Sermon - Fifth Sunday of Easter (5/19/2019)
Acts 11:1-18; Ps. 148; Rev. 21:1-6; Jn. 13:31-35
The issue of whether people can be Christians without becoming Jewish first has been settled for centuries now. For those of us who are Christians but who were not born Jewish – that is, for most if not all of us here today – we never think twice about whether we are allowed to be Christians. But it was not at all obvious to the apostolic generation that this should be the way it works.
It’s not like first-generation Christians weren’t interested in making new Christians. Back then everyone was a new Christian, and of course they wanted more and more people to hear the good news. It’s not like first-generation Christians weren’t welcoming. “All Are Welcome – No Exceptions” is what it says on our web site, and I know we believe that – and the first Christians believed it too. You can’t be a follower of Jesus, who ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, and not welcome everybody. That was as obvious to the first Christians as it hopefully is to us today.
But the thing is, when churches say that they welcome everybody, what they often mean is: You are welcome to come and become one of us. If you want to become one of us, we’d love to have you. We have our traditions and our liturgy, and if you want to participate in our way of experiencing God, please come. We have a service at a time that is convenient for us and a church building that we’re very attached to, so if you can find our building on your GPS and fit us into your schedule, we will welcome you with open arms. That’s what a lot of churches mean when they say they are welcoming: We would love to assimilate you – to make you just like us.
And I think that what a lot of people who don’t go to church hear when a church says they are welcoming is – I’d be welcome there if I fit in, but actually I don’t think I would fit in with those people, so probably I’m not actually welcome. I have to work on Sunday mornings. I’m not always happy, sometimes I feel depressed. Sometimes I drop the f-bomb. I haven’t been successful in my marriage. I’m not like those people who go to church, and let’s face it, I’m not likely to become like them any time soon. So they may say that I’m welcome there, but I know I’m really not. That is what a lot of people hear, even when a church says it welcomes everybody.
But here’s the thing: the good news is that we are saved by God’s grace through faith. Not by God’s grace and eating the right foods. Not by God’s grace and having a perfect marriage. Not by God’s grace and wearing the right clothes to church. Not by God’s grace and keeping our language PG-13 at all times. If we need to be a certain kind of person and comply with certain cultural expectations and fit in with a certain type of people in order to receive grace, then it’s not grace. So grace is either offered to us as we are, or it’s not grace at all.
But. But sometimes it’s hard to believe that God loves certain people just the way they are. On Easter Sunday we read part of the story of Peter the apostle and Cornelius, the Roman centurion. Cornelius, the pagan. Cornelius, who was not circumcised and did not keep kosher. Cornelius, whom Peter baptized along with his whole household, and with whom Peter then shared fellowship at table, without Cornelius first becoming a member of the Jewish people or following Biblical law. Was that the right thing for Peter to have done? Peter himself wasn’t sure, and a lot of other people weren’t sure either.
In today’s first reading, just after meeting with Cornelius, Peter immediately returns to Jerusalem, where the news of what he has done has already spread through the whole community. And they had questions. Peter, what were you thinking? How could you? I mean, Peter, it’s in the Bible.
Leviticus, chapter 11, verse 7: “The pig … is unclean for you. Of their flesh you shall not eat.” Genesis, chapter 17, verse 14: “Any uncircumcised male … shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Shall we go on? How can we welcome people into the community of Jesus when they have not first become part of God’s own people, when they have not yet become like us, when they are doing things that we have been taught forever is precisely what God forbids us to do. Are you telling me, Peter, I’ve been reading the Bible wrong my whole life? Are you telling me that everything I have believed, and my parents and grandparents believed, is wrong? If God doesn’t want me to keep kosher rules and preserve our people’s separate identity, what I have been doing all my life? I thought Jesus said he had come, not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it? Come on, Peter, what are you doing?
So you see, this first-century debate is a lot closer to our own experience than we might have thought. To me, it sounds an awful lot like the debate over human sexuality and LGBT people that has been so divisive in churches in our own time. People look at a few verses of the Bible – verses that actually are not all that clear, certainly not nearly as clear as the ones Peter was dealing with – and people look at what they’ve always been taught to believe, and they say: Am I supposed to just throw all this away, and start sharing Christian fellowship with these people who don’t follow what I’ve always believed we should do? That is exactly the question that Peter got when he returned to Jerusalem – and that Peter was asking himself too.
And notice that Peter doesn’t come in and say, Look, I’m the apostle here, I’m the one who spent three years with Jesus. Jesus called me to run this church and who are you to question me? No. Peter puts his experience before the community. He says – I was in the city of Joppa and I had a vision. In my vision, every unclean food, every unkosher and disgusting thing you can imagine was set before me – sizzling bacon, fried shrimp, snakes, my dog Rover, you name it. And a voice came: Come on, Peter, eat up! And I said: Absolutely not! I would never do anything so disgusting. Yeesh! No! You might imagine the modern version of Peter saying: I had a dream that I was in a gay bar, and someone came up to me and said, Hey there, big fisherman. And I said No! Absolutely not! That’s disgusting! That’s not who I am! This is the response that is expected from a respectable, Godfearing man. It’s how everyone in the Jerusalem congregation would have expected Peter to respond.
But. But then, Peter said, the voice spoke again: What God has called clean, you are not to call unclean. And this happened three times, and each time I said No, and each time I was corrected. And at that very moment I was told that I was being called somewhere. And I remembered when we had breakfast with the risen Jesus on the beach, and he told me: Feed my sheep, and you will be led to places you do not want to go. And I went, and I started speaking, and before I could get out two sentences the Holy Spirit came down. It was just like Pentecost. And I asked myself: Who am I to try to stop what God is doing?
The Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber likes to say: Whenever we draw lines, and we separate ourselves on this side of the line from the bad people over there, Jesus simply goes and stands with the people on the other side of the line. Jesus always associates himself with the outcast, the ones labeled sinners, the ones the good religious people look down on and reject. And so, the only way not to be on the other side of the line from Jesus, is to stop drawing lines in the first place.
But human beings are born line-drawers. It’s how we establish our identity, as individuals and especially as groups – this is who we are, this is the circle to which we belong. This congregation has decided, after a whole lot of drama, I know, not to draw a line that excludes LGBT people, and I thank God for that. But it isn’t long before we are tempted to draw another line – we’re not like those close-minded bigots over there, no, not us. Or a line that excludes yet another type of person. It’s what people do, it’s how we’re wired, we can hardly help ourselves.
Which is why it is so important for us to come here each week to this table. Because it is Christ’s table, not ours. If it were our table, we could decide who belongs and who doesn’t, who is welcome and who is not, who meets the standard and who doesn’t – but when we do that, we know for sure who won’t be here, and that is Jesus. But this is his table, and we are invited here as we are, as the persons God sees and loves whether or not we live up to anybody else’s standards, even if those standards seem to come from the Bible. You are welcome at this table because of what Jesus did for you, exactly as you are, and your neighbors are welcome at this table because of what Jesus did for them, exactly as they are.
All are welcome here, no exceptions. Not because we are so broad-minded and tolerant that we draw a wide arc for the circle of who belongs at our table. I hope we are that open-minded, but that’s not the reason. The reason all are welcome here is that this is not our table, but the table of Jesus Christ, and if Jesus is calling anyone to this table, who are we to stand in God’s way? The people gathered at this table are the one community in this world not created by human beings drawing lines, but by God’s erasing of all lines. The people who share at this table have nothing in common but the Lord who loves each one of us beyond our imagining, who gives divine grace and life to each one of us, and invites us to love one another as we have been loved. We welcome everyone whom God loves to this table, because that’s what this table means.
And so – if only for a few brief moments on a Sunday morning – may we experience what it is like to belong to the communion of the Holy Spirit. The community at Jerusalem heard Peter’s story and said: Then the change of mind that leads to life has been given to these others too! The communion of the Holy Spirit is bigger than we thought. Whenever we participate in that communion, in the first century or in the twenty-first, when we experience that communion across every dividing line that until now we thought to be important, then the change of mind that leads to life is given to us again.