Sermon: Even on the Gentiles

Sunday 6 May 2018
The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 10:23b-35, 44-48

Baptism_of_corneliusWe’re continuing our Eastertide journey through the book of Acts. We haven’t read it yet this season, but one of the first things that happens in the Book of Acts is the Pentecost. This is when the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles and they speak in tongues. That’s already a problem. What is this speaking in tongues thing? Most Methodists and Lutherans break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it. I had a professor who said that Methodists suffer from Pentecostaphobia—the fear of becoming Pentecostal. And I suspect Lutherans may suffer from the same malady. We’re afraid to put our hands up in the air for fear that they might get stuck there. And speaking in tongues, once you do that, its only a short step until you’re knocking people over at the altar, and there’s someone running up and down the aisle playing a tambourine with red streamers tied to it.

And the writer of Acts doesn’t help us much with the problem. We’re not even sure whether speaking tongues means speaking in foreign languages or speaking in other-worldly languages. All Luke tells us is that speaking in tongues is a sure sign of the Holy Spirit, and that when the apostles speak at Pentecost, all of the foreign Jews in Jerusalem can understand them in their own languages.

Notice that I said all the Jews in Jerusalem, because Jesus, and all of his disciples, and all of the members of the early of church are Jews. Gentiles were not allowed into the church unless they had first been circumcised and become Jews. The early Christian movement was a sect of Judaism, and Pentecost did not change that. Anyone who was not a good Jew was considered outside the realm of God.

So when Peter, a good Jesus-following Jew, receives a vision that he is to go out to the Gentiles, he has a hard time believing it. He doesn’t want to ruin his ritual purity by mixing with unclean Gentiles. But in Peter’s vision, the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  So when Peter is called to the house of Cornelius, a God-fearing, Roman centurion, he goes, even though it is a violation of the biblical purity laws.

When Peter gets to the house, along with his companions, Cornelius has assembled all of his friends and family to hear Peter’s message. So Peter begins to preach, and as he’s still speaking, the Holy Spirit comes upon the gentiles, and they begin to speak in tongues.

It’s a repeat of Pentecost, when Christians first experienced the Holy Spirit, but this time it is all wrong, at least as far as Peter’s companions are concerned. In fact, it just can’t happen. Doesn’t God understand that there is an order and a process to these sorts of things: first of all, the gentile must become a Jew by being circumcised and following the Kosher dietary laws, then after a period of study, they can become Christians by being baptized, and then, only if they’re lucky, maybe they can be filled with the Holy Spirit. I mean, it’s not like the Spirit descends on just anybody. So far in the story, it’s only happened twice: once on Jesus, after he was baptized by John and once at Pentecost. But this is just wrong. It’s like these gentiles have graduated with a PhD before they’ve even finished high school, and the other graduates just can’t understand it. And they’re bitter too. What is God doing?

Sometimes we have the same problem. We would prefer if God would only call those people that fit into our understanding of righteousness. We would prefer if God would be predictable and follow the rules that we have established. First they have to clean themselves up and learn how to act properly, and then we’ll consider letting them in.

There is perhaps no starker example of this in the American experience than the predicament of black Christians in white churches. Richard Allen recounts an incident that occurred as he and other black Christians attempted to go to an integrated church, where they were in fact members. He writes: “A number of us usually attended St. George’s church in Fourth Street; and when the colored people began to get numerous in attending the church, they moved us from the seats we usually sat on, and placed us all around the wall, and on Sabbath morning we went to church and the sexton stood at the door, and told us to go in the gallery. He told us to go, and we would see where to sit. We expected to take the seats over the ones we formerly occupied below, not knowing any better. We took those seats. Meeting had begun, and they were nearly done singing, and just as we got to our seats, the elder said, ‘Let us pray.’ We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees, H——- M——–, having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees, and saying, ‘You must get up—you must not kneel here.’ Mr. Jones replied, ‘Wait until prayer is over.’  Mr. H—– M—– said ‘No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away.’ Mr. Jones said, ‘Wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.’ With that he beckoned to one of the other trustees, Mr. L—– S—– to come to his assistance. He came, and went to William White to pull him up. By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church.”

You might be thinking that this took place somewhere in the Deep South, probably in an especially conservative denomination. It did not. It took place in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American Democracy, and it took place in a Methodist Church. The African Americans who were thrown out went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, because the white Methodist church could not and would not recognize the gifts that they possessed. They were too caught in their own societal rules of right and wrong, in and out. This story is a part of our heritage, a sad chapter when we did not think of a black person as worthy even to kneel in prayer to the creator.

And this is not a problem that is limited only to 1st century Palestine and 18th century Philadelphia. Throughout history, we Christians have had a hard time comprehending that God pours out blessing “even on the Gentiles.” We have too often closed the doors of the church to anyone outside the elite: to slaves, to the poor, to African Americans, to women we have kept the door closed, to Hispanics, to the LGBTQ community, to Native Americans, to disabled persons, to aboriginal peoples, to the meek, to Arabs, to teenagers, to anyone that we label “sinner”, to the dirty, the homeless, the mentally ill…. We say, “How could God work through someone like that?  How could God possibly work through them?”

Fortunately for us, Peter sets a good example. He recognizes God’s actions, even in such an unexpected place as among the Gentiles. He is able to overcome his upbringing and his training and his fear just long enough to see God’s face in those supposedly unclean faces. He sees God out front leading the way and decides to get into line. He takes the step of baptizing Gentiles, for the first time ever, because God has left him no other choice. God has already conferred a doctoral degree on the Gentiles, and the least Peter can do is hand out High School diplomas.

But it isn’t an easy road for Peter. When the other disciples find out what he’s done, they are more than a little concerned, and they chastise him for even eating with Gentiles, let alone baptizing them. What kind of riffraff is he bringing in? But Peter doesn’t give up. He sticks to his principles and argues his case before the whole church. And… his voice eventually carries the day, though not without some grumbling. Peter’s testimony opens the mind and doors of the church to Gentiles for the first time.

Why is that important? If Peter had not stood up for the outsiders, against the objections of the believers, then Christianity would have remained a Jewish sect. The church would never have been opened up to the likes of you and me. You see, you and I would have been far too unclean to even be considered for membership in the pure church. If it were not for Peter, breaking both the rules and the law to open up the church to the unclean, then the Gospel of Jesus Christ would never have been preached to us, the love of God never offered.

Fortunately for us as well, God continues to lead the way. God persists in showing up where we least expect, choosing people we would not choose. It happens over and over again in the Bible, and it happens over and over again in our world.

I’ve been struggling all this week to think about how to talk about this next part. Because the question I have to answer is Who are today’s gentiles? Who are the people we would never expect to see God working among? Who are the people we would consider Godless. Maybe we wouldn’t call them Godless, but we would think that God was not on their side. Who would those people be that would make us surprised that God’s Spirit had been poured out “even on the….”?

And the truth is, that’s a hard question to answer. It depends on how we define “we.” And it forces us to consider marks of identity that are much deeper than our conscious thought.

You all know we live in a time of political polarization. And people often ask why that is. Why are we so divided? And science is starting to give us answers about that. Studies show that we as humans are incredibly strongly motivated by the desire for our group to win. One experiment showed that if people are divided into two teams—it doesn’t matter how you divide them, so long as they know that they are on two different teams—and then you make them choose between two options. In option A, everyone on both teams gets $5. In option B, everyone on my team gets $4 and everyone on the other team gets $2—do you know which option people tend to choose. They choose option B. They are willing to give up the gains of a mutually beneficial situation if it means that their team gets to win. Even if I am better off personally with a solution that helps everyone, I will tend to prefer a situation in which I get less as long as it means that my side wins

And, it turns out, no matter what the political issue is, people are more motivated by their team identity than they are by the merits of the issue itself. If you tell people about an imaginary policy question, and you say that Democrats say Yes and Republicans say No, guess what people will choose? They will choose with their party identity. And if you take another group of people, give them the same issue, but flip it around, say that Democrats say No and Republicans say Yes, people will still choose with their party identity. The team loyalty is more powerful than the actual merits of the issue. And, as it turns out, the more engaged someone is politically, the more this is true. People who are more informed are less likely to take the other side’s argument seriously, are more likely to just side with their own team regardless of the specifics.

And it’s not just in politics. It happens with every kind of group and every identity marker. If being rural is important to me, I’m likely to think that city people are the enemy. If being educated is important to me, then I’m likely to think that uneducated people are too stupid to have good ideas. And yes, if being Christian is important to me, then I’m likely to think of non-Christians are evil. If, however, being an open-minded, ecumenical Christian is important to me, then I’m likely to think of other Christians, the one’s who are uncomfortable with inter-religious dialog, I’m likely to think of them as the enemy. We want our team to win, and we want the other team to fail. The impulse is unavoidable.

But God doesn’t care about which teams we say we’re on. Race doesn’t keep God from being present. Gender doesn’t keep God from being present. Sexual orientation doesn’t keep God from being present. Political party, class, nationality, immigration status, age, health status, disability, intelligence, wealth, occupation, religion, denomination—none of them determine whether or not God is present. Ralph Vaughn Williams was an atheist for most of his life, but that didn’t stop God from using him to write some of the most beautiful church music we have. Choose a group, whoever you think the enemy is—God is there in the midst of them somewhere. The Holy Spirit is poured even on the Gentiles.

Which even includes us, thanks be to God. The truth is, we all feel inadequate to be in God’s presence. Inside each of us is that voice that reminds us of all things we’ve done wrong, all the ways we aren’t good enough. “Who do you think you are to call yourself a Christian? What makes you think you’re so worthy and righteous?” That voice keeps us away. Whether it is spoken out loud or whether it simply echoes in the back of our minds, it keeps us away.

But God has a different idea. God loves each of us with an unconditional love, a love that sees beyond the things that we have done wrong, or which team we are on, to the possibilities that we have. By God’s grace, even the outcast, even the lonely, even the hurting, even the sinners, even the Democrats, even the Republicans, even those who don’t claim the name Christian, even the Gentiles… even these can become vessels for the Holy Spirit. May God work within us to open our hearts, minds, and doors to the surprising and unexpected actions of God in the world and in all the people around us. Amen.

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