5th Sunday of Easter
April 28, 2013
Acts 11: 1-18 and John 13: 31-35
When I began to work with a trainer at the gym, he started me out with lunges and bicep and tricep exercises. They called me “Pastor Lungmaster” because I did lunges until I thought I’d fall over, but they began to make me strong and improve my balance. My arms started bulking up, so that my trainer no longer called them “skinny.” My physical condition began to change, and I didn’t realize it until he asked me to do something that seemed ridiculously hard, and that I sure I’d never been able to do. I kept telling him that I couldn’t do it, and he insisted that I could. I couldn’t get out of it until I tried, and amazingly enough, I did the exercise! Not just once, but 10 times in three different sets! I was shocked. All the time I’d been doing those lunges and curls, I was building up a strength that I didn’t understand until it was called up. My trainer knew better than I did what my capabilities were because he’d been crafting my new strength week after week. It took me weeks to get over my surprise. I told the story to everyone who would listen, bragging about this new understanding of what building my physical condition meant.
I think the story we have before us today in the reading from Acts is a similar story. We hear the tail end of the story, which is repeated three different ways in Chapter 10 and 11 of the Acts of the Apostles. You have to understand the mechanics of the early Church to really see why this story is told over and over. Remember that nearly all the earliest believers were Jews. They all followed the purity laws of that tradition, laws about what you could eat and what you couldn’t, who you could eat with and who was off-limits. God had set them apart from the world to be a witness and those rules defined them as God’s people. But, of course, we know that they sometimes got so caught up in following the purity rules that they forgot the mission of care for the most vulnerable and used the rules instead to pass judgment on people in their own tradition who weren’t as pure as the best rule-keepers. It never occurred to any of Jesus’ faithful followers that pagan Gentiles could also believe in God through Jesus and have an equal invitation to be God’s people. The Holy Spirit was just about to burst the boundaries of everything they assumed to be true.
What got Peter hauled up before the bigwigs in Jerusalem was that he ate with the “uncircumcised.” That’s code for anyone who is not Jewish. Notice that what all the buzz is about, is that Gentiles, “the uncircumcised,” had received the word of God, but that’s not why “the brothers” wanted to talk to him. But Peter’s got a real story to tell. His vision, so confusing at the time, was preparing him to understand about the changes that were afoot that he wasn’t aware of. Men come from Caesarea, from the house of Cornelius, who was a God-fearing, generous man. They tell this tale of Cornelius seeing an angel who tells him to invite Peter to explain what’s going on in Cornelius’ heart. Peter himself realized that the Holy Spirit is sending him to respond. Peter already breaks the rules by inviting the men to stay with him in Joppa. When they reach Cornelius, Peter tells the story of his own experience of Jesus as the realization of all God’s promises. All of this is boundary-breaking and all of the people involved feel as if they are venturing into new territory. But then comes the big shock: the Holy Spirit descends “even on these Gentiles” causing them to praise God in their own praise language. It was undisputable. This was certainly the mark of the Holy Spirit in the worshipping communities from which these ‘circumcised’ believers came. Peter knew just what to do, it was clear to him that they must be baptized as any other believers were baptized, because God had chosen them. “Who was I to think that I could oppose” what God had chosen, says Peter.
There are a couple of pretty clear lessons for us in this reading. First, God loves sinners, and invites all people into a life of relationship and faith in God. You are here by God’s invitation because God is at work to build you up in the Spirit for the work God has in mind for you. It’s not our work but God’s to make believers. Second never doubt that your sharing of your own experience of Jesus and the difference it makes in your life is a powerful testimony to God, and that God can use it to save souls. Third, never doubt that the Holy Spirit is already at work in ways that you don’t see, to bring together all the pieces necessary to open the door of faith to people you meet. And, last, we think of hospitality as welcoming people who come to visit our church. We, maybe I should say I, never think about hospitality as being welcomed into other people’s lives and eating with them, and finding out what they believe and what they might want to know about what I believe.
Our prayers, our worship, our participation in this community of faith is like all those lunges and curls at the gym. They have been preparing us for the real work of sharing our faith with an unchurched world. But the Holy Spirit is the one who has been guiding us and building us up to a strength we would never have imagined, so that when we speak, everything is in place for the work to be accomplished. Thanks be to God. Or as we say at the gym, “whoo hoo!”
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.