John 13: 31-35 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III
Acts 11: 1-18 May 19, 2019
“… the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ ”
Prayer: Holy God, lift us please, from where we are to where you intend us to be as we serve you and practice your way of love, through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
As I studied the scripture texts for today and entered into my regular sermon discernment, the rock n roll song by John Cougar Mellencamp “Crumblin’ Down,” kept coming back to my mind. The song is a hit from 1983; probably most of us have heard it. Here’s the chorus: “When the walls come tumblin’ down, when the walls come crumblin,’ crumblin,’ When the walls come tumblin,’ tumbling’ down.
The song is sort of a coming of age song, not so much about growing out of adolescence into adulthood, and all that that means, but more so about discovering what it means to grow out of the societal, or cultural, or familial expectations or trappings that are like walls that prevent you from becoming who you are, or who God calls you to be, so that you have freedom to be who you are. And, when that happens, a whole new world opens up, and the old walls come tumbling down. The song sings that you’d better stand clear when the walls come tumblin’ down—because everything is going to change.
A brief biblical background for tour scripture texts… In Jesus and Peter’s day, there is this major cultural divide between the Jewish people and the non-Jewish people, or the Gentiles. Jewish people were the well-established. They were religious and lived by Moses’ law, which included dietary rules. They practiced circumcision for health and sanitary purposes, and the practice served for Jewish men to have an identifying mark setting them apart from the Gentile men.
On the other hand, the Gentiles were considered “outsiders” to the Jewish religion and were unclean. They were considered pagans because they didn’t believe in the one true God. In fact, many of them believed in many gods. Gentiles were considered to be unsanitary in basic living, they had no dietary restrictions, and the Gentile men were uncircumcised. In general, the Gentiles were unwelcomed by those in the Jewish community, and the two groups could not be more different and distinct. The cultural walls between the two groups were built up. They did not relate to one another.
Then Peter has this dream. We read it from Acts 11, but Acts 11 is actually the retelling of the dream, almost word for word from Acts 10. All of Acts 10 is the story of the dream happening for the first time and all the circumstances going around it. A side note… generally speaking, if an author repeats something right away, take note. It is something important, so pay attention here, the author is saying.
If you get a chance, read chapter 10 of Acts. It’s a fascinating story. Because remember the story of Pentecost? We will hear that story again on Pentecost Sunday (June 9th— Confirmation Sunday). That story was about when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Jewish people who believed Jesus was the Christ. And, they were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit! They spoke in tongues and for the first time worshiped as followers of Christ. We consider that day to be the birthday of the Christian Church.
Acts 10 is the story of how the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles afterward!! And they spoke in tongues and worshiped as followers of Christ, like the Jews did earlier.
So, Peter’s dream is this vision of the Spirit instructing Peter, this practicing Jew, to eat unclean, Gentile food! The message worth repeating is that in Jesus Christ, God is breaking down the walls between Jew and Gentile, between circumcised and uncircumcised, between the believer in one God and those who believed in many gods.
Peter ate and drank with those from a different religion, a different way of life. He was criticized for doing that. But God gave them the same gift of the Spirit. Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34) Wow! And the walls come tumblin’ down! You hear ‘em?
Luke, who is the author of Acts, wants his readers to get it! He describes the church developing in a way that it is meant to develop. Barriers get broken down. Those considered as “outsiders” are now full-fledged members of the emerging Christian movement. God’s acceptance of others is based not on religion, or nationality, or sexuality. God’s acceptance of others is based on divine blessing! It’s God’s idea.
All these generations later, I wonder if we are supposed to be practitioners of the same divine, inclusive blessing! Because God loves diversity, I believe. Should we be open to the varieties of divine revelation and religious experience, greeting diversity with hospitality? The church I think is to embrace diversity, whether ethnically, racially, theologically, or sexually. Because it’s meant to reflect God’s diversity. Embrace does not always mean acceptance of all behaviors and opinions, but it means having an openness to the legitimate experiences that others have… And the walls come tumblin’ down!
On Thursday last week, a pastor from the Elizabethtown Ministerium said to me, “I wanted to ask you about something you said in your sermon at the Lenten worship service.” He recalled the story about the three distinct rivers on earth that don’t meet, but their evaporated waters meet in the sky and water the earth and its people indiscriminately. The metaphor speaks of God’s divine blessing shared with all people of the earth indiscriminately. He said, “Then you believe that all people get to heaven?” I said, “Yes, I believe so. Jesus came because God so loved the world… not just a group of individuals who say and believe the right things. Whether in this life or in the next, I believe all encounter the risen Jesus.” I wish I would have remembered the story from Acts 11… I might have been able to quote, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” He said, “Well I disagree with your liberal theology.” “That’s fine,” I said. God works through us despite our differences… Hopefully when the walls come tumblin’ down.
It’s not about one of us being right and the other is wrong. It’s about being open to the experiences other people have and believing that God is working in the midst of them.
It’s about believing that Christ ushered in the Age of God’s Grace, and we’re called to live that way. Didn’t he transform the old law of Moses into a new covenant of God’s love and grace, mercy and forgiveness, inclusion and welcome, new life and resurrection? Aren’t we supposed to live as people of grace? As people of the resurrection?
So, I went to two Ministerium meetings last week. I told you about my experience at Thursday’s meeting. On Tuesday, however, our UCC’s Lancaster Association Ministerium met, and the topic was capital punishment. Our speaker was a pastor who served as a chaplain for prisoners on death row. We began to explore why we have capital punishment, the act of legally taking a life because the incarcerated person took someone else’s life.
We discussed the perception that our culture might be stuck in the old law of Moses and not the new age of grace brought in by Christ. The eye-for-an-eye mentality is that justice means getting even, enacting revenge. Justice is not thought of as seeking fairness and restoration of broken relationships through means of grace and love. We discussed how we’ve gotten this way as a culture, as a society.
My thought is that the message of Christ’s new covenant of grace and love, forgiveness and mercy are drowned out by society’s and political leader’s louder voices—voices of revenge and myopic understandings of justice. Our societal practices follow right along those with the louder voices.
What if though, the progressive church loudly spoke a different message in our culture? What if we spoke about and the practiced love, mercy, forgiveness, loudly? What if we lived the word of God, even if we can’t get our heads around it? That’s what faith is for. We are asked to have faith in the way of Christ. The way of God’s grace. What if, on faith, we changed the message people hear? Revenge, intolerance, inhospitality, exclusivity - what if they all get drowned out by speaking out and living out the messages of love and grace, mercy and forgiveness, inclusion and welcome, new life and resurrection.
Change the voice people hear, change the world.
Change the message people hear, change the world.
Change the practices we engage in, change the world.
And the walls come tumblin’ down.
Jesus’ words we hear in the gospel of John are words he said to his disciples at the Last Supper. His words - they’re from a dying man who knows he has very little time left. Like a man dying on hospice care, he wants his family to hear his last words—words of supreme importance, words that are his legacy, words that have the power to change the world. He is calling on them and all his followers to love. To love one another. This dying man wants God’s love to reign supreme, for love to be the loudest voice, for love to by the identifying mark on a person that reveals that they are saved by God and a follower of Christ.
Will we, as Christ’s followers carry on that legacy? Will we speak that message with the loudest voice? If not us, then who? If not the church, then what institution? Can we be the church that is Spirit led? That reaches out to victims of injustice? That out of love becomes a partner in Christ’s ministry?
The good news is that Christ’s dying words were not his last words or actions. God raised Jesus from the dead, and the risen Christ continues to reach to us in our hearts, in our spirit. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ continues to show us how to love each other each new day.
And what happens? The walls come tumblin’ down. Crumblin,’ crumblin.’ When the walls come tumblin,’ tumblin’ down. Amen.
Let’s stand and sing our hymn. Amen.