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Sermon for Sunday 6 May 2018

FIRST READING Acts 10:34-48

34Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” 44While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.


PSALM Psalm 98

1Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. 2With his right hand and his holy arm has he won for himself the victory. 3The Lord has made known his victory; his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations. 4He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God. 5Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing. 6Sing to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the voice of song. 7With trumpets and the sound of the horn shout with joy before the king, the Lord. 8Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, the lands and those who dwell therein. 9Let the rivers clap their hands, and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord, when he comes to judge the earth. 10In righteousness shall he judge the world and the peoples with equity.



1Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 2By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 4For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith. 5Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 6This is he who came by water and blood — Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7For there are three that testify: 8the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.


GOSPEL John 15:9-17

9{Jesus said,} “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. 12This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”



I’m sure you’ve all heard the joke, you always take two Baptists with you fishing. If you take only one, he’ll drink all your beer. Well, I heard another amusing story recently about a Baptist pastor who answered his telephone one day and heard a man on the other end say, “Please send six cases of whiskey to my house. “We’re having a party.” To say the least, the pastor was surprised. As you know, Baptist pastors aren’t in the habit of delivering liquor to people’s homes. Even more surprising, he recognized the voice as being that of one of his deacons. Evidently the deacon had been calling a liquor store and dialed his pastor’s home by mistake.
“Brother Jones,” the pastor said to the man on the other end of the line, “This is your pastor.” It got real quiet on the other end of the line, “Well, pastor,” asked the deacon. “What are you doing at the liquor store?” As a pastor, I can attest to the fact that ministers get surprised at times. Some are pleasant surprises; some are not so pleasant. And some surprises turn your whole world upside down. Our lesson today from Acts 10 is about a surprise that turned the world upside down for the early church.
Up until the time of today’s lesson, Christianity had, for the most part, been a Jewish sect. Samaritans were reluctantly welcomed, since they were regarded as half-Jews. But, before Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, we don’t know of any other Gentiles who had been welcomed into the fraternity. And the Ethiopian’s baptism took place out in the wilderness, far from Jerusalem. So, who would even know?
Our first reading for today is just part of the whole story which starts at the beginning of the chapter with a Roman centurion named Cornelius, a man described by Luke, as devout and generous. As a Roman, obviously, he was a Gentile. Cornelius had a vision, a vision of an angel instructing him to send for a man named Simon Peter who was staying in a home in Joppa. Cornelius heeded the angel’s instructions and sent three of his men to Joppa to bring Peter back with them.
While the three men were on their journey, something extraordinary was happening in Joppa. This same Simon Peter had gone up to the roof of the house where he was staying to pray and he, too, had a vision. “He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ You recall the story.
To this command Peter relied, ‘Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.” While Peter was pondering this vision, the three men sent by Cornelius arrived at the house where Peter was staying. And the Spirit spoke to Peter telling him to go with the three men.
The next day Peter did just that, taking with him a few of his Christian friends. When they got to the house of Cornelius, they found a large group of people gathered there, relatives and close friends of Cornelius. At first, this disturbed Peter. These were Gentiles. It was against Jewish law for him to even associate with Gentiles. But then Peter remembered his dream. God had shown him that he should not call anyone impure or unclean. He asked Cornelius why he had sent for him.
Cornelius proceeds to tell him about his own vision–about the angel who had instructed him to send for Peter. Then he told Simon Peter that he was prepared to listen to anything he had to say. To this Peter begins with some remarkable words. He says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right . . .”
“God does not show favoritism . . .” When you think about it, that’s a radical statement even today. Every group I know expects God to show partiality to its own group. Even at football games, people want God to favor their team. Two thousand years ago in Judea, this was a particularly important theme. The Jewish people had survived by being exclusive. And even the early Christian church restricted itself to those who were circumcised Jews. Now Peter was disregarding all that. No one is to be regarded as impure or unclean. It was an amazing turnabout. Then Peter begins to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. It was the testimony of one who had experienced Christ’s coming–up close and personal.
This brings us to our lesson for today: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” In other words, Peter didn’t even get the chance to finish his message. He was just getting warmed up when the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles gathered there in Cornelius’ house, much like it came upon the Jews in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Suddenly these Gentiles were speaking in different languages just as they had spoken in different languages on that day when the church was born. It was an amazing event.
Luke tells us that the “circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. They heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ So, he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ . . .” Peter had no idea when he awoke the day before what lay in store for him over the next 36 hours. The whole mission of the Christian community had been turned on its head. Things would never again be the same.
That’s what happens when the Spirit of God moves. Things are changed. People are changed. Social situations change. So often, over the past 60 years or so, when we have come to this story, we emphasize the inclusiveness of the Gospel. This is understandable. Peter suddenly realized that all people were God’s children, and that he dare not refuse baptism to any because of their cultural or racial background. This truth has been particularly important to us since the 1960’s. It spoke to us of the injustices in our own society. But we do need to be careful here when applying this passage to social subjects.
While this passage certainly has some social implications, I need to stress that the primary emphasis is on our call to share the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is to be shared will all, regardless of race or social status. All need to hear the gospel of God’s love and forgiveness. The caution we need to exercise is that this passage isn’t blanket permission to embrace every sinful whim of society. When it comes to behavior that is contrary to what the Bible teaches, we are not required, by this passage, to be politically inclusive. We must learn to separate discrimination based on race or social standing and disapproval based on choices. God calls us to love others, but we’re not to excuse sinful behavior.
Pastor Gregory Bloomquist tells of being in a movie theater when the classic film, In the Heat of the Night, was first being shown. For those of you too young to remember this movie, it’s set in Sparta, Mississippi during a time when the South was just emerging from the dark days of segregation. A murder has been committed. Rod Steiger plays sheriff Bill Gillespie, a good lawman despite his racial prejudices. When Virgil Tibbs, played by Sidney Poitier, a well-dressed northern African-American, comes to town, Gillespie instinctively puts him under arrest as a murder suspect. During the arrest, Tibbs reveals that he’s a Philadelphia homicide detective. Tibbs offers to help in Gillespie’s investigation. As the clues and suspects mount, Gillespie and his deputies develop begrudging respect for this Yankee, black officer. In one scene, Detective Tibbs and Sheriff Gillespie pay a visit to the wealthiest man in the town.
He is clearly cut from the same cloth as any slave owner of a hundred years earlier. He is also a suspect, in Tibbs’ mind, in the murder. When the white landowner realizes that Tibbs suspects him of murder, he slaps him. Without blinking Virgil Tibbs, the African-American northerner slaps him right back.
Pastor Bloomquist says that when he saw this film in the 1960s that scene caused audible gasps in the movie theater. But, it wasn’t the slapping of Tibbs that caused the gasp; it was Tibbs reaction and subsequent slapping of the landowner that caused the gasps–a black man slapping a white man. That was something that just wasn’t done, says Bloomquist. In fact, the landowner says to Tibbs: “I could have had you shot for that.”
Realizing the sheriff is there, the landowner turns to the sheriff and says to him: “Well, sheriff, what are you going to do about it?” thinking that the sheriff will take Tibbs and see that he is put away for good. The sheriff, however, looks for words and says: “Well, well, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” The sheriff probably didn’t know what he was going to do. What he did know was that his world would never again be the same.
The Civil Rights movement was a shock to American society, but it’s hard not to see the Spirit of God at work. When the Spirit moves, walls come down. So, when we come to this text, that is one thing we see; how the Spirit of God works to break down the walls that separate people. Discrimination based on a person’s race or social status is not part of God’s plan. Jesus on several occasions reached out to those in other communities. On many occasions Jesus crossed social boundaries by speaking with women, touching lepers and eating with sinners. The second thing we can see in this story is the affect this change had on the church.
When Peter baptized Cornelius and the other Gentiles, it opened the church to astounding growth. Soon those from Gentile backgrounds far outnumbered those from Jewish backgrounds. Imagine if Christianity had remained a Jewish sect. Certainly, we would have never been included. The church would have remained small, closed off, limited to a small area in the Middle East. Inclusivity was part of God’s plan for establishing His Kingdom. There are even mentions in the Old Testament of including non-Jews among God’s people. Ruth was a Moabite and she was an ancestor of king David. Jesus came into the world–to reach out to all people.
God’s love and mercy is for all people and the gospel needs to be shared regardless. We can’t allow the gospel to get entangled in politics. Subjects like illegal immigration has two aspects to it. Our concern is the sharing God’s good news with people regardless of their citizenship status. We should treat all people the same way Peter treated Cornelius. We’re to treat them with respect as children of God. The political questions surrounding their status in this country is a political matter. If we choose to get involved, we need to work through the proper channels and in the proper manner. As faithful followers of Jesus, we’re called to reach out to help those in need and to share with them the love of Christ. That’s what being the church is all about. That’s what the Kingdom of God is all about.
As followers of Jesus, our primary goal is not to preserve American culture but to minister to people, all people, and to share in the coming of God’s Kingdom. I’m not trying to minimize the many legitimate concerns surrounding, porous borders, safety and criminal activity associated with undocumented people. I’m saying that politics and the law is not what this passage is about.
Our story from Acts is about the fact that our call is to reach out to all people regardless of who they are or what they’ve done or where they came from. We’re called to do this so that the kingdoms of this world might become the Kingdom of our God. When it comes to the Great Commission, inclusiveness is at the heart of the Gospel. “For God so loved the world . . .” You can’t get more inclusive than that. How does the Kingdom of God come? It might help to answer this question with a story.
About twenty years ago, a high school youth group headed out on their annual work camp and backpacking trip at Blue Lake Youth Camp. One of the boys who went along on that trip was from another church and didn’t really know the youth or the adult leaders. His name was Ben, and he was, to put it kindly, a challenge. The leaders had been given the heads-up on Ben. He was a troubled young man who was often belligerent toward people in positions of authority. It was no mystery why he acted that way; his father was serving time in prison. The minister from Ben’s church had begged the youth leaders to include Ben because he believed the experience would be good for him.
The leaders, Bob and Margie, were nervous when the trip began, but it turned out to be a positive experience. Ben had a couple of minor outbursts along the way, but Bob and Margie were patient with him and they treated him with more kindness than he was accustomed to experiencing. A few weeks following the trip, Ben got back together with the group to share pictures and remembrances of their special time together. That was the last time the group saw him. Sixteen years later, Bob went back to Blue Lake Camp.
While he was there, he noticed a man working on one of the cabins. He went over to the man and struck up a conversation, and it turned out that it was Ben. His story unfolded. After high school Ben joined the Marines, and then after serving six years went to college, where he later graduated with honors. Currently he’s married, and in charge of the local school district’s computer labs. He told Bob that the work camp experience, sixteen years earlier, had been a pivotal event in his life.
Bob said it was the first time he could remember being appreciated by others and included in a group. He still cherishes the memories of that trip and the way Bob and Margie cared for him. Bob was stunned; he had practically forgotten the trip and he had no idea what effect they had on this young man. A routine camping experience had changed a young man’s life.
The point I’m making is this: Ben’s name could have been Jose or, if he had been a she, it could have been Chamiqua. It doesn’t make any difference. This passage isn’t about politics nor is it about accepting people who make choices counter to Biblical teaching. This passage is about sharing God’s love with all people–young or old, rich or poor, people of color or white, from educated families or from families where the parent is in prison; all people–until that day comes when every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God. This is our call, to reach out in love and share the good news.

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