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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
April 23, 2023
Acts 10:1-17, 34-35
Grace to you and peace from our risen Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
When we talk about the things that divide us, we tend to think of things like politics, economics, privilege, positions on social issues – things like that. But there are other things, too – like cultural differences, the languages we speak, and even the foods we eat.
A friend of mine serves a congregation that has two worship services – one in English, and the other in Tagalog – the official language of the Philippines. And he speaks both languages, so he serves both communities.
Early on in his time there, they held a bilingual worship service to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was their first time doing something like that together. And for the English-speaking community, it was the tradition to have pie and fellowship after that service. But for the Filipinos, pie isn’t a food that’s part of their culture, so my friend invited them to bring a dessert that is part of their culture so that everyone could share in it.
After the service, it took him probably 10 or 15 minutes to get from the worship space into the room where the fellowship was happening. And when he got there, he noticed that the people in the Filipino group were visibly upset.
So, he asked, “What happened?” And they told him that they’d been told the desserts they brought couldn’t be served because they weren’t pie.
Things like politics and economics and so on do divide us. There’s no question. But so does one group telling another that the dessert they brought to share isn’t the right kind when, in reality, it’s just different than everything else that’s there.
This happened about ten years ago, but it’s an echo of the types of things that were happening in the early Christian church as it developed.
Very early on in the church’s history, most of the people who followed Jesus were Jewish. They were raised reading the Torah and following all the dietary restrictions and other laws in the book of Leviticus.
And where we pick up the story today, Pentecost has already happened. The Holy Spirit has been given to the Jewish people who were gathered on that day, and those believers went out to share the good news of Jesus and the Christian communities were growing in number.
But as more and more people, including gentiles, heard the good news and began to believe, there were arguments about which practices they had to follow – if any – in order to become part of those communities. Like what food could be eaten, did men need to be circumcised, which purity laws had to be followed, and so on.
And all of those arguments were deeply divisive.
For everyone involved, it was hard figuring out how to form communities and be together with people who’d been raised with different customs and beliefs. They were in uncharted territory, there was no playbook, there were no best practices and no experts. They had to figure it out as they went.
And with the story of Cornelius and Peter, we’re shown how the Holy Spirit kept things moving.
Cornelius, as we’re told, was a gentile – a Roman centurion. He and his family lived in Caesarea, which was the power seat of the Roman Empire. From all outward appearances, he was the exact opposite of a faithful, Jewish person. And yet, the angel appears to him. And Cornelius listens and does as he’s told.
While this is happening, Peter is in Joppa, seemingly minding his own business. And as he waits for lunch to be prepared, he receives a vision of his own. It’s arguably the most important turning point in the book of Acts and in the story of the early church.
Because it eventually leads to welcoming Gentiles into a relationship with the God of Israel. Something that was unthinkable for Jesus’ first followers. It destroyed any divisions that people thought might be between them.
It was not easy for Peter to accept this. Chapter 10 of Acts tells this entire story, so please read all of it when you have a chance. But Peter openly admitted that he was uncomfortable being in Cornelius’ home and that he was breaking several Jewish customs just by being there.
But after he heard Cornelius’ story, Peter understood why he was there – why God’s Spirit had led him there. He understood that God shows no partiality, that is, God doesn’t play favorites.
And he understood that that went beyond, “God is nice, so we should be nice, too.” It’s that God chose one people, Israel, through whom to bless everyone else, and that now is the “everyone else” time. That in the name of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles alike are offered the forgiveness of sins.
God’s impartiality means that Jews and Gentiles alike are acceptable if they fear God and “do what is right.” For Peter, this was a completely new understanding of God’s relationship with people, and it was as much a conversion for him as it was for Cornelius.
Because Peter had come to recognize that God’s gift and call in Jesus is to all people. All. Not “all, except”, or “all, but.” All. In the Christian faith, all are called without regard to language, culture, ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic standing… No one is excluded from the call to accept and follow Jesus because everyone has a place.
This story doesn’t tell us what to do or not do; rather it points to the larger purpose that should govern our lives. That life in Christ is a new life marked by forgiveness, performing acts of service to those in need, proclaiming what God has done, and that Jesus is Lord of all.
It’s a life in which we’re no longer separated by sin and instead serve one another, especially those who are different from us. It’s a life of the cross and resurrection; a life in which we die to the old and are born into the new.
It’s a life in which all are called and invited to share the good news of God in Jesus, because God has concern for all humanity and welcomes all peoples.
When we think about how we identify ourselves and others identify us, our tendency is that when someone who’s different from us speaks truthfully about something we take it with a grain of salt because we’re not sure they can be trusted. Even when it comes to them talking about their experiences with God.
But in the Christian faith, regardless of how we identify ourselves or others within it, in the Christian faith each person has a faith story; and as disciples, we’re on a faith journey. We’ve all had our own encounters with Jesus, and all of us are called to tell that story.
Peter and Cornelius show us how our faith story and faith journey can be shaped, and that our experiences of forgiveness, acts of service, and proclamation are unique to each of us. They spoke about the good news of God in Jesus from their own experiences. And we’re called and invited to do the same.
No one’s experiences are better or worse or stronger or weaker than anyone else’s, because God doesn’t play favorites.
The world we live in would have us believe that the groups we separate ourselves into are what God desires for us, and that God only moves and acts in the group we put ourselves in, or favors ours over another. It’s the same as saying, “We’re not gonna use the dessert you brought because we only serve pie.”
But in Jesus, regardless of how we identify, we are all offered God’s mercy and blessings. That’s our reality. And as Christians, as a church, that’s the reality to which we speak because God’s gift and call is given to each one of us. Thanks be to God! Alleluia! Amen.