Scripture: Acts 11:17
“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?”
– Acts 11:17
While I’m not typically an advocate in favour of skipping the Old Testament lesson on a Sunday morning, it is one of the pleasures of the Easter Season that we get to hear 9 weeks of readings from the book of Acts. Despite this consistency during the Easter Season, we nonetheless hear these lessons out of context.
Last week we heard the story of Tabitha, and this week we skip right over Peter’s encounter and conversations with the centurion Cornelius and right to the outcome of God’s work, we have Peter defending the decision to open up the Gospel and the Church to the Gentiles, or non-Jewish people. While our passage stands on its own, the context is important – Peter’s reluctance, Cornelius’ insistence and God’s graciousness – and sets the stage for the stunning declaration that Peter makes to the Church in Jerusalem. You might not think that this passage is stunning or shocking, but that’s because we’re not Jewish, we in fact are the very Gentiles who were welcomed into the church.
Our passage today is essentially Peter summarizing the previous chapter, and it’s important to note that when the biblical authors repeat the same stories, they are emphasizing its importance and significance of the passage to understanding the Story of God. And so today in our passage we heard: Acts 10
“If then 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?”
Peter is initially so obstinate that God sends him the same dream three times, with the same message “what God has made clean, you must not call profane”. Peter stubbornly clings to the rules and regulations he knows, he stubbornly holds to an understanding of God and the Good News, that doesn’t allow himself to see the work of God beyond his group, that doesn’t allow him to share the Story of God’s love, mercy and grace with people that are different than himself. In the face of Peter’s stubbornness, in the face of his myopic view of God’s grace, God reveals himself to be a breaker of barriers, he reveals himself to be a God who tears down the walls that divide, and brings people together. Not just forces them together, but brings them together in love and charity, brings them together centred around Jesus Christ, centred around the Good News that both groups hear in the Cross and the Resurrection.
We are not faced with the same divisions and challenges that the early church in Jerusalem did, we are most squarely a Gentile Church, in a Gentile world – however we are not let off the hook due to an accident of history. The church today, we as Jesus’ disciples can be just as stubborn and obstinate in our resistance to God’s work; we can be just as reluctant to hear about the spaciousness of God grace, we can be just as possessive and selfish with the Good News as those early disciples were. We do not need to look very far to see a church that remains divided: the church was and is complicit in the inhumane treatment of our indigenous brothers and sisters, the church was and is complicit in the ongoing racial divides which persist throughout the world, the church was and is complicit in the demeaning and degradation of women.
What is perhaps more pervasive, and more dangerous in the long run because it is at the root of all these things, is the Church’s reluctance to see God’s work among those who are different than themselves, even those who worship the same God, those who believe in the same Jesus Christ, but have different ways of expressing that. How many times can we as the church be reluctant to do things differently? How many times are we reluctant to believe that God and Jesus are doing things that don’t mesh with out previous understanding, with the way that we have always done things. In the Easter Season we recall that we believe in and worship a God who brings life in the midst of death, a God who breathes life and freshness into the stale air of the tombs that hold us hostage to the possibilities of new life. In the midst our reluctance and stubbornness God tears down the walls and tombs that we create. Paul in his letter to the Church in Ephesus writes “in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
This isn’t a cheap unity though; this isn’t just God acting like an exasperated parent telling two children to apologize to one another and make up knowing full well that neither wants to make-up (something I know a lot about with my two girls!), God doesn’t bring people together and force them to ‘like’ one another – no instead this is God taking the violence and hatred of division onto himself, taking it upon himself on the Cross and inviting the divided groups to share in his abundant Resurrected life – together. This is important – everyone is offered the same abundant life, everyone is invited to share in the same God, the same Story, the same Jesus. Our passage from Acts ends with Peter declaring that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” This isn’t cheap unity, this isn’t cheap grace – everyone is given the opportunity to return to God, everyone is given the opportunity to recognize that they need God regardless of their ethnic, socio-economic, religious or familial background. God removes all the obstacles, God makes it possible for all of us to experience his grace, he makes it possible for all of us to experience liberation from the stale air of the tombs that enclose us. Our passage today reminds us that in Jesus, anyone – all of us here, and everyone in the world outside of here – can come before God in repentance, anyone can come before him and receive his love, grace and mercy.
I want to be clear not everything is relative: the Good News of Jesus Christ isn’t progressive, it doesn’t continually shift as our culture changes, it doesn’t become more or less tolerant, it doesn’t become more or less liberal or conservative – the Good News of Jesus is the singular Truth of history, it is the singular Truth by which our lives are shaped. The Gospel speaks this Truth into our lives here and now, it speaks this Truth into our stubbornness and reluctance. The Good News of Jesus speaks into the divisions that we face and the divisions that we create… today, it speaks into them and tears down the barriers, it invites us all – all of us – to share in God’s abundant life here and now. Peter, says that repentance is available to all, this is the Good News, that all have the chance to receive the reconciliation that God offers in Jesus, that all are welcome to be changed and transformed by God’s grace. None are cast out, none are beyond redemption and transformation at the hand of Jesus.
In light of this, Peter’s question is important for us to hear and ponder: “Who was I that could hinder God?” “Who are we that we can hinder God?” Does our stubbornness, our reluctance hinder God in his activity in the world? Does our unwillingness to see things in a new light, our unwillingness to understand the world from different perspectives dishonour God? Does it do a disservice to the Gospel we seek to be shaped by? Who are the people that we are reluctant to let in? Who are the people that for us might be deemed ‘unclean’ or inappropriate for our understanding of who God is? Who are the people that set you most on edge? Who are the people that we have a hard time welcoming in our midst? I invite you to think on this, for us all to think about seriously about the ways in which God challenges our assumptions, challenges our traditions, challenges the “way we do things around here”. Are we holding his church back because of our own interpretations and preferences? Are we trying to withhold the Grace of God from people who “have received the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ”?
Let us be a church that listens for the activity of God’s Spirit, let us be a church that allows God to tear down the walls which divide us, which separate us from the fullness of life here on earth and in heaven. Let us be a church that gives up our stubbornness, that seeks to engage with new people and new cultures for the sake of the Gospel. Let us be a church that knows God Story deep down to our core, let us be a church that lives God’s Story in our daily lives and let us finally be a church that Shares God’s Story, that gets out of the way, that stops being an obstacle and allows others to hear the Good News of Jesus in their own lives. Let us be a church that holds on to what is important, the Truth of God we now in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and a church that is willing to let go of what is not essential. That is my hope and prayer for all of us here at Grace Church – ordained and lay, young and old – that we might be this church that reflects the God who tears down barriers and brings people together. Let us pray.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light, look favourably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery. By the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation. Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
Collect for Good Friday and Ordinations