"Who are We that We Could Hinder God?"

Date Sunday May 19, 2019
Service Fifth Sunday of Easter
Text Acts 11:1-18
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen  
Previous Sermon "In Both Life and Death ... Our Lives Speak"
Next Sermon "In Search of Wisdom"

     It’s week #5 of our journey on the Easter road as Easter people, so the time is right for me to feel my usual Easter season jealousy of those first Easter people. It just seems that God spoke SO clearly and SO directly to them.

     Take, for example, today’s reading from Acts 11, which is retelling events described in Acts 10. God speaks clearly and directly to two men: Peter and Cornelius. That happens in at least five ways.

     First, God tells Cornelius, a Roman centurion and non-Jew, but a believer is God who is described as devout, to send for Peter whom, it seems, is a stranger to him. So, Cornelius sends men to Joppa, where Peter is staying with Simon the tanner, to ask him to come to Caesarea. God speaks clearly and directly.

     As Cornelius’ messengers are on their way, Peter goes up on the roof to pray, and he has an odd vision in which a sheet is lowered from heaven in front of him and in it are all kinds of four-footed creatures, reptiles and birds. A voice then ordered, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” Peter’s response is, “No, by no means!”

     Peter was not just squeamish, the menu was, to him, repulsive. His entire life, as an observant Jew, he followed the purity laws with the goal of remaining ritually clean. To eat any of the creatures in that sheet would have meant breaking those laws, which Peter was conditioned not to do. Yet, for the second time in this passage, God speaks clearly and directly, giving his order not once, not twice, but three times. Each time God advises, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

     While Peter is trying to figure out the vision, Cornelius’ men arrive, asking for him and God tells him: “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” You can’t get much clearer or more direct than that!

     So, Peter goes, and when he arrives, he is met not only by Cornelius, but a large gathering of people. Only then does that crazy vision begin to make sense. Peter notes that he shouldn’t even be there, that it’s unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. BUT, and here’s the key, “God has shown me,” he says, that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” He has received the message that God spoke so clearly and directly.

     But that’s not the end of the story. The fifth incident of God’s clear communication occurs as Peter shares the Good News of Jesus with those gathered in Cornelius’ home; while he is still speaking the Holy Spirit falls upon all who heard the word. It was an astonishing thing for the Jewish believers who were present, that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out “even on Gentiles.”

     In all that led to the baptism of Cornelius and his household, God has been speaking clearly and directly. It’s ironic, then, that when Peter returns to Jerusalem, he is criticized by Jewish believers (followers of Jesus); that’s where today’s passage begins. They are upset because Peter has associated with Gentiles (non-Jews). Never mind that he proclaimed the Good News to people who had not previously heard about Jesus, who were then filled with the Holy Spirit and baptized, he hasn’t followed the purity laws and thus was not acting as a proper Jew.

     The problem is that they used the purity laws not to express their devotion to God, but as a means of excluding people they considered unacceptable. So, Peter tells his story – the one we just went through – the account of God speaking clearly and directly at least five times. And, in doing so his focus is on GOD, not on himself.

     He explains how God had been active. He shows how God led him to the conclusion that God is accepting Gentiles without the requirement that they participate in Jewish rituals and laws. And, finally, he announces that God has taken the initiative to give a common gift to them all, the gift of faith.

     God’s intention is clear; Peter even remembered what Jesus had said, “…you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit;” at the time he understood the “we” as being good, upstanding Jewish believers like himself. But, no, the Spirit’s baptism embraces even Gentiles like Cornelius and his family and friends. His final argument could not be opposed by his critics, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

     Isn’t that a great story?? It’s so clear, so direct. I’m jealous! We tend to think communication like that, from the Divine, no longer occurs.  Yet, here’s the deal … why reinvent the wheel? The 10th and 11th chapters of Acts are speaking to us – it’s still clear; it’s still direct. The message is unchanged.

     No one is excluded; the “you” of “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” is all-encompassing. God’s grace embraces all, including those we are inclined to exclude. If Peter did not want to oppose God’s openness, acceptance, why should we do so? The message is clear and direct: God disrupts the boundaries people construct.

     Those boundaries separate us from that other political party, denomination, faith tradition, ethnicity, socio economic class, race and sexual identity. They also separate us from those who have hurt us or whom we have hurt. Jesus calls us, just as he did Peter, to a conversion of the attitude and actions, so that we cross the boundaries and embrace those to whom Jesus has already shown grace.

     Doing so is not easy, though. Today in the Adult Discussion Group we are focusing on Lutheran presence in North America which began, believe it or not, 400 years ago. I found it interesting as I read the chapter for today how many times divisions in the church occurred because of differences in language, ethnicity, political controversies (like slavery), polity of the church (who can be ordained by whom), interpretation of scripture and, of course, theology.

     It’s so common for people to draw a “line in the sand” that separates us from one another. Even in the earliest days of the Christian church this was the case. It’s difficult for us to understand that the controversy over whether or not Gentile believers had to becomes Jews and adopt circumcision and food laws was a HUGE line in the sand. Theologian N.T. Wright writes that at a time when the whole nation felt under intense pressure due to Roman domination, to welcome Gentiles as equal brothers and sisters must have looked like fraternizing with the enemy. (1)

     No wonder Peter struggled to accept this transition, and God had to speak so clearly and directly. There are in our world, and in our churches, issues that cause people to draw deep lines in the sand and put up high barriers. When that happens in ways that limit acknowledging and sharing God’s grace, we need to hear the clear and direct message of today’s account, “no one is excluded” and seriously ask the question Peter put forth: “…who are we that we could hinder God?” AMEN

 

  1. Acts for Everyone by N.T. Wright, Chapters 1-12, 2008 Westminster John Knox Press, pg. 175