By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Acts 10:44-48
How did you get here this morning? I imagine, were most of you to answer that question, you’d say something like, “in my car” or “on the church bus” or – if you live in the neighborhood – “I walked across the street.” But my question goes deeper than your morning commute. I’m wondering what drew you to Trinity; what drew you to church.
As many of you know, this fall Trinity will launch a new faith gathering called Trinity Fusion on Monday evenings. A team is working to design the Fusion gatherings and, as part of our planning, we’ve been having conversations with people about their religious background and their church experiences. For those not attending church, we’ve also asked what would make a church attractive or appealing to them. There have been a variety of responses; but a couple really aren’t surprising. One of them is that a church must be welcoming; welcoming (mind you), not friendly. I think, at least in my mind, friendliness has to do with good manners; being polite and courteous. And that’s nice. But welcoming is something different. When we welcome someone, we communicate that they have a right to belong; they are welcome to be a part of us. Statistically, there are a lot of people in our nation today who feel that church is not a place where they would be welcomed for a variety of reasons: how they look, who they are, their past. Deep within all of us is a longing for belonging. We appreciate politeness and good customer service wherever we go. But what we really need, what we really long for deep within, is a place where we are welcomed; a place of belonging. How did you get here this morning? Well, you probably got here because, at some point in your life, directly or indirectly someone communicated to you that church was a place where you could, where you would, be welcomed.
We’re in the midst of a sermon series called “A Longing for Belonging.” We’ve been looking at bible stories from the New Testament book of Acts. Acts tells the story of the Church’s beginnings. But unfortunately, the span of time and difference of culture interfere with our ability today to comprehend one of the most powerful aspects of the story and it is this: that the early Church was inspired – perhaps more accurately, compelled by the Holy Spirit – to welcome into its midst some of the most dubious and offensive people imaginable.
According to the Old Testament, Jews had been instructed by God to be cautious around certain kinds of people because those people could pose a threat to their spiritual well-being. They understood this in terms and categories of “clean” and “unclean.” Now my dogs can become unclean if they tromp through the garden after a heavy rain. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. In these books of the Old Testament, uncleanness was about purity and holiness and separation; there were rules or codes designed to help the Jewish people live out – carve out – their distinctive identity as God’s chosen people. Those rules were really important; following them was a way of honoring God. And remember: Jesus was a Jew and so were his original apostles; so those guys would have assumed that those rules were still important... even though, truth be told, Jesus himself had some pretty unconventional ideas about those rules.
Now, in the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit of God begins to act in ways that would have been unimaginable and, hugely offensive, to any good righteous Jew. But here’s the thing: if God made the rules, then God has the authority to change the rules and that’s what happens over and over and over again in the Book of Acts and in the history of the early Christian Church.
This morning’s story from chapter 10 of Acts is one such example. It is the story of Cornelius. Cornelius wasn’t a Jew; he was a Gentile. And not just any Gentile – he’s one of the worst of the worst. He’s an officer in the Roman military. Now, keep in mind, Rome during this period of history had conquered the Jewish people. Palestine was occupied; held under the thumb of the Romans. So, Jews didn’t particularly like anyone who represented or protected the interests of Rome.
Yet, Acts describes Cornelius as a devout man. He regularly prays to God and gives alms to the poor. Prayer and almsgiving were considered pillars of the Jewish faith. So, although Cornelius has dirty Gentile blood running through his veins and works for a boss everyone loves to hate… Despite that, Cornelius is depicted by the writer of Acts as faithfully upholding these two foundations of Jewish goodness or holiness. He prays constantly and he gives alms generously.
Our story of Cornelius begins one afternoon while Cornelius is praying and an angel appears to him. The angel tells Cornelius that his prayers and alms have ascended to God AND that he should send men to the town of Joppa to a guy named Peter. Cornelius responds immediately and sends his servants to find Peter. Meanwhile, back in Joppa, Peter is about to have some excitement of his own because the very next day, at noon, as Cornelius’ men near Joppa, Peter is also praying. Now, while Peter is praying, he gets hungry and when you’re hungry, it’s hard not to think about food. Peter goes into a trance-like state and he sees a vision of food. But, it would not have been an appetizing vision for Peter. For, descending from heaven – on a sort of white sheet, a heavenly table cloth – Peter sees a lot of unclean animals; animals that were not kosher; falling under the category of “don’t eat this if you want to be a good Jew and keep God happy.”
You see, Jews weren’t just picky eaters. They hadn’t thought these rules up on their own. These were dietary commandments that God had given them. Those food laws had to do with their identity as God’s chosen people. The laws God gave them distinguished them as God’s holy people.
So, the fact that Peter the apostle is repulsed at the thought of eating these unclean animals shouldn’t surprise us. Peter’s not being finicky. His refusal to eat these unclean animals is more like an affirmation of his faith. He’s not about to break the commandments that God has given. But a voice from the heavens says this to Peter: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Or, as the bible translation “The Message” puts it – a little more simply: “If God says it’s OK, it’s OK.” It is God’s decision to determine where the lines are drawn and it is certainly God’s prerogative to redraw them whenever and however God chooses. Once again: if God made the rules, then God has the authority to change the rules.
Peter emerges from his trance confused and perplexed… And in the midst of his confusion, the Holy Spirit speaks and instructs him that some men from Cornelius’ house have just arrived and Peter is to go downstairs and to go with them. Meanwhile, back at Cornelius’ house, the anticipation is mounting. Cornelius has invited his friends and relatives to come hear the teaching of this man of God named Peter that he has yet to even meet.
When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ home, he does the unimaginable – he goes inside the house of this unclean Gentile. This would have been unthinkable because Jews considered “uncleanness” communicable, contagious. If you were clean and came into contact with the unclean, you were contaminated. You, too, were unclean. But Peter announces: God has shown him that he shouldn’t call anything unclean. I refer again to my prior statement: If God makes the rules; God has the authority to change the rules. When Peter enters his home, Cornelius tells him about the vision he had. And Peter begins to preach the gospel. But, before Peter even has a chance to wrap up his sermon with whatever might have been the first century equivalent of the modern altar call, the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and all his Gentile buddies. They begin to speak in tongues, praising God. Now, as I mentioned last week, what happens to these people at Cornelius’ house is pretty much the same as what happened to the Jewish apostles (the original 12 followers of Jesus) on Pentecost. An act of God’s Holy Spirit has leveled the playing field, so to speak. And poor Peter; he must have been really blown away by this. Not only has God cleansed the unclean and shattered his tidy mental image of boundaries… now God has even screwed up the sequence of conversion. You see, at Pentecost, Peter preached, then the people repented in response to the gospel, then they were baptized and then they received the Holy Spirit as a seal or a mark of their baptism. That’s a good logical sequence. Why would God want to mess with it and mess it up? What’s the deal here? Peter hasn’t even had a chance to baptize them yet and already the Holy Spirit has come upon them. Well, as I mentioned last week, without the intervention of the Spirit, who knows if Peter would have ever been willing to baptize Cornelius; this Gentile, Roman military officer?
This week I read two stories back to back on the same morning. The first was a news story about two Native American brothers (ages 17 & 19) who drove from Santa Cruz, NM to Colorado for a tour of the CSU campus. They arrived late (after the tour had started) but didn’t get to finish the tour. A parent on the tour called campus security because she thought they looked suspicious. The teenage boys were pulled from the group; they were patted down and questioned. Once their identity and reason for being on campus was confirmed, the boys felt too embarrassed to complete the tour. They got back in their mother’s car and drove the seven hours back home. The second story I read was in a daily email meditation about a college professor and what he observed when he put students onto teams. He noticed that, when they were given a task to complete as a team, students demonstrated skills within the team that had not been demonstrated previously. In other words, the team experience – knowing that their individual skills and contributions were welcomed – brought out the best in them; it brought out their gifts.
Reading those stories back to back really impacted me. I mean, think about it. In one instance, an action motivated by fear resulted in pain and humiliation and a hasty retreat (back to NM in this case). In the other situation, people came together in a way that honored who they were and what they could do.
I think those stories probably contain a lesson for us as the Church in America today.
Friends, we are living in a culture that is increasingly suspicious and fearful of those who are different. But when we act (when we react) from a posture of fear and suspicion, it causes pain and brokenness and separation. Some within the church view the church like a club or a fortress to protect them from the dangers of the wider world. Yet many who are made to feel like outsiders and viewed with suspicion have the same inherent longing for belonging that we have. Many have gifts and talents that are unseen, untapped, uncelebrated. Imagine how different it could be if the church were more like a team that drew people in and brought out the best in them. The grace of God welcomes everyone and that is what God expects of us.
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