Jun 19, 2022
God Plays No Favorites
Rev. Jim Waugh
Acts 10: 9-16; 23-36
When was your last “aha” moment? What is an aha moment? Merriam-Webster defines it this way, “a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension.” It’s one of those moments that when experience it, it changes the way that look at an issue or maybe life itself. It is a moment of insight.
So, as we turn to the text that I read today, we find a big aha moment for Peter and for the early church, but also an aha for us in the church today. You know when an organization or a movement is just starting up, there are a lot of things you must figure out.
I have been involved for the last several months with the startup of a new group in Grove City. It is a new Pride organization – Pride in GC. This is the first time that a Pride group has organized in Grove City. Well, someone had to call a group together to begin the work of organizing the group and there are all kinds of questions:
· What is our target area?
· What is our mission?
· Do we organize as a 501.3c or 501.4c organization?
· Will we charge dues? How much?
· What about a logo?
· How about by-laws?
· Those are just a few of the questions that we had to deal with.
Well, it turns out that the early Christians had some pretty big questions on their plate after Jesus left and ascended into heaven. Even after they waited for the power of the Holy Spirit to come upon them at the day we now know as Pentecost as we celebrated a couple of weeks ago, there were still important matters to be decided.
Foremost among those questions for the early church was, “What about the Gentiles?” And that’s where the account in Acts 10 comes in for us today.
The biggest controversy in the first few years of the church was whether to fully include Gentiles as Gentiles, or whether they needed to be circumcised first.
The early church consisted of Jewish believers. The Gentiles were on the outside of that circle. There was a Biblical Law in Genesis 17:10, “Every male among you must be circumcised.” If a male was not circumcised, they were labeled as unclean. This was a stumbling block for many Gentiles in the first few years of the church because Gentiles were not circumcised.
So, before where I began reading in Chapter 10 today, Cornelius was introduced. He is described as a “thoroughly good man.” We are told that he led those in his household to live worshipfully before God. He helped those in need, and he was a man of prayer.
But –and this is a big BUT, Cornelius was a Roman. He was a Gentile, and on top of that he was a Roman soldier who occupying Israel. As someone has said, “Cornelius was about as kosher as a double bacon cheeseburger.” However, it was to this Roman Gentile that an angel appeared with a message that he should send for Peter who was staying in Joppa.
A few days later, Peter was about to experience his own vision when he went out on the balcony where he was staying in Joppa. He was hungry, and he was thinking about lunch. You never know what might happen when a man starts thinking about his next meal.
In this case as one writer says, “The apostle Peter had a vision while he was on a roof. He saw a sheet coming down from heaven – kind of like a big picnic blanket -- with many animals that according to Biblical Law were unclean. Peter wasn’t even allowed to touch those animals. But he heard God say to him, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ Peter replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ He always followed the kosher law.
Like any good Jew, Peter kept the Jewish dietary restrictions. Peter was being a good follower of the dietary laws. But God was changing Peter’s understanding of the law. God said to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Or as the Message version says, “The voice came a second time, ‘If God says okay, it’s okay.” This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the skies. That blew Peter’s mind so much that God had to repeat it three times. After all, Peter was just following the law. And now God was doing something radically new!
As someone noted, “When Peter woke up from his vision, he realized that the message wasn’t merely about eating bacon.” At this point, as Peter struggles to understand what had just happened to him, he does not even know anything about this man Cornelius. Soon, however, he would receive the group of men whom Cornelius sent to summons Peter to Cornelius’ house.
We are told in the text that this group of men met Peter and took him to this Gentile’s home. When he entered Cornelius’ house, Peter said that it was unlawful for him to even be there, but then he flips the script of Biblical Law forever, “but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
Peter then asked Cornelius why he had sent for him. Cornelius responded by sharing how God had given him a vision to request Peter’s presence and his message. So, with bated breath Cornelius and his household are now waiting to hear the message that God has put on Peter’s heart to share with them. As the Message version of this text reports, “Peter fairly exploded with his good news: “It’s God’s truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from – if you want God and are ready to do as (God) says, the door is open. The Message he sent to the children of Israel – that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again – well, he’s doing it everywhere, among everyone.”
Then, in the next portion of the scripture from Acts that we did not read today, Peter proceeds to share the message of what God had done in Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and the work that the followers of Jesus were now sent out to do to proclaim this message.
We are told that the as soon as Peter finished his message, the Holy Spirit fell up Cornelius and those with him. The believing Jews with Peter couldn’t believe that the Gentiles had experienced the Holy Spirit. Peter then proceeds to baptize all the household of Cornelius as these Gentiles were now included in the family of faith of the early Christian church.
So, God is active here in this account of Peter and Cornelius. As one writer puts it, “God’s pastoral project is to bring us into an understanding of God’s will so that we may better collaborate with God in the work of salvation. The conversion of Cornelius takes Peter by surprise but not because God decides at the last moment to save an uncircumcised Gentile. As one writer says, “The universal embrace of divine love was promised to Abraham and prophesied by Scripture long before Cornelius was saved.”
But Peter still did not get it, his religious parochialism caused him to divide people into “clean” (repentant Jews) and “unclean” (uncircumcised Gentiles). God’s redemptive purpose for Gentiles could not be realized unless Peter changed his mind.
The issue here is by what manner does Peter learn God’s will to obey it and serve God’s redemptive interests. Peter’s story here helps in two ways in finding God’s will for our lives. Again, as one writer notes, “First, we learn of God’s will from God rather than from our own resources – Peter says, ‘God has shown me” --- As someone has put it, “The Lord is not a passive bystander or a disinterested partner but is committed to a process of disclosure by which God’s will is made known to us.
Second, we typically learn God’s will over time through a series of those “aha” experiences. Peter’s vision of the sheet with the unclean animals set before him initially baffled him.
Peter’s understanding of his Gentile mission grew through a series of events:
· He heard Cornelius testify to his own vision when the angel said that he should send for Peter to visit him and his household.
· Peter had his own moment of internal reflection when he was so puzzled by the vision when God directed him to “kill and eat” and that it was “okay” for him to eat these unclean foods.
· And he grew in his understanding through hearing the reports from others about what a God-fearing man Cornelius was.
Peter only turned to scripture for confirmation only after he learned through these multiple experiences over several days that God’s forgiveness is offered to all people without partiality.
So, this was Peter’s aha moment. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality – God plays no favorites.
Too often those believers who think themselves among God’s “chosen” are often inclined to think that that God has not chosen anyone else who disagrees with their beliefs or with their interpretation of scripture. How often do we see this happen today? We label our disagreeable opponents to disenfranchise them. They are “liberal” or “conservative” or “gay” or “transgender” or Jewish” or “Baptist” or “female” or “black” or divorced” – just to name a few.
Yet what has become crystal clear to Peter is that to do so is not the prerogative of pious Israel or anyone else, It is God alone who judges the living and the dead. As one writer notes, “One of the most surprising features of Acts is the diversity of people God calls to be included among God’s people – all of whom are symbolized by the (Gentile) Cornelius.”
Someone has said that American Christians need to have an Acts 10: 28 moment. Of course, they are referring to Peter’s experience in the passage we have looked at today where Peter had his aha moment and declared “… but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
Has God shown us that we should never call anyone unholy or unclean? Yes! More than three times. But we still seem to struggle with this very simple concept.
As one writer has said, “I wish Christians today would take this verse to heart. Print it up on t-shirts. Slap that bumper sticker on you SUV. Post and share that meme on your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram page.”
Peter’s vision and what he learned from it is that God plays no favorites. That means no one is rejected. No one is excluded. Not gay people, not transgender people, not Muslims, not Atheists, not Democrats, not Republicans, not Black Lives Matter, not anyone, anywhere, at any time for any reason.
I’ve had my aha moments, too, on my journey toward the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the faith community. I’m grateful that back in the 80’s when my views on the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the church and support for families of LGBTQ families was just emerging in my thoughts that God’s Holy Spirit was working on me. I knew that in the small-town church I served I had a family that before I became their pastor, their son had come out as an adult and had left his wife and declared that he was gay. Well, I bought my first back on the subject of homosexuality --The Parents of the Homosexual Child published in 1980 -- so I could learn more before I talked with this family about their son and show my support and care for them.
Little did I know that forty years later, I would be offering classes for parents whose kids have come out. And now, I am resourcing others who want to offer classes or support for parents when their kids have come out.
When I was a district superintendent in the 1990s when Judy Craig was our bishop. At the General Conference in 1996, Judy was among fifteen bishops who broke with the Council of Bishops and made a public statement at that conference that the doors of the church should be open to LGBTQ+ persons. That statement created a lot of controversy among some congregations in our annual conference including some in the Athens District where I served. As I went out to speak to and listen to these congregations, I was placed in a position where I had to figure out what I believed about God’s love for all people and that being gay was not a lifestyle choice, not something that condemns someone to eternal damnation, but being LGBTQ+ is who people are in their best authentic personhood as children of God.
Then our daughter Lisa came out to us as lesbian twenty-two years ago. As a dad on this Father’s Day, I’m glad that God was already working on me before then to show me that God’s love extends to God’s LGBTQ+ children. I was already on my way when Lisa told us she was gay. I loved her then, and I love her and her partner Melissa today just like I love our daughter Laura and her husband Jason and our two grandchildren.
It was through my witness of the lives of faithful people who happen to be LGBTQ+ and through seeing in the scriptures the love that Jesus came to proclaim that God loves all of God’s children that I was prepared to love my daughter, to offer support for parents of LGBTQ+ children, and to become an ally seeking justice in the United Methodist Church.
Yes, I, too, have had my aha moments where God has showed me that God plays no favorites, and that God loves all. And I’ll probably have more of them in the future because I’m sure God isn’t finished with me yet.
Today we are still in a struggle for the soul of the United Methodist Church as we have been for the last fifty years. God is still calling us to be faithful as we welcome and accepts all of God’s children. And while many gains have been made in the larger culture for LGBTQ+ persons, many are still at risk especially LGBTQ+ children who are at a higher risk of suicide.
Transgender persons are especially being targeted in these days. That includes families of transgender children who are in need of support medically and with counseling that some politicians are trying to deny them. I just read on Friday about a resolution passed by the North Texas Annual Conference pledging to defy Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's order to have parents of transgender children investigated if they seek life-saving gender-affirming care for their youngsters.
The resolution put the state on notice that more than 600 North Texas clergy, along with nearly 130,000 United Methodists in 277 churches covering 22 counties have declared themselves safe sanctuaries for trans families," said the Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Moore, the resolution's author, during a sermon June 12 at St. Stephen United Methodist Church in Mesquite, Texas, a Dallas suburb. "This resolution tells the state that we will not criminalize life-saving medical care that medical authorities say is appropriate for trans children," Dr. Moore said.
I hope it doesn’t come to that in the state of Ohio, but with legislation about transgender children coming before the Ohio legislature, the congregations of the West OH Conference – we -- may be called upon to take up such a stance in support of transgender children and their families. We need to stand with those families and with all LGBTQ+ persons and in these days. We are called to live out the truth that God plays no favorites.
In a devotional I read this spring, the writer said that the ubiquitous “All are Welcome” sign has become disdained in many church circles. She writes that it is not that churches do not wish to welcome all people. The tension is between the desire and the execution. Churches often welcome all who can fit in to the often narrow group of whom the people in that church find acceptable.
The writer continues by asking “What if the new vogue in church signs were, “We See with Christ’s Eyes”?
· A church living up to this sign would hold its traditions and habits lightly. It would create new ways when the old ones cause harm or limit the church’s ability to share love and power.
· The people of the congregation would see themselves as a new generation of apostles sent out into the world to see Christ in others and returning every week for prayer, renewal, and to share stories of the new creation.
· In this beloved community, no one is considered from a human perspective but in the light of divine love.
· People are accepted for who they say they are.
· Good boundaries are established and kept.
· Honesty is valued, encouraged, and praised.
· No one grieves alone. Forgiveness abounds and reparations are respected as necessary.
Indeed, if we want to mean, “All are Welcome,” then we must demonstrate how we see all people through Christ’s eyes.
What would it mean for us and for this church and for the church at large to see with others with the eyes of Christ?
What would happen if we were to seek to live out the lesson that was revealed to Peter in our text today?
The encounter of Peter with Cornelius and God revealing to Peter that none are profane or unclean changed the course of the early church and its mission to all people.
God give us a vision and help us to learn that lesson anew in this day for the sake of all your children including your LGBTQ+ children and their families. Let us have our own aha moment as we realize that love is for all. Let us seek to see others with the eyes of Christ.
It’s God’s own truth: nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites. It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from – if you want God and are ready to do as (God) says, the door is open to you!
So let us seek to live in this day!