I had one of those frustrating weeks. I had the sermon subject earlier in the week, but no illustrations ever came. I had considered, given the lack of illustrations, that maybe I should preach on love in our Gospel lesson, but God seemed to be giving me a hard “no.” I was boring myself with that one, and I’m the only one among us who has done master’s and doctoral work on the subject of love, so I knew what it would do to you all. I even gave some thought to Revelation and the new creation, but I was boring myself with my internal sermons. So, I ended up sticking to a lecture on Acts.
I should say that I do share the process sometimes for a couple reasons. First, sermons should be the part of our worship where we are educated, built up, and prepared intellectually and emotionally to head back out into the world to do the work God has given each of us to do. It is the job of any good preacher to remind us how the selections read from the Bible are applied today. That’s why I hate it when I have no modern illustrations. The other reason, of course, is for those in the congregation who need to hear from God in another passage. I think people in the pews tend to think sermon preparation is focused only on one reading, and that is the Gospel passage. Granted, more time is devoted to the reading that ends up being selected for the sermon, but most of us, check that—let’s say better preachers-- spend time at the beginning of the week reading, praying, and studying the other readings. If I admit my wrestlings, I find that folks will sometimes come in later that week or the next to talk about a reading and how they think it applies to their life. The working out of our salvation may take place in community, but there is an individual aspect to it as well, right?
To remind us where we are in Acts, there are a couple things of which we need to be reminded. First, the stories in Acts, traditionally held, were collected and edited by Luke. Luke had the advantage of being able to witness some of the events described or to get the perspective from the participants in the story. In some ways, the book of Acts is the book of the Holy Spirit. The Gospels share the ministries and teachings of Jesus, and the book of Acts recounts the results of His Resurrection. How did the Church come to be? What were some of the early difficulties? Who were the main players the Holy Spirit was blessing? Those questions, and many others, are answered in the book of Acts.
Our reading today takes place at an interesting point in the history of the Church. The Jewish believers are struggling what to make of Gentiles claiming to be followers of the Way, disciples of Jesus, too. Word has come to them in Jerusalem that some Gentiles in Joppa have become what you and I call Christians. They send Peter to check out the situation and report back. Tabitha/Dorcas has been raised, and Peter has had a vision from Jesus. More amazingly from Peter’s perspective, some men were sent to him in Joppa from Caesarea in obedience to the commands of an angel. Since the Holy Spirit compelled him, Peter went to Caesarea. There he was told that an angel had commanded the patriarch to send for Peter so that Peter can give him a message by which he and his family can be saved. Peter begins to preach the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit falls on all those present.
What should be a glorious time, though, is, instead, an occasion for accusation. The remaining apostles, the saintly superheroes of the Church, are furious with Peter. He has eaten meals with non-circumcised Gentiles. He seems to have accepted them as full members of the Church. What about circumcision? What about defilement? We can hear the conversations in our own minds. Peter, have you lost your mind? Peter, have you taken leave of your sense? Peter, we trusted you to check on this for us and restore order, and you seem to be fostering chaos! That’s where we are when our story picks up.
Peter gives his testimony in an interesting way. He explains that while he was in Joppa praying, he was given a vision. The vision is fairly well known in both Christian and non-Christian circles, though its meaning and significance are often obscured. This is the vision where Peter is taught the meaning of the dietary laws. I’ll not bore you with all the details, but most of us gathered here today understand that the torah was given for more than one reason. We often assume, wrongly, that the torah was solely concerned with moral categories, questions of good and evil. Setting aside for a moment the moral category of “if God commands it, then we should do it” and the corollary “If God says don’t, we should not,” the torah also was an instruction manual teaching God’s people how to stand out and how to attract others. Remember from Lent, the torah was given to a redeemed people who wanted God to teach them how to live in communion with Him.
The easiest example would be the sabbath day, sabbath year, and the fiftieth year celebration. Thinking economically for just a moment, how would folks in the ANE have perceived God’s people taking a day off every week to celebrate His redemption and still having what was needed to live? Heck, who are we kidding, how would the modern world perceive this if God still asked this of us? Over time, it would stand out, right? In the beginning it might seem foolish or quirky, but as the standard of living for the faithful observer stayed the same, people would begin to notice. Fred never works on Sunday’s, but he always has enough to eat, for the home he lives in, and to get the necessities. Susie always seems to have what she needs, and she takes a complete day off. Now, imagine taking every seventh year off. If we were God’s faithful people and were able to spend every seventh year in leisure and thanking God, do you think the wider world would eventually notice? Better still, every 49th year, we’d take two years off? In a world that values productivity, what would be the testimony of such faithful observance? How many people would be drawn to the worship of God? How many people would be encouraged to trust that He can provide, even daily bread, for two full years?
The only modern example I can give is that of Chick-fil-A. When I was a broker and Branch Manager I used to chuckle at the efforts by Wall Street to convince its now dead founder, Truett, to open on Sundays. Truett would have none of it. Sunday was a day for worship or spending time with family or just relaxing. Analysts noticed how the productivity of Chick-fil-A restaurants were higher than other comparable restaurants. They would argue that his intractability regarding Sunday’s was costing his company however many millions of dollars. The CEO, to his credit, taught the analysts that his chain’s productivity was higher versus the peer group precisely because they observed the sabbath. He claimed the planned day of rest and worship and time with family caused even his non-Christian employees to be happier, to provide better service, and to be more attuned to what was going on around them. That is part of the reason why Chick-fil-A has never gone public. Truett was not about to give Wall Street control over the way he ran his business.
The Jews were commanded to be set apart, distinct, in every part of their life. Many of us know that their diet was another area in which they were distinct and set apart. You all know the food had to be prepared properly. It is called kosher. Certain things could be eaten and certain things could not. Some animals were clean and others were unclean. Part of the problem for Peter is that he associated clean and unclean with good and evil. We understand why. Defilement meant one had to be purified in order to worship at the Temple or synagogue. Though we understand the why, it does not make it right. And Jesus needs to correct this for Peter. And, even though Peter knows his Lord’s voice, God still needs to explain it three times to get through Peter’s thick-headedness yet again.
God takes Peter and us back to Genesis and creation. Was there anything inherently evil with the animals that God created that He later declared unclean? No! They were all good. They each had a role in the earth He created. Eating bacon did not make a Jew evil; sin made a Jew evil, just as it made us evil before our repentance. But there is more for Peter to share, and it’s those other areas upon which I want us to focus today and how they apply to our lives today.
First and foremost, there is a myth out there in the wider Church that baptism in the Holy Spirit produces spiritual maturity. You and I live in a ground zero location for those fights in Christianity. In fact, some Adventers are refugees from those fights. There are denominations around us, with strong Pentecostal influence, who claim that a baptism in the Holy Spirit is necessary for one to gain spiritual maturity and assurance of God’s favor after death. In fact, there is a bit of a look down on other Christians who have not had the identical experience. Putting aside for the moment the fact that our Lord’s command was that His disciples baptize others in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and not to wait for baptisms in the Holy Spirit, this passage serves as an easy rejoinder that God will do what God is going to do and that such baptisms in the Holy Spirit do not equal spiritual maturity. How so?
First, it is the Apostles, the saints of the early Church, who confront Peter. Those men spent three years traveling with Jesus, learning from Jesus, exercising power in Jesus’ name, witnessed His death, met and conversed with Jesus after His Resurrection, watched His Ascension, received the commands of the angels to wait on the Holy Spirit, and experienced the coming of the promised Counselor in the event we call Pentecost, and what is their response to the rumors that Gentiles were proclaiming Jesus as Lord? Worse, what is their response to Peter’s willingness to fellowship with Gentile believers, as if they never watched Jesus fellowship with Gentile or Jewish non-believers in all that time with Him? They were the initial recipients of the Holy Spirit baptism and they are acting like anything other than someone spiritual mature.
The other side of that discussion relates to Cornelius’ conversion. The Holy Spirit moves where the Holy Spirit wills. None of us sitting here today would likely think to claim that Cornelius and his household were on par with the early disciples, spiritually speaking. Yet Peter recognizes that they received the same gift during his brief teaching that the earliest believers and disciples received at the event on Pentecost. Peter, who is so slow to grasp so many other teachings sees and obeys. And, just as a reminder, he points out in his defense that six other men witnessed this event, too. They can testify to this event in Cornelius’ house. This is double or triple the requirement for being accepted as true in the Jewish courts as established by Deuteronomy. Even the most conservative Jewish Christians will be forced to accept this testimony.
You and I, of course, by virtue of a lot of struggles about which we read in Acts and later Church annals, understand this differently. I have somewhat jokingly referred to the Apostles as the early saints or the super heroes of our faith, because that is how we often view them. But God reminds us in Scriptures that all the heroes we admire in the Scriptures were human beings. All human beings, even us, can become saints through faithful obedience to God. You know this through the expression “the priesthood of all believers.” God wants you and me to be saints in the lives of others—we are supposed to be lights in our generation or vessels of His grace in the world around us, right?
The second lesson to which I think God wants me to draw your attention today is the centrality of the Gospel. The angel commands the man to send for Peter in Joppa so that Peter will give him and his household a message by which he and they will be saved. What is Peter’s message? The Gospel. One can well imagine an early version of the creeds of the Church. Peter explained that Jesus was the Son of God, who became flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit, taught and healed in God’s name, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again! After some other events, He ascended into heaven. What is the response of the household? They hear and believe and receive the power of the Holy Spirit. Put differently, the baptism is nice, but the event that triggers all of it is the Gospel! Peter shares the Gospel. They believe. They are anointed by the Holy Spirit.
I know we live in a culture, even here in the Christian South and in Nashville, which buys into the myths of pluralism. Heck, we are Episcopalians and known more for our drinking and our disregard of the Scriptures and whatever else God has revealed to us as evidenced yet again this week by our skewering on the satirical site Babylon Bee. The Gospel makes us uncomfortable. If it is true, then pluralism is false. If, as our Collect today proclaims that Christ Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, then all other claims are deadend’s, lies, and death. But we are in the season of Easter. For these seven weeks we intentionally remind ourselves of the truth of the Resurrection and, just as significantly, of its importance. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then His teachings are true. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then He has a unique and superseding claim not just on our own lives, but on the lives of everyone in the world! And He has entrusted us, and empowered us, to be His witnesses! Yes, we are called to a joyful and thanksgiving witness. We do not want to be jerks or a-holes, but we also cannot let those whom we are called to learn continue you along their paths by withholding the Gospel from them. To use the image of one of the early fathers in the Church, we withhold the directions to an oasis in the desert every time we shrink back from testifying to others the Gospel of Christ. So the Gospel must always be central to our lives. It must always be in our focus.
The third point I think God had in mind for me to share with you on this passage today is that we do not get to decide who is in and who is out in God’s kingdom. I have had a small number of Adventers argue with me the past few years that we exclude on the basis of race around here. I have pushed back, and in so doing incurred the wrath of others, with the belief that we are great at welcoming folks who are like us regardless of color or culture or upbringing. The homogeneity that exists at Advent is one of socio-economics and maybe education rather than race. As I have read more of our parish history, I am more and more surprised that such is our response. Our parish forebears help convince the Church that pew taxes were unjust. Our parish forebears helped convince our Episcopal church that God intended for blacks to be part of the Church, and not a separate denomination. It was our parish forebears who made sure the freed slaves would consider worshipping in our tradition by helping in the effort to build parishes for them and to make sure other freed slaves could be trained to lead them. I get that it was not the way things should be today nor the way God intended—after all, He desired One Church for all believers, but I am mindful our parish forebears lived in a different time and different context and that they, themselves, we impacted by sin. Were you a freed slave, could you really worship with your former master? Were you a former master, could you give thanks to God for the newfound deliverance of your slaves? Could any of them really see God’s redemption in the Civil War that had just concluded?
The real pushback against ministries around here have involved the fear of the “what if” results. What if those women and men you free decide to come to church here? What if those immigrants and refugees decide to come to church here? What if those people we serve through Body & Soul or Good Neighbors or whatever other ministry decide to come to church here? I have news for us. They won’t. So long as we treat them as “other” or as projects or as “feel good” works and not as human beings created in the image of our Father in heaven, they will choose to go elsewhere. I have more disturbing news for some of us today, though, were God not in charge of this effort we call salvation history, you and I would not be here 2000 years later and 6000 miles distant giving thanks to Him for the work He has accomplished in us through His Son Christ our Lord! Nearly all of us gathered here this morning are of Gentile descent; nearly all of us present had no tie to His chosen people. Had the Apostles in Jerusalem had their way, Had Peter not paid close attention to Jesus’ voice and message in the vision and not discerned what was happening in Cornelius’ household, we would be outside the covenant of God! That we are here, that we are celebrating His grace and salvation and redemptive work in our lives, I would argue, is not only a wonderful proof of the likely truth of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, but of the power of the Holy Spirit to nudge and cajole God’s people in the direction God would have His people go!
Now, I know I have more lectured than sermonized this morning, at least according to my preferred ways. For that I am sorry. The few that came to 8am because they would not be attending the celebration picnic this afternoon picnic offered some suggestions. As one present suggested, though, if it is from God, we will still get what we need. After all, somebody preached this morning that God will do what God will do! But brothers and sisters, partners in the spread of the love of God and fellow inviters to the Marriage Feast, to you and I has been given the most wonderful and heaviest responsibility in the world. You and I have been tasked by the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen, with the sharing of His Gospel. Us. Unremarkable and full of faults us. No doubt, were you and I honest with ourselves and one another we would all think ourselves unworthy or ill-equipped or ill-suited to such a grand task. And we would be correct. Yet God Himself tasks us and promises to equip us. And here we are. We are gathered 2000 years later, 6000 miles distant, from the account we read this morning, giving thanks to God for His work in us through Christ our Lord! His crazy marketing campaign has survived Rome and countless other local oppressors and persecutors. It has crossed a great ocean. It has crossed however many ethnic and cultural boundaries to reach each one of us. It has even survived death! And in a place where people are free, we gather to celebrate that He would stoop to choose us, that He would choose not just to save us, but to use us, each one of us, in His effort to reach the world! I pray, that we who are so tasked, will be made worthy of such honor and wisdom by His grace and to His glory!
In Christ’s Peace,