April 28, 2013 - Fifth Sunday of Easter
†††††††† I was the only white
boy at the birthday party. I have no direct, clear memory of that fact, but my
mother told me about it when I was older. I know about it because of her
memory. It was second or third grade and we accepted an invitation to celebrate
a schoolmateís birthday. Evidently the birthday boy and all the other boys who
came were African-American.
†††††††† I would like to think my
heart is still that innocent second graderís, oblivious to the race and color
of those around me, simply accepting everyone as fellow human beings, as Godís
children loved by Him. Iíd like to think I donít need a 2◊4 vision over the
head like Peterís in Acts 10, where heís forced by God to confront his
prejudices regarding Gentiles and bring them the Gospel. Iíd like to think Iím
much further along than Peter was.
†††††††† But I distinctly
remember losing that second grade innocence about race not more than a couple
years later. I walked home from a school summer program with a craft Iíd made.
Another boy walked along with me, admired my handiwork, then grabbed it and ran
off. And that time I did remember the color of the other child, the one who
stole from me, and it was different from mine.
†††††††† Yes, I would like to
consider myself innocent of racial feeling, but I know itís not true. I still
can find myself wary around people of other colors. Driving with my daughter a
couple years ago through particular neighborhoods near her school in Chicago, I was uneasy for us to be the only white people around. And there are all sorts of
other ways that kind of feeling arises in me.
†††††††† Our text for this week
is the closing scene of one of the longer narratives in Acts. It takes up the
whole of chapter 10 and then is recapped here in chapter 11. As Luke tells us
the history of the beginnings of the Church, he clearly believes this event is
worth a lengthy telling and even repetition. When similar issues come up again
later, Peter referred back to these events in chapter 15, verse 7 to 9. This is
a key event for the new Church.
†††††††† And as I tried to
express by telling you about my own feelings in regard to race, itís not just
ancient history. This text addresses what is still a challenge for most of us.
The challenge is the same one the Holy Spirit gave Peter in verse 12, to be
with those who are different from us and ďnot to make a distinction between
them and us.Ē
†††††††† Peterís challenge came
in stages. The first part was in the form of a vision, which Peter tells here
in verses 4 to 9, almost repeating what weíre told back in Acts 10 verses 9 to 16. In a sleepy trance waiting for a meal to be prepared, he saw large
sheet being lowered down from heaven filled with all sorts of wild creatures.
He heard a voice telling him to ďGet up, Peter, kill and eat.Ē
†††††††† He was a good Jewish
boy. Peter had followed the dietary laws of Moses all his life. He had never
eaten pork, never had a monster biscuit with bacon and sausage from Carlís Jr.
Likewise for all sorts of other unclean meats. He would not eat dormouse like
the Romans did, nor have a bowl of turtle soup, nor bite into a bit of roast
lizard. But here was a voice from heaven telling him to violate that law, that
diet. So he protested as we read in verse 8, ďBy no means, Lord; for nothing
profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.Ē
†††††††† Then in verse 9 Peter
repeated verbatim for the Jerusalem believers what God told him, ďWhat God has
made clean, you must not call profane.Ē Peter goes on to explain to them how in
his vision this happened three times, the sheet coming down, his protest, Godís
declaration that he was not to regard anything as unclean when God had made it
†††††††† Three times the
vision, then in verse 11, three men come to Peterís door. God was conking Peter
over the head, nothing subtle about it. Thatís when the Holy Spirit told Peter
what the point of all this was, as he tells them in Jerusalem here in verse 12,
ďThe Spirit told me to go with them, and not to make a distinction between them
and us.Ē Peterís next challenge was to put the point of his vision into
practice, to actually get up and go to a Gentile house and share the Gospel
†††††††† But donít get the idea
that Peterís vision was all just metaphor for accepting people of other races.
Donít think that it meant he could just waltz into this Roman centurionís home,
preach a little sermon, and then waltz out untouched by anything his Jewish
sensibilities might regard as unclean and unhealthy. No, the third challenge
for Peter was that he would be invited to stay for supper there at Corneliusí
†††††††† We know Peter ate
there with Cornelius because of our text here. It starts out with Peterís
fourth challenge in verse 3, which was that the Jewish believers back home in Jerusalem werenít happy about Peter eating with Gentiles. They wanted to know what Peter
was thinking when he sat down to eat. No good Jew would do that.
†††††††† Peter didnít just need
to overcome his own prejudices, his own upbringing that taught him that some
people were dirty and that you didnít associate with them and you especially
didnít eat with them. Peter had to deal with the prejudices of his own friends
and fellow believers who questioned what he was doing.
†††††††† And that heavenly
sheet full of creatures that werenít kosher wasnít just a picture or metaphor for
racial prejudice. No, in order to bring the Gospel to that Gentile house, Peter
had to sit down and swallow some spare ribs, or maybe a nice crunchy dormouse
dipped in honey and poppy seeds for dessert like Romans enjoyed back then.
†††††††† Once again, Iíd like
to think Iíve got no problem here. Iím happy to sit down and eat most any sort
of food. I could eat Italian tonight, Mexican food tomorrow, Greek food the
next day and Chinese or Thai food the day after that and be perfectly happy,
and some weeks I have. Lots of us as Americans have brought the worldís
different foods to our table. But thatís just the problem.
†††††††† You probably know that
many of our ďinternationalĒ tastes dishes are just Americanized versions of
foreign food. Pizza, chow mein, Greek flaming cheese, nachos, and even tacos as
we typically know them were all created in the United States and arenít really
what people in Italy or China or Greece or Mexico eat. Weíve brought the world
to our tables on our own terms, in our own way, and weíve often done that with
†††††††† Our new conference
superintendent, whom we elected yesterday in Sumner, Washington, is Greg Yee.
Heís a fifth generation Chinese American who himself had to learn to think
about race and the Gospel in new ways. Greg did a question and answer session
with pastors and he was asked about how the Covenant here in the Pacific Northwest could do a better job of being multi-ethnic.
†††††††† Greg said, ďYou know,
for a long time weíve operated with the idea that we just need to make more
room at the table. Letís make the table big enough to include everyone.Ē He
said, ďThatís not bad, but itís still a matter of us opening up our table. But the Gospel says that we need to get up from our different
tables and create a new kingdom Table together.Ē
†††††††† Greg is right. As
Peter found for himself in the first century, it works on all sorts of
different levels. Yes, itís first and foremost about sharing the Gospel with
people who are different, but itís only truly the Gospel when we give up
ownership of the table and sit down with other people in such a way that we are
all equal before God. And that can mean literally eating together, eating each
†††††††† Here in the
twenty-first century weíre still with Peter figuring out what this all means.
Itís hard, itís complex. It was back then too. Turn to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem church is still working on it. Go further into Galatians and you
find Paul taking Peter to task because even he still didnít quite get it. We
donít have it yet either. All our American worries about immigration show us
that Christians in our country are still trying to figure out what the Gospel
means in terms of nationality and race and people who are different from us.
†††††††† I started out by
telling you that as much as Iíd like to think Iíve got a handle on it, that I
donít have any hang-ups about people over other races or nationalities. I know
itís not true. So I want to go on and say that I donít have any big answers. There
are no easy answers. Like that first church in Jerusalem we may end up
disagreeing about things like immigration.
†††††††† Yet look where Peter
pointed the Jerusalem church. Itís not a matter of figuring it all out,
creating a plan that will reconcile all the differences between people. Itís
about listening to the Holy Spirit. I repeat, in verse 12, Peter said, ďThe
Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them
and us.Ē Thatís really the heart of the rest of what Peter has to say. Being
with the Gentiles and bringing Christ to them was about what the Holy Spirit was
†††††††† The Holy Spirit is the
climax of Peterís defense in verses 15-17. As he began to speak about Jesus to
Cornelius and his household, the Holy Spirit came down on them, Peter says,
ďjust as it had upon us at the beginning.Ē Peter means what happened to the apostles
on the day of Pentecost.
†††††††† Luke devoted a long
part of Acts to this whole incident. Dealing with racial difference, taking the
Gospel to people† who are different, is not just a kind of add-on to the story
of the first churches. Itís right at the heart of what God is doing, what the
Holy Spirit who came down on Pentecost is doing. The coming of the Holy Spirit
to Corneliusí house is sometimes called the ďGentile Pentecost.Ē Peter saw it
†††††††† The big question for
you and I is there in verse 17, ďIf 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?Ē As Peter spoke those words to the church in Jerusalem, he implied
they ask the same question of themselves. Who were they to object to Peterís
dinner companions? If God pours out His Holy Spirit on all people, the Holy
Spirit promised and given through Jesus Christ, who is anyone to object to
where the Spirit chooses to go?
†††††††† Who are we to hinder
God? Letís honestly confront our feelings about people of other races. Itís not
just a matter of sliding over and making a little extra room for folks who are
different from us. Itís getting up and going out of our way to bring them the
Gospel, to sit down with them on their own terms.
†††††††† You all are
wonderfully welcoming. Anyone who comes here, and I would say, anyone of any
race, usually feels a warm welcome. Many of you felt it the first time you came
and itís why you are still here. We have a congregation that embraces some of
the differences in Godís kingdom. Weíre not all the same nationality. We donít
all speak the same native language. Weíre not all the same color. Praise God!
May the Holy Spirit keep on moving us to welcome each other like that.
†††††††† Yet our text today is
calling us out, to get up and go and sit down in other places where our roles
are reversed, places like that birthday party I went to in second grade. Letís
realize what distinctions we are making and quit making them.
†††††††† Those distinctions
exist right here in our own neighborhood. Look northwest cater-corner across
the intersection out there and youíll see Churchill Village where many of the
residents now are Hispanic. But itís not just race. Look to the east and you
will see subsidized apartments where many of our neighbors have some sort of
handicap or at the least make much less money than most of us. Turn and face
south and thereís Churchill Estates where the residents are older than most of
us. And across the street to the west is a high school with a thousand young people
younger than most of us.
†††††††† We donít have to go
far at all to find the distinctions. The question then is whether we will let
them separate us from others, and from each other. Will we find ways to get up
and go to where those others are and let them know that Jesus died and rose for
them, just like Peter preached in Acts 10 to Cornelius and his family?
†††††††† Letís keep making that
welcome. As the campaign weíve begun today suggests, we want everyone to be
comfortable here. Not just us, but people who are different. Thatís why we want
to heat this building on cold nights and welcome in those who have no warm
place to sleep. But I know Jim Kooiman would tell you thatís not enough. Weíre
not done with our distinctions if weíre just making room for a few mats on the
floor and a table with some sandwiches. Will some of us go and meet the same
folks where they usually sleep, where they often eat, under the bridge or at
the Mission or even on a street corner?
†††††††† Iím excited that Greg
Yee is our new conference superintendent. My prayer is that he will lead our
conference, and lead our church, into new dimensions of getting rid of our
distinctions. Weíve made a good start here at Valley Covenant. Letís keep
learning, keep facing the challenges like Peter did and learn how we can take
some more steps, how we can get up like Peter had to, and go out where those
different folks are.
†††††††† Thatís what God did.
Jesus came to us. He came to be with us ignoring the great distinction that we
are sinners and He is perfectly holy. And itís what God will do. In that great
scene we read from Revelation 21, what happens? Heaven comes down to earth. God
doesnít just pull His people up out of their places to sit at a Table in
heaven. No, the new Table, the new Jerusalem comes down to where we are, to
this earth, to make it all into Godís kingdom. God comes to live here, ďNow the
dwelling place of God is with human beings, and he will live with them.Ē
†††††††† God comes to us. And
in our Gospel text for this Sunday, John 13 verse 34, Jesus said ďAs I have
loved you, so you must love one another.Ē At least part of what He meant was
being worked out there at Corneliusí house. Quit making distinctions. Go to
people who are different, like Jesus came to us.
†††††††† What can you do?
Consider how you can make a connection with somebody different this week. Stop
and talk to the panhandler on the corner. Visit someone in a retirement
community. Work with little kids in Sunday School when you donít have any of
your own. Read the Covenantís new resolution on immigration. Go meet your
neighbor whoís from a different country. Plan now to go on our Mexico mission trip next year. Consider your own short-term mission. Listen for the Spirit
calling you to go somewhere people are different, where you are uncomfortable.
†††††††† The result of it all
is the kind of joy and praise they learned there in Acts 11:18, ďAnd then they praised God saying, ďThen God has given even to the Gentiles the
repentance that leads to life.Ē Letís quit making distinctions and go and meet
all those different people around us for Jesusí sake. Then we can really praise
†††††††† Valley Covenant Church
†††††††† Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
†††††††† Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj