We worship and serve a radically inclusive God. But we like to draw lines between who’s in and who’s out, what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, what is considered “clean” and what is considered “unclean.” The Apostle Peter saw a vision of inclusion that continues to show us all another way. Catch a vision of this inclusion this Sunday! All are welcome. Really.
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.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Startle us, O God, with your word. Silence in us any voice but your own. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and redeemer. Amen.
Think of a time when your own social norms were challenged. When you first realized, that how you or your family does things, is not the way everyone else might do things. I was a second-grader. And I had just been invited to my first, non-Asian friend’s home. She was a classmate of mine, Megan, and her mom was the class parent. I rode home with them after school, and when we got to their house, they just walked right in. They didn’t stop at the door to take off their shoes; there was no shoe rack or designated area to leave your shoes. They just walked inside their home, with the same shoes they had been wearing all day outside their home.
I remember just standing there, 8 years old, at the door, temporarily frozen,
so confused and so uncomfortable, trying not to judge how wrong and how unclean this all felt to me. In my mind I’m thinking, “Why would you wear your outside shoes into your home? Do you know what you step in with those shoes? Why?” But trying to be a good guest, I took a deep breath and followed them in wearing my shoes that had never been worn inside a home ever before. If I were Peter, perhaps a vision of shoes would’ve come down to me;
shoes that were clean and unclean, worn both inside and outside the home, letting me know that it was okay. Some people do things differently than I do, and that’s ok. Now, my story obviously makes light of a key, pivotal moment in Christian history. But it is that same kind of unmooring that you feel when you first realize that the world and God are so much bigger and greater and more diverse than what you thought or could have ever even imagined.
Now, for Peter and this first community of Jesus followers, this vision and his actions were monumental. It determined, in a whole new way, who’s in and who’s out, what’s allowed and, perhaps more importantly, who’s allowed. You see, prior to this story, to belong to this early, Christian community, you had to first become one of them. You had to follow their eating practices, their rituals, and if you were male, your body had to conform through circumcision. So you had to physically and spiritually and practically conform to one, very particularly way of being in the world. And this story of Peter, including the Gentiles just as they are, is breaking through thousands of years of convention and social norms and long-held beliefs of how it should be done. So these people in the first two verses of this chapter are criticizing Peter for what he’s done. You can hear them, can’t you?
“We’ve never done it that way before, Peter. This is the way it’s always been done.”
Or “Peter, we have to do things decently and in order.” (I’ll admit I’d probably be guilty of that.)
Or, that great conflation: “This is not just my way, but God’s way, and the right way to do things, Peter.”
And what Peter’s done is an act of inclusion that we all continue to benefit from. I may be wrong, but I’m guessing 99.9% of us sitting here today are what Peter’s community would have considered as Gentiles. And in the 2000 years since Peter’s vision, we may have come to take for granted that our race, ethnicity, and nationality would have precluded us from belonging to that very first, Christian community. If not (first by the grace of God, of course), but also for Peter and his vision of inclusion, we would not be sitting here today.
Peter proclaims, “The Spirit told me to go with them [these outsiders, the Gentiles] and not to make a distinction between them and us. … Who was I that I could hinder God?” he asks. There is no longer “us and them; them and us.” The divisions that we have created as people are erased by God’s love and Jesus’ invitation to follow him. Now, that doesn’t mean that differences are erased. It means our divisions are erased, two very different things.In fact, if anything, Peter is trying to preserve our differences. The Gentiles no longer have to conform to Jewish practices in order to become a part of this community. You can be circumcised, or you can be uncircumcised.
You can eat meat and all those four-footed animals, or you can still refrain from eating meat and all those four-footed animals. You can be a part of this new community with the fullness of who you are.
So this vision doesn’t make us all the same, but it does make us one. It makes us united but not uniform, accepted without having to assimilate to the dominant culture. The divisions are erased, but the differences are preserved and even celebrated as part of God’s good gift of diversity. This story of radical inclusion; of social norms and customs that were thrown aside to welcome the other; of a community that celebrated a unity that is possible in the midst of diversity, that is the story of our faith, of this tradition that purports to follow Jesus.
And yet, here we are, two thousand years later, still drawing lines in the sand, still trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out, who belongs and who doesn’t; what’s allowed and what isn’t. We continue to still sinfully consider whether or not to accept the full humanity of women, of our LGBTQI siblings, of migrants south of our border when God has already declared, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes and yes again.
He belongs; she belongs; they belong; you belong, just as you are; just as God created you. You have a place at God’s table; you are claimed and named as beloved. And anyone who tells you otherwise has not yet seen this vision that Peter received, and it would behoove them to read through again and again Acts 11 until they themselves are convicted by the Spirit. The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, prolific author and theologian says:
“The only clear line I draw these days is this: When my religion tries to come between me and my neighbor, I will choose my neighbor… Jesus never commanded me to love my religion.”And that’s what’s incredible about this story from Acts. It’s the response of the people. Peter tells them this story, of this encounter he’s had with those whom they’ve considered the “other.” And as one commentator puts it, “the Spirit gives them the ability to listen and to change.”
The community, that initially came to bring all their criticism to Peter, is able to be transformed by this story of radical welcome. They, too, come to recognize that they cannot hinder what God is doing, what God has already done. So rather than choosing to love their religion. They chose to love their neighbor. That’s what gets me about the news cycle this week and the talking heads who are so adamantly pro-birth, yet do nothing to then care for and preserve life once it is born. So many who spoke up for these anti-choice laws in Alabama and Missouri hide behind their so-called religion, all the while failing to love their neighbor, let alone see her as human.
Statistics show that abortions go down in countries and in administrations where there is a social net to care for those who are suffering from poverty,
where all children can have access to health care, to food, to housing,
where youth and adults receive comprehensive sex education that includes family planning. That to me, is a plan that is actually for-life because it recognizes the interconnectedness of all life, the justice and equity that is necessary to preserve life.
So we can legislate whatever out-of-touch laws we want. But that won’t preserve or honor life until justice and equity for people who are already born are a part of that conversation. If we were unsure before, it seems quite clear now, that we are a broken people. And perhaps it is human nature to want to control one another, to want to force our beliefs and ways of being on others, to want to declare who’s in and who’s out, to want to belong to an “us,” and in so doing create a “them.”I know deep within our DNA lies survivalist tendencies that tell us that tribalism, finding those who are like us, will protect us from outside threats. But our faith challenges us to see the humanity of all people; to risk relationship with even those we might not really understand; to find a way to love even if we don’t always like. For Christians, there is no “us and them.” Rather, one sacred humanity, created in the image of God. And that’s challenging. But that is the challenge we are called to by God.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor with tattoo sleeves up and down her arm; she began congregation called, “House for All Sinners and Saints.”
She is staunchly Lutheran but also fairly progressive, and she writes this in one of her books, using more colorful language than I will this morning: “…After one of my more finely worded rants about stupid people who have the wrong opinions, [a friend said to me] ‘Nadia, the thing that sucks is that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.’”
And that’s the problem with creating these false dichotomies of us and them. Because if we think Jesus is on our side of that line, the reality is, Jesus is probably on the other side, perhaps erasing those lines like we see on this bulletin cover, or perhaps inviting us to learn how to draw circles,
circles with ever-expanding circumferences. There is no “us and them.” This is especially difficult for me to profess in a time when we are so polarized. When anyone who disagrees with an opinion is demonized and characterized as somehow less than human. But even in this climate; perhaps even more so in this climate, it is necessary to proclaim, we belong to each other, and we need each other. There is no “us and them,” and we must find a way to work together for our common humanity.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this. He wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Scientists now tell us that this is true. So it’s not just our faith that compels us, but empirical data that shows us that this is the case. We need each other; we all do better when we all do better. There is no “us and them.” Just all of us together, equally beloved by God. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can go about repairing the world in places where we have failed to live up to that.
Rachel Held Evans, a Christian writer who died all too soon said it like this:
“What I love about the ministry of Jesus is that he identified the poor as blessed and the rich as needy…and then he went and ministered to them both. This, I think, is the difference between charity and justice. Justice means moving beyond the dichotomy between those who need and those who supply and confronting the frightening and beautiful reality that we desperately need one another.”
We must move beyond our false dichotomies and live into the frightening and beautiful reality that we are actually all one, all connected, all in need of one another. Divisions will always threaten to conquer us. But we are not playing a zero sum game. There is enough for us all to live abundantly, to love deeply, and to be treated and seen in the fullness of our humanity. God has already proclaimed it so. Let us now go forth and co-create a world where Peter’s vision becomes a reality in our world today.
 Harvard, Joseph S. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2. P452