The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Acts 11:1-18.
The other day my phone rang, and as soon as I picked it up and heard who was on the other end, I said “Oh I was just thinking of you! I was just going to call you!” It was as if we’d both been guided, as if one force was working both ends of the process, drawing us together, to where we both needed to be.
I think something very much like that – much bigger, of course, much more important, but still something very much like that – is happening in our reading from Acts today.
Peter is explaining to the church leaders in Jerusalem how it was that he came to be preaching, and staying, and even eating, in the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. Make no mistake: this was a big deal. This was a major scandal. All the first Christians were Jews, of course, kosher-keeping, purity-law-obeying Jews; they believed Jesus was the fulfilment of the Jewish covenant, and the only way to follow Jesus was to follow him as a Jew. Keeping kosher, maintaining purity, staying away from faithless outsiders, was the only way they knew to stay faithful to Jesus.
So when Peter, Jesus’ chosen rock of a disciple, went to the home of a Gentile, that was a problem. It broke kosher. It flaunted purity. It was no way for an apostle to behave. And it got him in deep trouble with the leaders in Jerusalem. Worse than getting called to the bishop’s office in the Episcopal Church today! The leaders demanded an explanation.
And that’s when Peter tells his story. He was deep in prayer when he had a vision of all kinds of non-kosher animals, and a voice from heaven that said “Eat,” a voice from heaven that said “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” When Peter came out of his trance, he knew that this vision really meant something; but what he did not know was at that very moment messengers were approaching his house because a vision had told Cornelius to invite Peter to come to him. This is more than a coincidence; so while Peter is really not too sure about going off with Gentiles, he figures it is something the Spirit is sending him to do, so he bucks up and goes.
And when they get to Cornelius’s house, I imagine Peter having second and third and fourth thoughts. I imagine Peter standing just outside the door, just this side the threshold, remembering every single stereotype he’d ever been told about Romans. “You know Romans are gluttons,” his memory tells him, “they have feasts where they eat so much they get sick, and then they go back and eat some more!” “You know Romans are lustful,” his memory tells him, “they have orgies in their houses – maybe even this very house!” “You know Romans are violent,” his memory tells him, “and this Cornelius is a soldier, a centurion! – who knows how many people, how many Jews, he has killed?” I imagine Peter standing just outside the door, remembering every horrible thing he’s ever heard about Romans, and wondering how in the world God could want him here.
So when Peter steps across that threshold he is going way out of his comfort zone. He is seriously sticking his neck out. Who knows how these people are going to respond to him? But the Spirit told him to, so…
He goes in, and he starts to tell them about Jesus, and before he’s even finished his first paragraph, the Holy Spirit comes on them, on Cornelius and his entire household, and they begin praising and singing and calling on the name of Jesus. And Peter thinks “Hey, I’ve seen this before! – this is what happened to us at Pentecost. These people are the same as us.” And then comes one of the most wonderfully disarming lines in all the New Testament: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” And Cornelius and his household are baptized, and they become the very first Gentile members of the one Body of Christ.
What Peter had to realize here was that the Spirit was already out ahead of him, doing the spiritual work. Peter thought the Spirit was with him, and it was his job to go bring the Spirit to people who didn’t have it. But what Peter found when he got to Cornelius was that the Spirit was already there, the Spirit already had been there all along, and Peter’s job was not so much to bring the Spirit as to recognize what the Spirit was doing, to name it, and to respond to it with the resources his church background gave him – which in the case of this story, was baptism. Peter learned the Spirit was working both ends of the process, drawing them together, bringing them all where they needed to be. Peter thought he was going out of his comfort zone; but when he got there be found the Spirit, the Comforter, waiting for him.
And I think that’s an example for us, when we go out in mission, as well.
For the last few years we in the Episcopal Church, we in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, even we here in Trinity Church – for the last few years we have been using more and more the language of becoming more missional. We have been talking about the importance of going out, going out from our church buildings, going out into our neighborhoods, going out to do the Gospel in mission in the world. We’ve been using the language of going out to meet people with the Gospel where they are, and not just waiting for them to come in here and discover us where we are.
And that is good talk. But translating that talk into action is not always easy. It can raise a certain amount of anxiety. After all, we are very accustomed to doing church the way we do church. And, frankly, we’re pretty good at our way of doing church, with our liturgy and our music and our stained glass windows. We understand all this.
But what can we possibly say to people who don’t understand it? How can aging Boomers possibly talk to millennials? What do the likes of us have to say to the “nones,” the people who’ve grown up without any kind of church affiliation, who have no hooks in their minds on which we can help them hang God ideas like ours? What do we have to say to the “dones,” the people who have left church, because in their experience church has become so toxic – or so irrelevant – that they want nothing more to do with it? and, because they’ve confused church with God, they think they want nothing more to do with God, either? How can we talk with people of different races or classes or religions, when there is so much hurt and injustice and inequality built up in our society over so much time, how do we get across that barrier even to have the conversation? What do we possibly have to offer to people outside? I mean, you know what those people are like, right? We’ve all heard stories about how much they hate Christians like us, right? How in the world could God possibly want us – good, tasteful Episcopalian us – to go out to them?
And so we stand there, like Peter at Cornelius’s door, working up our courage to put a brave face on it and get right out of our comfort zone and go do mission with people who really need our help even if they don’t particularly like us. And we step across the threshold and discover the Spirit is already there, the Spirit has been there all along, the Spirit is moving their hearts too – maybe not with the same liturgy and music and stained glass as we’re accustomed to – but still the same Spirit moving in the same direction. We step out of our comfort zone and discover the Spirit’s been working both ends of the process, drawing us together, bringing us to where we all need to be. We step outside our comfort zone and discover the Spirit, the Comforter, is waiting there for us. And it turns out our job is not to bring the Spirit there, but to recognize it, to name it, and to use the resources our church has given us to help the work of the Spirit to grow.
I think that’s what’s been happening for Trinity, as we’ve made connections with Allen Chapel, as our Lenten program made connections with Jews and Muslims in our neighborhood, as Noon Lunch makes connections across class and economic lines with servers and with guests. I think lately we’ve been reenacting Peter’s story here at Trinity in many ways.
And where do you think we might reenact it next? Where might you reenact Peter’s story in your experience? Where do you think the Spirit might be calling you to go out, to cross some barriers, to go somewhere you expect will be far out of your comfort zone, and discover the Spirit is already there, discover the Comforter is waiting for you? Where do you guess the Spirit might be working both ends of the process and drawing you to a connection where you need to be?
For each of us as individuals, for all of us as Trinity Parish, for us in the Episcopal Church, this is a new season of mission. This is a time when the Spirit is sending us out to make connections in ways we had not thought of connecting before. And the Good News is that when we get there, we will find the Spirit has been there already, waiting for us, working the work, all along. Amen.