Sermon preached by Erin Dunigan, November 15, 2009
Covenant Presbyterian Church, Long Beach
God, it seems, often has much bigger plans for us than we can often see ourselves. Sometimes calling us to a deeper place, a place that may even seem to break all the rules. But somehow along the way, we tend to forget that and have to be reminded again and again.
Kind of like Peter.
Our passage today seems to me like it would make a good movie—cutting from one scene to the next, pretty dramatic with all of those angelic visions appearing. And the timing of it is fantastic—just as Peter is having this strange vision, mysteriously three men arrive at the door looking for him. He is still so caught up in the vision and what it means that the Spirit has to shake him out of it and tell him to go answer the door.
To Peter’s credit, he is open to the new things that God is revealing to him, through the vision and through the visitors. I wonder, would we be so open? If God were to take what we thought was the way things worked, the way they were supposed to be, and turned them upside down? If all of a sudden one day God told us it was time to shake things up a bit…perhaps to turn the inside out, and turn the outside in…?
Earlier this year I decided that 2009 would be the year I learned to surf. I grew up by the beach, and have always wanted to know how to surf, but never have learned. It occurred to me that it is not too late to try, so this summer I got myself a used wetsuit and borrowed a friend’s board and began.
The first thing I realized is that it is a lot harder to stand up on a surfboard than it looks when you see people doing it. Not the actual balancing part, but the move from laying down to standing up part. I knew in my head what it was supposed to look like, but I could not seem to get my body to actually do it. After my first attempt left me with bloodied and skinned knees I realized I’d have to get some help to figure it out.
Peter couldn’t figure it out. Sure he was hungry and all, but the vision didn’t seem to make any sense. I’m not sure if you’ve ever gone grocery shopping when you are hungry, but when I do that pretty much anything seems to look good to me. It doesn’t matter if it is something I would normally eat—if I’m hungry and it’s there, my stomach says eat.
So we might understand that if Peter went up on the roof to pray while he was hungry, he’d start to think about food. But the thing is, Peter was a good Jew and as a good Jew he followed dietary restrictions that were strict in what they allowed him to eat and absolutely prohibited him from eating. It would be like us being hungry and praying and all of a sudden having a vision of a feast of rats…
But during this vision a voice tells Peter, not once but three times, ‘kill and eat.’
“Of course not Lord—I would never consider doing any such thing! I am a good Jew, I follow the rules, I know what is okay and what is not okay.”
So it makes sense that Peter was a bit confused as he awoke from the vision, and didn’t know what to make of it.
Was God telling him to break the rules? Was God changing the rules?
All of a sudden one day, while I was out ‘surfing’ or more like, ‘while I was out falling off the surfboard’ it happened…I popped up. I went from the position of lying down on the board to standing up in one relatively smooth motion. I was so excited that I immediately lost my balance and fell off—but it didn’t matter, I stood up! Sure, it was only whitewater that I was catching, not the actual breaking waves—those were much further out, in deeper water, and past where I could touch. I was thrilled. I could surf!
Each time I went out I got better and better, so that I rarely fell and could pretty much stay standing on the board all the way into the shore. Yes, I was still catching the whitewater, but hey, I could stand up!
All this time I had been learning I was in Mexico, mostly with a group of friends who were body boarding at the same time. Then one day I saw that a couple of other surfers were heading out into the waves. They waved to us as they paddled out beyond the whitewater where we were, out into the deep water, where the waves were breaking.
As I watched them catch the waves further out, I realized that what I had been calling surfing was really only the first step—sure, I could now pop up and stand up, but if you are going to surf you’ve got to move beyond just catching the whitewater. If you’re going to surf, you’ve got to get, what they call, ‘outside’ to where the waves are forming. It’s deep out there so you can’t just stand up with the board next to you; ready to jump on when the next whitewater comes along. You’ve got to be willing to go deeper, to risk not being able to touch, and to be willing to fall in the process.
The thing about Peter was, he was willing to act, even if he didn’t really understand what was going on. The vision he had had made no sense to him, and now three strange men had showed up at the door with a rather crazy story of God appearing to a soldier…a Gentile.
Peter’s head must have been swimming by this point. “Okay, I’ve just had this vision of God telling me to eat what any good Jew knows is unclean, and how this? Now the same God is showing up in visions to Gentiles, telling them to call for me? What is going on here Lord, what are you up to, what are you doing? Aren’t you changing all the rules? I thought you were our God, remember, the chosen people of Israel? What are you doing speaking to those kind of people? And what in the world do you want me to do about it? I’m trying to be faithful to you, I’m telling the news about Jesus to your people, the Jews. What more do you want from me?” But God, it seems, was calling Peter to go outside.
Now, as a Jew Peter knew that there were two groups of people—the Jews, of which he was a part, God’s chosen people, and the Gentiles, which was basically everyone else who was not Jewish. What was the God of Israel, the God of the Jews, doing showing up talking to Cornelius, a Gentile? This was more than uncommon—it was unclean, as far as Peter was concerned.
But God had other plans. The Spirit nudged Peter out of his confusion and told him to go with the men, asking no questions. Peter invited the men in, then he and some other believers went with them the next day (on a two day journey) to the house of Cornelius.
When they arrived not only did they find Cornelius, but he had gathered his friends and family together as well.
It was then that the light bulb went off for Peter, it was then that he saw that God was calling him to venture beyond the whitewater out toward the forming waves…
We might be tempted to miss this, but don’t—this is huge. One of the major ways to know who was a Jew and who was not was what one ate and who one ate it with. In the vision, which Peter now understands, God said to him “You know the ways that you know who is in and who is out? Well, actually, those aren’t my ways…”
Peter walked in and said to them,
You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.
So why did you send for me?
Cornelius answers, telling the story of the vision from God saying
Therefore I sent for you immediately and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.
Can you imagine if that were to happen today?
Last week I was at a conference for New Church Development pastors. One of the speakers was pastor Muriithi Wanjau, the pastor of Mavuno Chapel in Nairobi Kenya. In 2005 the existing church decided to split into five churches, each in a different geographic region of Nairobi. Pastor Muriithi became the pastor of Mavuno Chapel, which means church of the harvest. Their goal is to reach out to those in their neighborhood who are not a part of the church already.
In Kenya 80% of the population claims to be Christian, but on any given Sunday only 16% are actually in church. It’s not all that unlike the United States in that way, is it?
Pastor Muriithi and the leaders of the Mavuno Chapel feel that God is calling them to those who are the least likely to show up in a church—in fact, they have gotten in trouble with some of the ‘church people’ for the kind of folks they are attracting. Their favorite thing to do at their staff meetings Monday following that Sunday’s services is to say, did you see who was in church on Sunday? Mavuno Chapel is drawing in people who, in the words of pastor Muriithi, have no business being in church.
After Peter spoke with those gathered at Cornelius’ household the Holy Spirit came upon all who were gathered. The other believers with Peter, also good Jews, were shocked that the Holy Spirit had come upon the Gentiles—they thought that the message of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit were reserved for the Jews. They thought that they Holy Spirit had no business showing up in a room full of Gentiles. The entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, was a story of God and the People of Israel, wasn’t it? It had never occurred to them that God’s vision might just be larger than anything they could have imagined.
When word got back to the believers in Jerusalem that Peter had baptized a bunch of Gentiles there were some who were not pleased with the news. What was Peter doing associating with those kind of people? And not only associating with them, but baptizing them too?! Those kind of people had no business being in church…
We might be tempted to think this is just a story from the Bible, and things that happen in Kenya are pretty far away from our lives, our world, from Long Beach.
But I wonder if God is trying to get our attention?
I wonder if we in the church today, here in Long Beach and in the Los Ranchos Presbytery and even in the United States, I wonder if we have gotten comfortable surfing the whitewater, and yet God is calling us to paddle out, to the deeper waters, where we can’t touch, where we might fall, but where we might just catch the wave that God has been preparing?
I wonder if God is calling those of us who are inside the church to go out, and if God is calling the outside in? What would that look like?
I wonder what it might look like for us to realize along with Peter, that truly God shows no partiality, absolutely none, and that it is not ours to call anyone profane or unclean?
For that day in Caesarea, at the house of Cornelius, there was most definitely a conversion. We might be tempted to think that it was Cornelius and his household that were converted, and of course, their hearing of the gospel and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit were life-changing—but the thing is, Cornelius was already a devout man who gave to the poor and prayed constantly to God. For Cornelius, Peter’s words that day confirmed something he had already begun to believe, helped Cornelius meet a God who had already been speaking to him.
But if conversion means a turning around, a change of heart and of mind, I wonder if it was not Peter who was converted that day as well? Converted into widening his vision for who God might be calling. Converted into realizing that the message he had been preaching was for all people, regardless of who they are.
What about the early church itself? The baptism of Cornelius and his household was the beginning of the message of the gospel of Jesus moving outside, out from simply being a message to the Jews, and toward a message for all people. It is because of that day that we sit here today.
As individuals and as a church I wonder, is God calling us to go outside, for the benefit of the world, but even for our own conversion, and for the conversion of our church?
And I wonder if God just may have much bigger plans for us than we as individuals or as a church can imagine…?