Acts 11:1-18 5th Sunday of Easter
Elizabeth M. Deibert 24 April 2016
As I was driving home from the airport this week, I saw a bumper sticker that Love is greater than hate. Or as they sang in South Africa coming out of Apartheid, “Goodness is stronger than evil. Love stronger than hate.”
When I was a teenager, going to all the football games, playing in all the basketball games, I can remember a horrible cheer that would erupt from the stands when the tension was high. “UGLY – you ain’t got no abili, you’re ugly. Absolutely ugly.” Terrible words, terrible message, still in my head. Perhaps some would say, “What’s harm?” It’s just a friendly competition. Well, competitiveness seems to be taking an uglier turn every year and invading every aspect of life, not just sports. The teens who grew up shouting those things from the stands at ballgames are now middle-aged adults, and they did not grow up. These kinds of words, this type of hatred, is seen far too often in public discourse, in political rallies, and it is not a friendly competition any more. It is life, and it shapes life, and hatred harms people, all of us.
And the meanness factor is worse now for teens than it was for us, because of social media. Teens have always been bullied. But the power to quickly spread the vitriol, and the willingness to say things online that you would not say in someone’s presence has amplified the pressure that teens feel. Coming home from school is no protection from bullying. It can happen 24/7. Did you hear about the sixteen year old girl who was trying to resolve an issue with other girls in the school bathroom at a high school in Delaware? So sad.
As we listen for the Spirit, speaking her Word to the Church today through this Holy Scripture, let hear the “otherness” of Gentiles to Peter. Let us notice how radical it was for Peter to agree to enter the house of Cornelius and eat with him.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 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?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
The battle between “us and them” is age-old. Much of the Old Testament is written with an “us and them” attitude, and until you understand that, you cannot help but wonder why the Bible would say that God asked the Israelites to kill the enemy, to completely plunder them, even the women and children. That’s not the God we worship. We have to understand that at times the writers of Old Testament stories forgot that their “us-ness” with God was to bless the others. Threatened by the violence of other tribes and nations, and sometimes abusive of their own power, they often attributed the “us and them” division to God.
As the early church was forming in and among the Jews, this testimony of Peter was transformative. But the struggle for human harmony continues. The problem is still palpable in the Middle East today in Israeli-Palestinian relationships. You can still see it in our country, especially in Christian-Muslim relationships recently. Hitler employed the “us and them” mentality in the most heinous way. If you’ve ever visited the Holocaust museum in DC, you have read how systematic was the propaganda that led a whole country into hatred. And many of us are not nearly so acquainted with the Armenian genocide that killed almost a third as many Christians in Turkish Ottoman Empire about one hundred years ago. This “us and them” has played out across religious lines. Even within the Christian Church, there have been so many sad lines of division – Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. And in the last twenty-five years, while those divisions have minimized, we have added Christian worship wars. (slide)
“Us and them” has certainly done plenty of damage across racial lines as well. Caucasians of European descent have for centuries played the us and them card, wreaking havoc as they colonized Africa, taking both land and worst of all, taking people as slaves. It takes generations to recover identity and a secure sense of self when you’ve been treated that poorly for generations. And we don’t even have time to converse about the Native Americans in North Central, and South America who were sent down a trail of tears, as colonists overtook their land and banished their way of life.
In our century, we are also dealing with the “us and them” challenges of gender, marriage, and sexuality. 100 years ago, women were barred from voting. 75 years ago a divorce was scandalous. 50 years ago, gay and lesbian people never came out of the closet, which led to a lot of pain and secrets. Have you seen the movie, Spotlight? 25 years ago, transgender people were seen as having a disorder, not a just difference. They need our love and support. We are not as binary in our gender as some of us like to think. It’s more complicated than that. When I was a girl, I was a tom-boy. I liked football more than baby dolls. I can remember making a decision in sixth grade to join the girls. For some, that moment does not happen. It’s more confusing and painful. These friends do not need us arguing over which bathroom they can use. They need our kindness.
The Jewish Christians (the insiders in this story) were the ones who demanded that Peter explain why he was including Gentiles. He shared the vision, by which his mind was changed by the Holy Spirit. Three times he saw the vision and heard the voice saying, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ He testified that 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
Not to make a distinction! Their whole 1st century Jewish identity was based on making that distinction – who is circumcised and who is not, who eats kosher clean and who does not. Peter says, “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?” Paul corroborates this message when he says, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
So some of you may be thinking, “Well this is about people who are one of us, as in Christian like us.” Here’s the challenge: We’ve been told not to hinder God. We’ve been told that God so loved the world (not just us, not just people like us) that God gave, God came as Jesus Christ. Not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved.
We’ve been told by Jesus in his final words of Matthew, the Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” We heard last week of the great multitude from all tribes and people and languages together in God’s realm. Two weeks ago the challenge of Jesus to Peter, “Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.” He had earlier said that his flock included more sheep than the disciples thought. Jesus said over and over again not to judge others, but to love them, and he showed us the way. The only people with whom Jesus regularly got frustrated were the religious people who thought they knew everything, who were holier than everyone else.
The Prophet Jeremiah said to the people of God, who were struggling to keep their faith, surrounded by those of different faith, “7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer 29:1 NRS) The word translated “welfare” there is shalom, peace. In seeking the peace of those around you, you will find your peace.
Our clarion call, especially as we have given ourselves the name Peace, is that we want to promote Christ’s peace and not just for people like us. I try to remember that it is usually fear of the unknown or some wound of the past that makes people turn “others” into enemies. The more subtle form of “otherizing” people is to simply write them off as less important. That’s what the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to our attention – that it is so easy to overlook our biases – socio-economic and ethnic. When we think it was one of them, not one of us, we don’t care as much about the injustice. (slide) Especially in a political season, we do well to refrain from us and them thinking. Two parties, struggling together. Not us and them. All us-ens are together. No more blaming Washington, DC for the trouble. Those people in Congress and in the White House and in the Supreme Court are us. No more blaming the media – they are showing us what the ratings say we want to see. No more blaming the liberals or the conservatives. No more blaming the poor people and immigrants. Come on. We are together in this mess and only together will we make progress.
No more us and them. We are all the beloved children of God. (slide) There is now a new creation in Jesus Christ. I want everybody to know (black, brown, and white) that God loves them and there’s nothing they can do about it. I want everybody to know including all LGBT people that God loves them and there’s nothing they can do about it. I want everybody (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindi, Christians, Atheists, and everybody else) to know that God loves them and there’s nothing they can do about it. I want everybody from every corner of the world, from every economic position (poor to rich) and every age group to know to know that God loves them and there’s nothing they can do about it. But stop. There is something you can do about it.
You can reach out with compassion to other people who might not feel God’s love. You can do like Gunter Nitsch, author of Weeds Like Me, born in East Prussia, and who grew up in post-war Germany as a refugee with 7 million others and eventually came to the USA as an immigrant. Gunter had received care packages as a boy from a particular family of Christians in the USA who sent Christian hope to refugee children. They meant so much to him that he tracked down the Mennonite family who had sent them, after he settled here. He is now paying that hope forward by sending care packages to Syrian children in their own refugee camps. So they too might know that God loves them. You also can make a difference through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and you can come hear Elmarie Parker, of Presbyterian World Mission on Tuesday, May 17, to hear what people of faith are doing in the Middle East to share the love of God. Come on. How else will people know that God cares, unless we show them? So let’s get on with living the love, showing the love, being the love of Jesus Christ.