A Strange New World

 

Meditation on Acts 11:1-18

May 19, 2019

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton

 

11 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 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?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

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A group of campers came to our church for a special tour and organ concert with Alice Hoover on Thursday. Alice and I welcomed about 25 members of the Good Sam Club in our chapel.

After I introduced myself, I asked the group, “Are you church-going folks?”

They nodded. One said that on Sunday, today, they would be gathering for an outdoor worship service at the fairgrounds. Immediately, I felt a connection with them. I shared that before I was a pastor, I was a summer chaplain at Codorus State Park in Hanover, Pennsylvania. I led worship in an outdoor amphitheater.

After the tour and Alice’s concert, I couldn’t stop thinking about my congregation at the beautiful park, with a manmade lake and acres of campground sites thick with tall trees.

Everyone was welcomed to worship, just as they were. Flip flops, tank tops, pajamas or shorts, sunglasses and sunhats or rain jackets, when it poured. Presbyterians and Methodists. Lutherans and UCC. Mennonites and Episcopalians. Catholics and Jews.

Volunteers from local churches came to play hymns on guitar, autoharp, banjo and fiddle. Other volunteers taught children’s Sunday school on picnic tables. Others brought donut holes and juice for our fellowship hour.

One gentleman, a member of the Church of the Brethren, smiled and shook my hand after I preached on Genesis. “I didn’t know Presbyterians read the Bible,” he said.

The hardest part wasn’t leading worship or preaching. It was on Fridays when James, my middle-school-aged son, and I would walk around more than 100 campsites, passing out flyers and inviting people to church. Now, if you are wondering how I got my middle-school-aged son to do this with me, I’ll tell you. I paid him $20 a weekend! He also helped with children’s activities on Saturday mornings, set up and took down for me on Sundays, and operated the sound.

It isn’t that I don’t want to talk about my faith! I do! What’s uncomfortable is when people get that kind of frozen look as they see you approaching with your flyers. “Here comes the religious fanatic,” some of them are thinking. “Bothering us on vacation. I wonder if she’s a Jehovah’s Witness?”

At first, James used to wait for me on the campground road while I walked up the driveways to the RV’s, knocked on doors or called out hello. I think he was pretending that he wasn’t with me! He said, “What if someone I know sees me?”

As the summer went on and he saw how happy people were at worship and that many didn’t turn us away or turn a hose on us, his attitude started to change. People welcomed us to their campsites. They wanted to talk about their home churches. Many were grateful we had a church service at the park. Some shared their problems and asked for prayer.

One Friday night, James and I had been walking around for a couple of hours, and I was tired and hungry, and it was getting dark. We still had a 45-minute drive home. We approached a large group that had pulled up on Harleys and wore black leather fringe jackets or vests and helmets with spikes.

James said, “Mom, aren’t you going to invite them to church?” He added, “They need Jesus, too.”

I could think of a thousand reasons why I didn’t need to go to their campsites, but really, I was just scared. James said, “C’mon.”

So we walked up together and I timidly held out flyers and told them about our church service. They grunted in response. I didn’t expect to see them again.

On Sunday, our log pews were filled with our usual flip flop, sunglass clad campers—and a group of bikers. One played guitar and sang, “Amazing Grace.” The back of their jackets said, Christian Motorcyclists Association!

***

While no follower of Christ today would question that Jesus welcomes all people to receive his gift of forgiveness and reconciliation with God, it wasn’t a common assumption among the first believers that salvation is open to all. New believers were baptized with water in Jesus’ name and filled with the Holy Spirit. They also continued to live as Jews, maintaining ritual purity, following the dietary laws, and circumcising male infants. Jesus himself says in Matthew 5:18 that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

So what is God doing now in Acts? It’s a strange, new world for the apostles! In the 10th chapter, we learn about a centurion of the Italian Cohort in Caesarea, a Gentile named Cornelius, a devout man who fears God with all his household. He gives alms generously and prays to God constantly. He sees a vision of an angel telling him to send men to Joppa and bring back a man called Peter to preach to his household. Peter sees a vision, too, and returns with the men, telling Cornelius and his household, “You yourselves know it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

He shares with them in Acts 10:34 about the God who “shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” While he is speaking, the Holy Spirit falls upon everyone and he is “astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured out “even on the Gentiles.”

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,” he asks, “who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” He orders them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and he stays a few days with them.

Word gets out to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, pious guardians of tradition, in our reading in Acts 11. They ask Peter, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Now, before you think they sound like the Pharisees complaining about Jesus eating and drinking with sinners, remember that Peter also resisted going to the Gentiles and eating foods not permitted by the dietary laws. With the vision of the sheet of four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles and birds, and the voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat,” Peter responds, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” The voice must tell him 3 times before he gets the message, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

For Peter and the other circumcised Jewish Christians who have been taught since birth that Gentiles are unclean, this is a strange new way of life for the faithful. A strange new world.

***

Friends, this may feel like a strange new life for the faithful today as the Spirit of God continues to lead Christ’s followers forward in new, sometimes unexpected directions.

That first summer at Codorus State Park, when I was leading worship in an outdoor amphitheater with my flip-flop-clad flock, I could not have imagined that God would lead me here to love and serve this community of faith. But I have been willing to take risks and be open to change, for Christ’s sake. And the Lord has always brought me helpers—family, friends, mentors, teachers—so that I would be able to do what God was leading me to do. I could never have worked at the park those three summers without my son, James. And I would not have been a pastor at all without the support and encouragement of my husband, Jim.

We serve a God who shows no partiality and desires all to be saved. Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Who are we to hold onto wrong attitudes, habits or traditions that have lost their usefulness? Who are we to hinder the work of God in our live?

There’s a new, astonishing breeze of the Spirit blowing through.

A strange new way of life for the faithful. A strange new world!

 

Let us pray.

Dear Lord, we praise you for your Spirit that is blowing through our congregation in a new way, and the Spirit that lives in every believer’s heart, guiding, empowering, transforming. Lord, give us your vision, as you did for Peter, so that we may see what you are doing in our midst and know how we can join you in this Kingdom work. Holy One, we want to touch the lives of children and young families today. Help us. We know that you desire all to be saved, healed and made whole. Strengthen us to trust you enough to let go of what we need to let go and be open to receive what you have for us. Keep us from hindering the work of your Spirit. Bless our efforts to love and serve in your name. In Christ we pray. Amen.

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