Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sermon; Easter 5C; Acts 11:1-18

In last week's reading from Revelation we heard John's account of seeing an uncountable multitude gathered around the throne of God.  It was a multitude that included people from every nation, tribe, and language.  This was, I said, an all-inclusive vision in which all of God's people gather at the throne.  It is a much better vision than one focusing on those who should be cast out of God's presence.  Far too many people are concerned with determining who should be cast into the lake of fire.

But before John wrote of his holy vision, Peter had a holy vision of his own that was just as inclusive, possibly laying the groundwork for John.  And we hear of that vision in today's reading.

This vision of Peter's first appears in Chapter 10 of Acts.  Peter is on a rooftop praying, and he gets hungry.  He goes into a trance and sees a sheet come down with all kinds of animals on it, and he hears God telling him to kill and eat.  But Peter refuses because he's never eaten anything unclean.  Eventually Peter interprets this vision to mean that God is throwing open the doors of the kingdom and inviting all kinds of people whom we would normally consider unclean, or unworthy, to enter.  “I truly understand,” declares Peter, “that God shows no partiality.”

Today Peter gets a chance to put that vision into practice by explaining his vision to some “very important people.”

He goes up to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and believers where he is criticized for eating with the uncircumcised.  He is criticized for mingling with Gentiles and outsiders.  He is criticized for breaking boundaries.  He is criticized for not maintaining the purity of the faith.

In other words, the self-appointed gatekeepers of the faith condemn Peter for his willingness to include those who are normally excluded.  This should sound familiar.  It wasn't that long ago, and is still the case in some places, that good religious people condemn others for extending membership to those who have been divorced.  People were and are criticized and condemned for speaking out against slavery and speaking up for integration.  They were and are criticized and condemned for allowing interracial marriages.  And that criticism and condemnation extends into today for people who advocate for gender equality, women's ordination, and for allowing equal and full access to LGBT people.

Like Peter, people in the church are being condemned by others for taking an inclusive stand on the sole premise that “we've never done that before.”  And like Peter, those being condemned are making the claim that God is doing a new thing.

In today's reading we hear Peter tell the council about his vision.  He tells of his experience while praying to God.  He tells of God declaring all things clean.  He tells of the Holy Spirit falling upon those Gentile outsiders just as it had come upon the apostles.  He tells of his understanding that anyone who loves God and seeks to do his will is acceptable.  And he puts this question to those assembled:  If God gives them the same Spirit he gave us, who are we to stop that?

The Church in general, and the Anglican Communion in particular, spends a whole lot of time defining who is not welcome.  Which is odd for an organization that claims to welcome everyone.  Whether the issue was or is slavery, women, racial equality, gender equality, or homosexuality, the church tears itself apart because some new stance on inclusiveness has not only never been done, but it is a perceived threat to the existing power structure.

Unfortunately, we have reached a point where Peter's closing statement is ignored.  Instead of hearing this story of inclusion and exclaiming, “Alleluia!  God is doing a new thing and bringing everyone into the kingdom!” people tend to recoil and say, “But the Bible clearly says . . .”

It's funny, in a sad sort of way, that people spend more time searching the Bible for ways to condemn and exclude people than they do searching for ways to love and include people.  We forget what is at the core of our faith.  And we focus more on what separates us rather than on what binds us.  We need, I think, to remember that it's not how we're wrapped, it's what's contained inside.  And if what's contained inside is based in love, then God will be accepting of any oddly wrapped package.

Peter gets remembered for a lot of things, most of them goofy and/or unflattering.  People like him because he is impetuous and fallible.  They see him as the most “human” of all the disciples.  He is remembered for walking on water and then sinking, for drawing the ire of Christ (“Get behind me, Satan”), for denying Christ three times, for falling asleep, and for putting on his clothes and jumping into the water.  But we would do well to remember Peter for this vision because it just may be his single most important contribution to the Church.  It was that vision that allowed the Church to expand and begin to bring to fulfillment the promise made to Abraham that all families would be blessed.

The Church has had a long, sad history of criticizing, condemning, and excluding people because they were different, or because they didn't meet with the approval of the self-appointed gatekeepers of the faith.  But despite our best efforts to maintain proper boundaries and attempts at keeping the place pure, outsiders and miscreants of all kinds keep managing to find their way in.

Maybe it's time for us to finally admit that we can't keep the Church as neat, tidy, and pure as we want it to be.  Maybe it's finally time to stand with Peter, throw open the doors, and loudly and publicly proclaim, “We welcome everyone, for we truly understand that God shows no partiality.”

Because, really, if the Holy Spirit is being poured out on THOSE People, who are we to stop it?



spookyrach | 10:27 PM, April 24, 2016  

~huge thumbs up~

First time comments will be moderated.