April 24, 2016: "All Means All"

“All Means All”

A sermon by Andrew Philip Long

The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK

April 24, 2016: The Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 12:31-35 & Acts 11:1-18

For a few weeks now we have been eavesdropping in on the disciples as they live in and try to make sense of the world after Easter. The Gospel lesson we read on Easter Sunday this year was from Matthew, and Matthew says that there was a great earthquake when the women arrived at the tomb that first day of the week. The resurrection of Jesus shakes everything to its core, including those of us who proclaim to be his followers. Now that Jesus has risen from the dead, the disciples are doing their best to navigate a world where everyday there is an aftershock from Easter. In the week following the resurrection, the ground shook and the disciples hid in an upper room, afraid of what might be lurking outside the locked door. Sure, there was an angry crowd out there, but they were more afraid of what they were being called to do now that Jesus was alive again and roaming around. The week after that, the disciples felt the ground shake again when they heard a stranger on the beach calling to them in their boat while they were fishing. It was the risen Jesus, and he walked and talked with them, cooked over an open fire and ate breakfast with them.

This was shocking to them because the divine Christ, the Jesus who could not even be held down by death, met them in ordinary ways. This Jesus, the image of the invisible God, the first born from the dead, was eating fish with them and strolling on the beach. And it was most shocking to Peter, who received forgiveness for his past transgressions so intimately that he could reach out and touch it. The risen Christ isn’t lounging back in a heaven far away; the risen Christ is all around, even when nothing exciting is going on.

Then the next week, last week, we listened in as Peter brought Tabitha back to life. It had been some time since Easter morning, but the ground was still shaking. A common fisherman and a single woman…both had the power to raise the dead. Both put their God-given gifts to work for the kingdom. Both were unsatisfied with the suffering of others. Both got up and did something when another brother or sister was in need. Both were living resurrection.

And now today, we are watching again as Peter and some of the other disciples try to understand and live in the world after Christ’s resurrection. Peter has a little dust-up with some of the other apostles and believers. There is debate about the meaning of circumcision. Peter has a strange vision of animals in a bed sheet. Baptism is mentioned, and Peter asks a profound question: “If God gave them the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” The world is a strange place after Easter and the ground is still shaking.

The after-shock of resurrection that rumbles through the text today is something that human beings have been wrestling with since the beginning of time: how do we live with and act around and treat those who are different than us?

Peter comes back to Jerusalem after a lengthy preaching tour and some of the apostles and other believers hear that Peter’s preaching brought many to the Lord. But there is a problem: Peter has been preaching to and eating with outsiders. What made them outsiders was that they were uncircumcised. If you’ll remember way back to the pages of Genesis, circumcision was the initiation act for Israel into the covenant with God. In other words, if you were circumcised, you and your family were ‘in’—if not, you were out. Peter had been preaching to and eating with people, obviously men, who had not been initiated into the covenant made God made with Abraham and Israel so long ago. This bothered the other apostles and believers and they criticized Peter for what he did.

The timeless question of how we live with and act around and treat those who are different than us changes when it is brought into the realm of faith in Christ. In the realm of faith in Christ the question becomes: Who is the gospel of Jesus for? I was always told to never end a sentence with a preposition, so the question could be asked this way: Who can receive the Gospel of Jesus? The apostles and other believers believe that the Gospel is available only to those who have first been initiated into the covenant of Israel. A lot of ink has been spilled on this topic, focusing mostly on the fact that Jesus Christ himself was a Jew by birth and faith. Because Christ was a Jew, a man who had undergone all of the Jewish rituals and rites, his followers must do likewise. There was a stream of thought in the century after Jesus that one must first become a Jew if they wanted to become a Christian. Judaism was thought to be a prelude to Christianity, the covenant God made with Israel was the entrance into the new covenant God made in Jesus Christ.

But Peter sees it quite differently. Peter testifies that while he was in Joppa, the town where he raised Tabitha from the dead, he saw a vision. In this vision there was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners. As it came close to Peter, he saw that the sheet was filled with animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. Peter hears a voice tell him to get up, kill, and eat the animals.

Peter knew better than to kill and eat these animals, though. He knew better because these are the types and kinds of animals that the Old Testament law codes prohibit the people of Israel from eating. These animals are considered unclean, filthy, and profane, and if a person of the covenant ate them, they would be unclean, filthy, and profane. Peter protests by saying that never has something profane or unclean entered his mouth. The voice again calls out to him and says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter says that this back-and-forth dialogue happened three times—perhaps an illusion to the three days that Christ laid in the tomb—then the whole thing was pulled back up in to heaven.

The vision has changed Peter. And it has changed Peter’s understand of what is clean and unclean, what, and who, is ‘in’ or ‘out.’ When Peter comes out of the trance, three men arrive from Caesarea, an unclean city, and the Spirit of God wiggles its way into Peter and tells him to look at them for who they are: living, breathing men, created in God’s image. Peter and three men meet up with some others, and as Peter is speaking, the Holy Spirit falls on them in the same way that the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples when Jesus walked into the locked upper room and breathed on them.

It is in that moment that Peter remembers what Jesus said: you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit. And then it makes sense. He get is. If God has given the Holy Spirit to these men, who have come from unclean Caesarea and who else knows where, then who is he, Peter, to try and stop God? Who is he, the one who turned his back so easily on Jesus and denied him—who is he to stop God from bringing others to faith in the Lord? When the apostles and other believers hear Peter’s testimony they cease their criticizing and they praise God. They are astounded that God has given to the outsider the same things that God has given to them, and they are at peace.

Who can receive the Gospel of Jesus? Who is the Gospel of Jesus for? All. That is what the text is saying today. And all means all. Everyone who searches for it will find it. Everyone who knocks will be greeted with an open door. Everyone who asks will receive. This is the good news of the Gospel and it is for all people…and all means all.

On paper, this is a vision of absolute perfection. In practice, we know a different reality, don’t we?

Let me tell you a story. Several weeks ago I was having a discussion with a classmate of mine from seminary; we had been in classes together, we led daily chapel services together, we studied together for our ordination exams, and we were ordained just about the same time in 2012. This is a close friend of mine. It just so happened that we were both, at that moment, in the process of pre-marital counseling with couples in our respective congregations. And in the course of our conversation he just outright asked me, “Andrew, how do you feel about same-sex marriage?” My stomach dropped a little. There was something in his tone that told me we were not headed some place nice. I came to my understanding of Christian marriage through a slow process of discernment and Scriptural study, so I answered him that I believe and know marriage to be a covenant of love and mutuality, something that is not exclusive to men and women. And then there was silence. Silence so deep it was bottomless.

Then he spoke. And what he had to say flew in the face of everything I thought I knew about him. It could not have been any more different than what I believe and immediately the walls went up. I went into survival mode, which for me was to try and end this particular conversation as quickly as I could. We said our goodbyes, and in hanging up the phone I was stunned. We had studied together; we had taken the same ordination exams; we made the same promises at ordination. How could we be so totally different? I was angry. I was angry that someone I knew and trusted could be so close-minded and archaic, so set in his ways that he couldn’t even ask me to explain my beliefs. He showed no interest in trying to meet me where I was, and for that I was going to have to dig deeply to offer forgiveness. After calming myself a little, I flicked open my email and there was the church newsletter for the week. And do you know the first thing I saw? “Youth Hang-Out This Sunday: All Are Welcome”. My heart sank.

You see, this thing that Christ gathered together called the church is full of sinners…you and me. We have our ways, we have our beliefs, and we know how we feel about certain things. We have certain beliefs about marriage. We have certain beliefs about who should be in ministry. We have certain beliefs about who can be baptized or receive the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and we have certain beliefs about the Bible and what it has to say. We have beliefs about politics and politicians. These beliefs are entirely human. After all, God gave us minds to think. But there are times when these beliefs clash. They clash because they are different. They clash because one is liberal and one is conservative. They clash because we did not just wake up one day and decide on this or that; what we believe has been honed and refined every day of our life. And when they clash, we clash with one another. We put up walls and go into survival mode. We fight and we bicker and push each other away and we hurt feelings. We try to end conversations quickly and we get angry about how someone could believe this or that.

I do it, you do, and so does every other person who has every claimed to be a follower of Jesus. What's happening in this text today with Peter is calling all of us on our guilt. All of us are guilty of championing our beliefs over the beliefs of another. All of us are guilty of taking a position of superiority because someone has presented what we perceive to be a less intelligent argument. All of us are guilty of saying that “All Are Welcome” when in reality only those who think and look and speak and believe as we do are welcome. I did this very thing to someone I consider a friend, and I thought I was the open-minded one. All of us are guilty of misunderstanding who God is and what God calls us to do. All of us are guilty of misunderstanding Jesus, his life and death and resurrection, just exactly what that means today, right now. All of us are guilty of making faith about ‘me’ instead of ‘us,’ and all of us are guilty of making the church an exclusive club when Jesus called it together to be a community of life and love.

But there is a much better way, and it starts when we allow the quake of Christ’s resurrection to shake us from where we are. Christ’s resurrection shakes us to realize that Christ did not live and die and rise again so that we can on arguing theology or ideology; he lived and died and rose again to bring all people to himself. Christ’s resurrection shakes us open to remember that at one time, we were the outsiders who were welcomed in, and now we are the welcoming committee and not the bouncers. Christ’s resurrection shakes us lose from the notion that what we say is good enough, and that what we say must be put into action if we really want to be his followers. Christ’s resurrection shakes us back to life from the death we died to fear—fear of difference, fear of newness, fear of otherness. Christ’s resurrection shakes us into the act of repentance, not punishment, repentance, of turning back to God who offers unconditional and everlasting forgiveness when we have gone astray. Christ’s resurrection shakes us into creativity, learning to listen and not just hear, speak in love, and respect the dignity of all people because in God’s image we are all created.

Christ said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The doubter and the full of faith. The questioning and the certain. The baptized and the unbaptized. The Biblical scholar and the biblically illiterate. The black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, and races of all origins. The gay, the bi-sexual, the transgendered, the straight, the bigots, and the hater. The self-righteous and angry, the liberal and the conservative. The rich, the poor, the naked, the hungry and thirsty, the well-fed and clothed, the judgmental and the judged. The widow and the orphan, the married and single, those with children and those without. The pure and impure, people of every condition and every description. All means all. Who are we that we should hinder God? Amen.

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