May 15, 2022
Our second reading comes from the book we’ve been hearing quite a bit from during this Easter season. Today we hear about the new heaven and the new earth from Revelation chapter 21. Listen as God continues to speak.
I think I want to start back with Meg’s reading this morning and this story of Peter being confronted by his fellow Christians who can’t believe what he’s done… how Peter has crossed the line. He’s gone over to the Gentiles. And they now sit in judgment of Peter. I’m sure some were ready to cast him out… had the thought that they had no other choice but to separate themselves from Peter now or else Peter might lead them down that slippery slope… that Peter would erode their high standards… that Peter would lead them into sin by choosing to go among those particular Gentile sinners rather than keeping apart from those particular Gentile sinners.
Now hearing the word “Gentiles” is a safe way… always an opportunity… for us to think about all those people on the other side of the line that gets drawn in the sand. Gentiles is Bible speak for the “them”… and just who the “them” are at any particular time… well, you know as well as I do that the identity of the “them” is always changing because it is usually based on whatever the “us” thinks makes us more special and better in some way than all the others. O Lord, I know I’m not perfect… but at least I’m not them. Scripture gives us the perfect set-up. Gentile was not nuanced in any way. You were either a Jew… or you were a Gentile. There were only two choices. There is no spectrum. It’s one or the other.
Sadly… no matter the time or the place that we live… there is always a “them” and there is always an “us”… even for those who believe they are above being an “us”… an “us” still gets created because there are always those who don’t meet the high standards of the “us”… even the “us” who claim to be all inclusive. Let’s be clear… this is a pernicious sin of humanity… and we can’t higher road our way out of it.
And for us church going types we can’t help but create our own church defined line in the sands to define who the “them” are for “us” to be against. It may have slipped your notice, but on May 1st the Methodist church split into the United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church over the same issue that split off congregations from the Presbyterian church a few years ago… homosexuality. The Global Methodists… I suppose… would deny that the Holy Spirit can be found among those who are homosexual by the very definition of homosexuality. And so those who would go among homosexuals and dare to proclaim that they have encountered the Holy Spirit… they must be mistaken and a new line of division must be created so that association with those of us who would allow “them” to intermingle among the “us”… they must now must also be made into “them”.
Do you know how tired I am of having to put a paragraph like that into my sermons whenever a new split occurs… whenever a new line gets drawn that so clearly violates the word of scripture… that violates this very word of scripture?
Peter broke the church rule of his day. He crossed the line and he associated with the uncircumcised… the Gentile. He went among the “them” of his day… and he ate with them… baptized them.. and maybe he even went away liking them… or at the very least seeing that they weren’t the terrible enemy they had been made out to be. He had seen God through them.
When we look at this story in Acts there are two elements in the story that are timeless. There are the people who make the rules and set the standards that must be kept in the name of God. And there is the God who is found among the people who have violated those set standards. Peter’s experience is all about finding God exactly where God wants to be... among the people… all the people. God doesn’t seem to be as discriminating as some of us church people in the company God keeps. We keep wanting to separate out the sinners whose sin we label incompatible. God keeps redeeming sinners through grace and love and presence… and bringing them in. You know the gospel stories… how Jesus keeps frustrating the good church people of his time by going among those who exist on the other side of the line they had drawn. And there are lots and lots of different lines aren’t there? Always is. Line drawing has to be careful and exact if we are to carve off the “them” while sparing the “us” of our own guilt. Think back to those stories… while Jesus is there on the other side of the line… he isn’t trying to change that person he finds by dragging them across the line toward acceptability. Whatever that might be. First and foremost, Jesus is being there among them… Jesus is being with them in a manner that isn’t confrontational… from that superior human being point of view… Jesus is being there with them and is saying, “As I am here, so is God.”
Peter, as he is making his case against his fellow believers who are sitting in judgment of his being present with those Gentiles in a way that wasn’t from a superior human being point of view… Peter makes this “aha!” theological connection… he remembers what John the Baptizer said about how he baptizes with water, but that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. What is a baptism by the Holy Spirit if not being surrounded by the presence of God? Being more aware and connected to the God who is with you in the moment rather than the God who is presented to you by those keepers of the God shaped rules. It’s his whole theological defense, “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 Peter’s accusers heard this they were silenced. Until one of them spoke up and said, “Yes, but…”
Ok… well… that doesn’t happen in the story. It does happen as we live out this story again and again and again. Acts makes it sound like things were settled once for all, but history… meaning the history found in Paul’s writings… shows that this argument for division went on and on. Our experience tells us how it’s still going on. Yet, included here in Acts… what’s important for us to see is that church doesn’t progress if it can’t somehow get past this impasse. It’s so hard let go of our sin. That why, I think, sin isn’t let go… it’s forgiven. It’s the forgiveness that brings change… not change that brings forgiveness. We keep getting that wrong to our own detriment.
Our passage from Revelation is this bold declaration that God’s greatest desire is to be at home among mortals… to dwell with us… and whoever our “them” happens to be at the time… to dwell with all people as our God. And in the rest of that poetic passage it is so important for us to hear that it is not a dwelling based on the rule of law… but on the law of love where God will wipe away every tear from eyes… where death will be no more… where the first things... all this sin and division and chaos from sin… where all that passes away. It’s a wholly different vision from the reward for the special “us” and everlasting condemnation and punishment for the unworthy “them” that gets thrown around as the result of God’s victory. And I think that’s because that vision of victory comes from this pernicious sin… the ultimate outcome of our belief that as long as I can be better than some… then I’m safe from God’s wrath. As long as I can keep the finger pointed and God focused on “them” and their being on the wrong side of the line… then I will be safe and alright. And that would be a good strategy if it weren’t for God’s habit of crossing that drawn line with grace and forgiveness… except for God’s plan to redeem sinners… God’s habit of going after that one lost sheep until it is found. Jesus comes into the world to save sinners… not reward the faithful who have kept themselves unsoiled. I mean… just that word alone… unsoiled. I don’t know its origins or anything… but unsoiled… untouched by the dirt into which God breathes life. Unsoiled like the priest and Levite who pass by on the other side of the road… who keep the safe space of division… the safe space of sin… rather than going and helping a fellow human being in need. In Christ, God becomes incarnate… God becomes soiled… to be able to reach that hand out to the leper… not just to heal their body… but to bring them again into relationship with all of God’s children. God gathers together as only God can… and then God makes God’s home there with all the sinners of God’s own redeeming. And so which of us sinners would then turn up our noses at the perceived stench of some of God’s gathered?
Let me finish with this… which was my first thought when I read this passage from Revelation. It’s that first question and answer couplet from the Westminster Catechism… one that I know many of you know well… to give it a bit of a language update… “What is the chief and highest end of humanity?” “Humanity’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy God forever.” And if we take that answer and add a bit of seasoning from the answer to first question of the Heidelberg Catechism which is “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”… we might understand better that the reason we ought to glorify God and fully enjoy God forever is because I am not my own… I and every other “I” that I may encounter… I… you… her… him… am not my own but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – whether an “us” or a “them” – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ… and… because I… you… him… her… belong to Christ, Christ by his Holy Spirit makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Saints, let us worry ourselves more with living for Christ by living like Christ… and in that way… no longer hindering the God who makes all things new. Amen.