Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“No One Is Profane”
Sermon, Year C, Easter 5, April 28, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Acts 11:1-18, John 13:31-35

If one were to say there is a Christian manifesto, or a mission statement for Christianity, it would be this passage in John. What we just read would be the Christian manifesto or mission statement, the only doctrine or creed that we really need: “Love one another”. So simple that way. Not a bunch of abstract beliefs about the Trinity or salvation or the function of the Holy Spirit or the Church that we get some creeds and some doctrine. Here it is a call to action. We might ask the question, “What is a Christian?” I think Jesus would say, at least in this passage, that a Christian is someone who is so convinced, so absolutely sure, or someone who is at least willing to entertain the idea, that Jesus loves them, that they then love everyone else around them for no expectation of gain or reward. That last line is from me, so that would be a human addendum to that creed, but still: a Christian is someone who is so convinced, or at least willing to maybe believe that they are so loved by Jesus that they love everyone else. We love others because Jesus loves us. Jesus loves us, therefore we love others. And love is our only response to others. Our, our only faithful response to others. Clearly we have other choices about how we respond to others and we often choose them, but those are not particularly faithful. At least if they are not loving.

We love one another.

As followers of Jesus, that’s what we do, and that is how we are called to live. That’s what makes us Christians. We follow Jesus in his Way of love, and that is the primary lens through which we interpret the world and encounter other people and have relationships. Through that lens of love. Caring, compassionate, merciful love.

Love is our lens.

Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

That’s a pretty radical statement, and a radical way to live. And at least in my experience, is often quite unnatural. There are many people who are not particularly lovable sometimes. And some who are not particularly lovable most of the time. But other people love them. We just learn to deal with it. But it can seem unnatural to love EVERYONE. It’s not part of who we are necessarily that we would want to love everyone. It is very easy to love our friends and our family, and maybe even to love our tribe. But to go beyond is often pretty dangerous, or has been in human history. Or if not dangerous, it is very weird. People might say, “Wow – you love people that you really aren’t supposed to love. That’s pretty weird.”

Well, Jesus gave us a pretty weird message: Love one another.

And that’s the lesson that Peter learns in this vision that he has. The early followers of Jesus, the early followers of The Way, were all Jewish people. Christianity comes out of Judaism. Jesus was Jewish. And the first followers of Jesus were really good at showing love to one another, and showing love to their neighbors. But their neighbors were their fellow Jewish people. The idea didn’t quite come to them to go outside of the Jewish realm. They were really good at loving those people around them. But they had this thought that Jesus’ message, Jesus’ Way (with the capital W, The Way), just wasn’t for Gentiles. And not that they were condemned or there was anything awful about the gentiles, but there was just an idea that the Jewish people were waiting for a messiah and so therefore the messiah was for the Jewish people.

To good and faithful Jewish people of the time, the world had two peoples: the Jewish people, and the Gentiles. The Gentiles were everyone that wasn’t Jewish, whether Roman, or Greek, or wherever in the world they came from. You were either Jewish or a Gentile. There was also a third group called the God-fearers who were Gentiles who hung out in the synagogues, and followed Jewish traditions and believed in God but didn’t convert to Judaism, and weren’t genetically Jewish. But for all intents and purposes, the world had two people: the Jews on the inside, and Gentiles on the outside. People outside the faith.

And we still often succumb to that temptation of binary thinking, or wanting to split people into two groups or three groups or whatever. Wanting to split them into different peoples. Dividing us into gay or straight, and putting gay on the outside. Or dividing citizen from non-citizen, with non0citizen being on the outside. Or male and female, with the female often put on the outside. Cool and uncool. The nerds, on the outside. The social misfits, on the outside. The mentally ill, on the outside. The homeless, the poor, the beggars, the sick, on the outside. We do this in our culture and even within our churches. We can see that in the history of Christianity. Many church splits, even within a congregation, or denomination, or often caused by this argument over who is in and who is not in.

So Peter and the other disciples, the followers of The Way, I don’t think they had any animosity in them. They weren’t trying to be cruel to the Gentiles or anything, it just didn’t occur to them. It had been part of their religion and their tradition for so long that it just didn’t occur to them that it might be any other way. The message was only for Jewish people. It is often difficult to know when our thinking is stuck in a box until someone comes along and opens it up for us, and says, “Hey, you’re limiting your thinking. Try for a bigger vision. Use your imagination. Go for something bigger.”

That’s what happens to Peter in his vision. He is still thinking in old ways. God is doing a New Thing, but Peter is still thinking old things, and so the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, comes and nudges him with this vision of food in a sheet coming down filled with food. I imagine there was a lot of food he liked and could eat: hummus, lamb, salmon, goat, grasshoppers, leeks, olives, all the things that would have been popular and okay to eat at the time. But the sheet was also filled with food that good Jewish people weren’t supposed to eat. The unclean food. The impure foods. Stuff that we like. So the sheet probably also had pigs, shrimp, squid, lobster, clams, oysters, catfish, rabbit, snails. All forbidden foods, that all come down in front of Peter and a voice says, “Kill and eat.” And Peter being a good and faithful Jewish man, says, “No. Nothing unclean has ever passed my lips. I can’t do that.” And the voice says this three times.

Notice the parallel here. Peter has had a couple other encounters in which things happens in threes. After Jesus was arrested, and Peter is in the courtyard, he denies Jesus three times: “I do not know that man.” And then after the resurrection, on the Sea of Tiberias, when Jesus feeds them grilled fish on the side of the sea, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And each time Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!” And then each time Jesus follows it up with, “Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.” And here Peter has this vision of all food being clean, and a voice says three times that it is okay, and then finally says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

And then bam! Cornelius’ men show up. Cornelius is Roman, he is a Gentile. Cornelius has had a vision to send for Peter, and when his men show up, Peter knows his vision wasn’t just about food. This wasn’t just his chance to say, “Oh, thank God, I can eat at Red Lobster now.” Or have that bacon cheeseburger. It’s about people.

The vision was about people.
God’s people.
And that everyone is God’s people.
And no one is profane.
And no one is to be made profane, or called profane, or thought profane.

None. Are. Profane.

Now imagine a church that fully embraced Peter’s vision. One that let Jesus’ command to love one another be the lens through which that vision is lived out. No one is profane. Love everyone. No people are profane. No people is profane. And no person is profane.

Cornelius is a Gentile, and Peter realizes, “Oh!.... Cornelius is included as well!”

Gentiles are a part of Jesus’ mission.

And who are the Gentiles of today?

It would be anyone who is on the outside. Anyone that we push to the outside.

What if Cornelius was the gay man down the street? Or the illegal immigrant, or Muslim, or homeless, or in prison?

Do we consider them profane, or do we include them? Or if Cornelius were asking for equal access to the law, or to the Church, or to the leadership of the Church? Then what does Peter’s vision have to say to us?

We have here in Eau Claire, you probably saw in the news, Grace Lutheran in the news again with their struggle and their tension in what is going on there. And I do not want to condemn or cast aspersions on anyone. That is a battle they have on the inside, but it has become a very public battle that we are following. But I wonder, what if they did – as any of us do – they did all that they did, in love? In loving ways? Which is not to say that there cannot be conflict. To pretend there is no conflict is dishonest. We can love people and still have conflict. But the way that we deal with it will look very different. How we live in that conflict, and live with one another, will be very, very different if we do it in love.

The factory collapse in Bangladesh, not built to code, not built with permits, and part of that is that we like having cheap clothing. Where is the love in that? Where is the love in that we expect other people to work and live in those conditions so that we can save a few dollars? And working in conditions that we would never accept.

And there are some who warn against bringing in the outsiders because it might redefine whatever it is that we have going on, whether it is in the church or elsewhere. Such as that marriage might get redefined, or Christianity might get redefined. That if we let women be priests or pastors that will redefine the Church. Or the argument of the early church that letting Gentiles into this movement is going to redefine who we are.

But the Holy Spirit comes and says, “The problem isn’t with them. The problem is with your definition. It needs to be redefined into something bigger, more expansive.”

What definitions might the Holy Spirit be trying tog et us to rewrite by making them more inclusive, more generous, more expansive, less profaning of what is clean, and more loving?

Peter, after his vision, takes on this new and unnatural and weird thing of including the Gentiles. Of loving people on the outside. And he takes some flack for it. He gets in trouble for it. But the people around him eventually come to see his point, and believe. And the message does then go out into the Gentile world, and the Church explodes in size. That loving message they had was so profoundly needed by the people of the time.

What is a Christian? How do we recognize Jesus’ followers? They are the ones who know, who trust, who believe, or are at least willing to consider that they are believed by God and then respond by loving one another. Respond with a commitment to living through love no matter how unnatural or weird or difficult or dangerous it might seem. That is the call that we have.


[This did not make it into the sermon, but I had written the following note on my worship worksheet: our Revelation text for this Sunday (Rev 21:1-6) talks of the New Jerusalem as a place without suffering – and so relieving suffering is part of our vocation in making the world more New Jerusalem-like]

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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