter told them this story!
Maybe it’s a behavioral change. What physical actions are you doing to exclude someone? Maybe it’s a refusal to be around someone who is too different from you, afraid that they’ll get you dirty in some way. We all have these hidden prejudices and ways we discriminate against people who look differently, talk differently, behave differently from us. What can you do to get rid of those?
Peter and the early Christian community followed this prompting of the Holy Spirit to include those they thought to be excluded. If Peter had not gone to Cornelius, then Christianity would’ve remained a Jewish sect, and it probably would’ve died out. We would not be here right now, and nothing else in our faith would have existed.
But Peter did follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit. He went to the house of one Gentile outsider and dared to include them. In so doing, he changed the course of the movement soon to be called Christianity forever.
This is the kind of work to which the Holy Spirit calls us. If that kind of change came from one man following the Holy Spirit’s prompting toward inclusions, imagine what would happen if all of us did the same thing!