Getting Over Our Own Hang-UpsPosted: May 29, 2011
Peter was a good Jew. A true child of his race he was distrustful even disdainful of non-Jews. One of the ways the Jewish people had set themselves apart from others was through an elaborate set of laws governing diet – no pulled pork Bar-B-Q, no lobster, no shrimp, no oysters, no Philly Steak with cheese, no chicken fried steak with milk gravy, no gyros with yogurt sauce, no cheese burgers. For fear of ritual contamination, good Jews were not supposed to have physical contact with non-Jews. The early church had observed a strict rule, followers of Jesus had to be good Jews strict followers of the laws of Moses. Well they had loosened up some of the law a little bit. The evangelist Phillip had gone off and begun a mission to the Samaritans, but Samaritans practiced circumcision and kept most of same dietary rules. And then the law had been relaxed enough to allow a tanner like Simon in Joppa to join the group. Tanners were usually excluded by strict keepers of the law, because of their extensive contact with animal carcasses.
But no one had even contemplated extending the gospel to the gentiles — gentiles of all people. You know people like us, who go to Gibson’s Bar-B-Q, and eat butter on a roast beef sandwich, or who keep milk and lunch meat in the same refrigerator, and don’t keep separate sets of dishes for meat and cheese, you know unclean gentiles like us. The early church wasn’t about to include people like us. Think about that. The first followers of Jesus weren’t about to include people like us. We were considered too unclean to share the message of God’s love.
And then God showed up. God has a way of showing up when we least expect it. But God wasn’t in a hurricane, or a tornado, or an earthquake, or some big natural event. No Peter went up on the roof top of Simon the Tanner’s house to wait for supper. It was probably a warm afternoon, and the sea breeze from the Mediterranean lulled him into a gentle sleep. And Peter had a dream, we’ve already described in the scripture. And the upshot of God’s message was: “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”
Three times Peter had this same dream in an afternoon nap. It reminds me of some really good advice from a counselor in group therapy. She said, “if one person tells you, that you are a horse, they’re crazy. If two people tell you, that you are a horse, well maybe you’d better think about it. And if three people tell you, that you are a horse, you’d better get the saddle and bridle.
So Peter was trying to figure out the meaning of his dream, when emissaries from Cornelius showed up. And here we can ask, was this coincidence or was it synchronous? Coincidence is when two unrelated things happen at the same time. Let me give you an example. When my parents took my brother and I to Europe in 1960, we were in Selfridge’s Department Store in London. We had been walking all morning and we saw some chairs, where we could sit down. While we were sitting there some other Americans came and sat down. You can usually recognize Americans, when you are traveling. So we asked them where they were from in the States.
“Oh,” they said, “we’re from Nebraska.”
“Really,” we replied, “we’re from Nebraska too.”
“Well where are you from in Nebraska,” we asked?
“We’re from Omaha,” the people replied.
“Well we’re from Omaha too?”
“Well where are you from in Omaha?” And it turned out they lived around the block from us. It was kind of a long block, but literally they lived 200 yards from us going through back yards, and here we were meeting in London. That was a coincidence, a rather odd coincidence, but just two things happening at the same time.
Synchronicity is when two things happen at the same time, but there is a perceived deeper meaning in the meeting of events, where one occurrence is feeding the other – there are consequences either positive or negative that result from the concurrence of events. Let me offer a minor example. When I was a student at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, I wanted to study the church’s efforts to lobby congress for social change. I called the Director of the Council for Christian Social Action of the United Church of Christ, Lew Maddox, located in New York City. I made an appointment to travel to New York to interview him and access some historical archives for my research.
The day before my appointment, Lew Maddox received a memo from the nominating committee of the United Church of Christ directed to all the boards and committees of the denomination to recommend the names of UCC young people under the age of 30, who could be nominated to serve on their Councils. The next day, when I arrived for the interview, the Director asked me if I would be willing to have my name placed in nomination for the Council for Christian Social Action. This synchronous event led to an internship in Washington, and my acceptance at Yale Divnity School. One event built upon another opening doors of opportunity that can only be described as synergy.
So as Peter was trying to figure out the meaning of his dream, Cornelius’ emissaries were knocking on the door of Simon the Tanner’s house. Peter concluded that this was synergy rather than mere coincidence, and he agreed to travel to Caesarea to meet with Cornelius and his friends and family. And the rest is history. Cornelius and his friends and family became the first gentile converts as followers of Jesus, and from there the early church began to open up to the inclusion of people like us. It wasn’t easy. There was a group Paul refers to in his Letter to the Galatians and his Letter to Titus as the circumcision party. And they resisted and resisted and resisted the inclusion of gentiles. In the end, however, God prevailed, and the circle of God’s grace in the church was drawn large enough to include all of us.
Now what can we discover in our scripture this morning? First, I think we can learn to be open to synergy. We don’t want to go around attributing God’s providence to every coincidence in our lives. Let me share with you an example I ran across as I was investigating “coincidence.”
In 1898, 14 years before the Titanic made her maiden voyage, Morgan Robertson wrote a book entitled, ‘Futility’ or ‘The Wreck of the Titan.’ This was the story of an “unsinkable” massive ocean liner, which like the Titanic, was on its maiden voyage from Britain to New York in the month of April, with 2,000 people on board. While it was also attempting to cross the Atlantic in record time, it too struck an iceberg and sank. Not only were the ships’ names very similar, but most on board also perished simply because there was of a lack of lifeboats.
Robertson’s book Futility was never published as a separate work. Each time it was rejected by editors, who told him that the story was unbelievable.
Not every coincidence is the hand of God. On the other hand we can be open to the possibility God can be found in the events of our lives. Most of the time we will only be able to perceive God’s movement in hindsight, but that has always been true. Most of the Bible was written in hindsight, people looking back and saying, “oh that’s what God was doing?” If we are open to possibility and responsive to God’s grace, coincidence can become synergy, God working through us to bring the community of peace, love and justice into the present.
The second important truth we can discover in our scripture is God’s gracious and loving inclusiveness. The good news of the love of Jesus Christ initially came to the Jews. And many Jewish Christians wanted to keep it that way. They were scandalized, when Peter returned to Jerusalem and reported that he had baptized gentiles of all people. They wanted to keep the circle of salvation closed, limited to Jews only.
There was a famous rabbi about twenty years before Jesus, named Honi the Circle Drawer. He was given that name, because he performed many miracles through prayer. And before Honi would pray he would draw a circle to consecrate a special space for the divine human encounter. Jesus drew a circle of consecrated space to include the woman taken in adultery. And then he said, whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.
I believe when Peter baptized Cornelius and those other first gentiles, God was redrawing the circle of salvation to include the whole world. God wanted to welcome all people into the church. And so the circle of acceptance was redrawn to include people like you and me – unclean Gentiles – “what God has cleansed, you must not call common.” And that is why we try to live out the slogan we advertise, “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.”
The point is if God has redrawn the circle of salvation to make it big enough to include us, unclean gentiles that we are, who are we to try to narrow the circle of welcome to exclude other people? Like God said to Peter, get over your hang-ups. They’re your hang-ups not mine. Welcome everyone. God has created each one of us as a unique precious child of God. God loves us. Let us welcome one another regardless of our differences and embrace God’s truly amazing grace.