A sermon preached at Southminster on May 5, 2019
Acts 10, Ephesians 2
We’re a few weeks after Easter right now. And while the news of the empty tomb and sightings of our risen Lord are good news, being Easter people is hard. Trusting in the truth of resurrection when the lies of death are loud and strong—it requires fortitude.
I have compassion for the first easter disciples who had to absorb the changes to their faith, doctrine, and Book of Order in a rather rapid manner.
One minute Jesus was teaching them in parables, the next minute he’s arrested by Rome. A few days after that, Jesus has risen from the dead, cooked them fish and instructed them to take the Good News to the ends of the earth, baptizing people and welcoming them in his name.
Quite frankly, we’ve had 2,000 years to adjust to it, and doesn’t it still seem like that escalated quickly?
We have this story in Acts, where God is on the loose and Jesus’ followers are doing their best to keep up, measuring which parts of tradition God wanted them to keep and which parts allowed more flexibility.
What about circumcision? If we take the gospel to places where people aren’t circumcised, do they need to be circumcised to join us? That might put a damper on evangelism efforts, but Genesis says that those who aren’t circumcised should be cut off from the assembly.
What about dietary laws? Do the new converts need to give up bacon and cheeseburgers? The Torah is pretty clear about which foods we can and cannot eat.
What about women? When Jesus said to take the gospel to the WHOLE world, he didn’t mean to women, did he? That’s gonna get us in trouble in a patriarchal society.
What about scripture? How much of the Hebrew scripture do people need to have memorized before they join us? Should we be translating it for them or expecting them to learn the King James Hebrew that Jesus spoke?
What about worship? What if the new converts don’t have pipe organs in their sanctuaries? Do we require they purchase our hymnals or could we let them sing praise songs to a guitar?
You see the struggle the Acts church was facing. And it’s clear the struggle is with us still.
Richard Rohr said “the last experience of God is frequently the greatest obstacle to the next experience of God”.
We think, if God came to us on this mountain top, then we should stay here and wait for God to come back again to this exact same spot. Or if God told us to do X, Y, and Z, then God will want us to do those same things until the end of time.
Of course we want to be free to change. We want to be able to redefine ourselves, expand our understanding, and change our hair color. But we want God to respond today the same way God responded 3,000 years ago? Do we really?
The challenge we should be facing is how to navigate and discern God-led change. The real challenge is in distinguishing the new directions God may be calling us to go, while not confusing it with where we want to take God.
Not all change is equal. Not all change is faithful.
When Christians in Nazi Germany went along with Hitler to keep peace, they changed who was the source of their peace. Other Christians in Germany responded to the change with the Declaration of Barmen:
“We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.”
Our own church has divided many times over whether or not change is faithful. Slavery. Racism. Women. Who can be ordained. Where authority rests.
The church has been on the wrong side of change at times too. And so we must confess our complicity with white supremacy, racism, violence to the earth, and other ways we have gotten it wrong.
How are we to navigate how and if God is calling us to change our faith practice or to hold course with what we’ve been doing?
Cornelius, our Roman centurion, seems to have changed his practices completely.
At the beginning of the story, we’re told he’s devout, he fears God, he prays constantly, and he gives generously. And he’s never even been baptized. He has somehow heard the Good News of the Gospel and responded to it faithfully, abandoning his Roman gods.
For real, can he join our church?
We’re told his prayers have risen before God and gotten divine notice. Even God, it seems, is surprised in a good way by Cornelius.
And so God sends Peter to meet up with Cornelius. I think Peter is the perfect guy to send to Cornelius. He, too, is devout and fervent in his faith. On a previous episode of Peter’s story, he was the one who loved Jesus the most and denied Jesus the most publicly. He knows that being a follower of Jesus doesn’t require perfection. It requires a willingness to lead from your wounds, so you can be honest about the ways you’ve been wrong, which hopefully keeps you open to the possibility that you might not have all the answers you thought you had.
If your faith rests on the certainty of God’s love, you can have confidence in your faith. If your faith rests on the certainty of your own knowledge, confident that you have all the answers, it may be worth some reflection.
Peter’s faith perhaps used to be grounded in confidence of his own abilities. After the struggles of Holy Week, the miracle of Easter, the encounters with his risen Lord, he’s changed.
Peter is the perfect guy to welcome Cornelius to the faith community.
We may never have angels show up and terrify us, as happens to Cornelius. And we may never have visions and dreams when we’re hangry, where God calls us to eat snakes, as happens to Peter.
But I promise you God is working to bring us together, nonetheless.
Because the Good News of the Gospel is too important to remain divided. Because the Good News of the Gospel can’t be constrained by our own prejudices, practices, and traditions.
And we need each other to discern where it’s calling us to go. We discern faithful change by coming near to those we have kept far off.
Cornelius was devout, but he didn’t have all the answers. He needed instruction and guidance to nurture his new faith. When Peter showed up, in between the verses you heard today, Cornelius tried to worship him. Peter was like, “dude. No. That’s not how it goes. You’re embarrassing me”. (rough translation of the Greek) Cornelius needed to learn from Peter.
Peter needed Cornelius too. Peter needed to understand that when Jesus commanded them to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, he was talking about taking it to actual people at the ends of the earth, people like Cornelius. Peter needed to see that people he’d once thought unfaithful, unclean, and at odds with God were in fact, the very people God had been waiting for to join in the mission.
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles….”
Even on the Gentiles….
We’re Gentiles, of course. Most of us, at least.
We may hear that as Good News that the Holy Spirit was poured out on Gentiles. I’m not sure if Peter’s friends, the circumcised believers, were convinced that it was good news at the moment they observed it.
Gentiles isn’t a term we use much these days. But who are the people today that would elicit that stunned response if you were to see the Holy Spirit resting upon them if they walked into your congregation?
Really. Picture them. Which category of people is hardest for you to understand, love, appreciate, welcome?
If God came to you in a dream and told you to go have lunch with the category of people you despise the most, would you go?
The truth is, we all have some version of “those people”. There are people we judge by characteristics rather than relationship.
And at every turn, God calls us to set those divisions aside to get to know each other.
If we keep ourselves in our bubbles of sameness, we can pretend to love people from afar, in theory.
God wants us to sit down and eat meals together, to enter into relationship with each other.
I’ve shared this quote from Brene Brown before, and it fits here too. People are hard to hate up close. Move closer.
In Ephesians, it’s described this way:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
I joked earlier about wanting Cornelius to be a member of our congregation. I’d take Peter too, for that matter. But in truth, y’all are already like Cornelius and Peter in many ways. Yesterday I preached at an event in Southern California for Covenant Network. And in that sermon, I bragged on you with a million illustrations.
Not of being perfect—I don’t want your heads to get big. But for being willing to move close to people who share different politics, histories, and experiences.
Again and again I see you cross over the things that could divide us in order to bring people closer. When we do that, we’re church.
God isn’t calling us to sameness. God is calling us to welcome and to relationship.
Maybe you identify with Cornelius, loving God and seeking a place where you can learn and grow your faith.
Maybe you identify more with Peter and the other circumcised believers—people who thought they’d had a handle on how to practice their faith, only to find out they had to keep thinking bigger, expand their welcome, and come near to people who were far off, politically and socially.
Wherever you may see yourself in this story, my prayer for us is that we will know we have been brought near to each other for a reason. I pray we will not to let our last experience of God get in the way of our next experience of God.
We are Easter people. As we continue to live into that reality, listen to how that is described in Ephesians 2:
”So Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.”
People are hard to hate up close. Move closer. Go in peace to be brought near to others on your journey.