A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Acts 10:34-43
We need to begin today with some context. Acts chapter 10 is considered by many biblical scholars to be a major turning point both in the Book of Acts itself, and more importantly for the entire Jesus-movement becoming the Christian church.
The chapter begins by describing a Roman Centurion named Cornelius who’s described as a God-fearer (which does not mean to be frightened by God but to be awestruck by God). God-fearers were a category of people who were Gentiles (meaning not Jewish) who hung out at synagogues and participated in the Jewish worship and prayers. They even supported the synagogue financially. They’re somewhat equivalent to what we would call an adherent – someone closely associated with a church but for whatever personal reason have chosen not to take on the full rights and responsibilities of formal membership.
If someone wants to be a formal, full member of this church all they have to do is be baptized and make a public profession of faith. We try to welcome new members a couple of times a year. Sounds simple, right? Well, if you were Cornelius and wanted to join a synagogue it would be a bit more complicated. First you’d need to follow all the Jewish dietary rules and cleanliness rules. But the big one is that you’d also have to be circumcised. Ouch! A bit of a barrier!
And this is why Acts 10 is so pivotal and important. Peter has a vision in which the Spirit of God shows him all kinds of foods and declares that everything made by God is sacred and blessed. Then Peter travels to meet Cornelius and incredibly enters his house!
Why is that incredible? Acts 10:28 Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
I cannot emphasize enough how remarkable this is. These are major tenets of their religious and theological understanding and identity, and Peter is inspired to let them go in favour of inclusiveness.
Now, Peter certainly has no power to change the rules and requirements for formally joining the Jewish faith – but what he’s challenging in this chapter is the idea that one had to be (or become) Jewish in order to be Christian. We are watching the beginning of a brand new, radically inclusive, culturally diverse church.
The scripture passage we’re focusing on today is pretty straightforward. The bigger message is in the context, but we’ll look at the passage now, especially the first verses. Peter begins by proclaiming in Acts 10:34-35
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who is [awestruck by God’s Presence and love] and does what is right, [follows God’s Way,] is acceptable to God.”
Ok, that’s astounding!
Jesus and his first disciples, including Peter, were all Jewish. They were steeped in Jewish theology and Jewish culture. The Jews were God’s chosen people – set apart, different, blessed, unique, and only by becoming fully Jewish could one share in that chosen-ness and blessedness.
At least, that’s how they used to view it.
So when Peter says, “God shows no partiality” – God shows no favouritism, God is all inclusive and all accepting (assuming one is reverent and faithful) – well, that’s like a theological bomb going off.
Imagine you’re Cornelius hearing that – hearing a religious authority (in your view) telling you that all the barriers to religious participation that you’ve been struggling with perhaps all your life, are now, suddenly, fully and completely gone!
Imagine after being constantly told that you were a second class citizen – that you could never fully belong because of who you were – imagine hearing that you are actually welcome!
Imagine after being referred to as unclean, and deviant, and beyond God’s grace that you are hearing that you are beloved, and blessed, and worthy.
How Cornelius’ heart must have been soaring! The thing he so desperately wanted but was denied to him because of his identity – acceptance, a chance to worship freely and fully, to be seen as lovable – was now his reality.
Three years ago this month we officially launched our journey toward becoming an Affirming church. I pray you can see the parallels to this story of Peter and Cornelius.
We are Peter.
Those who identify as LGBTQ+, persons with disabilities, persons of colour, all of these once excluded groups (by intent or neglect) are Cornelius.
And the same Spirit that moved Peter to reconsider his longstanding theological worldview and adapt his religious understanding to a more inclusive and loving expression, is what moved and inspired and transformed this community of faith.
The same Spirit.
Sure, we may not have had as great an “aha” as Peter did because we were probably practicing that inclusiveness already – but nonetheless it was still a movement, and a somewhat risky one at that. Risky, but worth it.
Now consider all the Cornelius’ out there who were too burned by churches to even affiliate as “God-fearers” or adherents.
Yes, this scripture passage has a happy ending.
Yes, we cheer for Peter and Cornelius and rejoice in their awakenings.
Yes, we look at Peter’s strongly held previous convictions and dismiss them as being foolish for us and agree to reject those things as ‘passe’ and ‘old school’.
But if we’re all so enlightened why did we even need to begin an Affirming process in the first place?
Why were we excluding people whose identities were ‘other’ than the majority?
Why were our churches practicing policies of discrimination of LGBTQ folks before our historic 1988 decision?
Why did we insist women had to be single to be ordained until the 1960s, and they couldn’t be ordained until a decade into our denomination’s existence?
Why did we need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and apologies to Indigenous Peoples, and the 2018 General Council’s Indigenous “Calls to the Church” for inclusion and self-determination?
If Peter got it right two millennia ago, and inclusion is God’s desire, why have got it wrong so often ever since?
Maybe it’s because we were afraid of the cost? Coming to a new theological understanding and changing “the way we’ve always done it” often comes with a great cost. There’s pushback. There are people who are not ready to make the same leap and walk away.
Our kindred in Christ in the worldwide Methodist church are about to have a schism over this exact thing.
When a person, or a congregation, or a movement experiences a transformation there are always those outside the bubble who may not get it at first – or maybe ever.
After Peter is welcomed by Cornelius and declares there is no partiality in God’s love Peter goes on to relate to those gathered the highlights of the Jesus story as he knows it.
He gives his testimony. He shares his truth. He is evangelizing in the best way possible – a group of people have asked for his story and he’s shared it warmly, passionately, and reverently.
Here’s what happened next. Acts 10 verses 44-46, just after our reading today.
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.
Who had an epiphany that day?
Whose spirit was awakened and stirred by a new revelation of God’s Presence?
Who went “aha!”?
Who walked away from that encounter changed, transformed?
Cornelius, and his family and friends, surely.
Peter, who had the vision and brought his insight and wisdom to these God-fearers, of course.
But look at Peter’s companions.
They’re called the “circumcised believers” who came along. That means they’re followers of Jesus’ Way, but they are still part of the group who insists on following Jewish rules. Imagine their reaction when Peter declares God’s impartiality? They’d be taken aback. Who does Peter think he is?
But then they behold the power of the Holy Spirit falling on all who were present – including, presumably, them! And they were astounded that even these “Gentiles”, these outsiders, these ‘others’ could receive and be transformed by the very same Spirit that was flowing through the insiders. And their minds were blown.
Now they’re inside the bubble too.
Now they’ve had an awakening too – an epiphany!
Everybody gets an epiphany in this story. You get an epiphany, and you get an epiphany…
If you kept reading through Acts you’d come to the parts where the pushback kicks in.
Sadly, not everyone was present to experience that Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit that day. The other leaders in the Jesus movement, who were fully Jewish in their background, would not receive news of this “innovation” kindly.
Such is the nature of religion, I guess. There was conflict. Harsh words were exchanged.
‘Twas ever thus, I fear.
I hope you can see why this is such a watershed moment for Peter and the fledgling Christian church. And I hope you can see that we still have a lot to learn too.
The passage raises a bunch of really rich questions for me.
What might we learn from what happened to Peter and his friends?
What long held ideas might we need to give up in order to reach out and accept people today?
Who are the “God-fearers” today? – The people in our society who have a sense of spirituality but feel like adhering to the tenets of a particular faith tradition would be impossible (or that they feel unwelcome in).
How might we be in conversation with those spiritual wonderers – wanderers?
What circumstances might create openings for us to share our story with them?
Given the chance, what might we say to them? – When presented with this openness and opportunity to evangelize notice that Peter didn’t tell Cornelius when his worship services were so Cornelius could attend! No, Peter just shared his heart. And the Spirit did the rest.
And maybe the hardest questions that arise –
Who are the people we may be inadvertently still excluding?
Who aren’t we seeing who may feel unwelcome or unworthy?
Are there beloved ideas, or practices, or traditions that we may have to loosen our grip on, or let go of, in order to remove a barrier for those loved by our impartial God?
I suspect issues of racism and white supremacy will be our next big challenge – and I know that I’ve risked pushback by even saying those words.
So be it.
It’s always something.
Back in the early days of the TV show Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner created a character named Roseanne Roseannadanna. The shtick was that Roseanne was a brash and tactless commentator who used to get letters complaining about something, and she’d start to critically respond to the letter and then go off on fabulous tangents being distracted by all sorts of things. Then, in the end, when called on it, she’d link it all together by saying, “Well, it just goes to show you, it’s always something!”
(Going off on tangents and then weaving things all together in the end – sounds like preaching!)
But Roseanne Roseannadanna was right. It’s always something.
If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.
Peter and the Jesus-movement leaders he brought with him that day must have felt that way too.
It’s always something.
If it’s not figuring out who’s responsible for what in this new movement, it’s battles about circumcision.
Or it’s changing dietary rules. Or it’s erasing cultural barriers.
Or it’s completely rethinking certain theological positions that you’ve held dear for years but your spiritual deepening reveals to be no longer tenable.
It’s always something. We’re always learning, growing, transforming, changing.
It’s always something. Even as we overcome one aspect of unhelpful theology another that we couldn’t see before comes into view that we must address.
It’s always something. No matter how enlightened and progressive and open-minded we strive to be there will always be blind spots, and ways that we are unknowingly being exclusionary or hurtful.
It’s always something.
It’s just like the little prayer that my mother used to say to me before I went to sleep at night.
She’d make sure I was all tucked in, snug and cozy and everything and she’d tell me this prayer that was written by my very religious aunt — Hosanna Roseannadanna … And I’m gonna tell it to you.
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord will help me see
The things thou woulds’t reveal to me
And bring me an epiphany!
Good night, my little Roseanne Roseannadanna!