"Blurring the Boundaries"
Scripture – Acts 10:44-48
Sermon Preached by Randall T. Clayton
Sunday, May 10, 2015

In the early days of the church, the Christian Church was made up of people who had been Jewish first. These Christians continued to keep the laws and regulations that had been passed down to them. Meat and dairy were never mixed. Shellfish was never consumed. Jews did not associate with Gentiles, unless of course, the Gentiles became Jewish. So when the Gentiles came wanting in, the Christians said, "No." It wasn't that they were being mean. But rather, in their eyes, it was a matter of fidelity to scripture, integrity to tradition, loyalty to God. So they said "No" when they heard the Gentiles knock at their door. When the knocking became persistent, perhaps the insiders tightened up their security, installed some cameras, and bolted the doors tightly. After all, they had read scripture; they had been schooled in the synagogue; they knew that traditions of the past; and they knew what was comfortable and meaningful to them (and they weren't willing to let any of that be challenged).

But then one day there was some rooftop prayer, an angel, a couple of visions, a messenger, and a sermon interrupted by the Spirit, and suddenly it became clear: not only is there a wideness in God's mercy that blurs the boundaries we design, but also that their vision of what God was up to and how God intended to accomplish it was just too small.

According to the way Luke records the story whose conclusion you heard a few minutes ago, there once was an officer in the Roman army named Cornelius. He was not Jewish, and would have been considered by birth, religion, occupation, and nationality as someone definitely beyond the boundaries of God's community. He was, in some ways, the consummate outsider in the eyes of the early church. He didn't act like them, dress like them, eat like them. He probably didn't even look like them. Had he shown up at the door to the room where the Christians were meeting, they would have sent him away quickly – not out of meanness or hardheartedness, but because they were convinced he was not included, or at least that he couldn't be included, until and unless he really and truly became like them. They would admit him into the church if and only if he changed.

Although Cornelius was not a Jew, he was a devout man. He read the scriptures; he prayed to God; he visited the sick, fed the poor, rescued the perishing. I'm pretty certain that had he gotten a pledge card from the stewardship committee of any church in the community, he would have quickly filled it out. But he wasn't Jewish so the early Christians would have had nothing to do with him.

Around 3 o'clock one afternoon – about the time when any of us might be ready for a power nap or a stout cup of coffee to get through the rest of the afternoon – Cornelius saw an angel. "What is it Lord?" he said. And the angel replied, "Send your people to Joppa to fetch a man named Peter." Cornelius, did just that. He sent 2 of his servants and one of his most faithful soldiers toward Joppa bearing an invitation for a man he didn't know named Peter, to come.

Meanwhile, over in Joppa, Peter was sitting on his rooftop, praying. As the clock was ticking steadily onward, he realized he was getting quite hungry. About that time, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opening up, and something that might be described as a large sheet being lowered to the ground by all four corners. On this sheet were all manner of animals. And he heard a voice say, "Peter, get up. Feast on these animals." Despite his hunger, Peter's stomach revolted at the very thought of eating the animals on that sheet. You see, the animals on that sheet were considered unclean and untouchable by the Jewish people. From his study of scripture and out of his understanding of tradition he knew that he must never taste any of those animals. "By no means," he said, "will I eat these animals." But the same voice that invited him to eat of the animals, pursued the rooftop praying Peter. That voice called out to him saying, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane. "What God has made clean, you must not call profane," he heard again: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." And then the sheet was gone. Confused? I suspect Peter was. Unsettled? That too!

And then, low and behold, visitors arrived asking him to go with them to see a Roman Centurion named Cornelius who lived over in Caesarea. With the vision of that sheet bearing unclean animals still dancing in his head and the voice saying, "What God has made clean you must not call profane" still ringing in his ears, Peter went. When he arrived in Caesarea where Cornelius lived, Peter gingerly stepped inside his house. He had rarely, if ever, set foot in the house of a Gentile before. But that sheet bearing unclean animals stuck in his mind and that voice was still sounding in his ears.

Peter and his entourage were greeted by Cornelius' household with open arms, and Cornelius then told Peter about his vision in which he was told to send for Peter. Now that Peter was there, Cornelius knew that God had sent him. And so he said to Peter, "Since God sent you here, I'm ready to listen to whatever you have to say." Peter said, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality..."

A sermon just started flowing out of Peter's mouth. With each sentence his voice got stronger, his body more animated, his new found conviction deepened. Tentative words became bold assertions as it became clearer to him that those boundaries he thought were divinely ordained, were just not. Those rules he believed were dictated by scripture? Not so either. God was going to have a church that was far bigger than anyone had imagined; one far more diverse than the people assumed. And if that meant that the insiders had to change, that the church had to change, so be it.

In the middle of his eloquent and passionate words Peter was interrupted. He was interrupted by God's Spirit falling on all who were present. Peter, his entourage, and everyone in that house was amazed, astonished, unsettled, that even the Gentiles got some Spirit. For Peter, this was the final confirmation of what began on a rooftop with a vision of a sheet and a voice pursuing him...if the Spirit rested even on outsiders, then the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable, insider and outsider, were far more blurry than he ever imagined. And if that was the case, then indeed, it wasn't the outsider who needed to change to be welcomed into the church. It was the church that needed to change in order to be welcoming to those outside. Truly, if as was the case that day, the Spirit doesn't have "respect for boundaries, privilege, tradition or institution" (Willimon, William, "Living By the Word," Christian Century, April 17, 1991, pg. 427) then perhaps we shouldn't either, Peter came to understand.

"So baptize them all," Peter instructed. "We can't withhold the waters of life from any on whom the spirit rests even if they don't act like us, worship like us, eat like us, look like us. Yes, baptize them all."

Of course here we have no problem admitting into membership people who were not Jewish or even Presbyterian prior to knocking at our doors, so I wonder, where is the intersection of this story and our church life today?

We live in a world today in which there simply aren't a lot of outsiders knocking on our doors to come in. At least, not here in the United States. In pretty much every denomination across the theological spectrum membership numbers are trending downward, the average age of attendees is moving upward, finances are getting tighter, while it becomes increasingly difficult to fill leadership positions.

This past spring I attended a national gathering of Presbyterian leaders organized by a group called NEXT Church. NEXT Church seeks to foster conversations about how to follow Christ in our day and age and its leadership believes that the church of the future is one which will be far more relational, diverse, collaborative, and agile than the church we know and love. They believe we need to seek nothing sort of a change in the culture of the church so that we can continue to share faithfully the good news of the gospel in ways that bear fruit in a fractured world (for more info, see www.nextchurch.net).

In commenting on the numerical declines in our churches, one of the speakers at the gathering suggested that we need to be honest and admit that we have failed...we have failed as a church to speak an authentic Word in the world in which we live. As a result, fewer and fewer people are finding the church to be a vital place in their spiritual pilgrimage and our pews get emptier with each passing year. I think that if we are able to acknowledge that we have failed, then perhaps we begin to open ourselves to the difficult, hard, yet life-giving task of rethinking everything...our structure, our worship, our education, our service, everything.

No, we don't exclude those who come from different religious traditions here, but like the young church of Peter's day, I do think we in the church tend to have a vision for where we are going that is based on what we've experienced in the past more than it is based on what God may be trying to nudge us to do in the future. And I've been around enough churches to feel pretty certain that like the church in Peter's day, we in the church today have services of worship that are meaningful to us who are already on the inside and that we worship at times that are convenient for those of us who are already here. I've been around enough different congregations to believe that we in the church have structures and processes that make sense to us who have grown accustomed to them. And, we have traditions that speak loudly to us who have participated in them year-after-year. On top of that, we in the church use language that only we in the church understand. And so, I wonder if on some subtle, or maybe not so subtle level, we expect those on the outside to change to fit in with what we on the inside are comfortable and familiar with, rather than letting our ways on the inside be informed by the needs, perspectives, experiences, desires, and culture of those on the outside. But if we are to be a community, a church, that speaks a liberating word of God's love in Jesus Christ to Oliver, whom Greg baptized a few minutes ago, or to Penny or Griffin or Julia whom we baptized last month; or, for that matter, if we are to be a church that speaks a liberating word to the hordes of adults of all ages who don't find the community of faith speaking an authentic word in their lives, then it is my prayer and my hope that we in the church can grasp what Peter grasped...that the Spirit of God doesn't always respect the boundaries we draw, or the traditions we love, or the worship that makes us comfortable, or the structures that are so familiar and which have worked so well in days gone by.

Although I know it may not be easy for us on the inside of the church to let go of what we may need to let go of, or to embrace what we may be called to embrace, in order that the generations to come will find the church to be a vital part of their lives, I'm not especially pessimistic about the future of the church in general. Oh yes, some congregations will not survive, that's true. But this God of ours is a God of infinite possibilities. This God of ours has given us the amazing ability to dream dreams and invites us to try to imagine into being a new church...a church that speaks and lives an authentic and life giving word of God's love in Jesus Christ to those who have not yet stood at the font or graced the pews.

I'm not especially pessimistic about the future of the church because I believe God's Spirit is still moving in the world and in the church. And I know that there is still a table to share, a haven of welcome to offer, people to baptize, a life giving Gospel to embody. This being the case, I think God will keep pushing and prodding and loving us until we get it right. Amen.

Prayers of the People ~ Gregory Knox Jones ~ Mother's Day Prayer 2015

Gracious God, as we address you in prayer, we are mindful that we know you by many names. We know you as the Creator who gives shape to the immense universe and brings forth life. We know you as a King who issues laws designed to structure just communities and provides principles for us to live together in peace. We know you as a Shepherd who guides us to places of nourishment and walks beside us through the darkest valleys. On this day when we remember and celebrate mothers, we are mindful that you are like a loving parent and we are your children.

Like our mother from whom we were born, we are deeply grateful: that you are the creative energy that makes life possible, that you love us and seek the best for us, that you forgive us when we fail to extend kindness, respect and love, and that you challenge us to become a more complete person than we are today.

Everlasting God, "We pray for mothers who are expecting the birth of their child. Grant them patience and good counsel in the coming months. We pray for new mothers experiencing changes they could not predict. Grant them rest and assurance as they trust you for the future. We pray for older mothers whose children are grown. Grant them joy and satisfaction regarding their years of nurturing. We pray for mothers who face the demands of single parenthood. Grant them strength and wisdom. We pray for mothers who are raising their children in poverty. Grant them relief and justice. We pray for step-mothers. Grant them forbearance, understanding and love. We pray for mothers who are separated from their children. Grant them faith and hope. We pray for mothers who have suffered the loss of children. Grant them comfort and hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ."1

We pray for mothers who were too wounded or ill or who for whatever reason failed to love and care for their children as you intend. Grant them forgiveness and new life, and bring healing to their children.

Loving God, as we pause to remember our own mothers, we give great thanks for all in them that was right and true and good. Especially, we are grateful: for nurturing us when we were young and unable to care for ourselves, for loving us when we were not especially easy to love, for comforting us when we were sad, afraid or hurt, and for showing us the importance of a spiritual life.

Now, hear us as we pray the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, saying, Our Father...

  1. From "Liturgy for Mothers," source unknown