Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday May 15, 2022 – 5th Sunday of Easter
Scripture: Acts 11:1-18
One of the things that I’ve noticed happening this spring is that we are starting to eat together again. It’s a cautious change – I know that Session was disappointed when we realized that we weren’t going to feel safe enough to have our Maundy Thursday meal this year – but several times in the past month I’ve shared a meal with people.
Eating together – breaking bread together – it’s important. It is one of the reasons why we have continued to celebrate communion together through this pandemic, even when we were gathering virtually. The communion meal builds community; and I think that every time we share a meal with someone, we are building relationship, we are building community. It’s not a coincidence that the origin of the word “companion” has to do with sharing bread.
And Peter’s dream that he is telling us about – it is all about sharing meals.
Peter was Jewish, as was Jesus, and as were all of the first disciples. They kept the laws that we can read in Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy. And these laws include a lot of rules about what could be eaten and what couldn’t be eaten – the regulations about kosher eating that observant Jewish people still keep today. Animals have to be killed in a certain way; and even when properly butchered, only some animals are permitted as food – pork and lobster being among the forbidden foods. Dairy and meat are not to be consumed together. And the list goes on.
The other piece of background to today’s story is that it wasn’t just the disciples who were Jewish – the whole early church was Jewish. The church sprang out of the synagogue. The early church was more like a movement than an institution – the church members would have kept the Sabbath on the 7th day, on Saturday; and then on the 8th day, Sunday, celebrated the resurrection of Jesus.
And yet the Holy Spirit was moving, growing the church, and at the point of todays story, some Gentiles, some non-Jewish people, had heard about Jesus and heard about the church, and they invited Peter to come and stay with them so that they could hear him teach and preach about Jesus.
Now Peter is faced with a dilemma here – does he go to share the good news about Jesus with this non-Jewish community? Does he break bread with them, knowing that they don’t keep the kosher dietary rules?
And going one step deeper, this brings us to one of the controversies of this very early church: does a Gentile who wants to join this movement of Jesus followers have to become Jewish – be circumcised and follow all of the law – in order to do so? Peter, one of the people who had devoted his life to following the Rabbi Jesus would probably have said yes.
But in our story today, God intervenes. Peter has a dream where a sheet drops down from heaven, the four corners lifted by some heavenly force, and the sheet is filled with all sorts of animals – animals that Peter would have considered clean or acceptable to be eaten, alongside animals that he would have considered to be unclean, or unacceptable to be eaten. Three times a voice commands Peter to kill and eat; three times Peter protests, saying that he has never eaten an unclean animal; three times the voice replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”
And with this dream, Peter’s decision about whether or not to go to the house of Cornelius, the Gentile, is made clear. God’s love can break down barriers that we put in place. God’s love is for everyone.
And Peter goes and he preaches, and as he is speaking, Cornelius and his household are filled with the Holy Spirit and Peter baptizes them.
And then we come to the part of the story that _____ shared with us today. Peter, having had this experience of a dream, then preaching to Cornelius and his household and witnessing the power of the Holy Spirit – he then has to go back to Jerusalem and report to the rest of the church about what has happened. He has to help them reach the same point of understanding as he has reached – he has to convince them that the Holy Spirit is working in Gentile followers of Jesus as well as in Jewish followers of Jesus. He has to expand their understanding of God’s love and God’s inclusiveness in the same way as his own understanding has been stretched.
I love one of the last lines in the reading. Peter tells the church in Jerusalem, “Who am I to stand in God’s way?”
When God is moving in the world, who are we to stand in God’s way?
Reading this story, my mind goes to the Affirming journey that Two Rivers has been on for the past 6 years. This has been a journey of having our understanding of God’s love stretched wider – of breaking down the barriers that determine who is in and who is out.
Most of you are already familiar with these words, but I want to read the Two Rivers Pastoral Charge Inclusivity Statement:
“We, the people of Two Rivers Pastoral Charge, publicly declare our commitment to create a community that will celebrate the blessings of and the support of one another in our diverse life experiences; a community where all people are welcome regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, differing abilities, ethnic background, life experiences, generational culture, economic circumstances, and others we have yet to discern.
As such, we will continually seek to identify and dismantle barriers that hinder the participation and inclusion of marginalized groups and individuals.
All persons are welcome to take part in every aspect of church life, including membership, leadership, celebrating life passages, and marriage.
We celebrate the richness that diversity brings to our church, even as it challenges us. We pray for God's Spirit to guide us as we work for reconciliation and justice for all persons in both church and society.”
Being Affirming is a
journey, not a destination. It’s not
something that we did back in 2017 – it is something that is an ongoing
commitment to being willing to have our barriers broken down in the way that
Peter’s barriers were broken down in our story today. It isn’t easy – as our statement reads, “we
celebrate the richness that diversity brings to our church even as it
challenges us.” There is a tension between the celebration and the challenge.
And another thing that
I love about this inclusivity statement is that it is open-ended. We explicitly name the diversity that we
celebrate, but the list ends with, “and others we have yet to discern.” Being Affirming is a journey and not a destination.
And so moving back to the question of food and breaking bread together… who would you be uncomfortable breaking bread together with? Where is your current barrier for sharing a meal?
Would you be comfortable sharing a meal with someone of a different religion or political leanings? Would you be comfortable sharing a meal with someone on the other side of the vaccine debate? Would you be comfortable sharing a meal with a politician who has enacted legislation that you disagree with? Moving to more challenging territory, would you be comfortable inviting someone who is homeless into your house to share a meal? Would you be comfortable sharing a meal with a convict? And if your answer to that one is, “it depends on the crime” then you may have found your limit.
God is always pushing us beyond our comfort zone, pushing us into a broader understanding of love and acceptance. For God’s love isn’t just for the in-crowd. God’s love truly is for everyone; and who are we to get in God’s way?
Photo by Richard Datchler on Flickr