A Sermon for 5th Sunday in Easter; Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35
Years ago, I went to some sort of conference on some ministry program or another, you can tell the program is not what captured my attention. Truth is I’m no longer sure if I was actually there, or if I have simply incorporated it into my story, either way it is a part of my world view. The speaker walks on to the stage, right past the podium, all the way to the other side ~ turns around and walks all the way across the stage again; only then goes to the podium. Without any introduction, the first words are “If you are not here because you love these people ~ leave!” Everyone’s attention is captured; everyone instinctively knows the truth they have just heard, without love, what we do doesn’t matter.
So, I was a little surprised when I was drawn to Acts, and not John’s Gospel reading this morning, and its focus on love. Three phrases from Acts stood out:
- What God has made clean; you must not call profane
- not to make a distinction between them and us, and
- who was I that I could hinder God?
I was all ready to start with who was I that I could hinder God until I read a blog post Without a Doubt on verse 12 not make a distinction between them and us. The author, my colleague Steve, got to digging around in the Greek and learned ‘doubt’ is a cognate or similar, translation to ‘not to make a distinction’ Further digging revealed that the Contemporary English Version translation is The Holy Spirit told me to go and not worry (Pankey).
And of course, Bobby McFerrin’s little song Don’t Worry Be Happy popped in my head. I was going to play it, but it is too long. The gist is, McFerrin runs through a list of life’s potential troublesome moments
you don’t have a place to lay your head,
your rent is late,
you don’t have any cash,
you ain’t got no style,
you got no gal to make you smile.
His advice is don’t worry if you do it will make your troubles double; so don’t worry be happy (McFerrin).
I got to wondering “What has Peter got to worry about?” He has just raised Dorcus, beloved disciple, from the dead, and many came to believe, which is great (Acts 9:36-43). Then He has a vision about forbidden foods, in which God says what I have made clean do not call profane (Acts 10:9-16). A vision can be an exciting thing, at the same time it can be a two-edge sword because God wants something. Then 3 strangers from the Roman centurion, Cornelius, show up asking for Peter (Acts 10:17-20). What could go wrong here? He goes to Caesarea (Acts 10:24) which is the capital of the Roman province, in the middle of Gentile territory (Easton). That puts him at risk of being seen as assimilating, adapting, to the majority Roman Empire’s culture, which is the opposite of God’s people being different (Peterson). Cornelius tells Peter So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say. (Acts 10:33) While Peter is preaching the Holy Spirit is poured out on the Gentiles (Acts 10:45). Peter’s response is to baptize everyone he can lay hands on, all of them gentiles. And then, like after every other church event, they share a meal, Peter sits at table with Gentiles (Peterson). There are all sorts of troublesome things here.
And trouble is where Peter is this morning. All I described happens in chapter 10. This morning’s reading is from chapter 11. Here Peter is called before a gathering of apostles and the believers, in Jerusalem, to explain what happened. He does so in a clear orderly way, focusing on God’s presence in every step (Gaventa and Petersen). Peter don’t worry, he’s happy, he knows he’s doing God work:
- Going to Caesarea, to the home of a Roman Centurion, and breaking the barrier of separation between Jews and Gentiles, is doing God’s work,
- preaching Jesus to Gentile, is doing God’s work,
- baptizing all in Cornelius’ household is doing God’s work,
- sharing a meal at a Gentile table is doing God’s work.
There are lots of things to worry about; but Peter don’t worry, he’s happy to be doing God’s work.
So ~ what about our troubles today? Today’s troubles:
- There is a rise in religious intolerance; in the middle east against Christian minorities, and in India, Burma, and China against Muslim minorities.
- There are all sorts of legislative machinations concerning abortion; a state legislator claimed pregnancy by rape is a gift from God (Stone), another lawmaker and former police officer, claimed that most rapes that he investigated were consensual (William).
- There are all the troubles around immigration, beyond the issue of the wall, and increasing numbers of people crossing the border,
- there are the continuing concerns with DACA,
- the lack of workers in agriculture, construction, hospitality, and other industries who are no longer able to recruit the number of temporary immigrant workers they have in recent years.
- There are threats to the economy, such as tariff conflicts, and Brexit.
- There is a vague threat of war in Venezuela with the effort to bring about a change in government.
- There is the threat of accidental war with Iran as tensions rise over the balance of power in the Middle East between Arab and Persian powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and their allies.
- There are the conflicting ideas about changing rain patterns slowing the planting season, breaching levies flooding towns and farmlands, and stopping barge traffic on long flooding rivers.
- There is the escalating violence in Blytheville.
- And of course, there are the changes at St. Stephen’s
All these involve crossing some sort of boundary or another, some sort of change or another. They involve how we see others, how we judge others, perhaps unaware, perhaps intentionally, and they involve how we see ourselves, our traditions, our faith, our understanding of God as right or simply better.
We face the same challenge Peter did, thought without, at least so far, a divine vision. But even with a vision, we, individually and as a community, face the decision the apostles and the believers in Jerusalem faced. Knowing nothing we do can bear fruit without God (Mast). We ponder
- does not changing hinder God?
- does changing hinder God?
- is this change of God?
- is God the only arbiter, and/or judge?
- is the direction unilaterally, singularly, directed by the Spirit?
- is God cleaning hearts (Gaventa and Petersen)?
- is the change loving each other, your neighbor, yourself, your enemy, your spouse, your children, your friends, your bus driver, your mailman, your pharmacist, everybody, as Jesus loved ~ loves ~ everyone, so that others know God/Jesus/Spirit’s presence in and through us (John 13:34-35) (Bates)?
In pondering we realize that loving as Jesus loves means accepting radical change in which God invites and enables us, to extend further, and embrace wider, so that individually and together we each become more (Ditewig). We realize how such love is hard, this it is never without sacrifice, pain, and challenges (Lewis).
These are challenging questions. They would take the heart of everyone, and there may come a day when our hearts fail; but not today. Today we don’t worry, today we be happy, today ~ we trust in God and in doing God’s work, after all, we do love these people (Wikiquote).
Bates, J. Barrington. “The Way of Love, Easter 5.” 19 5 2019. Sermons that Work.
Ditewig, Br. Luke. “Change.” Meeting Jesus in the Gospel. SSJE. Cambridge, n.d. Email.
Easton, M. G. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. Public Domain, 1897. Olive Tree.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 19 5 2019. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Lewis, Karoline. Real Love. 19 5 2019. <workingpreacher.org>.
Mast, Stan. Old Testament Lectionary — Axts11:1-18. 19 5 2019. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/>.
McFerrin, Robert Jr. “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Universal Music Publishing Group, 19 5 2019.
Pankey, Steve. Without a Doubt. 19 5 2019. <wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491/posts/1310831034>.
Peterson, Brian. Commentary on Acts 11:1-18. 19 5 2019. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Stone, Michael. Missouri Rep. Calls Pregnancy By Rape God’s ‘Silver Lining’. 4 5 2016. 17 2019. <patheos.com/blogs/progressivesecularhumanist/2016/05/missouri-rep-calls-pregnancy-by-rape-gods-silverlining>.
Wikiquote. The_Lord_of_the_Rings:_The_Return_of_the_King#Aragorn. n.d. 18 5 2019. <https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings:_The_Return_of_the_King#Aragorn>.
William. Missouri Lawmaker Says Most Rapes That He’s Investigated. 17 5 2019. <mavenroundtable.io/theintellectualist/news/missouri-lawmaker-says-most-rapes-that-he-s-investigated-areconsensual->.