Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 25, 2003
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Acts 10:25-26,34,35,44-48; Ps 98:1-4; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17)
"I begin to see!" Peter said to the relatives and friends of Cornelius, "I begin to see!"
In two weeks we will celebrate the great feast of Pentecost. We will be stirred by that dramatic story and there will be dancing and wild music. As there should be.
But is it possible that the story we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles (a truncated version; I'd suggest that you take the time to read the whole story in Acts 10 and 11; it's a wonderful story) -- is it possible that that story might be of even greater significance for you and me and for our understanding of God's ways? It is. And I'd like to tell you why.
Let's first go back to that scene on Pentecost. It's high drama. There is that vast throng of people from all those exotic places we only know from this story. There are tongues of fire, and wind, the Spirit stirring everything up, people so excited they seemed to be drunk. The little church is bursting with new conversions.
But we need to ask ourselves: to what kind of a church? Have you ever thought about the fact that you and I wouldn't have been welcome -- or even able to join -- that church?
You see, it was still a Jewish movement. Exclusively. The members went to pray in the Temple, they were held to all the Jewish rules and rituals. Pentecost stirs our imaginations so much with the mention of all those peoples from around the Roman empire that we might miss the very beginning of the story: all of those people were "devout Jews." It was really much like the thousands of Muslims in our day making their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca. Only Muslims.
And the most significant thing about it was that that was the way they thought it would always be! They were excited. On fire. They had something special. They were blessed. And everyone else was still on the outside, not gifted. Unclean, in fact.
Then we turn to today's story.
It's the story of two visions occurring in two different places. The one is the vision of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. He's told to go see the man Peter down in Joppa; to bring him to Caesarea and listen to him because he has an important message for Cornelius. In the other vision Peter sees this immense sheet dropping down out of the sky with a great variety of animals on it. And the Lord tells Peter to slaughter the animals and eat them. And Peter says, "No way! I am an observant Jew, I have never eaten those unclean animals." Three times the Lord repeats his command -- and Peter knows it is the Lord -- and Peter says no.
As Luke tells it, Peter was still in doubt about what it meant -- he's confused -- when the delegation from Cornelius is at the door asking him to come down the 30 miles to Joppa to meet Cornelius.
And Peter does three extraordinary things. He welcomes these Gentiles, who are for him unclean. No Jew would do that. He goes down and enters Cornelius' house. More shocking. And finally he stays and eats with them. This is outlandish! He is violating deep taboos. And not just cultural taboos but religious ones. Taboos that touch on his relationship to God. That was scandalous.
How did Peter do it? What must it have been like for him? We can almost imagine him saying to himself, "What am I doing? This goes against everything I have been taught."
He says, "I begin to see." I begin to see. The insight takes time to arrive at, it doesn't come naturally. And what was it he began to see? "How true it is that God shows no partiality." God doesn't play favorites. Scholars tell us that the real meaning of the Greek is that "God can't be bribed." And how often do we try to do that! We say, "I go to church regularly; I don't lie or cheat. You have to love me!"
Peter is violating deep taboos. But he's doing just what he saw Jesus do. Jesus sat by the side of a well and talked as a peer with a Samaritan woman. No Jew would ever do a thing like that. He touched a leper, someone ritually unclean. He ate and drank with prostitutes and tax collectors; with sinners. He touched a dead corpse -- the son of the widow of Naim. He performed works of healing on the Sabbath.
The whole conversion process always involves breaking open the boxes in which we try to confine God and his love, and show that we are the elect. Surely God couldn't be present there?
And that same process of breaking open those boxes has continued down across the centuries. Christians impelled by the Spirit have broken through the "accepted", conventional ways of responding to God.
It happened in our country with people who broke open the ugly practice of human slavery. Black people who refused to be treated as slave, white people who put themselves on the line to protest it. We are privileged to live in a city which will soon have as a wonderful symbol the new museum devoted to the Underground Railway.
Let me tell you of a personal experience in my life. I was doing some genealogical research trying to know our ancestors. The search for my great-grandfather took me to the federal census of 1860 in the city of Richmond. When you do that sort of work you sit in front of a computer screen scrolling down record after record until you are too tired to know what is on the screen. The census taker would list the people at 103 Elm Street, then 105 and 107 and 109.
But all of a sudden I was wakened by a sudden shift of the screen. The columns were all different. What was going on? Then I noticed down the left-hand side the words "Federal Prison." The census-taker had moved down the street and the next stop was the prison so he went in to record the citizens there. But he must have thought it was OK to go beyond the protocol expected of him. He decided on his own to list not only the men but also what each was in prison for, their crimes. So I read of murder and larceny and fraud, you name it. And then I was stopped cold: the line read "for aiding and abetting the escape of a slave." And there were many of those. I paused and said to myself, "This is sacred ground. You are standing in the presence of heroes. These people risked their lives to do something that their surrounding culture -- and even the Scriptures as some preachers interpreted them -- told them was wrong. They broke through that box at serious cost to themselves.
And in our time? Who are 'the Gentiles' of our day, looked down upon as unclean? Well, maybe it's the followers of Islam. It might do each of us good to go beyond our comfort level and get to know some Muslims. Maybe the St. Agnes community would take a small risk and invite one of the leaders of the Muslim community up in Westchester to come and speak to us.
Or it might be those who are divorced and living in second marriages. You know, down in Chile they held a 3-year synod process listening to the hopes and vision of the people. And after all the data was collected it turned out that the number one priority of the faithful was that the church should adopt a pastoral stance toward these people and invite them back to the Eucharistic table.
Or for sure the 'Gentiles' of our day would include gay men and lesbian women, whom our church leaders are positively obsessed with and see as unclean. Keep them out of our seminaries!
"This man eats and drinks with sinners" -- that was the charge laid by the enemies of Jesus, but he transformed it into his boast and glory. Of course I eat and drink with sinners; that's why I have come.
So how did Peter come to see that he (and as a result, our whole church) had to change and welcome the Gentiles?
He was attacked by those insisting on circumcision for any converts. And in his defense he put it this way: "I came to myself, and I remembered the word of the Lord." I came to myself; what a powerful image! Peter remembered. As a believing Jew Peter would have known the responses expected of him, even if he wasn't lettered enough to know the Old Testament texts which were used to support the system.
But deeper within him, and more powerful, was his experience of intimacy with Jesus. He had seen how Jesus did it. Jesus had made Peter his friend, not a slave. And as our Gospel reading tells us, friends share their deepest selves. "I have told you all that I heard from my Father."
He had experienced Jesus as one who loved, who said his joy would only be complete when our joy is complete. He knew him as one who chose us so that we could go forth and bear fruit. And the fruit Peter experienced was the freedom to act in an unexpected way and break open the limits he -- and the church -- was placing on God's generosity.
As we come to the table today let's ask for that same kind of familiarity with Jesus that will lead us to begin to see the expansiveness of our God's love.