Acceptable to God

RCL Year B
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 15, 2012

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Last week President Obama and Vice President Biden took a controversial stand on a much debated issue. They very courageously said that people who are homosexual have the same right as those who are heterosexual to be married, to live with a partner they love and make a legal and honored commitment to that person. There’s no way to tell how their announcements will fly in the political world; time may or may not tell. But a decision like this has to have roots that go deeper than those of politics. I wonder if our President had been reading the lessons assigned in the lectionary this Sunday for the Roman, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran Churches.

Our lesson today from the Acts of the Apostles tells of a huge and much debated step that was taken in the Early Church. Peter had been listening to the Holy Spirit and had evolved, to use our President’s word, to believe that even Gentiles had received the Spirit and so should be baptized. Peter’s decision and that of our President are not exactly parallel; their specifics differ. Yet, in the larger context, the issue is the same. The issue is where and how we draw our borders, set our limits. The issue is inclusion and exclusion. In both instances, the boundary is the widest one: that of our humanity, our existence as children of God. Boundaries of sexual orientation? No. Theology? No. Social acceptability? No. Clean or unclean? No. Approval by others? No. The boundary is much broader. All people are included and welcomed in the Church.

Once again this week, our lectionary doesn’t give us the background story, so all we see is that the Holy Spirit has come to people who are not Jews. People who are “unclean.” Peter advocates that “even Gentiles” are to be baptized. Think where we Gentiles would be today, if the Church had listened to a different voice.

We can’t overstate the weight of the argument in the first century. The Gospel of God’s love and new life was being taken outside the faith of Abraham, outside the circle of Judaism. Circumcision is the ancient rite whereby a male is initiated into the body of the people of God. Physical circumcision, for a Jew, was necessary, even though there is scriptural reference to a spiritual circumcision. Laws of ritual and of food forbidden were equally binding for being faithful to God.

Gentiles were responding to the Gospel by the hundreds, perhaps even by the thousands. Were these people to become Jews first and then Followers of the Way? Did a man have to be circumcised, observe the rituals and honor the food laws and come into the people of God before he could be a Believer? The argument among the leaders of Jesus’ followers was hot. Paul, a devout Jew and a scholar of the law, said “No;” Peter, a devout Jew, said “Definitely!” It would seem that there was a deadlock. How should the Church go forward? Would there be an irreparable split? Might the Church die in her infancy?

The Holy Spirit stepped in. First, a centurion named Cornelius, “a devout man who feared God” and prayed constantly to God, was visited in a vision by an angel. He was told to send for Peter, who was in Joppa at the time. And so Cornelius sent three men to invite Peter to come to his home in Caesarea.

Meanwhile, Peter, following religiously the food laws and social customs of the Jews, insisting the rules had to be followed by anyone who was to become a Believer in the Church, was having a vision of his own while he waited for his dinner. “He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” – all kinds of food that were unclean and forbidden to Jews. Peter heard a voice say, “Get up, Peter; kill, and eat.” Kill these animals that are unclean. Kill them and eat them.

He objected violently. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice spoke the same words to him a second time, and a third time, and finally “the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.”

As Peter was puzzling over his vision Cornelius’ men appeared, asking for Peter. The Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” Peter went with the men to Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, where Cornelius had gathered his relatives and close friends.

We have to say here that by Jewish law it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with Gentiles or to visit a Gentile house, and Peter told them that. But on his journey, Peter seems to have been so open to what God would say to him that he then said, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean…Why did you send for me?”

Cornelius tells Peter about his vision of a man in dazzling clothes who had directed him to send for Peter and told him that his prayers had been heard by God. So he had gathered all the people to listen to whatever Peter had to tell them. And Peter makes his remarkable declaration. He does a complete 180 degree turn in faith. We know the passage well:

“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him….” And our lesson today reads:

While Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles…and Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Again, we have to realize what a revolutionary step this was in Peter’s faith and what a critical statement it was in the life of the Church. The Church didn’t turn around and follow immediately; the controversy continued. Officially, it was resolved in favor accepting all people without requiring circumcision at the Council of Jerusalem around the year 48, but the argument continued in the years following, probably resting only when the Church became more and more Gentile, perhaps following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Looking at the issues of the past 150 years in our own country, slavery, discrimination, prejudice, equality of genders, races and sexual orientations, gives us a glimpse of the intensity of the controversy that raged in the first century in the Church and of the radical nature of the Word of the Holy Spirit.

Which brings us to today. Peter’s stand on circumcision in his own community of Jews was courageous, to say the least. In fact, taking an unpopular stand in any age takes courage. Allowing ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit in any moment on any day in any age takes courage. And more than that, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit requires a lot of trust in God.

We usually define faith as belief, what we believe. But the deeper meaning of having faith is trusting God. And when we trust God our trust is lived out in our words and actions. Usually, that means we can’t predict ahead of time what we’ll say or do; we may be the most surprised people in the crowd. Peter was, probably, that day. I doubt Barach Obama or Joe Biden could have said a year ago where he’d stand today.

Sister Joan Chittister cites this story:

Once upon a time a disciple asked the elder, “How shall I experience my oneness with creation?” And the elder answered, “By listening.” The disciple pressed the point: “But how am I to listen?”

And the elder taught, “Become an ear that pays attention to every single thing the universe is saying. The moment you hear something you yourself are saying, stop.”

I think we can substitute the voice of the Holy Spirit for the voice of the universe. But the operative teaching is to listen not just to our own desires and thoughts and conclusions and opinions but to the voice of the Holy Spirit. We hear her speak to us in Scripture; that’s why our Church prescribes three lessons and a psalm to be read in every service of the Holy Eucharist. We hear the Spirit speak in the words of others, and most especially in those words that challenge us in a differing point of view and experience. We hear the Spirit speak in our own lives when we pay attention to those feelings of compassion, anger at injustice, and fear.

Listen with courage and trust for the voice of the Spirit. She can lead us to do things that are beyond our imagination; she can take us places we never have seen on our maps of certainty. She can show us adventures that leave our own puny goals visible only in the rear view mirror.

The Rev. Mary B. Richard