A Sermon for Sunday, May 2, Acts 11:1-18 (Guest preaching at Norcross Presbyterian Church)
This past Thursday, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom released its 11th annual report on the status of Religious Freedom in the World. The information is shocking: For more than a decade, 12,000 people have been killed in a cycle of violence between Christians and Muslims in the country of Nigeria—the most populous nation of Africa, which lies on the continent’s fault line between the largely Muslim north and predominantly Christian south. And not a single person has ever been convicted and sentenced for the killings.
The report cites more than two dozen countries who engage in some type of religious persecution. For example, Egypt not only imprisons members of the Baha’i faith and members of minority Muslim sects, but also has some fired from their jobs, kicked out of universities and barred from having bank accounts, driver’s licenses, even birth certificates. According to the Commission, “Many governments fail to punish religiously motivated violence perpetrated by private actors,” and “impunity… often leads to endless cycles of sectarian violence.”
While this latest news might be disturbing to many ears, religious persecution, particularly of the violent variety, is not all that new. Religious persecution existed in Jesus’ day under the rule of the Roman Empire which sustained its torment of Jews and Christians alike for three centuries after Christ’s resurrection. Religious persecution has been around for hundreds of thousands of years since—from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition to Hitler’s Final Solution to anti-Semitism and racism in the U.S. to the current Middle Eastern conflicts among Jews, Palestinians, Christians and Muslims. Religious persecution even occurs—although not with quite the same volatility as it does in Nigeria, Egypt, Burma, North Korea, and Iraq—in developed nations like the U.S.
Fear, prejudice and hate towards people with dissimilar religious, cultural and political beliefs are all too commonplace in society. We are nearly desensitized to the horrible ways in which we see human beings treat one another with different views—on TV, the radio, the Internet and in our schools, communities and churches.
That’s why we need to hear again and again this old but relevant story from chapters 10-11 of the book of Acts, in which the apostle Peter becomes aware of how God in the Holy Spirit works through human lives to bring reconciliation among people who are at odds with one another. It is my hope that we as 21st century believers—after exploring this remarkable text—will also understand how the Holy Spirit is working to bring about reconciliation and to remove all fear, prejudice and hate in our lives today.
As the story goes, Peter is praying on a friend’s rooftop when God, likely in the form of the Holy Spirit, gives him a vision of four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles and birds—unclean animals that are not to be found on any Jewish menu because it could contaminate the believer, i.e. pigs, lizards, eagles. While Peter is staring at these animals on the spiritual no-no list, the voice of the Lord says: “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter refuses, saying that there are rules against eating food that is profane or unclean. But the Lord replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Before Peter can respond, the voice ceases and the animals vanish—the vision ends.
At that moment, three men sent by Cornelius, a Gentile and centurion of the Italian Cohort (a high ranking soldier in the Roman Empire) arrive at the house where Peter is staying. The men tell Peter that an angel appeared to Cornelius and instructed him to bring the apostle to his house. So Peter goes with them even though he knows that it is unlawful for a “Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.” Gentiles are uncircumcised and therefore perceived by Jews as being unclean. To interact with a Gentile is as bad as touching and eating an unclean animal. Not to mention that it’s dangerous for Jesus-followers to be inside the houses of those who are persecuting them for their beliefs.
When Peter arrives inside Cornelius’ house, the centurion asks the apostle to share all that he knows about Jesus. Peter obliges and while he is talking to Cornelius and all of his family and friends, the Holy Spirit falls upon the entire household. Reflecting on the event a few days later, Peter says:
“I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Peter is sharing these thoughts and this encounter with the Holy Spirit in Cornelius’ house with his fellow Jews and Jesus-followers—apostles and believers in Judea who had just heard that Peter has been hanging out with Cornelius and other Gentiles who have now accepted God’s word. They aren’t thrilled about Peter’s visit to the other side of the tracks and they initially criticize him saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Their disbelief, their fear, prejudice and hatred of the Gentiles is what prompts Peter to explain the event “step by step.”
And Peter recognizes in his moment with the Holy Spirit in Cornelius’ house that something powerful is happening: God is proclaiming that the love and grace that comes through Christ’s life, death and resurrection is for…EVERYONE! Peter affirms this “good news” many years later in a letter to early Christians—both Jews and Gentiles:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,* in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
And Peter’s fellow apostle and colleague in ministry, Paul, also attests to what God is doing in the Holy Spirit when he writes to the early Church in Corinth, also made up of Jews and Gentiles:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
In their new book “Made for Goodness” Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu write that:
“The impulse to care, the instinct for goodness, is a shining thread woven into the fabric of our being. As human beings we may tarnish the sheen or rend the fabric of our own goodness. We can act in cruel and heartless ways. But because we are human, we cannot completely rip out and destroy every vestige of the godliness by which and for which we were made. We cannot alter our essence. We are made by God, who is goodness itself. We are made like God. We are made for goodness.”
Says the voice of the Lord:“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Everything God has made is good, and all of creation is to praise God for this gift of goodness, of wondrous abundant life, as noted earlier in the Old Testament reading of Psalm 148.
Peter realizes in his moment with the Holy Spirit that God truly shows “no partiality” to all those whom God has made good and called to do good in the world. And that goodness, according to Desmond and Mpho Tutu, is rooted in God’s perfect love for us:
“Perfect love is the love that is responsive rather than reactive. It pays little or no regard to the emotions aroused in any given moment. We love perfectly when the good we do cares nothing for how we feel. When we love perfectly we endure beyond endurance. We pour ourselves out despite pain, stress, sadness, or fatigue. Perfect love is shown by the parent loving the unlovely child: waiting through the temper tantrum; holding and soothing the child through her vomiting; making the groggy midnight march to chase away the child’s nightmares.”
We pour ourselves out despite pain, stress, sadness, or fatigue—a profoundly accurate statement of my life over the past couple of weeks:
- My father struggling with mental health issues that have put him twice in the hospital.
- My mother, a solo pastor in Florida, waiting to have two masses on her pancreas tested for cancer.
- My co-worker and friend Dr. Dave Fry, recovering at home for 4-6 weeks after having emergency knee surgery to clean out a serious infection—prompting the rest of the Pleasant Hill church staff to take on extra duties in his absence.
- My daughter Katie, bouncing back from a bacterial infection that caused her temperature to rise to 105 degrees a few days ago.
- My house’s upstairs toilets (one in mine and Elizabeth’s bathroom and one in my mother-in-law Anne’s bathroom) breaking down and leaking through the ceiling…just yesterday.
I can honestly say that I have only been able to endure beyond endurance because of God’s perfect love that surrounds me in the form of my wife, my mother-in-law, my daughter, my extended family, my friends, the congregation at Pleasant Hill and even the plumber. All of us endure the rigors of life because we have others, even strangers, who will bear those challenges with us. Each of us is equipped with unique gifts of the Spirit to accomplish that task—to show love and compassion to our brother or sister in need.
We are made good, we are made clean. And we are not to question otherwise because it is God who has made us this way. As Peter explained to the apostles: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God.” Peter doesn’t question what God in the Spirit is doing because Peter sees what God in the Spirit is doing. Peter sees love being extended to those whom he always perceived were unclean and unworthy of God’s love.
For us to live as God made us—for a goodness rooted in perfect love—we must see God in others who have also been created for God’s good intentions. We must see those whom we despise and disagree with, see those who do wrong against God and neighbor…with God’s eyes. Desmond and Mpho Tutu put it this way:
“With God’s eyes we see our enemies as they are—a bundle of incomprehensible hurts and hatreds, anger sheathed in human form. And we see them as they truly are—people made in God’s own image with hopes, loves, laughter, blood, and tears like ours. With God’s eyes we see our children as they are—a pimply jumble of faults and failings, forgotten homework and skipped chores. And we see them as they truly are—gifts to us of grace and wonder, treasurers of divine imagination, teachers who point us to God. With God’s eyes we can see ourselves as we are, with all of our pride, every lack, all our limitations, and each prejudice. And we can see ourselves as we truly are—not sinners in need of saving, but saints in need of seeing. And all of us are good. We are precious to God; the crown of creation, beautiful beyond compare. Very, very good.”
This idea of seeing, of allowing the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to deeply perceive God in the other is what all great stories are about. Recall several of the films nominated for Academy Awards this year: The Blind Side, Invictus, The Hurt Locker, Precious, Up, The Princess & The Frog, Star Trek, District 9, and Avatar. Every single film, both for the characters and the audience, is about seeing the other in the midst of an environment full of fear, prejudice and hate.
Every story is about how one individual or group of people sees and realizes the humanity, the goodness in the other person or group that was perceived to be unclean and unworthy. Every story is about how seeing leads to understanding and understanding leads to reconciliation of differences and reconciliation leads to the wiping away of all fear, prejudice and hate.
Each of your stories are filled with moments where the Holy Spirit opens your eyes, just as the Spirit opened Peter’s, to see the goodness of God in yourself and others. Moments that occurred when you were participating in the life of this congregation like: worship, Sunday School, Norcross Co-Op, Rainbow Village, Clifton Sanctuary Ministries, One Great Hour of Sharing, Youth and children’s programs, Adult Bible Study, Music Camp and Family Retreats.
And I’m willing to bet that in most of those Holy Spirit moments there was food and table fellowship involved just as there was food present in Cornelius’ house where Peter stayed for several days following their sacred encounter.
I’ve come to believe over the years that seeing is most powerful when it occurs over a meal and between two people or two groups who are vastly different from the other. Remember how the Spirit helped you see the homeless woman when you served a meal for Rainbow Village; or see the rambunctious middle school youth during a Wednesday night supper; or see the gay man while grabbing some coffee and donuts before worship; or see the annoying co-worker while you’re both having lunch at a restaurant downtown.
There is something comforting and familiar when we can sit down with others whom God has made, at a table of goodness which God has prepared—especially at the communion table and alongside folks who hold beliefs and views different from our own.
The Presbyterian pastor and author Frederick Buechner offers this reminder about this particular table in which goodness rooted in perfect love is given to humanity:
18“To eat this particular meal together is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need not just for food but for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters. The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, ‘Christ died for thee.’ That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee.”
So let us come to the table this day seeing the work of God’s Spirit in the other who partakes in communion with us. Let us come to the table this day seeing the work of God’s Spirit in the other who lives in community with us. Let us go from this table and into the world seeing the work of God’s Spirit in those who share the world with us. And let us never have to ask, “Can y’all please pass the grace?” because we will see and know God’s grace, God’s goodness, God’s perfect love, is all around us.
 “Religious Persecution is widespread, report warns by Richard Allen Greene, CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/africa/04/29/religious.freedom.report/index.html?iref=allsearch
US Commission on International Religious Freedom, http://www.uscirf.gov/index.php
US Commission on International Religious Freedom Annal Report: http://www.uscirf.gov/images/annual%20report%202010.pdf
 I Peter 2:9-10
 I Corinthians 12:4-7
 Made For Goodness and Why This Makes All the Difference by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, 2010. p 15.
 Made For Goodness. p.28
 Made For Goodness. p. 199.