Acts 10:44-48 & 11:15-18
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 13, 2019
Pastor Gordon MacDonald grew up a pastor’s son. He remembers his father gathering, in the family’s home, leaders concerned about the drift of their denomination into wrong theology and conduct. In those discussions, the name of one particular pastor frequently came up; and, given the tone of the voices and the harsh words spoken, little Gordon imagined the man to be the devil incarnate – someone from whom good people would keep a safe distance.
A decade into his own pastoral career, Gordon was one day working in his office and watching through the window a raging rainstorm arise – when his secretary knocked on his door and announced, “There’s a man in the lobby who’d like to meet you. He says his name is…” Gordon was startled. It was the name of the man he’d heard so vilified when as a small boy he eavesdropped on his father’s meetings. Finding it hard to believe it was the same person, Gordon asked, “Is he old?” “Quite old,” the secretary answered. “He says he’s aware you’re busy, and just wants a minute of your time.”
Wildly curious, Gordon walked down the hall to the lobby. Standing there waiting was a man wearing a rain-soaked trench coat. Gordon introduced himself. The man offered his hand and gave his name again, that well-remembered name from so many years before.
“Pastor MacDonald,” he said respectfully, “The last several years, I’ve been reading your articles and now your books. I determined that, if I ever passed through your area, I’d try to meet you, to tell you how much your writing means to me, and how I hope, for the sake of the whole church, you’ll keep writing.”
Gordon was stunned. Here was the man he’d learned to avoid as the enemy of Christian faithfulness, and that man had sought Gordon out to express his gratitude for his work of writing and to encourage him to continue in it. What was all the more remarkable was that he had come at a perfect time, as if led supernaturally by God – for Gordon was disheartened and ready to abandon his writing! The man he had pre-judged as a devil was speaking to him like an angel sent from God to boost his confidence with words of affirmation and to lift his spirits with words of support.
Gordon took the man’s wet coat, offered him some coffee and led him into his office. They talked like old friends about the joys of serving God’s people and of how Jesus became ever more precious as one did.
When the man stood to leave, he asked if he might pray for Gordon. When he laid hands on him, Gordon felt a surge of warmth, resolve, and hope course through his body. Gordon then felt he had to make a confession. So, after expressing his deep appreciation for their having met, he admitted he had from childhood been taught to dislike him. “Who was your father and the group that met at your home?” he asked. Gordon told him. “Ah,” he said gently with a smile, “I remember them. They didn’t like me very much, I’m afraid.” And with no further word of defense or explanation, he put on his hat and walked out into the rain.
Gordon never saw him again, but Gordon never forgot him: the man he’d rejected who reached out to bless him, the devil who turned out to be an angel, the brother in Christ whom he’d defamed and demeaned but in whom God delighted.
One never knows. All we know is that we are part of a bigger and more diverse family than we imagine, and that we’d do well to be careful about judging who’s in and who’s out. The way of the Lord is to embrace everyone as those we are to love, respect, treat right and appreciate however we might, and to be open to the possibility that they may be God’s chosen means for elevating our lives and leading us forward into more faithful discipleship.
The most prominent leader of the first church, the Apostle Peter, thought he was doing right by holding back from some people, but God had – he could sense –been giving him reason to doubt his dogmatic exclusion of some folks and to wonder whether he was out of sync with God’s big-hearted and expansive agenda.
Peter surely remembered how graciously Jesus had interacted with the non-Jews He encountered, how He’d left His followers with the charge to go and make disciples of all nations, and how many scriptures said God’s people are blessed to bless everyone else.
Moreover, Peter had been seeing in his own experience how the Lord had been pushing his people further and further abroad in seeking to save the lost. Peter was aware of God’s having brought salvation and the Spirit to fellow Jews he found foreign and strange (like the Ethiopian eunuch) and to heretical half-Jews he’d been taught to dislike (like the Samaritans). And now Peter found himself in a “pagan’s” home preaching the Gospel thanks to the leading of angels, the giving of visions, and the clear urging of the Holy Spirit.
Peter had long been committed to living under Christ’s rule, but now he was about to realize he needed to play some catch-up with the One who was going ahead of Him to lead Him deeper into God’s perfect will. Because God did not want to wait any longer, the Lord interrupted Peter’s sermon before he was done, and burst onto the scene to pour out His life on everyone who was receiving the word, claiming for Himself those Peter had rejected and blessing them as much as He ever had Peter. When the apostle saw those Gentiles being given everything he and his fellow Jewish Christians had been given, he knew he had to give them everything he had to give: his acceptance, welcome, warm inclusion and full embrace as his brothers and sisters in Christ and equal partners in God’s grace.
We’d do well to imitate Peter’s example. We’d do well to open ourselves to learn from the experiences God brings us, and to open our hearts to those we previously wanted no part of. For God means to challenge our long-established restrictions, and wants us to grant our feelings less authority. For we have a Lord to catch up to, a Lord who is doing wonderful things beyond the cozy confines of our status quo, a Lord who pushes out, further and further, our circles of concern and caring, for the blessing of everyone we can reach.
God wants to make of us a community whose make-up is a miracle attesting to the reconciling and transforming power of Christ’s love, a community whose make-up causes folks to scratch their heads in wonder and to flail around for an explanation until they land upon the only explanation that works: the gracious presence of Christ Himself.
But will you – will I – cooperate with God’s doing this? Will I permit myself to be challenged? Will I allow the experiences God brings me to jolt me out of my former false dogmatism? Will I defy my feelings of fear and repulsion? Will I discipline my preferences about whom I spend my time with? Will I follow Christ’s lead, accept what He is already doing, and catch up to Him in the amazing adventure of outreach and the enlargement of His family. Let us pray.