January 17, 2021 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Acts 10:1-3, 34-43
(We will be exploring the story of Cornelius and Peter for 4 Sundays. Feel free to read Acts 10:1-11:18 for the whole story)
“I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality of one group over another.” That sentence, the beginning of Peter’s sermon in chapter 10, is the center of the book of Acts on which the whole narrative turns. “God doesn’t show partiality…” For years this story in Acts was commonly titled the conversion of Cornelius, and then some argued it should be called the conversion of Peter. But this story, the story of the Roman centurion Cornelius, and the first apostle Simon Peter, is nothing less than the story of the conversion of the Church herself, a conversion that will occur in the life of the church over and over and over again, each time she encounters someone new and different. We really are learning that God does not show partiality of one group over another, aren’t we?
Over the next four weeks we are going to hear different portions of this remarkable and transformative story, not necessarily in order. Therefore, I encourage you to read all of Acts chapter 10, and verses 1 through 18 of chapter 11 many times during this worship series. It is powerful and compelling and is our story, a foundational story of the community called Church.
Cornelius is a God-worshiping, righteous Roman centurion (a Gentile!) living in Caesarea. He is visited by an angel of God, who commands him to send for Simon Peter. Cornelius instantly does so, sending three messengers to ask Peter to come to his home. These messengers start their journey to Joppa, where Peter has just raised Tabitha from the dead, a sister Follower of the Way.
While they travel, Peter goes to the rooftop where he is staying midday to pray. As lunch is being prepared for a hungry apostle, Peter has a wild vision. A picnic blanket is lowered from heaven containing wild animals, reptiles and birds-a blanket full of non-kosher foods. Three times a voice from heaven commands Peter to eat of these non-kosher items, and three times Peter refuses. Keeping kosher is a crucial part of claiming Jewish identity, of maintaining a life centered on God in an often-hostile culture. Peter assures the voice that he has never let anything impure or unclean touch his lips. Yet God reprimands Peter, proclaiming that if God declares anything to be clean and pure, it is so. It is not for Peter to determine. Peter is shaken, confused, perplexed; and as he broods over this vision, the three messengers arrive. Peter receives them, and immediately accompanies them to Caesarea.
It is in the encounter of Peter with Cornelius, and with the gathered family and close friends, that Peter begins to understand the vision. He tells the gathering at Cornelius’ house that it is forbidden for him to enter their non-Jewish household, to eat at their non-kosher table…and yet, God is at work and Peter is present with them at their table. Angels and heavenly voices and meat-filled blankets indicate that God’s new creation is breaking in among them. All bets are off. God has declared this encounter ‘clean’ and ‘pure.’ Here is a God-loving man and his household eager to become Followers of the Way. Peter begins to understand.
“I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another…He, Jesus Christ, is Lord of ALL.” This is Peter’s proclaimation; “Lord of All!” Peter catches a glimpse of what Cornelius has also witnessed; the peaceable Kingdom of God, the great Commonwealth, the Kin-dom. Archbishop Desmond Tutu lovingly called this God’s dream. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously used the wonderful description, Beloved Community. Peter glimpses the glory of a community, a world, with no partiality. He witnesses a humanity without the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots;’ where none are treated differently because of their gender, or the color of their skin, the language they speak, the clothing they wear, and so on. Peter catches a glimpse of the dream where all are fully-embraced; Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, with no regard to gender. Peter cannot help but begin to proclaim God’s word- as the vision of the beautiful kin-dom lifts his heart with hope. “I now know that God shows no partiality! God never lifts up one group over another!” Amen!
However, Peter has not begun to realize yet the hard work of living into Beloved Community, but he will. In the next chapter, he returns to Jerusalem and to the leaders of the Jesus Movement, where he is called to task for his behavior. How could he mingle outside of socially and religiously defined boundaries?! Peter must defend this vision of the Kin-dom. To follow the way of Jesus is to live ever more deeply into the glorious and terrifying vision of Beloved Community, and to encounter the resistance and fear and anger and rejection that pushes back against God’s Dream. How we want to ever be ‘drawing the circle wide, and wider still.’ How we want the Beloved Community to be fully inclusive, ever-welcoming, truly embracing all. But striving for Beloved Community in an imperfect world means that, although all people are welcome, certain ideas and beliefs and actions cannot be included. Behaviors that show partiality, that favor one group over another do not belong in Beloved Community. Actions that hurt the most vulnerable are not part of the Kin-dom. Violence and greed do not part of the kin-dom. White supremacy, the extremism we are witnessing in our nation right now, oppressive actions, bigotry, marginalization—these are NOT part of God’s Kingdom.
When these hurtful beliefs and ideas and actions are prohibited from God’s Commonwealth, the response of those who hold them is anger—harsh words, hostile actions, pain and heartbreak. People who are unwilling to let go of such divisive beliefs, such harmful actions, and therefore turn away from community, do so filled with hurt, bewilderment and anger. We have seen this in our nation over and over and over again, and are seeing it right now. Tragically, we have also seen this in the Church over and over and over again, even now. Beloved Community is a hard path to walk. It requires constant evaluation and discernment, constant learning. It requires us to admit and confess when we miss the mark, to change our hearts and lives (repent), and to go in a new direction, the direction of God’s Dream.
Oh, but this Dream of God, this Kin-dom of no partiality, this Beloved Community is worth it all. For when we have those moments, those glorious moments when the community gets it right, when the Spirit of unity that oh-so-loves diversity connects us in love, when we see the beauty of Christ in each diverse face, it is beyond words. It is holiness. It is divine. It is nothing less than a glimpse of the face of God. And so, we lift our hearts and voices with Peter, ‘we really are learning, we really are, that God shows no partiality—none whatsoever.’ As Followers of the Way, we won’t show partiality either. We will stive to be God’s Beloved Community here in this church, in this city, in this county, in this state, this nation, this world. This is the first core value embraced by St. Paul’s United Methodist Church as we journey forward together on Jesus’ Way. It is printed in the bulletin. If you have it in front of you, I invite you to commit to it and to read it aloud along with me. Print it out. Put it where you can read it this week.
Let us speak these words together:
Striving for Beloved Community: St. Paul’s seeks to create a community that reflects the dream of God, wonderfully diverse and deeply united. We seek to create a place that welcomes a diversity of race, ethnicity, citizenship, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, physical and mental ability, faith background, economic status, appearance, marital condition, political persuasion, education and life experience. We strive to do so in a way that protects the most vulnerable among us.