Sunday, April 24th, 2016 – Sermon on Acts 11:1-18

 

You can listen to this sermon here.

First Reading
Acts 11:1-18

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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?

Amen

[1] http://robbellcom.tumblr.com/post/75816851336/what-is-the-bible-part-42-sheeeeeeeet

[2] Kyle Fever, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1617

Advertisements

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016 – Sermon on Doubting Thomas and John 20:19-31

You can listen to this sermon here.

John 20:19-31
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the religious authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.

This past Sunday, Easter Sunday, I had the joy of speaking with one of our long time members, Bobbie Maakestad, and meeting some of her family at the same time. And then as part of our conversation, she asked what the gospel was for the next Sunday, for today. I told her it was the story of good ol’ doubting Thomas and, without hesitation, she grimaced and said, “Ugh. Already?!”

And I laughed because it was just such an honest and unfiltered reaction. Because there is this emotional whiplash that happens in going from Easter Sunday to Doubting Thomas. We start out proclaiming that Christ is risen, but it isn’t long before Thomas whispers in our ears…”Are you sure?” But here’s the thing: this story is always the gospel the week after Easter. It doesn’t matter what lectionary year you are in, year after year, Doubting Thomas is always the gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter. And notice on the cover of your bulletin the title for this Sunday. The Second Sunday of Easter. This isn’t the second Sunday after Easter or Second Sunday in Easter. This is the second Sunday of Easter. Easter is not just a day. It is a season of 50 days in the church calendar. And the fact that Doubting Thomas is always a part of this season tells me that doubt is always part of resurrection. It is not excluded from the Easter season, it is actually built right in. Which is good news for us doubters who claim Thomas as our patron saint.

And in fact, as Pastor Pam said last week, maybe that’s a more honest reading of the Easter story. That it wasn’t immediately loud and joyful and celebratory. But maybe things were a little softer, a little more uncertain. Christ is Risen!….Are you sure? Thomas whispers.

But before we dive into Thomas, let’s step back and get a sense of the context. So, the first verse said it was evening on that first Easter day. And that little detail that it was evening is not just to tell us the time of day. It sets the spiritual scene – yes, it was dark outside, but it was also dark inside. The disciples are living in darkness. Not yet believing or understanding what has happened. Jesus has just died and been locked in a tomb. And now they have retreated to a room, closed the doors and locked themselves in – essentially rolling a stone in front of their own tomb. So yes, it was evening – it was dark outside and in. Their hearts may have been beating but their spirits were dead in fear. Because their faith and their hope died on that cross with Jesus.

And then, Jesus, who has just broken out of his tomb, enters into theirs. Jesus, the light of the world, enters into their darkness. Jesus, who had every right to chase them down and punish them for abandoning and betraying him, instead enters and offers grace – “Peace be with you.”

Huddle together in the darkness, the disciples were dead in their fear and then a light shines into their darkness and their darkness did not overcome it.

And then he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He resurrects their purpose for this life. He reminds them that they are the Easter Hope. That Jesus is sending them out into the world to love one another as he has loved them.

And then. And then did you catch the strange but beautiful thing he does next. He breathes on them. Actually the Greek says he breathes into them. And it is the same word used in Genesis 2 when God sinks God’s hands into the dirt to create the human and God breathes into it the breath of life.

Do you see what’s happening here? This is divine CPR right before our eyes. He is breathing life back into them. Jesus is raising the disciples from the dead and breaking them out of their tombs of fear, making them into a new creation with a purpose for this life. To love one another as he has loved us. And sometimes just getting a little purpose back in your life can feel like being raised from the dead.

But then we get that one line: But Thomas was not with them.

That is one of the saddest lines of scripture, I think. There is nothing quite like being left out, is there? And your friends can try and tell you what it was like, to give you a taste of the experience – Thomas, we have seen the Lord! – but it just isn’t the same.

And then it happens. Thomas dares greatly, offering up his fear and his doubt…

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

So now, not only did Thomas miss the Jesus-sighting, but he’s confessed that he doesn’t believe what his friends believe. Physically, he was outside of the room. Away from the group. And now spiritually, he’s outside the group.

But now listen to the very next verse – A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.

And Thomas was with them.

I think that is one of the most grace-filled verses in all of Scripture. Here Thomas has said to them, “I do not believe what you’ve told me.” Even though he will not subscribe to the same belief as his friends, no one slammed the door in his face. Thomas was still with them. Take note: the first group of followers continued to be together despite their difference in belief. And that should speak to us all. That we can live together while not agreeing on everything.

What Thomas didn’t get, and perhaps what John is trying to teach us, is that belief has nothing to do with what you think your head. Confessing the right things, believing in the right doctrines, or saying the right words is not what it means to believe in this gospel.

Believing in this gospel is about relationship. It is not knowing all the answers or never questioning or doubting. It is simply about being in relationship with Jesus. It is about trusting that God has not abandoned you.

And the disciples showed this to Thomas when they did not leave him, even though he could not believe in the resurrection.

Thomas’ confession of his doubt did not drive them apart, it is actually what brought them together.

And then it is in that context, of the group welcoming and keeping Thomas in the fold, that Jesus shows up again. It is only when we are welcomed with our doubts, and when we welcome those with doubts, that any of us might have a chance at encountering Jesus.

Then notice that upo seeing the risen Christ, notice Thomas’ new confession. He doesn’t say, “Now I believe!” He says, “My Lord and my God.” My Lord and my God.

He confesses the relationship. He believes in the relationship.

I can remember in 2008, while I was at seminary, I experienced my worst Easter to date. I was playing trumpet at a church service, and everyone came into the church shouting, “Alleulia, Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!” There were the banners with bells on them, the brass instruments, the Easter lilies. And for me, that voice of Thomas started to creep in. Are you sure? Do I believe this stuff? But then to make matters worse, the sermon that Easter Sunday was all about if you don’t believe in the resurrection, if you don’t believe Jesus’ literal body was raised from the dead, then you’re not a Christian. Then you have no faith at all. And as a person who was already doubting, it was the final blow. I left that Easter service with a crushed faith, not a resurrected one.

This preacher used the resurrection to create death instead of life. He used it to drive people away from each other, to say who was in and who was out.

The very next day, I found myself confessing my Easter Sunday story to Jackie Jacobsen, 82-year-old woman, to whom I was making a Pastoral Care visit. May she rest in peace. And it was in that moment, when I was to be the one offering pastoral care, that I became the recipient of it. Hearing me, she says, “So you just weren’t feeling it, were you? Isn’t that how it goes sometimes though? We all experience that doubt – those moments of great questioning. I am 82-years-old. Trust me, they don’t go away and all one can do is hope.” Finally, in that moment, for me – resurrection. Through that relationship, she became the presence of the risen Christ, breaking into the locked room of my heart and spoke peace to me.

Friends, believing is not about convincing our brains of things that are quite unbelievable. It is about trusting in the relationship that God has with you. A relationship that God will never give up on.

Therefore, believing, having faith, is not something we do on our own, but it is something we do together. Something that we carry for each other, when the other cannot carry it themselves. Just as the disciples did for Thomas. And as Jackie did for me. For those of you who feel like your faith is strong. It is a vibrant and active faith – know that you carry the faith for the rest of us. And for those of you who struggle to believe, those of you who struggle to put your trusting in this gracious God – know that we will carry the faith for you.

I know that some of you have heard me say similar things before, but I say it again because just this week, I had three instances where people thought that their questions and their doubts meant they had a weak faith, when in fact, I think it means they have an active faith. So this morning, I want to give permission for us to welcome and honor the doubting Thomas within us all. Because remember it is only when we are welcomed with our doubts, and when welcome those with doubts, that we all might have a chance at encountering Jesus. In your pews, you’ll find index cards. Each of you are invited to anonymously write down your doubts, your questions, your fears when it comes to faith. What are the hurdles you have to climb over sometimes when it comes to your faith life? Maybe you go quiet during certain lines of the creed. Maybe prayer feels cold and alien to you. Or maybe you just aren’t even certain that God exists. Whatever it is, write it down. And then when you come up for communion, I invite you to drop it in this basket as an offering to God. What I hope you’ll see is that whatever you drop into this basket, what ever question or doubt you have with God, the very next thing to happen will be a piece of bread placed into your hand, welcoming you to the feast. An offering of the body of Christ that was broken for you. Showing you that you belong here.

That your doubts, your questions, your fears – they don’t exclude you from this community. And they certainly can’t keep out Christ from being present in your life.

So let’s be quiet for a couple of minutes, to be honest with ourselves and with God. Amen.