“You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders,” is basically Peter’s opening line.
Cool story, guys. But – uh – you know that I’m not supposed to be here, right?
Although, lots of great stories start off that way…
Not only did Peter go into a home of a Gentile, not only did he eat with the Gentiles, he baptized them as well!
This was something that no faithful Jew thought would be in the realm of possibility — let alone even consider doing.
The waters of baptism signify the joining of Jew and Gentile, not simply the acceptance of the gospel message. Yet both are miracle. Both are grace in the raw. The Spirit confronts the disciples of Jesus with an irrepressible truth: God overcomes boundary and border…
This is what God wants, Jews with Gentiles, Gentiles wanting to be with Jesus, and together they eat and live in peace.”
Of course this didn’t sit well with the folks back at Jerusalem.
They confronted Peter about his actions and why he broke the law.
“Why were you where you were not supposed to be?”
Peter began to beautifully speak about his experience and how the Spirit was moving in his life and breaking his life open to a new world — and how God was breaking the old world wide open for a new world to emerge.
Once the Church heard his testimony, “they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, ‘So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life'” (Acts 11:18).
Jennings writes about the importance of the silence shown by the church.
This silence is a break in space, and time, and sound that God has orchestrated. This break does not silence Israel’s past, but it is a break in the musical sense, in the sense of jazz improvisation. As Wynton Marsalis reminds us, in the break the band stops playing and leaves space for the soloist to play. In the break the soloist is alone for a moment carrying the time, suspends in air and holding everything together in a singular performance: “It is a pressure packed moment, because you have to maintain the time flow of the whole band by yourself: Our time becomes your time– yours and yours alone.”
Peter brings them to the break, but the Spirit of God carries the time, holding it in silence. The moment of silence after the testimony reveals a God who has been keeping time beautifully and faithfully with Israel and now expects the hearers to feel the beat, remember the rhythm, and know the time. These listeners follow the break and join back into the ongoing song and praise of Israel. God has again done a marvelous thing beyond our anticipations: even the Gentiles receive the repentance that leads to life. This is a new song sung for those outside of the household of faith. It is a word of celebration that a lover and their beloved have been brought together, the God of Israel and the Gentiles.
I wonder if we — as the United Methodist Church– would’ve benefited from a break; from silence, while we held on to the tension of everything that’s been happening.
But we seemed to be too trigger happy to bring about charges on things that break the Book of Discipline (our denominational law) and using the Book of Discipline as a weapon.
We are always going to argue over what is right and what is righteous.
But as someone once said, Let us not confuse what is legal with what is right.
Legality does not always mean morality.
When people are asking for the seat at a table that is meant for everyone, perhaps the right thing would be to take pause and see what God is doing rather than fighting to keep them from getting a seat at a table where “all” are welcomed.
But here’s the thing:
When people are accustomed to privilege and power, equality feels like oppression.
And 👏 It 👏 Is 👏 Not 👏.
When someone who wasn’t welcomed at the table is asking for a seat, those who enjoyed the power and privilege of that table feel like they’re sacrificing more than they need/want/should to make room. They feel like they’re being oppressed, so they fight harder to maintain the table as it was. So we go from being table makers to wall builders.
Willie Jennings writes about the “Transgressing God.”
God yet speaks and word of God always presses against word of God. What God has said in the past is pressed against by what God is saying now.
It was God’s law that forbade Jews to interact with non-Jews.
Now it was God’s Spirit leading Peter, the rock on which Christ built his church, into the home of a Gentile, baptizing all who were gathered there, and creating a community that consisted of both Jew and Gentile.
This in-between position has been often painful for us as we try to grasp clarity of thought and action on a walk of obedience to God on a well-lit path, albeit with multiple twists and turns. (Ps. 119:105) In this regard, the struggle of the church has been twofold: we struggle to hear the new word that God is constantly speaking, and we struggle to see the link between the new word and the word previously spoken.
Our denomination is in an in-between position that has been painful as we try to find a way forward.
I can’t help but see the parallel of what our church is going through and what Peter and Jerusalem went through.
The inclusion of Gentiles was a controversial subject — it rocked their world, changing it forever.
The full inclusion and participation of LGBTQ community in our churches is — and has been — a controversial subject. Scripture has been thrown as stones by both sides of the argument. And it has gotten ugly quite often and both sides are guilty of it.
Gregory Mobley writes that “the task of theology is the linking of our individual story to the biggest story we can imagine.”
The biggest story I can imagine is a story that includes everyone and everybody; where everyone has an equal seat at the table — for that table does not belong to a church; a government; a denomination but to a God whose love knows no bounds and transcends all human made borders and labels and constructs.
The sheet that Peter saw in his vision was revolutionary because it showed that God’s hunger knows no bounds. God wants us all.
That is the biggest story I can imagine — a God that wants us all.
At the heart of Christian life, writes Jennings, is a freeing movement between worlds that weaves together that which others never imagined together.
So I have a difficult time believing in a God that builds walls and promotes exclusivity.
I feel like God has always pulled us into a future that includes more and more people — despite (and in spite) of our unwillingness at times.
And I’m going to continue to push forward to a place when we say “We love all the children” that all means literally all — working to weave together worlds that which others never imagined together, because:
Love compels me to love my neighbors personally and intimately.
Which then, love compels me to keep expanding my borders and boundaries.
The goal of our actions and words is a path towards communion and joining.
As Lin-Manuel Miranda once said:
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
And paraphrasing my friend Danny, pastor of Westbury UMC, when he addressed our Annual Conference: where there is committed; unconditional; sacrificial love — God is always there, for God is love.