Thursday, January 06, 2005

Who's Christian? Pastor Dan's Sermon for Sunday

for those who are interested:

Acts 10:34-43 January 9, 2005

I like how one of my commentaries sums up this morning's lesson from Acts:

In one sense, this passage has virtually nothing to do with... the Baptism of Jesus. Only by stretching v. 37 can we arrive at a reference, however allusive, to the actual baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. In a deeper sense, however, this passage has everything to do with recalling the baptism of Jesus, for that baptism carries with it the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit (see Luke 3:16), a promise that is richly fulfilled in the baptism of the Gentile Cornelius.

I realize that it's difficult to make sense of something like that without having any of the context of the story.

So let me break it down for you: God has called the Centurion Cornelius to join the fledgling Christian community. There's just one problem with that: there is no Christian community. They're Jews, and Cornelius has not met the requirements for becoming a Jew. All those requirements are too complicated to get into right now, but here's the basics: there some 600+ rules and laws in scripture that strict Jews abide by, including circumcision. And if you don't abide by those rules, you are considered unclean.

Because you're unclean, the strictest of the strict Jews aren't supposed to hang around you. You might contaminate them, and they don't want that. So just before our passage opens is Peter's famous scene on the rooftop: three times, he sees a sheet of filthy animal parts coming down from the sky, and hears a voice telling him what God has made clean, you must not call unclean.

He's still trying to dope out what that might mean when a couple of Cornelius' soldiers turn up, asking him to come to Cornelius' house. And Peter's still not convinced that he ought to admit Cornelius to the church, but then the Roman tells him that God himself spoke to him and told him to call Peter by name.

Well, that's enough for Peter.

He launches into a quick recap of the Christian faith: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him," he says. Actually, what it says in the original Greek is something like "I am coming to grasp that..." or even better, "I'm getting the drift that..." Peter's working this stuff on the fly, hoping to get caught up to God before he (Peter) says something truly stupid.

In any case. Don't miss the importance of what Peter's just said here. God shows no partiality; anyone who has faith and lives an upright life is acceptable to him. End of story.

If you stop to think about that, it's a radical statement. I mean, can anyone here honestly say they've never had the thought cross their mind: old such-and-so doesn't belong in church? There was a woman in one of the churches I've served who married into a large and rather judgmental family. Her husband didn't attend, but she did. Well, she had an affair with one of her kids' teachers, and was about to break up her marriage when the teacher dumped her. She and her husband have patched things up, and they're working hard at keeping their marriage afloat, but do you think that woman's ever coming back to that church? Not while hubby's grandma and about twenty of his aunts are there.

We've all got biases, in other words, and it only gets worse when you move away from individual cases to more general categories. If you ever hear yourself saying the words, "maybe they'd be more comfortable with their own kind," look out! You are on mighty thin ice, and God's liable to drop some nasty scraps of food on you.

So Peter's got it right when he describes Jesus' core teaching this way: "You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all." We first experience God in our local community, but as we go along, we discover--or we ought to discover--that God is present for all people. For everyone.

Yes, them too.

God didn't come to exclude anyone from his love and care, according to Peter. Jesus "went about doing good and healing those who were oppressed by the devil." And God too knows what it's like to be the target of shame and wrath: "They put [Jesus] to death by hanging him on a tree." That's a reference to Deuteronomy 21:23, which says "cursed be everyone who hangs from a tree." Jesus, by many people's standards, is the lowest sort of criminal, one who was executed and so is cast out from God's eternal love and mercy.

To that, and to his resurrection, we are witnesses, Peter says. And furthermore, we have been commanded to testify that he is the one ordained by God, and so too the prophets of the Old Testaments also testify.

Before he can get another word out of his mouth, the Holy Spirit falls upon everyone there, much to the astonishment of the Jewish Christians. So what else can they do? These Romans have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and they might just as well receive the baptism of water.

Which doesn't mean the acceptance of gentiles into the church is a done deal. Peter has to go and defend his actions in front of the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem, and later on, Paul will come seeking approval to do missionary work with non-Jews.

Even today we struggle with the question of who should be in the church and who shouldn't. Do you have to "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ" and accept him as your personal Lord and Savior before you can be a Christian? Do you have to vote a certain way? Think a certain way? Behave a certain way? (My favorite story about that involves a friend of my sisters, who came over to our house one day and found my dad drinking a Pepsi. "Can ministers drink Pepsi?" she wanted to know. Why yes. Yes they can.)

We all have ways of judging who "really" is a Christian, and who's not. And in the end, they say more about us than they do about God.

What Peter learns in this passage is that God's grace does not flow only within the social boundaries we have constructed. It falls upon whom it pleases, and the faithful are not to say no to that grace, for Jesus Christ is Lord of all. Not of some, but of all. For although Jesus appeared at first only to the disciples, those same disciples were given the task of becoming witnesses of what he had done, and of spreading the word of what had happened to the whole world.

And so it is with us. God calls us and empowers us in our baptisms to tell the world around us that no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life's journey, God will show no partiality, but will find acceptable in every group anyone who has faith in him and does what is right: to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Let us go forth this morning, then, secure in the knowledge of our baptisms and with the power of the Holy Spirit upon us, prepared to be witnesses to the mysterious love and grace of God which knows no bounds, and rejects no person, but offers the forgiveness of sins to everyone who believes* in him.

Yes, even them.

Even you.

Even all of us. Amen.

At 3:15 PM, Blogger gordbrown48 said...

Dear Pastor Dan:

Like the sermon very much. It was certainly a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of Acts and the message to the gentiles. I remember Marcus Borg taking the passage from Galatians (neither slave nor free, neither man nor woman in Christ) as addressing the question of pastoral care to gays and lesbians in relationships (what a nifty acronymn glir). But I think, and I have spoken in my Presbytery, on the passage from Acts about the unclean food as an indication of how God is speaking to us in our day on this issue.


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