Witnesses - Week Four: "The Same Gift"
The Season of Easter has just begun, and we'll be celebrating Easter for the next several weeks, as we launch into a brand new sermon series.
And this is just about the time that those first-century followers of Christ started asking a question--which is the same question you and I ought to be asking, too: "Jesus has risen. Now what?"
It's a good thing that we are not alone in asking this very question. Jesus' disciples wondered the same thing, and almost immediately after Jesus was raised from the dead. We know this because of the book of Acts.
I love the arc that the story in the book of Acts takes.
It begins with a bunch of scared people in a room, wondering what is going to happen to them---disciples of Jesus, who are afraid to venture outside the door because they think they might be killed.
It ends---literally---with the word "unhindered" as the Apostle Paul sits imprisoned in Rome, which was widely known as the "very end of the Earth," preaching the Gospel, furthering the movement of Christ.
I'd call that a movement, wouldn't you? But how did this happen, really? It was because of witnesses.
That's what this sermon series is all about---a bunch of people living differently. Living a Resurrection life because they witnessed something that changed them forever.
And we have a chance at this. To bear witness to what has been raised to new life in us--to live a Resurrection life. That's what we're going to do for the next several weeks all the way through the season of Easter.
Before we get into the sermon today, though. I need to get some stuff off my chest. I want to share with you a not-so-comprehensive list of the people who really grind my gears.
You have those kinds of people in your life, right? Or you encounter them in different places that you frequent? We all do. Here's some of mine.
1. The person who shows up at Starbucks with the order for their entire office.
2. The person who speeds up when you are about to pass them on the freeway.
3. That guy who has no concept of personal space or modesty who crowds me when I'm trying to get my stuff together at the gym.
4. The person who calls the store to ask about products when I drove to the store to ask about products.
Like I said, it's not a comprehensive list. Were some of these on your list, too? Did some of you recognize yourself in my list? Ha!
But what if... what if the things that ground our gears were serious and the differences we had with the people who ground our gears were deep? What if our feelings about these people were painful?
The spouse who betrayed us.
The co-worker who stabbed you in the back.
The person who raped you.
The trusted relative who abused you.
The religious leader who let you down.
Or it could be a group of people--people who are completely "other" to you because of fear, or past experiences.
So... are we good with God showing grace to them? To our enemies?
The passage of Scripture we are going to be reading today comes to us from Acts 11:1-18 and in this passage the Apostle Peter is relating a story of how God messed him up completely when it came to this kind of thing.
And we're going to be learning what Peter learned all those many years ago:
We are living a Resurrection Life when we realize that the Good News is bigger than we can imagine.
So this whole story starts off with a vision---Cornelius, the centurion has one of an angel who tells him to go send for Peter, the Apostle, and then the story jumps to Peter who has a vision of a sheet full of non-kosher animals that he is commanded to "kill and eat."
A word about visions might be in order.
In the book of Acts the role of visions is to clarify God's redemptive plan with regard to specific places and people. This moment is an important one and so it's not surprising that it is accompanied by not one, but two visions.
When we meet Cornelius we learn some things very quickly. First, he is a centurion, which ordinarily might mean that he is the leader of one hundred soldiers, but in this case, Cornelius was also the leader of a cohort---a senior staff officer in the legion that was assigned the Judean provinces.
Cornelius was also a leader within the Italian Cohort, a group that was stationed at Caesarea Maritima, which was one of the most Roman port cities in the region. This city was the headquarters of the governor of Judea and if you had to have an assignment in this region, this was where you wanted it. So, Cornelius was a man on the rise in the Roman army.
He is also the first person with Roman authority that is named in Acts---and he is not at all what we would expect.
The text tells us that Cornelius was a "God-fearer," who supported the local synagogue and gave alms to the poor. It is unclear if he was actually engaged in the prescribed rite of initiation into Judaism (circumcision), and also highly unlikely. He seems to be interested in Jewish faith and practice, however, and seems very well thought of by the Jewish people.
He is, in fact, at prayer when he receives a vision to send emissaries to Peter, who is in Joppa some thirty miles to the south.
Peter is in Joppa--as we mentioned---and he begins praying around lunchtime when he's hungry. Maybe he was praying and meditating and he could smell lunch being made somewhere and he saw the linen sheet on the roof of the house blowing in the wind---and then suddenly none of those things was exactly what they seemed...
Peter sees a vision of a sheet full of animals---many of which are non-kosher and forbidden by Jewish law for him to eat. A voice tells him, "Kill and eat." In verse 14 Peter emphatically responds, "By no means... No way... Absolutely NOT!"
The word in Greek is medamos which is only used here in the entire New Testament. Peter has a gut reaction to what he sees and refuses to partake in the most vociferous way possible. This vision occurs three times, and then the Lord speaks...
In his vision, the Lord declares to Peter that there will be some men showing up at his door and when they do he is to go with them "without hesitation." The literal translation is that he is to go with them "without making a distinction or differentiation."
At that moment there is a knock on the door and there are indeed some men there to fetch Peter to Cornelius. Despite the direct command that is still ringing in his ears from God himself, Peter is a bit uneasy about everything. He asks them, "Why are you here?" They tell him about the vision that their commander had and that they were ordered to return to Caesarea Maritima with Peter in tow.
Imagine how Peter would have felt at this moment before you start hating on him for second-guessing God. Roman soldiers just showed up at his door. The neighbors are freaking out. Simon the Tanner, who put Peter up at his house is freaking out. Peter is freaking out. But he invites them inside and does, in fact, leave with them the next day.
For the thirty mile trip to Caesarea, Peter probably thought a great deal about what he was going to do when he arrived.
You see, in the Jewish mindset, Gentiles were thought to be polluted people with polluted houses. Their houses were polluted because of the food they ate within them, the sexual immorality that almost assuredly occurred in their bedrooms and something else that was also rumored to happen in Gentile homes: abortions.
Some ancient Jews believed that Gentiles forced women to have abortions and then hid the bodies of the babies under the floorboards of the home.
Gentiles had a fairly low view of Jews, which I am sure Peter was also aware of as he pondered all of this. To Gentiles, Jews were condemned as lazy and stuck up due to their Sabbath and purity laws. They were said to rob pagan temples and conducted strange blood-letting rites on Gentile children.
So all of this was obviously grounded in reason---but then again, most prejudice never is.
But here's the thing---and this is where it all can make more sense. In the Jewish mindset, the people you sat down and ate with were considered family. So stepping into the house of someone who represented so much that was wrong in your worldview was a huge deal.
Hence, Peter's conflict as he walked those thirty miles.
You see, this was a liminal moment. A moment before a moment that really matters. It is also the kind of moment that Peter had seen before when he was following Jesus.
The Calling of Matthew
I wonder if Peter saw Matthew's face at that moment when Jesus spoke those words---those saving, beautiful words in his presence. I can imagine, and maybe so can you what Matthew's face might have looked like when he realized that God loved him, and had called him. As Peter trudged toward Caesarea I wonder if that face came to mind.
So here's what Peter is beginning to learn about the Good News. There is no religio-ethnic or cultural boundaries---no conditions that must be met to qualify for God's salvation and blessings. No human being is to be treated as somehow beyond the reach of a sacred God's saving and sanctifying work.
Peter hovers at the door in that liminal moment when he stands before Cornelius, who doesn't understand anything at all about Jesus and who He is---only that there is something in his soul that cries out for something more---a life lived more abundantly...
And he hovers there hearing the words of Jesus echoing in his ears... "Follow me." Jesus didn't tell Matthew and all the other tax collectors and sinners, "Change, and then follow me." He said, "Follow me..." and then what he left unsaid, but Peter knew... "... and you'll be changed." "Follow me... and you'll be changed."
What I've learned over the years is that our prejudices, our preconceived notions, and fears about the "other" are grounded in two basic things:
1. What we are taught: As a child, C.S. Lewis once told his father, "I have a prejudice against the French." To which is father replied, "Why?" Lewis thought a moment and then said, "If I knew why, it wouldn't be a prejudice."
Lewis grew up knowing that there were a lot of people he cared about who didn't like the French, and so he wanted to be like them.
2. Our inability to tell the truth about ourselves: One of my favorite lines from the Austin Powers movie Goldmember is when Austin Powers father (played by the estimable Michael Caine) says, "There are two kinds of people I can't stand. People who aren't tolerant of other people's cultures... and the Dutch."
Try as we might to imagine ourselves as above exclusion, above intolerance, above prejudice... we struggle with it when we don't tell the truth to ourselves about ourselves.
By contrast, here's what Jesus taught and lived: NO ONE is to be treated as somehow beyond the reach of God’s saving grace. AND it’s not up to us WHO GOD’S SAVING GRACE saves.
Years ago, when I was working a night shift as a chaplain in a hospital, I was called to bring a Bible to a patient. When I arrived with the Bible I discovered that the patient had AIDS and was highly susceptible to infection. In order to see him I was going to have to completely cover myself in a gown, mask, gloves and even slip-ons for my shoes. It took me several minutes to put on all of the gear. It felt like wearing a HASMET suit, to be honest and by the time I was walking into the room, I was freaked out.
In a muffled voice I told the weak and dying man on the bed that I was the chaplain and I had his Bible. His eyes brightened a bit when I handed it to him. I muttered something about having to make some rounds and began backing out of the room as quickly as I could. When I looked into the eyes of this dying man and saw his pain, I felt my stomach flip. God help me, I ran out of that room--so afraid, so programmed that I couldn't stop myself.
This man reached out in his need, crying out to God... He didn't need a Bible nearly as much as he needed someone to sit with him, to truly go over the threshold and be with him in his moment of need. If I had to do it all over again, I would have stepped all the way through the door. It was a liminal moment that could have changed us both forever.
Listen to me... If you feel as though you are the one standing on the other side of that door, separated from God, shunned by others, broken and beyond grace...
Remember that Jesus stepped through so many doors to sit down with all sorts of people who no one else wanted to be near, and who were believed to be beyond redemption.
No one is beyond God's grace.
The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.
Finally, I want to speak to those of us who feel like we are standing in one of those liminal moments...
Who are the people on the other side of the door for you?
Is it someone of a different race? Someone who doesn't hold your religious or political views? Someone that supposedly hates you because of who you are?
Here's what I want you to hear...
Step through the door.
Remember that Jesus calls us to follow... so follow Him. He's already there in that room you know you should step through.
We are living a Resurrection Life when we realize that the Good News is bigger than we can imagine.