Sunday, April 28, 2013

Something New

Acts 11:1-18
April 28, 2013

            Remember The Titans is a film about racism and reconciliation.  And football.  Based on actual events, Remember The Titans tells the story of T.C. Williams high school in Alexandria, Virginia.  In 1971 two white high schools and one black high school were forced to integrate.  This meant that the football team would also be integrated, and the head coach, Bill Yoast, was told that his job was being given to an African American named Herman Boone.  Boone, who had moved his family to Alexandria for a job at the African American high school, doesn’t want to take the job away from another person.  But he’s encouraged to take it because it will help continue the Civil Rights struggle.  Boone offers the assistant coach job to Yoast and he reluctantly accepts.    
            No one is happy about the situation.  Not the parents or the players.  They leave for football camp in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Boone takes on the seemingly insurmountable task of making them a team.  He succeeds.  Not just by being a hard as nails coach on the field, but also because of how he leads in every other way.  He forces each player to spend time, one-on-one, with teammates of another race. They have to learn about each other and report back.  Slowly the barriers between them are broken down, and they return to Alexandria closer to being a real team than they were before. 
            But tensions at school are high.  Protestors are outside the school doors.  The other students haven’t gone through this intense process of getting to know each other and fights are breaking out among the students.  Two of the main player characters, Garry Burtier who is white and Julius Campbell who is black, have become tentative friends and they’re trying not to let the tensions at the school ruin that.  In one scene Garry is talking with his girlfriend who states that “they hate us.”  They are the black students.  They hate the white students and always will.  Garry tries to convince her that it won’t always be like that.  She questions his change of heart.  He tells her that sometimes when something new happens, something unexpected, you have to go with it. 
            When something new happens you have to go with it.
            The stories of scripture that we read about today are also about something new. 
            Peter recounts a new beginning in our passage from Acts.  In order to fully understand this part of the story, you have to go back to the beginning, to the start of chapter 10.  It begins with the story of a man named Cornelius who lived in Caesarea.  Cornelius was a Roman centurion, a high-ranking Roman soldier.  He was a Gentile.  These are particular facts that we have to know about Cornelius.  He was a member and leader of one of the most feared armies in the world.  He was a Gentile, an outsider from the chosen ones of Israel, the Jews.  But we also learn some other facts about him.  He was a man who feared God. He was devoted to God.  He prayed unceasingly.  He was generous, consistently giving alms to those in need.  Later in his story, his messengers tell Peter that Cornelius is well-spoken of by the whole Jewish nation.  His ethnic status and profession do not disadvantage Cornelius in the eyes of God.
            Cornelius received a vision one afternoon.  An angel came to him with divine instructions.  He was to send men to Joppa for a man named Simon who was called Peter.  Peter was staying in the home of another Simon, a tanner.  Cornelius obeyed the angel’s commands and sent men to Peter.
            The next day as the men from Cornelius set out on their journey, Peter has his own vision.  He was on the roof praying, and while he was there he saw what looked like a large sheet.  It was being lowered to the ground by its four corners, and on that sheet there were animals, birds and reptiles of every kind.
            As Peter watches this sheet full of critters being lowered, he hears the Lord’s voice commanding him to go, kill and eat.  Peter absolutely refuses!  Never before has he eaten anything unclean or profane.  He has always kept kosher, and he’s not about to stop now.  The voice speaks again telling him that what God has made clean, Peter must not call profane.  Peter again declines with a resounding “no!”  This happens three times.  After the third time the sheet returns to the heavens as suddenly as it came, and Peter is left to puzzle out what he has just witnessed.
            As he’s trying to sort it all out, the three men arrive from Cornelius and ask for him.  The Spirit now tells Peter that he should go with these men without hesitation. 
Peter listens and Peter goes.  He brings with him some of the circumcised believers, in other words, good Jews.  And when he arrives at Cornelius’ house all of Cornelius’ family and friends are there.  Cornelius sees Peter and falls to his knees, trying to worship the apostle.  Peter orders him to stop.  Get up.  Then he tells everyone there that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or even visit a Gentile.  But Peter has finally begun to understand his vision.  God was not just talking about food and Jewish dietary laws, God was talking about people.  Peter must not call profane or unclean the people that God has called clean.  After hearing Cornelius’ vision, Peter begins to preach.
            “Now I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
            While Peter is speaking the Holy Spirit falls upon all of them, including the Gentiles.  All the people there are astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit would be poured out even on the Gentiles, the others.  Seeing this gift, Peter asks if anyone could withhold the water of baptism from these Gentile believers.  So Cornelius and those gathered around him were baptized just as the Jewish believers had been.  Gentiles were baptized!
            So now we come to our particular part of the story.  Peter and the other believers returned to Judea.  The news of Peter’s encounter with the Gentile believers has reached the ears of the apostles in Jerusalem.  Peter is called before them to give them an account of his actions.  He is criticized for what he has done.  He is criticized for eating with uncircumcised men. 
            But the criticisms prompt Peter to tell his story from the beginning, explaining his unorthodox decision.  After carefully telling the series of events from beginning to end, Peter convinces his listeners with these words, “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?”
            A new door was opened.  New, unexpected people were given a gift by God, were welcomed by God.  It was something new.
            The stories of God and God’s people are full of something new.  The Law was given to the Hebrew people at the beginning of what would become the Jewish nation.  Jesus’ ministry, a ministry that would fulfill the old Law and begin a new law of love, was something new.  
With Jesus’ death and resurrection the church that would bear his name and follow his Way found its beginning in something radically new.
With the conversion of Cornelius, the Way was no longer just a Jewish belief; it was the inauguration of the Gentile mission and ministry.  It was something new.
Something new sounds like it should be wonderful.  Marketers must see me coming when they advertise something as “new and improved,” because there’s something about those words that makes me want to try a new product.  If it’s new it must be better.  But that’s not how it works in reality is it?  Something new is not always welcome, whether it’s at home or school, and maybe most importantly, church.  Something new means change.  Change, even if it’s necessary, is never as easy or comfortable as we’d like to believe.  Change, something new, can be downright scary. 
I don’t know the exact figures but I do know that a large number of churches in our denomination are 100 members or less.  That means that all of these churches, including ours, have a common hope.  We want to grow.  We want to add new members.  The hard, cold truth is that if we don’t we may die. 
Probably every one of us sitting here hopes that we’ll grow in membership.  Our congregation, our ministry, our life together has much to offer people.  But what will growth look like?  Does it mean that everyone who walks in these doors will look like us or think like us or act like us?  If we really want to grow we have to prepare for the fact that the people who come here may not be like us.   They will have their own stories, their own agendas, their own ways of seeing the world.   I think congregations sometime delude themselves into thinking that growth is just about assimilating new people into an old way of doing things.  But I’m learning that growth means something new.  How can we not think that after reading of Peter’s vision?
This wasn’t just about food that Peter liked or didn’t like.  This was about going against centuries of belief and custom.  Peter wasn’t being obstinate to God’s will or word.  He was being true to what he’d been taught to believe was the will of God.  Peter was trying to be faithful. 
But God had other plans, other ideas about what was clean, what was unclean, who was clean and who was unclean.  In that vision God proclaimed something new.  That something new challenged what Peter believed to be fundamental.  But in the end Peter didn’t run from God’s new something.  Instead he asked, “Who am I to hinder God?” 
I have no more idea than you do of what our particular something new will look like.  But I know that we as a congregation are faced with challenges.  Our building, our membership, our role in this community – we stand on the precipice of something new.  It’s exciting.  It’s terrifying.  I don’t know what’s coming, but I do know this.  The Holy Spirit empowered Peter and the other apostles to do God’s something new.  They weren’t alone.  It wasn’t easy.  It was never easy.  But they weren’t alone.  Neither are we.  Are we ready?  Are we ready for something new?  Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”

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