Sermon preached for the Fifth Sunday of Easter for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
The apostles and the brothers and sisters throughout Judea heard that even the Gentiles had welcomed God’s word. When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him. They accused him, “You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!”
Step-by-step, Peter explained what had happened. “I was in the city of Joppa praying when I had a visionary experience. In my vision, I saw something like a large linen sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. It came all the way down to me. As I stared at it, wondering what it was, I saw four-legged animals—including wild beasts—as well as reptiles and wild birds. I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!’ I responded, ‘Absolutely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ The voice from heaven spoke a second time, ‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’ This happened three times, then everything was pulled back into heaven. At that moment three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered that man’s house. He reported to us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter. He will tell you how you and your entire household can be saved.’ When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”
Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, “So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.”
As some of you know, my favorite book series of all time is Anne of Green Gables. If you never read past the first book, the series takes her all the way through college, first jobs, marriage, moving to a new town, and raising her own large family.
In this new town is a fabulous character known simply as Miss Cornelia. Described as having “the bitterest tongue and the kindest heart” in the whole community, Miss Cornelia is a feisty, opinionated, generous woman. There are only two groups of people she despises: men, and Methodists.
Early in the novel, Anne tries to bait Miss Cornelia by mentioning that, despite being Presbyterian, they had, the previous night, attended the Methodist worship service.
Miss Cornelia responds:
“If you and the young doctor take MY advice, you won’t have much to do with the Methodists. My motto is—if you ARE a Presbyterian, BE a Presbyterian.”
“Don’t you think that Methodists go to heaven as well as Presbyterians?” asked Anne smilelessly.
“That isn’t for US to decide. It’s in higher hands than ours,” said Miss Cornelia solemnly. “But I ain’t going to associate with them on earth whatever I may have to do in heaven.”(Anne’s House of Dreams, Chapter 8)
When I first read this squabble at age ten or so, it didn’t make much impact. These days it sends me into gales of laughter. It seems so quaint, so silly, so cute, even, to read about Miss Cornelia’s “holy horror of the Methodists.” Nowadays Methodists and Presbyterians are seen as almost interchangeable by most folks. I interviewed at a church that is jointly Methodist and Presbyterian. I certainly don’t worry about any anti-Methodist sentiment rearing its head in this congregation.
But underneath Miss Cornelia’s quirks is a trickier truth: humans love to define ourselves in opposition to others.
It’s hard to say who we are. Easier to say who we are not. We are not like them.
By itself, defining ourselves by negatives—by what and who we’re not—isn’t a bad thing. But it slides so, so easily into a kind of superiority: what we are is good. What they are is bad, to be avoided and shunned.
I remember as a child my mom always told us to find work that we were passionate about, that made a difference in the world. Not bad advice at all. The world needs passion. But somehow I internalized it as a difference that should be demonized. As I followed my call to seminary, I realized I was looking down on my friends who were working in insurance or sales or accounting. What was a difference in our priorities—they pursued their passions outside of work, while I melded the two—made me feel superior, as if I was living life rightly and they, wrongly. Of course, as soon as I realized what I was really thinking, I was horrified. I never set out to be a vocational snob. But it’s so insidious, folks—this train of thought that we have it right, and anyone who has it different has it wrong.
The Old Testament is full of injunctions to the Jewish people to be different, to be set apart. To speak differently and worship differently and wash up differently and eat differently. But in almost every case, the rationale given is to strengthen the Jewish people’s relationship with God by injecting a little thoughtfulness into every part of life. It’s not about hating on the Gentiles, who do things differently.
But remember how easily division slides into demonization.
Our scripture today takes us to the end of a long story from Acts, a three part play in which Peter, Jesus’ right-hand man, is walloped upside the head by the Spirit of God. Not long after Peter raises Tabitha from the dead, while he is still in Joppa, he has a vision of all the animals observant Jews aren’t supposed to eat being lowered from heaven in a giant tablecloth. God’s own voice commands Peter to kill and eat, breaking with a lifetime of training and practice.
Peter, ever the contrarian, argues with God. I won’t do it! he says. I’m a good Jew. A good person. I don’t eat things Gentiles eat.
But it so happens that Cornelius, a Gentile general in Rome’s army who has long worshipped the Jewish God, has also had a vision, telling him to invite Peter to dinner. Cornelius dispatches his staff to retrieve the bewildered Peter, who shows up to this Gentile house with no idea what he’s supposed to do there.
It must have been an awkward moment, but Peter breaks the ice. “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean.”
Faced with these faithful, hopeful Gentiles, Peter realizes what his dream was about. It wasn’t about food. It was about people. It was about needing to roll back that demonization of Gentiles, and learning to love them through their differences.
Peter continues in one of the best speeches in Acts: “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.”
I feel Peter here. How often have I had to learn that God has built a bridge where I have put a wall? I really am learning that God loves so many people that I have wished to wave away. I really am learning—every day, learning and learning and relearning—that God delights in the differences I want to demonize.
While Peter is making his confession, the Holy Spirit descends on that Gentile house, and they get a mini Pentecost of their own, speaking in various languages, just like the apostles did. Realizing that the Holy Spirit is driving this bus, not his own prejudices, Peter baptizes the entire household and agrees to stay for awhile as guest.
That is the backstory to what we read today. If the story ended there, it would be a very nice story. But there is a third act, where Peter comes back to Jerusalem, to the very center of Jewish identity, to the one place where they have an absolute majority culture, and people are not happy.
They’ve heard a rumor. Peter didn’t just preach to Gentiles. He ate with them. He ate their food.
It’s too far, they say. How can you get so close to them without losing yourself?
Peter’s defense is surprisingly humble. It certainly couldn’t be characterized as a “burn,” “clapback,” or “epic takedown.” He simply takes them step-by-step through his own experiences: the vision, the summons, meeting these faithful Gentiles.
He concludes with the truth he has come face to face with: “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”
That last question is at the heart of the Book of Acts. Can we stand in God’s way when God wants to draw the circle of the faith wider?
I have my own list of people I want nothing to do with. If we’re honest, we all do. And increasingly, we are called to match our lists to each other. “Our kind” of folks hate “those people.” And we can list reasons, good reasons, to disassociate from them. It’s how we stay clean. It’s how we stay pure, maintain our standing as good Presbyterians or Wildcats or Democrats or Republicans or whatever group we identify with.
But the spirit is still determined to teach us that God shows no partiality.
Demonizing someone because they live their life differently than you is the product of fear: fear that you could somehow lose yourself, lose what you prize, by loving them. Over and over again I have seen that the people who are most able to graciously interact with those who are different from them are the people who are most secure in their own identity. The ones who know who they are are most able to love those who are different.
Peter learned that lesson. There is no evidence that Peter gave up observing Jewish laws when he had the opportunity; but he also prized the relationships he could form over dinner more highly than his own purity. Peter found that having a companion in Cornelius advanced the witness of Jesus Christ far more than making an enemy of him.
No matter how much we try to get in God’s way, by declaring certain people evil or crazy or unclean, the spirit will always be found in the wrong place, with the wrong people, cheerfully drawing us together.
The history of the church is the history of breaking down walls to acknowledge the spirit’s presence in more people. For Peter, it was the Gentiles; for Miss Cornelia, it was the Methodists, whom she finally reconciled herself to during the First World War; for the Presbyterian Church in my mother’s generation, it was the leadership of women pastors and elders, leaders like Michele and I; in my own generation, it is the leadership of God’s queer children. In each widening there have been those who have been afraid that welcoming more people means losing who we are, but as someone who was once on the outside and now stands in the very center of the room, here is what I have experienced:
We know more of the face of God the more faces we see. We hear more of God’s voice the more voices we listen to. We feel more of the love of God the more hearts we reach out to. We are more the image of God the more of us are in the picture.
We can be hateful. We can be frightened. We can clutch our lists of unclean people and cling to our own superiority. Or we can go adventuring in search of the spirit, and all the quirky, different, unexpected people in whom she dwells.
Let’s choose adventure.