THE RIGHT FRIENDS
As a child I often heard, and as a parent I often said: “Chose your friends carefully.
The wrong friends will only get you into trouble.” Peter found that out after he had preached to, baptized, and shared meals with Cornelius and his household. Cornelius was not only a gentile, he was a centurion, a Roman officer who commanded about 100 soldiers. Peter was in Joppa when he had a vision of unclean food being lowered on what looked like a sheet. A voice said to him, "Peter, get up! Kill these and eat them." But Peter said, "Lord, I can't do that! I've never eaten anything that is unclean and not fit to eat." The voice spoke to him again, "When God says that something can be used for food, don't say it isn't fit to eat." This happened three times before the sheet was suddenly taken back to heaven. (Act 10:13-16) That's when messengers from Caesarea arrived asking Peter to come proclaim the gospel to Cornelius.
When he arrived in Caesarea, Peter learned that Cornelius, a God fearing man who shared generously with the people, had also had a vision. Peter told them of Jesus' death and resurrection and While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit took control of everyone who was listening. Some Jewish followers of the Lord had come with Peter, and they were surprised that the Holy Spirit had been given to Gentiles. Now they were hearing Gentiles speaking unknown languages and praising God. Peter said, "These Gentiles have been given the Holy Spirit, just as we have! I am certain that no one would dare stop us from baptizing them." (Act 10:44-47) After baptizing Cornelius and his household, Peter remained with them for several days.
Good news travels fast, and news that Cornelius and his household had become Christians was a great event for the fledgling movement. Now there could be no doubt that the gospel movement was reaching beyond the boundaries that had kept them small. Now the believers could celebrate the unlimited potential for the faith to grow.
Good news travels fast. Bad news travels faster. Rather than a victory rally, the news was greeted with a protest meeting. Peter had been hanging out with the wrong kind of people, and we all know what that will lead to. Peter, it seems, had broken both tradition and bread; eating with the gentiles. So rather than returning to a victory rally in Jerusalem, he returned to an inquisition. “What have you done?” “Don't you know we Jews (for Christianity had not yet separated from Judaism) don't share food with Gentiles?” “Who do you think you are and what do you think you're doing? Are you trying to destroy the faith just as we're getting started?”
You see, there were many among the believers who saw the faith as being a branch of Judaism, much a John Wesley saw Methodism as being within the Church of England, not as a separate denomination. They sincerely believed that in order to become a Christian, a gentile must first convert to . Peter had omitted this requirement, baptizing Cornelius and his household without requiring him to be circumcised. Peter had broken the rules and he had better have a good reason.
In his defense, Peter simply told his accusers what had happened;everything from his vision of unclean foods with God's command to eat, through his preaching and Cornelius' receiving the Holy Spirit. He concludes his defense with: “I remembered that the Lord had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with t the Holy Spirit.' God gave those Gentiles the same gift that he gave us when we put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. So how could I have gone against God? (Act 11:16-17) At this the inquisition turned into a victory rally, and the church was changed forever.
In just a few weeks the United Methodist Church will face a similar dilemma as members from around the world wrestle with the question of how much should we include gays in the life of the church. There are those who don't even want them coming into the building; those who say it's OK to come to church, but don't try to join; those who welcome them as members, but not in positions of leadership, and those who think they should be able to participate fully in the life of the church, even as ordained clergy. Like the conservative group in Peter's time who pointed out that scripture forbade eating with gentiles, those opposed to including gays in the church point to the mosaic law which actually requires the stoning of gays. And just as Peter pointed to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Cornelius and his household, those who favor inclusion of gays point out that many of them have the gifts and graces needed to lead our church in the 21st century.
On the other hand, scripture is clear, and I fear another split in the fabric of Christianity if we become more inclusive than the conservative element can tolerate. We have already lost too many members over this issue. Of course, we also lost members in siding for civil rights for all in the 60s and 70s, and experience tells us that was certainly the right stand to take.
To be perfectly hones with you, I'm not really sure where I stand: my mind and soul remain undecided.
In this morning's gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a new command: not a suggestion, not a request, but a command. This command is the one thing that sets us apart from the world: he says: “You must love each other, just as I have loved you. If you love each other, everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Each other means all those who believe in Him and claim Him as their Lord and Savior. Not just those who worship the way we do; not just those who speak the same language we do; not just those who make their coffee the way we do; not just those who agree with us on political and social issues; not just those who dress like we do or sing the same hymns we do; but each and every one who follows Christ.
In Peter's day, it was the power of the Holy Spirit that gave the early church the courage to open it's doors to gentile believers. I can only pray that that same Holy Spirit is present in Portland next month, and that all of us can continue to live and worship together no matter what the outcome. The word's of Christ remain clear:
But I am giving you a new command. You must love each other, just as I have loved you. If you love each other, everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Let us never forget these words. AMEN.