Remember the night the Berlin Wall fell? What a night of joy it was for the people of Berlin and Germany. Or what about the wall of segregation breached by the Civil Rights Movement? That too was a moment of joy, and yet dividing walls continue to exist. Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week.
Not many of you remember 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote, but it was a great victory for women and for American democracy. Unfortunately many Christian communities still refuse to ordain women and America has yet to elect a woman President.
As we continue this sermon series focusing on transforming encounters with the Risen Christ, we’ve reached the climactic moment in the first half of the Book of Acts. With Peter’s vision and his report to the Jerusalem Church, the focus of the story shifts to the Gentile mission. What we see here is that change can be difficult, and barriers difficult to breach. But, with God all things are possible!
The story begins in Acts 10 with Peter up on the roof top praying. As he prays, he has a vision. He sees a sheet descending from the heavens containing a variety of animals that he’s forbidden to eat. When a voice from heaven calls out “Kill and Eat,” he resists the command. But as he’s doing this, emissaries from the Roman Centurion Cornelius appear at the door. They ask him to go with them to Caesarea and share the message of Jesus with the Centurion’s household.
Peter may have gone with them reluctantly, but he got to watch in amazement as the Spirit fell on them as on the Day of Pentecost. He concluded that if God blessed them with the gift of the Spirit, he couldn’t refuse them baptism.
When Peter returns to Jerusalem, he discovers that not everyone is happy with his visit to a Gentile home. After all he’d eaten with the uncircumcized. So, as we’ve heard in the reading from Acts 11, Peter tells them about his vision and how that it led him to go to preach at the house of Cornelius. He shares with them how the Spirit gifted these Gentiles in the same way the Spirit gifted the believers on the day of Pentecost. If the Spirit embraced them, then how could he refuse to give them baptism? After all, whatever God declares clean must be clean! So who was he to stand in the way of God?
Peter learned something important about God that day. He learned that God doesn’t make distinctions between people. It’s not that God is indifferent. It’s just that God is concerned about all of humanity. After all, God is “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).
In our Disciple tradition we don’t have creeds. That’s because our founders believed that even though creeds can be useful, they can also become barriers to fellowship and service. Still, what we believe about God, Jesus, the world, is important. Our beliefs can become barriers to the work of God in the world.
The good news is that the Holy Spirit is very adept at breaching even the highest and strongest barriers. In telling his story about his visit to Cornelius, Peter reminds us that God decides what’s essential, what’s clean, and what’s unclean. So, if God declares something or someone to be clean, then who are we to stand in the way?
One of the important threads running through the Book of Acts is the breaching of barriers. It starts with Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples on the day of his ascension. He tells them that they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NRSV). When we come to Acts 10 and 11, we find that the last barrier to fulfilling this calling – the barrier of ethnicity – has been breached.
But if there are other barriers needing to be breached, are we ready to let the Spirit breach them?
Peter knew what the Scriptures and Tradition said about Gentiles. While there were provisions for conversion, dispensing with circumcision wasn’t part of the deal. But here it seems that God is about to do a new thing. It took time and a push from the Spirit to get Peter across the line. But, cross the line – he did!
Although I believe that Scripture and Tradition are essential to our faith journey, I’m in agreement with Russell Pregeant who writes that “when considering issues of inclusiveness the church needs to look beyond Scripture and Tradition to human experience for signs of the Spirit’s guidance.” It takes a great deal of spiritual discernment if we’re going to do this. It also takes a lot of trust in God.
I know that most of us like things done decently and in order. That’s why the church has a constitution and a personnel handbook. We need these human documents to help us discern wise courses of action. Scripture and Tradition help us with this process, but sometimes we need a Pentecost moment to help us move forward in a new direction. And that’s what Peter and Cornelius’ household experienced. In the moment that the Spirit gifted this household with the power of Pentecost things changed! Barriers were breached. And barriers continue to be breached!
As I’ve come to learn, it wasn’t that long ago that this church selected Mary Lou as our first woman Elder. And that didn’t happen until after we moved to Troy. I was there, the day that the General Assembly elected Sharon Watkins as the first woman to lead a Mainline denomination. Women still struggle to find places of ministry in our churches – but the barrier has been breached.
So what’s next? Could it be the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church? Could this be a Cornelius moment? If so, then what does that mean for us as a congregation?
Some of us have been studying Martin Thielen’s book What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? In bringing up this topic he points out that the church at large isn’t of one opinion when it comes to the issue of sexual orientation. He outlines three basic positions present in the church today. The first group neither welcomes nor affirms gays and lesbians. Instead, they build walls and post no trespassing signs on them. I don’t think that’s who we are.
The two other positions include: “Welcoming but not Affirming” and “Welcoming and Affirming.” Like many denominations and congregations, I believe that both positions are present in this congregation. Although I believe we are moving toward a Welcoming and Affirming position, we’re not there yet. The question is – is this change simply a matter of letting our culture determine our beliefs and practices, or is this a movement of the Holy Spirit? Personally, I believe that it’s the latter. I believe that God has poured out the Spirit on gay and lesbian Christians, welcoming them into the fold. By doing this, the Spirit is breaching another barrier.
Now, what does it mean to be “Welcoming and Affirming,” or to use Disciples language, “Open and Affirming?” I like the way John McCauslin put it in our first study session: “‘Affirming’ means that we accept you as one of us, just as you are.”
Even as we wrestle with this question as a congregation, so is our denomination. We’ll be voting on a resolution at the General Assembly calling on us to be a welcoming and hospitable community. This resolution directly addresses the question of sexual orientation. If passed, and I believe it will, the General Assembly will call on the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to:
affirm the faith, baptism and spiritual gifts of all Christians regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that neither is grounds for exclusion from fellowship or service within the church, but we celebrate that all are part of God’s good creation.
This resolution calls on the church to be a people of grace and welcome, offering hospitality to all. So how will we offer welcome and hospitality to persons no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity is?
As I’ve shared before, my views are influenced by the lives and the stories of gay and lesbian Christians, including my brother. I’ve learned from them about the difficulties they’ve faced in finding their place in the church. Not only do many feel excluded, but many gays and lesbians have been brutalized – sometimes physically and often verbally – by the church at large. As I’ve listened to their stories, I’ve discovered that not only does our society force people to live in closets, but too often not even the church is a safe haven. But, I believe that things are changing. The Spirit is breaching another barrier. So, as followers of the Risen Christ, are we ready for another Cornelius moment? Are we ready to love one another, as Christ has loved us – so that the world might know that we are his disciples?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 28, 2013
5th Sunday of Easter