Sermon; Easter 5C; Acts 11:1-18
In general we are not fond of change. Think about the angst we suffer when our computers run an update and things are changed from what we are used to. Think about Sheldon Cooper who has to sit in the same spot on the couch or has to eat oatmeal on Mondays and not French toast. What happens if we are forced to change pews? A new BCP has all kinds of people worried. And I'm still upset about having to change from knickers to those black pants. In general, we don't like change.
Change can be good or bad. Good change can be badly implemented. And ultimately, I think all change, to be effective, must appeal to the heart. If we aren't emotionally comfortable with the change, it most likely won't be successful. The “We've always done it this way/We've never done it that way” argument against change is more often than not an emotional response based in fear of losing identity or purpose or power or all of the above.
This is what's going on in the reading from Acts today. There is a group of people who understand that they belong to God and God belongs to them. This is how it has always been since Genesis 12 – God chose Abram and Abram chose God. And we see examples of this in other places where, in order to be part of God's circle, you had to meet the requirements of the gatekeepers to enter that circle. One example of this is over in the Book of Ruth. Ruth, a Moabite outsider, forsook her own history and heritage when she told Naomi, “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” In other words, the circle of God was a closed system.
Jesus, however, did a new thing. He may have changed how God was doing things, and he definitely changed how people were understanding how God was doing things. In the eyes of his Jewish followers, this primarily meant that Jesus was the Messiah, the Savior. But that change, although hard for some to grasp, ie the religious leaders, still seemed to mean that outsiders had to become Jewish in order to enter the circle of God. It was still a closed system. So when Peter begins mingling with Gentiles, the leadership of this new movement had a hard time. “Why do you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
“We've never done it that way before.”
In response Peter tells them about a vision he had and his interpretation of it. He was in Joppa and a sheet filled with animals appeared, along with a voice telling him to kill and eat. The animals given were unclean according to the Law. Peter, being a good, law-abiding Jew, had never eaten an unclean animal, so he declined. But a voice from heaven says, “What God has made clean you must not call profane.”
This happens three times. This is significant. Three times Peter denied Jesus. Three times Peter had the chance to stand up and be counted. But this thing with Jesus was new, they had never done it that way before, and he was afraid of the consequences.
Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three times Peter said yes. And three times Jesus said to Feed, Tend, and Feed his sheep. This was a new way of doing things, especially when we remember that Jesus said he had other sheep that didn't belong to this fold. I'm not sure Peter knew yet what this change would look like, but it was coming.
And today we hear of Peter's three-fold vision where God has cleansed that which was formerly profane. Peter is seeing that God is changing the way we've always done things. He is seeing that God is doing something we've never done before. That something is to keep the circle but make it porous and ever-expanding. That something is to allow us to open our eyes to see all people as part of God's family. That something is to see all people as clean, not profane.
This is a change that scares us. This is a change we fear. We spend a lot of time making sure we follow the rules. Some people spend a lot of time also making sure other people follow the rules as they interpret them. Christians in general have gotten a reputation that says we work to make sure only the right people make up the circle of God. But, as Peter found out, that's looking at it the wrong way.
Several years ago there was an artist who wanted to be edgy and provocative. He displayed a photographic piece in which a crucifix was submerged in a tank filled with blood and urine, and he called it, “Piss Christ.” You may remember this.
The levels of rage from various Christian groups and Christian law makers was through the roof and they succeeded in having it removed from whatever art gallery it was displayed in. It was edgy. It was certainly provocative. And it reminds me of today's lesson.
A group of believers wanted Peter to stop associating with Gentiles for fear of being profaned. A group of believers wanted a piece of artwork removed for the same reason – that it was profaning the crucifix (in particular) and their religion (in general).
In both of these incidents, the people opposed to the artwork and those opposed to Peter, held to the view that the profane contaminates the clean. They hold to the idea that the profane has power over the clean. And on some level, we all have that view; which is why we want to keep God holy and separate from that which defiles.
Theologian Richard Beck wrote an Advent meditation on this very thing several years ago where he argued that when we do that, we limit the power of God to cleanse us. We limit the power of God to heal us. We limit the power of God to make holy that which we think is profane.
God (and equally Jesus) doesn't work the way we think. That which we think is profane has no power over God. In fact, it is God/Jesus who has power over the profane. It is God/Jesus who makes the profane holy. The darkness doesn't overcome the light – the light scatters the darkness.
This change in theology – God is greater than the profane – is a change we need to work on. It is a change we need to make not in our heads but in our hearts so that we no longer recoil in horror at the sight of what or whom we classify as profane.
Like Peter did, we need to put holes in the circle, welcome the outcast, sinner, profane, and unclean, and let them know that God chooses to make them holy. We need to find a way to change our thought process that tells us the profane contaminates the holy into a thought process that tells us the holy cleanses the profane. For some, though, this is a change to fearful to contemplate.
But this is Easter where the biggest profaning act, death, has not only been destroyed but made holy. This is Easter when things which were cast down are being raised up and where life is changed, not ended.
Will you allow God to change you, or will you allow fear to keep the God of change at bay?