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Sun, May 19, 2019
Duration:18 mins 50 secs
“No Distinction” Sermon on Acts 11:1-18 5th Sunday of Easter, Year C As I was reading our text for today, I remembered words from one of the books I used to read with my children: “I will not eat them in a boat, I will not eat them with a goat, I will not eat them here or there, I will not eat them anywhere…I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.” You probably recognize this snippet from “Green Eggs and Ham,” Dr. Seuss’s comical poem about a refusal to eat an unfamiliar dish. Peter’s refusal to eat the foods lowered down to him on a kind of heavenly picnic blanket may strike us as faintly comic as well. But for Peter and the people he told about this strange vision, it was no laughing matter. This episode is, in fact, a pivotal event in the history of the church, an event that would finally determine its identity and character. One clue to the importance of this story is its length: the author we now recognize as Luke devotes almost two chapters to it. It involves a trance, two visions, the Spirit and an angel: clearly, something is going on that is breaking new ground in the history of the people of God. For Peter, the vision is disturbing. His aversion to the animals on the sheet goes way beyond the “yuck” factor that most of us would associate with eating geckos, buzzards, and mice. The unclean animals would have also included shrimp, pigs, and rabbits, foods that most people around the world find quite tasty. The sheet full of creatures was an affront to Peter’s piety, not his taste buds, for it was God who had told the people of Israel to make a distinction between “clean” and “unclean” animals. The distinctions were spelled out quite clearly in Leviticus (11:2-28) and Deuteronomy (14:3-20). Making these distinctions was what had held them together as a people through the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile in Babylon, and all the pressures under the Roman occupation to assimilate to the pagan world. So the command to “kill and eat” was not just a challenge to some arbitrary man-made boundaries – these were boundaries that everyone understood had been set by God. The core beliefs that had shaped Peter’s life since earliest childhood were being challenged. How could God simply overturn the clear commandments of the Scriptures? So it took a trance, two visions, angels and the Holy Spirit to lead Peter to a new way of thinking. Here is how it happened: One day a Roman centurion named Cornelius, a Gentile who worshiped the God of Israel, had a vision in which an angel told him to send some of his men to Joppa to find Peter. The next day Peter, while waiting for his lunch to be prepared, fell into a trance and had the vision we just heard described. As the vision faded and he sat there wondering what to make of it, Cornelius’s three men showed up and asked Peter to go with them to Cornelius’s house. Peter was in for a shock, because Cornelius had invited all his relatives – so Peter not only had to enter a Gentile’s house but had to fraternize with this Gentile’s whole family. By this time, Peter is beginning to catch on that his vision was not about food but about people. He says to Cornelius’s family, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28). Peter then tells this household the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection, and about the forgiveness of sins available to anyone who believes in him. Then, astoundingly, before he can even finish speaking, the Holy Spirit falls on everyone there, so there is nothing else for Peter to do but to baptize every last one of them. After this Peter had a lot of explaining to do when he got back to Jerusalem, so he told the church there all about his vision and the ensuing events and the conclusion he had drawn from the whole bewildering episode: “The Spirit told me …not to make a distinction between them and us….and who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter made his case; at the end of his story, his critics were silenced. Finally they all agreed: “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” It is hard for us to appreciate how world-shattering this realization was. It was a recognition of a brand new chapter in God’s relationship to humanity. In Jesus Christ, God had broken open the ancient covenant with Israel, “the people closest to God’s heart” (Ps. 148), so the Gentiles, pagan, unclean people, could come in, too. God was opening the borders for the outsiders to come in. The Spirit told Peter “not to make a distinction” between the Jews and the Gentiles. Twenty centuries later, Christians take the designation “people of God” somewhat for granted, but most of us are, in fact, the beneficiaries of God’s strange new initiative toward the Gentiles. It seems perfectly reasonable to us that the apostles would conclude that they should “make no distinction” between Jews and Gentiles. However, if we scratch beneath the surface just a bit, we might be disturbed to consider what it might mean for us to “make no distinction.” After all, isn’t our life as the church based on making distinctions? For example, I can’t stand here in the pulpit and say just anything – I have to distinguish between the content of the faith that has been handed down to us from the apostles and all the vaguely “spiritual” messages floating around in the culture. When we affirm our faith together, we can’t use just any creedal formulation that sounds appealing – there are some things we recognize as a truthful presentation of the gospel and some we do not. The hymns in our hymnal have been selected very carefully by a committee of people whose job it was to make distinctions between hymns that have musical and theological integrity and those that do not. I wonder how we would react if someone came in here one day saying, “You know, I’ve had this vision, and we really don’t need to restrict ourselves to this stuff anymore – we can sing whatever songs are popular and say whatever feels good to us.” Most of us, I think, would be appalled, just as Peter was appalled at the suggestion that he should feel free to eat bacon. We have rules, too – rules about what you have to do to become a member of the church or have your baby baptized, or even propose a new mission initiative. In the church we make distinctions all the time. And that is just the church. We live in a world of distinctions. Some of them seem sensible and helpful: people with good grades get into better schools than those with bad or mediocre grades, people who work hard deserve to get promoted faster than the slackers, and so forth. But some distinctions we make are more harmful than helpful, and not at all reasonable. While we might not use the categories “clean” and “unclean” to describe people on either side of the boundaries we set, our society also has its implicit purity codes, its own ideas about who is “in” or “out,” more deserving or less deserving. Depending on your orientation, the “unclean” might be undocumented workers, welfare recipients, gays and lesbians or transgender people, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans…Some of the mightiest and most painful struggles in our history have been over distinctions we make among people -- and the church, we have to acknowledge, has often reinforced those boundaries. When you stop to think about it, we are not even strangers to distinctions made around food: vegetarians feel morally superior to meat-eaters and vegans feel superior to vegetarians; and “locavores” feel superior to people who buy their produce at the supermarket. Ideas about virtue, justice, and clean living get all tied up in our decisions about what to eat. But God, Scripture tells us, makes no distinctions. “God shows no partiality.” That became a central affirmation of the early Christian movement. “There is no distinction,” Paul said, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All have sinned, and all have access to the overwhelming grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The church of Jesus Christ is where the old boundaries are broken, and if you insist on maintaining them at all cost, Peter said, you could be “hindering God.” If you were to ask the average Christian what the gospel is, he or she would probably say something like “Jesus died and was resurrected so we could have forgiveness of our sins.” That is true as far as it goes, but “forgiveness” is not a strong enough word for God’s action in Christ on behalf of humanity. Here is how the Letter to the Ephesians puts it: “Remember that you [Gentiles] were…aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall…So…you are no longer strangers and aliens, but…citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” (Eph. 2: 11-14, 19) This is even greater than forgiveness. God has brought about a fundamental change in the way God relates to human beings, necessitating a fundamental change in the way human beings relate to each other. As Paul says it, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” The church has struggled with this radical notion since its very beginning. Struggles over the ordination of women and more recently, sexual orientation, are just the latest chapters in an ongoing struggle over boundaries. These struggles are not going to go away anytime soon – we will probably always find something that will challenge our understanding of appropriate boundaries. But we do well to remember that we ourselves are recipients of the mercy of God, who has defied expectations and opened the borders to us, strangers and aliens no more, but members of the household of our gracious God. Lisa Kenkeremath Manassas Presbyterian Church May 19, 2019
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