Every year in the seven weeks of Easter our first reading comes from the book of Acts. This year especially, I’ve felt drawn to these stories of the early church. Their struggles are many of our own struggles: what does it mean to be church? how do we define our community? how do we interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? who gets the final say in disagreements? Being part of a church in the 21st century doesn’t feel all that different from what we read of the church in the 1st century.
Today’s struggle is around inclusion. Who is welcome and what do they have to do to become part of the community? You can read the lesson for the day in Acts 11. The entire story of Peter and Cornelius begins in Acts 10.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
At the 2015 National Youth Gathering in Detroit, Pastor Emily Scott told the story of her first day of middle school. Her family had moved over the summer, so she went to her first day of middle school not knowing anyone. She recalled the moment that she stood in the middle of the cafeteria, holding her tray, and having nowhere to sit.
She didn’t know anyone, but she did understand the middle school cafeteria. There were the popular girls, the jocks, the band kids, the goths, and everyone in between. Everyone knew the rules and sat at the right table. It seemed there was nowhere for her. She told us what happened next with pain and regret even twenty years later. She threw out her lunch, went to the bathroom, and cried.
As adults, we like to think that we’ve moved past the middle school cafeteria mindset, but the questions of who is in and who is out, of who is included, valued, and welcomed versus who is marginalized, merely tolerated, or outright denied a place—these questions don’t go away once you leave middle school behind.
Who is in, and who is out? Where do the lines fall? So much time is spent defining who belongs and who doesn’t. From geographical to economic to political to religious to racial to sexual to generational lines, in some ways our world is built on defining who is in and who is out. Some of it, we do subconsciously, we don’t even realize that we’re excluding others or taking part in a system that is excluding. Other times, though, we’re happy for the lines that are drawn. Because those lines help us feel comfortable and safe. Or they make us feel more special and important, because we get to be part of the “in-crowd.”
Churches are certainly no exception to this. We create lines, we create divisions about who is in and who is out. Who is a member and who isn’t. Who is welcome and who isn’t. And often the big dividing line is who is welcome to the table. Do you have to be a certain age? Do you have to be a member of the church? Do you have to believe exactly what we believe? Do you have to live a certain way? Why the table—why is this where we have so much trouble coming together? Because eating together, because sharing a meal with someone is a powerful act. Table fellowship means breaking down lines and boundaries in often scary ways.
In our first reading from the book of Acts, Peter has done just that. The reading today was his recounting of what happened when he stepped across that boundary line and ate with Cornelius the Roman centurion. Peter had been staying in Joppa when he received a vision while praying. A sheet, coming down from heaven, containing all kinds of animals: mammals, reptiles, birds. And then a voice saying, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Well, Peter refuses.
And not just because this is pretty weird. But because as faithful Jewish man, he wouldn’t eat most of these animals. It’s prohibited in the law, and taking the law seriously is one of the ways that Peter shows his love and devotion to God. But the voice comes back again and says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times. Three times Peter refuses these animals, not because he’s being stubborn or difficult, but because he truly believes it would be dishonoring God to eat these unclean animals.
And that is when Peter is called to Cornelius’ house. A Roman centurion. About as unclean as unclean can get. Not just from a foreign country but part of an occupying, military force. Different nationality, different homeland, different political loyalty, different religion. But as Peter is preaching to him and his household, the Holy Spirit falls upon them just as it had on Peter and the others. And as Peter says, “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus, who was I that I could hinder God?” So Cornelius and his entire household are baptized, (just as Anastasia will be baptized in a few minutes), they are welcomed into the church, the family of God, and Peter stays in their house for several days.
And it’s that second part, that Peter stayed with them, that he ate with them, that has the believers in Jerusalem most concerned. Not so much that he baptized them, but that he ate with them. He ate with people who were not part of their group. Who didn’t follow their ways and rules. If it sounds familiar, it’s because Jesus often got in trouble for the same thing. “This fellow welcomes tax collectors and sinners, and eats with them!” Eating together is dangerous, because all sorts of lines get blurred and broken.
Whenever we draw lines to keep other people out, or to keep ourselves in, it’s likely we’re going to find God on the other side of those lines. Jesus crossed the boundaries of religion, of gender, of respectability to eat with tax collectors, to eat with Samaritans, to eat with the outcasts, and to eat with the Pharisees who were criticizing him for doing so. And he invited his followers to do the same.
This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. Jesus says this on the night of the Last Supper. When he knows he has precious little time left to make sure the disciples get it. He doesn’t talk to them about what they should believe or how they should worship or any kind of doctrine. He tells them to love one another. They’ll know you are my followers, not by who you exclude or by what boundaries you draw—but they’ll know you are my followers because of love. Because of who is included. Because of who is valued and cherished.
It can be scary to break down boundaries. You can get accused, like Peter was, of losing sight of who you are, of betraying your group. It’s scary to break down boundaries, because, where do we end up drawing the line? There has to be some line, right? This could get out of hand very quickly.
And it might be scary, but the truth is grace is already out of hand. Grace got out of hand and out of control the moment when the God of the universe crossed every boundary imaginable and became a human being. Grace got out of hand when God hung on a cross and with outstretched hands looked out at those who had hung him there and declared, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Grace has always been out of hand. God’s love has always been out of hand. But perhaps the most important thing is, it’s out of our hands. We don’t get to keep God’s Spirit from showing up in places that we don’t understand, in places that we can’t control her. We don’t get to decide who God loves, we don’t get to decide who God will work through. And that includes us. Because we have the chance, the opportunity, the imperative—to take the love that God has given us and see that it is shared.
Pastor Emily Scott, that middle school girl crying in the bathroom? She became a mission developer, which means she starts new churches. She founded St. Lydia’s Church in Brooklyn, a church whose worship is centered around cooking and eating together. And everyone has a place at the table. So it is in God’s kingdom. May it be so in our lives. Amen.