PROPERS: 5 EASTER, YEAR C
TEXT: ACTS 11:1-18
PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY, PENSACOLA, ON SUNDAY, MAY 19, 2019.
ONE SENTENCE: The essence of the gospel is to open the gates of the realm of God wider than many have thought.
Peter got a glimpse of the radical nature of God’s love in the first lesson today.
God had shown him, in a dream, that “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
On a mundane and trivial level, that freed us to eat shrimp, oysters, and other shellfish. We are certainly thankful for that revelation!
What was largely lost, though, was that the generosity… the expansiveness… of God’s grace went well beyond the Levitical dietary laws. We still struggle with that issue today.
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It seems that the insights from Peter’s dream were seen as more specific and less global. Yes, the gospel freed Jesus’ followers from dietary laws. Yes, the gospel freed Jesus’ followers from the rituals of Jewish initiation. Yes, the gospel allowed Gentiles into the community of faith.
But not much more than that. After all, we must place limits on grace!
Think of this fact from the gospels: The original proclaimers of the resurrection – the initial witnesses – were all women. Yet, women were largely excluded from the councils of the church for many centuries.
It seems that the church took the insights of Peter’s dream and replied, “Yes, but…”. It also seems that, from the beginning, the energy of many centuries of the church was focused on who was inand who was out.
The interpretation of Jesus’ open arms was too meager. The love of God was meant for some, but not others. One could only be a part of the ecclesia– the community of faith – if they were worthy. That understanding flies in the face of the concept of grace– that which is given freely and cannot be earned.
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In recent years, the generosity of God’s love has been beautifully and graciously addressed in the words of a young woman. Her voice has recently been silenced by a very untimely and premature death.
Rachel Held Evans lived in Dayton, Tennessee – a community known as Monkey Town, because it was the site of the famous Scopes trial in 1925.
Her father was a professor of Biblical Studies at the conservative, evangelical college there, Bryan College, named for the prosecutor in the famous trial, William Jennings Bryan. Rachel Held Evans was reared a conservative evangelical, and graduated from Bryan College.
She married a classmate and remained in Dayton. But her journey was long from over. She was blessed with a keen theological mind. The scripture in which she had immersed herself throughout her life raised questions for her.
The application of scripture by her evangelical pastors and teachers posed challenges to her. So, she continued her journey of faith – looking deeper into the sacred stories she loved so much. And she posed questions to the hierarchy of her church.
She began to write – both books and a very popular blog. Her books included A Year of Biblical Womanhood, her account of living according to the Biblical law for women; Searching for Sundays,an account of her journey of faith; and Inspired, her testimony of love for the message of scripture. Her writing was clear, moving, and poignant.
Her questioning of evangelical orthodoxy led to alienation from her faith community – being shunned by those with whom she had worshipped. She took time off – time from the church she had loved all her life.
She blossomed as a well-known and much-in-demand speaker. She gained a national following, and the respect of her theological opponents. She was much-beloved.
And her journey led her to the Episcopal Church.
Sadly, even tragically, she died a few weeks ago. She experienced seizures after a bout with flu and a kidney infection. She had a husband, Dan, and two children – ages three and almost one. She was 37 years of age.
In a sense, her voice has been silenced. But her words live on. And they challenge us.
Her words challenge us to hear the story of Peter’s insight with clarity. They beckon us to see the Good Newsas something which goes beyond the strictures of limited understanding. They call us to see God’s love as something that is expansive – broad, deep, and high – and not as something that is tied to cultural or political norms.
Like Rachel Held Evans, I have been on a journey. God has been my constant companion as long as I can remember. My faith has had its periods of being static– hard and affixed. But like the great preacher John Claypool, my eyes have been opened to see different dimensions to the gospel. I pray that that openness to seeing things anew will continue.
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My family used to stand around my great-grandfather’s piano and sing his favorite hymns. We were gathered in his house on Hardy Street in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My aunt would play the old upright piano.
One of those hymns was Give Me that Old Time Religion. Another was I Love to Tell the Story.I still embrace that memory – my mother, father, grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousins, and great-grandfather all now gone to their reward. And that old, old story, of which we sang, has not changed. Only my ability to grasp it in its fullness.