With Open Hearts and Outstretched Arms

Sermon for Sunday, May 15, 2022 || Easter 5A || Acts 11:1-18

I need to warn you right off the bat that I’ve preached this sermon before. Not these exact words (I wrote these words earlier this week). But this sermon, and the ideas behind it, I have preached on multiple occasions over my fourteen years of priesthood. I’ve preached this sermon so many times because I think it is so easy to miss the second (maybe third) most important moment in the entire New Testament. Well, maybe fourth most important. Whatever, it’s in the Top 5.

You might be flipping through your program looking for what I’m talking about right now. After all, it’s just a random Sunday in the middle of the season of Easter. What could we have possibly read this morning that is important enough to make the Top 5 moments of the New Testament? Would you believe I’m talking about the end of the First Lesson from Acts Chapter 11? Now you’re looking at your program and trying to remember what ____ read. Wasn’t it about Peter eating things he didn’t think he was supposed to eat? And there was a sheet acting like a picnic blanket or something?

That’s the one. I don’t fault you if you’re a bit confused with why I’m building this up so much. Just stick with me. I think I can convince you by the time I’m done. Basically, this incredible moment of the New Testament hinges on people being able to change their minds when faced with new information. I know, right? Sounds pretty far-fetched.

It sounds far-fetched because, in our hyper-polarized, media-siloed age of ideological purity, it seems like everyone is digging in over every issue, getting more and more entrenched within an ever narrowing set of perspectives. Reasonable disagreements over nuanced understandings of complex issues have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Such ideological fundamentalism trickles down from those in power and infects people at all stations in society, pushing us further and further away from one another.

This same pattern of destructive division could have happened in the earliest days of the Christian church, back before the early Christians borrowed that name from their detractors, back when they were known as the People of the Way, the Way of Jesus, Crucified and Risen. The pattern of destructive division that we all know so well has befallen the Church down through the centuries, but in these early days, succumbing to this pattern would most likely have meant the death of the movement before it really got off the ground. Thank God Peter and the leaders in Jerusalem did not fall victim to division. Rather, they recognized that God was so much bigger than any of them had ever dreamed of. And when they realized that God was so much bigger than their wildest dreams, their own hearts started opening wider, their own arms started stretching farther.

Let’s take a minute to look at this pivotal story from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter, the chief apostle, is back in Jerusalem after a trip to Joppa (which is basically where modern Tel Aviv is located). In Joppa Peter had a vision of God telling him to eat animals that Peter had never eaten before because his tradition said the animals were unclean. The voice from heaven tells Peter that God has made those things clean. Next thing you know, Peter is on his way to the Roman garrison city of Caesarea to meet with the Roman centurion Cornelius. The vision is still dancing in Peter’s mind, and he now links the Gentiles he’s visiting with the vision of the no-longer-unclean animals. Like the animals, Peter is not to call the Gentiles profane because God has blessed them too. Many of the Gentiles receive baptism at Peter’s hands.

When the leaders of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem catch wind of this, they summon Peter back to Jerusalem. Now, the writer of Acts makes sure we readers know that these leaders are the “circumcised believers”; that is, Jews who confessed Jesus as the Christ. Up until this point, the history of religion in the area of Asia Minor was very ethnically centered. Religion and ethnicity went hand in hand. So it was par for the course that Jesus’ Jewish followers were skeptical that Peter would preach among the Gentiles. (First, because those Gentiles weren’t Jewish, and second because those Gentiles were part of a foreign occupying force that was subjugating Israel.)

Peter answers their summons, and they ask him a question that could easily be asked in our hyper-polarized world today: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Peter calmly tells the story of the animals on the sheet and the voice from heaven and the encounter with Cornelius. Peter tells them he saw the Holy Spirit fall upon the Gentiles. Peter remembers Jesus saying, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” And then the kicker. Peter reasons rightly and humbly: “If then God gave [these Gentiles] the same gift that [God] gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

The leaders in Jerusalem are silenced by this amazing tale of conversion and the power of the Holy Spirit. And in that silence, they hear the whispered voice of God beckoning them to open their hearts wider, to stretch their arms farther. They embrace the truth that our God is a God of openness and expansion, a God who is always and forever reaching out to every tiny piece of God’s diverse and wondrous Creation. And they praise God, their voices raised in awe as the truth springs from their lips: “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

From then on, Christianity had a precedent for welcoming absolutely anyone into the Way of Jesus. Such welcome has, unfortunately, happened with limited frequency, but the story of Peter’s vision and its aftermath points to the best and most authentic expression of the Christian faith possible. And we have the opportunity to make that expression a reality in our own lives and the life of our church. Our open and expansive God dreams for us to open our hearts and stretch our arms to everyone: the neighbor whose lawn bears the signs of the other political party; the transgender teen who is struggling to find welcome for their identity; the parent of that same teen who is not dealing well with a changing future; the refugee who comes from a part of the world with vastly different customs and culture; the person teetering on the edge of homelessness who is getting priced out of the rental market. 

Search your hearts in prayer and fill in the blank, echoing the words of the Jerusalem council: “Why did you go to ________ and eat with them?” That’s whom God calls you to welcome and to attempt the most countercultural action any of us can think of today: mutual listening that seeks understanding instead of victory. Our passage today is in the Top 5 most important moments in the New Testament precisely because of how rare and difficult such listening is. But in such a faithful activity, the Holy Spirit is present. The healing of divisions is sacred work, accomplished only with God’s help when hearts are open and arms are stretched wide.

Photo by Andres F. Uran on Unsplash.

One thought on “With Open Hearts and Outstretched Arms

  1. i loved your sermon today…We need to hear that over and over. Hard to talk with people here who think the former president is a good politician!

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