May 2, 2010

Change? Um, we don't do "change."

RCL, Year C, 5th Sunday of Easter
May 2nd, 2010

I am not one who deals with change very easily, especially if I have to watch and wait for that change to happen, and even more so if it is going to take me into new and unmarked territory. My mother says that I was pretty terrible right before I started kindergarten, and nearing the end of my senior year of high school, my anxiety was so thick you could have cut with a chainsaw. Same thing happened when I graduated from college and was about to start my first job. My dad drove the moving truck from Knoxville to Memphis, and I followed in my car. My emotions went back and forth between sheer excitement and pure dread. I think if my best friend Alex hadn't been in the car with me, I might have not made it to Memphis in one piece. As it turned out, St. George's was a great place for me to be, a place that helped me develop and explore what it meant to be in ministry by being on the front lines of it every day.

As individuals and as a society, we get pretty comfortable in our ways, our routines, our traditions. We get used to the way things are and we are very unhappy when those things change. When the University of Tennessee's football team switched from being on the west side of the field to being on the east side of the field, there was great consternation and gnashing of teeth in Vol Land. And "New Coke" was a flop not because of bad marketing, but because Coca-Cola thought people would tolerate a sudden change in a beverage they what they had known for a hundred years. And then there's the church. Shifts in theology, structure, practice, those usually goes over peacefully and smoothly, right? How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Um, what kind of "change" are we talking about here, because we don't do change.

If you think we don't do change very easily, trying being a part of the Jewish community in Jesus' time. The majority of Jesus' earliest followers were, of course, Jewish, including the 12 Apostles who carried on the leadership of his ministry after his ascension. Most, if not all, of those who continued to follow the teachings of Jesus were devout Jews, very faithful to the Laws of Moses both because of the depth of their faith and because the culture demanded adherence to those laws. Our lesson this morning from Acts shows a major rift and a major shift in that culture.

The accounts of Simon Peter's vision as well as the visit with Cornelius the Centurion and his family are so important to the spread of the Gospel that they are told twice in the Book of Acts, and not only that, the story is told in back-to-back chapters.
Cornelius is a high ranking centurion in a well-known regiment, the Italian Cohort. Although not Jewish, he is devoted to God and well-respected by the Jewish community in Caesarea, where he is based. After a vision from God, he sends some of his men to find Simon Peter, who is in near-by Joppa.

Simon Peter is deep in prayer when he sees the vision of all sorts of non-kosher foods. The voice of God tells Peter to "kill and eat." Peter protests, calling upon his life-long dedication to Judaic food laws. God obviously knows this about Simon Peter, but says to him, "If I have made it clean, who are you to call it profane." Simon Peter always seemed to the disciple slowest on the uptake, so God gives the same vision to him three times. After this vision, Cornelius' men arrive where Peter is staying, tell him of the vision of Cornelius and invite him back to Caesarea to meet with Cornelius. Simon Peter takes several other believers with him. Cornelius' whole household is baptised and converted, giving him the designation of being the first known Gentile convert to the Christian faith. But Simon Peter runs into some trouble with the Jewish followers back in Jerusalem when they find out he has been staying and eating in a non-Kosher home.

In order to understand the depth of problems Simon Peter faces in our lesson from Acts this morning, we need to understand a little about the importance of keeping strict Kosher law in Jesus' time. It was everything. There's not much of a modern, American practice to compare it to. But to not keep Kosher, to not obey the strict food laws of the Torah was akin to being an outsider of the community. There were few things worse than being a Jew and being shunned or cast out of the Temple or synagogue. And not only was it important to keep the food laws in your own home, it was also important to not break Kosher by eating in or in some cases even being in a non-Kosher home.

So the faithful Jews back in Jerusalem are wringing their hands in concern. Was Cornelius' baptism valid? Can he be a follower of The Way (as it was becoming known) without being a Jew, either religiously or culturally?

Notice how Peter, the rock on which the church is built, makes the case for the inclusion of Gentiles. He doesn't say to the church in Jerusalem, "I've made this decision. Deal with it." Nor does he rely solely on his own judgement. He goes back to his encounters with God and how the Holy Spirit led him and opened his eyes to the bigger plan that God has. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."

What we are seeing in this lesson is the world slowly but surely being turned on its head. Everything people knew about following God and being true to God was about to change. The good news of repentance and a closer more meaningful relationship to God was more important than following the strict food laws of Moses. The Gospel message was expanding in ways that only God knew was possible.

Both volumes of Luke's writing, his Gospel as well as the book of Acts, have a strong focus on Jesus' message of reconciliation with God being for Gentiles as well as Jews. The story of the Prodigal Son is a story that is not inherently Jewish. Luke's Gospel tells us about the Good Samartian, an oxymoron to most Jews. But it's also about others seeing the true mission of the Messiah to be a savior for the whole world and not just for the Jews. Luke's genology of Jesus goes all the way back to Adam, which emphasizes Jesus' connection with all humanity and not just his Jewish linage as is portrayed in Matthew's Gospel. And in Luke 2, when Jesus is presented in the Temple when he is 8 days old, in accordance with the Law, the wise and spirit-filled Simeon comes to Joesph and Mary, looks at Jesus and says, "My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation ot the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel." And in the next chapter, Luke invokes the image from Isaiah 40: "All flesh shall see the salvation of God."

We, of course, have two thousand years of history and all of the scriptures in front of us to help us out. The earliest followers of Jesus didn't have all that. So they had to trust each other and the Holy Spirit. It would be nice to think that this scene in the eleventh chapter of Acts was the end of the controversy. But this same issue arises a few chapters later, and the Apostles deal with it like they do in this episode: Head on.

This epic shift in the understanding of the Gospel message is not about Simon Peter's desire to move in another direction. It's about continuing to see God revealed not only in scripture but in our lives. It’s about being prepared for God to move our hearts and minds in ways that we never thought possible. It means seeing how God can move our neighbor as much as God moves us. And it’s about remembering that the change God brings about in our hearts and in our world is bigger and more sustained that anything we can ever imagine. Are we going to be open to the way God is moving and changing us? And are we going to be willing to share with those around us the way God is moving in our life and in our church and in our community?