Last week, we left Peter in Joppa. He’d gone there at the behest of distraught friends of a woman named Tabitha, who had died. Still in Joppa after raising Tabitha from the dead, Peter gets hungry. As the meal is being prepared, he goes up to the roof to pray. He falls into a trance and has a vision.
Before I tell you about the vision, it’ll help to know this. In the early days after Jesus’ death, many people assumed that the Jesus movement was a Jewish thing. Jesus had been a Jew, after all. He’d used language that was familiar to Jews, he taught in synagogues, all the disciples were Jewish… When he preached, it was the Jewish authorities he ticked off…
To that point, the Jesus movement had been a Jewish movement. And if you read much of the Jewish law (that’s the first five books of the Bible, the Torah), you’ll see that a key part of Judaism was setting clear boundaries around who was in the community and who wasn’t. No intermarrying, no intermingling. No eating certain foods…
In the verses just before Peter’s vision, we learn that a messenger appears to a man named Cornelius at his home in Caesarea. He’s a centurion. He and his family are all God-fearing, but they’re not Jewish. They’re Gentiles. So, the messenger tells Cornelius to send some people to Joppa to find Peter and bring him back to Caesarea. Cornelius appoints some folks and they begin their journey to Joppa.
As the entourage sets out, Peter has his vision. In it, the heavens open and a sheet containing “all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds” descends. A voice tells him: “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replies. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” Peter is referring to those Jewish laws about determining who’s in the community and who’s not. Observing the dietary laws proscribed in the Torah was a key way of demonstrating one’s Jewishness.
In response to Peter’s declaration, the voice says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Then–of course….It’s Peter, after all–the vision happens two more times.
As he’s mulling over the meaning of the vision, the men from Caesarea arrive. The Spirit says to Peter: ‘Simon, three men are looking for you. Get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” Peter goes.
When they arrive at Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, they find a crowd has gathered. Here’s what Peter tells them. “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with Gentiles or visit them. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” Peter has experienced deep conversion.
Then he says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” He goes on for a bit, then the Holy Spirit shows up. We’re told that “the circumcised believers–that is, the Jews–were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.
“Then Peter said, ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” The new believers were baptized.
This was huge. Just before the risen Jesus left the scene for good, he commissioned his followers. He told them: “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” How were they going to share the good news “to the ends of the earth” if they were only going to talk to Jews? Somebody’s mind was going to have to change if the movement was going to get off the ground. And Peter was the obvious choice. So what if it took him three times to get the message? Sometimes conversion takes a while.
We’re all about inclusion here at Pilgrimage. It’s on our sign out by the road– “Jesus didn’t reject people, neither do we.” It’s on all our literature. It’s on the website. It’s in our hymns. It’s on our lips constantly: “We welcome everyone.” I know we take our ministry of extravagant hospitality very seriously.
Just because we decide in our minds we want to and plan to welcome everyone doesn’t mean it’s always easy or comfortable.
A case in point: Roller girls. When Trudy Stoddert first started attending a couple of years ago, I asked her what had brought her to Pilgrimage. She said, “I’m a member of Roller Derby. There are many LGBTQ folks who play, good friends of mine. I don’t want to take my kids to a church where they’ll be told being gay is wrong.”
Then Trudy quietly began planting seeds about reaching out to the Roller Derby community. I confess the idea was new to me; I wasn’t sure how to go about it. But Trudy, with gentle persistence, kept mentioning the idea. (For me, it took many more times than 3!)
Then she came up with a plan–a detailed plan–about how to pull off a screening of “In the Turn” at Pilgrimage. The film tells the story of a 10 year old trans girl named Crystal, who is sponsored by an LGBTQ Roller Derby team to attend Junior Roller Derby camp. Council discussed it and approved it. From there, the project picked up steam. Trudy partnered with the ONA Team, which highlighted both raising awareness for Pilgrimage folks and reaching out to the LGBTQ community. She partnered with Missions in suggesting that all proceeds go to Lost n Found. She partnered with youth and their families in providing and selling concessions.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that every single moment of the film was comfortable for me. I think I might have learned a new word or two. 🙂 As I reflected on the event afterward, though, I realized that it felt like the truest kind of outreach we’ve done since the church’s decision to become ONA 19 years ago. I haven’t seen one article online about inviting Roller Derby into the church…and I certainly didn’t hear about it in seminary.
…and yet, last week felt holy. Very holy. And very much, I think, what the Jesus thing is all about–showing no partiality, welcoming into the community everyone who wants to follow Jesus. Period. Yes, we’ve grown up with certain assumptions about who’s in the community and who’s not. But Jesus always pushed those boundaries. Some boundaries are necessary, but it’s way to easy to use boundaries to exclude. That exclusion, Jesus and Peter would say, is not of God.
What I’ve told you to this point isn’t what happens into today’s Scripture story. Today’s story happens after Peter goes back to Jerusalem. The Jewish believers there have heard through the grapevine that Gentiles are receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. They’ve formed a committee, discussed it at length and, with great officiousness, they censure Peter: “You went into the house of the uncircumcised (the Gentiles) and ate with them.” If I’m not mistaken, Jesus heard those same words on several occasions.
In response to the criticism, Peter relates the story of what happened to him in Joppa and Caesarea. “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as it had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
Peter simply tells his critics the story of what has happened. We’re told that “when they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Peter’s conversion led to more people being welcomed into the community. His telling the story of the Holy Spirit’s gift to the Gentiles helped others change their minds about who was in and who was out, as well. Notice that Peter didn’t berate his critics, he simply told them the story and let the evidence speak for itself.
In our own community, the folks who were here when the ONA vote was taken thought through what that meant. Their getting the vision and sharing it with others has been pivotal in us living into our ONA identity.
Last week’s Roller Derby event pointed out to me that our work isn’t done…that my personal work isn’t done. So many people long for inclusion! Here at Pilgrimage, we faithfully try to live our mission of extravagantly welcoming every person. … But Peter’s vision reminds us that welcoming others isn’t just something we do on auto-pilot. True hospitality requires constant conversion.
So, if in the near future, you have a vision of a sheet descending from heaven and you hear a voice telling you that God’s love extends to the creatures or people on it, whatever or whoever they might be–donkeys, elephants, North Carolina legislators—remember Peter’s vision. Remember how his being open to changing his mind about who God loved opened the door for the Gospel to spread. And allow yourself to imagine who else we might welcome, how much farther the Gospel might go in our community if we also were a little more open to changing our minds.
We’ve gotten a good start last week with welcoming the Roller Girls and in February, our Muslim friends. Who else might we welcome? Who else has God declared “clean” for us? Who else will learn of God’s deep, deep love for them from us?
In the name of our God, who creates us redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2016