Easter 5, May 19, 2019

Easter 5, May 19, 2019 (Ps 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35) Acts 11:1-11

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The church in Jerusalem hears the news – a whole bunch of new believers have just come to God! So we’re all singing alleluia – right?

Well, not exactly. Actually, the first thing we hear from the church council is a rebuke of the apostle Peter – (Like–) “What were you thinking? Visiting uncircumcised men – and eating with them?”

Which should certainly have us asking – what’s going on? Why is the church not enthusiastically unanimously welcoming newcomers to the faith and the table of fellowship?

Of course we weren’t there at the time… so we’re listening close, now, as Peter re-tells the story, step-by-step – recounting events that take up the whole previous chapter in the book of Acts…

As Peter tells a condensed version of the story – starting with his vision of a blanket full of kosher and unkosher animals all mixed together – and a voice from heaven saying “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”

Peter replies “no way, Lord, I never eat unkosher food.” But the voice says “Don’t call profane anything God has made clean.” And the vision repeats three times in all. (And we see yet-another happening-in-triplicate-thing-with-Peter – who famously said he didn’t know Jesus three times in one night –  then at breakfast on the beach told the risen Jesus “yes, Lord I love you” –  three times…) And as Peter now retells the story for the church, he says “as soon as I got this vision, here comes three men (– yes, three again – ) sent to fetch me to share the gospel. And the Spirit told me to go with them and not make distinctions between us and them.”

So what’s with this strange vision of foods on a blanket? And what’s this got to do with making distinctions between people?  A biblical background note may be in order: The ancient food laws described in Scripture in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 list foods that Jews can and cannot eat. Fish with fins can be eaten. Shell fish, shrimp and lobster cannot. Animals with a cloven hoof that also chew their cud you may eat. Animals that don’t chew their cud, like pigs and camels – you may not eat. Chickens and ducks you may eat – but eagles, buzzards, osprey, cormorants, hawks or any bird of prey you may not eat. No eating of reptiles of any kind – nor insects – except for the locust and the grasshopper – you may eat them if you choose. But –

What’s the purpose of all these food rules? Many theories have been elaborated over the centuries. Some teachers of the Law have said foods like pork and camel are bad for our health and-or subject to contamination, that’s why we don’t eat them. Others have pointed out pigs were often worshiped by local pagans, so we don’t eat them, partly to show we’re not pagans. Some rabbis of old said the food rules are either arbitrary or so mysterious that only God knows what they’re for – but either way, they’re given by God – so we keep them – even when we don’t understand why. The explanation I like best – is – we should only eat so-called ruminant animals that chew the cud, because this is God’s reminder – we should chew on the word of God slowly, repeatedly…Ruminating on it… savoring, and digesting, slowly…

Food laws set those who keep them apart from neighbors who don’t… But eating and socializing with pagans is actually not forbidden by the bible – it can be done, and often was – as long as certain boundaries are observed. (Peter exaggerates to make his point back in chapter ten, when he says ‘Jews are not permitted to associate with Gentiles.’) But there were real cultural barriers, some set from scripture, some a result of human interpretation. Barriers designed to keep Israel from table fellowship with neighbors who actively practice idolatry.

And now… Peter continues, saying “we came to the house of this centurion, Cornelius, and he was telling me how an angel appeared to him, and told him to send for me – you’ll hear a message that will bring salvation to your household. And as I was telling them the gospel story – here comes the Holy Spirit falling afresh on everyone – like with us on the day of Pentecost. And I remembered how our Lord told us – we’ve been water0baptized, later we’ll be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Now here’s this whole household of people, baptized by the Spirit – so I said “how can we not baptize them with water too? Who am I to get in the way of God’s work?”

Which silences those who have been rebuking Peter. Now finally they  praise God. Though I’m still hearing their praise as less than whole-hearted… As I’ve read the rest of the book…And I know… this isn’t the last time we’ll be talking about God not making distinctions between peoples…

Acts is a spiritual journey – that begins in Jerusalem – home territory for the first disciples – then heads off to the far ends of the earth, led by the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, Peter, under the influence of the Spirit, quotes the prophet Joel: “Your young folk will see visions, your old folk will dream dreams.” Peter must be middle-aged – since he’s half-asleep, as he gets his dream-like vision of animals he’s not supposed to eat mixed with animals he can eat. A metaphor he now begins to understand as not about what he can eat – but about who he can now eat with…

And as Peter downloads his triple vision, we also recall the parallel vision of Cornelius the centurion – a commander of Roman troops – and a devout but non-Jewish worshiper of God – who now becomes the first public non-Jewish convert to the Christian faith. He’s employed by the empire that has oppressed and ruled over Israel for centuries… But he worships Israel’s God, not the gods of empire. And Cornelius’ vision fits together perfectly with the vision given to Peter – Jewish fisherman, Christian apostle. Twin visions – given to these two men from opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. Visions that bind them now together to each other in the love of God…

From Jerusalem to the far-ends of the earth – from Genesis to Revelation – God sends visions and dreams to get our attention. When God has our attention – we begin to recognize God’s voice – occasionally speaking aloud, as with the angel who speaks to Cornelius and as the Spirit speaks to Peter. More often, we hear God’s Spirit speak in whispers and nudges… that make us attentive to the words of scripture… Aware of the work of the Spirit… Often God works quietly, subtly…

But here in the book of Acts today, God makes the message unmistakable – pouring out his Spirit on the whole household of Cornelius and the six Jewish Christian disciples who accompany Peter… So no one can miss the message… As barriers and boundaries keep falling…according to God’s directions…

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And much as I hate to admit it  – I can identify all-too-well with Peter – who needs to have the message spelled out for him, three times, in God’s vision… Verified by Cornelius’ messengers who come calling on him… Verified again by the Spirit falling afresh on the whole Gentile household of Cornelius… Like Peter, I too am a slow learner…

And I can identify also with the church in Jerusalem that’s reluctant to make changes… I too, am often reluctant to embrace change… I too need to have changes explained, step-by-step. Especially when the changes God wants call for sacrifice –  patience – step-by-step exploring…and slow explaining… of all the ways God is making no distinctions between us… in the body of Christ….

And I need this step-by-step repetition because this ‘No Distinctions’ theme can be hard to remember… as the Methodist church we love appears to be splitting apart into separate camps… And I have strong feelings in more than one direction… Believing strongly on one hand – that all people must be welcome always in all our churches, with no one ever treated as a second class person. No distinctions – no singling out of one set of behaviors to be punished – while other behaviors (greed, idolatry, and power seeking for example) that are addressed far more frequently in scripture go virtually unmentioned in our Book of Discipline… and mostly disregarded in our doctrinal debates… and…

On the other hand, I also believe – God loves people on all sides of our debates. And God will continue to love us all – and work on us all… Changing all hearts, minds and attitudes… as only God can do… I know God is still working on me. I know God is still working on us all… As I recall…

How I’ve observed the particulars of my own beliefs changing over the years. So I believe… the church’s interpretation of scriptures that addres human sexuality will also continue to change… As the church’s interpretation of what the bible says about slavery, about women speaking in church, and about women in ministry… have all continued to change… The particulars of each issue, to be sure, are different… The principles of interpretation are similar. When context changes, interpretation changes – even as interpretation of the dietary codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy have changed decisively for Christians, ever since the encounter narrated in our reading today in Acts… People of faith with different theologies can learn to live and worship and eat together in Christ….

I’m sure we will continue to have theological differences till kingdom come. And I’m very sure God will continue to remind us of the unity we have in the heart of the gospel – which is and will always be – God reconciling the world to himself in Christ. God saving the world God so loves through Jesus Christ. God’s Spirit leading us over, under, around and through… every barrier of race, creed, nationality, and theological differences that divide people of faith one from another… And –

Thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit is still working – still falling afresh on us…

Still explaining, step-by-step-by-step… the changes we’re going through….

As Jesus leads us ever deeper into the unity of beloved community… Where all shall finally know…

The fullness of the love of God poured out for us and for all in Jesus Christ…

He is Lord of all.

He makes us one.

He loves us all, forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.