• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Even Them?

Acts of the Apostles, a sermon series for the Easter season, preached May 15, 2022 at the 930am worship


Context

Easter is always a big day for the church, but the days AFTER Easter, the Easter SEASON, are REALLY big for the church. That’s when the church was born. This Easter Season, Caitlan and I are reading and preaching from the Acts of the Apostles, amazing stories of how those first disciples and apostles were sent to birth the church after the first Easter.


We’ve heard apostles set free from their prison and sent to tell the world about the new life available to all. We’ve seen Ananias go toward the enemy, Saul, and love and heal him through the change from self-righteous judgmental zealot to passionate advocate for a new diverse community. Last week, Caitlan lifted up the compassion, courage, and humility of lady disciples, and asked us, would anyone outside these walls ache for our resurrection if this church was gone.


Today, let’s listen for the word of the Lord from…


Scripture Acts 11:1-18

11 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”


4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’


8 “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’


9 “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.


11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’


15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with[a] water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”


18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”.


This is the word of the Lord… (Thanks be to God)


Sermon Even Them?

Peter is in trouble again. Last time Peter was in trouble, it was with those who don’t believe in Jesus for Peter doing things in Jesus’ name. That’s what put him in prison a few Sundays ago. This time, Peter is in trouble with those who do believe in Jesus for Peter doing things in Jesus’ name with and for the wrong people.


For Peter and his people, the reality of Jesus has begun to change some things but not everything. Peter, and almost all the believers in Christ in Jerusalem, are lifelong Israelites. To be an Israelite is to trace your heritage back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Jacob who wrestled with God and was renamed Israel. To be a descendant of Israel means we follow the Laws of Moses, the Torah. For example, men would be circumcised. Some animals are not food for the children of Israel. Other animals may be eaten but must be prepared and cooked a specific way in order to be food for the children of Israel. These things were part of what made the people of Israel who they are to each other and to God.


Many times in Israel’s history, they had slacked off on some of these things. When they were in exile and stuck in the lands of the Gentiles, some of Israel’s men “took foreign wives.” This led to wives bringing with them their own theological ideas and their own religious practices, some of which rubbed off on the husbands and the children. It also led to different table practices as the wives brought out their favorite recipes, cooked the way their mama had taught them… but those recipes might have forbidden animals, or perhaps permissible animals prepared in ways that didn’t fulfill the requirements of Israel’s scriptures. There were many voices at that point in Israel’s history shouting the only way God would bless them was if they dumped it all, the new wives and the new ways and went back to the old ways, and made their national identity pure again, to be different and apart from the Gentiles.


Israel had barely survived slavery to Egyptian gentiles, and then exodus in the wilderness of the gentiles for 40 years, and then generations of fighting with various gentiles to claim their promised land, build their own cities and nation, which they lost when they were conquered and exiled by Assyrian and Babylonian gentiles.


See why children of Israel have a thing against Gentiles? Every time they seemed to find a bit of freedom, they bump into another people and the differences between the two, Israel and whichever Gentile they are bumping into, lead to conflict and competition. Israel thought their God demanded purity, which meant never compromising or sacrificing any of their identity, their shared history, the stories, the core beliefs, the scriptures, the worship, and the rituals.


What Peter had done to get in trouble this time is enter the home of uncircumcised Gentiles, eat with them, eating their foods mind you, and then include them in the new movement that was supposed to make Israel great again. The messiah, the savior, the king Israel had waited for so long had finally come in Jesus of Nazareth. Okay, Jesus wasn’t the military ruler or political leader everyone had been expecting. But Peter, the first disciples, and now thousands of other people, were beginning to see God’s path for Israel’s salvation would finally come true in the Jesus.


Then Peter goes and stains it all by sitting with Gentiles, eating their food, and bringing gentiles into the fold? They believe in Jesus because they believe he will save Israel. “Jesus is for us and is coming again to give us everything we’ve always been promised. If we bring in outsiders, who don’t know our ways, our rules, our rituals, and don’t do things our way, they could jeopardize everything, Peter. We’re fine with new people, but they have to become like us, learn to follow our traditions and commandments. How could you risk it all by sitting with them, eating their foods, including them?”


Peter’s defense seems rather weak. But God’s weakness is stronger than any human strength. Peter is invited into the home of a Gentile, a Roman soldier, Cornelius, who is curious toward Christ, who appears to be hungry for deeper relationship with God. Peter knows Cornelius is not circumcised. Peter knows Cornelius and his family know nothing of the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. Peter knows their table will not be acceptable to Jewish customs.


Then, in a vision, Peter is challenged to see the food of Cornelius’ table as acceptable…. a vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven, with all manner of animals on it, some of which scripture says are unclean, unholy, and unedible by the children of Israel. But in the vision, Peter is dared to change his mind, to trust these animals are made by God and therefore also clean, acceptable, even holy.


Some say the food rules of Israel had always been about safety, to avoid risky foods that can easily produce food borne illness, like pork. But if the food rules of Israel had been just about safety, Peter would have been able to see thousands of people, whole nations, who lived healthy, whole, long lives eating these supposedly forbidden foods. For Peter, eating with Gentiles was not just about overcoming his fear of safety or health, but about identity. Peter was being challenged to let go of something he thought was core to his being. He was being asked to lay down a non-negotiable, an essential tenet.


Up until this moment, believing in and following Christ had been in addition to who Peter was. Trusting Christ had clarified many things he had always known about God. In knowing and believing in Christ, his understanding had become more clear and refined, more focused. In other words, what he had always done, and who he had always been, were still there. Christ clarified and added to it.


But now, Peter is shown something by God that does not let him simply add to or clarify his identity. Now, in this vision from God, he is being asked to let go of something precious and essential to the person he’s always thought of himself as. And he does. He trusts the vision and makes room for others. He sets down the what he thought had always defined him in order to share hope, faith, community with a gentile who doesn’t know or worship God the way he does.


Word of Peter’s change gets back to Jerusalem faster than he does. I don’t hear their questions as curious or humorous. They are upset and feel violated. “Why would Peter do this? We must make him undo it.” We see this kind of reaction all the time, still today. If a republican calls January 6th an insurrection and believes Biden won the election fair and square, she is a traitor and either takes it back or is expelled. If a democrat is against abortion except in very rare cases, and never late term, he’s a traitor and must take it back or be expelled. If someone on our team suddenly begins to hang out with and agree with people on the other side… well… they are a waffler, a flip-flopper, a RINO, a traitor, a Benedict Arnold, an Uncle Tom.


Peter tells them the story. He was praying. He saw the animals, the food, “What God has cleansed, (we) must not call profane (common, etc…).” Peter realized the lesson was about more than the food. He realized it was about the people too. “The Spirit told (him) to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” In Christ, he could not see them as other. He could only see them as brothers, sisters. “Holy Spirit falls upon them just as it had upon (me).” They too are God’s good creation. He, “remembered (what Jesus) had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with Holy Spirit.” He was open hearted and open minded enough to see if “God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed…, who (are we) to hinder God?’”


Imagine if all the sides across this globe, in this nation, in this community, or church could do what Peter did. What if we could lay down our arrogant assumptions and preferred practices to fully include others, outsider? What if we were willing to change anything about church or Chestertown to fully welcome strangers and their strange ways? Would we change our dress code, our sabbath day, our preferred music style in order to grow the kingdom of God and share table with strangers who don’t look or worship like us? Church is often about finding what we prefer? What if church was all about including everyone touched by God’s spirit around one big table, and sharing a glorious feast, in all our diversity and quirkiness? That’s what Peter had done. That’s what got Peter in trouble.


Some of Peter’s fellow believers turned accusers when they heard what Peter did. They were afraid of the change, of the loss. But look what happened. They didn’t get angry and bark more accusations at Peter. They didn’t more aggressively defend their position and insist things go back to being the old way. They fell silent and reflected. Then they praised God, and said, ‘So be it! Even to the Gentiles, God has given the change of mind towards life.’


That’s my dream for this town and this church, for every church. May it be so.


To God be all glory and honor, now and forever more, amen.


Charge


Benediction

Now, blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night this moment and forever more. Amen.

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