The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
When our souls are open to Christ Lord, so are the doors of our church. After all, it is not our church, but His alone. For that matter, we ourselves are His alone – and our job is just to discover and to do His will.
Of course, sometimes His will is nearly impossible to discern; but other times it is as clear as gin – especially when He has the most at stake in the doing of His will.
Two thousand years ago, after His resurrection, Jesus lingered for about a month and a half on earth before returning to heaven. Just before He left earth, He made one job perfectly obvious to His followers: They are to make more of His followers from “all the nations” – that is, from every kind of person.
As His original followers took up that assignment, they quite naturally began with those with whom they were most comfortable and familiar: their fellow Jews. Yet, the Spirit of Jesus kept pushing them further and further outward, toward folks less and less like them.
Today’s scripture describes the church’s crossing the final boundary of exclusivity and abandoning every basis for discrimination but one: what folks decide to make of Jesus. Today’s scripture describes how the church came to embrace anyone who gave up governing their own life and gave themselves over to the Lordship of Jesus.
This step into unrestrained inclusivity was so radical that – in an age when there were no copier machines and replicating a story in print involved the long, slow process of writing it all out by hand – God had the story told twice in a row, in Acts 10 as it happened, and in Acts 11 as Peter reported its happening to the skeptical leaders of the mother church back in Jerusalem.
One afternoon in the port town of Joppa, on his way to check things out, Peter took a nap on the flat roof of a house while waiting for lunch. He fell into “a trance”, the scripture says, and saw a “vision”, the scripture says, that came to him three times, one after another. Peter like others had heard stories about how those, who had been living far from God, had come to “accept the word of God”; but Peter, like the others, wasn’t sure whether to believe any of it.
In each of the three visions, Peter saw a huge tablecloth full of every kind of food being lowered down to him and heard a voice from heaven invite him to eat anything he found there, even those foods he was forbidden to eat by his faith’s kosher laws, the dietary restrictions incumbent upon Jews and meant to help them maintain their distinct identity as those set apart for God for a unique purpose. Though at first Peter likely thought he was being tempted by the devil to abandon the distinction between clean and unclean food, it eventually became clear to Peter that he was being encouraged by God to abandon the distinction between clean and unclean people.
That that was the issue must have become crystal clear to Peter when he suddenly found three unclean men on his doorstep begging him to come and help them in their unclean city of Caesarea, that city built by Herod the Great sixty miles north of Joppa, built to serve both as the military capital for the Roman army occupying Israel and as the region’s center for the pagan worship of the Emperor as god.
But Peter must have sensed that God was up to something in the strange request of these suspicious-looking foreigners. For how could they have known, apart from God’s revelation, where to find Peter and what miracle-working power was given to him? So, though one part of Peter surely wanted to slam the door in their faces, he later said, “the Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”
Therefore, Peter and six other Jewish Christians went to Caesarea and, breaking their faith’s law, entered the house of a man of the kind they had always been told to avoid. And when that man, a Roman military officer, told them he had seen an angel who’d instructed him to ask Peter to come and share the message by which his entire household might be saved, Peter knew he had to follow God’s leading and tell them the good news of Christ. The rightness of doing that was immediately confirmed when, according to Peter’s testimony, “as I began to speak, the Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.” On top of that the Spirit also reminded Peter of Jesus’ prophecy that He would “baptize with the Holy Spirit” everyone who repented and believed. So, by the weight of the evidence and the force of sheer logic, Peter was compelled to conclude that God had no favorites and neither should he, that God wanted to give everyone the same gifts He had given the first believers, and that God wanted His people to be as welcoming as God Himself of anyone who opened their heart to His Son. In that moment, Peter accepted God’s radical redefinition of His family, and Peter saw God’s desire that the church embrace everyone God embraced.
In 1974, four years after I had become a follower of Christ, I struck up a friendship with one of the best Christians I have ever been privileged to know, someone in whom and through whom God had done marvelous things. Paul was godly, prayerful, kind, generous, compassionate, and zealous for the welfare of others. Paul was also someone who, while he liked many a woman, had at that time never felt any romantic or sexual attraction toward someone of the opposite sex, though he had prayed long and hard for such a feeling to arise.
I remember being deeply struck that, while God had done many magnificent things in Paul’s life, God had not at that time done anything to change his sexual orientation. I also remember wondering how could I not embrace as a brother in Christ someone in whom the Lord was working so mightily?
God, the Bible says, shows no partiality. God, the Bible says, has no favorites. God, the Bible says, so loved everyone that there is no one for whom Christ didn’t die and doesn’t want a part of His forever family.
God loves each of us when He has plenty of reasons not to. God loves each of us just as we are, and loves us too much to leave us that way. But God chooses how He begins that lifelong process of transformation, and tells us just to follow His lead and support His process in every person He adopts into His family, whatever His order of priority for their growth in His grace.
In God’s family, all of us get changed over time, but none of us gets changed in every way before we enter eternity. The priorities of our transformation are God’s call, not ours. Our call is to love others as He has loved us, and support whatever He decides to work on first. So sometimes we help people change in the way God enables. And sometimes we help people by just accepting what God has not yet given them grace to change. And all the time we help people by changing ourselves to become as gracious, patient and open-hearted as God in encouraging others down the particular path He has chosen for them.
The church is to be God’s place of open souls and open doors, God’s house where His love dwells and all can live and grow. Let us build that house by welcoming everyone. Let us pray.