Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Same Gift

John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18
April 24. 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Both of our readings today mark important turning points – for followers of Jesus, and in the life of the church. As I mentioned last week, the church we are talking about did not even exist during the time of the gospels, when Jesus was on the earth. Christianity was only beginning to develop in the Book of Acts, when those who believed in the risen Lord began to meet in homes early in the morning on the first day of the week. Like the sudden conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus, these events changed everything – everything – about what people understood themselves to be as followers of Jesus. Our first reading, from John’s gospel, takes place at the Last Supper, when Jesus is celebrating Passover with the disciples. Judas has just left the room, to complete his betrayal of Jesus. And now, Jesus gives a new commandment, new to these faithful men and women who have left everything to follow him.

Let’s listen for God’s inclusive word in John 13:31-35

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 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.' 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

The good news of the gospel. Thanks be to God.

In our second reading, we are again in the book of Acts, and traveling with Peter in the region of Lydda and Joppa. Peter has had an astonishing experience with a Gentile, described in complete detail in chapter 10. Now he has been called on the carpet by the leadership who are in Judea. They have asked for an explanation of Peter’s audacious hospitality to a Roman centurion, a Gentile named Cornelius. They’ve asked, as the Pharisees asked Jesus, what he is up to, welcoming unclean people and eating unclean food. Let’s listen for Peter’s explanation in Acts 11:1-18

1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?"

4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 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. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' 8 But I replied, "By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 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. 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; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 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.' 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?" 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."

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Do you remember watching “I Love Lucy” with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz?
It was such a fun television series. Every week, Lucy would get up to something crazy and hilarious, usually hiding it from her husband Ricky, played by her real-life husband, the Cuban musician and actor Desi Arnaz. Every week, Lucy would do something crazy, and when Desi would find out, he say, “Okay, Luuuuuu-ceeeeeeee! Start esplaining!”

In a way, that is what is happening here in the eleventh chapter of Acts. Peter has been asked for an explanation of his decision to accept the hospitality of a Roman centurion who asked him to come to his home. Peter has violated two important and central prohibitions of his people – you don’t eat unclean food, and you don’t eat with unclean people.

Just as his opposition asked of Jesus, “Who is this man who welcomes sinners and eats with them?” Peter’s colleagues, the leaders of this new religious movement, want an answer to their question, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

In other words, “You got some splainin’ to do!”

I think it is important to say that this was a reasonable question. There was a lot at stake for them in these early days of the church. Whenever a new movement is beginning to define itself, it is crucial to sort out its identity. Were they primarily a Jewish movement, and was this message of Christ only for them? After all, Jesus was a Jewish man, one of their own, observant and well-versed in scripture. He knew the law and the dietary restrictions, and the rules of who and what was clean or unclean. So it was an important question: “Whose church IS this, anyway?”

The question has not gone away, not for two thousand years. It has been asked about every kind of person that anyone ever considered to be an outsider. Whose church is it? And who is not welcome? What right does Peter have to extend that kind of welcome, especially to, of ALL people, a Roman soldier?!

There is something inside each one of us that wants to keep the best for ourselves,
that wants to shut the door behind us once we get in,
that wants some group or person to look down on, or blame,
that wants to draw dividing lines and separate “us” from “them.”
It is part of being human, of being flawed and sinful.

We all have it, and then we get together in groups, like the church, and the lines in the sand start getting carved in stone. We start to sound like fourth-grade girls in a backyard clubhouse: “It’s our church. We founded it. We get to say who can be in it.”

The newborn church had to struggle with this.
They had to pray about it and discuss it.
Perhaps the reason the Spirit led Peter and not Paul, the new convert,
to this moment was that Peter was a long-time trusted disciple.
In any case, when the request came to him, Peter responded with love,
in an act of hospitality as generous as the invitation that was issued to him.

Peter asked, “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?"

After all, Jesus had picked grain on the Sabbath.
He had sat down at table with all sorts of people,
and had welcomed Samaritans and tax collectors and pagans.

And Peter had not just gone off willy-nilly, baptizing Gentiles;
he’d been led by a vision, a dream, by the Holy Spirit.
And so had Cornelius.

The scripture tell us that when the Christians in Judea they heard this, they were silenced.
And then – then they praised God! They did not split away from one another and form two new churches, saying, “Those people are apostate and we want to be pure.”

They praised God!

And that’s the good news in this story.

This church belongs to Christ. 
All churches belong to Christ.
Christ is the head of the church.
Not me, not you, not the Session, not General Assembly, not the pope.

Jesus is the one who is the judge.
Not me, not you, not the pastor down the street, not the pope.

And this head of our church is a different sort of rabbi,
a teacher who emphasized God’s love,
and who commanded his followers to love one another,
to love their neighbors, and to even love their enemies!

Bless those who curse you, he said, and pray for those who abuse you.
Love one another – this is how everyone will know you are my disciples, he told them 
– he said it was a new commandment. 
Not just a suggestion, but A NEW COMMANDMENT!

Jesus had shown them that the law was not abolished –in fact he had come to fulfill the law – but that the law of love, the great commandment, was the first law. It was the same gift then, for the Jews and the Gentiles. It is the same gift now, for all people. This great commandment is who we are. It is the core of our identity as Christians.

Peter asked, “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?"

Who was he indeed, and who are we?

We are people who have received the gift of God,
people called to follow Jesus,
called to live like Jesus,
called to love like Jesus.
That’s who we are.

“Then God has given even to the ______________ (you fill in the blank!) 
the repentance that leads to life.”

They praised God,
and we praise God,
that we have all received the same gift,
of life
of love
of Christ
of the church.

Thanks be to God!

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