May 19, 2019 – Acts 11.1-18

        Seven sermons, including today.  That’s all I have left to impart to you all the wisdom, knowledge and understanding you will need to carry on your Christian life.  Then we’ll have somebody who can no doubt do it better.  But anyway, I only have seven remaining.

        I know what you’re thinking.  If I haven’t gotten across what I wanted to in the past twenty-eight years, it’s probably too late to start now.  And I’m sure that’s the case.  What I’ve been working on all that time is trying to provide a foundation for living as Jesus’ followers.  I don’t pretend to have the answer to every question or the solution to every problem.  So my goal has been to try and say, here are the starting points in Christian living.  I’ve tried to say, here are the things I believe are most important if we are serious about our confession of faith and baptism.

        So you’ve probably caught on by now that I don’t have that many different sermon themes.  I enjoy writing sermons, so I’ve done a new one every week, but over time I repeat the same themes.  You’ve heard me talk about the importance of having a faith that is always open to newness, new ideas, new ways of living out the faith.  You’ve heard me say that our faith is a combination of what we believe and what we do, that being a follower of Jesus has implications for every decision we make, every interaction we have with others.  You’ve heard me stress the need for us to be proactive in looking to the needs of those around us and those beyond our doors. 

        I’ve come at these themes, and perhaps a few others, from different angles.  I’ve done so by preaching from the lectionary, the set series of Bible passages which walk us through the church year.  Most of the time I’ve picked one of the four readings which the lectionary provides for every Sunday and used that as the jumping off point for the sermon.  That way, over time, I’ve tried to expose you to a lot of different Bible passages.  Along the way I’ve tried to give some context and perspective on the sermon texts, keeping in mind that nowadays most of us don’t read and study the Bible on a regular basis.

        Those are my sermon secrets.  Oh, one more.  One of the learnings which has stuck with me all these years from my seminary days is the preaching professor who said that what we folks do in the pulpit needs to be the proclamation of the good news.  That may seem obvious, but it’s not hard to find sermons that contain more bad news than good news.  I’ve always thought it was important to keep in mind that what I’m doing in these few minutes every Sunday is attempting to remind us all that in some mysterious way we are saved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  I keep coming back to what Frederick Buechner says about our salvation, “There’s nothing you have to do.  There’s nothing you have to do.  There’s nothing you have to do.”  I like that.

        So after today, six more sermons on the same stuff you’ve been hearing.  And today, yet another sermon on what I hope is by now a familiar topic.  This week’s version comes to us from the book of The Acts of the Apostles.  It’s not a great title.  I don’t know if Luke, the author, gave it that name or if somebody came up with it later. But it’s not a great title.  It should be something like, How the Church Got Started, because that’s what it’s about.  And today’s story is the watershed event of the beginning of the church.  Without today’s story, we would not be here today.  It’s the story of the inclusion of Gentiles into the church. 

        That sounds like such a ho hum, so what issue from our perspective, two thousand years later.  Of course Gentiles, that’s everybody who’s not Jewish, belong in the church.  Everybody is welcome in the church! That’s the punch line for this sermon, by the way, if you want to go ahead and nod off for the next few minutes. 

        But it was not at all obvious to the first believers in Jesus.  Remember that up until this point, the Bible has been exclusively the story of God’s dealings with the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, who were the start of the Jewish nation.  Well, almost exclusively.  Here and there you get hints that God’s love and mercy are broad enough to encompass everybody.  The little book of Ruth, for example, tells us that the great king David’s grandmother was not a Jew.  And there’s the little book of Jonah, which describes God’s mercy on the decidedly unJewish and notoriously wicked city of Nineveh. 

        And there’s the story of Jesus healing the daughter of a Samaritan woman, Samaritans being sort of the cousin nobody in the family likes.  And there’s that verse in John’s gospel which says something about God so loving the world that Jesus has been sent to be our savior.  So yeah, here and there we find hints and clues that it’s not just the Jews who are favored by God.

        But still, all of Jesus’ first disciples are Jewish.  Jesus himself was never anything other than a faithful Jew.  Therefore the beginning of the Jesus movement is just that, a movement of Jews who believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.  And they are out to convince other Jews, and only Jews, of that truth.  For instance, on the day of Pentecost, considered the birthday of the church, the story says, “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.”  They are the ones who witness the result of the Holy Spirit coming upon the apostles.

        That’s Acts chapter two.  But in chapter ten, and again in eleven, we have the story of the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentile, to faith in Jesus.  It comes as a result of a vision which Peter has, which he realizes means that Gentiles are to be accepted into the church.  He’s in the city of Joppa at the time, and back in Jerusalem he has to defend baptizing Gentiles, because the rest of the apostles are astounded that he would do such a thing.  They are even astounded that he would eat with them.

        Luke makes it abundantly clear, however, that Peter did not do so on a whim.  Rather, he is led by the vision and the Holy Spirit to accept Cornelius and his household into the community of faith.  In Acts, the Spirit is always directly involved in any important step taken by the church.

        Again, it is hard for us to appreciate the impact of the inclusion of Gentiles into faith in Jesus.  We take for granted that we Gentiles belong, that we are accepted.  But even Peter, in the midst of his vision, even when he hears a voice telling him what to do, says, “No way, Lord.  I don’t do such things, because I’m a faithful Jew!”  But the voice from heaven speaks to him again, and after all that happens three times, Peter is finally convinced.  The Spirit tells him to go with some men and share the good news with Cornelius and his household.  Peter and I had the same professor for preaching.

        There are at least a couple of takeaways from this story.  First, we are accepted, we are loved by God, we are welcome in the Christian community, we are forgiven.  A lot of people go through life feeling unwanted, unloved, not good enough.  At the extreme end of that group are someitmes the people who walk into a school or church or synagogue and start shooting.  But there are a lot of people, some of them churchgoers, who may have heard the good news, but have trouble believing that it applies to them.

        Over the years I hope you’ve heard me say over and over that we all are accepted, loved, welcome, forgiven.  All of us, no matter what.  For some of us it can be hard for that to soak in, because we hear other voices, sometimes very powerful voices, telling us otherwise.  That’s why I believe it is important for the church to remind us, on a regular basis, of God’s love for us.

        The second takeaway is that if we are accepted, loved, welcome, forgiven, everybody else is too.  In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, the apostle Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Some of the people who walk into a place and start shooting have the deep seated notion that they are alright, but those other folks aren’t. 

        We followers of Jesus disagree.  We believe not only that through Jesus the Christ God accepts and loves, welcomes and forgives us, but God offers the same to everyone.  Remember that Jews and Gentiles covers everybody.  You’re either a Jew or a Gentile.  Period.  That’s why Peter’s baptism of Cornelius and company is so revolutionary.  It means that everybody is invited to church.  Everybody is invited to come and hear and experience the good news.

        “God so loved the world.”  So we’re accepted.  Amen.