Sermon – April 24, 2016 – The Rev Keith Owen

Easter 5, Year C


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.

I’m sure many of you can relate to the common experience I remember as a child, an experience I dutily inflicted, with limited success, upon my own children. My brothers and I were somewhat picky eaters. Apart from pizza, hamburgers, fried chicken, and a few other things, mom never stood much of a chance of putting three or more things on the table that we would all eat cheerfully. There were certain things: beets, for example, or green peas, or even rice, that I would try surreptitiously to hide in my napkin to avoid eating. Cooked vegetables, forget about it.

Having both grown up in large, fairly poor families during the great depression, mom and dad would berate us with stories of the food insecurity with which they grew up. They declared that we were lucky we had food at all. Mom and dad were highly annoyed at this behavior in our own home. But their tolerance ended at the front door. My brothers and I knew that if we tried any of our tricks in another home, where we were guests at dinner, there would be fearsome consequences. Shall we just say my parents were of the old school when it came to discipline! The LAW in our family? in someone’s else’s home we would eat whatever was placed in front of us with gratitude, and we were always to clean our plate! I shake my head in wonder now when I hear those same words coming from my mouth at my table.

I remember those dinner table conversations whenever I encounter the peculiar little tale we to which we were treated in our first reading this morning. It is an incredibly important story, so important it is actually told twice. We hear it first in Acts Chapter 10, as straight narrative, then again today in chapter 11 in our first reading as Peter recounts the event to his colleagues. It is a rich story about a momentous event in the life of the early Christian community. In the story, we are given a glimpse of the very first conflict among the Christians. Indeed, you could say it is the fundamental conflict among Christians, because we have been having the fight ever since, differing only in particulars, about who is in and who is out. The fight over just how expansive God’s embrace can really be.

And in the story today that fight is framed as a dream about food. Peter, poor Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus proclaimed his Church would be built, but who never seems to be able to answer a question right the first time. Peter has a vision. In it, a great sheet filled with animals is laid out before him, and a voice from heaven invites him to eat whatever he wants. The problem is that every one of the animals on the sheet is non-kosher, unclean — an observant Jew is forbidden to eat them. To kill and eat any of these things is to violate the commandments of God. So, Peter protests: “nothing like this has ever entered my mouth.” To which the voice from heaven replies “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” We are told that this happens three times before Peter wakes up, indicating that Peter took a little while to catch on.

And when he awakes, Peter finds himself summoned to a home in Ceasarea. He is summoned from a dream about unclean foods to the home of unclean people. Cornelius is a centurion, roughly translated a Lieutenant, a company commander in the hated Roman army. Though the text tells us he is a good man, sympathetic towards the Jews, he is nevertheless fundamentally a foreigner whose job is to impose the will of a hated pagan foreign emperor. To Peter’s utter amazement, as he is speaking to Cornelius and his household, the very same experience–the baptism of the Holy Spirit–that he and the disciples shared on the day of Pentecost now sweeps over this family. They demand to be baptized, to be granted entrance into the infant Christian movement. Peter, not knowing what else to do, seeing the irrefutable evidence that God’s power is present in these people, obliges.

In our first lesson, we hear what happened when Peter returned to Jerusalem. Other members of the Jesus movement are furious. How could Peter have anything to do with these unclean foreigners? How dare he grant the gift of baptism to heathens, to people who haven’t the foggiest notion of the Scriptures or Tradition? How dare he pollute the purity of the movement with these foreign people and their foreign ideas and practices? To which Peter can only respond by telling the story we just heard. And when he does, I love this line:

When they heard this, they were silenced.

I know that silence, I know it well. It is the silence of amazement, the silence that enfolds you when you see God doing something new, outrageous, or shocking, as God is wont to do. It is the silence of realizing that God’s dreams are bigger than ours, and God’s generosity more lavish than our meager imaginings.

One of my favorite hymns in our hymnal begins with these words: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” I like that image, but I think I might change a word. Instead of “wideness,” perhaps we should sing “wildness.” There’s a wildness in God’s mercy like the wildness of the sea.”

That is what Peter and those first Christians had to learn. That’s what every generation of Christians has had to learn and relearn. We are always busy trying to hedge about God’s mercy. We are people who feel naked and exposed without rules, order, precedent, tradition. We set boundaries, build walls, guard borders, all in an abiding fear of disorder and chaos. And though that often makes sad sense from our human point of view, we dare not mistake that for God’s point of view. God’s mercy cannot be bound, not even bound by the Laws God gave. God always seems to be breaking down walls, expanding boundaries, altering traditions, widening the embrace. Where we draw lines, God draws circles. And the circle always seems to get bigger and bigger.

In the Gospel today, Jesus gave to his disciples their new law:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Lord knows, we Christians have been struggling ever since to work out the complications and contradictions of that commandment. Who are we to love? Under what circumstances? What does love look like? What, if any, are love’s limits?

Perhaps it is as complicated and as simple as what my mother and father said to me, and what that voice from heaven said to Peter: eat whatever is put before you, gratefully. Some of the things I most love today in my gustatory life I first had to force myself to eat in someone else’s home. Perhaps we are also enjoined to love gratefully, or at least try to love, whomever and whatever is put in front of us, difficult as that may be.

Perhaps it is as complicated and as simple as that wonderful old prayer from the morning office:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace. So clothe us in your spirit, that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, and all for the honor of your name. Amen.

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