Acts 11:1-18 Since this month has been all about our stories, I wanted to start out by telling you a little bit of mine. I grew up in a United Methodist church, but my journey with God really didn’t start until I was in middle school. One night, I got a phone call, and I was told by my best friend for as long as I could remember, that I wasn’t cool enough to be hanging out with any of our friends anymore. As far as I can remember it was mostly that I wouldn’t say swear words and that I didn’t watch the same TV shows they did.
So, imagine all the insecurities a 6th grader already has, and add in being told by your best friends that you are literally too uncool and too weird to even be seen with. Thats about where I was at, probably one of the lowest points of my life. But despite how terrible all of that was, God was able to bring me out of that really bad place and into a very good one. I eventually found a new group of friends who not only treated me a lot better, but took me to youth group with them, which was new for me because my church didn’t have one.
It was through this group that I learned that to God I was beautiful and lovable and valuable, and that made all the difference in the world for me after going through what I had been through.
After that, I was completely hooked on God. Eventually, I even got to the point where I started leading my own weekly youth group with friends at my own church because the other group fell apart. These experiences were what really decided for me that I wanted to spend my life ensuring that places like the one that I had found would be around for other people who were feeling what I had felt, so that they could know that they too were beautiful and lovable and valuable.
Fast forward to last year, I started school at Mount Vernon Nazarene University as a ministry student. And I really enjoyed learning while I was there, but I also became very unhappy there very quickly. The school opened my eyes to what I see as a very big problem. There was a very strictly defined way that you were supposed to be and think there, and you were constantly reminded that you needed to fit into it. You needed to be the person who fit the lifestyle guidelines, and you needed to have the correct Christian viewpoint on certain issues. And the longer I paid attention to it, the more upset I got about it. First of all, because I was one of the people who didn’t think everything I was supposed to, and often the teachers would mock what I thought were good ideas. But there were also bigger problems for me there.
There were tons of stories about people being kicked out for breaking some kind of rule, but even worse for me were the stories of those who felt like they had to just deal with it and keep hidden who they were and what they thought. On several occasions, I heard that there were plenty of gay and lesbian people on campus, and that they just didn’t come out to anyone, and if they did, no one acknowledged them as long as they didn’t act on it. This really picked away at me. These people had to hide a part of themselves for the sake of fitting in so that they could stay.
I didn’t understand how it could it be right, that in a community of faith there wasn’t any room for us to be different from one another and be accepting of each other. Within myself, I couldn’t reconcile the love that I know the church represents and the love which I had felt from God, with the lack of love that I was feeling here. So I felt more and more frustrated as a part of this group who just didn’t know where else to go. The church was a big part of my life. I wanted to go into ministry, but more and more I didn’t want to be a part of the kind of ministry I felt like I was being prepared for.
Luckily for me, my boyfriend Logan had the wisdom and the love for me to tell me to just go and look for some place else where I was going to be happy. Thats how I ended up having coffee with Pastor Lucy, and that was the the beginning of how I ended up here the very next semester as the pastoral intern standing in front of you.
When I began the process of picking verses to use today: these are the ones that came up, and they couldn’t possibly be any more perfect for the struggle I went through this year. You have a conflict here- between the Jews and Gentiles, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, the included and excluded. For this first group of Jewish believers, being a follower of God has always meant being Jewish. And being Jewish has meant that it is against the law for you to associate with the Gentiles or non-Jews who were considered impure and would therefore make you impure. And purity was a very important thing for the Jews.
So when this original group of Jewish followers of Christ hear that Peter has been reaching out to Gentiles and that they’ve somehow received the word of God--it’s really not okay with them. And thats why they criticize him. “Why are you trying to reach out to these people? They are unclean. They don’t follow the law, They don’t circumcise, They don’t observe sabbath. They’re just altogether wrong.”
Essentially, I think it was the same kind of problem I was struggling with. They had a very particular definition of what it meant to be a follower of God, and they didn’t know what it would mean if these Gentiles were allowed to be included in the people of God too.
So, what we read today is Peter telling them his story, and his story is admittedly really weird. Peter is praying and in this trance where he has a vision. A sheet comes down from heaven which is full of all these unclean animals which a Jewish person would not have wanted to even be around, much less kill and eat. So his automatic reaction is to tell God absolutely not, nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth, and its not going to today.
And God’s response to him is simply “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” And to Peter this probably didn’t make any sense at all. This was, after all, God’s law that makes these animals unclean, and to Peter it would have been strange that God could just decide to make them clean all of the sudden. So, they have this conversation three times, but God never backs down. And then he pulls the sheet back into heaven.
This is when Peter gets to see how the Spirit is really trying to be at work. Three men show up and ask Peter to come with them to the house of a Gentile who has also had a vision. This should have caused the same knee-jerk “absolutely not” reaction that the unclean animals did, but the Spirit tells him not to hesitate in going with them, and because of everything he just experienced with the vision of the sheet, he decides to listen and he goes.
Somewhere along the journey he realizes what is going on. What we read today was Peter retelling the story to the Jewish believers. When the writer of Acts originally tells this story, Peter tells the Gentile when he gets there that he understands now that “God shows no favoritism.” And its after realizing this he chooses not to stand in God’s way. Rather than constricting his definition of who belongs within God’s people and refusing to share the message he was given with them: he opens up his heart to them. And he is astounded to see that the Holy Spirit comes into them the exact same way that the Holy Spirit came into himself and all the other apostles.
God is using this story to make a statement: that there is no one that God does not love and value beyond measure and that his story and his spirit and his love are for everyone.
Now, I want to point out here that I think that God could have easily sent an angel to each of them to get straight to the point if he had wanted to. He could have told Peter to start preaching to Gentiles, and he could have told this Gentile to worship him, but he didn’t. God wanted something to happen in Peter’s life and in this Gentile’s life, as well as in the entire worshipping community as a result of this meeting. And probably, all of us can identify with that. I would say a majority of us probably heard the story of Easter for the first time from someone in our lives rather than an Angel or a vision. All throughout the Bible, God often chooses to work though people, and it is particularly true for this story where God is all but pushing these people together.
The point is that God has entrusted the mission of love into our hands. It is our responsibility to break down the barriers between us and share the love of God with everyone. And according to this story, this responsibility is so important that if we don’t do it then we are standing in God’s way. Some other versions translate this to hindering God, and even opposing God.
People need to now that they are loved, that is God’s mission for us and we are in the way when we don’t show that love.
This conversation about who is in and who is out was not over at the end of this story. Christians would argue about whether the Gentiles belonged for a long time after this event. And even today, the conversations about who gets to be included and who gets excluded are far from over. Mostly because we’re human.
Peter himself is a perfect example of this. Despite the fact that he himself was the person who has the vision which starts all of this talk about inclusion, he struggles with it later on. In Galatians 2, Paul notices that Peter eats with the Gentile believers when it’s just them around, but when believers who still think you must be Jewish to be a Christian arrive, he separates himself from the Gentile believers rather than being caught eating with them. Worst of all, the other Jewish believers follow his example, and the Gentiles end up excluded again. And Paul calls him out on it.
Even though he knows better, Peter still makes the mistake of standing in God’s way by excluding those believers and encouraging others to do the same. This is something that we all really need to be on the lookout for. Either consciously or subconsciously, it is really easy to decide which beliefs and histories and lifestyles and political stances are the ones that deserve God’s love, but the problem is that the result is exclusion, which is not what the church is supposed to be about. Nobody feels beautiful, loved, or valued through being turned away.
Doing this isn’t the easy path. I can tell you, the transition I made to get here wasn’t easy at all. A lot of people in my life were angry about my choices. I learned firsthand that when you step on people’s definitions you will be called things and told things that simply are not true because they do not understand you. I was told I wasn’t a christian, and that I would pay for preaching a message about love like this.
But, I believe that if we are willing to do the work it will be more than worth it.
And I want you guys to know, that I came to Summit because I thought that this was a place where God’s love would be allowed to overcome the barriers and really be at work in the lives of those who feel rejected and excluded, and I look forward to the next two years that I have to spend here.