You can listen to this sermon here.
1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 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?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
My family and I live out on Woodley street near the Northfield Golf course. We live in this 1925 farm house and next to our house there is this beautiful patch of woods that makes you feel like you’re out in the country even though you aren’t. It’s the kind of woods that you’d go exploring in for hours as a kids, searching for junk that’s been laying out there for years.
We love that patch of woods.
Actually, I should say, we loved that patch of woods.
As of a few days ago, the woods and the shade and privacy they afforded us are now gone. We spent most of Thursday and Friday (Earth day!) listening to the crunch and the snap of trees being taken down and ground up, with wood chips dusting our yard.
What would have been a perfect place for fort building and exploration in the years ahead for our two boys will soon be a 7 unit town-home property with a driveway dividing us.
Needless to say, we’ve been pretty heartbroken. And not only heartbroken, but even a little scared. Everything feels different now. This has quite literally changed the landscape of our neighborhood. What if we don’t like the look of the town-homes? What if we don’t like the people in the town-homes?
And the worst part – we had absolutely no choice in this change.
I realize my complaints are pretty privileged. To have a home to live in and a yard to play in make me and my family among the wealthiest in the world. But I share this because our experience this week is just a small taste of how I think the Apostles and the other believers felt in our story from Acts today after learning that the gentiles had also accepted the word of God.
The landscape of their neighborhood was changing. Drastically. And not only that, like the trees near our house, their understanding of God and the future of the church was being chopped down and ground up, so that it would look nothing like it did before. And that, my friends, is terrifying.
What caused such fear in the apostles and other believers? Outsiders were becoming insiders. The boundaries between clean and unclean were being put into the chipper. Gentiles – meaning non-Jews, meaning people like most of us – were being welcomed in to the community of believers.
They learned that the scope of God’s love and salvation was universal. And they had no choice in it.
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 God’s law to associated with him. He was an outsider when it came to the first Christians.
But one day, Cornelius had a vision from God. Note that Cornelius had not heard the good news of Jesus Christ yet. Cornelius had not been baptized. Which reminds us that God is already involved in the life of those we’d prefer to exclude.
In this vision, God tells him to send his men for Peter the apostle. And so he does. Cornelius obeys God. 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 on the basis of his devotion to the Lord.
As one theologian has said, “It is possible to resist the very growth and change…that God desires for you by appealing to your religious convictions.”
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 arrive at the house, asking for Peter. They tell 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…perhaps Peter was finally getting it…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 Jesus.
And then, before any of them can open their mouths to proclaim faith in Jesus or the gospel, the Holy Spirit swoops in and falls upon all of them. So, what does Peter do? He baptizes them proclaiming to them a promise that has already been given. And then these Gentiles welcomed Peter to stay with them for a few days.
From that moment on, the world started to learn that the circle of God’s family was way bigger than they ever imagined. Now, it wasn’t just those who were Jewish. It was the gentiles too. The promises of Christ were truly for all.
Which brings us to today’s reading. Peter returns from the life-altering, faith-transforming trip, and he gets called into a church council meeting to explain himself.
But notice what the council’s complaint is. Their complaint isn’t, “Why did you preach to Gentiles?” Their complain is, “Why did you go to their house and eat with them?”
Why did you Peter – you who are part of us – change yourself like that? And now you return to us? Are you going to start inviting us to eat with them or like them? Are you going to change us?
Because that’s the real issue, isn’t it? Not that God’s word would go out to some foreigners. But that the welcoming of the gentiles has the power to change them. That any conversion has the power to change the whole group.
Which challenges us to think about what we mean when we hope our church is growing. Or when we welcome visitors. Do we want to reach out to people so that they come to St. John’s and become like us? Or do we reach out to people trusting that God is already active in their life and through them we can know and see God more clearly – which will change us.
After worship today, there is a new member luncheon for new members and staff. And that should scare us a bit! They are all lovely people but their presence here changes us into a new community.
As we talk about welcome throughout this year, part of welcoming is not about welcoming a certain group of people. It is about welcoming the way God is active in anyone’s life and the way that could change us.
Why did you go to them and eat with them, they asked Peter. So Peter tells them the story about him and Cornelius. About how it was God who came to Cornelius. And God who came to Peter. And the Holy Spirit that swooped in. This was all God and he had no choice in the matter. 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.”
So is this the conversion story of Cornelius and his family and gentiles who are welcomed in as soon as they become like all the other believers?
Or is this the conversion story of Peter and the church? That’s the real landscape that is changing. Not just the landscape of the church, but the landscape of their own life.
And we learn the good but hard news…“Even (our) most cherished things are not immune from the newness that results from the resurrection.”
So how is the landscape of your life changing? Who is showing up in your life and messing with your familiar ways of being? And how might God be using that to do something new in your life?
On Friday night, as we were pulling out of our driveway, past the wreckage of a forest torn down, Elliot says to us in the sincerest voice, “Maybe they’ll build really beautiful homes there.” And when he said that something shook loose in us. Not because what we long for is just something beautiful to look at. That would be only to continue this division among us of clean and unclean. But I think what it lifted up in us is that whomever God brings to us through this changed landscape will be beautiful. Because they will be part of the very wide circle of God’s family. Made in the image of God. Maybe it will be new retirees who heard that Northfield is the best place to retire and they’ll become like grandparents to our kids. Maybe they’ll be a young family new to Northfield and in need of community. Maybe it will be someone who is not like us…who will stretch our circle of love wider.
Who am I to hinder what God is up to on Woodley Street?
My friends, God is continually making all things new. Especially us. Because with every visitor who walks through these doors, with every new stranger who enters our life, we are no longer the same community we once were. And maybe God is up to something new that we can’t see yet.
And who are we to hinder God?