04.24.16 Sermon (April 24, 2016) “Who am I to Hinder God”

posted Jul 12, 2016, 8:30 AM by David Hawkins
The Acts of an Easter People: Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" 

Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 

“I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' 

“But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' 

“But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' 
“This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house.

“He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' 

“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" 

When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."

*New Testament Scripture: John 13:31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer.

You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Sermon: "Who Was I, that I Could Hinder God?"

I’m going to do something today that I haven’t done yet as a pastor, and that is to recycle a Sunday sermon I’ve already preached. It’s not going to be exactly the same, but it will sound familiar, if you can remember back all the way back to 6 years ago. 

I’m doing this because this sermon carefully tries to explain who I am, and how I think about some pretty delicate issues in the church and the world today. 

It’s a dangerous sermon. The last time I preached this sermon, I lost an elder, and I am still sad about that. I hope that you all can hear my heart today. I’m not trying to convince you to believe differently about these things, but I am trying to let you see my point of view. You, as always, are free to make up your own mind about these things.

As most of you know, before I went to Seminary, I was the Director of Music and Worship at 1st Presbyterian Church in Grand Junction, CO, for 13 years. Western Colorado, like the Western Panhandle of Texas, is a pretty conservative part of the state, and 1st Pres reflected that. And, even though I considered myself relatively liberal, I know that I was much more conservative than I thought I was. Certainly more conservative than I am today.

Especially when it came to the topic of sexuality and one’s sense of call to Christian vocation.

Now, perhaps because I was (and still am!) a musician, I have worked with many people who would identify themselves as having a sexual identity different than what has been traditionally embraced by the Church. All my life I have worked with musicians, artists, actors and actresses, who have been told that they could not consider themselves Christian because of their sexual identity. 

And my heart broke for them. 

But, the truth is that my intellectual need for a simple and concrete declaration of who was in and who was out of God's plan for salvation trumped my heart's desire for compassion for and understanding of my friends on the margins of society. And so, I never really reconciled my understanding of grace with my relationships with my artistic friends. I never really dealt honestly with the dissonance between my heart and mind. 

In short, I played it safe. On this issue, instead of confronting it, instead of really exploring it and coming to terms with the conflict churning inside me, I punted, and hoped that it would go away.

And then I went to seminary. 

During my first week of Seminary, during Greek School, I was witness to what I still consider one of the greatest sermons I have ever heard. It was passionate, it was evangelical, it was scholarly, it was funny, it was humble, it was meaningful. 

After the sermon, during coffee hour, I met with the speaker, whose name was Jim, and told him how much I appreciated his sermon. He thanked me, and we started to get to know each other. He was a fellow seminary student, in his final year. Coincidentally, he was also from Colorado, from Greeley, up north of Boulder, out on the High Plains. 

He was a welder and carpenter, and had been working for several years as a set designer and builder for professional theater companies in the Boulder-Denver Area. He had felt the call to go to seminary and become a pastor. His confided in me that he felt especially called to serve small rural churches, like the church that he had grown up in in Colorado. 

And we need those kind of pastors, don't we?

As I got to know Jim over the next few months, I could see how respected he was by the students and the faculty. Smart as a whip, funny, self-deprecating, vulnerable, a great speaker and writer. Gentle, and humble. And somehow, sad. There was something tragic about him that I couldn't put my finger on.

Until I received an e-mail several months later. 

Jim wrote to everyone at seminary, explaining he had begun the process of going through the medical treatments and hormonal procedures necessary to become a woman. His e-mail was written to let everybody know what was happening, and to gently ask if we could call him by his new name, Meagan. He also began to wear female style clothing. And this was a surprise to everybody.

So now, I had to deal with this new understanding of my friend. I had to deal with the fact that that this gifted, called, gentle man was in fact, getting in the way of my inherited doctrinal stance. I had to deal with the fact that this wonderful speaker, preacher, scholar was gumming up the systematic theology of my mind. I had to deal with the new reality of Meagan. 

But I couldn't. 

And so I didn't. 

I didn't deal with Meagan. I didn't try to go talk to him/her, and when I accidentally bumped into him/her, I couldn't bring myself to say her name, Meagan. I kept calling him Jim. I was, and am, embarrassed at how hard it was to accept the reality right in front of my eyes. I refused to accept what was going on this passionate, gifted, Christian person's life. 

And you know what? I was no friend of Jim, or Meagan. Despite my best intentions, despite the fact that I thought of myself as tolerant, liberal, open-minded, I discovered that I was not. 

That was a hard thing to accept. 

Now, I wish that this had been a one-time event. I wish that I had only needed one kick in the pants to get my mind wrapped around the idea that Christians come in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, and sexual identities. But I proved to be more obstinate than that. 

Because, a year into seminary, I was startled to find out that one of my classmates, a dear friend, Marissa, also did not fit the mold of what I thought was a proper Christian. She told me how she was thinking of moving back to California, and finishing her seminary education there, because she missed her female partner so much. She was homesick, and lonely. 

Marissa is brilliant, and has a Ph. D. in Political Science. She is a gentle listener, a very wise woman. She is also a deeply committed Christian, who was trying to work out the sense of call that she felt from God to be an ordained minister in the PC(USA). She was also a good friend. 

But, I still had problems fitting her own sense of who she was, and her relationship with God, with my own understanding of what it takes to be a Christian. And so, despite Marissa’s confidence in sharing her life with me, I was no friend to her.

So, like Peter in today's scripture, God needed to come to me a third time. 

I wasn't able to accept the reality of God's grace and sovereignty. I wasn't able to put together the idea that God gets to choose the people that he chooses, not me. I kept pushing back at the idea that people who were so different than me in this one area of life could still be Christians. Even though I thought of myself as a fairly sophisticated person, I couldn't, or rather, wouldn't, deal with the inexplicable fact that God comes to us in ways that we can never understand. 

And so, for a third time, God put someone in my life who was so un-mistakenly Christian, so humble, so generous, so dedicated to the church, so passionately devoted to Christ's will for his life, so quietly evangelical, and yet also so undeniably in love with his male partner of well over 20 years, that I was finally broken. 

At last I had to recognize that God has chosen to be in relationship with his people in ways that I don’t always understand. As I got to know my friend Michael Morgan over the period of four years, I had to put away the prejudices that I had inherited from my church in Grand Junction, so that I could look at these friends of mine anew, this time through the eyes of Christ.  

In fact, you know Michael as well. He came to help us with the celebration of Karen’s 25th Anniversary as the organist. He wrote the lovely text for the choir piece we sang that day, and he played for the worship service. You may also remember that he has written poetic settings of all 150 psalms, many of which are in our new hymnal. 

It was my experience getting to know Michael Morgan that finally made me realize that the grace of God’s call on our lives, no matter who we are, is mysterious, and cannot be put so easily into a box. And when we do try to box God up, he has a tendency to shatter all our expectations.

And that's what's happening to Peter in today's text. If you stop to think about it, he has committed an unthinkable sin. He has broken the law of table fellowship that defines him as a person of God. This is not a technicality. These dietary codes form the central part of Jewish identity. Without strict adherence to these codes, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to be considered Jewish. And the early church was completely, and only Jewish. It’s weird, but true.

Not only has Peter eaten at the table of a gentile, a hated Roman occupier, but has also eaten non-kosher food. He has repudiated his Jewish heritage. He has gone against the traditions of his elders. He has broken the Mosaic Law, gone against God's own teaching about what is clean, and what is not clean. He has defiled himself with outsiders, enemies of the faith. There is no wriggle room here. He has sinned against God, and against his fellow believers. 

And so, when he returns to his church in Jerusalem, he is confronted with his sin. His congregation demands an explanation. How can he, as a leader in the church, a disciple of Christ, justify his behavior? Does he not know that the message of Christ is for people who live under the law? Does he not know that salvation is only for those who through adherence to the law are worthy of it? Who is he to defy God's law? Who is he to so blatantly ignore God’s commandments?

And what can he say? Not much, really.

For one thing, he can’t quote scripture. There's nothing in the Bible that can justify his behavior. The Scriptures are firmly on the side of his accusers. There is no proof-text, no clever way of twisting the scripture to justify his behavior. There is no exegesis of the text that allows for his alternative understanding of the Gospel. He's on his own, he’s in uncharted waters. He can't quote an appropriate scripture verse, because there isn't one. 

But he also can't deny that Cornelius is a Christian. Peter can't deny that Cornelius believes in Jesus Christ, and that in him, he has life, and a relationship with God that overcomes the fact that he is Roman, that he’s not circumcised, and that he eats the wrong kind of food. Peter can't deny that God has come to this foreign man in a new way and given him life despite his "un-biblical" behavior. 

And, my favorite part about this scripture is that Peter doesn't want to deny it. He is thrilled that this Roman gentile knows and trusts Christ. Peter is not in any way ashamed of the fact that that he ate ungodly food at a foreigner's table. He doesn't try to hide it. He's proud of it. He tells them all about it.

Peter knows that something big is happening. And so does the author of Acts. This whole story is so important that it is repeated, almost word for word two time in the book. The author knows this is a turning point in the life of the Church. 

And so, what persuades Peter to reach out to Cornelius, on his terms, and accept him as a brother in Christ? And after this incredible breaching of the Law that defines him as a believer, what gives Peter the courage to go back and face his friends in his church back home? 

Well, we know the answer. God came to him, and tells him to do it. He tells him to open up his narrow theology, and squarely face the facts in front of him.

God comes to him, and says, "I don't care what your parents taught you about this. I don't care about the traditions of your Elders. I don't care that you have been taught all your life to fear, hate, and exclude Gentiles, that you have been taught never to have anything to do with them. I don't care that you can't conceive of me doing a new thing. I don't care that you think that this behavior is unclean.

"But what I do care about is this: I will call those whom I will call. I will choose those whom I will choose. Your ways are not my ways. Who are you to decide those whom I will love? What I have made, who I have made, I have made clean. Deal with it."

And so Peter deals with it. And then he goes to his church, and he asks them to deal with it as well. It can't have been easy for him. It can't have been easy for his church. 

And what was the church's response?

The scripture says that they were silent after Peter spoke. 

But, I can imagine that it was a pregnant silence. I can imagine you could have heard a pin drop in the sanctuary that day. I can imagine their minds were spinning a thousand miles an hour. 

"Wait, God told you what? God said it was OK to eat snakes, and alligators? God said it was OK to eat eagles? God said to forget all that stuff about four footed animals and shellfish? God said it was OK to eat at the table of a Gentile? God told you to ignore the Law of our people, the Law He himself gave to us in the desert, at the foot of Mt. Sinai? 

"Really? Are you sure it was God speaking? Surely, when God speaks, it's going to be consistent with what he has said before?! How can you say that God's commandments can be so casually thrown away? What kind of Christians would we be if we just ignore the law?"

These are good questions. For some of us they are familiar questions.

And they are questions that I'm not sure have answers. At least, those answers aren't offered here in this passage. The church in Jerusalem is left to deal with these questions on their own. We don’t know how they untied the theological knots that Peter insisted they confront.

But, in the end, we do know this. They accept that Peter's explanation of what happened is sufficient. And then they praised God. 

And I'm so glad they did. 

I'm so glad that they were able to see God's hand in Peter's story. I'm so glad that they were able to sort through their feelings about Cornelius coming to Christ as a gentile. I'm glad that they were willing to deal with a new understanding of biblical law and tradition.

Because the reality is, if they hadn’t come to terms with Peter’s transgression of the Law, I would never have heard the Gospel message. 

If Peter hadn’t done what he did, none of us here today would have heard about Jesus Christ. We would never have heard about the promise of Jesus Christ, that we, too, are forgiven those things that prevent us from having a relationship with God. 

If it wouldn't have been for Peter and his church, wrestling with this paradigm shift in thinking about the Law and the grace of God, none of us here would be Christian. Christianity would have remained a small sect within Judaism, limited to those of Jewish blood and practice.

And that's hard to imagine, isn't it?

It's hard to imagine that God so desires a relationship with us that he can't be bothered with the strings that we desperately want to attach to that relationship. 

In Jesus Christ, everything that we think stands between us and a relationship with God has been taken away. His yoke is easy; his burden is light. This is what it means to be a Christian. We do not lean on our own understanding, our works, our behavior, our traditions, our heredity, or our DNA, but on the grace of Jesus Christ. We do not earn our way to salvation, we only receive it as a gift.

Which begs the question: how willing are we to let others receive it as well? 

Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might be to our God
forever and ever. Amen.