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Even Who?

Sermon - 5/17/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Acts 10:44-48

The text that I want to share with you is the conclusion of a lengthy story in Acts 10.  Let me share with you a little bit about that story.

Up to this point in the gospel, all of the followers of Jesus are Jewish.  We celebrate the rich diversity of Pentecost Sunday when folks from all around the world gather together and hear the gospel, each in their own tongue.  But we forget sometimes that those are all Jewish pilgrims who come from all over the world to Jerusalem for the celebration of Pentecost.

Paul's mission to the Gentiles had not yet begun, and indeed this story in Acts 10 is the prelude, sets up that mission.

And so Chapter 10 opens with Cornelius, a Roman Gentile centurion, who we are told is a devout man who fears God.  That is, he respects the God of the Jews, and he supports the local synagogue and contributes to their causes.  And Cornelius receives a vision to send forth Peter (which he does, presumably sending some of the men under his command).  Meanwhile, Peter, in another town, also receives a vision of a non-kosher banquet in which he's supposed to eat.  But he refuses to do so because it wouldn't be proper for a Jew to eat unclean food.  But he hears a voice that says "What God has made clean you must not call profane".  And this happens two more times.

Now, of course, the reader immediately connects these two visions and we can see the larger picture of what's going on, but Peter does not have that benefit of knowing what we know, and so he's somewhat befuddled by this rather strange vision.  And while he is trying to figure it out, the delegation from Cornelius arrives and they tell them that their master has received this vision and bid him to come with them.  Of course, you don't refuse a delegation of Roman soldiers if you're a Jew in that society.  And so he goes.

And he arrives at the home of Cornelius and he tells Cornelius that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with Gentiles.  But he says, 'God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean'. 

Up to this point, in spite of everything that Peter learned from Jesus -- the stories Jesus told about God's love for all people, the daughter of the Roman centurion that Jesus healed, the Roman soldier who made his confession at the cross -- in spite of all that, Peter's vision is limited by his parochial understanding of the world that is divided between Jews and Gentiles, clean and unclean, saved and unsaved.  Nothing had prepared him for the possibility that God's vision in Christ was much, much bigger.  Until now.

Receiving his vision, hearing the testimony of Cornelius' men, and now meeting Cornelius himself, Peter is confronted with the evidence of this greater possibility in the form of this Roman Gentile soldier, who tells Peter of his own vision, and then says:  "We are all here in the presence of God to listen to whatever the Lord commands you to say".

Peter then comes to this groundbreaking realization.  He says:  "I truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who hears God and does what is right is acceptable to God".

And so Peter goes on to tell Cornelius and his household and soldiers the stories of Jesus and then the story concludes with these words:

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

 

This is, I believe, a most extraordinary story.  And as I indicated earlier, it is what makes Paul's mission to the Gentiles possible.  Opening the door, so to speak, for Paul (in the chapters that follow) to take the gospel from the heart of this small obscure nation on the eastern Mediterranean to the heart of the Roman Empire itself.

It was one of those "aha!" moments that changed everything.  That God chose the Jews does not mean that God does not choose others as well.

Sharon Watkins, in that wonderful celebration we had last Sunday, our General Minister and President, challenged us to put ourselves in the story that she shared with us of Jesus and the hemorrhaging woman.  This morning, I want to challenge you by asking not who are you in this story, but who are the Gentiles?  Who are those we think of as being on the outside?  The unclean, the unsaved?

When I last preached on this text (9 years ago), I suggested the one group which I felt meets this description the most, of people who have received the Holy Spirit but who were still, unfortunately, sadly, perceived in the church largely as outsiders.  The unsaved, the unclean, the Gentiles.  These are our brothers and sisters of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender orientation.

That sermon that I gave on May 28, 2000, in which I laid out the case for why I do not consider homosexuality to be a sin and why we should therefore not discriminate in any way against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, is the single-most read sermon on our web site.  I take that as a hopeful sign.

Indeed, there is a sea-change that is happening in this country on this issue.  I was privileged to serve on the Governor's Task Force that established the basis for civil unions, adopted by the Oregon Legislature in 2007.  And since then, same-sex marriage has become legal in 5 states and soon to be six.  And I know we're not all at the same place on that issue, but polls show that there is a slow, steady change in public attitudes.  About 2% every year for the last couple of decades grow in support, and they project by the year 2012, similar legislation will be supported in a majority of the states.  And by the year 2024, by all 50 states, with Mississippi being the last to join the fold.

Now, projections of course can be wrong, and they can change.  My point is simply that on this issue, the tide has turned.  And those who were once to us as Gentiles were to Jews, are now -- in more & more congregations like ours -- full members with all rights, privileges, and responsibilities.  Thanks be to God.

So, who else to we think of as 'Gentiles'?  What other groups are there on the outside, those Godly people filled with the spirit but who are often excluded by our parochial understanding of God's realm?

Wednesday, I was at Lane Community College for a course on religion and non-violence.  I was invited to come and give my perspective on Christianity and non-violence.  Afterwards, a woman raised her hand, not quite on topic, but asked what would I suggest to say to her 10 year-old daughter who recently came home from school in tears because she had been told that she was going to hell.

And we talked about that, and I suggested some things to read, like the book we're studying from Marcus Borg, and others.  Afterward, it occurred to me that maybe what I should have said is "Tell your daughter the only people God sends to hell are those who believe God is so petty and so small as to send others to hell who believe differently than they do".

But of course, that would be petty and small of God as well J.  So probably wouldn't have been a good thing to say after all. . . . .

I want to suggest that there is another sea-change that is coming.  And that change is transforming how we see people of other faiths and traditions.  It is also changing our relationship to them, for the better.

Here's a quote that illustrates that change, you'll never guess who it comes from: 

"I do believe there's an Almighty that is broad and big enough, loving enough, that can encompass a lot of people.  I don't think God is a narrow concept, I think God is a broad concept.  I just happen to believe the way to God is through Christ, and others have different avenues to God.  And I believe we pray to the same Almighty".

Any guesses?  It was indeed the President of the United States, in December of 2008, George W. Bush, in one of his out-going interviews.

The biggest indication of this sea-change that is just beginning is happening right here, literally.  I know many of you already know what I'm talking about.  We have a new video that was just given to me this week, I didn't have anything to do with its production, although I am quoted in it.  It tells the story better than I can, so I just want to play it for you:

[A video was then played to the congregation related to Interfaith cooperation -- telling the story and history of the Interfaith service held on the 11th of each month at First Christian Church]

 

I don't know where all of the Interfaith work is going, but it does feel in a very real way that we are fulfilling the vision expressed by the prophet Isaiah where God says 'My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples'.

And then I read passages like this that just make me go "hmmmm":

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.

 

Indeed.

 


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