Scripture: Acts 11:1-18
I remember a scientific study I read about that was fascinating, horrifying, and also left me scratching my head. I was scratching my head because I could not fathom how the study ever got greenlit, or how the researchers got parents to allow the children to participate. The study was in group behavior. They took a group of young boys and a group of young girls. They gave one child a puppet, and told the child that the puppet was theirs and only theirs. They did not have to share it, and could do whatever they wanted with it. They then closed the door to see what would happen. Both groups started out the same with the children who did not have the toy asking that it would be shared, and when it was not they started to complain about it being unfair. From there though the two groups diverged. In both instances, the children without the toy worked together to get it. The boys took a typical boy approach. They worked together to physically take the puppet away. The girls took a more subtle approach. They ostracized the girl with the puppet completely. They even went as far as working together to pretend that the girl with the toy did not exist. This went on until the poor girl broke down into tears and offered up the toy to the group in a desperate attempt to have her existence revalidated. The study is fascinating because it shines a light on human behavior, and it is horrifying because it shows that children, the most innocent among us, have within them the darker qualities of humanity. Study after study has shown that people will exhort a great amount of pressure both intentionally and unintentionally to get people to bend to be more like their group. In the same way, if someone wants to be part of a group they will make sacrifices and purposely comprise part of themselves to fit in. I remember in my freshmen year of college, the dorm wing that I lived in was all freshmen guys, and as it worked out I was only one of three people on that floor who did not pledge to a fraternity. All but one of the others joined the exact same fraternity. The person who lived next door to me, was a big country music fan. He even told me that he did not care for rap music in a conversation we had in the first week of being on campus. However by the end of that first semester I noticed that he no longer loudly played country music like he once did. Instead, his room was blaring the same rap songs that all of the other rooms belonging to members of his fraternity were playing. One of the major terms that the early church had to come to terms with is what it meant to be part of the church. The early church struggled with the question of who they would accept and how they would accept them. Quite honestly, that is a question as a whole that many churches still struggle with today.
This morning’s scripture is a summary of what is found in Acts chapter 10. In this morning’s scripture Peter is telling the other apostles what he had just experienced. First he has a vision, with the animals coming down and Jesus telling him to kill and eat. The Old Testament contains very strict dietary laws about what a Jew can and cannot eat. For example, Jews are not to eat any kind of pork. In addition to the law, Jewish tradition built up extra rules to ensure that the dietary restrictions did not get broken. For instance, Exodus 23:19 states, “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” To ensure that this law does not get broken, Jews do not mix meat and cheese, such as a cheeseburger or Lasagna. This is called building a hedge around the Torah. The extra rules are created to make absolutely sure that God’s law in the Torah cannot be broken. They take this seriously. When I was in Israel, one of the places we ate lunch had two areas. A cafeteria serving meat entrees, and a deli with ice cream and cheese sandwiches. There were signs all over the place that the meat and the cheese products had to stay in separate areas of the dining room.
If a Jew broke on of rules from the Torah, they would be unclean. Some rules had assigned consequences, and others required sacrifice and purification. Over centuries of tradition, someone would be considered unclean if they broke the man-made rule that was built to protect God’s rule. This led to situations like the one we see explained in this morning’s scripture. Peter was considered unclean simply because he had associated with gentiles, with non-Jews. Peter even took it a step further and did what was unthinkable to a good Jew who wanted to maintain cleanliness, he purposely shared a meal with gentiles. Peter did this though, because doing so allowed his vision to make sense. Peter’s vision of God making the animals clean, was instantly applied when he met Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, who the bible describes as a “righteous and God-fearing man.” Peter’s vision helped him understand that when Jesus made all things new, it was no longer one’s physical actions that made one clean before God. It was the state of the person’s heart that set one right with God not outward actions. Peter fully understood what it meant when Christ said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” It is God, through faith in the works of Christ, that one is saved. The root of righteousness is not actions to be clean, but the root of righteousness is a heart and soul that has been redeemed and humbly proclaims that Jesus is Lord and Savior.
This was a major shift in thinking for Peter. Up to this point, followers of Jesus were all Jewish. The apostles saw following Jesus as a fulfillment of their Jewish beliefs, and the two could not be separated. It is in this vision and meeting with Cornelius though that Peter begins to get a sense that grace is for more than just Jews, that God so love the world not just one people group and that all truly means all. Peter realizes that this new reality bashes against is previously held beliefs, but he includes his reasoning for changing his mind. Verse 17 states: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
This morning’s scripture records that upon hearing this, the apostles had not further objections and they celebrated that God could save even the Gentiles. In truth, though they did have further objections. Later in Acts, the apostles hold the Council of Jerusalem to once again rehash the question of should Gentiles follow Jewish traditions to be believers of Jesus. Paul’s letters from the Gentile church he started shows that this continued to be an issue as well. Even though they had experienced the radical, freeing grace of Christ and even though they had heard Paul’s testimony it was still hard for the early disciples to change their views on what it meant to be part of “them”. It too them awhile to learn how amazing grace truly is, and we are still learning it. Every church I have ever been in believes with all of their heart that they are friendly and welcoming. Every church proclaims that their doors are open to all, but that is not fully true. In order to have truly open doors we need to have open hearts. Like the early church this means we may need to redefine who we understand “us” to be. In considering how we can apply this morning’s scripture to our lives we need to consider what it truly means to have open hearts and open doors. To do this we need to keep two things in mind.
Growing up in churches, I have observed more than one little interpersonal dust-up between church people. The vast majority of the time these conflicts happen because someone does something that’s never been done before, or they do it the way it is not supposed to be done. In these instances the group will say things like, “They just do not understand how we do things.” Or “I know they mean well, but that is just not our way around here.” The social dynamic to have a way that we do things is strong, and when we fall into that dynamic we find ourselves in the same spot that the apostles were in this morning’s scripture. The way they did things, following the Jewish purity rules, was at first more important than the work that God was doingin the lives of Gentiles. Nashville based Pastor Todd Stevens tells about a time he was asked to come consult with a church that was, by their own admission, dying. As part of this process, he asked them, “What would you not be willing to change even if it absolutely meant that more people would be reached with the gospel?” After asking the question, he writes about their response: “They discussed the question for a few minutes and offered u a few things they simply felt were out of bunds and could not imagine ever changing. I told them, ‘The only acceptable answer that question is Nothing. There can’t be anything you’re not willing to do or change if it means people will be reached. . .You have to be willing to do whatever it takes to reach people. Otherwise, you’ve forgotten your purpose as a church.”
For a lot of people change might as well be a curse word. And I get it. Change is scary, never easy, and it absolutely requires giving up what is comfortable. This morning’s scripture is about how the early church responded when they were confronted with change. Led by Peter’s experiences, the early church eventually decided to join God in doing what God was already doing: loving the gentiles. In the end they decided that letting go of centuries of tradition was the right change if it meant that the lost could be reached. There are people in this town who do not love God yet, but God loves them more than they could ever imagine. This morning’s scripture forces us to ask ourselves, how is the way we do things getting in the way of these people knowing the life-changing, sin-forgiving, never-ending love of God made known through Jesus? More importantly, are we willing to change? Are we willing to do whatever it takes to share that love with the people who need it the most?
Second, we need to keep in mind radical hospitality. I recently read a thought provoking article parenting article about how we need to do a better job at teaching our kids about bullying. The article entitled “My Worst Nightmare- What if I accidently raise the bully?” by Leslie Blanchard made a powerful point. She wrote, “It’s simply not enough to instruct your children to, “Be Nice!” You’ve got to be more specific than that. Kids think if they aren’t being outright unkind, they are being nice. We know better.” I feel like this article can be applied to churches. It’s not enough to tell instruct Christians to be welcoming. Christians think if they aren’t being outright unkind, they are being welcoming. We know better. To have truly open doors, we must have open hearts. We must truly welcome anyone and everyone with a genuine heartfelt love, because we know they are important to God. Our hospitality needs to be radical. United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase writes about radical hospitality in his book “five practices of fruitful congregations.” He writes, “Churches characterized by radical hospitality are not just friendly and courteous, passively receiving visitors warmly. Instead they exhibit a restlessness because they realize so many people do not have a relations to a faith community. They sense a calling and responsibility to pray, plan, and work to invite others and to help them feel welcome and to support them in their faith journeys. They desire to learn about inviting and welcoming more people and younger people and more diverse people into their congregation.” It does not matter who walks through our door. It does not matter what language they speak, what color they are, what kind of clothes they are wearing, or what kind of lifestyle they are living. When we are doing it right, every single person who comes here should feel and know the love of God by how they are treated by the people who are here. We should go a step further though, our hearts should be so open to wanting to share the love of God with others, that it flings our doors wide open. We should have open doors not to let people in, but our doors are open to let us out, so that we can and into our community. We can share the love of God and join God in the redemptive work that God is already doing in our community.
I am thankful to be part of this faith community that I believe is characterized by love. However, we need to always be cautious not to get so caught up in being “us” and the way we do things, that we exclude others. May we all be characterized by open hearts. May we be willing to love the people who God already loves who are not part of our group. If necessary, to further the cause of the gospel may we even be willing to change. God already deeply loves each and every person in our community, so lets be sure that we are not standing in God’s way. May we throw open our doors, invite people in, and show radical hospitality to the people of our community.