Last week I attended the Eucharist at St. John's, Hingham. Their new curate, Noah Van Niel, preached a good sermon I meant to share right away (with permission, of course). Well, better late than never.
Noah Van Niel
St. John the Evangelist
Easter V: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
When I was in elementary school, my favorite part of the day was, as I suspect it may have been for many of you, recess. Running around, freed from the tyranny of teachers who made you sit still, wait your turn, be quiet, I would release all that pent up boyish energy.
My favorite game on the playground was the dramatically called, “Kill the Carrier.” It was a primordial game in which there was a ball, and whoever had the ball ran around until he (or she, but it was rarely she) was tackled by the swarm, stripped of the ball and the chase was on to the new “carrier.” It was an unsophisticated cross between Rugby and tag. I loved this game because, being a husky child, I was quite good at it. Since there were no teams, just one big swarm, it was hard to say who was “winning” the game, but let’s just say I often was the one who had the ball in my hands when the bell was rung calling us back to the confinement of the classroom.
There was one rule for “Kill the Carrier,” however, and it was the same rule that there was for all the other activities on the playground: NO EXCLUDING. If someone came up and asked to join the game you had to let them. This rule was ingrained in us from the very beginning of our school years, and by fifth grade, we all took a certain pride in it—“No excluding!” we would yell if we saw someone being forced out or left out of any game.
“No excluding” seems to be the same call that Peter gets during our reading in Acts this morning. Our portion is from Chapter 11 but in chapter 10, Peter says to Cornelius, the believing Gentile whose house he is visiting, “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.” (Acts 10:28) He continues, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34). So Peter goes on to preach the story of Jesus and as he is speaking the Holy Spirit falls upon these Gentiles and Peter asks “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) No excluding! The Spirit is saying to Peter.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to acknowledge what a big shift this is. Jesus, as I hope we all know, was Jewish. And his followers were all Palestinian Jews. The Messiah, was prophesied to save the people of Israel. Gentiles were not awaiting the Son of Man to come and restore their fortunes. But now Peter is realizing that actually Jesus’ message of salvation is meant not just for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but for all people. Roman and Jew and Greek, circumcised and uncircumcised, God shows no partiality. This is a radical, new, broader applicability of Jesus’ message and a sea change in who it is offered to.
As with most big shifts, this action is not without its skeptics. In chapter 11, the portion we just heard this morning, Peter has to answer to the Jewish believers back in Jerusalem. What was he doing preaching to and eating with the “uncircumcised”? Peter recounts the event and he summarizes the whole experience as follows: ““The Spirit told me…not to make a distinction between them and us…If God gave them [the Gentiles] the same gift that he gave us [that is, the Holy Spirit] when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11: 12, 17) Who was I that I could hinder God?
I realize that preaching to a congregation of Episcopalians about inclusivity is to a large extent preaching to the converted. But I think it’s important to note that The Episcopal Church takes passages like this as fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be Christians. We uphold a glorious, tradition, and at the same time, are open to the Spirit pushing us into new areas of inclusivity. For Peter it was the Gentiles. For us it has been, recently, including people of different races, genders, sexual orientations and identities fully in the life of the Church and its ministries (lay and ordained). These are big changes and they are not without those who would say, “What are you doing eating with these [insert group name here]?” Our Church has been split over it, our worldwide Communion is fraying because of it.
You see we believe that “No excluding” is not just a playground rule. Nor is it simply giving in to the pressures of secular culture or politics. In passages like this we see that it is fundamental to the mission of the church from its earliest days. And it goes hand in hand with our great commission and commandment from Jesus, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” That will be the thing that distinguishes us as his disciples: the love that we have and show to each other. This is not a qualified love, it is not a conditional love, nor is it a cheap love. It is a love of effort and commitment for it takes effort and commitment to be inclusive, to not draw lines between “us and them.” When you erase boundaries, the critique is that you are losing the substance; that you become so flexible that you lose your spine. But this is the spine! This is the identity! This is the substance of our faith. A love so capacious it extends to all who would open their hearts to it. A love that was revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. If anyone asks, this is what we stand for. This is who we are. This is the criteria by which we judge ourselves and we believe our God judges us.
Make no mistake, the Episcopal Church is not boundary-less, it’s just that we are willing to remake our boundaries in the name of a fuller, more complete surrender to God in Jesus Christ. Who is not yet included in the Kingdom of God we are trying to build up? How can we introduce them to the good news of God in Christ and invite them to give their lives to following and worshipping that God? Who are we excluding? These are important questions. These are Biblical questions. And they speak of an understanding of our faith which holds paramount the power of God to make all things new—again, and again. Us. Our neighbors. Our church. Our world. We carry with us all the wisdom of the past two thousand years and we use it to inform how we understand God to be doing a new thing in our world today. As a Church we are inclusive because to be exclusive is to overstate our capacity to know the full mystery of God. It is to be content to rest on our understanding and not on the creative power of the Spirit. Inclusion means being open to a new thing, a new person, a new understanding. Inclusion means our work is not yet finished. Inclusion means God’s work is not yet finished.
The problem is that listening to the Spirit to discern what that new thing is, can be hard to do. And it can easily be confused with listening to the loudest voice in the room, or listening to the prevailing cultural trends, or listening to that which makes us feel good. That’s why we don’t just run off after the Spirit on our own. When we feel that the Spirit is calling us to go into some new territory, to include people we hadn’t before, first we pray, individually, collectively, and then we discuss, locally, nationally. And then we sift through the wisdom of our tradition—primarily the Bible but also the teachings of the Church—to ground ourselves and understand whether we will be moving too far from the established truths we hold so central, or whether we will actually be living into those truths more fully. This will by no means eliminate disagreement but it is an essential process in which we seek and listen for the Spirit of God active and alive in our midst. Like Peter, we are to find God’s vision for the world in prayer, but we also have to answer to a community.
The really hard part is that when we are that open to the movement of the Spirit, when we are open to God leading us into new frontiers in the name of expanding the gift he has given to all of us, we are liable to end up in some places we did not expect to go. We are liable to be led into territory that is unfamiliar and unsettling for us. We may, like Peter, end up in households of those who before, were our enemies, breaking laws and customs along the way.
This kind of openness to the Spirit is scary to people, even, or maybe especially, to church people. We like to control things, and the Spirit is, by its very nature uncontrollable. To put ourselves at its mercy is to be vulnerable, it is to be corrected. No one likes to be vulnerable, or corrected. So this posture of inclusivity, of opening our church doors in invitation, of claiming that “The Episcopal Church Welcomes you!” regardless of who that “you” is, leads to us being ostracized and criticized by our brothers and sisters in Christ; of having our commitment to the Bible challenged; of having our commitment to tradition challenged; to having people leave our church because they are made uncomfortable by this posture of openness. We have suffered all these consequences recently. But I hope you will join me in the conviction and dare I say, pride in this identity of inclusivity. Know that no matter what others may say to you, it is grounded in Biblical passages like we hear today not in the cultural shifts and changing norms of history. Know that we believe with unshakeable conviction in a God who commands us to love one another without restriction or restraint, and that God shows no partiality. Know that we are not to hinder God but instead, we are to stand up with confidence and shout to all who can hear “No Excluding!” for that is what we believe it means to be a Church, and to be a Christian.