The Fifth Sunday of Easter; Year C (alternate message)
Even to the Gentiles
Lessons: Acts 11:1-18 Psalm 148 (13) Revelation 21:1-6 St. John 13:31-35
Prayer of the Day O Lord God, you teach us that without love, our actions gain nothing. Pour into our hearts your most excellent gift of love, that, made alive by your Spirit, we may know goodness and peace, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
... 11:9 the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ ... 17 "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?” 18 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.”
Acts 11:9, 17-18 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
This devotional message was presented to fifty men gathered at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp (Hillside, Colorado) on Saturday, April 24, 2010.
Yesterday evening we considered the radical nature of God’s forgiveness. The early church was insistent on seeing that everybody was included in receiving this gift. They based that on the inclusiveness of Jesus, who prayed for his enemies, who forgave sinners, and who would stop at nothing to help someone feel forgiven by God. Forgiveness became one of the reasons they were such a vibrant and lively group of believers.
That doesn’t mean it was easy for them, though, and this morning’s lesson gives us a hint as to the struggle that lies just beneath the surface when we read about this first century community. For first century Jews, keeping themselves separated from the unclean aspects of the world around them was very important. Hundreds of laws governed their life together, most of them intended to build a firm wall between what they considered clean and what they considered unclean. So the first century Jew had rules and regulations about who you could visit, who you could touch, whose house you could enter, who you could join for a meal, who you could date, who you could deal with in business... If you were on the inside, everything was fine. But if you were on the outside, the faithful believer’s responsibility was to have as little to do with you as absolutely possible.
This became problematic for the early church. During those years following immediately after the resurrection, many faithful Jews began to believe in Jesus. They heard his message, embraced its truth, and began to live in hope and peace. Yet they had spent a lifetime practicing Jewish laws and traditions, and for some of them, that was heavy baggage to shed. They were glad for the grace of God they knew in Jesus, but still had a hard time associating with people they had been trying to avoid all their lives. It led some of them to conclude that the Gospel was only for those who were part of the Jewish family of faith in the first place. They were glad to receive the grace of God in Jesus, but concluded that anyone else would first have to become like them before receiving the same gift. Yet there were others who disagreed: they concluded that if God’s grace was a free gift, through Jesus Christ, then that gift was just as available to non-Jews as it was to Jews.
So you can see the dilemma: some early Christians wanted to maintain the cultural and religious purity of their tradition, while others wanted to break from that tradition and fully welcome all who had come to believe in the promise of Jesus Christ. This dilemma was of a scale that is hard to overstate today. It drove to the very heart of how 1st Century Jewish believers understood themselves. It was an issue far more difficult, far more central to the faith, far more painful than anything the church has dealt with in our lifetime (including racism, women's rights, the Vietnam or Iraq wars, abortion, capital punshment, or sexual orientation).
Then, those who were arguing for a continuation of the traditions around separation and purity heard that the Holy Spirit had filled some of the Gentiles, just as it had with observant Jews. That was quite a shock to them. They didn’t know, at first, how to take it. So they called Peter on the carpet for associating with non-Jews – with ritually impure unbelievers. Peter told them about a vision he had received from God. In this vision, God made it clear to Peter that while some things (and some people!) had formerly been considered unclean, the death and resurrection of Jesus has changed that altogether. No longer will there be clean and unclean. What God has declared to be clean will be considered clean. Then, addressing the charge that he was eating with “unclean people,” Peter closes with these words: “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?” In Peter’s mind, to continue the policies of separation and isolation was to work against what God was trying to accomplish.
His listeners came to agree with him. Their response is recorded by Luke: "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.' ”
Even to the Gentiles!
That was quite a stretch for the early church – they had literally grown up with the kinds of distinctions that Peter is proposing they abolish. But part of the reason the early church was such a dynamic and transformational community, is that they were willing to become home to those who were experiencing new life – even those whom they had long sought to keep at a distance. If we are going to be apostolic men, sent by God to make a difference in this world, it is going to mean becoming as open-minded, as gracious, as faithful as the early church, even if it goes against perceptions and pre-conceptions we have held for a long time.
Now, let me do something that I rarely do. When I am standing up in front of a congregation with my collar on, I am doing my best to present God's word to the congregation. Before doing so I try to filter out my personal opinions and inclinations, so at Saint Peter you rarely hear me talking about politics or social issues. But I am going to symbolically step away from the pulpit right now, and I'd like to talk with you as a brother in Christ. You can argue with me if you want, but let's get this on the table.
Our denomination is wrestling with this same issue these days. We recently declared that we are not going to force congregations to practice the kind of separation between heterosexuals and homosexuals that society practiced while you and I were growing up. Now we can argue from here to kingdom come as to whether same sex relationships are an abomination to God or an aspect of creation that we are just now finally starting to appreciate. But if we want to be faithful in the way the early church was, we cannot ever become a church that says these friends of ours have no place among us.
What if we were to say about our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters the same thing that the early church said about the non-Jewish neighbors they had been trying to avoid for generations? I have personally seen evidence of the Holy Spirit's movement in the lives of gay and lesbian friends of mine. I believe God is calling us to respond as Peter did: "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?” I believe that God is calling the church to respond in the same way that the early church responded to the uncircumcised Gentiles: “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.”
I don’t know who gets under your skin. I don’t know if it is: homosexuals or lesbians; long-haired skaters; left-leaning Pastors; political fanatics at one end or the other of the spectrum; people whose perspectives are different from yours in any way... But if we are going to be apostolic men, sent by God to make a difference in this world, it is going to mean opening up our hearts and our communities to people we have become accustomed to excluding.
Let’s take a few minutes and talk with one another about this. Go ahead and find a discussion partner – preferably one you haven’t spent much time talking with before – and consider these two questions.
- What type of person would I prefer not to include, if it was up to me?
- When has someone gone out of their way to include me?
David J. Risendal, Pastor