July 3, 2016

Pentecost 7   July 3, 2016   (Ps 25)  Acts 10 (v1-16, 17-33, 34-48)

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Acts is a spiritual journey that begins in familiar territory, then heads off to the far ends of earth, directed, often through dreams and visions. On the day of Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit’s poured out on disciples (near the beginning of Acts), the apostle Peter, quoting the prophet Joel, says “your young people will see visions, your older folk will dream dreams.” (Peter seems to be middle-aged – because he’s at least half asleep when he get his dream-like vision… And…)

Today we’re seeing in double vision. First Cornelius, Gentile Centurion, who  becomes the first full-blown, out-in-plain-sight non-Jewish convert to the new Christian faith. Then Simon Peter, Jewish fisherman, first-round draft choice Christian apostle, who we’ve known since the opening chapters of the gospels. Cornelius and Peter each have a vision – and each vision directs and connects the one to the other…

First an angel of the Lord appears to Cornelius in a vision simple, direct, and specific. God has heard your prayers, and noticed your alms, your generous heart for the poor. Now ‘Go, send for Simon Peter, who is staying over in Joppa.’

Peter’s vision’s not so simple, not so direct… Though it surely is a wild wow!-of-a-vision. A heavenly-blanket-full-of-kosher-clean and unkosher animals, coming down from heaven, with a voice saying to napping Peter “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”

That would probably wake me up quick. But this vision repeats itself three time before sleepy Peter wakens from his dreamlike vision. When he wakes, he’s puzzled – still thinking about the vision – even after he’s seen it not just once but three times.

Why is it, I wonder, reading the book of Acts, that God so often resorts to visions and dreams for communicating? I wonder the more, because today we overhear the Holy Spirit speaking audibly to the same Simon Peter who receives this vision. Peter has no apparent difficulty hearing when the Spirit says ‘Get up and go’ with the three men sent by Cornelius… But after his vision, we’re first told, he’s ‘puzzled’ – then told he’s ‘still thinking about the vision…’ as the delegation from Cornelius arrives. Only when he gets to the home of Cornelius, and hears about the centurion’s vision, does he start to get it that his own vision’s not just about food… But about who is to be considered clean (acceptable) or unclean (unacceptable)… He starts to get it, but he’s still talking about barriers that he assumes are still in place, preventing common-ground table fellowship, as he speaks with the assembly in the house of Cornelius. It’s not till he hears Cornelius tell his story a second time, adding details now about how he, Cornelius was fasting and praying, when his vision came – that now Peter really gets the big picture, that God is transforming and remaking the rules, big time…

At which point the Holy Spirit falls afresh on all the gathered household of Cornelius, this good God-fearing Gentile, non-Jewish guy – who works for the Roman Empire. Now Peter, sounding a bit like the Ethiopian eunuch who last week, remember, having heard the gospel, and seeing water ahead, cries “what’s to keep me from being baptized?” But this time it’s Peter himself, who’s up to now been so skittish about even being in the same house with Gentiles, who hollers, “who can withhold waters of baptism for those who have received the Spirit just like we have?”

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I can identify with brother Pete…I too, often need time to ponder. Especially when the vision that’s coming to me is all about changes in things I’ve assumed to be unchanging… unchangeable…

It’s taken me years of reading the book of Acts to begin to understand how profoundly radical this spiritual travelogue really is… We’re not talking about small change here…

I grew up in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Decades of big changes, but…We still had traditions we never thought would change. Like – all stores except gas stations and the corner drug store closed on Sundays. (I remember Blanche Cody in one of our Slow Church reading sessions, we were talking about Sabbath – and she remembered some adults she knew were not at all happy about even gas stations being open. “Why can’t they buy their gas on Saturday?”…)

And the changes we’re talking about here in Acts are a bit like this, but much bigger…As we remember biblical and cultural background to the story…

Even the place-names of where the action occurs today carry heavy symbolism. Caesarea, where Cornelius lives, means literally Caesarville. Caesar City. Cornelius the centurion is a military commander, an officer in the army of the empire that’s occupied Palestine for hundreds of years. An evil empire. If we’re first century Jewish Christians… Roman centurions and the town of Caesarea do not bring about warm and fuzzy thoughts….

Joppa, on the other hand, where Simon Peter is staying, is the port city where the prophet Jonah famously goes to buy his ticket on a boat going the opposite direction from Nineveh. God said ‘go to Nineveh’ (in what’s now Iraq), tell them repent. Jonah books off in the opposite direction… When he finally gets spit up on land after three days inside a big fish, then walks through Nineveh proclaiming ‘yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown’ –  and Nineveh then avoids destruction by repenting – Jonah blames God for letting these awful Gentile sinners off so easy. When we hear the place-name Joppa, we’re thinking wrong-way Jonah… Doing his best to not help the Gentiles…

But now, with God directing the whole drama all the while – (from where else could these visions come?) – now Cornelius, Gentile commander of Roman troops, living in Caesar City – somehow turns out to be… A model believer. Even before he hears the gospel of Jesus, he’s praying, fasting, practicing radical charity  (which God, according to the angel, considers to be a form of prayer)…

And now Peter – unlike Jonah the reluctant prophet, who did his level best not to lift a finger to save any Gentiles – Peter leaves Joppa, willingly, going where God says to go…Signaling a biblical 180… And…

God does all the rest… As the Holy Spirit falls afresh for the first time, now, on those from outside the boundaries of Israel… And now the precedent is established… for all who will follow.

On the field of world history this is a bit like Jackie Robinson integrating major league baseball.  A bit like Congress passing civil rights legislation in the 60’s. A bit like the Berlin Wall coming down… A bit like South African apartheid coming to an end and Nelson Mandela becoming President…A bit like the end of slavery here in the USA… (All these examples are good, as far as they go…All of them build on what God does… in Acts, chapter 10…)

The opening up of the Christian faith to people of all nations is the Gospel, Part Two. The Original Jesus Revolution, hitting the road, just as Jesus said must happen. His followers now serving as his witnesses, first in metro Jerusalem, then into nearby Judea and Samaria, and starting now, out to all the ends of the earth…

Now all those parts of scripture and tradition that have kept borders high between God’s people Israel and surrounding nations of the world are now dramatically tumbling down.

Yet at the same time, from another angle – this is simply the word of God coming full circle – back to the promise God made to Abraham, way back in Genesis 12, as he left home to go where he didn’t yet know… The promise that in you and your descendants shall all the families of earth be blessed… (A promise Peter preaches as a happening thing already, back in Acts chapter 3, without yet understanding fully what he is saying…)

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Now, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter says “I truly understand – God shows no partiality – but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what’s right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all.”

Now the Holy Spirit has brought down all barriers that divide people of good will because of race, creed or nationality… Yet all through history we still so often see people reconstructing borders and barriers Christ has destroyed on the cross.

We still hear calls to consider some people, some nations, more beloved of God – and others less loved – even un-loved…

Here in America, we’re richly blessed to live… where it’s seldom difficult, seldom costly… to say “Jesus Christ is Lord of all.”

It wasn’t nearly so easy for Cornelius the centurion – whose boss, the Emperor, made the same claim – except that in the language and the creed of empire, it is always the emperor who is said to be… ‘Lord of all.’

The early church – Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women, old and young – understood all along, all-too-well, the power of the empire – and all the reasons why God’s people have had to take care to be separate from the nations up to now – lest we too fall into worship of the world’s vain idols… acceptance of the idolatrous claims of empire… the lusts for material prosperity and private privilege over the needs of the poor and the common good…

Yet now the church begins to understand much more deeply… the gospel message that runs through the heart of all the New Testament: (the word of God that tells us)– in Christ there is no east or west, no south or north. In Christ there is no longer Jew and Gentile, slave or free, woman or man. In Christ we now inhabit the unity of beloved community, beyond all borders… Because the love of God has been poured out for us, and for all, in Jesus Christ… May we never forget –

Truly, he is Lord of all.

Thanks be to God. Amen.