The First Lesson: Acts (11:1-18)
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
The Response: Psalm 148
Praise the Lord from the heavens; *
praise him in the heights.
2 Praise him, all you angels of his; *
praise him, all his host.
3 Praise him, sun and moon; *
praise him, all you shining stars.
4 Praise him, heaven of heavens, *
and you waters above the heavens.
5 Let them praise the Name of the Lord; *
for he commanded, and they were created.
6 He made them stand fast for ever and ever; *
he gave them a law which shall not pass away.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth, *
you sea-monsters and all deeps;
8 Fire and hail, snow and fog, *
tempestuous wind, doing his will;
9 Mountains and all hills, *
fruit trees and all cedars;
10 Wild beasts and all cattle, *
creeping things and winged birds;
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, *
princes and all rulers of the world;
12 Young men and maidens, *
old and young together.
13 Let them praise the Name of the Lord, *
for his Name only is exalted,
his splendor is over earth and heaven.
14 He has raised up strength for his people
and praise for all his loyal servants, *
the children of Israel, a people who are near him.
The Epistle: Revelation (21:1-6)
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
The Gospel: John (13:31-35)
[At the last supper, when Judas had gone out,] Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
A couple of weeks ago, Judy and I were working in different parts of our house, and Mark and Micaela were upstairs in their rooms. I was finishing the job of cleaning up the kitchen, when I remembered that the Reds were playing that day; and I decided to find out how the game was going. I walked into the next room, picked up the remote, and pressed the Power button. Without waiting to see what channel came on, I went back into the kitchen to finish what I had been doing.
The last time the TV had been on, somebody had been watching a program on a local channel that runs classic programs. And, as I reached to put away the last dishes, I heard a voice that I hadn’t heard in a long time, but one that I recognized immediately, as would everybody else who is my age or older. Desi Arnaz, a.k.a. Ricky Ricardo, was insisting firmly, “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do!”
If the members of the early church had spoken with a Cuban-Spanish accent instead of a Palestinian-Aramaic one, they would probably have made that same demand of Simon Peter at the time of today’s first reading; because clearly Peter had some serious “‘splaining to do” as far as they were concerned.
At the end of last week’s first reading, we left him at the home of Simon the Tanner in the city of Joppa. One afternoon, he was praying and probably taking a nap on the roof of Simon’s house: the perfect place to catch a cooling breeze coming in off the Mediterranean. He went into a dream or trance in which he was given instructions that would change the life of the community of believers.
In response, he traveled 33 miles up the coast to Caesarea, where he, and six other Jewish Christians, entered the house of a non-Jew: a Roman centurion, named Cornelius. There, he and his companions shared table fellowship with Cornelius and his family, witnessed the power of God’s Spirit working in them, and baptized them. According to Acts, this was the first time that non-Jews had been welcomed into full membership in the young church.
When word got back to the believers in Jerusalem about what Peter and the others had done, the community there was shocked. “What in the world were you thinking? We all know that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the hope of Israel. And we all know that both the Bible and tradition insist that we share full fellowship only with our fellow Jews or those who become Jews: those who are circumcised and keep Torah. Why in the world would you ever violate such a basic teaching of our faith?”
And now Peter was faced with the task of trying to convince them that God was doing an amazing new thing by including Gentiles, non-Jews, as full and complete and equal members of their faith community. Despite the first Christians’ insistence on what they considered to be the inviolable rules of their faith, God’s Spirit had once again done something that was totally unexpected and completely new. God had brought conversion to a group of Gentiles.
But Cornelius and his family weren’t the only ones who had been converted that day. Peter had been converted once again. He had first been converted long ago, when he had put down his fishing nets and followed the young teacher from Nazareth. He had been converted again, after he had denied Jesus three times and had been reconciled to him after his resurrection. And now it was happening once more. Peter had reluctantly come to accept the wideness in God’s mercy, the comprehensiveness of the new life that God was giving to all people. As Peter discovered, conversion is not a one-time thing, but a lifelong process, and a lifelong journey.
But, as the early believers soon discovered, God’s Spirit was at work, not only bringing about a conversion for Cornelius and his family and for Peter, but also a conversion for the entire church. Those who thought that they had God and God’s intentions figured out, that God had made Jesus a Messiah only for Jews, were now compelled to rethink what God’s Spirit had done and was doing in Jesus. And that transformation began a whole series of conversions: one that continues even in our own time, and undoubtedly will continue throughout all time.
Over the centuries, the church as a whole, and individual Christians within it, have repeatedly thought that they knew what God wanted, and specifically, who God wanted to be full and complete members of the church and its life, as well as who God wanted us to exclude. And repeatedly, we have been wrong. At one time, for example, no one with any physical handicap could be ordained in the church; it was a rule that was based on a clear biblical teaching (Lev. 21:16-21) and on tradition. Until 1802, no person of color was allowed to be ordained in the American part of the Church of England or its successor, the Episcopal Church; at least for some people of the time, this, too, was supposedly based on biblical teaching. And until 1976, 40 years ago this summer, our church refused to ordain women as bishops, priests, or deacons; again, this refusal was supposedly based on clear, biblical teaching as well as church tradition.
Every time, there were those who adamantly opposed the church’s decision to follow the Spirit’s lead and embrace more and more the fullness of the gospel. But every time, the Spirit of God refused to be bound by cultural biases and by commonly accepted prejudices. And every time, the Spirit of God brought about a conversion of the church, remaking it anew, and transforming it to be a little bit more what God intends it to be.
William Willimon reflects on this story in a quotation that I have used before but that bears repeating. He writes: (Acts, pp. 98-99): “This is the way it sometimes is in the church. If Jesus Christ is Lord, then the church has the adventurous task of penetrating new areas of his Lordship, expecting surprises and new implications of the gospel which cannot be explained on any basis other than our Lord has shown us something we could not have seen on our own, even if we were looking only at Scripture. This does not mean an undisciplined flight of fancy into our own new bold ideas or the pitiful effort to catch the wind of the latest trend in the culture under the guise of seeking new revelation. Rather, it means that we are continuing to penetrate the significance of the scriptural witness that Jesus Christ is Lord and to be faithful to divine prodding. Faith, when it comes down to it, is our own often breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, ‘What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?’”
That ultimately is probably the most important question that the church needs to ask in every age: “Where on earth is God going now?” We, who are constantly in need of further conversion, who are constantly on a journey toward God, need to be humble enough to recognize that our own perspectives, as well as those of our particular culture and time in history, are necessarily limited. And, as the early church discovered, the Spirit of God refuses to be bound by our rules and by our limitations. Instead, the Spirit of God is always at work in the world and in the lives of God’s people, leading us to a more and more complete comprehension of God’s universal kingdom, surprising us and the people of every generation with the ever-expanding implications of the all-embracing love of God.