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Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers in Christ.
Is that a greeting you’ve heard often from the pulpit? I have to admit, I’m not sure I can remember how most pastors I’ve heard have begun their sermons. When you think about it, it’s really rather odd that I would call you all my sisters and brothers. After all, I’ve just returned from spending time with my “real” sisters and brothers, and rather than being my siblings, more of you could be my parents, or grandparents, or children!
Throughout history, Christians have called each other brother or sister to recognize the change that Jesus brings in our relationships to each other. When we are washed in the waters of baptism, united with Jesus, and claimed as a child of God, we gain all the brothers and sisters who have been likewise washed, united, and claimed before us. Jesus draws us into a new relationship with God, and with other people.
As some of you may have been reminded during recent holiday reunions, being members of a family is not always easy. As the saying goes, “You can’t pick your family.” You’re just stuck with the one you land in. It goes the same way with our Christian family. Sure, many people go church shopping, and change churches when they have an argument with folks in their current church. This happens especially in larger cities where there’s more choices, but I’m sure people have moved from this congregation, or simply stopped attending when they’ve had enough of these Christian sisters and brothers.
Although I imagine that there were various causes for bickering and community division in each community of early believers, there was one big cause for division that affected the church as a whole. The major struggle of the early church had to do with who was welcome. In this part of the Middle East, there were many ethnic and religious groups. Jesus and the apostles were Jews, who followed religious laws and regulations, worshipped at the temple and learned at the synagogue, and came from families who had always been Jewish. They lived in the land God had promised to the Jewish slaves God freed from Egypt. But, they had been conquered and their land was occupied by the Roman Empire. People who weren’t Jewish lived all around them. They called these folks “Gentiles.” They worshipped their own gods. But some Gentiles heard of the God of the Jews, and of Jesus, and sought to know this God better.
This was the case for a commander in the Roman army named Cornelius. In Acts 10, we read: “In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God”
This angel told him that God heard his prayers and instructed him to send for Simon Peter. He sent some of his trusted men, two slaves and a devout solder, to find Peter. As they were coming near to where Peter was staying, Peter himself was praying.
It was about lunchtime, and so it’s not too surprising that as Peter’s prayer became like a trance, he saw food spread on a cloth before him. A voice said, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” But Peter wouldn’t because not all the food was proper for a Jew to eat, and because all the animals were together, it wasn’t possible for him to prepare the food according to the kosher purity standards.
So Peter said,
“By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
As Peter puzzled over this vision, the men from Cornelius came to the house where he was staying. 19 “The Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”
Peter listened as they told of Cornelius, welcomed them into the home, and went with them the next day to meet Cornelius.
Now Cornelius must have been very sure that God would follow through with God’s promise. He invited all his family and friends to his house, and they waited for Peter to come. When Peter arrived, Cornelius explained his vision and his response to God’s command, concluding: 33Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
Peter had already mentioned his hesitation and change of heart, saying, 28″You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29So when I was sent for, I came without objection.”
With this preamble, Peter launches into his testimony, which is our reading for this morning. It begins “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ — he is Lord of all.”
He continues by telling of Jesus’ ministry, and his death and resurrection, of which he himself was a witness. Then he concludes, “42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
“44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
God acted decisively to welcome Cornelius and his family into the community of baptized believers. Peter, the major leader of the early church, had a difficult time understanding that what God did through Jesus included a radical welcome to outsiders. But Peter trusted God enough to recognize God’s message to him in prayer and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on these Gentile believers. Eventually, Peter had to return to the other Jewish believers and try to convince them of what God had shown him.
Peter and the other leaders of the early church struggled with God’s intervention to welcome Gentiles into the community. Although in chapter 11 of Acts the circumcised Jewish believers respond to Peter’s testimony about his encounter with God and Cornelius by saying 18″Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” which makes it sound like the whole issue had been resolved, by reading the rest of the New Testament, we know that the welcoming of Gentiles causes many problems in the Christian community. Especially if you were part of our Bible Study on Galatians, you might remember that there were different groups trying to convince people that Gentiles had to follow all the Jewish customs for purity and identity, like circumcision, eating kosher, fasting, and eating food from the right sources.
Those early Jewish Christians weren’t supposed to visit the home or eat with a Gentile, because they were supposed to keep themselves separate from people who might tempt them to abandon their God. The Gentiles washed differently, acted differently, and just like us today when we meet people who have different ways of doing things, the Jewish Christians assumed those ways were dirty and wrong, and maybe even sinful.
Jesus calls us into radical communities of welcome. Jesus puts us into relationship with people who are different than us. Jesus gives us new brothers and sisters, forging new relationships through his sacrifice. At first blush, it sounds nice and warm and fuzzy to think that we have a whole community of sisters and brothers in Christ. But the difficult side is that Jesus forces us into a relationship with people we might otherwise avoid. The relationships we share with each other force us to share in each other. We might feel like certain people have a polluting effect on us by being a part of our community. The Jewish believers certainly struggled with the feeling that letting uncircumcised Gentiles into their community would pollute their purity.
Jesus welcomes, forgives, gifts, and honors other people we’d rather avoid and condemn just as much as Jesus welcomes, forgives, gifts, and honors us.
To some this is pure grace. If you ever felt you’re not good enough, or if you know how you’ve failed to live up to standards of being a good or faithful person, to know that Jesus has sought you out, died for you, and loves you no matter what, is great news!
But to others, this is utterly unfair. If you feel like you’ve made significant sacrifices, if you’ve worked hard to do what is right, and you know what others are doing wrong, then to know that Jesus isn’t doing anything special for you, but loving you just the same as those who haven’t done anything to deserve it, well, that doesn’t sound much like good news at all.
If we accept this witness from Acts, then God has the power to change us into a people who celebrate the welcome all receive through Jesus. Jesus welcomes and loves you. Will you welcome all your sisters and brothers in turn?
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