Hancock Church Sermon – Rev. Paul Shupe - April 28, 2013 - Acts 11:1-18
April 28, 2013
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Listen, as Peter and the early church wrestle with a question concerning membership in the early community: can Gentiles be included as well as Jews? Peter is given a vision that opens the doors to an open church.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘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. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 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. 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; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 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.” 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?’ 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.’
“OPEN AND AFFIRMING”
I have always thought that it surprised them. The disciples of Jesus, Peter and James and Mary and the rest, were all Jews, as was Jesus himself. Even though Jesus had led them many times into Gentile territory, and even though he had even told a story in which one of the hated Samaritans figured as the hero, I still think that they were surprised when, in the days after the resurrection, Gentiles started responding to the Good News that they had to share. I think that they had just assumed that it would be their fellow Jews who were interested, who would consider the possibility that the rabbi Jesus of Nazareth had actually been raised up from the dead, demonstrating that he was in fact the long-awaited Messiah.
But suddenly, here were these people, not even Jews, responding in faith to the witness that the disciples were offering. They were discovering that in order to believe that the Messiah had come, you didn’t even need a long family history of waiting and wishing that he would. It was enough, they were discovering, simply to be alive and living in the Roman Empire. To desire a new life, one liberated from the fear of death, and slavery to guilt and loss, one didn’t need to be Jewish. You only needed to be paying attention to the world as the Romans had organized it, and in a world in which death could be dealt to anyone not a Roman citizen simply on the whim of such a citizen, well, the story of a dying savior, resurrected into a glorious new life, well, it was proving quite a popular sell.
But it posed a problem for Peter and the others. They’d been faithful Jews. They’d followed the law faithfully. The men had been circumcised; they’d all kept kosher kitchens and the Sabbath, and had done what God had asked of them. Could it be, they had to wonder, that God was opening up a way to new life for people other than those God had manifestly chosen? Could Gentiles become faithful disciples of rabbi Jesus?
If they had decided no, then Christianity would never have become other than a sect within Judaism. If they had decided no, then to become a follow of Jesus one would first have to follow Moses: circumcision, keeping kosher, following the entirety of the law before being baptized and set free from that law. It didn’t make much sense: requiring people to first become obedient to the law in order to set them free of it. Well, according to Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, it wasn’t logic like this, however compelling, that caused them to open their community to the Gentiles. Peter had a dream, Luke tells us, in which he saw all the animals that God had made, including those that they law forbids them to eat. And God had commended Peter to eat. Rocked to his core, Peter said no; he’d always kept kosher. He would always keep kosher. But then, in the dream, Peter heard God open new possibilities: don’t call profane anything that I have declared to be clean. And Peter ate, and the Christian movement opened itself to the world.
This is, I submit, the first instance of the church declaring itself open and affirming. Open to others, and affirming of their experience. Open to those who were different, affirming that God could be working wonders in and through them. Open to the leadership of the Spirit, affirming that God will do what God will do, and we ought never to be certain that God is not doing a new thing right here, right now. This story, this decision, set a posture, established a possibility that the church must always strive to be faithful to. This story, this decision, marks the church as belonging to God, who can and does guide it, even in new and surprising directions.
To be open, to be affirming, is how, I believe, the church is always called to be in the world. We’re tempted always by lesser visions. We’re tempted to draw the boundary lines, circle the wagons and say that all truth, for once and for all, has been laid down, marked out, and our proper response is just to hunker down and believe it. We’re tempted by this vision of the church safely protected within rigid walls, because it seems to promise safety and security. The problem with this practice of circling the wagons is that it’s counter to all the stories we read in Acts, and that it’s counter to our own experience of God, which is always growing and changing, always challenging us to learn new things and to accept new people.
Thirteen days ago, a frightful act of violence was committed against innocent people, our neighbors. Because the perpetrators where and are Muslim, we are already hearing the voices condemning all who are Muslims. These voices argue that the faith of Islam cannot be of God, because it justifies violence. These voices that would condemn more than a billion people are the voices that would have us circle the wagons. All truth is ours, they say, these others are not of God.
We, whom God has taught through Jesus and through his faithful disciples to be open and affirming, we must in this hour be true to what we believe God is revealing to us. We must be open, open to the actual experience of Islam as it is practiced by neighbors and fellow citizens who could just as easily have been at the finish line of the race as we could have been. And these fellow human beings are saying to us clearly that those who place bombs did not practice Islam. They worshiped not God but violence. They practiced not a faith, but a false ideology that replaces faith with a blind rage that cannot be of God. This is what our Muslim friends are saying to one another and to the world. And we must be open to hearing them, open to learning about their faith as they understand it.
Many of you who are here this morning know Dan Smith. Dan is now the Senior Minister of the First Church in Cambridge, but he learned much about ministry right here, at Hancock Church where he was first a seminarian and then our Associate Minister. Since his call to First Church in Cambridge, Dan has been a leader in the interfaith community of greater Boston. For years he has cultivated through careful dialogue and trusting mutual prayer and actions, deep and collegial relationships with leaders in the Muslim community. Standing with the Imams, and the rabbis and the priests and the ministers, Dan has devoted himself to interfaith witness against poverty and violence. He would be angry with me for speaking so truthfully about him this morning. He would downplay his role, and say that he has been only a bit player. But Dan and his interfaith colleagues have shown the city and the world that interfaith objection to violence is possible when we are open to the experience of others, and affirming of the possibility that God is bigger than any of us, more than all of us together.
This past week I sat with Dan, and felt the weight of the pain he is feeling for his Muslim colleagues, and indeed for his colleagues of all faiths, for the voices that condemn an entire faith for the actions of its worst heretics, these voices are hurtful.
And I, who have for these four years in Lexington, sat with, talked with, prayed with, gardened with, colleagues from every part of Christianity, colleagues from the Jewish Community, the Muslim community, the Hindu community, the Unitarian/Universalist community, I too am in anguish, because the failure to be open and to be affirming, leads only to more mistrust, more violence, more hatred. There is nothing essential to our faith that requires us to condemn the faith those who do not believe as we do. There is nothing essential to our Christian faith that permits us to be suspicious of an entire category of people based on the hatred of its worst devotees. Indeed, there is much that is essential to our Christian faith that requires us to turn our faces, our open, vulnerable faces to others, and to look for, and to see the face of God in them. And there is much that is essential to our Christian faith that calls us to affirm the possibility that even in our different beliefs and practices, the great God who made us is served by all.
This afternoon will be a lovely spring afternoon in Massachusetts. The world will call to us, to be out, to work in the yard, to watch the Sox, to romp with our children in the newly green grass. But also this afternoon something truly wonderful is happening, an event that, I submit, is part of the answer to the question of what we must do in this post-marathon bombing world, if we are to overcome the violence to which we are tempted. This afternoon, all afternoon, the doors of all the faith communities of Lexington will be open, literally open, so that any may come in, look around, hear a bit of history, see where others worship God, meet face to face persons who practice other faiths. But the doors are also open, symbolically open, showing the world that no faith that is of God need ever be afraid of other faiths, and that all that is sacred, peaceful, good and holy, can be, and is affirmed by people of good will in all faiths. This afternoon, in this way, simultaneously with sisters and brothers in other churches and synagogues and worship centers, Hancock Church shows itself to be open and affirming, a home for the living God. Let it be a sign of healing for those wounded by bombs and by words and prejudice. And let it be a bold witness to those voices of judgment that another way is possible for those willing to be open, and affirming of all that God has made. Amen.