United Church of Christ

Spirit of Solidarity

Sunday, May 19, 2019
Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C

Focus Theme:
Spirit of Solidarity

Focus Prayer:
Alpha and Omega, First and Last, glory outshining all the lights of heaven: pour out upon us your Spirit of faithful love and abundant compassion, so that we may rejoice in the splendor of your works while we wait in expectation for the new heaven and the new earth you promise when Christ shall come again. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."

All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

Focus Questions:

1. What should be the priorities of Christians today?

2. What do our worship communities look like?

3. To whom do we extend hospitality to in our homes?

4. Who is missing from our table?

5. What would it "cost" to open our table up?

Reflection:
by Karen Georgia Thompson

Clichés abound when it comes to talking about change. "Change is not an event, it's a process." "Change is inevitable." "Change or die"--is often used in reference to organizational entities, and often times in reference to the Church, and more particularly to congregations that are in decline. And then, one of my favorites: "Change must come."

Regardless of its inevitability, few people like or welcome change. The majority of us like our routines that come over time. We read our newspaper (or news via the Internet) at the same time in the morning and drink our coffee out of that same mug deeply stained with years of use. We have our rituals and routines that keep us on track and on time. We have our schedules so engrained, and how we operate so fine-tuned that the slightest changes throw off our morning and determine the quality of our day.

Routines provide a level of comfort and security. We know where to go and what to expect. The inevitability of change means we have to make adjustments we are oftentimes not ready and not willing to make. The early Christians were having such a moment. They were accustomed to what they knew and when confronted with change, they too were resistant.

Forming and adjusting

The early church was in the process of being formed. In the wake of the resurrection, these followers of Christ were sticking to what they knew for living, even as they adjusted to the death of Jesus, the absence of his leadership, and sought to spread his teaching.

As followers of Jesus, they were Jews. They were well versed in the dietary laws. They knew what they were supposed to eat and drink. They knew who was welcome and with whom they should not associate. They gathered regularly, kept to what they knew, and believed that the gospel, the Good News Jesus left for them to share, was exclusively for them.

Telling the story again

The text in Acts 11:1-18 is a retelling of Acts 10 from a different perspective, with the second being the Readers Digest version. Both versions of the story are very engaging on many levels. We learn of Peter's vision in Acts 10, his vision of heaven opening and a large sheet descending, lower by its for corners (v.11). "In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air" (v.12).

Peter is then invited to kill and eat (v.13). The vision comes to a hungry Peter as he prays in the middle of the day on a rooftop. It is there that Peter meets Cornelius.

Laws, feasts and invitations

According to the Jewish dietary laws, some of these animals were named "unclean" and should not be eaten if one was to maintain one's purity and holiness. The feast that is offered to a hungry Peter is a feast of which he thought he should not partake. The invitation for Peter to partake of these animals in his vision is a larger invitation for Peter to accept the invitation that arrives for him to visit the home of Cornelius.

There were rules for this too. In addition to restrictions on food, the law also stipulated who a Jew could share a meal with. The act of "breaking bread together" was a sacred moment. Sitting at table was a spiritual moment where God was present. A person therefore could not render that moment profane by eating with people who were considered unclean.

The heart of the problem

Jews could not share a meal at table, nor would they visit the home of an individual who was not observing the same dietary restrictions. The home would be unclean, so under the law Peter was not allowed to visit with Cornelius.

Under the law, Cornelius' kitchen would be unclean, so Peter should not be eating in Cornelius' home. These are not the focus of contention that Peter has to deal with, instead it is Cornelius himself, though, a high-ranking Roman soldier, who was at the heart of the problem.

Table fellowship and solidarity

"When Peter came up to Jerusalem those who were of Jewish birth took issue with him. 'You have been visiting men who are uncircumcised,' they said, 'and sitting at the table with them!' Peter began by laying before them the facts as they had happened" (Acts 11:4).

The Jerusalem believers took issue with Peter's actions. "These objectors did not take issue with the baptism of Gentiles but with Peter's willingness to associate and eat with them. 'Table fellowship' was an essential mark of solidarity, imposing obligations upon guests and hosts," writes Donald Davis.

The intimacy and sacredness of "table fellowship" was the concern of the community. There are some people that you do not eat with. Who are the people that we exclude from the table? The reality of table fellowship is as much about Holy Communion as table, as it is about those with whom we break bread and share fellowship in our homes. The challenges of table fellowship occur in these two areas.

The problem with commensality

Martin Marty points to the problem saying the problem the early church had with Peter's actions was not the baptism of Cornelius but commensality. "The sociologist of religion Max Weber and others have made much of this word that says you share mensa, the table, with someone else," writes Martin Marty. "That is often hard to do. The homeless are not clean. People above us in class and status are snooty. Below us are rednecks and ill-mannered clods."

What do our worship communities look like and who do we extend hospitality to in our homes? Are we willing to be transformed, changed in ways that name that our lives are lacking in both areas because we exclude more than we include?

We all could use more people in our churches and more diversity of relationships in our lives. Are we willing to receive that transformation in our lives? Or are we resting on rituals and relationships that we hold as sacred cows that have transfixed us in static realities rather than in the dynamic realities of transformation that promises to make our lives that much richer?

God is doing a new thing

The initial rendition of the encounter between Peter and Cornelius is in context of Peter's vision, the invitation to visit Cornelius' home in Joppa and Peter's visit to Cornelius' home. In Acts 11:1-18, Peter is re-telling the events to justify his actions and to help the gathered community in Jerusalem come to a new understanding of life in Christ, and the reasons for what he did. As Simone Sunghae Kim notes, "What is significant about this passage is that God is now doing something new and radical that seems to have caught both the disciples and other Jews by surprise."

What do we make of Peter's encounter with Cornelius? Is this story about letting go of dietary laws? Is this about the gospel going out to the Gentiles? Or more about early church politics and is about Peter getting credit for the missionary efforts beyond the Jewish community? What of the change that comes in how the "other"--people who are not a part of the community--is viewed? There are a host of questions that come alive.

No unclean people

The reception of the Gentiles is a big part of the story. According to Paul W. Walasky, "The authorization for Peter's action is unmistakable. He had received a vision from God which called him to minister to all people--there are no unclean people." There are no unclean people! Who are the "unclean" who are not invited to be among us? What do we need to do to be more welcoming, more inviting? What are the defining markers we use for declaring clean or unclean?

Mary Donovan Turner pushes even further on the complexity of church and inclusion which she names as "one of the most tensive and volatile issues facing the early church." Matters of inclusion are still volatile in the life of the church. Her questions for us are thought-provoking. Turner asks: "Does including the new or different mean that we are letting go of the values that have always defined us? Or do the values that define us compel us to to be more inclusive and open?"

I would further ask, why is full inclusion of all people such a challenge for the Church?

Converted to new understandings

These chapters are often received among us as "The Conversion of Cornelius and His Household." His entire household comes to know about Jesus. Their lives are transformed, they are converted to this new way of understanding Divine grace and presence by Peter. It is easy to see that these individuals hold a significant place in the life of the early church.

But there is more that may be harder for us to accept. These chapters are about conversion, they are about a transformation that takes place across the life of the Church. Peter and the entire Jerusalem church are converted as a result of Peter's vision and his visit to Cornelius' home.

Reading through a contemporary lens

Simone Sunghae Kim suggests "two social justice and change-related action plans" (at the very least) in the passage: avoiding dichotomous language and a paradigm shift in terms of our tradition and nationalism. Kim's reading of the text is useful in lending a contemporary lens to this familiar text as language is explored. "Divisive language patterns as shown in Acts 11--the circumcised versus the uncircumcised, the Jews versus the Gentiles, us versus them--undoubtedly contribute to divisions and discord among individuals, peoples, nations and even churches. Often the spirit behind these divisions germinates with the feelings of arrogance, pride, and self-love. As the world is becoming ever more diverse and heterogeneous, this type of separatism can cause much disharmony and animosity between people."

Transformation of the heart that goes beyond our traditions, laws and rituals that exclude, are necessary for us to receive an outcome that is offered in Peter's vision.

Who's excluded, and how?

What would transformation look like in the communities we serve? What would our own transformation look like as we critically examine our lives and communities? We often ask the question: who is missing? The deeper question is: who are we excluding and what are the mechanisms, tools, rituals, language, and behaviors that we employ to ensure that they receive the coded messages that indicate they are not welcome--that we have named them unclean?

Kim suggests that the reading "demands from us a paradigm shift in terms of our traditions and nationalism" and notes that Peter had to be transformed in the way he understood God and what God was doing. The result of Divine encounter is transformation, deep change that moves us to think differently and live differently.

Transformation is through change that is dramatic in nature. When I think of transformation, the change of the life cycle of the butterfly comes to mind, significant change that is visible, and sometimes painful in the letting go of the comfort of the known, and struggling with the uncertainty and process of change.

Naming the places that need to be transformed

Transformation hinges on self-awareness and truth telling. The reluctance to see ourselves as we are hinders the transformative work that is rooted in grace. The reluctance to name the places where we are deficient in our hospitality and to own that we are aspirational and have much work to do in ourselves and in our community causes us to embrace a false narrative that forces God among us to the margins--unwelcome at the table.

The church leaders heard Peter's story of his transformation. They heard of the transformation of Cornelius and his household. It seems they finally got it. "When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God saying, 'Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life'" (Acts 11:18). What a relief that they were now willing to receive the Gentiles among them.

God is full of surprises. Where will our surprises come and our knowledge of God's ways increase, so that we too may say "God has given even to…"?

The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson serves as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Gene Roddenberry, 20th century
"If [we are] to survive, [we] will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between [us] and between cultures. [We] will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting variety, not something to fear."

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 20th century
"[The one] who is different from me does not impoverish me - [but] enriches me. Our unity is constituted in something higher than ourselves - in [humankind]... For no [one] seeks to hear [one's] own echo, or to find [one's] reflection in the glass."

Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 20th century
"I remember one night at Muzdalifa with nothing but the sky overhead I lay awake amid sleeping Muslim brothers and I learned that pilgrims from every land--every color, and class, and rank; high officials and the beggar alike--all snored in the same language."

Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
"It is never too late to give up your prejudices."

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 20th century
"Oh God, the terrible tyranny of the majority. We all have our harps to play. And it's up to you to know with which ear you'll listen."

Rumi, 13th century
"Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged."

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