8.28.22 Sermon Transcript "Visions, Acts and Witnesses"
In Acts 10, after talking about Jesus teaching and his healings, Peter continues his testimony. He has gone to this Gentile's house. Cornelius, a God-fearing man. has gathered his friends and his neighbors and his relatives to hear what Peter has to say. And Peter bears witness to Christ and him crucified. Tom read Peter’s witness about the healing ministry and the teaching. Peter's speech continues in Acts ten about the crucifixion and the resurrection. We've been talking over the last several weeks about what United Methodists believe, and in particular about what we believe about God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit ;that Jesus is the Word made flesh. The fullness of God, the fullness of humanity, joining in ways that shatter our comprehension, that go beyond our capacity for understanding. God, with us and for us, God's suffering with us and for us The Word made flesh. The Word that we learn about by reading the Scriptures. Love, incarnate… God is love. And part of our understanding of God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as this eternal dance. Of relationship, of love.
God is complete in God's self and yet God so loves the world not only does God give his only Son for the world, God pulls back and creates intentionally the world. Creates intentionally humanity. That we, that all of creation, might join in this eternal dance of love.
We talk about this in terms of grace. of God's gift of Grace. The grace that surrounds us before we're even aware of it. Prevenient grace. That means coming before and we talk about grace as justified, making us right before God because of what Christ has done for us. Disgrace that surrounds us, that empowers us, that justifies us, that invites us to the table. This grace that comes sanctified as we continue to respond to God's grace as we experience God's love and God's grace more and more fully. We become like Christ. And because this is God's doing, not our effort, Because this is God's doing, Wesley rather controversially or said that we could become fully sanctified in this life, not because of ourselves or our innate goodness, but because this is God's doing, and God is all powerful, and so if God so wills, we could get there. Now, by definition, if you ever met someone who claimed to be entirely sanctified, they would not be because they're committing the sin of pride. So it one of those both ends, one of those mysteries but what Wesley was going for is that this is God's grace. This is God's power working within us and so there really are no limits to what God can do except the limits God sets which is to give us free will, to give us the capacity to say no to God. And we have that in Wesley's understanding because if you cannot say no, you can't truly say yes and love is ultimately saying yes. and so we have this capacity by the grace of God in the love of God Our reading today comes from Acts.
The Acts of the Apostle, the book is formally known. It's certainly written by the same author that wrote the gospel of Luke and it is the continuing story of the early believers after the resurrection. What do we do? Now that Jesus has ascended back to heaven. How do we organize ourselves? How do we tell the story? and in Acts two, the story really begins with the day of Pentecost that we've talked about. The wind and tongues of fire… the disciples, in particular, Peter, bursting forth out of the locked room, telling the story of the resurrection of the risen Christ. And on Pentecost, we celebrate that that story was told and then everyone heard in their own language, our human barriers are human finitude, limitations are overcome by the work of the spirit. Each person hears, understands, not by Peter's power of oration but by the work of the spirit within us.
The Acts of the Apostle goes on telling stories of different apostles, Philip, James, John, but in particular, Peter and Paul. Last week, we talked a little bit about Acts nine and Paul's encounter on the road to Damascus. Acts 10 is all about a vision Peter has but first, it's about a vision a centurion named Cornelius has. Cornelius is a Roman soldier, a centurion would have been the commander of a unit of a century – that is, 100 men. He is part of the occupying force. He would have been despised for that by most Jews and yet, he is a Godly man. He is a God fearer. The term Jews use for those non0Jews, the uncircumcised, the Gentiles, who nonetheless have found something about this God of Israel. That they worship, that they pray.
Now, they have not become Jewish. They've not converted in particular. They've not been circumcised. They may or may not follow the dietary laws and other religion traditions but they are enamored of this God of Israel. They were often very kind to the Jews that they were part of the occupying force for. Cornelius, Acts 10 tells us, praise devoutly and receives a message. The message is to send for this man named Peter. As Cornelius' messengers are dispatched. Peter is having his own vision. We're told that he is particularly hungry and while he's waiting on lunch to be prepared, he goes up to the roof. And he falls into a trance. And he sees this vision. a sheep being lowered with all kinds of creatures on it. And those of us who have not studied the Levitical code and the dietary laws that don't spend a lot of time thinking about that kind of religious tradition might gloss over how radical the contents of the sheet are.
The contents of this this this sheet descended from heaven. The sheep that God says to Peter, “Peter, kill, and eat.” This strikes Peter as some sort of test of faith, some sort of temptation because the creatures are ritually unclean. They are not kosher. They are things that we Jews are not to eat. Peter knows this. “No, Lord. I ever eaten anything unclean.” I adhere to the laws, to the teaching. He is a Christ follower but he still considers himself Jewish. He still believes that he is following the law, that he is keeping kosher… Three times. The sheet descends, we are told, and Peter is told to kill and eat. Peter tends to have experiences in threes, we notice. The Easter story, he denies Christ three times… In John twenty-one, he is restored to the community three times. Peter, do you love me? Yes, lord. I love you. Tend my lamps. Peter, do you love me? Yes, lord. You know that I love you. Tend my sheep. Peter, do you love me? Yes, lord. I love you feed my sheep He has restored and he has become the leader.
Then on Pentecost, as I said, he is the one who speaks for the community but here he is confused. What is it God is calling him to do? And he hears the messengers arrive and the spirit speaks to him and says, I've sent these men. Go, greet them, go with them without hesitation. Peter still somewhat confused about the vision. Nonetheless, sees these Gentiles. Here's their story of Cornelius sending them and invites them in. He breaks the law. Jews and Gentiles are not to associate. That is another of the kosher laws, the Jewish laws. There's no Roman law against this, but Jews who keep kosher do not affiliate with the unclean and yet he invites them into the house, into Simon the Tanner's house, where he is staying.
And the next morning they go together, they journey from Joppa to the Centurion's house and the centurion has gathered a crowd. His family, his friends, his neighbors to hear what this holy man of God, this Jew has to say to them.
Peter when he gets over his confusion He's no longer uncertain. He sees that God does not play favorites and he bears witness to Christ's ministry of healing and teaching to his suffering and death, to his resurrection. We are witnesses of these things, he says. Then he continues: “They put him to death by hanging on a tree but God raised him the third day and allowed him to appear not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. and yet, he comes to understand that the same spirit is moving among these people He commanded us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one ordained by God to judge the living and the dead. As the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes with him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
You can see the wheels working in Peter's mind.
Everyone, not just us.
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them seeking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit? Just as we have. So we ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. And they invited him to stay for several days.
Peter's world has expanded.
The Gentile believers world has expanded. Somehow, these believers of the risen Lord, despite their differences, despite their different understandings of the law, of faith, the Holy Spirit is moving among them, bringing them together. And Peter begins to understand as Paul has begun to understand in the chapter earlier, that that's okay that we do not how have to have the same understanding, the same practices. The Spirit is calling us into unity.
We talked last week about Paul's experience. It's recounted four different times in scripture - in particular in Acts 9, that he sees this great light. He hears a voice. He understands that he has encountered the risen Christ, and because of that, he is willing now to be foolish, to proclaim this thing beyond human understanding, and to proclaim it to very people he once set out to persecute. To include in his faith, Gentiles, those who practice differently, who understand differently, and yet Christ is for all of us.
“My power is made perfect in weakness,” Christ says to Paul. It becomes a defining understanding of his ministry. He understands the God's grace is sufficient and that his message is for all people, even those, especially those different from him and he proclaims Christ and him crucified just as we heard Peter did.
We don't have very often Paul's words but we do have a hint of the message that he would share as he went to the synagogues and then often was kicked out of the synagogues and would find an audience often among these very God-fearers. Those Gentiles who had found something in the God of Israel who were hovering around and studying and praying and singing
In Philippians 2, he either pens or quotes a beautiful hymn. of Christ, the fullness of God, who did not find divinity something to cling to, but emptied himself. God in a deliberate act, empties himself creating space, and finding himself in human form, Jesus humbles himself. Even to the point of death, even Paul says, death on a cross. Therefore, Paul says, God gave is Jesus the name that is above every name So that all who hear the name of Jesus will bow, will kneel, will worship, and all of our differences and all of our diversity, the cross, the instrument of torture has been transformed into a message of hope and light, and peace. and Paul continues to write to the Philippians, “therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work within you, enabling you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure.”
That verse, that phrase was crucial to John Wesley on his journey. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Actually, went back over the last couple of days and read one of Wesley's sermons. We have a number of them. In fact, the servants that Wesley selected for one of his publications called sermons on several occasions are part of our United Methodist identity. If we seek to understand what it is we believe, these sermons the articles of religion are at the core. I commend you to read that often in a rather archaic English. He was writing in the 1700s after all but they are powerful Albert Outler, one of the foremost Wesley scholars that organized them and we now often refer to them by number and this is number 85 “Wn Working Out Your Own Salvation.”
And one of the points that Wesley makes in this sermon is it's not just “do whatever you think is best.” We work out our salvation. We respond to God's grace with awe and wonder might be a better way to put it. Which we are unable to do because it is God who is at work within us. This prevent and grace that comes before this justifying grace that brings us before Christ and invites us to the table, the sanctifying grace that seeks to heal us and make us whole much more than just letting us off the hook for what we've done wrong but this wholeness, this being remade into what we were intended to be as humans is possible because of what God is doing in us and therefore, we are called to respond to exercise is our faith. This gift of grace to work it out not just as a mental ascent but as how we live our lives. We are to bear good fruit. Wesley writes.
How do we understand that? How do we apply that? How do we figure out where we're at in that journey? One of the most profound insights I had on this is from an Episcopalian priest that would be the American version of the Anglican communion. A man named Reverend Doctor Eric Law. He is a theologian and a speaker and an author of seven books and two of them in particular that I commend to you. “The Wolf Shall Lie Down with the Lamb” and “Inclusion.” He writes about how we truly become a church that is open to all ages and races and nations. And he roots this in Scripture and in his own journey
And one of the lessons I take most powerfully from Doctor Law, you should know that he is the first-born son of a rather traditional Chinese-American family. And as the first-born son, I like this. I'm a first-born son. He has some authority in the family. Amen. And in his case, unfortunately, when he was rather young, still a teenager, just you know, entering into college years, his Father passed away. And in the traditional Chinese American household as the first-born son. He's now the head of the family. He has authority. He is involved in the discussions. He doesn't have to say much. They would have some lively discussion of what it whatever the decision before the family was and then, Eric is at the head of the table and they would be sure after they discussed it, maybe they had even decided what is best. They're going to turn to Eric and say, what do you think? Eric gets the final say. By virtue of being the head of the household, the firstborn son of deceased Father, he has power and authority inherent in the system.
The other thing you should know about Doctor Law is he is a rather small man. He's five, three, five, four. He has brown skin. And he has a fairly high, soft speaking voice. And sometimes people like me with a bit of a hearing loss, we would have trouble hearing him at all. and like I said, he's kind of small and when he went into the colleges and into the business world, he'd be overlooked. He'd be ignored. His voice didn't matter. He had to assert himself. He learned to stand up, to speak more powerfully, to project his voice, to wave his hands if necessary, to get the attention he needed to have his set. And he is a brilliant man. He's a persuasive man. He had some success. He is now an ordained pastor and a doctor, earned a PHD. Well respected in academic and business circles as well as church.
But he noticed something. He learned to speak powerfully, to stand up, to wave his arms, and he'd go back into his traditional Chinese American community and they were suddenly afraid of him. He was too much. He was too powerful. He already had authority and yet here he is waving his arms and speaking loudly. Is he angry at us?
How does he navigate these two worlds? How does he unify his own self-understanding in these two worlds? And he turned to Christ, the risen Christ, and the cross. He came to understand what he needed to do in terms of Christ's offering on the cross.
See, the cross represents multiple things. It is certainly a sign of suffering and death. Perhaps, the worst torture we have ever as humans invented to do to each other. Crucifixion on a cross. And yet we hang it on our wall. We wear it on our necks as a symbol of hope. It is a symbol of the empty tomb that death could not hold him. It is a symbol of resurrection. It is both. As such, it is a symbol both of being powerless and a symbol of being powerful and Doctor Law recognized that when he is already powerful, when he already has authority, when people are already deferring to him, his task is to yield that power. His task is to have the mind of Christ as Paul wrote in Philippians.
When he is powerless, his task through Christ, through the cross, is to claim liberation, empowerment, faithfulness, endurance, to become one who has claimed the power, it's both/and. Sometimes, we are to take up our cross and follow to yield power that we've already been granted. Sometimes, we are to bear good fruit in every good work. We are to claim power. to participate in this grace that is sufficient to read the room, to recognize what time it is to include others, to build the beloved kingdom. When we claim power, it is not just for ourselves, it is for Christ's kingdom.
When we yield power, it is not to punish ourselves. It is for Christ's kingdom, that we might truly come together in all of our diversity and difference and be the beloved community, be the church that Christ called together. That we might truly have the mind of Christ. That we might truly bear good fruit. Both and in the symbol of the cross, Doctor Law recognized that he could navigate these discrepancies that when he had power, he could yield it and include others and build up his family and his community.
When he was being ignored and demeaned, he could claim that same power from the cross and assert himself, not just through himself but for the good of all.
Doctor Law's insight is a wonderful lived example of Wesleyan theology. Wesley believed that the living core of Christian faith was revealed in scripture, illumined by tradition, confirmed by reason, and made real and vital in personal experience. Doctor Law had a set of personal experiences. He had an inherited tradition. He had the gift of reason. He took those things, returned to the scriptures, returned to the story of the word made flesh, and found a way forward that was good not just for him, but for all.
Wesley organized his bands and his societies within the Anglican church, within this renewal movement that he had founded with a set of general rules that also are illustrated by Doctor Law's experience. Do no harm When we have power, make sure that we are yielding it, that we might not run rough shot over others. Do good, both with the power we have and the power we need to claim. Stay in love with God. Center ourselves in the life and sought teaching and ministry and the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ, we who by our lives, our thoughts, our words, our deeds, are to proclaim the risen Christ. We stay in love with God. We do what we believe is God's will and we do it in a way that invites others to the table.
I said last week, how do we discern when we are doing that well? And one of the rules of thumb that I have adopted that I recommend to you is to look at every situation in light of the fruit of the spirit. In this situation, is my participation, helping to foster love, and joy, and peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. I invite you again, to say that with me. Love joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These are the fruit of the spirit. These are a key to our United Methodist belief that if we are doing what we say, we will do in our baptismal vows and our membership vows, in our relationship with Christ, this is the kind of fruit we bear. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.