Even on Them, Even on Us

 Lessons: Psalm 98, Acts 10:44-48

Our New Testament lesson is Acts, Chapter 10, verses 44 through 48.  These verses at the end of Chapter 10 of Acts are just the end of a longer story and we need a quick catch up before we hear this morning’s passage:

Cornelius, a Roman army officer and Gentile in Caesarea, a believer in God but not a Jew, has a vision that he is to send for Peter, one of the apostles.  It so happens that Peter, a devout Jew, has a vision as well.  He’s praying on the roof of his friend’s house in Joppa, anticipating a fine meal being prepared by his hosts.   He falls into a trance and sees a sheet being lowered down from the heavens, filled with all of the foods that good Jews aren’t supposed to eat – animals considered to be “unclean.”  He hears a voice: “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”  Peter responds, “No, way!  I’ve never touched this stuff, let alone eaten it!”  And he hears an answer: “What God has made, you must not call profane.”  This happens three times, which is God’s way of saying, “And I really mean it, Peter.”  And while he’s still trying to figure out what it is that God means, Cornelius’ men are knocking at the door to invite Peter to Caesarea.[1]

Now, a good Jew wasn’t supposed to hang out with Gentiles, but the Holy Spirit gives Peter a nudge out the door.  He travels to Caesarea, meets Cornelius and realizes this Gentile is having a genuine experience of God.  Peter starts preaching about this God who’s giving Cornelius visions, and about how Peter has been awakened to a reality he never understood before: “I truly understand,” he declares, “that God shows no partiality.”[2]  But before Peter can finish his sermon, the Holy Spirit short-circuits the usual order of things, and that’s where we pick up the story.[3]

So now reading the passage:

44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.  Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.  Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Even on the Gentiles.  Even on us.  This passage reminds us that the question of whether the Jews were included in God’s plan for salvation wasn’t remotely a concern for the early church.  The Jews were a given, regardless of what they believed or did – they were, after all, God’s people.  The burning question for the early church was whether non-Jews were included.  The very earliest church was basically a Jewish sect, but in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is whittling away at this assumption, and this change was not easy.  To adapt from Jewish into non-Jewish cultures required excruciating growing pains.  Did new followers have to be circumcised – as adults?  Did they have to follow Jewish dietary customs?  People had strong opinions about how to answer these questions and none of them were answered unanimously or without a struggle.

Now, from our perspective a couple of thousand years later, the question of whether we should eat a bacon cheeseburger might seem trivial.  But, there’s that line, “God knows no partiality.”  No partiality.  And then Peter’s declaration that we cannot withhold the symbols of inclusion in the church from anyone who so obviously shows the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  This hits us – the church – where we live right now.

First of all, it hits us where we live because, at least for the most part, in this room, we are the Gentiles.  We are the ones that everyone thought should be excluded, would be excluded, of course, because Gentiles were idolatrous pagans; not heirs of God’s covenant, and so not held to the same moral standards – we were the “them” in this scenario, the outsiders, the ones who were unclean.  In the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the father, Mr. Portokalos, mutters in Greek to his daughter’s Anglo-Saxon boyfriend, “When my people were writing philosophy, your people were still swinging from trees.”  Peter and the apostles had that same sense of superiority about pretty much everyone else including the Greeks when it came to holiness and righteousness, the standards by which God judges people, according to the psalmist.   Everyone else, everyone outside the covenant was profane.

But this encounter between Peter and Cornelius changed the course of Christianity forever.   It opened God’s plan for salvation to the whole world – to you and me, who would never have been welcome if the Holy Spirit had not planted this vision of God’s impartiality into their active imaginations.

And this story also hits home because when Peter declared, “God shows no partiality,” he also put us on warning: the rules were changed for us, so that we could come in – who are we, then, to prevent God from blessing the whole human family?   Who are we to stand in the way of God’s love?[4]  Who are we to say, “These are the rules.  These have always been the rules.  They always will be”?  Peter thought he knew the rules.  They were right there in Scripture.  But the movement of the Holy Spirit, present in us and among us and between us even now, trumps everything.  How dare we claim to know more than the Holy Spirit?

Last Wednesday, the President officially announced his support of gay marriage.  This followed a very controversial vote in North Carolina that bans gay marriage and any other type of “domestic legal union.”  I know and love people who have strong feelings on both sides of the gay marriage issue, and so I proceed with much care for both.  Those who have spoken loudly against gay marriage declare that being gay is against God’s intention, and they quote parts of the Bible that appear to speak against it.  Those on the other side of the issue, and I count myself among them, point out the contextual nature of the Bible, the lack of any understanding in Biblical times of a loving, gay monogamous relationship, and the fact that Jesus said absolutely nothing – nada – on the topic.  And the fact that we ignore many of the other archaic rules in the Bible, without blinking.

I believe we should give more attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit in today’s passage.  The vision Peter received clearly re-defines what is understood in the Old Testament.  You could say God changed God’s mind here.  Or, more accurately, you could call it the Holy Spirit at work in the church.  A Holy Spirit that constantly surprises, inspires, and guides people toward the gospel.  A Holy Spirit that falls on the very people you thought were living against God’s will.  A Holy Spirit that lifts up and sanctifies all people through the grace of Jesus Christ.[5]

Peter’s revelation in Acts 10 was that “he was only a mortal.”  What humility!  Peter noticed the movement of the spirit and realized that it was God, not himself, that had the power to judge. … This does not deny the importance of justice, or of living according to morals.  Rather, it declares that what that means is discovered through living in community together, through discerning God’s will together, allowing the Holy Spirit to lead.

Wherever you may stand on the issue of gay marriage, I urge you to take note of Peter’s example, to be open to being surprised by God, to be surprised by the “other” – because you – we – used to be the other, the ones who were profane.  Could it be possible that North Carolina’s Amendment 1 or California’s Prop 8, broad strokes of “religious” morality, would have been on the sheet God descended from heaven?  Could it be that God is telling us to be careful whom we call “profane” or “unclean?”

For those of you who are not on Facebook, besides the little tidbits about what’s going on in their lives, people often post links to other websites: news stories, humorous articles and photos, and a whole variety of videos, some of which are informative and others of which are entertaining.  Once again I am wishing we had a functioning projector because there are times when a picture is worth a thousand words and this is one of them.  Last week a friend posted a link to a video with the caption, “Skip your morning meditation and watch this instead.”  It was a five-minute video of a baby’s first bath.  The woman bathing the newborn may have been a nurse or a doctor – we can’t tell who she is, but we can tell by her slow, calm and caring touch that this is not the first infant she’s bathed.  But the camera is focused on the baby, who melts into the woman’s gentle strokes.  The water must be just the right temperature because the baby stays drowsy and calm.  The baby is the picture of trust, of comfort, of someone being loved well.  A number of people left comments on the video, including, “Imagine if everyone knew kindness, compassion and love like this.”   Another commented that the way the woman held and touched the baby made it clear that she recognized the amazing gift of life expressed through this child.[6]

If Peter lived today, instead of in first century Palestine, and if he had access to the Internet, I imagine that this video would have been his vision, rather than the sheet of unclean food.  I imagine that he would hear a voice saying, “Look at the baby, Peter.  You are trying to decide whom to wash in the waters of baptism, whom to include, in whom my Holy Spirit rests.  You look at my people and you see gay or straight, light skin or dark skin, Republican or Democrat, capitalist or socialist, Muslim, Christian, Jew.  When I look, this baby is what I see.  Every one of you is more the same than you are different.  Every one of you is precious; every one is an expression of my amazing gift of life.  Look at my children, Peter.  My blessing and my Spirit rest even in them.  And, even in you.”

May it be so for each of us.  Amen.

[1]  Acts 10:1-23.

[2]  Acts 10:34.

[3]  Acts 10:23-43.

[4]  David Lewicki, “Acts 10:44-48: Holy Calamity,” May 8, 2012, http://odysseynetworks.org/news/onscripture-the-bible-acts-10-44-48

[5]  Mike Watson, “Cornelius and the Spirit,” May 9, 2012, http://liveintohope.blogspot.com/2012/05/cornelius-and-spirit.html.

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