Monday, October 19, 2020

“On Not Hindering God” - July 12, 2020

Text: Acts 11:1-18


Simon Peter had a history, a track record, and a personality that just filled the room.  If the early church published something like a People magazine, he would have frequently been featured on the cover.

It was Peter who made the big, 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 into following Jesus.  Jesus had called Peter “Rock,” and said “on this Rock I will build my church.”

Peter was quotable, he was never shy, but I imagine that he could rub some the wrong way.  And now, his latest stunt had clearly crossed the line.

Gentiles were becoming followers of Christ and accepted on an equal basis with Jewish Christians - without following the Law of Moses.  Remember, at this point the Christians were thought of as a movement within Judaism.  To just welcome Gentiles as followers of Christ without requiring them to follow Jewish law was scandalous for some.  The fact that Peter was promoting this 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.

So Peter was called in to explain his actions.  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 means that it is pretty important.)

At that exact moment, three Gentiles from Caesarea showed up at the door.  It was more than mere coincidence.  They had been sent by a man who had been visited by an angel telling him to send for Peter, who would bring a message of salvation.  (The previous chapter tells the details; the man who had sent them was Cornelius, a Roman centurion.)  
Peter is convinced that this is the work of the Spirit.  He went with 6 friends, along with the three who had shown up at his door, back to Caesarea.  (I don’t know why we get the exact numbers here, but if there was an executive order due to a pandemic, they did keep their groups at 10 people or less.)

When Peter arrived, he began to speak and the Holy Spirit fell on everyone, just as at Pentecost.  Peter’s conclusion was that the salvation of Jesus was available even to Gentiles.  “Who was I to hinder God?” he said.  

Welcoming Gentiles into the church was a completely new thing.  This is a story about breaking boundaries.  This is a story about building bridges and tearing down walls and welcoming all into God’s family.

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.  A little ambitious, perhaps, but it’s a lovely sentiment.  But if we are honest, at a deeper level we may have misgivings.  Upon reflection, I think there are 3 problems we have with this statement.

First, we have misgivings about the church.  Hopefully not our church so much, but we know of churches that seem to care more about their own survival than they do about ministering to others.  There are churches that function more like social clubs and churches that function more like political committees.  Churches that are very narrow-minded and inward-looking.  Churches that just plain treat people poorly.  We all know folks who have been hurt by the church – I’m sure that is the case for many of us.  

For some time, the fastest growing group in the country in terms of religious affiliation has been the “Nones,” as in no religious affiliation.  But the fact is, many of the so-called Nones could more properly be called “Dones,” as in they are done with the church.  They may consider themselves spiritual, they may have no issue with God, they may find Jesus appealing, but they have been burned or turned off by the church.  

The church is clearly 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.  American Baptists sometimes use the tag line: “serving as the hands and feet of Christ.”

While the church is clearly less than perfect, it can be helpful to think about what is right with the church.  For a lot of people, the church is the only group they are a part of in which:

  • They are asked to ponder matters that are deep, important, and demanding.
  • They are encouraged to take responsibility for someone beyond 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.
  • 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.

Imperfect as it is, the Church was created to be a life-giving institution where people connect to God and one another.  Even in the midst of a pandemic, I see this happening every day.  

In this fellowship, I see people who genuinely care for one another and who take responsibility for each other.  Our gathering is not based on age or gender or race or social class or education or politics.  Where else does that happen?  We may not give the church enough credit.  We have a great gift 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 because we have doubts about the church - but we also have doubts about the world.

This is really the problem for the church leaders in Jerusalem had.  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 just 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 whom some might consider “unclean,” whom might they be?  Poor people?  Or maybe rich people?  Those from certain ethnic groups?  Fundamentalists?  LGBTQ folks?  Liberal arts types?  Engineers?  Those of different political persuasions?      

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

We have gifts to share with our world.  We have a story to share.  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.  

Because now we are talking about evangelism.  And 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 talk somebody into something they don’t want to do.  

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 Caesarea just as it had been at work in him.

That same Spirit is alive and at work right now, among us, calling us to be the hands and feet of Christ, instruments of God’s reach into the world.  And as Peter put it, “who are we to hinder God?”  Amen.


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