From Fact to Decision

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 21, 2024

The tenth chapter of Acts opens by introducing us to a new character—a man named Cornelius. Cornelius is a Roman soldier, but he loves both God and his neighbor. And one day, Cornelius has a vision of an angel who tells him to send for a man named Peter. He’d find him in Joppa.

The very next day on a rooftop, Peter had the vision that we heard about in today’s scripture reading. In the vision, God declared creatures to be clean that Peter had considered unclean.

And if we read (or hear) that story all by itself, that’s probably all we think that story’s about: an end to dietary laws. That’s the way the church has been using it for two thousand years. And it’s a valid point and probably an important part of Peter’s vision: The old laws have run their course and we can now eat anything that’s not poisonous and that we’re not allergic to.

But when we put this vision in its context, the main lesson God was teaching Peter wasn’t really about what he was and wasn’t allowed to eat. We start to realize this when, while he was still pondering what he’d just experienced, he got a feeling somebody was looking for him. And when he went downstairs, lo and behold, three men were at his door.

They’d come to invite him to the home of Cornelius—the same Roman soldier we first met at the beginning of the chapter. And a couple of days later, Peter ended up at Cornelius’s house in Caesarea. Cornelius, of course, was expecting him, and had gathered his family and closest friends to welcome Peter. At first, Cornelius tried to debase himself before him, but Peter would have none of it. He told him to get up, then reminded him that it was against his religion to associate with people outside his religion. But God had shown him that he needed to stop thinking of other people as unclean or impure.

Peter then gave a rather famous speech that began, “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism.” He continued by sharing with Cornelius’s friends and family all about Jesus Christ. By the end of the speech, the Holy Spirited had fallen upon that house and they were all baptized.

This is not just another story of people being converted. It’s the story of how the church was being led to a new understanding of who God was and who God’s people were, a new understanding of who was acceptable to God, a whole new way of thinking about insiders and outsiders.

There are several other stories from the Acts of the Apostles that make the same point—that God loved and called people who used to be considered outsiders. And those accounts, along with the two stories that I’ve just talked about lead to a very important decision—perhaps the most important decision the church ever made.

We find it in the 15th chapter of Acts. The church calls a council in Jerusalem to discuss what had become an important matter. Some were saying that, in order for a Gentile (a non-Jew) to belong to the church, people first had to convert to the old religion, that is, follow the Law of Moses. Others said No, that people could clearly follow Jesus even though they didn’t follow the Law of Moses.

And after hearing all the stories of how the Holy Spirit was at work on both sides of the religious divide, the Council of Jerusalem came to a decision—the decision to affirm the faith of people who didn’t follow the old religious laws.

As with many things in the Bible, there are (at least) two ways of looking at this decision. One way is to say that this is a record of a unique decision (sort of like the minutes of one of our consistory meetings)—a decision that was made one time and need not be repeated in any situation in the future. If this is the case, then the only time the church ever had to struggle with whether or not to accept outsiders was at this council in the Jerusalem not long after the resurrection of the Lord.

Another way to look at this decision—and all the events that led up to it—is to see it as a whole new way of thinking. If this is the case, then the decision made at this council is the first of many such decisions. The church of Jesus, if it was to live on, was going to continually come into contact with new people, with different types of outsiders. And as it did, it was going to have to struggle with the question of whether or not God included these new people in the Kingdom.

The criteria for inclusion that Peter and the others considered, by the way, were not the old rules, but whether or not God was at work in the people they were talking about. In other words, God had already stated as a fact that these people were loved and included. The council simply decided to acknowledge what God was already doing.

Looking at the life and teachings of Jesus, to me it seems obvious that this second way is the right way. Jesus spent his entire ministry expanding the circle—even erasing the lines. He went to places that it wasn’t safe for him to go. He talk to people he wasn’t supposed to talk to. He ate with people others condemned. And in the end, he spread his arms wide and forgave those who were, even at that moment, putting him to death.

I think Christianity was founded on the teachings of One who always seemed to include those others. And I think the earliest church struggled with how to continue Jesus’ radical welcome while keeping their identity. And in the end, they came out on right side: God was inviting people into the fold that they might have been inclined to reject, so they made the decision to welcome them into the family.

I’m not sure when the church began going in the opposite direction—when it decided to build up walls and emphasize the dividing line between them and us. But we know it did. In its mildest form, this tendency can be seen in the “church lady”—a Saturday Night Live character from the 80’s played by Dana Carvey. She was prim and proper and quick to point at that people who were different from her were probably under the influence of Satan.

At its harshest, of course, the church’s insider/outsider mentality has been expressed in persecution—what perhaps the church lady might be on steroids and armed with weapons.

Throughout history, though, there have always been those who look for signs of God’s love in all people—even those who are different and those they disagree with. Sometimes this viewpoint has split churches and denominations, and has prevented the unity that Jesus prayed for.

We have struggled with some of these questions ourselves. We’ve had to think seriously about who God includes and whether or not we should offer the same welcome that we think Jesus did. And as we think about this, it’s important to remember that that council in Jerusalem wasn’t a one-time occurrence, but was an example—an example of how to decide who’s part of the family. We don’t include just the people we’re used to, that we already agree with, who are just like us. The church of Jesus Christ welcomes anyone who loves God and who loves their neighbor. It’s what Jesus taught, it’s what Luke taught us in the Acts of the Apostles, and it’s still the hallmark of the body of Christ.
—©2024 Sam Greening∏