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Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
A sermon preached by Sandi Albom on May 10, 2015

Click on the blue arrow at the bottom of this page to listen to the sermon.

Right up until just a few days ago I had planned on preaching on the Gospel passage from John for this Sunday.  I spent quite a few hours reading, thinking about and making notes focused on Jesus’ revelation that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  It’s a powerful message, one worth spending time with and certainly worth preaching.  And, to my complete surprise, I found myself instead drawn over and over again to our reading from Acts. 

Believe me, I tried very hard to resist changing my plans.  I’m in the middle of final papers, and there are a lot of campus activities revolving around year-end and commencement celebrations.  Also, I’m still pretty new at this sermon writing stuff and I seems that I am virtually powerless to resist going down every research rabbit hole I stumble upon.  Seemingly simple ten-minute research activities can easily stretch to an hour!  Michael, does it get better?

I can totally understand how Peter must have felt as his sermon is interrupted, and his plans disrupted by the Holy Spirit.  So, heeding the persistent call, off I went into the story in Acts where I was being pulled. 

The passage as we see it today is just a portion of the story.  It’s like entering into a multi-part TV series in the last episode.  So let me catch us up a bit.  Earlier in Chapter 10, Cornelius, a Roman centurion and, by definition a Gentile, is visited by an angel who announces to him that he has found favor with God by his good works and prayers.  Cornelius is told to send men to find the apostle Peter in Joppa and bring him to meet with Cornelius in his household. 

In a parallel plot line we find Peter praying up on the roof of his host’s home in Joppa.  Peter falls under a trance and he is presented with a vision of a banquet that is lowered down from heaven before him.  The kicker is that this food put before Peter is entirely made up of what a devout Jew would consider unclean.  He hears a voice telling him to “get up, Peter; kill and eat”.  Peter is shocked, “by no means, Lord” he says, “for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean”.  The voice replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  This scene is repeated in the vision three times.

Peter is greatly puzzled by this and tries to grasp the meaning of his vision.  While he continues to pray the Spirit tells him there are three men there seeking him and he is to go with them immediately for the Spirit herself has sent them.  When Peter learns they are from the house of a Roman centurion, he begins have some understanding of the vision he received, and he goes with them. 

Now this would be extraordinary behavior for a devout Jew.  The home of any Gentile would be considered unclean and therefore would render any person entering it unclean.  But Peter trusts the Spirit and goes, even bringing with him several of his companions, all Jews.  Once inside of the home of Cornelius, the centurion and Peter compare notes.  This double vision that Cornelius and Peter experience in their visitations by the angel and the Holy Spirit serves to provide validation for each of them and an emphasis of the importance of what is to come next.  

I’d like to depart from the scripture for a moment and tell you a story that I heard Bishop Gene Robinson tell at my home parish in Manchester, NH.  In his sermon he told us a story from WW II in France.[1]  There was a group of combat flyers that were always faced with the fact that their life expectancies were short and their friendships, borne of their battle time experience, were very dear to them.  Usually when new people were assigned to their tent of four it was sadly to replace the friend that didn’t return from the last mission.

Indeed, one of the pilots did not return from his mission, but his body was recovered and it was returned to the airbase.  His three surviving comrades wanted to provide a proper funeral for their friend and approached a local church pastor and asked for permission to have the body buried in the church cemetery. 

The priest explained that since they did not know the religion of the slain soldier it was impossible for him to be buried inside the fence of the church graveyard.  But the pastor knew just how important this was for these men, and so he suggested that their friend could be buried there, but just not within the fence surrounding the cemetery.  Feeling that this was the very best that could be done and recognizing that the priest wanted to help them, they decided to bury their friend there, just outside of the fence.

Several years later the three men, all survivors of the war, returned to France and went to pay their respects to their fallen friend.  They searched the burial area but were unable to find any evidence of their friend’s grave.  The old priest saw them outside and went to greet them.  They asked about their friend.

The priest answered, “I knew how strongly you felt about doing the right thing for your friend.  I too agonized over the situation and over the rules that caused it.  I poured over the official church canons, and after reviewing all the documents I could find nothing that spoke of fences and their location.  Your friend is in the cemetery just where we buried him in 1944.  It is the fence that has been moved.”

And here is where we come to our scripture portion for today and the climax of the story.  Just as Peter is completing his sermon, a proclamation of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (10:44).  At once the listeners, members of the household of an official of the Roman Empire, started praising God and speaking in tongues. 

This “Gentile Pentecost” is much like the Pentecost that we will celebrate in a few Sundays.  And not only was that an amazing event for the Jewish followers of Christ to witness, but these Romans, these uncircumcised, unclean people, as they were distinguished from the chosen people of God, had received the Spirit BEFORE THEY WERE BAPTISED.  Wow! This is a really, really significant event! 

My point is that the Gentiles received the gift of God’s Spirit without first requiring repentance and baptism with water, not the other way around.  The Holy Spirit insinuates herself into Peter’s preaching in order to expand our understanding of what it means to be on the inside or on the outside, part of the chosen or grouped with the marginalized.  Cornelius and his household are not judged on race, origin, politics or religious status for their worthiness to be at God’s table.  The Spirit does not ask for a membership card or require Cornelius and his family to become “just like” Peter and his companions.  It is their willingness to believe, even if their understanding is not perfect and they don’t have the benefit and tradition of privilege that historically would include them in in the fold with God’s covenantal people.  This event not only moves the fences we use to contain our limited human understanding of God’s radical inclusiveness, it completely dismantles them and burns their posts and rails on the blazing fire of God’s love. 

Peter now realizes what all the events leading up to this moment mean in God’s great scheme.  He asks those in attendance, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  This for me is a rhetorical question for our own times.  In the past weeks I have more than once thought to myself and have heard others ask, how long will we need to go before we truly realize social justice in our society here in the US and in the world?  Can we accept that much of what we have done in the past and are doing right now is not working to heal us?  

As I was reading and studying the commentaries and reflections for this scripture, one thing became very clear to me.  Getting on the same page as God takes time.  Change takes time even when we want it to happen right now and in the worst way.  The good news is that God does not wait for us.  I am confident that the Spirit moves in us and around us, and I also realize that we, like Peter, may need several demonstrations of evidence before we can fully understand and trust what we are hearing and seeing, especially if that evidence is counter to everything we have been raised and conditioned to believe.  Even though the Spirit revolutionizes Peter’s thinking about Gentile inclusion, and he baptizes Cornelius and his household, he too continues to struggle over time with his fences to understand what true inclusion in God’s plan means. 

Shortly after Peter leaves Cornelius’ house and returns to Jerusalem, he must defend his actions before the community there.  It could not have been easy, and as we see in many scripture passages in Acts and Paul’s letters, the conversations often became heated and divisive.  It is hard to talk about race relations.  It is hard to have conversations with people we don’t agree with about hard topics – the death penalty, same sex marriage, use of military force.  As a former boss of mine used to say, “Change is easy, you go first.”

Perhaps what we are really witnessing in Acts today is the “new song”, we are called to sing in God’s Christian church….. it is the song of a Church that calls us to knock down the fences that confine us in our own personal understandings of what being a member of God’s family entails……  it is the song of a Church that expands our desire to emulate Cornelius and Peter, those two very different people from very different traditions, who were called to understand each other in the context of the Holy Spirit, instead of what they imagined they knew to be true about the other person.  It took both their individual experiences with God and the sharing of their stories to allow them to comprehend why the Spirit had brought them together.  

I wrote this sermon sitting on my front porch.  Right across the street are the fences of my neighbors.  When we get together as a neighborhood, strong opinions about events in our town and the wider community abound.  I both agree and disagree with my neighbor’s opinions on our world.  What the blessing for me is, is that there always seem to be openings in the fences where the Spirit invites herself in to the conversations.  I almost always walk away with the sense that I have learned something about them and myself.  A dear friend of mine often tells me that the things she is most bothered by in other people are the things that she sees in herself she finds she wants most to change.

Where are the fences you have either inherited or built up around yourself?  Which ones no longer deserve your energy to maintain them?

In closing, I would like to share this portion of Psalm 98 from a lovely translation by Nan Merrill in her book Psalms for Praying.

O, sing to the Beloved a new song, for Love has done marvelous things!  By the strength of your Indwelling Presence, we, too, are called to do great things:  we are set free through Love’s forgiveness and truth.  Yes, your steadfast Love and faithfulness are ever-present gifts in our lives. 

Let the voices of all people blend in harmony and in unison; let the people magnify the Beloved.

For Love reigns over the world with truth and justice bringing order and balance to all Creation.[2]

 

Let us pray…..  Holy Beloved One, you give your grace and Holy Spirit to each and every part of your Creation.  Bring us together in those places where we might touch each other, and come to know and honor our differences and our similarities.  Help us to be patient, but don't let us avoid the work you ask us to do.  Pour out your Spirit upon all flesh.  Help us to recognize the fences we build to contain you and keep you for ourselves alone, and give us the will to burn them to ashes in the flames of your Love.  We pray this through our brother Jesus, who showed no partiality, only hospitality.  AMEN

 

Other resources

Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2. 478-501.

New Interpreters Bible, 156-172.

 

[1] This version taken from J.P. Lynch, Stories I Like to Tell.  I Universe, 2010.

[2] Psalms for Praying, An Invitation to Wholeness.  Nan Merrill, Bloomsbury, 2007.

Last Published: May 13, 2015 10:49 AM