Even on the Gentiles

The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 10:44–48

We’re continuing our Eastertide journey through the book of Acts. We haven’t read it yet this season, but one of the first things that happens in the Book of Acts is the Pentecost. This is when the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles and they speak in tongues. That’s already a problem. What is this speaking in tongues thing? Most Methodists break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it. I had a professor who said that Methodists suffer from Pentecostaphobia—the fear of becoming Pentecostal. We’re afraid to put our hands up in the air for fear that they might get stuck there. And speaking in tongues, once you do that, it’s only a short step until you’re knocking people over at the altar, and there’s someone running up and down the aisle playing a tambourine with red streamers tied to it.

And the writer of Acts doesn’t help us much with the problem. We’re not even sure whether speaking tongues means speaking in foreign languages or speaking in other-worldly languages. All Luke tells us is that speaking in tongues is a sure sign of the Holy Spirit, and that when the apostles speak at Pentecost, all of the foreign Jews in Jerusalem can understand them in their own languages.

Notice that I said all the Jews in Jerusalem, because Jesus, and all of his disciples, and all of the members of the early church were Jews. Gentiles were not allowed into the church unless they had first been circumcised and become Jews. The early Christian movement was a sect of Judaism, and Pentecost did not change that. Anyone who was not a good Jew was considered outside the realm of God.

So when Peter, a good Jesus-following Jew, receives a vision that he is to go out to the Gentiles, he has a hard time believing it. He doesn’t want to ruin his ritual purity by mixing with unclean Gentiles. But in Peter’s vision, the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  So when Peter is called to the house of Cornelius, a God-fearing, Roman centurion, he goes, even though it is a violation of the biblical purity laws.

When Peter gets to the house, along with his companions, Cornelius has assembled all of his friends and family to hear Peter’s message. So Peter begins to preach, and as he’s still speaking, the Holy Spirit comes upon the Gentiles, and they begin to speak in tongues.

It’s a repeat of Pentecost, when Christians first experienced the Holy Spirit, but this time it is all wrong, at least as far as Peter’s companions are concerned. In fact, it just can’t happen. Doesn’t God understand that there is an order and a process to these sorts of things: first of all, the Gentile must become a Jew by being circumcised and following the Kosher dietary laws, then after a period of study, they can become Christians by being baptized, and then, only if they’re lucky, maybe they can be filled with the Holy Spirit. I mean, it’s not like the Spirit descends on just anybody. So far in the story, it’s only happened twice: once on Jesus, after he was baptized by John and once at Pentecost. But this is just wrong. It’s like these gentiles have graduated with a PhD before they’ve even finished high school, and the other graduates just can’t understand it. And they’re bitter too. What is God doing?

Sometimes we have the same problem. We would prefer if God would only call those people that fit into our understanding of righteousness. We would prefer if God would be predictable and follow the rules that we have established. First they have to clean themselves up and learn how to act properly, and then we’ll consider letting them in.

There is perhaps no starker example of this in the American experience than the predicament of black Christians in white churches. Richard Allen recounts an incident that occurred as he and other black Christians attempted to go to an integrated church, where they were in fact members. He writes: “A number of us usually attended St. George’s church in Fourth Street; and when the colored people began to get numerous in attending the church, they moved us from the seats we usually sat on, and placed us all around the wall, and on Sabbath morning we went to church and the sexton stood at the door, and told us to go in the gallery. He told us to go, and we would see where to sit. We expected to take the seats over the ones we formerly occupied below, not knowing any better. We took those seats. Meeting had begun, and they were nearly done singing, and just as we got to our seats, the elder said, ‘Let us pray.’ We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees, H——- M——–, having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees, and saying, ‘You must get up—you must not kneel here.’ Mr. Jones replied, ‘Wait until prayer is over.’  Mr. H—– M—– said ‘No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away.’ Mr. Jones said, ‘Wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.’ With that he beckoned to one of the other trustees, Mr. L—– S—– to come to his assistance. He came, and went to William White to pull him up. By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church.”

You might be thinking that this took place somewhere in the Deep South, probably in an especially conservative denomination. It did not. It took place in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American Democracy, and it took place in a Methodist Church. The African Americans who were thrown out went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, because the white Methodist church could not and would not recognize the gifts that they possessed. They were too caught in their own societal rules of right and wrong, in and out. This story is a part of our heritage, a sad chapter when we did not think of a black person as worthy even to kneel in prayer to the creator.

And this is not a problem that is limited only to 1st century Palestine and 18th century Philadelphia. Throughout history, we Christians have had a hard time comprehending that God pours out blessing “even on the Gentiles.” We have too often closed the doors of the church to anyone outside the elite: to slaves, to the poor, to African Americans, to women we have kept the door closed, to Hispanics, to the LGBTQ community, to Native Americans, to disabled persons, to aboriginal peoples, to the meek, to Arabs, to teenagers, to anyone that we label “sinner”, to the dirty, the homeless, the mentally ill…. We say, “How could God work through someone like that?  How could God possibly work through them?”

Fortunately for us, Peter sets a good example. He recognizes God’s actions, even in such an unexpected place as among the Gentiles. He is able to overcome his upbringing and his training and his fear just long enough to see God’s face in those supposedly unclean faces. He sees God out front leading the way and decides to get into line. He takes the step of baptizing Gentiles, for the first time ever, because God has left him no other choice. God has already conferred a doctoral degree on the Gentiles, and the least Peter can do is hand out High School diplomas.

But it isn’t an easy road for Peter. When the other disciples find out what he’s done, they are more than a little concerned, and they chastise him for even eating with Gentiles, let alone baptizing them. What kind of riffraff is he bringing in? But Peter doesn’t give up. He sticks to his principles and argues his case before the whole church. And… his voice eventually carries the day, though not without some grumbling. Peter’s testimony opens the hearts, minds, and doors of the church to Gentiles for the first time.

Why is that important? If Peter had not stood up for the outsiders, against the objections of the believers, then Christianity would have remained a Jewish sect. The church would never have been opened up to the likes of you and me. You see, you and I would have been far too unclean to even be considered for membership in the pure church. If it were not for Peter, breaking both the rules and the law to open up the church to the unclean, then the Gospel of Jesus Christ would never have been preached to us, the love of God never offered.

Fortunately for us as well, God continues to lead the way. God persists in showing up where we least expect, choosing people we would not choose. It happens over and over again in the Bible, and it happens over and over again in our world.

And today we get to celebrate. We get to celebrate that The United Methodist Church has, just this week, done something to help us catch up with God. I told some of the folks in choir on Thursday, I’m not conditioned to expect good news from General Conference. But this week we got some.

After 52 years, The United Methodist Church has finally removed all anti-gay language from the Book of Discipline and accepted full LGBTQ+ inclusion. We now officially accept marriage between two loving adults, regardless of their gender. We now officially accept LGBTQ persons as clergy. And we have removed hurtful language that has chilled the God-given gifts of all LGBTQ persons.

It has been far too long in coming. In the West, we have been in open defiance of The UMC’s ban for years now, but that does not diminish the harm that has been done. Now, finally, my LGBTQ colleagues can perform their ministry without fear. LBGTQ candidates for ministry can answer God’s call on their lives without hiding who they are. LGBTQ couples can express their love with the support of the church.

Like Peter in Acts, we are only catching up with what God has already been doing. God has been pouring out the Holy Spirit without regard to our prejudices. Christ has already broken down the wall. We are only following behind. It is Christ who has welcomed us all into his body, the church.

Truth be known, though, most of us, at one time or another, have felt unworthy to be in the church. Inside every one of us there is a little voice that reminds us of all things we’ve ever done wrong. Of all the times that we’ve broken the rules. Inside us there is a voice that reminds us of our sins and says, “Who do you think you are to call yourself a Christian? What makes you think you’re so worthy and righteous?”

It’s that voice that keeps us away. Whether it is spoken out loud or whether it simply echoes in the back of our minds, it keeps us away.

But God has a different idea. God loves each of us with an unconditional love, a love that sees beyond the things that we have done wrong to possibilities that we have for the future. God searches us out when we are lost, and like a good shepherd, brings us home. And God uses us in new and exciting ways to spread God’s message of love to others.

By God’s grace, even the outcast, even the lonely, even the hurting, even the sinners, even the Gentiles… even these can become vessels for the Holy Spirit. May God bring the lost ones back to teach us in surprising and unexpected ways. May God work within us to open our hearts, minds, and doors to the surprising and unexpected actions of God in the world and in all the people around us.  Amen.