Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24th, 2016
Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The disciples and believers in Judea heard that Peter was converting the Gentiles, and they had a problem with him. A BIG problem. Not with the conversion itself. No, they thought it only right and good that everyone of every tribe and nation should worship God in Christ Jesus our Lord. So Peter preaching to the Gentiles, that was good, and them responding was even better. It was exactly what the risen Jesus had commanded them to do—go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That part was great!
It was how he did it that was the problem. You see, the Gentiles were … different. They spoke different languages, they sang different songs, they ate different foods, they had different customs, and in every way imaginable they were … different. And when Peter went to live among them and preach, God commanded him in a dream to just kinda go with the flow. To accept their hospitality and speak their language and eat their food and, basically, live like a Gentile while he was among them. And the Jewish Christians were shocked and horrified. Worship with them, yes, good! Share the Gospel with them, wonderful, awesome! Eat with them? Their food? In their home? Ew, gross, that’s a step too far.
And this is a tendency that Christians have struggled with ever since. Actually, most times since, we haven’t even been as flexible and open-minded as those early Jewish disciples. We tend to mix up our culture and the Gospel way too much. Take 19th Century missionaries as an example: they went across the globe with the best of intentions to bring the Gospel to people who had never heard it … and they hamstrung themselves by insisting that in order to be Christian you had to swallow European culture lock, stock, and barrel. European names, European-style-houses and family arrangements, European language in worship, European-style hymns, European-style art, European-style clothing. Consequently, most of those 19th-Century missionaries weren’t very successful at all. Sure, they got a few converts, and more people who would come to church if it was a requirement for getting some kind of help but not really convert in their hearts.
It wasn’t until the 20th Century and missionaries started working within local culture that missionaries started relaxing and working within the local culture, using local music styles and art and names. Even lifestyles and family arrangements and other things like that. Instead of assuming that obviously European/American ways of doing everything were better and more Christian, they evaluated each part of the local culture for whether or not it was compatible with a Christian faith. And some things weren’t—but a lot was, or could be adapted. And along the way, many of the missionaries found their own lives and culture changed, too. They saw the Spirit moving in new and different ways. And it was at that point—when people could keep their own culture and adapt it to the Christian life, when long-term Christians and new converts could change and grow together—that Christianity took off in Africa and parts of Asia. Christianity is booming and growing in large parts of Africa, Asia, and India. It’s flourishing and spreading, because the missionaries learned to listen and be part of the local culture, instead of just preaching and lecturing about all the ways they were wrong.
It makes sense. Put yourself in their shoes—you’re in 19th Century Africa or 1st Century Caesarea. Someone comes to town with a great message that they say is good news, something that can change your life and free you from whatever is holding you down. But they turn their nose up at everything you do—they don’t like your food, or the way you talk, or how you dress, or anything about you. And sometimes they have a point, but sometimes they’re wrong. Sure, they’ve got this great message … but what they seem to want most is to turn you into a carbon copy of themselves. Would you listen, or would you write them off as arrogant jerks and go on about your business? You’d probably ignore them. Most people would.
But change the scenario a bit. You’re in 19th Century Africa or 1st Century Caesarea. Someone comes to town with a great message that they say is good news, something that can change your life and free you from whatever is holding you down. And they listen to what you think is holding you down. They listen to what your fears and hopes and dreams are, and they sit at your table and eat with you and are great friends—not just somebody nice to talk to or shoot the breeze with, but there when you need help. Not because they have an agenda, but because they respect you and care about you. And sometimes, they point out when something you take for granted is wrong … but they’re also willing to listen when you point out something that they do is wrong. Would you be willing to listen then? Would you be willing to open your heart and your mind to the message of good news that they brought? Probably you would! And so the Gospel spreads.
That was what was at stake in our reading from Acts. When you’re spreading the Gospel as Jesus commanded, how are you going to go about it? Are you going to assume that your own culture, you own ways of doing things, are as important as the Gospel? Are you going to insist that everything goes your own way from the get-go, or are you going to meet people where they are? Are you going to insist everyone does things your way, or are you willing to adapt and learn from the people you are bringing the Gospel to? It’s not just a question of whether or not you’ll welcome them when they show up at your church, though that’s important too—it’s a question of whether or not you’ll allow them to welcome you. Will you eat with them, even if it’s something you would never eat otherwise? Will you open yourself to them just as you ask them to open themselves up to the Gospel? Will you respect them as you want them to respect you?
It sounds so simple. Yet it’s really hard! And it’s particularly important in our world today, because there is a big cultural gap between practicing Christians and the rest of America. The gap is smaller in North Dakota than it is elsewhere, but it’s growing every year. We can’t assume that the people outside our doors—the people we are called to bring the love of God to—share the same assumptions and habits that we do. Often, they don’t … and often, it’s those things that keep them away. Because here, as in most churches, we don’t like change. We’d love to have all those unchurched people out there come in and join us … as long as they looked, acted, thought, dressed, and ate just like us. As long as they just fit nicely into all the things we have going here already. As long as any change was all on their part. As long as everything happens in our way and on our terms.
God sent Peter to the Gentiles in Caesaria, to preach the Gospel to them, and the Holy Spirit was at work in them, and so they became Christian. But it wasn’t enough for Peter to preach; he had to listen, too, and he had to accept them as the Gentiles they were and eat with them. This horrified his fellow Jewish Christians, because they thought the Gentiles should give up their own culture and become Jewish in order to be a follower of Jesus. Yet the Spirit was at work in the Gentiles, and God himself gave Peter a vision to tell him to accept the Gentiles’ hospitality. It took courage to follow that vision, because Peter knew how his fellows would react. And it took courage for the rest of the disciples to recognize the work of the Spirit, and set in motion the actions that would begin the conversion of the Gentiles. It took courage because change is hard, even when it helps us grow. They had to have faith that God would lead them, that God would help them keep the core of their faith strong even as parts of how they lived it out changed.
So what about us? How do we treat the people outside our doors? How do we respond to the people who are different, who are not like us? Do we open ourselves up to building relationships with them? Do we accept their hospitality and meet them where we are? Do we open doors that may lead to ministry and a sharing of God’s love? Or do we close those doors, and welcome them only if they fill the roles we have pre-selected for them? May God send us the courage and vision of Peter, so that God’s love and God’s Spirit may be poured out on all people.