A sermon preached on Acts 11: 1-18, on April 24, 2016, at Wesley Memorial UMC.
Sheep, getting in the way like we do.
It’s always fun to preach on a passage full of the word “circumcision.”
But, let me quickly add, that it could be almost any word. The point in mentioning circumcision here is not to see how uncomfortable the pastor or the people will become during the sermon. The point is this: there’s a way we do things around here.
In this passage from Acts we are at the cusp of changes the disciples and other followers of Jesus weren’t expecting. At this point, almost everyone who followed Jesus was Jewish. For them, this Jesus stuff wasn’t a casting off of Judaism but the next step in their faith journeys. It follows that the norm for men in the community was still circumcision. All Jewish baby boys went through this religious ceremony and there was no reason to expect that would change. After all, Jesus was also a Jewish man and circumcised.
But at this point in the story, the radical gospel message lands on the fertile soil of other people from other backgrounds. The Holy Spirit Jesus promised whooshes into locked rooms and Gentile hearts and rustles up new followers without asking permission or checking to see who’s a card-carrying Jew.
Those are the first three verses of our passage from Acts: Throughout Judea even the Gentiles are beginning to hear and believe. So Peter is interrogated when he gets to Jerusalem – the seat of religious authority – by “the circumcised believers.” These Jewish Christ-followers at home in the seat of religious power and tradition have a few questions for Peter. They accuse him of going into the homes of the uncircumcised and then eating with them. Explain that! they say. Explain to us how you can get all tangled up with these non-Jewish people, going so far as to be received into their homes and eat at their tables!
Right up there next to circumcision as a marker of Jewish identity were the Jewish dietary laws dictating what was clean and unclean. Other people didn’t keep these laws, so eating with them, in their “unclean” kitchens, sharing their strange and “unclean” foods, was outside the bounds. You’ll remember it’s one of the things people commented on the most when taking offense at Jesus’ behavior – we even preserve the notion of his outlandish behavior in our Communion liturgies, remarking each time we feast that he “ate with sinners.”
Starting with verse four, we’re told Peter offered his explanation “step-by-step.” He tells the Jewish critics that he was praying in Joppa and had a dream, a vision. He saw a large sheet lowered down from the heavens and on the sheet all sorts of animals were depicted – wild beasts and birds and reptiles and four-legged animals of all types. And a voice told him to Get up, kill, and eat! Being a good Jewish boy, Peter snapped back, Absolutely not! I know what’s unclean and I don’t eat things like that – never!
You may remember Peter usually needs the reinforcement of a threefold repetition. The night Jesus was betrayed, he is asked three times if he used to hang out with Jesus and three times he says Absolutely not! Never seen that guy! Two weeks ago in our readings, Peter enjoys a fish breakfast on the beach with the risen Christ and three times Christ asks if Peter loves him and then, three times, commands Peter to feed his sheep (John 18: 15-27; John 21: 1-19).
Three times is a thing with Peter.
So, as with those previous stories, here staring at the sheet of various and wild and unclean animals, the Voice tells Peter three times to eat the things he sees in the vision. Never consider unclean what God has made pure (v.9), it says, then the sheet is pulled back up out of sight into heaven.
In the next moment, there’s a knock on the door. Peter finds messengers from the Gentile Cornelius and, as Peter tells it, The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. When he arrives at Cornelius’s house, Cornelius shares his own dream-message, when an angel told him to send for Peter so that Peter could tell him and the entire household how to be saved.
So Peter starts to share the gospel in this stranger’s house. And the craziest thing happened, he tells the Jerusalem rule-following crowd of critics (vv.15-17): “When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same gift [God] gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”
When the crowd of believers and skeptics hear this, they back off. They give praise to God for this amazing news – and, they conclude that God is changing Gentile hearts and lives (just like their own hearts and lives) so that they might have new life, too.
Some hearts and minds were changed and some rules broken and released that day. But it’s going to take another four chapters in Acts before these early Christians stop worrying about circumcision as a prerequisite for joining the Christ-followers. Some things don’t change all at once, but in fits and starts.
Some habits die hard.
I’m sure you can think of church arguments in your lifetime about who we eat and spend time with, about who’s truly welcome in our sanctuaries and our communities and who needs to jump another hoop, show they really mean it, look more like those of us who are already at home in religious places and traditions.
What I find puzzling is not that we argue or come at something from different angles. What I find puzzling is when we fail to acknowledge we’ve done this since the very beginning. With the hot breath of the Holy Spirit still warm on the backs of our necks, we were drawing dividing lines to determine who’s on which side. And… we shared stories of surprise and strange visions. We’ve listened, changed our made-up minds, opened wide our doors, praised God for the new vision.
If God gives them the same gift God gives us who already believe in Christ, then who am I? Who are we to stand in God’s way?
Here’s the Good News: it’s not up to us. “The work of determining who is part of God’s kingdom is never ours to do. It is always God’s decision…” (Preaching Helps at GBOD online). We aren’t the gatekeepers. We’re invited guests who’ve been given the mandate of love. We’re encouraged to look for the Spirit of God rustling up disciples we weren’t expecting. We’re allowed and expected to invite them into the fold, to feed those sister and brother sheep, to eat strange foods from strange other traditions along with them.
God does not seem to be recruiting bouncers to keep out the undesirables. In fact, God seems to like to bring home new brothers and sisters from prison and shelters and recovery programs. God seems to want a big family – from east and west, male and female, gay and straight, black and white, poor and rich, mentally ill and mentally well, minimum wage earners and retired millionaires, those who slept peacefully last night and those who were kept awake with worry or loneliness…
Little things like who eats what and who’s been circumcised and who’s memorized scripture and who uses which bathroom and who is married to whom don’t seem to count with God the way we sometimes still try to make them count when we forget and think we are the ones in charge.
God is creating a family and the invitation is open. Who are we to stand in God’s way?
That’s the way we do things around here. Don’t forget it.
Thanks be to God!
photo credit: “Sheep blocking way at Miranjani top,” © 2014 by Naryneroz (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons