John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18
Acts 11 might be my favorite story in the entire Bible. While I cannot imagine a southern breakfast without sausage or bacon, let me assure you if the early Christian church had continued to observe the dietary laws of Judaism, Weasie’s would be serving bagels and lox with their grits. Of course this story really has little to do with pork chops and everything to do with expanding our imaginations concerning who is welcome at God’s table.
What happens when you have lived your entire life by one particular set of traditions that have served you well, and then suddenly you are confronted by a situation that questions the framework of your beliefs? This morning’s text makes a strong case that sometimes it is necessary to throw the baby out with the bath water. A Roman centurion named Cornelius lived in the city of Caesarea. We are told that he was a devout man who feared God. There is no mention of how he came to hear the story of Jesus, but he was convinced that Christ was his Lord and he wanted to celebrate his faith by having his whole family baptized. Cornelius sought out Peter to confess his faith. Peter was impressed, but explained baptism was impossible because Cornelius was not a Jew. This may seem like such a minor detail to us. It would seem if a person believes in God then nothing should hinder the opportunity to confess his or her faith. But Judaism required more than a confession. There was circumcision, dietary laws, and worship rituals. The church of Peter was merely an extension of Judaism. All of the Kosher customs were still held as sacred. In Peter’s mind, if Cornelius wanted to become a Christian, he must first become Jew. But Cornelius could not see why it mattered if he was Jewish or Italian as long as he loved Christ.
Leaving Cornelius behind, Peter went to the top of a roof to have lunch. As the expression goes he was hungry enough to eat a cow only that day steak was not on the menu. Falling from heaven were all the meats deemed unclean by the Jewish tradition. Trust me when I tell you Peter found this smorgasbord to be absolutely disgusting. But the word of the Lord followed the menu and Peter was commanded to sit down and eat. The disciple complained that it was against the traditions of heaven and earth to taste the flesh of a pig. God responded by asking Peter who had created the hog. In other words, God was suggesting that dietary and religious laws are often laden with human rather than Godly restrictions. So Peter ate. And as you might imagine, he was more than pleasantly surprised. Of course the reason for this vision was not just to expand Peter’s gastronomic opportunities. It was to disassemble Peter’s geographic and theological limitations concerning God’s children. Peter revealed his revelation to the other leaders of the Church. After hearing Peter’s dream and after a lot of soul searching, the early church imagined itself existing beyond Jerusalem. This revelation eventually led to Paul and Silas being commissioned to take the Gospel and share it with anyone who had ears to hear. This was an exciting new moment in the life of the early church. No longer were they Jews first and Christians second. Now they were simply children of God. No traditions, no dietary laws, no religious mores hindered the basic message that God calls us to love one another just as Jesus loved us.
William Willimon writes, “If Jesus Christ is Lord, then the Church has the adventurous task of expecting surprises and new implications which can not be explained on any other basis than God has shown us something we could not have seen on our own.” Teaching an old dog new tricks is difficult. But teaching folks set in their religious ways to consider a new path can make that old hound dog seem downright cooperative. We like the way it has always been. We want the same prayers, the same hymns, and the same neighbors in the pews. It’s not that we are unwilling or reluctant to change, there is a just lot to be said for familiarity. I understand completely.
For months I have nervously watched the odometer on my car. My precious convertible is eight years old and has traveled over 185,000 miles. That is a lot of hospital visits. Two weeks ago, I was in Staunton so I ventured by a Subaru/Honda dealer to have a conversation about my beloved Solara. I explained my needs and desires and the next thing I knew I was behind the wheel of a car which I was promised would meet all my expectation. It rode nice, gets great gas mileage, can carry my golf clubs, bike and skis, but there was a problem. It had four doors. I was being asked to move from my sleek, exciting roadster to a practical and affordable family car. I should have been thrilled. This was a car any self respecting minister would be proud to drive. It probably comes with a free hair cut. But sitting in the car I was not one bit happy. Change is hard and I realized it was going to take me some time to make this transition, even though keeping my present car will eventually leave me stranded on the side of the road.
Is it any wonder churches continue to wrestle with God’s insistence on a renewed vision? Churches can become so comfortable being who they are they never notice the world passing them by. Then one morning they wake up and wonder what went wrong. I hear so many stories of broken churches that trace their demise to the day they become more concerned with preserving their property than fulfilling Christ’s mission for the church. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to become so entrenched in a comfort zone that Jesus’ command “to love one another” becomes secondary.
I suspect all of you aware that the membership of many Presbyterian Churches is slowly declining. The Methodist, Lutherans and even the Baptist are having the same problem. People blame it on any number of things but let me tell you the number one reason for our decline is Presbyterians used to have more babies. We were essentially a homegrown denomination. These days more Presbyterians die than are baptized. The number two reason for decline in the Presbyterian Church is our children grow up and move to different communities. When they get to those communities they don’t necessarily join a church. Other activities have replaced the need to be in church on Sunday morning. Some smart folks have predicted that mainline churches are only a generation from closing shop. Logically, I could be easily persuaded there is truth in that prediction. But my faith in an illogical God reminds me this same God always has a plan. For a thousand years the descendents of Peter never considered eating a ham sandwich or inviting someone with blue eyes to worship. But after one dream, an invitation into God’s community was extended to everyone.
We are good friendly people. We would not turn away anyone who wanted to worship with us. But I wonder if folks know how friendly we are? I wonder if some folks assume that we are a little too ….. Kosher? Maybe in this day and age Cornelius isn’t going to seek us out. Maybe we need to be the ones knocking on Cornelius door. Maybe we need to do more than just put out a welcome mat.
Since I visited that Subaru/Honda dealership you won’t believe how many e-mails and phone calls I have received. Every car dealer on both sides of the mountain seems to know I need a new car. Folks want my business. I can take any car my heart desires for a test run. They guarantee whatever I crave they will make it possible. They make me feel important, wanted, yes even loved. Is what our church promotes less important than an automobile? Is the love we have for our savior simply a private commodity we would rather keep to ourselves?
I believe we have a special community and we exhibit our love for Christ through our love of this valley. I believe we have a diverse community that allows our conversations to move beyond our own thoughts. I believe we have a community that does not judge but rather embraces the broken and the lost. Our welcome mat is always open and I believe when visitors come they feel the love of God within this room. But many folks in this community ride by our church every Sunday morning. Once upon a time Cornelius sought out Peter. Today it has become necessary for us to seek out Cornelius.
Let me share a little secret about why don’t folks go to church. Reason number one – It is an hour that can be spent doing something a lot more entertaining. Reason number two – Some folks have had a bad experience in a church. Reason number three – Folks want to become involved and often in a church we ask people to watch us do what we think is important. When I talk to folks about why they don’t go to church, it usually has nothing to do with their belief in God. But it has everything to do with their lack of belief that the church should only function as a self-serving institution.
What goes on here at Rockfish Presbytery is exciting and it extends beyond what we do on Sunday morning. Folks that visit walk away engulfed by the Spirit of God. How do I know? They tell me this when I visit with them in their homes. People I meet in restaurants and on the street express how lucky I am to be the minister of such a loving and compassionate church. Folks know about us. Many have been in for a test drive. Perhaps some are waiting for us to take the effort to meet them where they are.
For many weeks John Porter has taken a loaf of bread by to a first time visitor. What a wonderful ministry. Some of you have invited a friend or neighbor to come down and help with the wood ministry folks. You have included friends to help out in the school backpack programs. There are so many simple ways that you can go up to someone and say, “I love my church and I think you would too. How about joining me in one of our ministries? You might even be surprised to discover what happens on Sunday.”
To continue to grow our congregation, there are two strategies we can employ. The first is to intentionally meet folks where they are and unashamedly tell them how we express our love of God and neighbor. Then we sit back and listen to their story. Now I know that seems a little forceful and out of character with the way we Presbyterians do business. So if that makes you a bit uncomfortable, we can always select the more time honored option number two. Some of you folks will need to become pregnant.
I vote for option number one. Will you join me? Amen.