The Sunday Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 10, 2020
Scripture: Acts 10:34-45
To All the Nations
We have been following the “acts of the first century apostles since Easter four weeks ago, and doing it all through recorded video worship services. How God’s “agents” in any age – apostles such as Peter and Paul in the first century, or you and I in this century – wrench life from death is not at all easy to explain, as much as we’d like it to be. These types of stories, teaching and healing “miracle stories,” can only be told in the context of the entire book of the Act of the Apostles, 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, miracle stories and common, stories of finding God in the everyday don’t create faith, they are perceived by faith and through the faith community. Because we already believe, because we already “give our hearts to,” the new life available from God in the way of Jesus the Christ, we see “the miracles of resurrection” in the world around us and we trust in life everlasting. That’s faith seeking understanding, not the other way around.
The promise of the gospel, that we re-discovered after Easter, became known by many in the early church movement because of the apostles, because of Paul, because of Dorcas and the widows of Joppa. We don’t’ journey far at all from last week to this one. You will remember that after Peter’s encounter with the widows, he stayed some time in Joppa with “a certain Simon, a tanner.” Pray with me. And listen for the Word of God. Read Acts 10:34-45. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So, before we dig into this scripture, I need to share something that has been bothering me this week. When we have heard a story over and over again, year after year, in one way or another, we think we know it and we stop asking questions about “how, why” (how and why the “characters” did thus-and-such) and about “what if” (what if they had done something different). I was continuously reminded of that because in reading our scripture for this morning and the verses, the parts of the story, that precede and follow them, I had 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 knowledge in my mind, I kept reading this week’s story, this week’s verses, as something that was planned all along by the apostles and something that they were not only comfortable doing, but couldn’t wait to get started doing! It’s not until we put ourselves into their shoes, as we’ve been trying to do for four weeks now, that we realize, even though God may have anticipated and called for this outreach, the first apostles surely hoped they wouldn’t have to travel too far, to such strange lands, to foreign people, to outsiders. On some level, I’m sure they hoped they could just stick with the people they knew best, those from their own tradition of Judaism. In the stories we’ve shared so far, this seems to be the case.
For the most part, we have explored 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 begin thrown into prison 5:17-42 on the first week. But we’ve skipped over the story of Stephen being brought up on false charges and stoned to death 6:13, 7:57-60 and the plots to kill the newly converted Paul 9:20-25 . There will be more imprisonments, floggings and even killings to come. So, truth be told, things aren’t going as well for this new movement as I’ve seemed to suggest.
We’ve also “glossed over” the conflicts within this new movement – conflicts between Paul and Peter and the other Jerusalem apostles. How did things get so sour within the Jewish family of the first century? Why did Paul, and this morning, Peter move into the gentile world?
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?
I think, perhaps in addition to the Holy Spirit, rejection from within the family moves our gospel into the wider, gentile world. I think the early apostles weren’t taking this gospel to non-Jews only because they were commissioned to do so. They made this move, in part, because they had to! Their own family was, in too many ways, 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 was giving their lives their 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, a 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 is the hardest thing in the world for any of us to understand.
We live in a society that promises instant reward for all of 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 “Lutheran” or “gay” or “female” or “black” or “divorced.” What becomes crystal clear to Peter and again to us this morning is that to do so is not our privilege.
A tanner carries the odors and the blood of animals and in the eyes of the Jewish tradition that makes him “unclean.” As Luke informs us that Peter is staying with this non-Jew, he also informs us that 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 has now moved to the Gentiles.
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,” and allow God to be God.
So, before we move on, a quick note: Next week we’re going to bring our first century journey to the 21st century and hear from someone who has been special to us in our church community at Pewee Valley for the past year: Our student minister, Violet Sears. Believe it or not, next week is Violet’s last week with us in this role. We’ve been stripped of some of our time and ministry with her in these past months, but she has been present with us in everyway she can be. Next week, Violet will share a bit of her journey to us, with us, and her thoughts of “beyond” us. We are grateful for all that has been, different as it has been in the past eight weeks. And we look forward to bringing our time with Violet to a faithful close. For now … let us continue our worship.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / May 10, 2020