Sermon Draft on Acts 10 July 21 2013
Let me ask a question. It might be a simple question or a hard question. I just don’t know.
Who is the church?
Who is the church?
See, I didn’t ask “what” because if I were to ask “what is the church?” then we might be tempted to allow ourselves to be led off course, like a ship in the storm without the benefit of radar or Global Positioning or satellite navigation or a single landmark or even a single bird to follow. For if I said: “What is the church?” we might immediately think about things. Things like places. The church is the place where I worship. The church is my home. There church is the place where I come to hear the Word and receive the sacraments and hang out for coffee hour or meet my friends. And those are all good things to be sure. But “who” - now there’s an adjective that we can sink our teeth into.
Who is the church?
When we think about the people Jesus gathered, spent time with, taught, rebuked, forgave, loved, we find a Jesus whose teaching tells us that the “who” as they gather together into community, as they gather into a communion of people, are a people where those who want to be first must be last and servant of all. The disciples struggled mightily with this. Two of his own disciples, James and John, having their mother angle them for the seats of highest honor in the Kingdom to be above the rest; all of the disciples arguing amongst themselves which one is the greatest. The disciples feeling the power entrusted to them and loving it, ready to call down fire upon a city that turned Jesus away, the disciples ready to go after those proclaiming the Good News who were not numbered among them. Those who are not against us, Jesus telling them, are for us. Even if they are not numbered among you, they are a part of us.
The church for Jesus is both community and communion, deeper than friends sharing friendship, mystically bound through their Baptism into Christ, their sharing at the table, their oneness in Christ.
Who is the church for Jesus?
It is a place where people find their place by not worrying about whether or not their place is better than someone else’s place. Where people seek to be last because that is where the servants know in their hearts where they should be, need to be, where what matters most to God happens.
Having set up today’s reading from Acts Chapter 10, we now dive right in. Peter has a dream and it is a dream that answers the question that we have been asking. And I know that we just said that Jesus answered the question quite thoroughly, quite well. And he did. But the church, at least its leaders, you see, assumed that Jesus didn’t mean for this place of welcome and changed hearts and embodied grace, and where the last shall be first and the first shall be last would include people who weren’t like them. Gentiles and such. People who weren’t Jews. It never occurred to them that despite Jesus lifting up Samaritans who were not Jews as having faith worthy of praise and despite Jesus tell them in the Great Commission to go to all people, all nations and baptize and teach; they just assumed that this commission did not include going to people who were different from them.
So God decides that these disciples, these early church leaders, needed a push in the right direction. So God sets in motion two parts of an incredible plan to open their eyes. Peter receives a dream, this sheet dropping down full of unclean (to Jewish eyes) animals with a voice commanding him to kill and eat, which no observant Jewish boy would consider doing. Kill and eat those unclean animals. And Peter maybe thinking that he is being tested shouts “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean."
Then the voice speaks again: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."
And this whole thing repeats twice more.
Just to make sure that Peter gets it right.
To let it sink in deep.
"What God has made clean, you must not call profane."
Meanwhile, In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o'clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius." He stared at him in terror and said, "What is it, Lord?" He answered, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.
And so he did and so they went and so a couple of men brought Peter to Cornelius, who was not a Jew, and got a little confused bowing before Peter as if Peter was a god and worshipping him. And a whole crowd people were there waiting to hear what Peter had to say. And the Peter proclaimed that God had revealed to him that the answer to the question about “Who is the church?” was not what they had assumed. He didn’t use those exact words, but that is the heart of his answer. Listen:
“You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean….I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”
And right then and there everything changed; everything became clear, then everything became crazy, like a mini- Pentecost, the Holy Spirit pouring out upon those gentiles. Then the baptismal waters were poured upon them and the primary struggle of this young church became the struggle to live into this more complete answer to most simplest of questions:
“Who is the church?”
It is people like us and different from us, richer than us and poorer than us, who were raised with the same faith we share and raised in faith traditions that span the whole of Christianity and more. It is people born in many countries, whose native languages span that diversity, whose cultural traditions are a tapestry. And it is a place where the first shall be last and servant of all, where power is made manifest in weakness, where despite our differences we are called to be one in Christ; one in community and one in communion. All bound by love and in love and through love.
And finally it is people who have come to the realization of their own incompleteness, whose hearts ache for those for which they may yet embody Christ, a people through whom Christ might be made more fully known to them, enriching their faith, receiving as much, if not more, then they give.
Will we be such a people, you and I?