Theme: God’s love and gifts are not exclusive to believers, and Christians should extend love to all.
Message: Some stories need to be repeated in the biblical text in order for us to really understand and acknowledge their importance. This week’s Acts reading is one of those repeated accounts, which was shared in greater details in Acts 10.
In this passage, Peter recounts his experiences in Joppa and Caesarea to the circumcised believers (Jews) in Jerusalem who are essentially judging him for going to the home of the uncircumcised (Gentiles) and eating with them. So, step-by-step, Peter tells them of God’s vision to him, that the animals that Jews considered unclean were now made clean. He tells them that the Spirit prompted Cornelius to send men to get Peter and bring him back to Cornelius’ home, so that he could preach the good news to those previously considered “off limits.”
This text served to illustrate to readers that the spreading of the gospel to Gentiles was a vital part of God’s plans. And this message is still true for us today. But for now, let’s focus on Peter’s own experiences and actions in this passage.
Because of God’s vision and Peter’s openness to receiving it, Peter stepped into uncharted waters. He dared to eat food that was unclean, with people who were unclean. He became like the Gentiles in order to demonstrate his own change of heart, his humility in learning that God’s kin-dom extended far beyond the temple walls, far beyond the Jewish people.
Who are the “Gentiles” among us? Who are those individuals who we consider to be unclean? Sometimes, it is so easy to get wrapped up in the “world” of church—and frankly, it’s a world in which there is security and comfort much of the time—that the thought of venturing outside of that realm seems too uncomfortable and messy. But there is a whole wide world outside of the church’s little world, and it wants us to be a part of it and not always separated from it!
Another truth revealed in this story is that God gives gifts to others who may not believe or practice our faith in the same way that others do. In fact, it seems that God gives the same gifts to unbelievers as to believers. What gifts might people of other faiths hold for the world? What gifts might people of no faith have for the world? What gifts do other cultures and ethnicities possess? And how might the church be denying these gifts?
What power the missional message holds for us in this regard! Peter, with the help of the Spirit, dared to enter a space in which he was unfamiliar, in order to become like the “other.” At first, the Jews judged him for this; but once he was able to share his story, they praised God and opened themselves up to new possibilities. Peter’s experiences are remarkable in and of themselves, but in sharing his story with skeptics within the church, he expanded the horizon of possibilities for his own people. Are there times when our experiences outside of the realm of church need to be shared with those within the church? How might those experiences transform the ways that we are called to follow Jesus?
This is the full expression of what Jesus was describing in this week’s John passage—the charge to love. It’s not a conditional love only for those with whom we are friends or colleagues or even neighbors. This love is for people we may not understand or even know. Jesus said, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
Given the violent events in our nation in the past few weeks and months, the call to love may stretch Christians far beyond what was previously experienced. To those who committed the violent acts, how do we demonstrate love? How can we be loving toward people who have differing, even contrary, worldviews and ideologies and practices to our own? What does extending love look like when individuals do not want to receive love and who self-isolate? These are tough questions, but they are questions to be asked in such a time as this.
Illustration(s): The rise of the “spiritual but not religious” and religious “nones” in the U.S. has prompted different responses from various church leaders. Some are trying to figure out the best ways to extend love and friendship to these rising demographics, and others are judging and condemning these groups of people as too individualistic, non-committing, and spiritually lazy. Could these people be the church’s “unclean”?
I became Jewish for Jewish people. I became subject to Moses’ Teachings for those who are subject to those laws. I did this to win them even though I’m not subject to Moses’ Teachings.
–I Corinthians 9:20 (God’s Word Translation)
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV Translation)
Blogs: Mark Osler, “Christianity Without Arrogance,” Sojourners, 1/23/13: http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/01/23/christianity-without-arrogance
Philip Goldberg, “Spiritual but Not Religious: Misunderstood and Here to Stay,” Huffington Post, 2/13/13: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/philip-goldberg/spiritual-but-not-religious-misunderstood-and-here-to-stay_b_2617306.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000008
Christian Piatt, “Calling People ‘Nones’ Is A Mistake,” Patheos, 2/21/13: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christianpiatt/2013/02/calling-people-nones-is-a-mistake/
Prayers: Prayers for this week are from Interfaith Prayers & Blessings by Abby Willowroot (http://www.spiralgoddess.com/InterFaith_Changes_Challenges_Prayers.html)
Moving Through the World
Let me be willing to see the big picture in all things,
act in accordance with my best, most ethical self,
and grant the benefit of the doubt to all those I meet.
My Acceptance Prayer
Make me willing to accept what I cannot,
fill my mind with understanding, my heart with trust,
there are some things that I must accept as facts,
difficult though they may be to face now.
May my spirit be open and accepting.
Prayer for Understanding
May I come to Understand,
that blessings are everywhere,
that my attitude will effect outcomes,
that challenges are often gifts in disguise.
May I come to Value
that today is a blessing to be enjoyed,
that each person is unique and important,
that each moment of my life has meaning.
Rev. Dr. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi serves as Minister for Christian Faith Formation Research in the United Church of Christ and lives in Denver, CO.