ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH APRIL 24, 2016
FOLLOW THE LEADER
ACTS 11: 1 – 18; JOHN 13: 31 – 35
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
One thing I enjoy about the summer is taking evening walks with Terry. On one such walk we approached a property where we were greeted by a happy, energetic, sociable golden lab puppy. He was so cute! He came running down the driveway as fast as his chubby legs would carry him, tail wagging, big smile on his face ready to meet his new neighbours. Then he hit the edge of the property and turned into one of those cartoon dogs. He’d hit the invisible fence and went whimpering away back to his house. After that when he saw us coming, his brain said, “Bad neighbours, they’ll hurt you” and he’d go and hide. Another day we were walking by and this dog’s human was outside and came to the road to chat. To show us the dog had learned to stay on the property, the woman called the dog to her side, but the pup knew better. No way was he crossing that line! An invisible fence is designed to set boundaries and limits so dogs don’t run away and get hurt or lost. They keep the pup safe as he learns the perimeters of where he belongs. The up side for the home owner is they can keep the dog from wandering without having to look at an ugly fence. The down side, for the dog anyway, is that it’s invisible and because it’s invisible the dog learns of its existence the hard way. After a while it’s the boundary and not the master that controls the dog.
Invisible fences are much more common than we’d suspect, mostly because they’re unseen. In today’s reading from Acts we learn all about Peter’s invisible fence. Peter has been called up on the carpet by the Council in Jerusalem – the early Church’s parallel to Presbytery. Word has leaked out that Peter had broken the Jewish Laws by socializing and sharing a non-kosher meal with “unclean” Gentiles (non-Jews). To us that seems odd – the vast majority of Christians today aren’t Jewish and there are many regulations from the OT we don’t observe. For the early Christians, who were Jewish, this created a deep concern. First of all, following the dietary code wasn’t a matter of culture and ritual, it was a matter of worship and identity. Observing the Law was a way of honouring God. It set the Jews apart from the pagan practices of those around them. A secondary concern may have been for the Church’s reputation among their fellow Jews. It would become more difficult to follow Christ or to share the good news with if they were seen to be abandoning their heritage. The conclusion could be following Jesus would lead one to dishonor God by sliding into the ways of the Gentiles. So the council took Peter to task. Peter explained what happened: He had taken some quiet time on a rooftop patio to pray. While he was praying he had a vision. A table cloth covered in lizards, snakes, birds of prey, insects, pigs and camels came down from the sky and was placed before Peter. Peter heard the voice, which he identified as God, saying, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.” (vs. 7) By Law, these animals were forbidden to eat and Peter had observed this regulation all his life. He adamantly resisted. Perhaps he saw it as some sort of test and was determined to be faithful. The scene was repeated 2 more times. Immediately afterwards there was a knock on the door. When Peter opened it there were 3 Gentile messengers who told him they were sent by a man in Caesarea, who had been visited by an angel which instructed him to fetch Peter. Peter discerned the Holy Spirit urging him to go with the men and telling him “not to make a distinction between them and us” (vs. 11) He left with 6 other Christians and when he arrived in Caesarea the Gentile Cornelius, who had heard the angel, asked how he could be saved. As Peter began to share the gospel and the Holy Spirit descended on Cornelius and his household. Peter concluded, “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?”(vs. 17) When the Council heard his story “they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (vs. 18)
This passage challenges Christians today to look at our own biases and ask if our invisible fences are so strong, so “electrically charged” that we obey them over the call of our Master. We all have fences which we believe keep us from being spiritually contaminated. We keep these boundaries certain that they honour God and preserve our identity in Christ. Peter’s experience challenges us to examine the questions: “Who do I treat as unclean? Who would I keep from receiving God’s grace? Who am I to hinder God?” Canon Caroline Westerhoff tells of going to the Martin Luther King Jr Historic Site to see a photography exhibit. There she saw a picture which haunted her for weeks. It was a photo of a black man, Rubin Stacy, who had been lynched by a white racist mob, many of whom would have claimed to be Christians keeping themselves from contamination. In the picture close to Stacy’s hanging body stands a young girl with her wrists crossed in front of her in an eerie likeness of Stacy’s manacled hands. Like the perpetrators of this crime, she is undisturbed by the man hanging before her. Westerhoff wondered about those not in the picture – the “good people” in the area who didn’t intervene. She was left with the question, “Whom do I leave swinging in the breeze?”
Perhaps our prejudices are not as visible as those of the people in this picture but it’s not their visibility that counts. What counts is the electrical charge, the depth of conviction that causes us to set ourselves over and above others. While our fences may not even be visible to us they’re exposed whenever we encounter someone we consider “unclean”. Does your fence go up when you meet someone who isn’t polite or refined? Maybe they smell bad or dress poorly. Or maybe they bore us, or are too flamboyant, or talk too much. Perhaps they don’t behave in ways we deem acceptable – their human flaws are not as well hidden as ours. Of whom are you critical? Parent’s with children who don’t know they should be “seen and not heard”? People who are loud and pushy? Perhaps you react to those who come from a different culture or ethnicity or to immigrants who haven’t yet learned our values and customs. Maybe we shun people whose theology differs from ours, whose spirituality seems flakey or who have a different faith. Or maybe they differ in their sexual orientation or expression. And we certainly can’t hang around people with skeletons in their closet that we consider sinful. Or with those who have a criminal record or have committed an act we cannot abide. Or maybe our fence are charged simply because someone’s a stranger we don’t know or care to know. Whenever we meet a person and we do not welcome them, accept them, and invite them to belong we leave them “swinging in the breeze”.
Yet there’s more to Peter’s account. Taken out of context, many conclude that as long as we break down fences, our work is done. When I taught Spiritual Direction through VST people of other faiths would join us. One such person was Aaron, a Jewish man with a beautiful spirit and deep commitment to his faith. For days the group tip-toed around him, careful not to mention the name of Jesus lest we offend him. Towards the end of the residency, Aaron exploded. He said he’d embraced his Jewish heritage with passion and found it shameful that we as Christians didn’t do the same. We had failed to express the bond we had with Christ. Aaron wanted to know what we believed, the fullness of the good news, the details of our salvation stories, why we needed and claimed Jesus as Lord. When Peter went to meet with Cornelius he offered him salvation as he had found it in Christ. He was ready to baptize him. The Holy Spirit was working in Cornelius’ heart to lead him to faith in Christ. What would have happened if Peter had said, “Hey Cornelius not to worry, I’m ok, you’re ok” and tip-toed around him. This is not a scripture that declares no one has a need for Christ. It’s a story that says God welcomes and invites every person, regardless of who they are, how they appear, what they’ve done or how different they are from us, to “a repentance that leads to life” and so should we. We need to turn off the invisible boundaries that cause us to turn our noses up at anyone. Christians do not leave the people God loves or the world Christ came to save “swinging in the breeze”. We come to their aid, we resist injustice, we share the good news and we welcome all people in the name of Jesus Christ.
This is a great story because not only did the Holy Spirit spoke to Cornelius, not only did Cornelius repent, not only did Cornelius come to a new identity in Christ, but so did Peter. As the Holy Spirit spoke to and led Peter, he came to define himself not by staying apart but by grace, not by Law but by love. Peter repented and the Council at Jerusalem followed. It’s a story that calls us to do the same. What brings God glory and solidifies our identity as Christian people is the love of Christ which invites all people into the circle of God’s grace through the repentance that leads to life. When the Holy Spirit leads us out of our old ways and into new life, who are we to hinder God? As Christians we follow the leader who calls us out beyond our invisible boundaries to love.