Let us pray.
Lord, what you have called clean,
We must not call profane.
Lead us in your way,
That we may never try to limit your love.
When I was in seminary,
A professor told us that the book of Acts
Was the most important book in the Bible.
I was pretty taken aback.
Because I don’t particularly enjoy reading the book of Acts,
Especially the latter half.
It’s a big travelogue
With lots of names and places
That don’t make a ton of sense unless you’ve been there –
And shouldn’t our focus be on the Gospels?
You know, the books that tell the story of Jesus?
So I went back and re-read it.
And while I still hold out for the Gospels
As the most important books of the Bible,
I do think the book of Acts
Is criminally underrated.
Because we get so lost in the travelogue
Of the names and places
We aren’t familiar with,
We miss the important themes God is trying to show us
Through the acts of the earliest followers of Jesus.
Like in our story today,
About the fallout from Peter’s recent dinner with the Gentiles.
I encourage you to go back and read it in context.
Because it represents the truly reckless abandon
With which God is widening the circle
Of who’s included
Far beyond what the original disciples are comfortable with.
It starts in the very beginning of the book,
As the Holy Spirit falls upon the disciples,
And enables them to speak in other languages.
Did you know a recent study of my countryfolk down south
Revealed that over 30% are uncomfortable
Hearing languages other than English?
I know that we prize linguistic diversity
More highly than our American cousins,
And inhabitants of Jerusalem,
The crossroads of the ancient world,
Host to Israelites,
Parthians, Medes, Elamites,
And residents of Mesopotamia,
Would have been quite used to the babble of many languages,
But it’s worth noticing how the ripples outward begin,
And, perhaps, how we have taken a step backward
From the place our forebears started.
Peter addresses a crowd filled with Jews
Who have traveled to Jerusalem for the festival.
They live in many places
And speak many languages,
But they are still Jews.
Who are included in Abraham’s covenant
By virtue of their birth,
And who are pious enough
To journey to the Temple in Jerusalem
But God’s not done yet.
Just a short time later,
An angel of the Lord sends Philip
To the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.
There, he meets a eunuch,
A servant of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.
This man is not ethnically Jewish.
He is from a different race and people entirely.
While he has gone up to Jerusalem to worship,
And we find him reading the Scriptures,
His body has been modified in such a way
That prevents him from being circumcised.
He is not able, physically,
To be a part of the covenant of Abraham.
Such a one cannot participate in the Temple rites,
Or even approach the altar,
According the Law given in Leviticus
But God sends Philip to him.
And when the Ethiopian eunuch hears the good news
About Jesus Christ, he asks,
“Look! here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
The answer is: nothing.
There is nothing to prevent him from being baptized.
And the circle grows wider.
But now we get to the really scandalous bit.
The part that Peter gets super defensive about
When questioned on it in our story today.
God speaks to a Gentile named Cornelius.
We hear that he is a devout and generous man,
But he is also a Roman;
Indeed, a Roman soldier,
Not unlike those who have really pretty recently crucified Jesus.
But God tells Cornelius to send for Peter.
Meanwhile, Peter is on a roof praying when is struck with a vision.
A huge sheet filled with animals and reptiles and birds of the air.
A voice says to Peter, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat.”
Peter hasn’t quite cottoned on to what God is doing yet,
So he protests by appealing to The Rules.
The Rules say not to eat
These unclean animals
As explicitly named in the Law,
And not to share a meal
With anyone who does.
Peter, even after all his time following Jesus,
Thinks that what’s important here
Is following The Rules.
But the voice tells him,
“What God has made clean,
You must not call profane.”
What God has made clean,
You must not call profane.
Has the Church
Called what God has made clean
Have religious people
Focused on following The Rules
Instead of following the example of Jesus?
Have we attempted to keep the circle small
Full of the people
Who are exactly like us
Who speak our language
Who belong in the Temple.
Peter encounters folks just like that
In today’s story.
They have heard that Peter went to eat dinner
With these unclean Gentiles
And they are just furious about it.
“Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
But Peter tells them the story.
He tells them what he has heard and seen.
He tells them
That the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household
Before Peter even gets a chance
To explain to them what they have to do to get saved.
Because God is drawing the circle
Wider than we could ever imagine.
I wonder who
The Holy Spirit might be falling upon now
Before we even get a chance
To explain to them what they “have” to do to get saved.
I wonder who
Might be on the road to Gaza
Seeking answers from the Scriptures
And needing to hear that there is nothing
To hinder them from being baptized.
I wonder who God has made clean
That we are still calling profane.
In this Easter season,
As we rejoice in the Good News
That Christ has won victory over death and the grave,
Trampling down death by death
And giving life
Even to those already in the tomb,
That God has drawn the circle wide enough
To include even us,
For whom he died
While we were yet sinners.
Who are we, then,
To call others too profane
To receive God’s extraordinary gift?
Who are we
To seek to limit the reach
Of God’s almighty love?
Rather than work against the Holy Spirit
To try to turn God’s Church –
Not our Church, God’s Church –
Into an exclusive club
Of likeminded folks,
Our calling is to get on board with God’s mission
To draw the circle ever wider.
To include more and more kinds of folks.
Even the ones who will make us uncomfortable.
Even the ones who will change who we are, fundamentally.
The Church is awfully different from those few believers
Huddled in an Upper Room with the doors locked
In the days immediately after Jesus’s crucifixion.
Including more folks will change us yet again.
But that’s what God is about.
Drawing the circle wide.
Baptizing the folks we’d never expect.
And sending us as messengers of his good news
That God’s love
Really is for all.