Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter May 19, 2019
I believe it was the poet Robert Frost who said “Fences make for good neighbors.” Building a fence or a wall on southern border with Mexico has become a political hot potato. The basic argument for fences is protection.
The apostle known as Simon Peter would agree. The first followers of Jesus were men and women of the Jewish faith. To preserve the purity of their faith they were obedient to laws that acted like fences of protection. The Jews had kosher laws about food, about what was clean or unclean. The most famous example would be the prohibition of eating pork: ham sandwiches and BLTs were not on their menu. Jews were to be careful about their contact with non-Jews or Gentiles. It would be wise not to eat with Gentiles since they would not understand or keep kosher laws.
Simon Peter was finishing up his prayers one day and he was hungry. As lunch was being prepared, he fell into a trance, like a dream-like state. Peter had this unusual vision of a large sheet coming down from heaven. It settled on the ground revealing all kinds of creatures, reptiles and birds. A voice told him to ‘go hunting’, rise up, kill and eat. Peter looked at the creatures and knew they were all on the list of forbidden foods for devout believers. He had never eaten anything on the forbidden food list all his life. He certainly wasn’t going to now; maybe this vision from heaven was some kind of test. But the voice from heaven said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This vision from heaven happened three times.
If you ever were troubled by a dream, you can understand how Peter felt. He was greatly puzzled about it. But the answer came literally knocking at the door. Peter was so lost in thought he did not answer the door. Finally the Holy Spirit gave Peter a nudge and told him ‘get off your backside and answer the door. God has sent three messengers for you and go with them without delay.
When Peter answered the door, I think he must have gasped. One of the men was a Roman soldier. Peter’s initial thought may have been, “this cannot be good…am I in some kind of trouble.” No, the soldier was sent by his commanding officer, a Centurion named Cornelius. The soldier told Peter that Cornelius was visited by an angel and instructed to send for Peter, to have him come, and they would listen to what he would have to say. One could say God caused all this trouble for Peter. The trouble being removing barriers and boundaries between people of different nationality and background. The new Christian movement was not going to judge or label certain people as ‘profane’ or unclean. This was the gift of Jesus, who on the cross accomplished salvation and forgiveness for all. The mission and message of the church of Jesus was for all people because “God so loved the world.”
Cornelius was a high-ranking officer in he Roman military. He could be feared, but instead we read that he was a God-fearing man, a man of prayer, and a man of compassion who gave money to help the poor. His faith was noted by God, and so that was the reason Peter was called to go to Cornelius’ home and preach. When Peter arrived he found a household fill: Cornelius had invited relatives and friends to hear Peter speak. Now Peter understood the meaning of that strange vision of unclean animals. It really was not about eating but meeting with Gentiles. Peter began his sermon admitting this was a new experience for him: “I now understand that God truly shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” That was the theme of Peter’s sermon: God does not play favorites. No nation is favored by God over others. What is important to God is faith and love for others.
Peter had one huge illustration of God not playing favorites. He told the story of Jesus. He told about Jesus’ work of healing all who were oppressed by the devil. He spoke about the many good things Jesus did. He spoke about Jesus’ death on the cross, but Jesus rose from the dead. Peter himself was a witness of the resurrected Jesus. Peter made it very clear: “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Peter preached about peace: peace with God that comes from the forgiveness of sins. The peace from God is like dynamite that blows up walls and barriers between peoples. In another part of the New Testament, the letter to the Ephesians we read that the Gentiles, the non-Jews, were at one time strangers to gospel because they did not know Jesus. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us”. By the peace of Jesus, hostility between Jew and Gentile has been removed, for God seeks to create a new humanity where all have access in one Spirit to God the Father.
Now the Holy Spirit must have felt Peter was getting long-winded and interrupted his sermon. The Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household. They had heard the gospel, the good news of Jesus and his peace. The whole house broke out in spontaneous praise. Peter called for water and the whole group was baptized in the power and presence of Jesus.
This was the testimony of Peter before the church leaders in Jerusalem. They questioned Peter saying “Why did you eat with Gentiles….you were a guest in the home of Cornelius for several days, just think of the unclean, non-kosher food! Keep the fences up! Protect yourself from being unclean. But Peter said no, for God said “what I have made clean, you must not call profane or unclean”. Peter made his case, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” Peter’s critics were silenced. Then they praised God saying “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
What we receive from this incredible text from the book of Acts is that God does not like walls or fences of hostility between peoples. Instead God wills bridges between peoples. God could have remained hostile toward sinners like us. We sin by thought, word, and deed. God could have decided on a wall of condemnation and permanent separation. But thanks be to God the ultimate bridge builder came to earth, Jesus. It is Jesus who has reconciled us to God, and by the gift of the Holy Spirit has formed his church on earth. Jesus has commanded his church to be people who love, who love like he does so that all people will know we are his disciples. There is the old camp song you may recall which did not say “They’ll know we are Christians by our denomination or political ideology, but they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
As a church we do not want to be found hindering God. We hinder the work of God by remaining hostile toward people we truly do not understand. We hinder the work of God by being too comfortable with the way things are, closing our minds and our hearts to both challenge and change. We must ask how can we be open to the work of the Holy Spirit who is ever calling and equipping us go be a servant people because God so loves the world. I notice students at school are required to have so many hours of community service before graduation. With the church, being baptized and confirmed means there is no graduation. The Holy Spirit will call us to ventures that challenge, but these ventures are always adventures. The Holy Spirit is ever at work to keep the church following Jesus: forgiven and motivated not to show off but to show we are Christians by our love, love as shown by Jesus the most effective witness.