A sermon based on Psalm 148 and Acts 11:1-18 preached on April 17th, 2016
On April 25th, 2014, German astronaut Alexander Gerst had a rare view outside his window. Across the many miles of space, he looked down at the bright blue ball of earth. It was like a marble hung from an invisible string—just floating there in its place—somehow both fragile-looking and resilient at the same time. Gerst commented at length about this moment, this astonishing and rare perspective.
Some things that on Earth we see in the news every day and thus almost tend to accept as a given, appear very different from an astronaut’s perspective. We do not see any borders from space. We just see a unique planet with a thin, fragile atmosphere, suspended in a vast and hostile darkness. From up here it is crystal clear that on Earth we are one humanity, we eventually all share the same fate.
From a bigger point of view, there are no lines drawn between countries. No borders or boundaries are visible from way up there. All any astronaut can see are the ripples of our planet’s biggest mountain ranges, the blue of water, and the green of earth. But that day, as Alexander Gerst stared down at our planet, he could also see the tiny poofs of bombs exploding up and down the Gaza Strip and how they continue to scar the land and its people.
What came to my mind at the time was, if we ever will be visited by another species from somewhere in the universe, how would we explain to them what they might see as the very first thing when they look at our planet? How would we explain to them the way we humans treat not only each other but also our fragile, blue planet, the only home we have? I do not have an answer for that.
We human beings are great at subdividing what was once whole. We’re also good at making enemies out of those who live on the other side of those imaginary divisions.
This is where I wish we had a projector and screen in the sanctuary. If we did, I’d go to Google.com and type in the beginning of a phrase: “Why are Christians so…”
Once I typed that, suggestions for how to finish that question would come up, and those suggestions would be based on all the different ways millions and millions of Google users have finished typing that question, trying their best to get an answer for it. Here are some of the most frequently asked of them: Why are Christians so… mean? Why are Christians so… obnoxious? Why are Christians so… stupid, judgmental, ignorant, hateful, intolerant, narrow-minded, hypocritical, annoying, crazy? If you backspace a bit and type “Why are Buddhists so…” the first result you get is, “happy.”
This is the way people view us Christians. Yes, its makes them sound a bit cynical and jaded, but you have to imagine they finished the sentence “Why are Christians so…<whatever>” in the way they did because they’ve had terrible experiences with Christians who have acted in all those ways.
When Mohandas Gandhi met a Christian pastor from England, they struck up a conversation about Jesus, and Gandhi told him,
I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
Scathing words spoken from people on the outside looking on! We’d do best to listen to them and honor them so that we can learn how better to represent the kindness and love of Christ—especially to those who have been burnt to a crisp by some of our fellow Christians.
The big controversy in the Church in Peter’s day is written about all throughout the New Testament. They couldn’t escape it no matter how hard they tried: Can Gentiles be a part of the Church? Did God love the Gentiles? Were they inside or outside God’s circle of salvation?
From Abraham and Sarah on, it was the Jews who were God’s chosen people. All the way through the times of Moses and Aaron, then Joshua and David, Isaiah and Jeremiah, there was no question about it: the Israelites were God’s chosen people. And now, all the sudden, Gentiles were coming to Peter and the other leaders of the early Christian church, asking to be baptized—to become a part of their Jesus movement, and no one knew quite what to do about this. Some said that any Gentile who wanted to become Christian must first become Jewish; get circumcised, and then become Christian! That’s the way they’ve always done it, so they thought it must be the only way to do it. Some others said,
There’s no reason for that—let’s not overthink this!—if a Gentile professes faith in Christ and wants to follow in His way, then let’s not get in the way! Who are we to argue with God about this?! Let’s baptize them and make them a part of Christ’s church!
The more I study history, the more I’m convinced that there’s nothing new under the sun. This ancient question of whether the Gentiles are “in” or “out” just takes on a different form today. Just substitute “Gentiles” for any group out there: homosexuals, immigrants, Mexicans—go right ahead and chose any other group of people if you’d like, but those are the most popular “Us vs. Them’s” of the day.
We’re still hung up on who’s on God’s good side and who’s not. And most likely, all of us think that we’re “in” and those others over there who are different than us in whatever way, are “out.” We’re always bumping up against the borders and boundaries of our own understanding of who God loves and welcomes in. And most of us are pretty sure of ourselves when it comes to these sorts of things! We very easily convince ourselves that our opinions are also God’s opinions, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else sees it differently. And that’s why Peter’s comment in verse 17 is so refreshing to see! Listen to what he says—remember, this is the first leader of the church talking here!:
If God gave them (in Peter’s case the Gentiles; in our case, fill in the blank), If God gave them the same gift He gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ (the gift Peter’s talking about is the Holy Spirit), then who am I—WHO AM I—to stand in God’s way?
Peter shares his dream (and it’s a wacky one) of a sheet with all these different non-kosher animals that Jews aren’t supposed to touch with a 10-foot pole, and he hears God’s voice.
Kill and eat!
Peter objects because there’s 1,000’s of years’ worth of rules against eating any of this stuff. And God says to Peter,
Never consider unclean what God has made pure.
What God says right there should make all of us stop in our tracks and ask ourselves a few question: What, these days, do we consider unclean and impure? What or who these days do we consider out of bounds? And just like those who disagreed with Peter about who’s in and who’s out, could it be that we have something new to learn about God’s grace and how surprising and expansive it is? Maybe God’s circle of inclusion is much bigger than we have ever thought or imagined it to be. Maybe what or who we have always considered “unclean” has always been pure and acceptable in God’s eyes, it’s just that our own rules and small fears get in the way of seeing how big God’s arms are? We might be scared to color outside these lines, but God isn’t. God doesn’t even see lines!
I think back to the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr and his fellow protesters had been working tirelessly to gain the right to vote for every black American. And the movement came to a head in Selma, Alabama. Those who risked their lives marching for equality were few in number. Most black and white folks stayed inside. They refused to become involved in any way whatsoever. But they watched from their TV screens on the night of March 7th, 1965 as the news broke into their regularly-scheduled programming and aired footage of black men and women and some of their white allies being beaten with clubs and stepped on by horses. It was a wretched scene that would wake up anyone from their ambivalence. If you watched that footage, you were either cheering or were made sick by it.
See, it’s one thing to have a political stance based on an ideology or principle or platform or an –ism, whether its racism or any other kind of –ism. It’s another thing entirely to witness personally how others suffer because of that -ism. The moment we’re able to put a face to all those abstract –isms. That’s when we see that real lives are affected by all these political stances and abstract ideologies we hold, that’s when politics gets personal.
Rules, principles, and ideologies are cold and calculated and separated from the people they affect, and that makes it very easy for us to overlook and stay disconnected. But stories and images of suffering and poverty and oppression—those are harder to ignore. Knowing that there are poor people out there because you’ve seen statistics in a newspaper is one thing. Spending slow time with a poor single mother as she tells you her story over a cup of coffee is something entirely different. Knowing racism exists is one thing, but sitting down with a black man at a lunch table and listening to him as he shares what his everyday life is like makes it personal and real.
That’s exactly what happened to Peter. He was met along the road by a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who told Peter his story and then asked that he be baptized. And that’s when all the old rules, borders, and boundaries that held Peter to his narrow grasp of God’s grace started to crumble apart. That’s when God started coloring outside all the lines that Peter and so many of his fellow Jewish Christians had drawn in their own minds. Our adherence to abstract, person-less rules have a tendency to shrink our compassion and patience. But when we look a person in the eyes and take time to listen to their stories, that’s when these things take on flesh and become more than ideas. And God is much more interested in people than He is in principles. He’s much more interested in real relationships than He is in rules, and God wants that to be true of us, too. That’s what Peter realized that day.
God pries open the narrowness of our long-held rules and wants to introduce us to real people who put a face to all those faceless rules and regulations that are in place. But that can only happen when we’re willing to take the risk of surrounding ourselves with those who are unlike us—when we become willing to sit down with them and listen to their stories. And in that sharing, in that holy space, we will come to recognize their humanity—that there really are no borders or boundaries between us, that they too are a beloved child of God. And who are we to stand in God’s way?
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!