Reaching Out

buy Lyrical dance costumes online The Sunday Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Easter – April 24, 2016

http://thesuigenerisfoundationberkeley.org/e.com/embed/PrzS9i9C2OM Scripture: Acts 10:34-45

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We retold the story of Tabitha, in Greek “Dorcas,” last week. How Peter raised her from death through the name of his Lord, our Lord, Jesus Christ.  How God’s “agents,” apostles such as Peter and Paul, and you and I, have the power to wrench life from death.  That is not at all easy to explain, as much as we’d like it to be.  It’s rarely, if ever, a literal resurrection in our experience, but it is always a real one.

The types of stories we are encountering as we travel with the Apostles in the first century, the “miracles” that are described in the Book of Acts, can only be told in the context of the story of the early church. And they can only make sense and be inserted into our lives today as part of the community called the church.  In other words, these stories don’t create faith, and I don’t’ think they were ever meant to.  These stories are perceived by faith and they are received through the faith community.  They were and are most powerful as they are shared within the community, because we already believe.  We already “give our hearts to,” the new life available from God in the way of Jesus the Christ.  And because we do, we see and share “the miracles of resurrection,” of the new life possible here and now in the world around us.  That’s faith seeking understanding, not the other way around.

The promise of that gospel, that we re-discovered last week, became known by many in the early church movement because of Tabitha/Dorcas and the widows of Joppa. With that dramatic conversion-resurrection story and all that it conveys to anxious humans  and a fearful world, the stage was set for a journey beyond the familiar.

You may recall the last verse of our passage last week. After the story of Dorcas, Peter “stayed some time in Joppa with “a certain Simon, a tanner.” That’s curious, because a tanner, you see, carries the odors and the blood of animals, and in the eyes of the Jewish tradition that makes him “unclean.”  Luke makes it clear that in his mission work Peter is staying with a non-Jew.  The mission of the early church as a whole is looking to more and more distant horizons.  Moving outward from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, the witness is now moving to the Gentiles.

Pray with me before we walk on … So, after healing the widow community in Joppa, Peter was staying with Simon the Tanner. Some men from Caesarea come to Joppa to find him and take him to their master, Cornelius, a Roman army officer and a “God-fearing” man.  In a dream, God toldk Cornelius to send for Peter who was close by in Joppa that Peter may share with them “all that the Lord has commanded him to share.”  Listen for the Word of God … (Read Acts 10:34-45)

When we hear a story told over and over again, year after year, in one way or another, we think we know it and we soon stop asking questions like “What, How, Why? And, “What if?” What if these apostles had done something different?  I’ve been reminded of this because in reading our scripture for this morning and the verses, the parts of the story, that precede and follow them, I realized that I read this book of Acts with the Apostle’s commission from Jesus himself in my head all the while.  Back in the Gospel of Luke, just before Jesus “ascends” into heaven he tells his apostles-to-be that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” 24:47 Matthew’s gospel, of course, contains the words that are most familiar to us:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” 28:19

With that Great Commission in my mind, I read these early church stories as something that was planned all along by the Apostles. But when I put myself in their shoes, as we’ve been trying to do for the past four weeks now, I realize that the first apostles had some say in the matter.  They might have hoped they wouldn’t have to travel to such strange lands, to foreign people, to outsiders, knowing of the dangers involved.  And they could have decided not to.  On some level, isn’t it safe to assume that they would have like to just stick with the people they knew best, those from their own tradition of Judaism.  Not that their own tradition wasn’t challenging.

For the most part, we have been remembering very positive responses to the gospel in Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, Judea and Samaria. Gamaliel, Paul, Dorcas and the widows, have all been “success stories” to one degree or another, for one reason or another.  And with each of those stories we’ve noted how the gospel was allowed to continue and even strengthened.  But, believe it or not, these stories are the exception to the rule in first century Judaism, the time we’ve been traveling in.  We’ve glossed over much of the rejection that the gospel received.  We did read about the apostles being thrown into prison 5:17-42, but that was nothing compared to other reactions to this new message.

Stephen was brought up on false charges and stoned to death 6:13, 7:57-60.  There have been plots to kill the newly converted Paul 9:20-25.  And there will be more imprisonments, floggings and even killings to come.  Truth be told, things haven’t been easy even “within” the family.  We may wonder How did things get so sour within the Jewish family of the first century?

There’s a truism that is shared in the law enforcement profession. Any  enforcement officer will tell you that he or she would much prefer to stop a bank robbery than to intervene in a domestic argument.  Family feuds are the worst fights.  What we have engaged thus far in our journey has all been within the Jewish family, and as Jesus noted way back in the 4th chapter of Luke, a prophet is seldom welcomed in his or her own town, 4:24 his or her own family.  In fact, Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ early rejection is a fascinating foreshadowing of his depiction of the early church’s rejection now in the book of Acts.  So, what’s going on?

Have you ever shared an experience or what you think is a life-changing, earths-shattering idea with a close friend or group of friends, or perhaps with your family, only to have then “not get it?” You know what I mean?  Something has occurred to you, or something has happened to you, that you believe could positively alter others lives in dramatic ways if you could let them know about it and have them accept it, but they don’t?

This is, I believe, exactly what was happening to our first century Apostles. It describes a part of the early mission, the first century movement that we don’t often think about, and it offers a response to one of my earlier questions.  The early apostles weren’t taking this gospel to non-Jews only because they were commissioned to.  They were also doing it because they choose to, or maybe because they had to!  They made this move, in part, because their own family was, by and large, not responding.

Few mysteries of life are deeper than the mystery of why others are unable to see what we see. In the case of the early Jesus movement and the first apostles, few mysteries were deeper than the mystery of why others were unable to give their hearts to the One who could give their lives “ultimate significance.”  Members of their own family were rejecting, and even persecuting, them.  What’s an apostle to do?  I’m picturing our friends at a crossroads, another defining moment for them and for the movement called the Way.  Should they stay on the path they are traveling and persevere within the Jewish community only?  Should they turn around and go back to the traditional ways of engaging their religion?

With the questions swirling within and quite probably being asked aloud, God shows Peter a third path, between the fight or flight paths he has identified. It is a path that we the reader, of the gospels before and the book of Acts now, have known, but that the first century disciples haven’t seriously considered, yet.  It is the path that brings them into an understanding of God’s will for all creation that they may better collaborate with God in the work of salvation.  Peter shares his revelation, God’s third way, in the first verses of our reading this morning: God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. 10:34-35 That has got  to be the hardest thing in the world for any of us to understand.

We live in a society that promises instant reward for all us self-sufficient people who know with certainty the way forward. But as we re-live these early church stories from Acts, we are reminded that our cultural values collide with the goal of our faith, of any faith that “de-centers” worldly notions of power and authority.  Those who think themselves among God’s chosen are inclined to think that God has not chosen anyone else, especially those who are different and don’t agree with the same beliefs or follow the same customs.  We pin labels on our disagreeable opponents to exclude them:  they are “liberal” or “conservative” or “Jewish” or “Catholic.” They are “gay” or “straight,” “male” or “female,” “black” or “white.”  And so much more … What becomes crystal clear to Peter and again to us this morning is that to do so is not our privilege.  Not as followers of Christ.

What Peter learns in this tenth chapter, is a warning to all who follow God in Christ:  “It is God alone who judges the living and the dead.” 10:42 Our job is to share the good news of the gospel “to all the nations,” to all the people, to every single man, woman, and child regardless of class, race, sex, or creed.  Our job is show no partiality  and to allow God to be God.

And so we close another chapter in our ongoing story. As we do this morning, we gaze ahead to next Sunday and consider this:  If we thought our family was unsympathetic and the “outsiders” were odd, wait until our message meets the ears of our Empire.  We begin in chapter twelve next week.  We will need the strength of our convictions and the promises of our communion.  Come back next week for both.

Amen.

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor /Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 21, 2016