So, in my reading on this passage I came across a several interesting stories.
This passage: a tale about the unexpected and disruptive ways of our God.
In many ways, what we are learning during this Easter Season
is that God surprises.
God isn’t quite what we think God is
God doesn’t quite do what we think God would, or should, do.
But each time, in each moment of surprise:
God always seems to act is ways that expand
our understanding of love, of welcome, of compassion.
If we were paying attention to Jesus, it probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise
but sometimes our minds are set on things just so.
Sometimes the most potent stories, at least to me,
are the ones that sting the most, and here’s one of those for the morning:
There once was a woman who had a big, rambling house:
a house with many rooms
and a porch swing
and a spacious front lawn.
She was a generous woman,
so day in and day out, she hosted guests in her home.
Politicians, celebrated writers, celebrities stopped by in their travels,
and so did old friends and acquaintances just passing through.
The woman loved to sit and hear their stories at her big dinner table.
Her reputation for hospitality grew,
so much so that people down on their luck
showed up on her lawn asking to camp out,
and people who had not bathed in many weeks were taken in and washed and fed.
People traipsed in and out
so that the front door of her house was hardly ever closed,
and the woman rejoiced that she could host so many friends.
One autumn day the woman was called away on a journey.
She asked some of her most trusted friends to housesit for her
you know, just while she was away,
and she departed for her journey.
A few days went by, with guests traipsing in and out.
Then one of the friends said,
“The draft from that open door is terrible. I’m going to shut it.” And she did.
“Have you noticed that all these guests
have been dragging dirt in here through the front hall?”
And another said,
“Some of them drag in more than dirt.
Did you smell that kid who came in yesterday?”
And another, loyally, you know, said “The woman of the house is our friend.
We should honor her by tidying things up around here.”
So they set to work.
One of them steam-cleaned the carpets.
One dusted the furniture.
One cleaned the chandeliers. That all seemed good.
But just then a guest came through the front door,
leaving it WIDE open,
and in swept some fallen leaves,
and the guest accidentally trampled on them.
That made the friends, well, angry.
“Look what you’re doing to this house!
The lady of the house should not be treated like this!
Get out!” they yelled.
They shooed the guest out onto the porch, shut the door, and turned the lock.
And from then on, the friends took turns standing guard at the door.
–They made people show identification before they entered the house.
–Guests were asked to sign agreements not to make any mess.
–People who smelled funny were kept out, of course.
–People whose manners weren’t up to snuff were sent packing.
–People who spoke too loudly were excluded.
–Those who showed up without shoes were left outside.
–Those whose opinions were uncomfortable were snubbed.
Well, wouldn’t you know it,
thankfully, the flood of guests turned to a trickle,
and the friends congratulated themselves
for keeping the woman’s house in good and decent order.
And then one spring day…the woman returned,
bearing extravagant gifts for her trusted friends.
She reached the door, her arms FULL of boxes and bags.
Only…she was puzzled that the door was closed.
With a free hand, she turned the handle, only to find the door locked.
She rang the doorbell. And a face appeared at the window.
“You’re home!” the friend mouthed through the glass.
“Why is the door locked?” she shouted back.
The front door opened two inches.
Another friend’s face appeared and this one said,
“You’ll be SO surprised.
Your house is so clean you’ll hardly recognize it.”
The woman said,
“Where are all my guests?”
“Oh,” the friend said,
“They were messy and caused you so much trouble.
We’ve sent them away.”
“Sent them away?” the woman asked.
“But they were my guests! Who were you to send them away?
And besides, didn’t you remember that you are also my guests?
Maybe I should send you away! This is my house, not yours.”
“Did you hear that?” one friend whispered to another.
“She’s clearly unstable. She doesn’t know what’s best for her.
If we let her have her way, she will undo all the good we’ve done.”
And with that, they shut the door and locked it,
leaving the woman and all her gifts outside.
But here’s a different story:
One fine day, we hear, according to Acts,
the Apostle Peter was praying, and he had a vision.
The vision was of something like a tablecloth being lowered from heaven,
and a huge picnic meal was spread out on it.
But there’s a catch:
THIS feast, from heaven, remember, was made up of UNCLEAN animals,
animals like reptiles and carrion birds and pigs—
all things that Peter knew that, as a person of faith,
he could never eat. Never.
God had said not to eat these animals, you know
and doing-what-God-SAID was important to Peter. As it should be.
Some things we need to note:
The Jewish people were a religious minority in the Roman Empire.
They were constantly in danger of losing their identity
in the great tide of Greek and Roman culture.
And so for good reason,
First Century Jews were concerned with maintaining social and religious boundaries.
Observant Jews did not eat unclean animals.
They didn’t eat with people who ate unclean animals.
They didn’t visit Gentile homes.
And since the early Christians were all Jews, they didn’t do those things, either.
They had very good social and religious reasons not to.
And to be clear, Gentiles generally felt the same way about Jews.
The two just didn’t mix. It wasn’t done.
But in this vision a voice told Peter, “Get up, kill and eat.”
Peter refused: “By no means, Lord! I’ve never eaten any unclean thing.”
And yet the forbidden buffet was presented to him a second time, and a third time,
and a voice said, each time,
“What God has called clean, you must not call profane.”
What in the world does that mean?
That seems pretty serious: “What God has called clean, you must not call profane.”
Just then the doorbell rang.
And in walks an emissary from a Roman military officer,
a guy named Cornelius,
who begs Peter to go with them back to Cornelius’ house.
Its all so odd, but, with some prompting from the Spirit,
Peter agrees to go to the home of this Roman officer,
though such a thing is hardly EVER done.
When they arrive at Cornelius’ house,
Cornelius and his whole household were waiting.
He explained to Peter that he had his own vision,
telling him to send for Peter.
And Peter immediately began to tell the household about the good news of Jesus.
All well and good.
But, mid-sentence, Peter’s testimony was INTERRUPTED by his audience,
who began to speak in angelic tongues and praised God
get this—EXACTLY the SAME SORT of behavior Jesus’ own followers had
when the Holy Spirit had come upon them, remember,
back on Pentecost.
Woah. Mind blown.
Peter and his friends were astounded—GENTILES receiving the Holy Spirit?
And, with that:
Suddenly Peter’s vision of the heavenly buffet made sense.
He was not literally being told to eat lizards and birds of prey.
He was being told to accept what God had clearly blessed,
even though it ran contrary to EVERYTHING he knew.
So Peter asked,
“Can anyone withhold water from these people
to whom God has already given the Holy Spirit?”
And with that,
Gentiles, non-Jews, outsiders,
who were not circumcised
who ostensibly had broken God’s law by eating all sorts of dirty animals—
GENTILES, of all people, Gentiles…were baptized as Christians.
It was a broadening of God’s table, the welcome of God.
Meanwhile: Peter’s Christian friends back in Jerusalem got wind of it.
What was Peter doing talking to THOSE people?
What was he doing eating with them,
let alone baptizing them?
And they called him in to explain,
and he told them what had happened and concluded,
“If, then, God gave them the same gift
that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,
who was I, that I could hinder God?”
There you have it. Another story of God’s surprising, expanding grace.
But that conversation was not the end of our great debate, of course.
Indeed, the question of who is “in” and who is “out”
in the church or in our culture has never gone completely away.
But on that day,
when Jesus’ first followers heard the story of Cornelius and Peter,
they opened the door a little wider,
because they learned that God ACCEPTED people
whom THEY had no qualms about rejecting.
In one sense, this whole story is a piece of ancient history,
the explanation for how a Jewish sect came to be a multi-ethnic, global movement.
But it’s not just a piece of ancient history.
It is also our story,
a story that guides us as we think about who is “in” and who is “out.”
First, to all insiders,
to all those who, like Peter, who have the power
to keep people out or make them feel excluded,
this story pushes us to widen our embrace of those we consider outsiders.
What God has called clean, we must not call profane.
Those whom God has accepted, we must not reject.
Two thousand years ago, somehow,
the church learned to open its arms to people
whose customs and behaviors had previously seemed repugnant to them.
But this story shouts down the corridors of history, to US, today,
with Peter’s discovery: God shows no partiality! God’s table is open for all.
In God’s house there are many rooms,
room enough for all,
and we were not put here to be doorkeepers, but servants.
There’s much to learn there.
But the story of Cornelius isn’t JUST a story for those who are insiders.
It is also a story for those who feel like outsiders.
Because this isn’t just Peter’s story.
It’s also Cornelius’ story.
How must Cornelius have felt, he, a Roman Centurion,
calling for a Jewish man he’d never met?
He must have wondered whether his ethnicity
would be so offensive it would turn Peter away.
He must have wondered whether his personal eating habits
were repulsive to his new, Jewish friends.
This is an outsider’s story.
And guess what? That’s every one of us, too.
I am sure that every last one of us has felt
at some time or another
that we are the stranger standing on the porch.
In my time as a pastor, working and preaching and praying and teaching
I’ve been struck by the number of people
who have confided in me that they feel don’t belong.
Not just new members finding their way.
Sometimes long-time members, ordained leaders, pillars of the community too.
“I was not raised Presbyterian,” they say.
Or “I don’t live in the right part of town.”
“I am divorced.”
“I am more conservative than most people here.”
“I am more liberal than most people here.”
“I’m an artist in a sea of bankers!”
“I never went to college.”
“I want to talk about theology and they don’t want to.”
“I don’t dress like these people do.”
“I don’t know the Bible very well.”
“I have a disability.”
“I’m young and single.”
“I’m retired.” And on and on and on.
All reasons why we are not like everyone else,
all reasons to feel like outsiders.
But here’s the thing:
Cornelius, the so-called outsider, was a
to the church.
Cornelius’ conversion was a direct challenge
to the early Christian community’s exclusivity.
An OUTSIDER brought change to the very heart of the Christian faith.
And the early Christians needed Cornelius. God needed Cornelius.
They needed him to be himself, different, as he was,
so that they could learn that God shows no favoritism.
So you’re not like the rest of the group in some way?
Good! Good. We need you.
We need to hear your voice.
We need to see the world through your eyes.
You belong here, not because you are like the rest,
but because you are yourself, and God has called you here.
The Apostle Paul liked to describe the whole community of the church
as being like one big body, the Body of Christ in the world.
Some of us are like hands.
Some of us are like feet.
Some of us are like ears.
Some of us are like eyes.
And, Paul said, the ear can’t say,
‘Because I am not an eye, I don’t belong to the body.’
Likewise, he said, the eye can’t say to the hand,
‘You’re not like me; I don’t need you.’
Just as every body part fits in a beautiful whole,
every person in the community is necessary.
Being different from others doesn’t mean you don’t belong;
it means you matter…more than ever.
You are invited here by Christ, and we all need you.
Here lies a paradox.
In the end, each of us is both an outsider and an insider.
We are outsiders because not one of us deserves to be here.
We are all here in this community of grace by God’s grace,
and we need to hear others say that we are welcome.
But we are also insiders.
We are insiders because we have been drawn into the household of God
and invited to Christ’s Table to share the gifts that only we can offer.
And as insiders,
each of us has been given the task of extending welcome to the rest.
We are all outsiders, and we are all insiders. What a strange thing indeed.
But so it is in the Kingdom of God.
A different ending to the parable, you know, the one from 10 minutes ago:
The woman sat on her porch swing,
her gifts for her friends strewn about.
Inside, the friends whispered.
“She’s still out there, isn’t she?” one asked.
“Yes. Maybe we should let her in. It is her house, after all.”
“I’m starting to wonder whether we should leave altogether,” a third friend said.
“She’s right. We’re guests, too.
We don’t deserve her hospitality more than anyone else.”
“If you think about it, she actually seems to prefer people who make a big mess.
We clearly like things neat and tidy.
We just don’t fit in with the rest of her friends.”
“You’re right. We don’t belong here.
I don’t think she wants us in her house,
and her other friends would all be glad if we left.”
Slowly, they opened the door.
The woman looked at them from the porch swing.
One friend said, “We’re leaving now. You can have your house back.”
The woman laughed softly and gently shook her head.
“Stay, my foolish, silly, beloved friends.
You belong here because I invited you.
You each have so much to offer to the rest.
Come inside, now.
Just remember not to shut the door behind you.”
[i] Originally heard in a sermon presented to The Brick Church by the Rev. Christiane Lang, “Outside In”