St. Matthew’s Sermon 04-24-2016

St. Matthew’s Sermon 04-24-2016

God IS Still Speaking

Acts 11:1-18, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. Amen.

Last week I spoke of unity within the Christ’s Church and mentioned how, even though they had all received the same Holy Spirit, there was sometimes division between the Apostles. As one of the examples of that conflict I mentioned, without detail, that there was “conflict between Peter and the Jerusalem Church when Peter baptized a family of Gentiles”. How interesting and how convenient is it that today we hear that very story from the Book of Acts.

Peter’s recount of the events is very detailed, but not quite word for word of the original story that immediately precedes it in the book. By doing this the author who put it to paper is doing several things: 1) with repetition he is making sure the reader understands the great importance of the message this event contains. 2) He is forcing us to pay attention to all the details, being sure we aren’t skimming over the text and only grasping what we presume to be the central theme. And 3) he is emphasizing how the whole story worked out over time, being certain that we don’t get the impression that it was an instantaneous revelation delivered by God, but a process inspired by God. So as not to take away from Luke’s effort, I will choose to walk us through the story step-by-step.

Now, I did say that Peter’s recount is almost word for word, but there are a few differences between the original narrative and the retelling by Peter. One is that in the original, Peter is staying in the home of “a certain Simon, a tanner”. Today we might easily miss the significance of this “minor” detail, but remember, Peter’s birth name was Simon before Jesus gave him the nickname; and realize that a “tanner”, one who comes in contact with the blood and other remnants of a dead animal, whether a Gentile or a Jew, was very “unclean” under Jewish Law. So, even though they share the same name, they are two very different people, yet, curiously, Peter is living in the unclean man’s house.

Also omitted from Peter’s recount is the detail of his situation when he saw the vision. As stated in the original narrative…Peter went up on the roof to pray.  He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance…” So, Peter is not only living in an unclean home, he is eating there also.

This might not seem to hold much importance until his vision begins; the clean and unclean foods are presented to him and the voice says ““Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”” In this we see a bit of contradiction. Peter declares “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” while he is waiting for a meal to be prepared in an unclean home. At the very least we can see that Peter is living in the grey area somewhere between extreme purity according to the Law and the impurity of eating food prepared in an unclean house.

And this is a large part of the story. Remember how Jesus and the Pharisees were always butting heads? They lived in the extreme of purity according to the Law; but Jesus, though not rejecting the Law, called for some wiggle room; some focus on the intent of the Law rather than just strict adherence; and he resented its use for judgment and condemnation of others. So Peter is still trying to find his place in all this, remaining a devout Jew while also accepting the teachings of Jesus as his means of salvation.

Yet another detail Peter omits in his retelling is that Cornelius, the man the Spirit told to find Peter and the Spirit told Peter to go to, was not only a Gentile, he was a Roman Centurion; though described as a righteous believer in God and respected by the Jewish community, he was a part of the oppressive occupying forces of Rome, and not just a peon, but a commander; thus, not only a Gentile, but an enemy as well.

This tells us that the story isn’t about what God has declared clean or unclean, as in what food Peter should or should not eat (or at least not only that) but that it is about who God declares clean or unclean, as in who can hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and receive the Holy Spirit.

Still another omission from the original story is the account of Peter’s sermon to Cornelius and his family, which is, of course, the Good News of Jesus Christ, that was interrupted by the falling of the Holy Spirit on all of them. As it is explained in that part of the text… “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles…”

“[They] were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles…” Let that sink in for a moment…  “[They] were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles…” Their minds were blown, how could this be, these dirty, profane Gentiles just received the same gift of God that we devout Jews had received.

Okay, so I misspoke in the beginning of this message. There are not a “few differences between the original narrative and the retelling by Peter”, there are many. And I hope you can see by this that Luke wants us to pay close attention when reading any part of his account, especially this one. And in the shadow of current events all over the world and current events right here in St. Matthew’s, it is very important for us to pay especially close attention to this message. So let’s tie this to our time and situation; step-by-step.

Peter, by name, and at least some of the Jerusalem believers have just spent three years or so walking, talking and listening with the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ. Yet in this story we see that things are still being worked out in the New Way of Christ with the help, encouragement, and prodding of God.  Some of what Peter saw on that sheet, in his vision, was declared unclean by God in the ancient scriptures and the same is true about associating with the Gentiles. But listen carefully to the voice Peter heard saying “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”.

Peter was already living in that grey area a bit outside of extreme purity and he defended himself from contamination by declaring “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But God doesn’t push him out of the unclean house to a cleaner place; God pushes him to an even less desirable place for a devout Jew. This not only tells us that God has made some changes “making clean” but also gives credence to our UCC statement “God is still speaking”. The Word made Flesh has already ascended to heaven but new things are still being revealed to the Apostles.

The character of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion; yet described as a righteous believer in God, shows us that it is not who we are affiliated with that makes us righteous, but who we are inside ourselves and how we act toward others as God seeking people that makes that designation. By Jewish standards of extreme purity he had many undeniable strikes against him; but God saw the kindness and generosity of his heart and the desire to know God’s ways of his soul. God, who sees what human eyes cannot see, offered him salvation.

And the astonishment Peter and his companions felt toward the gift of the Holy Spirit being given to Gentiles is the same mind-blowing astonishment we should feel for ourselves and for those we think unworthy, when receiving that marvelous, un-earnable gift. And… when we think there are those who don’t deserve what we have received we should not make our own declaration but rather should ask ourselves “who am I that I could hinder God”?

Finally, there’s that one little verse at the end of today’s reading that we should repeat in every instance that we see someone of another nation, tradition, culture, or any other way of being different who receives the Spirit “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Peter had a vision and heard a command that countered his-long held convictions and he was perplexed. Yet, while wrestling with this he obeyed the direction of the Holy Spirit and, against his own convictions, went to Cornelius, entered his home, preached the Gospel, witnessed the Spirit fall on all of them, and then, far counter to his previous understanding, baptized all of them.

God is still speaking!

The brothers in Jerusalem hear of this and “criticize” him. But once they hear Peter’s experience they realize that God is still speaking. And they were silenced.

And instead of being angry or disappointed or perplexed or resistant; they accept the fact that God is making the changes happen that Christ called for when he said ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ “And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.””

God is still speaking!



Acts 11:1-18
11:1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.
11:2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,
11:3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
11:4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,
11:5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.
11:6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.
11:7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’
11:8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
11:9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’
11:10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
11:11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.
11:12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.
11:13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter;
11:14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’
11:15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.
11:16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
11:17 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?”
11:18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Revelation 21:1-6
21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
21:2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
21:3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
21:4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
21:5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
21:6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

John 13:31-35
13:31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.
13:32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
13:33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’
13:34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
13:35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”