Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 19, 2019 – Acts 11:1-18 – Trinity, Winchester
Today’s collect has a great first line. “Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life.” That phrase has stuck with me since we first read it together at Bible study on Tuesday.
To know God is everlasting life. That packs a punch.
It suggests that our relationship with God is not casual. God is not a mere acquaintance or a distant relative. True knowledge of God is not futile or easily acquired. Rather, true knowledge of God is the result of a life spent experiencing God, listening to God, and responding to God.
Faithful Christians have been doing just that for centuries. In today’s lesson from Acts, the Apostle Peter recounts a vision by which he comes to deeper knowledge of God.
Peter sees God’s great picnic blanket lowered to the earth carrying animals considered to be unclean. Nevertheless, the voice of God commands Peter to kill and eat. Peter politely refuses, but three times God assures him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
After the vision, the Spirit leads Peter to the home of a prominent Gentile where he begins to preach. The Holy Spirit falls on all who are gathered there, just as it had on the disciples on the day of Pentecost.
Through this vision and the subsequent events God reveals that his kingdom is available even for those outside of Judaism.
It seems simple enough to us. Jesus came for everyone. Gentile, Jew, slave, free, black, white, gay, straight, woman, man, non-binary. (The list goes on.) But imagine a Jewish believer in Jesus’ time. It would have sounded preposterous that a Gentile could receive the word of God.
Jewish followers of Jesus were uniquely suited to receive the Good News of the Messiah. They were children of Israel, decedents of Abraham. Christ was the fulfillment of what had been foretold by their prophets in their Bible.
Since the Jews were God’s chosen people, the idea that Gentiles could be included in a salvation they had not-so-long-expected didn’t make much sense.
Gentiles did not live by the law. Their men were uncircumcised, they consumed forbidden food, and they didn’t perform ritual acts of washing before table fellowship. How could they all-of-the-sudden be a part of the in-group?
At this point, it’s tempting to draw an unflattering analogy between these early Jewish followers of Jesus and Christians today who refuse to acknowledge that the love of God is for anyone but them.
It’s been done before.
“The Jews were too legalistic! They were so focused on their law that they couldn’t see that God was trying to do something bigger and better! Don’t be like them!”
Let’s not fall into that trap. It would be hypocritical. By criticizing Peter for eating with Gentiles, Jewish followers of Jesus were not saying anything different than what we might say today.
“How can Baptists be Christians? They only do communion twice a year, and when they do do it they use grape juice! It’s unconscionable! It’s not biblical! It’s simply not done!”
Have you ever noticed that no matter what denomination they belong to, Christians tend to find Jesus firmly aligned with their beliefs, as if they have the market cornered on Christianity.
Christians get stuck in an either/or mentality. They see things as mutually exclusive. If you don’t have Eucharist every Sunday, then you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t only offer baptisms on major feasts, then you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t perform “last rites” immediately before death, then you’re doing it wrong.
When we engage in that kind of exclusivity we miss the point. Just because we have chosen to follow Jesus in a particular way, doesn’t mean that all the other ways that people follow Jesus are wrong.
There are, of course, some ways of following Jesus that are wrong. If your idea of following Jesus involves speaking hate, or excluding people who are different from you, or taking it upon yourself to damn others to hell, then you are absolutely wrong. But just because some ways are wrong, doesn’t mean that every way but ours is wrong.
God did not send Peter a vision to tell him that Jewish food laws were irrelevant or that the old covenant was thereby invalid. God is simply telling Peter that knowledge of God is not limited to people who observe the food laws or practice circumcision.
In the Episcopal Church we do certain things in certain ways for certain reasons. God is not calling us to abandon our rituals of common prayer. God is calling us to understand that God is not exclusively limited to them.
That’s right, Gentiles can also experience God. And for that matter, Baptists can, too! God is bigger than the Church. One set of rules or guidelines simply cannot capture all knowledge of the divine.
That’s okay, dear ones, because God continues to reveal himself to us, and each time he does he invites us into a deeper knowledge of him.
It might be in the form of the Holy Spirit guiding the General Convention to affirm the ordination of women or the sacredness of same-sex relationships.
It might be in the still, small voice that encourages our bishops to stand up against senseless gun violence and the laws that perpetuate it.
It might be in any number of things. Maybe even in something that happens to you this week.
Some say this is sacrilege. They say that everything we need to know was given to us in the Bible. The Bible may contain “all things necessary to salvation,” but that does not change the fact that God continues to help us interpret it.
I think some folks are scared that if we say that God still speaks to us that it will negate the things that God has already revealed. That’s simply not the case.
The fact that God continually guides us into deeper knowledge of our sacred texts does not mean that the texts have reached their expiration date. It means that God’s help is required in order for us to continuing mining their depths.
Deeper knowledge of God comes as a result of our participation in the life of God. Sure, there will be times along the way when we realize that we don’t know God completely. That’s a good thing.
It keeps this faith thing interesting.
It reminds us that God is God and we are not.
It keeps us coming back again and again to meet God in prayer, scripture, liturgy, and sacrament.
In other words, it keeps us in eternal life. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me!