Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 6, 2007)
“What God Has Made Clean” (Acts 11:1-18)
It was May 13, 1947 according to some accounts. The Brooklyn Dodgers were playing in Cincinnati that day. They had a rookie first baseman by the name of Jackie Robinson. Today, almost 60 years later to the day, his presence on a ball field wouldn’t draw much attention. Back then it did, because Robinson was black...the first African-American to play major league baseball.
Some of his teammates even distanced themselves from him. Earlier in the season some of the white southerners had even gone so far as to sign a petition saying they would not take the field with a black man. One player from Kentucky, however, refused to sign, and that was the end of the matter. No one boycotted, but they still kept their distance.
That player from Kentucky was the Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese. And on that May day in Cincinnati, Reese did something that surprised everyone. The Cincinnati team was mercilessly hurling racial comments at Robinson from the dugout. Now, Robinson had endured all kinds of nasty words thrown his way in previous games, but it was exceptionally mean and hateful that day. As the story goes, the Kentucky-born white shortstop crossed the diamond, stood beside his black teammate, and put his hand on his shoulder. That one action put a stop to the attack by the hecklers.
Years later, Robinson recalled the incident and said, “Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while. He didn't say a word but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me through him and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that. I will never forget it.”
Now, flash back even farther to first-century Jerusalem, to a gathering of Christians discussing the actions of the Apostle Peter. Remember that at this time the church in Jerusalem was entirely made up of Jewish converts. Some among them were part of what today’s reading from Acts calls “the circumcision party.” This group demanded that non-Jews had to become Jews first before they could become Christians. And the first step in the process was undergoing the Old Testament covenant of circumcision. If you did not, then you were still considered an unclean, impure Gentile, in some ways less than human. And no self-respecting Jew would ever sit down and eat at table with an uncircumcised Gentile. Eating at table expressed close, intimate fellowship in those days...not to mention the fact that the meat which you eat might have been offered to an idol. So Jews and Gentiles should eat separately. If there had been drinking fountains in those days, there would have been separate Jew and Gentile ones. If there had been buses in Jerusalem in those days, the Jews would want the Gentiles to sit in the back. And so, the criticism was leveled at Peter, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Shocking!
But Peter proceeded to explain that he had received a vision in which he saw a sheet come down from heaven with all kinds of animals upon it, evidently ones that the Old Testament called unclean and therefore ones that you shouldn’t eat. A voice told Peter to help himself. Dig in. Have a little barbecue right then and there. But Peter replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But the voice replied, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Three times this happened, driving the point home.
This vision prepared Peter for the visit that God wanted him to make. He was summoned to the house of Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army...one of those common, unclean, impure Gentiles to be avoided. Peter got the point of the vision. He went to Cornelius’ house and preached “a message by which you will be saved” as the angel had already told Cornelius. And as Peter preached that message, the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and the members of his household in the same way as it happened on the day of Pentecost. Peter said that the Spirit “fell on them just as on us at the beginning.” The previous chapter says that Peter and the other believers who were with him heard them speaking in other languages and praising God. Chapter 10:45 says that they “were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.” I love how the word “even” is inserted in there. It’s as if to say, “Wow! Who would have thought that Gentiles could receive the Holy Spirit, too? I never would have expected that!”
This was God coming across the diamond to the Gentiles at first base, putting his hand on their shoulder, and quieting all who were opposed to them. Of course, Pee Wee Reese’s actions with Jackie Robinson didn’t solve all of the race relations in our country. But it was Reese’s own way of comforting his teammate and saying “It’s okay. You are one of us” and saying to the crowd, “He’s our teammate, no matter what his skin color is. So shut up.”
In a similar way, God’s actions with the household of Cornelius didn’t completely solve the issue of “How do Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity get along?” The church continued to struggle with that issue as is evident in other parts of the New Testament. Nor does this event describe the way that every conversion is supposed to happen. This event with Peter and the household of Cornelius was God’s public stamp of approval on the Gentiles as ones who were not to be excluded from God’s grace and salvation. And the church in Jerusalem glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Now let’s flash forward to our present day and age. We don’t have separate drinking fountains anymore. Rosa Parks made it possible for people to sit anywhere they darn well please on buses. No one (at least I hope not) demands anymore that you must be circumcised before you can become a Christian. But in some ways, things haven’t changed a whole lot within the church. It’s still very easy for us today to look at certain people and view them as common, as unclean, impure, or defiled. It’s easy for us to exclude others from our fellowship for various reasons. Maybe it is their skin color. Maybe it’s their language. Maybe it’s the way they dress. Maybe it’s the side of the tracks they live on. Maybe you know something about them that others don’t know, some secret struggle or addiction they have. It’s easy to look at those people and think to yourself that they are common, unclean, not worthy of our attention...that there is no way that a person like that could possibly fit into our little fellowship here at 92nd and State.
For some of you, it can be very easy to see yourself as “common.” You don’t think you are anything special. Besides, you also know what you have done to displease God, and that makes you unclean and impure. You know your inner thoughts and attitudes that prove your heart is defiled. At times, it can be very easy to look inside ourselves and think that we are not worthy of God’s attention.
But excluding others for whom Christ died is a sin. And viewing yourself as “common” shows that you think God is not big enough to love you or forgive what you’ve done...that Christ’s work at the cross was not enough.
But Christ’s work at the cross WAS enough. Christ’s work on the cross was for the whole world. Jesus said, “For God so loved the WORLD”...not “For God so loved only the lovable”...not “For God so loved only those who are respectable and who act properly.” No one is excluded from his love on the basis of pigment or past history. “The message by which you will be saved” is preached to us, too. It’s the message about Jesus Christ, Lord of all, crucified on the cross, bearing the sins of the whole world, raised to life again on the third day...and as Peter preached to the household of Cornelius, “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (10:43)
Our sins do indeed make us common and unclean. But we are made clean by the shed blood of Christ. 1 John 1:7 says, “the blood of Jesus...cleanses us from all sin.” (see also Rev 1:5; 7:14). We are made clean by the Holy Spirit in the washing of Baptism. Acts 22:16 says, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins.” Ephesians 5:26 says that Christ has “cleansed [the church] by the washing of water with the word.” And Titus 3:5-6 says that God saved us, “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” You and I are born again in the waters of Holy Baptism as God’s Spirit works through water and the Word of God to give us “repentance that leads to life.”
No one is excluded from the work of the Holy Spirit on the basis of race, gender, or social status. St. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) The blood of Christ cleanses all and makes no distinctions. In Revelation 5:9, the gathering around the Lamb of God in heaven sing to him, “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” That’s the same cleansing blood which we drink from the chalice. As we drink of that cup, let us also pray that we will not stand in God’s way so that nothing will keep our gathering around this altar from looking like that gathering around the Lamb’s throne.