“I am- really learning”

Belmont UMC’s 1914 cornerstone reads, “Made not after the law of a carnal commandment but after the power of an endless life.” Our unusual founding verse comes from the King James version of Hebrews 7:16. It could read, “made by the power of an indestructible life rather than a legal requirement.” Our church’s foundational verse highlights a tension between Biblical legalism and life-giving interpretation. Our spiritual ancestors laid a progressive foundation inviting us to root our church in Jesus’ lifestyle rather than religious rules or formulas.

American Christianity is divided between progressives and traditionalists. At times each side throws the other side under the bus. I was raised in a beautiful, loving traditionalist community.  We need tradition. Tradition steadies our steps, gives us roots, and helps us remember who we are. Tradition gives us a solid foundation to push off from when the Spirit moves us out of our comfort zones! Without tradition, our faith easily comes unmoored, drifting along with the next consumer-driven wind. Belmont’s 1927 sanctuary cornerstone reads, “Whose foundation is Jesus.” What does that mean? Each of the past two weeks, our confirmands have rooted their lives in vows to reject evil, resist injustice, trust Christ, and serve Jesus as Lord! In turn, we have pledged to surround them with a community of love and forgiveness. Our foundation is built upon grace, goodness, justice, trust, Christ-likeness, service, community, forgiveness, and love! These traditional values uphold our lives and hold us together.   

The church needs the progressive and prophetic voice. Tradition without prophetic renewal becomes a brittle series of old stories, rules, and rituals. Without progressive theological innovation we would be eating kosher foods and worshipping in Hebrew, or maybe Greek or Latin! Without the presence of the Holy Spirit, Christianity is history. Do you remember Jesus’ deep critique of the ancient legalists, “You do not know the Scriptures or the power of God… (the great I Am) is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Mark 12) Hebrews 4 tells us God’s word is “living and active” affecting us deep in our bones! Jesus confers on the church power to loosen up or tighten down the rules. (Matthew 16, 18) Given such freedom, how do we progressives keep from drifting off into spiritual nothingness? Well, Christ is with us. Orthodox Christians have always believed that God not only dwelt in a baby laid in a Bethlehem manger, but that Christ “is risen and going ahead of us!” (Matthew 28; Mark 16) Christ is with us right now. Next Sunday we will celebrate Christ’s Ascension, remembering how Jesus gave us “the keys to the kingdom” promising “I will be with you to the ends of the earth.” (Matthew 16, 28) God was with our ancestors, God is with us, and God is out ahead of us- leading us. Our foundation is Jesus Christ!

Acts 9-15 tells how the church set aside a thousand years of defining tradition to embrace a more progressive and inclusive theology! The story begins outside of the church! Luke writes, “There was a person in Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion in the Italian company. Cornelius and his whole household were pious, pagan God-worshippers. They gave generously to those in need, supported the local synagogue and prayed to God constantly. One afternoon at three o’clock, Cornelius clearly saw an angel from God in a vision telling Cornelius to reach out to Peter!” God is working outside of the church. God is even drawing people to the church, people who some church folks believe do not fully belong!

In contrast to Cornelius, who Luke describes as “constantly praying”, our first bishop is taking a nap beside the Mediterranean Sea when God sends Peter a vision! Half awake, Peter sees a vision of a tablecloth coming down from heaven laden with all kinds of steak, bacon, ham, hotdogs, catfish, crabs and calamari. From heaven, God’s voice invites Peter to enjoy this meat-lovers smorgasbord! Although hungry, Peter recoils from the unorthodox food saying, “No, Lord, I’ve never eaten that was not kosher.” God tries again as the holy buffet descends, and God’s voice thunders. Peter’s resistance goes something like, “Lord what about Leviticus 11, did you not call rabbit, crab, pork and such detestable?” God tries one more time as the clouds part and the picnic descends! Rooted in scripture, Peter resists the Spirit saying, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” God has the final word, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”  

Friends, this story is not about catfish suppers, but about the full inclusion of people the church thought of as less than holy, pure, and righteous. The church loves incremental change. We make room for pork barbecue but miss the foundational value shift: “Never consider unclean what God has made pure?”

Peter is not sure what the picnic parable means, but he knows his strange dream is about more than church catfish dinners. The next day, Peter is still trying to make sense of what seems an unorthodox nightmare when representatives of the Italian Colonel Cornelius knock on the door. As a colonel in an occupying forgein army, Cornelius enjoys shrimp, carp, chariots, and has sworn allegiance to Caesar as Lord. The Holy Spirit says to Peter, “Don’t ask questions; just go with them because I have sent them.” That is not very churchy advice! Cornelius is a kind of poster child for otherness, so it is a big deal when Peter stops asking “is this okay” and invites Cornelius’ people to spend the night!

The next day Peter and the Italian soldiers travel to Cornelius’ villa, where Cornelius greets Peter at the gate. No doubt Cornelius wanted to respect Peter’s tradition of never entering the home of a pagan! Peter’s Italian hosts bow down to Peter like a pagan god. Peter lifts them up saying, “Get up! I am a human being, just like you.” Peter is not asking questions but instead beginning to see these Gentiles through a new lens of a common humanity… I am just like you! Still, Peter stumbles a bit over his sense of superiority beginning, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders.” And recovering, “However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean,” Peter understands that the picnic parable was not about catfish but people, not about rules but relationship. Heeding the Spirit, Peter is just going with the flow, not asking a lot of questions like “what if they serve me octopus?” or “what does Leviticus 18 say about all this?” Peter is learning news ways of following Christ. The church is progressing and understanding, “God has shown me that I should never and call a person impure or unclean,” despite some pretty clear Bible verses about catfish, sabbath breakers, eunuchs, and others Leviticus calls unclean. God is way ahead of Peter, working with Cornelius long before ever prompting Peter to consider a more inclusive theology! Christ is risen and going ahead of us!  

Peter’s sermon begins, “I really am learning…” The idea that even Peter, the rock or cornerstone of the church, is “learning something new” is hopeful news. God is with us, teaching us new things. Our faith is more than reciting second-hand rules. Bishop Peter preaches, “I really am learning  that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” Friends, that’s a pretty big theological jump considering that just the day before Peter first dreamed about eating catfish! But before Peter can finish the sermon, the Holy Spirit falls on everyone; Cornelius’ people receive the same Holy Spirit that empowers Peter! The more conservative “believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” Peter asked, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” No one who saw what God was doing in that room brought up the old Levitical rules! So one day after dreaming about inclusive tablecloths, Peter’s team baptized Cornelius’ whole household. What is God teaching you? What is the risen Christ teaching the church? 

When Peter gets back to the home office, people begin to criticize his newfound inclusive theology. “The circumcised believers criticized Peter saying, ‘You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!’ Step-by-step, Peter explained what had happened.” Luke uses up precious leather scroll space to tell the whole story again! And after that, the apostles and other believers calmed down. Sometimes that is as far as the church can move; the church was not ready to fully embrace people like Cornelius, but they calmed down enough to allow Paul, Barnabus, and Priscilla to live out their vision of Christianity. The catfish supper, uncircumcised, Latin mass, Sunday worship, kind of Christian innovations we now laud as traditions!

It is a shame, really, that some folks can only calm down, choosing tolerance instead of community. Some missed out on catfish dinners with Cornelius. They never got to hear Cornelius’ story of grace. The picnic parable is about more than catfish. What the ancient traditionalist really missed out was not catfish, but people, grace and fellowship. They did not understand through their experience that our common foundation and bond is Jesus: the kindom, love, hope, grace, forgiveness, justice, and community. They tolerated others but never really learned that God doesn’t love one group of people over another or that none of us should ever call a person impure or unclean. There is such deep life-giving liberation when we give up the need to always be questioning, to be judging, “Is this person or that group is okay?” I suppose we must stop judging to really understand how deep God’s love is for us. The love of God is lavished on us in Christ is our foundation. Jesus is our model, our savior, our rule, and our very life! And so we can welcome Cornelius, trusting that Jesus is already going ahead of us. Amen.

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