Sermon, May 15

Love, like Death, hath all destroyed –

Rendered all distinctions void: 

Name, and sect, and party fall; 

Thou, O Christ, art all in all. 

That verse was written by Charles Wesley, the great 18th-century poet and hymn writer.  I came across it last week and it’s been knocking around in my head ever since. 

Love, like Death, hath all destroyed – rendered all distinctions void… 

In this provocative verse about Love, the Destroyer, Wesley is playing with this important thing Paul says in a couple of his letters: There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

It may be hard for us to fully understand what a radical statement this really was, in the first century. Even if we only focus on “neither Jew nor Greek”! “Greek” here means “Gentile” – non-Jews in general. The first Christians and church leaders were all Jewish, formed in the faith of the First Testament. And they initially understood the Way of Jesus as a new kind of Judaism. Opening the doors for non-Jews to join the movement – on equal terms! – was a big deal.  And like most big changes, it took time, and listening, and arguing, and praying, to get there. 

Today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles shows us one chapter of this story. When I first looked at the assigned passage last week, I felt annoyed. Because what we have here is Peter’s brief summary of a story that is told in full in the previous chapter – Acts 10. There are lots of details in that version that we miss, here. For example: The Gentile whom Peter visits isn’t just any Gentile. He’s a centurion, a leader in the Roman army that occupies Peter’s homeland. His name is Cornelius. And though he’s a Gentile, he’s a man of prayer and generosity. 

I don’t know why Peter doesn’t tell the church leaders in Jerusalem that his new convert is a Roman soldier. Maybe a Gentile is a Gentile and it doesn’t really matter. Or maybe it would have made it a bridge too far for some folks, so he just… neglects to mention it. 

There are other things that we miss in Peter’s retelling. Like the delightful detail that when the vision comes to him, he’s very hungry and waiting for lunch. Or the wonderful thing Peter says as all of this comes together for him in a lightbulb moment: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality! God has no preferences, no favorites; but in every nation or people, anyone who honors God and does good is acceptable to God.” 

Love, like Death, hath all destroyed! Rendered all distinctions void! … 

So at first, when I looked at today’s lesson, I was a little grumpy. I wanted the whole story, not this little Cliff’s Notes version. 

But then I noticed what’s happening here. This isn’t just a summary of what’s happened already. It’s the next chapter in the story – and it’s an important chapter. 

Peter’s heart has been changed.  He’s come to a new understanding about whom God is calling to join the Way of Jesus. But it’s not all up to Peter. He’s a leader in the nascent Christian community; but he’s not THE leader. 

There’s a group of apostles and elders in Jerusalem who are trying to guide the movement and keep it on track and faithful to the teachings and witness of Jesus. And while God has no preferences or favorites, people do. The Jerusalem leaders are skeptical about Gentile converts. This isn’t just bigotry; it’s partly that they honor and treasure their Jewish faith and heritage, and fear that it may be lost. We may grieve what Love destroys! 

They hear about what happens in Caesarea, this group of Gentiles whom Peter has actually baptized into the church! – and they call Peter back to Jerusalem to explain himself. Why did you go to uncircumcised men – to people outside God’s ancient covenant with the Jewish people – and eat with them?

I love the next verse: “Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step.” 

What he’s doing here is actually a best practice for talking with someone with opposing views: Talk about your experiences. Don’t argue about the big ideas – Gentiles belong! Gentiles don’t belong! – but share what you have seen and heard, and how you came to understand things the way you do.

Peter tells them about what was going on outside of him, at Cornelius’s house: seeing this group of Gentiles seized by the Holy Spirit, in a way that looks a lot like what happened to the disciples at Pentecost. 

He also tells them about what was going on inside of him: He sees the Spirit at work, he remembers Jesus’ words, he knows God sent him to meet these people and witness this moment, and all of that becomes metanoia, a turning of the heart: Whom am I to hinder God? 

Peter’s conversion, his change of heart, matters. But Peter’s testimony to these leaders matters even more. Peter has some standing in this group, as one of Jesus’ closest friends, whom Jesus appointed as a church leader… But everyone also knows that Peter has a tendency to go off half-cocked, so that may work against him! 

When he’s finished speaking, the leaders are quiet for a while. Imagine the suspense in the room. And then someone says, “So God has given even to Gentiles a turning of the heart toward life.” And they celebrate. 

Love, like Death, hath all destroyed, rendered all distinctions void. Name and sect and party fall… 

In the vision of John of Patmos, in today’s Revelation text, the Holy One seated on the throne says, “See, I am making all things new.” And Jesus tells the disciples in today’s Gospel, “I am giving you a new commandment.” Our God is a god who brings forth new things and leads us to new understandings. 

It’s important to say that new stuff isn’t intrinsically better just because it’s new – just like old stuff isn’t better, or worse, just because it’s old. There’s plenty of bad new stuff in the world. But what we see here isn’t Peter seizing the new for new’s sake. He hears God nudge him to pay attention, to respond. I get nudges like that, though perhaps not as dramatically! Then Peter goes into the situation with eyes and ears open. And he weighs what he sees against the teachings of Jesus. This is a process of discernment – of seeking God’s will or God’s purposes. 

And once Peter discerns that God has called these Gentiles into the church – he doesn’t just tolerate them. He goes to bat for them. He makes their full inclusion part of his witness, his agenda. And he sticks with it for the long term. 

The question of Gentiles in the church comes back in Acts chapter 15 – which takes place as much as a decade later.  A group of Jewish Christians are telling everyone that for Gentiles to become Christian, they essentially have to first become Jews – including circumcision, a fairly drastic step. Basically, it’s been accepted that Gentiles can become Christian – but the question now is on what terms. Can they join the church as they are? Or do they have become something else, to be fully included? 

So there’s another gathering of church leaders in Jerusalem to talk it out and settle the matter. Peter is there, and he harks back to this experience and to what it taught him about God’s welcome for Gentiles: “In cleansing their hearts by faith God has made no distinction between them and us.”

There’s discussion and debate and it probably drags on for days. But finally James, the brother of Jesus, speaks up and settles the matter: “We should not burden those Gentiles who are turning to God.” The Church will be a church of both Jews and Gentiles, on more or less equal terms. 

The issue at stake in Acts is: who belongs in the church, and how. As people of the church, we continue to face those frontiers. There’s a movement in the Episcopal Church today to deepen our understanding and affirmation of transgender and non-binary people – perhaps finally coming to grips with Paul’s insight that in Christ there is no longer male and female. 

We’re working to not just welcome and include people of color, but reckon with the ways racism is embedded in our liturgies, institutions and culture. 

I think – I hope – that our larger church is beginning some real work on the the true welcome and inclusion of those living with mental illness; those with disabilities; and neurodivergent people.

I believe we will look more like the church God intends us to be when we have learned, together, to receive one another in the fullness of our humanity, without asking anyone to become something else first in order to be fully included. 

But what Peter models for us here isn’t just for church. This is a story about a group wrestling with who it’s for, and it’s an oddly timeless story – one we might find ourselves in at any time. I certainly have. 

Maybe you’re Peter, meeting someone who blows open your sense of who matters or who belongs. 

Maybe you’re one of the Jerusalem leaders, weighing the implications of changing standards and opening doors. 

Maybe you’re Cornelius, simply witnessing to your human worth to somebody who’s never really talked to someone like you before.

This oddly mundane story that’s threaded through the book of Acts, of an organization revising its membership requirements – it’s a reminder that holy work takes many forms.Sometimes it’s courageous witnessing. Sometimes it’s prayerful listening. Sometimes it’s the grind and stress of working for cultural and institutional change. Through it all, the Love that formed the universe and knows us each by name is working, working, working, beside and among and within us. 

Love, like Death, hath all destroyed –

Rendered all distinctions void: 

Name, and sect, and party fall; 

Thou, O Christ, art all in all. 

Amen. Alleluia.