Paying the Welcome Forward
This is the text of my Wartburg College Chapel Message, January 27, 2010.
The Text is Acts 10:1-8, 44-48 (Cornelius’ vision instructing me to send for Peter; and the concluding scene where the Gentiles as well as the Jews receive the Holy Spirit)
The question for us is, how do we get from verse 8 to verse 48? And it’s an important question, because this is about us. This text is about our welcome into the church nearly 2000 years ago.
You see, probably all of us in this room are Gentiles. That is, we weren’t born into Jewish families. That makes us members of Cornelius’ household. And that means that from its beginning not one of us had a place in the church, which began as a Jewish renewal movement … for Jews only.
Well, not exactly “for Jews only,” but pretty close.
You see, Cornelius household—and all the rest of us Gentiles—were mentioned in a whole bunch of biblical texts that told the first Jewish Christians quite clearly that we didn’t belong. We weren’t part of God’s chosen family. Indeed, we were, in at least a few texts, outright cursed by God simply for who we were.
There were conditions under which we Gentiles could be accepted in the church, but they required that we renounce and alter our entire lifestyles. We had to change our eating habits, re-design our kitchens, buy a new set of clothes, and (if we were men) mutilate our bodies by getting circumcised. The conditions for Gentiles were so extraordinarily high that they hardly resonated with a Gospel message that purported to be “good news.”
So at verse 8, all of us here this morning, along with Cornelius in Caesarea, are virtually guaranteed a place on the outside … forever. But four things happen along the way to verse 48 that instead forever alter the make-up and the self-understanding of the church.
First, the Holy Spirit is busy throughout this entire passage, offering this vision to Cornelius and then the vision of forbidden foods to Peter—along with the proclamation that what God has declared clean should no longer be regarded as unclean, and then the Spirit is poured out on all those gathered in verses 44-46.
Second, Cornelius, this outsider who is supposed to have no voice, no claim on God or God’s people, dares to speak. He dares to imagine that perhaps there is a place for him and his household in this community.
Third, Peter, as a leader in the early church, dares to respond with openness to God’s vision. He dares to step beyond the boundaries of all the written texts that he grew up with. He dares to see that when God promised through Isaiah to be doing a new thing, that the emphasis was on the word NEW. That when God promised, later in Isaiah, to have plans to gather into the family of God others who had not yet been gathered, that God’s reach was going a whole lot further than anyone expected.
And finally, Peter, along with the other Jewish Christians who came with him—mentioned as “the circumcised believers” in verse 45—dare to acknowledge the presence of the Spirit where they never expected to see it. And based on that, they dare to welcome the Gentiles into the church, just as the Spirit was poured out them—exactly as they were.
And while the story is more complicated than that, and it plays out with plenty of bickering for a good numbers of years, this scene does mark one of the critical turning points that brought Cornelius—and the rest of us Gentiles—into the church.
It really did forever alter the make-up of the church. But not so much the self-understanding.
You see, once the church became entirely Gentile, it—that is, the “we” of centuries ago, got entangled in attitudes of exclusivity all over again. Paul’s amazing vision of a community that makes no divisions between Jew or Greek, rich or poor, slave or free, male or female fades away.
For centuries the church used gender, skin color, language, ethnicity, social class to decide who could be counted in the family of God. We told all manner of people that they could become Christians only if they could successfully speak, dress, look, and act like us.
We forgot about the vision offered to Peter. We forgot how much he must have been unnerved to find God doing a new thing. And we forgot to imagine God might still have a new thing to do among us.
Thankfully, God has continued to lower a blanket of forbidden food to us again and again. From the voices of other outsiders—slaves, women, indigenous peoples, and more—to a handful of voices of insiders willing, like Peter, to imagine God’s newness, the blanket keeps coming down. The reminder that the church boundaries were not fixed by God but burst wide open by God.
This text is our beginning place, but it was not meant to be our ending place.
This coming Sunday, the last Sunday in January, is Ecumenical Welcoming Sunday, in Lutheran circles known as Reconciling in Christ Sunday. It is a day to recognize communities of faith that continue the tradition of Acts 10 by extending an unconditional welcome to those gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons who—like Cornelius and his household—hope to have a home in the Christian story.
Those of us who are straight are sometimes tempted to begrudge all the fuss made about a “special” welcome to “those people.” But this text reminds us that once, 2000 years ago, despite a handful of texts that specifically condemned us simply because we were Gentiles, we were the ones offered that special welcome.
Remembering the grace of a welcome that came to us as quite a surprise, and without conditions, perhaps we can experience a certain vicarious joy in extending that welcome on to others today.
May it be so. Amen.