May 13, 2001
The Underlined / Linked
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A Bahraini princess and a U.S. Marine violate all the rules of the princess's family and faith when they fall in love, flee her country and marry in Las Vegas, Nevada.
"They can write a book and make a movie out of this story," said Maj. David C. Andersen, a U.S. Marine Corps spokesman in Washington, D.C. "This story has everything. The movie could be called the private first class and the princess." ¹
Although this story has some spectacular elements, the plot is as old as human history. There's "them" and there's "us." And "us" is better than "them." In fact "us and ours" should have nothing to do with, "them and theirs!"
Though the plot remains the same, the characters change. History is filled with the struggle of class against class, nation against nation, race against race, rich against poor -- and sadly -- even church against church.
In the New Testament, it was Jew against Gentile, Samaritan against Jew, Pharisees against tax collectors and the self-righteous against sinner. Jews were the "circumcised" and gentiles were the "uncircumcised."
But a brand new things happens when Jesus Christ comes with good news about the kingdom of God. The kingdom is for everyone - especially those who have been deemed unacceptable. "Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden," he says. When Paul, the former hard shelled Pharisee and persecutor of Christians, took the good news to the gentiles, he said all the barriers that divide people had been done away with in Christ. "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus," Paul declared. [Gal. 3:28]
It was not always an easy thing for the church to embrace the inclusive nature of the gospel message. It was not easy for Jesus followers in spite of the fact that they were very close to him and it was not easy for the earliest church to move from a Jewish culture to acceptance of gentiles into their family of faith. Even though Jesus had given the commission to his disciples to go into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth - the earliest disciples could not quite come to terms with uncircumcised gentiles sitting down to eat with them.
The earliest crisis in the first years of the fledgling Christian community was the question of what to do with gentile believers in Jesus Christ. The chief of apostles, Simon Peter is criticized by his fellow Jews in the church. "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?"
Sounds familiar doesn't it? It was not that long ago that the Pharisees were critical of Jesus penchant for breaking bread with the "wrong people.
Then there was the woman who interrupted a meal to anoint Jesus feet.
There is an important concept in Peter's response to the criticism he received. He did not become defensive or claim authority as chief of apostles. Note what happened:
Rather than debate with his detractors or become angry or even scold his fellow believers for their lack of spiritual insight, he explained the new thing God was doing and he took the time to explain it step by step. In this case there were two major events that preceded the acceptance of these gentile believers. Both events were initiated by God and both carry implications for our own life and witness as Christian people.
1. God Prepared Peter
Peter was not ready to have an accepting relationship with gentiles when he was in Joppa and God had to prepare him for the work he needed to do.
In a vision, Peter sees a sheet lowered from heaven and in this sheet are all kinds of creatures from reptiles and animals to birds of the air. A voice tells Peter to, "Get up, kill and eat." But Peter is a committed Jew and would have nothing to do with eating anything that was prohibited by Jewish law. He sees the vision as a test and replies that he would not eat anything that was considered unclean by the law.
Most of us can relate. Whether for good or bad, we have a hard time violating those things within us that we have always held. Even if it is a prejudice that has no place in our lives, we find ourselves challenged when we need to reach past something that has been a part of our lives.
Peter's vision is not about food at all. It is about his relationship with gentile people whom God is going to call into the church. It is the gentiles that Peter will need to acknowledge as brothers and sisters and not as "profane" or "unclean." If the Christian faith does nothing else -- at its best it absolutely demolishes barriers that divide people.
Three times a voice says to Peter, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." Why three times? Three repetitions of a theme in the bible is a way to drive home a very important point. Three times the prophet Isaiah hears the angels cry, "Holy, holy, holy..." before the throne of God. When the Risen Christ drew Peter back fully into his love and into the apostolic leadership he would have to exercise in building up the church, he asked him three times whether he loved his Lord. Peter was grieved then and it surely did not escape his attention that he is now told three times to accept what God accepts.
This is important for us. The only power in the universe that can truly change the deeply ingrained prejudices that interfere with authentic faith and witness is the power of God's Holy Spirit. God prepared Peter for his work with the gentile church and God will prepare your heart and mine for our work with all those who are yet to be invited into the family of faith.
Peter is told that he would go with visitors from the town of Caesarea and that he should, "...not make a distinction between them and us."
But there is more to the story.
2. God Prepared the Gentiles
Here's a tremendously important point in the story. God not only prepared Peter's heart to take the good news to people he would normally have avoided - he prepared the hearts of those who would be the recipients of his ministry.
Barriers are erected on a two way street. It is not only my prejudice toward you that destroys the possibility of relationship between us -- it is also your prejudice toward me. If authentic Christian faith was to come to the gentile world, it would have to come on a pathway prepared by the Spirit of God in which all parties were opened up to the new thing that God was doing in the world. Peter needed divine preparation and the gentiles needed divine preparation.
The gentiles of the household of Cornelius of Caesarea had been told that a Jew named, "Simon who is called Peter," could bring a message to them that would bring newness of life to the entire household of Cornelius.
Peter told those who were distressed about his eating with gentiles that when he shared the good news of Jesus Christ with these gentiles, God's Holy Spirit came to them just as it had come to the disciples of Jesus on the day of Pentecost.
Now the central point of the whole story comes to the fore. God prepared the heart of Peter. God has also prepared the hearts of the gentiles. When the word of God came to these people who were to this point outside the bounds of the family of faith, the word of God transformed them into the people of God.
And Peter could not deny it. "Who was I that I could hinder God?" he said to those who had questioned him so severely.
Here's the good news. Those who had resisted the movement of God now received the new thing God was doing. If Peter could not hinder God, then they also would not be counted among those who hinder God. What a wonderful thing. God not only prepared the heart of Peter and the gentiles, but also the hearts of the protagonists. It is true. The Holy Spirit makes us one!
The final act in this drama is the response of those who originally complained about Peter's violation of their prejudicial code. Peter explained it step by step. God prepared the hearts of all who were a part of the story. And when all is said and done God is glorified. "God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
This is the bottom line. The good news of Jesus Christ leads to life. Not life as we know it, limited by the prejudices of human beings and the strife that characterizes so much of contemporary living -- but life as God intended it to be.
No one is unacceptable to God. No one is excluded from the faith that brings new life and eternal hope to all who will open their lives up to the goodness and grace of God.
Not even you!
No matter who you are, where you have been, or what you have done, the same God who did this new thing in the gentile world will also grant to you the repentance that leads to life.
¹ You can read the complete article at the North Carolina Times web site.
Connections in the Text
It would take a bit of a tortured exegetical process to make the lectionary texts for today into a coherent single theme. The passage from Acts addresses the issue of spreading the faith beyond barriers imposed by Jewish law and the gospel addresses the believability of the faith in terms of a mutual commitment to "love one another" in the Christian community. The one deals with outward barriers and the latter with internal barriers.
The text from Revelation points to a common destiny which is shared by all the people of God when the conclusion of all things comes. There is only one name by which all the people of God are brought together. God's gift of new life is seen amongst the gentiles and celebrated in the image of the water of life in Revelation.
John 13: 31-35
The gospel passage brings us to the Upper Room Discourse and Jesus is with his disciples for the last time before his arrest. The words of the whole dialog are important as the gospel of John's "take" on the whole meaning of Jesus' ministry in light of his impending trial and crucifixion.
There is no institution of the Lord's Supper, but instead the footwashing that calls the gathered disciples to their basic identity as "servants" of the gospel. While there is not an institution of Holy Communion, there is the Passover meal and the discussion of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. The "beloved disciple" is privy to the identification of Judas as the betrayer, but the gathered disciples assumed that Judas as the treasurer of the group was going to make a purchase of give something to the poor. With Judas' exit, the farewell conversation with the disciples begins.
His words will be mysterious to the disciples for a time, but the glorification of the Son includes the rejection, humiliation and death of the Son. It is through the suffering servant that the redemptive plan of God will be made complete. The glorification of Christ began with humiliation. It is through the very worst that God works to bring about the very best!
The heart of this passage - Jesus' injunction to the disciples to love each other as he loved them is discussed fully in the full text sermon on >>> John 13:31-35
For a brief time the narrative in Acts began to focus on the Apostle Paul, but now the story turns back to Peter. Though Paul is considered the apostle to the gentiles it takes the ministry of Peter to make the essential break through. The earliest Christian community was a community of Jewish people - the thought of gentile believers was foreign to the original group of disciples.
The text is rooted in the care of God for those who trust that the Shepherd will protect those under his care. The destiny of the people of God is described in 7:16-17 and more fully described in 21:1-4.
The power of this passage however, is in its description of heavenly worship. A study of worship in the book of Revelation would be well worthwhile. The focus could be on the hymns which are recorded in:
A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 23)
Leader: We come to
praise your name, Shepherd of our souls!
A Prayer of Confession
O loving and gracious God, we beg your mercy today. It is not so much that we say we are without sin as it is that we act as though we are without sin. We judge our brothers and sisters even as we excuse ourselves. We cling to your grace even as we hold others to the law. We have given lip service to your command to love one another as you have loved us, while in fact our hearts have been open to some and closed to others. O Lord God, who does not repay us according to our sin, but according to your mercy, renew a right spirit within us today and make us fit to give genuine witness to your holy love. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Let us embrace the encouraging word of the Lord that, "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart..." The forgiveness of God will renew your joy on account of the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
We rejoice and give thanks O Lord, for the great gift of salvation you have made possible for us through the sacrifice and suffering of your Son Jesus Christ. With all the saints of all the ages, in heaven and on earth, we lift up our praise and worship to you today.
We can not fathom the depths of your love. As the heavens are high above the earth, so are your thoughts higher than we can grasp. We come so short of fully embracing the peace of Christ, for it goes beyond all understanding. The greatest news that has ever come to this world is ours because of a grace we could never have imagined.
It is all too much for we poor mortals O Lord, and yet our hearts are filled with gratitude and our spirits are renewed as the earth is renewed day by day around us. Our minds are filled with hopeful anticipation as we hear the words of life and listen to the songs of angelic choirs giving thanks for your loving care.
O shepherd of our souls, we come to you today with the great joy of knowing that your care for us is eternal and your love without limits. Bless you Lord, all praise and thanksgiving belong to you. You alone are worthy of the devotion of our heart and mind and soul and body. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication