Monday, April 30, 2018

Peter's Conversion

Acts 11:1-18
April 29, 2018

When I was about 9 or 10 years old,
I went to the store and
with some money I had saved,
I bought a gold fish.

I hadn’t asked my mother if I could have a fish,
And I didn’t tell her about it.
So I took a plastic container from the kitchen and
I filled it with water and I put the fish in my closet
so my mother wouldn’t see it.

It was a secret fish then, which made it all the more fun.
I brought other kids up to my room and into my closet
to see my fish. We decided to call the fish Wonder,
because everyone wanted to see it. It was great.

Since it became so popular to go up
into my closet to see the fish,
we decided to make a club around it.
It was called the Wonder Club.

Almost instantly, as soon as the club began,
the first thing we did was to make up rules
for membership in the club.

First off, no one wanted William in the Wonder club because we
thought he was icky at the time, so we made the club girls only.
Then we thought Tracey Pollard was getting annoying,
so we decided that  because the fish was Wonder,
you had to have a W somewhere in your name.
So Tracey was out of the club.

It went on like that, the group that was left
went on making up other arbitrary rules
to exclude other people from the club.

We never really figured out what the club was for.
Actually, it seemed like the whole point of having
a club was to decide who was in and who was out of it.
Eventually my mother found the fish and
the club was instantly and unceremoniously disbanded.

Who is in and who is out?
We do this from an early age.
It comes so naturally, even children do it.
It’s sometimes our first taste of power.

We might think that’s a discussion reserved
for children, but it was also a debate of the early church
and almost every religion before and since.

Jesus was Jewish and his disciples were Jewish.
Christianity arose as a Jewish movement.
There was the occasional Gentile convert,
but that was the exception to the rule at the beginning.

As we read in the scriptures, the Jewish people of the time
had very strict rules of food consumption, purity and ritual
and the gentiles – those who didn’t follow those rules
and who were uncircumcised – were seen as unclean.

The Jewish person was supposed to
avoid going into a gentile house.
They were supposed to avoid eating with Gentiles.
When it did happen, they would go through a cleansing ritual after.

Now, you might think this is no big deal,
they would still talk with other people and work with them
but if you couldn’t eat with someone,
or you had to wash after going in their house,
that sends a pretty clear message
about whether they are welcomed to join you or not.
Peter, the chief leader of the new church formed around Jesus
was a firm believer in this doctrine.
In the beginning of Acts, and according to Paul’s letters,
he was intent on Christians maintaining Jewish law and practice.
He kept the traditions he was used to –
He believed the food the gentiles ate was
unclean and the Gentiles were unclean.
This is where we find Peter in Acts.

But then Peter, while sitting on top of a roof in Joppa has a vision.
In the vision, he sees different kinds of animals
that Jewish law had forbidden him from eating,
and a voice came to him saying “Kill and eat.”
Peter says, “No, Lord; nothing profane or
unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
and in the vision, the voice from heaven says
“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Just at the same time that Peter was trying to figure out
what this vision meant, three gentiles came to Peter
they were sent to Peter by Cornelius.
Now Cornelius was a gentile who had received a vision of an angel,
who told him to send these three men to go and get Peter.
Since Peter had his own vision,
he decided to go with these men to the house of Cornelius.

Peter says to Cornelius in chapter 10:
“You know that it is against our laws for a Jewish man
to enter a Gentile home like this or associate with you. 
But God has shown me that I should no longer think
of anyone as impure or unclean.”

Peter's Vision at Joppa
(The "Meat Sheet")
So he stayed, he told 
Cornelius and everyone
in his house the Gospel of Jesus.
As he was doing that, the Holy Spirit
fell on the people there – the Gentiles.
and Peter had them baptized.
And Peter stayed at the home 
of the gentiles and ate with them.
A new thing was happening with Jesus,
with Peter, and with the church that was
 formed around Jesus.

As Peter said, 
“The Spirit told me to go with them and
not to make a distinction between us and them.”

Last week, we talked about Paul’s conversion.
He was a persecutor of Christians and then turned into
a missionary for Christ. Pretty obvious conversion.
But we don’t think about Peter’s conversion.
He was one of the first disciples, he was Jesus’
right hand guy and the one the church was built on.
We don’t think about Peter needing a conversion.
But I think that this was Peter’s conversion.

“The Spirit told me to go with them and
not to make a distinction between us and them.”

This is what Peter has been converted to –
The Way of Jesus.
This is what scholars say drew so many people to the early church.
All classes and races ate together,
they prayed together, they learned from one another
they supported one another regardless of their position in the world.
They didn’t make distinctions between us and them.

It’s funny how the Church has forgotten some of
these scriptures and these lessons over the years.
Because it seems like Christ’s church has spent much
of its time following the world, and giving in to our worst nature.
We’ve tried to make more distinctions and
spent lots of time trying to
establish who is in and who is out.

Christians have excluded people on their race, gender, sexuality
if they don’t believe the right thing,
if they’re Christian, but they belong to the wrong denomination,
if they got baptized the wrong way,
if they don’t say the prayers correctly.
They don’t look right, sound right, dress right,
they smoke, they drink, they look funny.
We’ve spend decades trying to decide
who can eat at Jesus’s table and who can’t.

And some parts of the Christian church these days have really
made a name for itself (not a good one)
by making sure they let people know
that certain people are not welcome:
Divorcees can’t eat with us,
We can’t make cakes for same sex weddings,
Immigrants should go back to their own country.
Women are not welcome as leaders,
Only the prosperous are blessed.

The church these days seems preoccupied
with making distinctions between them and us.
I mean, the world makes these distinctions all the time,
but we are asked to be different from the world.

We are called to be different from the world
that carves up countries and borders, and races
and poor and rich and CEO and laborer
liberal and conservative, and friend and enemies,
and good and bad.

Who can be in the Wonder Fish club and who cannot.

We are called not give in to the temptations of the world.
and I think this is the biggest temptation.
Them and us.

Paul said: In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;

Jesus said: Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.

And he said: A new command I give you: Love one another. 
As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 
 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you love one another.

Peter said: What God has made clean, we must not call profane.

Just like Jesus called Peter in that vision,
Jesus is calling us to be  converted to his Way.
His Way of welcome and understanding and grace for all people.
This is the mantle that we are called to carry as Christians.
This is what we are called to tell the world about,
and to show the world.

To erase distinction, to love across
all those imaginary borders the world has made,
to prepare a table in the presence of our enemies.
To open the gates and welcome, without distinction,
all sorts of people into our hearts and lives,
and into the love of God in Christ Jesus.

This is our call as the church, as people of the Way
it’s easy to say, but difficult to do.

But what a great and life-changing journey it can be.
Our lives are blessed by this call.
It is good to be the Church,
It is good to be the risen body of Christ.

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