"Who Are We to Hinder God?"
Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35
If you haven’t read through the whole book of Acts, I encourage you to do so, to get the overall narrative. Most of the first half of the book of Acts is concerned with the Jerusalem church. Then there’s a geographical movement in the story, away from Jerusalem, as the gospel spreads.
In Acts chapter 8, an angel of the Lord sends Philip to a wilderness road where he ends up interpreting the book of Isaiah to the Eunuch. When they came to some water, the Eunuch asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” According to the religious rules and customs, there was a lot to prevent him being baptized, but nevertheless Philip baptized him.
Saul has been zealously persecuting the disciples until his life-changing encounters-- with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and then with Ananias, who laid his hands on Saul and something like scales fell from his eyes, and he was able to see things differently.
In Acts chapter ten, Luke tells how the Roman centurion Cornelius, who was seeking God, had a vision in which an angel of God told him to send for Simon Peter…and how Peter received a vision that challenged his ideas about what it meant to be a person of faith.
The church was growing. But including the Gentiles brought a crisis in the life of the church.
It’s hard for us to appreciate the intensity of the controversy that’s summarized in the story we just heard. After all, what’s the big deal about eating pork or other unclean animals? But to the early church, it was a big deal.
Jesus was a Jew... and his first followers were Jews. Although Jesus had challenged some of the religious traditions to the point where some in the religious establishment wanted to have him executed-- the early church really hadn’t questioned the authority of the taboos of the ancient purity and holiness laws.
According to Jewish tradition, it was unlawful for Jews to enter a Gentile house... or receive Gentile guests... or eat with them. Peter was an observant Jew, and he’d taken these regulations for granted and observed them all his life. But then he has an experience that challenges his understanding. He receives some heavenly visions that forbid him from counting as unclean anything that God has made clean. Peter’s understanding of what it means to live faithfully has been changing. In the lesson we heard last week from Acts, we heard that Peter stayed in the house of Simon the tanner, who would have been considered ritually unclean because he worked with the carcasses of dead animals.
The Spirit leads him to Cornelius, and he discovers that God has been working on Cornelius too. As he shares the good news of peace in Jesus Christ, he sees the Holy Spirit fall upon all who hear the word.
Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit, just as we have? So he orders them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ... and he stays with them for a while.
Now, the apostles back in Jerusalem and the believers in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized Peter, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
It seemed very clear to what God required of them. For many centuries, their religious tradition had taught them that to be a “holy” people means to be separate... and to have very clear, distinct boundaries between their community and those outside the community.
According to the purity codes of their tradition, something was “clean” if it fit wholly and neatly inside particular categories. For example, in the purity laws in Leviticus 11, the people of Israel are told that they could eat “any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud.” Camels and rock badgers and hares and pig didn’t fit into this category, so they were “unclean” and forbidden.
The Levitical laws spelled out in detailed terms that certain things were totally unacceptable in Israelite culture, and therefore an “abomination:” things like eating unclean food... idolatrous practices... not keeping the Sabbath… and magic, to name just a few. The Holiness Code prohibited a long list of things that included the cross-breeding of animals and the mixing of grain or fibers. The Code was equally clear that children who curse their parents should be put to death.
Those of us who routinely eat ham or multi-grain bread… or wear cotton/polyster fabric blends have a hard time comprehending just how controversial these changes were for the early church. These rules were part of the time-honored religious tradition, and for many faithful people, it was really gut-wrenching to think about breaking them. Did you hear Peter’s revulsion when he heard God’s command? “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
Yet, in the Acts story, we hear how the church learns from the Spirit and changes. The early church in Judea comes to accept Gentiles into the faith community. They realize that they’re going to be in relationship with people they’ve always avoided because they believed them to be unclean. They decide that the church should minister to them, and they send Paul and Barnabas out to work with the emerging congregations.
God had a new vision for the church and what it means to be God’s holy people. The God who created the world is disrupting the boundaries humans constructed. The Spirit continued to challenge some of the traditional beliefs and taboos... as “the word of God grew and multiplied” and reached to the ends of the earth.
Through Jesus, God gave us a new commandment: that we are to love one another, just as Jesus loved us. Through John, God gave us a vision of a new heaven and earth, and said, “I am making all things new.”
Before Peter baptized them, God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles. God’s spirit is ahead of us, leading us, and working in and through us, despite whatever dividing walls we may have constructed. This is good news, considering how often we get things wrong, and how often we persist in making distinctions between “us” and “them” based on race, language, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, our fears, and other differences, real and constructed.
“The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” The Spirit counseled Peter to accept what had already been true about God: God does not show favoritism.
God does not show favoritism. To be honest, we might be resistant to that idea. Haven’t we at some point longed to be the favorite? “I was Dad’s favorite.” “Mom loved me best.” Has that made us feel special? But God does not show favoritism. God loves all of God’s children.
We are living in a time of great change in our society and in the church—a time that a lot of folk experience as scary or confusing. And yet, I’m becoming more and more convinced that following Jesus isn’t complicated. Jesus came to came to live among us, full of grace and truth, to show us the way of self-giving love.
As Elizabeth Johnson wrote: “Jesus could not be clearer: It is not by our theological correctness, not by our moral purity, not by our impressive knowledge that everyone will know that we are his disciples. It is quite simply by our loving acts -- acts of service and sacrifice, acts that point to the love of God for the world made known in Jesus Christ.”
I agree with Dr. Johnson. Jesus was very clear what the greatest commandments are, and they’re about love. It’s clear that we are called to show that we follow Jesus by how we love people.
Now, it’s clear that we are called to love one another. But nobody said it would be easy. Look around you at the people sitting here in the pews. Do we see any perfect people—people that are always easy to love? People who are always perfectly loving? No. None of us is perfect. We all have our little quirks... and warts. In this community, we have this treasure in earthen vessels. But the vessels are imperfect and maybe a little cracked in one way or another. God isn’t finished working on any of us yet.
The good news is that God has created each and every one of us in the image of God... and gifted each of us for some kind of special ministry. We’re not here to try and make someone else into our image of what we’d like them to be. We’re called to love one another into being more and more fully the person God created and gifted us to be.
I’ve probably shared this story with you before, but it’s a wise story and bears repeating.
There was a famous monastery, which had fallen on hard times. In better times, its many buildings had been filled with young monks... and its big church resounded with the singing of chant. But now it was nearly deserted. People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer. A handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised God with heavy hearts, because they could see that their order was dying.
On the edge of the woods near the monastery, an old rabbi had built a little hut. He would come there from time to time to fast and pray. No one ever spoke with him. But whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk: “The rabbi walks in the woods.” And for as long as he was there, the monks would feel strengthened by his prayerful presence.
One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi, and to open his heart to him. So after the morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome. It was as though he had been waiting there for some time. The two embraced like long-lost brothers. Then they stepped back and just stood there, smiling at one another with smiles their faces could hardly contain.
After a while, the rabbi motioned the abbot to enter. In the middle of the room was a wooden table with the scriptures open on it. They sat there for a moment in the presence of the book. Then the rabbi began to cry. The abbot could not contain himself. He covered his face with his hands and began to cry, too. For the first time in his life, he cried his heart out. The two men sat there like lost children, filling the hut with their sobs and wetting the wood of the table with their tears.
After the tears had ceased to flow and all was quiet again, the rabbi lifted his head. “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said. “You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you this teaching, but you can only repeat it once. After that, no one must say it aloud again.”
The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, “The messiah is among you.”
For a while, all was silent. Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.” The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back.
The next morning, the abbot called the monks together in the chapter room. He told them he had received a teaching from “the rabbi who walks in the woods” and that this teaching was never again to be spoken aloud. Then he looked at each of his brothers and said, “The rabbi said that one of us is the messiah!”
The monks were startled by this. “What could it mean?” they asked themselves. “Is brother John the Messiah? Or Father Matthew? Brother Thomas? Am I the messiah? What could this mean?”
They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi’s teaching. But no one ever mentioned it again.
As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a very special reverence. There was a gentle, whole-hearted, human quality about them now which was hard to describe-- but easy to notice. They lived with one another as ones who had finally found something. But they prayed the scriptures together as seekers who were always looking for something.
Occasional visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks. Before long, people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks. And once again, young men were asking to become part of the community.
In the first few centuries in the life of the Christian church, the faith spread like wildfire, in spite of the fact that professing faith in Jesus Christ could be dangerous. It was observed that people outside the church would look at the people inside the church and exclaim, “See how they love one another!” And they would want to be a part of this community of love.
Imagine it! The people gathered here learning to treat one another with such love that people outside the church notice! Imagine our reputation spreading: “Littlefield Presbyterian Church-- that’s that really loving church—the church where everybody loves one another!”
So be it.
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
April 24, 2016
Lev. 13; 14:33-57.
Acts 12:14; 16:5; 19:20
 Acts 11:12
 Elizabeth Johnson, “Commentary on John 13:31-35.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2830
 I’m not sure of the source for this particular version of this story. It appears in slightly different versions in various places. I think the first time I heard it was years ago in an early edition of M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled (1978).