Sermon for May 2, 2010

Acts 11:1-18 (5th Sunday of Easter—Series C)

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

May 2, 2010

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Our text is the Reading from Acts 11:

Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

In school we become aware of the fact that some people just don’t belong.  Some people are not as acceptable as others.  Some individuals are not entitled to the same respect and belonging that the rest of us enjoy.  Some seem destined to play the role of the outcast.  This position belonged to a girl named Emily.  Each year as the class moved on to the next grade, Emily went right with them as the object of their thoughtless words and actions.

There was the sing song phrase, “Emily’s germs, no returns.”  There was a regular game of playing “keep away” from Emily at recess.  Children switched places in line so that they wouldn’t have to stand by the outcast of the class.  A boy gagged and wriggled because Emily had brushed up against him.  Can you hear the mounting chant?  “You’ve got Emily’s cooties, you’ve got Emily’s cooties.”  Can you see her cheeks puckering up in frustrations and her eyes eventually overflowing with tears?  What did this girl do to warrant such treatment?  Her family didn’t have much money.  She wasn’t as bright as some of the rest.  Maybe she wasn’t always very clean.  But the class rules said that she was on the outside.  So that’s where she stayed.

Many of us, I am sure, wish we could go back to express compassion for the “Emilys” of our past.  Some of you may still carry the pain from playing the role Emily played.  What happens in our schools is simply a reflection of the divisions which are made every day on the basis of nationality, belief, beauty, or wealth.  If you have witnessed the cruelty of children in school, then you have, in effect, looked out the window and into the world.

For some in the early days of the Christian Church, the Gentiles were the outcasts.  Gentiles are those who are non-Jews, either ethnically or religiously.  At Caesarea, Peter preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the household of Cornelius, a Roman-Gentile centurion.  While Peter was sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the Word just as had happened on the Day of Pentecost.  Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing the people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  And Peter commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

But Peter had gone to the home of an outcast.  Peter went to an uncircumcised man—a.k.a. a Gentile—and ate with them—a whole bunch of Gentiles!  Those of the circumcision party, who insisted that the Jewish rite of circumcision be performed as a requirement for becoming a believer in Jesus, were outraged.  Remember how the Pharisees had criticized Jesus for eating with sinners and tax collectors?  “And as [Jesus] reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.  And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”(Mark 2:15-16)  It’s the same version of the old problem here in the Book of Acts.

Peter went and ate with the Gentile outcasts.  He faced criticism for doing so.  You can almost imagine the chant, “You’ve got Gentile cooties.  You are unclean.  You defiled yourself by entering the home of these uncircumcised Gentiles.”

“The Lord told me it was okay,” was essentially Peter’s reply.  He recounted the vision of a great picnic blanket descending from heaven with all kinds of unclean, non-kosher, foods.  Peter, in accordance with the ceremonial law, would have avoided eating these unclean animals.  Yet the Lord commands him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”  Peter admits that he challenged the Lord on this one.  “By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”  But the Lord replies with a prohibition, “What God has made clean, do not call unclean!”

This happened three times so that Peter would get the message.  As soon as the vision was over, three men arrived from Caesarea and the Holy Spirit told Peter to go with them, making no distinction.  Through the vision, the Lord taught Peter that holiness is not determined by people, but by what God Himself has ordained as holy and clean.  The Gospel applies to all people without partiality.  Therefore, Peter, nor the Church, should call the Gentiles unclean or outcast.  The evidence speaks for itself.  God did not withhold the gift of grace nor the Holy Spirit from the Gentiles.  “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,” Peter exclaimed, “who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”  The critics fell silent.  Coming to realize the word of the Lord, they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

God in Christ welcomes the outcast.  At one time, in our relationship with the Lord, we were “Emilys,” “Gentles,” outcasts because of our sins.  But the Bible tells us, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. . . . but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-11)  Even though we were unclean with our sins, Christ died for us so that through the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins He alone might cleanse us and make us holy.  And it is not just for you and me that Jesus Christ died on the cross.  He died for the sins of the whole world, winning forgiveness of sins for everyone.  Jesus died for Jews and Gentiles.  He died for men and women, boys and girls.  Jesus died to save Hispanics, Native Americans, Blacks, Whites, and Asians.  Jesus died to save the rich and the poor, the famous and the infamous, the popular and the outcast.

Our lesson for today is that we need to see others, including those who are social outcasts—those who are different from us in any way—we need to see them as people for whom Jesus Christ died and rose again.  We need to avoid calling “unclean” that which Christ has cleansed by His holy, precious blood.  Today we seek and receive forgiveness for the times that we have acted like the circumcision party, for the moments when we have acted like the Pharisees, condemning “those people.”  “Those people”—the poor, the lonely, the helpless, the losers, the “Emilys” of this world—are people that Jesus died for and won forgiveness for, just like He did for you and me.  God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him. (Acts 10:34)  If God gives the same gift of faith in Jesus Christ to “those people” that He gave to us, who are we that we could stand in God’s way?

God often brings to us the lost and the alienated, the unclean and the outcast.  In doing so, the Lord is asking of you the willingness and readiness to respond to them with the Good News message of Jesus Christ, as Peter did to the family of Cornelius.  In the power of the Holy Spirit, pray that God would give you a merciful heart in response to the mercy He has already shown you in Jesus Christ.  It’s just too easy to see “those people,” those “Emilys,” those outcasts, and do nothing.  Yet God has flung wide open the doors of His kingdom through the saving work of Jesus Christ so that outcasts like you, me, and anyone else, might come streaming in by means of the gift of saving faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We think back and see Emily as a child of the heavenly Father.  We wish we could go back and deliberately stand by her in prayer, just to show the others that it was okay.  But we cannot go back.  We can only more forward.  Our sins against those who were outcasts who we treated so poorly are forgiven.  Those sins are washed away in Jesus’ blood.  As forgiven people, the Lord now gives us opportunities to meet some other “Emilys” in this world.  He gives us the occasion to show them the love of Jesus Christ with our actions of help and support, with our prayers, and most importantly with our words that tell each “Emily,” every “Gentile,” each “outcast” that we meet that Jesus Christ loves them so much that He died to save them.  Forgiveness and eternal life belongs to them, just as it does to us.  Then together may we, with the whole Church, glorify our God and Savior, saying, “Then to the Gentiles, the outcasts, also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”  Amen.