This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year C). I preached on the first reading, Acts 11:1-8.
Simon Peter got in trouble with the other church leaders in Jerusalem, because they thought he was going against God’s word. This takes place in the early church, just a few years after Jesus was raised from the dead. This young church was predominately Jewish, and they saw Christ as the fulfillment of the Word of God. The Word of God they had tried to follow their whole lives, the Word of God found in their scripture, in what we now call the Old Testament.
The Word of God said that the people of Israel were God’s chosen people, and that under certain circumstances, outsiders could join the community of God’s people. If they followed Israel’s laws, became circumcised, and kept kosher, then certain outsiders could be accepted into the community. The young church continued this practice. If you were a Gentile who wished to join the church, you first needed to become Jewish. You first had to become like us.
But Peter broke this rule. He spent time with Gentiles. He ate with Gentiles who did not keep kosher. He baptized Gentiles who had not been circumcised. This led to his trouble with the other church leaders. And he did it because of a dream.The dream went like this:
Peter saw something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to him. As he looked at it closely he saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. He heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter knew better…he knew that these were all animals that scripture had declared unclean for Jews to eat. And he said this to God. He said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’
And Peter knew that this was a new word from God. God declared new things to be clean. And Peter soon realized that this was about far more than food. Immediately after this dream, some Gentiles arrived at his home, and asked him to speak to their master, a Roman centurion, about Jesus. Prior to this dream, Peter would have refused to speak to them. But now, Peter realized that this new word from God told him that not only were all animals clean to eat, but also all people were welcome to receive God’s Spirit. And Peter went to the centurion, spoke with him, ate with him, and baptized him and his family in the name of Christ.
After telling them this story, Peter said to the other church leaders in Jerusalem, “If 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?”
They were shocked, because this sounded like a new word from God. They were shocked, because it sounded like God’s word had changed. And yet they also rejoiced that God was now welcoming Gentiles as well, just as they were.
But I wonder. I wonder if God’s Word really changed. I wonder if God’s Word has always been less about drawing lines in the sand, less about setting down rules and regulations, and more about drawing out a trajectory, a direction. And I wonder if that trajectory always stays the same, even if the specifics change. If we look at God’s Word throughout scripture, we see that over time more and more people are welcomed. Over time, love and compassion are deepened. Over time, judgment gives way to mercy. Over time, things move closer and closer to the kingdom that God has promised.
Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promised this:
The days are surely coming, when I will make a new covenant. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God promised this:
my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Through the prophet Joel, God promised this:
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.
I wonder if perhaps the Word of God is first and foremost a word of promise, a word that promises that more and more grace is coming, that more and more hope is coming, that more and more people are welcome, until that last day, when the promises are fulfilled, when all is made right.
I wonder if perhaps the Word of God is not primarily about the past, not about what happened so long ago, but about the future. I wonder if perhaps the Word of God is calling us forward, and has always been calling us forward, to the promised future. A future in which more and more people are welcome. A future in which love and compassion continue to deepen. A future in which more and more judgment gives way to mercy. A future that comes slowly. A future in which we have a role to play.
The future John glimpsed in our second reading from Revelation when he heard God’s voice say, “See, I am making all things new!” The future that the disciples were called to be a part of when Jesus said in our gospel reading, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another just as I have loved you.”
The future that we glimpse today when we welcome people who are different than us, without telling them they have to become like us. The future we glimpse when we recognize our differences, and celebrate them. The future that we are already part of, because God’s mercy has been extended to us, God’s grace has been poured out on us. The future that we are called to proclaim, as God’s mercy and grace continue to flow ever forward toward that future.