Friday, April 26, 2013

“On Not Hindering God” - April 28, 2013

Text: Acts 11:1-18

Does anybody read the National Enquirer?  Don’t worry, you’re among friends; it’s OK to confess if you do.  Well, if there were a National Enquirer in the first century Church, Peter would have been on the cover more often than not.  Peter had a history, a track record, and a personality that filled the room.

Peter made this huge, sweeping confession, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” but it wasn’t five minutes before Jesus was saying to him, “Get behind me, Satan.”  Peter swore he would never abandon Jesus, never fall away, and that same night he denied Jesus three times.  Peter could be impulsive, he could be dense, but he threw himself in to following Jesus.  Jesus had called Peter “Rock,” and said “on this Rock I will build my church.”  Whether the Rock Jesus would build the church on was Peter himself or the kind of faith that Peter had confessed, Peter was the leader of the disciples.

In our scripture a couple of weeks ago, after the resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and then each time says to Peter, “Feed my sheep.”  In a way, Jesus was renewing Peters’ call and standing as a leader among the disciples, after Peter’s denial. 

Peter was someone who always spoke his mind.  I appreciate people like that – you don’t have to wonder where they stand – but Peter could no doubt wear on people after awhile.  He could rub some the wrong way.  And now, his latest stunt had clearly crossed the line.

Gentiles were becoming followers of Christ—being accepted as Christians on an equal basis with Jewish Christians, and without following the Law of Moses.  This was just too much for many in the church – remember, at this point the Christians were thought of as a movement within Judaism.

The possibility that Gentiles might be included in the church was startling.  The Jews had tried to protect their identity and purity for hundreds of years against all kinds of threats.  Like generations before them, this was why they did not associate with Gentiles.  To just welcome Gentiles as followers of Christ without requiring them to follow Jewish law went against everything they had known.  The fact that Peter accepted this and was even promoting the idea, did not sit well.  There was an uproar.  Like angry sports fans who want the coach to be fired, people were saying that Peter had to go.

Peter was called in to explain his actions.  “Why do you eat with these Gentiles?” he was asked.  Of course, there could be no good answer for this.  It is hard for us to understand what a cultural taboo this was, but to eat with Gentiles was deeply offensive.  Such people were ritually unclean, and if you ate with them, you were unclean.  This literally affected your standing before God.

But Peter explained that he had seen a vision.  A sheet came down from heaven with all kinds of animals – unclean animals.  A voice said to Peter, “Kill and eat,” but Peter said no, he did not eat anything profane or unclean.  And then the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  This happened three times.  (I don’t know if you have noticed but there is a lot of this “three times for emphasis” thing going on in scripture – when you see something repeated three times, it’s pretty important.)

Right at that exact moment, three Gentiles from Caesarea showed up at the door.  It was more than mere coincidence.  You may remember that last week we were with Peter and Dorcas in Joppa.  Well, a man in Joppa, a Gentile, had been visited by an angel telling him to send for Peter, who would bring a message of salvation.  Peter was convinced that this was the work of the Spirit, and along with 6 friends he went with the three Gentiles back to Joppa.

Peter’s conclusion was that the salvation of Jesus was available even to Gentiles.  “Who was I to hinder God?” he said to the leaders in Jerusalem.

This was a tremendous change for those leaders of the early church.  It went completely against their upbringing.  Peter shows a tremendous ability to learn and grow and change.    And let’s face it; change is never easy or popular.

As I have gotten older, I am more aware of how resistant I am to change.  This is true of all kinds of things.  In the small town we lived in in Illinois, I was one of the very first people to have email – it was a new technology and I was on top of it.  But in the 20-some-odd years since, I have fallen way behind the pack.  I’m not up on Twitter or Instagram or whoseit or whatnot.  I barely had the VCR figured out when people started watching movies on their cell phones. 

It’s nice to be able to depend on things.  Change is hard.  As someone said, “the only people who like change are wet babies.”  And if change is hard in small ways, if change is hard in areas like technology, it is that much harder when it comes to the things that matter the most to us.  The last place we want change is church.  What happens at church not only has the mark of familiarity and tradition, it feels sacred - whether it is or not.

Welcoming Gentiles into the church – this was a massive change, a completely new thing.  This took courage on the part of Peter and everyone else, but by God’s Spirit, they were able to embrace the new thing God was doing. 

This is a story about breaking boundaries, a story of carrying the gospel to those on the outside.  Indeed, it is about making outsiders insiders.  This is a story about building bridges and tearing down walls and welcoming all into God’s family, welcoming all into the church.

Commenting on this passage, William Willimon said, “The church is meant to be the instrument of God’s great reach into all the world.” (Pulpit Digest, Vol. 32, No. 2, 29)

I want to think about that statement this morning.  “The church is to be the instrument of God’s great reach into all the world.”  At a conceptual level, we can agree with this statement.  It’s a nice description of what the church ought to be doing.  But at a deeper level, we have misgivings about this.  “The church is to be the instrument of God’s great reach into the world.”  Upon reflection, I think there are 3 problems we have with this statement.

First, we have misgivings about the church.  Maybe in an ideal universe, the church would be God’s instrument to reach out to the world, but we don’t live in an ideal universe. 

Just as Peter nearly got himself fired at that meeting in Jerusalem, we know far too many churches whose conduct and approach is, shall we say, less than exemplary.  We know of churches that care more about their own survival than they do about ministering to others, churches that seem to have forgotten their purpose.  Churches that function more like social clubs and churches that function more like political committees.  Churches that just plain treat people poorly.  We all know people who have been hurt by the church, and maybe some of us here have been hurt by the church.

There is plenty of negative publicity about the church out there, and the church no doubt deserves a good deal of it.  It’s not surprising that there are those who feel that the church is just plain irrelevant in today’s world.  As far as religious affiliation, the fastest growing group in the U.S. is “Nones,” meaning not Catholic sisters but people with no religious affiliation at all.

The church is far from perfect.  But if you think about it, we shouldn’t expect anything else: it is a human institution.  But the church is more than a collection of imperfect people, the church is also the Body of Christ.  And God has chosen to use the church to accomplish God’s purposes in the world.

For all its faults, we perhaps need to focus on what’s right with the church.  For a lot of people, church is the only place they go during the week where:
  • They are asked to ponder matters that are deep, important, and demanding.
  • They are encouraged to take responsibility for someone beyond the bounds of their immediate family.
  • They are known by their first name and they are missed when they are absent.
  • They participate in beautiful music in a beautiful setting.  The church is one of the only places where people sing together.
  • They hear talk of a subject that is avoided in most everyday conversation and daily relationships: God.
  • There is talk about individual and social failures, our culture’s weaknesses, and sin.
  • They are treated as valuable human beings, regardless of who they are.  (adapted from Willimon)
We all have our doubts about the church.  But imperfect as it is, the Church was created to be a life-giving institution where people connect to God and one another.  And I see that happening all the time. 

In this place, I see people who genuinely care for one another and who take responsibility for others who are not in their immediate family.  This doesn’t happen just anywhere.  In this church we gather together each week and our gathering is not based on age or gender or race or social class or education or politics.  Where else does that happen?  In the church everyone matters, everyone is important, everyone is valued.  In times of need, friends are there.  We don’t give the church enough credit.  We have a great gift here that needs to be shared.

“The church is to be the instrument of God’s great reach into all the world.”  We have some trouble with this statement not only because we have doubts about the church, we also because we have doubts about the world.

This is really the problem that the church leaders in Jerusalem had.  They weren’t sure that this was for just anybody.  There was a sinful world out there that they were trying hard to steer clear of.  They believed in Jesus and they believed in sharing the Good News -- as long as it was with people like them. 

Rita Snowden tells a story from World War II.  In France, some soldiers brought the body of a dead comrade to a cemetery to have him buried.  The priest gently asked whether their friend had been a baptized Catholic.  The soldiers did not know.  The priest sadly informed them that in that case, he could not permit burial in the church yard.

So the soldiers dug a grave just outside the cemetery fence and buried their comrade.  The next day the soldiers came back to add some flowers only to discover that the grave was nowhere to be found.

Bewildered, they were about to leave when the priest came up to speak to them.  It seems that he was so troubled by his refusal to bury the soldier in the parish cemetery that he could not sleep the night before.  Early in the morning he got up and moved the fence in order to include the body of this soldier.

Whom do we try to exclude?  If we were to see a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven, with people who are different from us, people we may think of as “unclean,” whom might they be?  Poor people?  Or maybe rich people?  Those from certain ethnic groups?  Fundamentalists?  Gay and lesbian folks?  Liberal arts types?  Engineers?  Those of different political persuasions?  What about those whose names are in the police report in the paper?  What about people who dress differently or have lots of tattoos and body piercings?

God has created all of the world, all of the people of the world, and God’s creation is good.

Our world is in dire need.  We have gifts to share with our world.  We have a story to share with our world.  We have Good News.  “The church is to be the instrument of God’s great reach into all the world.” 

Which brings us to the third problem.  We have doubts about the church and we have doubts about the world.  But maybe even more than that, we’re not sure about this business of reaching out.  We’re not sure we want to be the instrument of “God’s great reach.”

For some of us, evangelism is a dirty word.  We’ve seen it done poorly.  We’ve seen it done manipulatively.  Evangelism may bring to mind a shouting, sweating, judgmental preacher, or a narrow-minded, condescending, holier-than-thou acquaintance, and you’d just as soon not have anything to do with that.

Well, I’m with you.  I don’t want to have anything to do with that either.  But evangelism is not about putting others down.  It is not about one-upping somebody else.  It’s not about trying to prove our position, as if we could “prove” God anyway.  It is not about trying to change someone else or trying to talk somebody into something they don’t want to do.  Evangelism is simply about being ourselves, sharing our story, sharing our hope, sharing what we have to offer, and leaving the rest up to the Spirit.

Peter had to overcome deeply ingrained attitudes in order to go to a Gentile home in Joppa.  But he did.  And when he arrived, he didn’t put anyone down, wasn’t condescending, didn’t try to change anybody.  He simply shared his story and left it up to the Holy Spirit, which was at work in the Gentiles in Joppa just as it had been at work in him.

That same Spirit is alive and at work here, now, in this place, among us, breaking down walls, calling us to be instruments of God’s reach into the world.  And as Peter put it, “who are we to hinder God?”  Amen.

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