How Shall We Know?
John 13:31-35, Acts 11:1-18
May 2, 2010
There are such things as “window texts” in the Bible, those passages which become pivotal to how we understand the rest of scripture. The Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel are a window text that illuminates the true meaning of “blessedness” in the understanding of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount fleshes out the Beatitudes in the teachings of Jesus. The Book of Job is a window text which helps us to see how to remain engaged with God in the midst of cumulative, seemingly unbearable, suffering.
Today’s story in the Book of Acts is yet another “window text.” At first glance, this seems like a simple retelling of a powerful encounter between two people–a Jewish disciple of Jesus named Peter and a God-fearing Gentile army officer named Cornelius. In their own time, the two lived a world apart–there was nothing in their lives that naturally brought them together.
We have heard this story already today–Peter’s vision or dream, and his fierce resistance to its message; the request to visit Cornelius and Peter’s obedient response; the unexpected events that transpire when Peter begins sharing his testimony about Jesus with Cornelius and his family. Peter never expects the Holy Spirit to fall upon these Gentiles as on the Jewish believers. As the scales fall from Cornelius’ eyes, they also fall from Peter’s. Standing in the presence of divine action, Peter can no sooner deny Cornelius the grace of God than he can deny his own powerful experience with Jesus. That is what happens in Acts, Chapter 10.
Chapter 11 re-tells this story in the context of the push-back and fallout Peter faces as he acknowledges the movement of the Spirit and welcomes Cornelius and his family into the family of faith. When Jewish believers in Jesus who still adhere to Jewish law hear about the welcome Peter offers these Gentiles, they are upset. They challenge Peter, and this moment provides him with the opportunity to retell his story–just as he experienced it–not omitting the details of his own resistance and ultimate amazement. It is not scripture that convinces Peter–it is a vision or dream from God followed by the testimony of God’s work in a human being right before his eyes.
Instead of discounting these conversions, excluding Cornelius and his family, and persecuting these Gentile believers, Peter’s critics are persuaded by his words. They, too, can see the work of God. They respond in wonder and praise, welcoming the new believers in spite of all their deeply socialized reservations. They face their own prejudices and stereotypes. They open their hearts and minds to change that is very radical for their own day, time, and context.
This becomes a story for the ages, a “window text” through which we glimpse God’s continuing work in the world. Generation after generation labels one group or another “unclean.” Time and time again, we people of faith are called to challenge our prejudices and welcome the stranger, leaving our fears and stereotypes at the door of the Great Realm of God.
Let me share a 21st century re-write of Peter’s story, found in this week’s Oberlin College newspaper, The Review. The article is entitled, “Where Christianity Intersects with Homosexuality.” The student author, Emmanuel Magara, confesses, “I am a straight Christian who grew up in a highly conservative African society, so the idea of there being devout gay Christians seemed unimaginable to me. I naively thought that members of the LGBTQ community, by virtue of some of the Biblical scriptures against homosexuality, could not be Christian. It was only when I came to Oberlin that I learned otherwise.” He goes on to say, “Chase was one of the very first openly gay Christians I met…his personality undeniably reflected that of a true Christian. For the first time, I appreciated how it was possible for anyone, regardless of his or her sexuality, to explore faith in God…” (April 30, 2010 issue).
At the Peace Potluck last weekend, internationally acclaimed workshop leaders, Cherine Badawi and Arthur Romano illustrated a pyramid of attitudes and behaviors that ultimately leads all the way to genocide and war. The base of the pyramid is inhabited by a tragic reality: the lack of human connection. When we don’t know someone, or we don’t know that we know someone, it is so much easier to dehumanize that person or their group.
Oberlin College graduate, Megan Highfill, just recently posted an amazing blog entry entitled, Interlude: Do I Look Illegal?, where she speaks about people assuming she is Anglo-American when she actually has both Mexican and Japanese ancestry. Megan describes the number of racist comments she hears about Mexicans or Japanese from white people. When she reveals her ancestry, their response is often, “Oh, I didn’t know…” as if that somehow excuses their words.
Badawi and Romano note that lack of connection leads to fear and ignorance. These fester into stereotyping. As stereotypes harden, they become prejudice and discrimination. When transferred from attitudes into actions, prejudice and discrimination foster violence. As all hell breaks loose, genocide and war can result.
How do we, as peacemakers, do our part in re-writing this script? Badawi and Romano urge us to start at the base of this pyramid to begin undoing the lack of connection. Anyone can confront, challenge, and change this in some significant way. Peter’s narrative in Acts 10-11 is a testimony of alienation transformed into connection, connection transformed into community. Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Gospel of John before his death echo this same theme as he says, “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples–when they see the love you have for each other” (John 13:35).
Hatred is on the loose here in the United States. According to an Intelligence Report of the Southern Poverty Law Center, almost 1,000 hate groups are currently active in this country (see Mark Potok’s article, Rage on the Right, at the Southern Poverty Law Center website). Anti-immigrant vigilante groups are up 80%, with 136 new groups in 2009 alone. The past year has witnessed a 244% rise in Patriot groups, along with their paramilitary wings, their militias.
When cultural messages fan the flames of intolerance, prejudice, hatred, and violence, love becomes counter-cultural, radical, and even revolutionary. The scriptures declare again and again that love is of God. Connection, where once alienation festered, is of God. Humanizing “the other,” “the unclean,” “the outcast” is of God. The sober warning of the Epistle of John declares, “The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love–so you can’t know God if you don’t love” (I John 4:8).
This all seems pretty basic, doesn’t it? Yet, the day I wrote this sermon I had two phone conversations with two people of two different races and wildly different denominational backgrounds in two different parts of the country. Yet, both asked me a nearly identical question: “Aren’t Christians supposed to love like Jesus loved?” And one also asked, “Some Christians tell me that one church may be given a ministry of deliverance, another one of healing, and another one of love–I thought all churches were given a ministry of love! Am I crazy?”
Today we are blessed with the opportunity to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. What a beautiful table this is! Several years ago, I was so struck by the reality that those of us in this community would not know one another, would not be knitted together like we are, save for our common life in Jesus Christ.
Look around yourself for a moment at the faces you see. Would Linda know Lynn, and Adam know Jeff, and Phyllis know Sherri, and Heather know Paul, were it not for this place? As we share the Lord’s Supper with one another, we bear witness to the power of connection over disconnection. We proclaim the transforming nature of relationship and community, even in our midst.
This is always such a glorious part of serving Communion for me. If you wonder what I’m doing with my eyes closed as you eat the bread and drink the juice, I am praying for all of you, remembering our rich and deep histories with one another, whether short or long, and thanking God for this inestimable gift of communion and community.
As we join in this fellowship meal, I invite you to remember Jesus, who feasted with sinners like you and me. I invite you to remember Peter, who confronted his prejudices head-on with a lot of help and encouragement from God’s Spirit. Even Peter had his moments later when he slipped back, pandering to those who supported the circumcision, and was called on the carpet for his actions (Galatians 2:6-14). I invite you to remember God’s work in your own life as you continue to change and grow. I invite you to welcome others to your own table, whether literally or figuratively. I invite you to peer outside the safety of familiar relationships and take a risk to see God where you have never expected to see God before! Amen.