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,
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
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
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
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
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
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