Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Who are we that we might hinder God?

Peter meets Cornelius
A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Peter was in trouble. He was being called on the carpet. He had to report to the home office and they were not happy. He had a lot to answer for.
Actually, I suspect Peter was pretty clueless as to how much trouble he was in. I imagine that instead he was downright giddy with excitement when he went home to report to the church leaders in Jerusalem what had gone on in Joppa. He was probably feeling somewhat mystified but at the same time excited by what he had witnessed.
So, he was probably just a tad started when he walked into Jerusalem and was immediately met with condemnation.
So, you ask, what exactly had Peter done?
He went from Joppa to another city called Caesarea and he sat and ate with a big-time Roman official named Cornelius and his household. This was the crime: Peter, a Jew ate with Gentiles and they treated each other as equals.
It gets worse. He not only told them all about the crucified and risen Jesus and the Good News of the Gospel, but then he went and baptized them!
Yup. It’s that bad. Peter treated these Gentiles as equals and welcomed into the church uncircumcised people! Can you imagine?!?
News travels faster than travel itself, and so the Christians in Jerusalem—all of them Jews because at that moment in the Church’s life, Christianity was still a mainly Jewish phenomenon—had already heard about Peter’s transgression and they were not happy.
So, before Peter can say “Guys! You won’t believe what just happened!” they are in his face. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” they demanded.
Peter takes them through the whole story step by step.
Now before you start thinking that is really inside-baseball stuff, let me tell how important this is: Luke takes the time and the parchment to recount nearly word for word everything that he had written in the previous chapter of Acts. How Peter had a vision (three times!) of God spreading a bounty of non-kosher animals in front of him and telling him to eat. When Peter refuses to eat anything unclean, God says (three times!) “What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.”
Then Peter describes the knock on the door, and the three men at his door who said they had a vision and were sent to fetch him. Peter talks about how he and some other Christians—all Jews, remember—went to Cornelius’ home. There Peter preaches his famous “Truly, I see God shows no partiality” sermon that we hear every Easter morning. Then, to Peter’s complete surprise, these folks break into the same tongue-speaking ecstasy that he himself experienced on Pentecost. Without hesitation, he baptizes them on the spot.
That’s why he was called on the carpet! That's why he was in trouble!

Peter said to his friends “I remembered what Jesus said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” He goes on: “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?”
Who was I that I could hinder God?
Peter’s friends were silent. Then it dawns on them that God has given to Gentiles the same repentance, the same new life, and the same spiritual gifts that they themselves had known!
This changes everything! We would not be here now, sitting here as Jesus’ friends and apprentices around this altar, if it were not for what Peter did.
Peter is not like Paul. Peter is not an ideas kind of person. He runs on experience, and feelings, and he can be impulsive. He wants to do the right thing, and can be as brave as a lion, but he is also easily frightened…when he is confronted with contradiction, he usually folds under pressure.
But not today! 

Peter knows what it means to deny a friend. He did that once, on that awful night when Jesus was arrested before he was crucified, so he was not going there again! I’ll bet his knees were knocking when he started to tell his friends in Jerusalem what happened in Caesarea—but he did not fold and he did not deny his new friends!
God told me three times not to call profane what God made clean.
God told me to accept three visitors and not to make a distinction between “them and us.”
I saw that God gave them the same gift he gave to us!
Who was I, Peter asks, that I could hinder God?
Good question! We have a tendency to do that, don’t we? Hinder God. With our fear or our certainty...especially when the certainty is hiding the fear. Peter’s change of heart and mind was not the last time that we as a community would struggle with that what it means to draw all people into union with God and each other in Jesus Christ.

Church's like ours used to have separate seating for black and white people. Sundays are still the most segregated day of the week. Some traditions keep men and women apart. We used to veil women and tell them that their only ministries were in the kitchen or in the laundry or in the nursery.. We used to tell gay and lesbian Christians that they weren't Christian enough. And in many places we still do. And we have lots of new, creative ways to tell people how they can and cannot follow Jesus. We still find ways to call profane what God has made clean. 

But who are we that we could hinder God?
We are in a world that is as hungry for God as ever. We are in a world that is starving for justice. We are in a world that is desperate for peace and meaning. This is no time for a conditional, “yeah, but” gospel. Who are we that we could hinder God?
In today’s Gospel we hear how, at the last supper, Jesus gave us a new commandment. One that will re-frame and bring into focus all those other commandments. He said, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.”
This is how everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples: that we love one another.
How we love one another will tell people that we are Jesus’ friends and his apprentices.
That means that how we deal with each other when the chips are down is as much, or more important than how we are when things are going great.
That means that will welcome whomever God sends us.
We will choose to feed the hungry and care for the addicted and the poor.
We will stick with each other especially when things are hard and when we don’t agree.
We will give each other room and allow each other room to grow and to experience grace.
We will refrain from digging in our heels and give ourselves the right to be wrong.
We will share sacramental living through all of life’s ups and downs.
Who are we, after all, to hinder God? Instead we choose to love one another as Christ loved us—then we’ll discover along with Peter, his old and new friends learned that God, what St. John the Divine saw in Revelation, that God is making all things new!

A Sermon given on May 19, 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, Pennsylvania

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