Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York on January 13, the First Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:12-17
I truly understand that God shows no partiality. Acts 10:34
This Sunday is about identity that leads to mission, which is focused on radical welcome. This is abotu Jesus and about us, particularly since one of the three markers of idenity in our Mission Statement is , “A Welcome Table for All.”
Let me remind you of the context of the middle reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. St. Peter has found himself on his missionary tour in the city of Joppa. One day he goes up on the roof of the house at which he was staying to say his prayers while lunch was being prepared for him. He falls asleep and has a dream.
In the dream a large sheet is descending out of the sky and on it are all sorts of animals with one thing in common: they were all “unclean” by Jewish standards of purity. Being unclean they were not to be eaten. But a voice says to him, “Rise up and kill and eat your fill, Peter.”
Taking this as a test he says, “No way! I don’t eat unclean things!” But the voice then says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Then, just for emphasis, this whole scene happens two more times.
When he awakens from the dream and descends from the roof, it happens that a man named Cornelius has come to see him. They don’t know each other. Cornelius has had his own dream telling him to go to Joppa and find a man named Peter. They ask him to go home with them. The Spirit tells Peter to go with them without reservation.
The next day they go to Caesarea to Cornelius’ home. Cornelius was a Centurion in the Roman army. Caesarea was a Roman settlement in Palestine. It is significant that Peter is told to go “without reservation” because he normally would have avoided Caesarea, as would any observant Jew, because it was a Gentile town, in which it would be almost impossible to remain ritually pure.
By the time he arrives at Cornelius’ home he has figured out that the dream and his visit are connected, and he rather haughtily announces as he arrives,
You of course know that it is against Torah for a Jew to associate with a Gentile in any way, but here I am because of this dream I have had. Can anybody tell me why I am here?
Cornelius tells Peter about his own dream, including the command he received to listen to whatever Peter has to say to him and his household. What Peter has to say is the content of this morning’s reading, beginning with the words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”
The story goes on that as soon as Peter said these things, the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his household, and Peter, profoundly moved by the experience, baptizes them on the spot.
He then goes back to Jerusalem and gets a tongue lashing from his colleagues for visiting Gentiles, but tells them his dream and his experience, saying
If God gave them the same gift he gave us when we believed in Jesus, who was I that I could hinder God? Acts 11:18
There is then a Council of the leadership led by James, Jesus’ brother, which decides that Gentiles should be included in the fellowship of those who follow Jesus.
This story in its entirety is the longest single story in the whole of the New Testament except for the passion stories. And I believe, after the announcement of the resurrection, the whole rest of the story of the followers of Jesus, right up until now and forever, has as its pivot point these words of Peter,
I truly understand that God shows no partiality.
If God gave them the same gift that he gave us, who was I to hinder God.
It is difficult for us to grasp the enormity of this story. Imagine, if you will, God in a dream tells you not to go to Church and to never ever receive Communion again. That would come close to what is happening in this story.
God tells Peter to go against his own religion, a religion based on the notion that God did show partiality to a certain people and not to others.
Peter’s experience is earth shattering and changes the nature of following Jesus radically. Now, one can rightly argue that Jesus strongly hinted at this direction, although it’s important to remember that the Gospels were written after this story would have taken place. One can also see movement in this direction in some of the Old Testament prophets, although Judaism had totally rejected their vision of an expanded people of God.
The followers of Jesus, what we call the Church, are to be radical welcomers of all people. It is such a radical concept that even the Church has struggled with it ever since, at many times in its history and in some of its manifestations deliberately not following it. It is the very struggle that right now is tearing our own tradition apart.
Twenty years ago this very month the merger between St. Luke’s and St. Simon’s was completed and celebrated. The principal question before this congregation then was, “Can this truly be a place of radical welcome for all.” No one should pretend that was an easy call with which to grapple. Both groups who came together had treasured their little havens of sameness. But God called them out of themselves to the vision of “no partiality.”
[Now I don’t mean to say that there weren’t other shenanigans going on as the merger was discussed and effected. There were. But I believe that ultimately it was God’s call that was being followed].
That struggle to fulfill the dream is not by any means over. “How radical is our welcome?” is a question we must always be asking and answering, asking and answering. To whom are we partial? To whom are we not? Who gets the message, “You are welcome here!” and who does not.
Our Capital Campaign is one more step in this process of asking and answering about the dream of radical welcome [and, by the way, if you haven’t made a pledge yet, as well as your annual pledge, I urge you to do so]. But really everything we do has to involve this asking and answering. Just how radical is our welcome?
The vision is underscored nicely by the two other readings this morning. Who are we called to be as a community of faith? Servants, not only of God, but of the world and its entire people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “The Church is only truly being the Church when it is there for others.” It is we of whom Isaiah is speaking when he says, “Here is my servant.” I like the translations better that say “Behold my servant.” There’s something stronger and earthier about that word “Behold,” like when it’s said your hat flies off and you have to grab hold of something to keep standing up. You have to take notice.
And then there is the image of Jesus’ baptism and the voice from heaven (again, a voice from heaven), “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is a voice meant not only for Jesus but for each one of us, and it is the same Spirit that fell on Cornelius and his household and the same Spirit that fell on each one of us in our baptism.
It is the voice that accompanies each new person who wanders in these doors, whether they are attractive to us or not, “This is my son, this is my daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And who are we to hinder God?
Today is full of big and powerful words and images: Behold my servant! Behold my Beloved! Behold no partiality! Behold the people who do not hinder God!
Let’s keep asking and answering the question, Church. Let’s live God’s radical welcome. May all who enter these doors hear it clearly: “Behold, you are welcome!”
With thanks for inspiration to Stephanie Spellers from her recent book Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation (Church Publishing).