St. John's Episcopal Church

Sermon given Sunday, May 19 2019

Fifth Sunday of Easter

The Rev. Carol Hancock


St. John's, Centreville
May 19, 2019
Acts 11:1-18
5 Easter C
     God of new beginnings, meet us where we are in our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
     In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear the story of Peter's vision, one we might think is very strange or odd. But it is helpful for us to know what happened before this passage. The story begins a chapter earlier with a Roman centurion, a Gentile, whose name was Cornelius, a God-fearing and devout man. He had a vision of an angel who tells Cornelius to send some of his men to Joppa, to the house of Simon the tanner, where Peter is staying, and bring him back to Cornelius's house. While his men are on their way from Caesarea to Joppa, Peter has this vision of a sheet descending from heaven, filled with all kinds of animals and birds. The voice tells Peter to kill the animals and eat. Peter, being a devout Jew, replies to the Lord that he can't, that he has always abided by the dietary laws of the Jews, where certain foods were unclean and not to be eaten. God replies that nothing that God has made is unclean. This scene is repeated three times before the sheet returns to heaven.
     By this time, the men Cornelius has sent have arrived where Peter is staying in Joppa and they ask him to journey with them to the home of Cornelius, a well-respected man in his community. When Peter arrives at the home of Cornelius, there are many people ready to listen to what Peter has to say. He gives them a synopsis of the teachings of Jesus and how he died to save all people. While Peter is speaking, the Holy Spirit descends upon the people gathered there, people who were uncircumcised Gentiles. They were amazed, filled with the Holy Spirit and they were all baptized at that time.
     Now, as you can imagine, some of the apostles and other Jews heard about the Word of God coming to the Gentiles and then being filled with the Holy Spirit - the SAME Holy Spirit that had come upon them - and they were not pleased. These people were not Jews. They were not circumcised. They did not follow the Jewish laws. How could they be filled with the Holy Spirit?
     So, as we pick up today's reading, Peter is called on the carpet to explain himself. "Why did you eat with uncircumcised men?" they asked. Then Peter repeats the story of the vision he had in Joppa, and how God told him to go with Cornelius's men to Caesarea, and how the crowd was filled with the Holy Spirit and were baptized. Peter continues, "If then, God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" And with that statement, the Jews were silenced. They then began praising God and saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
     The apostles and the Jews that hear Peter's story are transformed. They are changed from thinking that God's salvation is only for the Jews, to believing it is also for the Gentiles. That is a big jump for them to make. Instead of focusing on who is "in" and who is "out", they are realizing that God's love and salvation are for everyone, not just for those whom they deem worthy. The circle of love and forgiveness is expanding to include not just the Jews but also the Gentiles. Barriers have been broken. Walls have been torn down.
      "Who was I that I could hinder God?" Peter asks. If God so loved the world that he sent his Son Jesus Christ to save it, who are we to limit the mission of God to redeem all of humanity? Every time we exclude someone from participating in God's saving grace, Peter's question should trouble us. Peter was convinced that God did not intend to exclude anyone from God's love and mercy. God's love is inclusive.
     How do we hinder God? What roadblocks do we put in the way of others trying to find God? I think we hinder God by putting people in boxes and attaching stereotypes, rather than seeing each person as a unique child of God, with certain talents, gifts, and abilities. We separate people by race and gender, nationality and sexual orientation, rich and poor. We hinder God by trying to ignore certain groups, certain types of people, pretending they don't exist or aren't important.
     It wasn't until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's that African Americans began receiving the God-given rights they deserved. It wasn't until the late 1970's that women were allowed to be ordained. And it is only in our recent history that gays and lesbians have been given equal rights.
     As Peter and the crowd were transformed by the Spirit of God, so can we. When we have tightly held prejudices against certain groups of people, we can be transformed into witnesses for Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. A change of heart comes when we see the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of strangers, when we recognize in them the same Holy Spirit that is working in us. We need to first see God in new and surprising ways. When we realize that we are bound by the same Spirit, loved by the same God, when we realize that we have the same struggles, the same feelings, the same fears, we realize that we are all part of the Body of Christ. Prejudice and hatred can melt away. They have no place in God's world. Further theological reflection on our experiences with those who are different from us can change our hearts and point us in a new direction.
     How are we hindering God? Who are the Gentiles for us today? How can we be transformed? Our gospel lesson gives us a clue - to love one another as God has loved us. That's not an easy commandment to follow. To care for one another, to forgive one another, to see Christ in one another - that is what it means to be a Christian - to have the essence of God show through us, to be reflected in us, to shine all around us.
     May we not hinder God's love to breathe through us and those around us and through this community of faith, so that all may know that everyone is a beloved child of God. Amen.
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