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Sermon for Easter 5 Year C

March 19, 2016

inc ch“Truly I realise now that God shows no partiality….” Words of Peter after his dream in our second reading.

St. Peter was at the pearly gates busy rejecting the undeserving. Now and then he would turn around and find that those he’d rejected were getting into heaven. He complained to Jesus, “Look, I’m doing my job, but somehow those people got in anyway.” Jesus responded, “Oh, that’s my mother. She’s letting them in by the back door.”

American pastor Dan Kimball asked hundreds of people for their views of Jesus and the church. When he asked people about Jesus their faces would light up. They would say things like, “I want to be like Jesus.” “Jesus was a liberator of women.” “Jesus was enlightened and had higher truth.”

With the second question, their expressions changed dramatically. “Christians have taken the teachings of Jesus and really messed them up.” “I want to be a Christian, but I have never met one.” “Christians are dogmatic and close-minded.” “Christians are supposed to be loving, but I’ve never met any who are.” “Christians …..are judgmental and negative,…..they are homophobic, arrogant concerning other religions, and they are hate-filled.” “A church …..typically recruits from the upper and middle classes……”

The media portrays Christians as mindless robots who follow their leader with acts of blind obedience, but the Bible calls us to “meditate on the Word night and day” and to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling”. In today’s 2nd reading Peter found his obedience to the Spirit directly contradicting the “Written Word” of his day.

Christians have tended to set up Jews as a foil. If the issue is inclusion, we paint “the Jews” as exclusive and narrow- minded. If the issue is ethnic identity, we portray “the Jews” as primitively ethnocentric. If the issue is the Law versus freedom, we turn “the Jews” into punctilious legalists. None of this squares with the living reality of Judaism.

It does square with religious people in general. The Bible can by a window showing us who God is and how God acts, but it can also be a mirror showing us who we think God is and how we think God acts. It’s up to us to discern the difference—not always easy, and we fight about it. Just as Abraham fought within himself to discern whether God really was asking him to sacrifice his son.There are still people today who think that God sends floods, forest fires, and AIDS . Peter wrestles with his view of God. Abraham wrestles with his view of God. Meanwhile, other voices are silent. Some see the Bible as upholding patriarchal values, timeless decrees that discount women but the Bible is not upholding these values; it’s simply telling us that human beings, even those who are the people of God, are capable of holding these values, of discounting each other.Where is Sarah? We know she’s there. Abraham says nothing to her. Sarah is a living soul, a mother with passions and hopes, with a will of her own, but in the story she’s like a thing. Silent. The same is true for Isaac, “Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.” Isaac has nothing to say, not even a cry. In a later story, Christ is nailed to a cross, hanging, helpless, unable to move his arms, hardly able to talk, degraded, humiliated, feeling abandoned.

The Old Testament dietary regulations were not just a matter of law. They were a matter of religious and communal identity that had been hammered out on the anvil of history. Three centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Greeks had taken control of Palestine after its conquest by Alexander the Great. The Seleucids, put increasing pressure on Jews to conform to Greek laws, customs, and religion. Many Jews complied, and seriously weakened the identity of Judaism. Many Jews refused to be assimilated. In response, the Greek leaders made a bold move to annihilate Judaism. In 167 BCE the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV in a series of edicts essentially banned Judaism from Palestine, climaxing his actions by seizing the temple in Jerusalem and converting it into a shine to Zeus by sacrificing a pig in the Holy of Holies. He sent his soldiers throughout the countryside, rounded up the inhabitants of villages, and forced them at the threat of death to eat pork in violation of the OT dietary laws. Some refused and were killed, but many complied. In one village a priest and his five sons not only refused to eat the pork, but rose up and killed the Greek soldiers and fled to the mountains. This began the Maccabean Wars. To keep kosher is at least a way to honour those before who’d given their lives. Against this background Peter was told to eat the “unclean” food, a change from everything he had been taught as important in his faith. God was asking him, like Abraham, to leave a place of security and identity and launch out into uncharted areas with nothing more than a vision to guide him and the thought of it would make him sick.

I enjoyed eating snails but in China you can have drunken shrimp: live shrimp swimming in a bowl of rice wine. You capture them with your chopsticks and bite the head off before you eat the rest of it. In Sardinia you can have maggot cheese. They leave the cheese out so that flies will lay their eggs in it, let the maggots hatch, then spread it on bread (including live maggots) and eat it. (http://www.andreas.com/food.html)

Like Abraham and Peter, we wrestle with what we have been taught and what is now contradicting it, whether it’s a flat earth, evolutionary ancestry, or the debate over homosexuality. Sometimes things change because another truth dawns on us. Peter’s worldview was settled before: circumcision, then baptism but then the new evidence begins to gnaw at the edges of his known world: visions of unclean food, divine commands from the Spirit to listen to a Gentile like Cornelius. The evidence at this point overwhelms Peter: “Truly I realise now that God shows no partiality….” And with these words, a worldview begins to crumble and a new world starts taking shape.

Seeing the Spirit among them, Peter now can’t help but baptize. And as he relates his change of view to his fellow Christians you can almost hear them complain, “We’ve never done it that way before.” But Christians should welcome change. What happened to Peter can happen to us. The heart of the issue for the early church is not really about unclean food. The real issue is about regulations that divide the world up into insiders and outsiders. The single most important theological message is that Christ is not only for “insiders” but for “outsiders” as well. Outsiders who, like Sarah and Isaac have largely been silenced. So we should welcome laws to abolish the slavery that still exists today. Laws to allow gay and lesbian people equal rights.

Laws to combat racial prejudice.

General Robert Lee visited a church in Washington, D.C. soon after the end of the American Civil War. At the communion he knelt beside a black man. An onlooker said to him later, “How could you do that?” Lee replied, “My friend, all ground is level beneath the cross.” (www.ChristianGlobe.com)

Jesus crossed clear boundaries like healing someone on the Sabbath, touching someone who was unclean, talking with a person of the opposite sex in public,

relating to sinners. In our gospel reading, Jesus reclined at table with one who was betraying him. Unlike seven archbishops at Dar es salaam who would not take communion with the others. The model that Jesus gives is that liberals and conservatives, instead of contemplating ‘gracious separation’, should be seated at the same table together, eating the same bread and drinking the same wine.

 

St. John Chrysostom complained that love was not evidenced in the life of the Christian community: “Even now, there is nothing else that causes the heathen to stumble, except that there is not love….. they are hindered by our mode of life.”
I am not a fan of Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham but I like what he said about today’s gospel: “This passage is the badge that the Christian community wears before the watching world. As we read verse 35 (By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another) we are bound to cringe with shame at the way in which professing Christians have treated each other down the years. We have turned the gospel into a weapon of our own various cultures. We have hit each other over the head with it, burnt each other at the stake with it. We have defined the ‘one another’ so tightly that it means only ‘love the people who reinforce your own sense of who you are.’”

Jesus tells us that the distinguishing mark of the Christian community is love. One author puts it like this, “Nothing so astonishes a fractured world as a community in which radical, faithful, genuine love is shared among its members. There are many places you can go to find communities of shared interest. …to find people just like yourself, who live for sports or music or gardening or politics. But it is the mandate of the church to become a community of love, a circle of Christ’s followers who invest in one another because Christ has invested in them, who exhibit love not based on the mutuality and attractiveness of its members, but on the model of Christ who washed the feet of everyone.” http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon.asp?SermonID=103392

May St. Paul’s continue to grow into an inclusive church.

“Truly I realise now that God shows no partiality….”

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