A couple of weeks ago, I called up a friend of mine who is also a pastor. I asked him how Easter went. That’s what pastors often do. Holy week and Easter can be exhausting, so we care for one another by asking how it went. Now, typically you get the standard answers: It went well; the services were quite meaningful this year. Or – it was fine. Nothing out of the norm. But my friend, he responded in a way I wasn’t expecting. He said, “Well it is still Easter and it is going well.” It is still Easter, what do you mean? “There are fifty days of Easter, so we have a couple more weeks to go.” Embarrassingly, I didn’t know that. But he is right. There are 50 days of Easter. Just like there are 12 days of Christmas. 40 Days of Lent. There are 50 days of Easter. Which means we are still in the season of Resurrection. A season where life comes out of death.
In this story from Acts, we get to witness life coming out of death. See if you can spot it.
Our story for today begins with what we might call a church council meeting. Peter, the apostle is there along with other followers of Jesus. The text says they were “circumcised believers” meaning they were Jewish. Remember, Christianity came out of Judaism and the earliest Christians were Jewish. Now, at the council meeting, there is trouble. The council is having a bit of an argument. You see, Peter has done something that the other followers did not like. And now they are asking Peter to explain himself.
The full story begins back in chapter 10. There was a soldier in the Roman army, named Cornelius. Cornelius loved and worshiped God. But Cornelius was a gentile. He was not Jewish. He was not circumcised; he did not follow Jewish dietary laws. To other Jews, Cornelius was a filthy, immoral man. He would be considered unclean and it was against the law to associated with him. He was an outsider when it came to the first Christians.
But one day, Cornelius had a vision. A vision in which God told him to send his men for Peter the apostle. And so he does. Now, as Cornelius’ men were on their way to Peter, Peter also sees a vision. Only Peter’s is a bit different. In Peter’s vision, the heavens open up and a large sheet – almost like a picnic blanket – comes down out of the sky and on it are all sorts of forbidden animals. And by forbidden, I mean animals Peter could not eat. Animals like camels and badgers, pigs and rabbits. As a good Jew who followed the dietary laws found in the book of Leviticus, Peter knew immediately that these animals were off limits. But then a voice – a voice that Peter recognized as the voice of God, says, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
Now, I love this next part. Peter says to the Lord, “No.” He says, “No, Lord, I will not eat those animals for nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth.” Peter says no to the Lord’s command.
Notice the irony. Cornelius, the man who is outside the church, says yes to God. Peter, who is inside the church, says no to God. In fact, Peter and God go back and forth three times until God finally declares, “Peter, what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And then, *poof*, the vision is gone.
Almost immediately, after Peter’s vision, Cornelius’ men arrived at the house, asking for Peter. They told him how Cornelius, a gentile, had been told by God to send for Peter the apostle. Without delay, Peter began to understand what his vision was about. Here, Peter, a Jew, was being summoned by Cornelius, a gentile. Peter should have said no, because it would be unlawful for a Jew to visit a gentile. But…what God has made clean, you must not call profane.
So off Peter went with the other men to the house of Cornelius, where he met a whole house full of other gentiles. Peter spoke to them about God and the Holy Spirit fell upon all of them. So, what does Peter do? He baptizes all of those, unlawful, dirty, and immoral gentiles. And from that moment on, the circle of God’s family got a whole lot bigger. Now, it wasn’t just those who were Jewish. It was the gentiles too. The promises of Christ were truly for all.
That’s what the big fuss was about in this so-called council meeting. The other Jews were upset that Peter had welcomed Gentiles into the faith. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” So Peter tells them his story. After which, Peter asked them, “Who am I to hinder God?” After Peter asked it, the whole group fell silent. Suddenly, they were no longer fighting. Instead, they were praising. All of them, right then and there, praised God, exclaiming, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Earlier, I invited you to keep an eye out for life coming out of death within this text. Could you see it?
Cornelius was as good as dead. Why? Because he was excluded, as a gentile, from worshiping the God he loved. But then, with the help of Peter, God broke down the doors of the church and let Cornelius and all the other gentiles in. And suddenly, there was life in the midst of death for Cornelius.
And then Peter. Peter was dead. He followed the law so well that it killed him. He followed it so well that he put the law above God’s very own voice and new command. So Peter too was dead, until he risked breaking God’s law by entering the house of a Gentile! And what do you know, the Holy Spirit met him there. In the foreigner. In the outsider. And suddenly, Peter was made alive again too. When he stopped putting God’s law above God’s people.
And then the council. The council of faithful Jews, who demanded explanation from Peter. They were dead too. They, like Peter, were dead by the cancer of prejudice. Their desire to exclude others from the grace of God. But even they were brought back to life. After they heard Peter’s incredible story, they were moved to silence and began to praise God for the inclusion of those filthy, immoral gentiles into the grace of God.
This is a story about God doing a new thing. God has broken God’s own law in order to make the circle bigger and to allow more people in. God destroyed that dead place of exclusion by being more inclusive. God’s always about bring life in the midst of death.
Now, this story may not seem like a big deal to your life. I mean, it’s just another Bible story. We hear a different one each week. Who cares, right? But this particular story should have a special place in your heart and in your life. Because this story is your story.
Almost all of us here are gentiles. Most of us are not of Jewish descent. Which means our ancestors were once kept out of the church. Because of this event, your ancestors were welcomed in. You were welcomed in. You were brought from exclusion to inclusion. From death to life. We are resurrected people. Which means we are called to risk living out a resurrection like life. You and I are called to find the places of death and decay in this life and demand that life spring forth from it! Resurrection living is when we stare death in the face and we demand life.
Now, what does that look like? I recently heard the story of a church that got a new mission statement – “Sharing the Love of Jesus with all people in the Hilltop”. They put these words in big letters in the narthex so that everyone could see them and would be reminded of who they were called to be. One Sunday morning, Kathryn, a member of the council and a person who had helped come up with the mission statement, was standing at the top of the stairs, greeting everyone who walked in. Then, into the church, walks Orpah. Orpah was visiting the congregation for the first time. Now, Orpah had been raised out in the country. This was the city, where she was known as a hillbilly. But, she had been asked by the pastor to come to church, when he had been out knocking on doors earlier in the week.
So, on that Sunday morning, Orpah put on her best cotton dress and walked into church. And as she was coming up the stairs, Kathryn, the greeter, saw her as someone else. As a hillbilly. As someone who wouldn’t fit in at this church. So with the words “Sharing the Love of Jesus with all people in the Hilltop” in the background, Kathryn said to Orpah, “Honey, this is a respectable church. There are a lot of other churches in this neighborhood where you might feel more comfortable.” It was a not so subtle way of inviting Orpah to leave.
And do you know what? Orpah didn’t listen. She walked right into the sanctuary and sat in a pew for worship. And the next week, Orpah brought her husband. And the week after that, she brought her daughter and her grandchildren. Soon enough, they were regulars at that church.
At the top of the stairs that day was a place of death. Where one was being kept out of the church. But Orpah wouldn’t have it. She demanded life in the midst of death and took her pew for worship. That’s resurrection.
If we keep our eyes open for it, there is resurrection happening all around us. I see resurrection when the mother of a former drug addict gives her cell phone number to another addict who is trying to get his life back together. She gives him her number and says, “You call me when you need help. Because I’ve been through this before and I’ll help you.” That’s resurrection. That mother looked death, drug addiction, in the face, and said, “You will not win. Not if I can do anything about it.”
I see resurrection when a spouse in dysfunctional marriage bravely picks up the phone and calls a marriage counselor, in hopes of healing their relationship. That’s resurrection.
I see resurrection when a young person, who has always believed that God was just like their father. Their abusive father who abandoned them long ago, never to return. I see resurrection when that young person dares to risk believing that maybe that’s not what God is like. That maybe God is not like the father who abandoned them. But maybe God is different than that. That’s resurrection.
Friends, it is still Easter. I can’t help but wonder who is standing behind locked doors now. And how might God be trying to break that lock in order to let more people in. I can’t help but wonder who is living in a place of death in our community and who it is that God is calling to bring about life there. I can’t help but wonder what in your life feels like it is dead and is in desperate need of new life. May you and I be people not who simply believe in the resurrection, but who live it out. By demanding life in the midst of death. AMEN