Sixth Sunday of Easter B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
1 John 5:1-6
I tend to be a person that likes boundaries, and likes obeying them.
I’m told that when I was a kid, my mom could set out a blanket with toys, plop me down in the middle, walk away, and I’d never leave the blanket. That was the boundary, and it didn’t occur to me to cross that boundary.
I was also the kid who always volunteered to be the umpire or the ref when we’d play sports in school. One reason is because I was bad at sports, but another was because I liked the rules, and liked following them, so it was only natural that I’d try to make everybody else follow them.
Given that bit of my history, I can imagine what side I’d be on in our story from the Acts of the Apostles. I’m a little disappointed—the lectionary reading this morning is just a short snippet of the entire story. Granted, it is the most important part, and the climax of this particular chapter of the story, but there’s so much.
The main character is Peter. Peter, who up until Pentecost is one of the worst disciples, one who doesn’t get it and is always screwing up. And at the beginning of our story, God shows him that he still hasn’t figured it all out.
It all starts with a dream. Peter has a dream that something like a sheet comes down from heaven, and on it is every kind of animal, both clean and unclean. And he hears a voice from heaven that commands him, “Eat!”
Now Peter, being the good, devout Judean that he is, recognizes that there are unclean animals, animals he’s not allowed to eat, in front of him. Naturally, following the rules, he declines. Again, he’s told, “Eat!” And again, he declines. Finally, after a third time, the voice tells him, “What God has declared clean, you must not declare unclean,” and the sheet is lifted back up into heaven.
Meanwhile, slaves sent from a Roman man, Cornelius, a Gentile, but a Gentile who fears God and tries to do right, arrive and ask Peter to come with them—for God has given a message to Cornelius to seek out Peter. Peter, because of his vision, decides to take in these Gentile slaves, eats with them (a big no-no), and the next day, goes to Cornelius’s house to speak with him. And while he gives a speech, the speech we heard last week, we get to this part in our story.
Suddenly, the Holy Spirit descends on the people listening—Peter isn’t even done speaking yet, that’s how impatient the Holy Spirit is to do this–, and they start to speak in tongues, and prophesy, and display all the characteristics of someone who’s been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
These Gentiles, people outside the covenant with God, these people whom Peter shouldn’t’ even be consorting with, receive God’s grace and power.
As a Judean, these Gentiles are squarely in the unclean camp. They aren’t circumcised, they aren’t part of the Judean people, they aren’t a part of the covenant with God. If Peter was going to follow the rules, as I would have preferred, he shouldn’t even be there, let alone be eating with them and teaching them. The wall between Judean and Gentile was high and long, meant never to be broken down.
I wonder what it’s like for us to be confronted by a situation like this, and I wonder what choices are in front of us. Peter wasn’t the only one who lived behind strict boundaries. The church of today is surrounded by many walls besides those that support its roofs.
One of the popular phrases in the church these days is, “All Are Welcome”. There’s even a great hymn about it in our hymnal. As a way to draw people in, churches everywhere shout, “All are welcome here!” But, what they really mean is, “All are welcome if you’re willing to act like us.”
I’m not talking about the major things—all are welcome if they come to worship God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
But I’m talking about things like,
“All are welcome in this building if they can get here on their own.”
“All are welcome in worship if they can sit quietly for an hour.”
“All are welcome to the table if they have passed an arbitrary age we decided on.”
“All are welcome to join the church if they’re willing to join a committee.”
“All are welcome to be a part of this community if they’re willing to become members, increasing our official number.”
“All are welcome if they go through a period of instruction and Confirmation.”
“All are welcome, if they leave themselves behind and do things the way we do them without question.”
“All are welcome if they look and act like us.”
It’s easy to look down on Peter for not recognizing that the Gentiles are worthy of God’s grace and forgiveness, or are even able to receive the Holy Spirit. They were outside his definition of the in-crowd, outside his walls, and as every Christian knows, what happens outside the walls is none of our concern, right? Inside the walls is where God is present, and if you want to be inside the walls, you better make yourself just like the in-crowd. So while it’s easy to look down on Peter for his narrow-mindedness, it’s difficult to look down on him, because we’re just like him.
What I love about this morning’s story, though, is that God doesn’t care about Peter’s narrow-mindedness. God doesn’t care that Peter has been taught all his life that he is the in-crowd, God’s chosen, and those outside the Judean culture are not.
“What God has made clean you must not call unclean,” Peter is told, and is then thrust, pushed into a position where he must interact with this Gentile group. And while he’s still speaking to them, before he can even finish, the Holy Spirit bursts into the room.
The Holy Spirit’s a bit rude, actually. At least if the Holy Spirit had waited until Peter was finished, it would be clear that it was Peter’s words and Peter’s actions that brought salvation to these Gentiles.
But it’s not because of Peter’s preaching. The Holy Spirit comes anyway, interrupting Peter and demonstrating God’s willingness—no, God’s demand, that these walls come down. There’s nothing Peter can do to stop it.
Peter does have a choice, though. Peter can choose how he reacts to this interruption by God, this breaking down of walls, this slap in the face to everything Peter knew to be right and proper and the way things were always done. And Peter chooses to accept it.
He looks around, he sees God’s revolutionary act, and says, “God is already here with these people—is anything to stop them from being baptized? No.”
God continues to interrupt our understanding of the way things are and the way they should be. God always challenges our notion of the in-crowd and who that includes
When we say, “Visitors Welcome” on our sign, God sends true visitors, people unfamiliar with Lutherans or Christianity, and dares us to welcome them as one of our own.
When we say, “You have to be this old to be a real Christian,” God sends the Holy Spirit to work fully through the faith of children in ways that put us to shame. If you ever doubt that, I remind of Holy Week, when it was our children who led us into the sanctuary on Palm Sunday waving their palms high and singing in loud voices; and it was our children who got down on the floor with me to wash feet in an act of service, love, and charity.
When we say, “This is how we’ve always done things,” God looks us right in the eye and says, “You know that isn’t true—the church existed long before you, and it will exist long after you.”
Which is, truly, good news. The Holy Spirit didn’t wait for Peter to give his blessing to the new Gentile converts—if that was the case, we might still be waiting. God calls and uses us, but God is not afraid to act in spite of us. The faith does not rest on our shoulders for us to support and share—it rests on God’s shoulders, and we are caught in the midst of it.
We are here today because God broke down the walls that would keep us out. We are a stubborn people, like Peter. And when human stubbornness is confronted by the rude, impatient Spirit of God, well… there’s not a wall or fence or boundary or limit that can stand.