I am grateful that the storytelling we heard today from John was about our relationship to BMC and the Way of welcome to LGBTQ Christians and how Connecting Families provides a place of care and support for queer folks and their kin. I think it is a clear illustration from the recent history of our congregation of the kind of the kind of complete change of understanding that Peter has in our Acts story. That was a milestone change that the early church experienced as they learned that it was not Jewish believers where were called to follow Christ. And not only were non-Jewish believers welcomed by God but that they too as Jewish believers could welcome, share a table with and be changed by the addition of these new persons into the Body of Christ. They began to live Peter’s words: “truly God shows no partiality.” And in the words of our hymn, “There is a wideness in God’s mercy.”
Now (seven years later) our welcome statement appears on our website, a portion of which reads:
“We celebrate and affirm the image of God in persons of every age, gender, race, ability, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, and strive to find common ground on which to build relationship with our neighbors near and far. We publicly affirm that LGBT persons are welcome to participate in the full life and ministry of our church, including membership, baptism, marriage, leadership, and pastoral ministry.”
I went back to the December 2009 minutes at which that statement was affirmed. Minutes in no way reflect the intensity of the discussion, the tension in the room, the pain, the worry, the hope and finally the relief of the breakthrough to a new and explicit understanding.
In our wider Mennonite church – that tense, painful, hopeful, intense discussion wages on. I believe that we all want to please God. And many of us believe that the way to do it is to follow the rules. To do otherwise is to be out of control, wild, unpredictable. Peter was a rule follower. And probably no surprise: I am a rule follower too; I’m an eldest and I’m a girl. I have never been the wild child. But even if that were not the case we are all formed from the time we are children to follow rules. I bet any child here who is in school (or probably even at home) could name a few of the rules or expectations in that setting. (Don’t run in the hallway. Use a level one voice inside. Follow the dress code.)
In Peter’s case, he dearly desired to please God. He desired to follow Jesus. And the way he knew how to do that was to follow the rules. The rules that Peter and his gang in Jerusalem knew were the rules of the Jewish law. Those rules included very strict guidelines about what he was allowed to eat and not eat, and with whom he should share his table. (ie. Not the gross Gentiles). And so when this great sheet filled with exotic wild animals descended from the sky and Peter was instructed by God to “EAT!” he responds like it is a test of the rules. “Oh no. I’m a good boy.” Three time this has to happen before Peter begins to understand – oh maybe this is about something else.
Was he remembering being on the beach with Jesus? Remembering Jesus’ instructions not to feed himself but to feed his sheep? Remembering hearing that three times? Did he remember the way he let Jesus wash his feet? And how Jesus instructed him to do the same? Or maybe he remembered that Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In other words: I am changing the rules!
Finally Peter begins to understand that he needs to take some of that wildness and ingest it. The wild vision takes Peter down the path to new understanding: a visit from messengers who have also seen a vision, an invitation, the risk to follow, meeting a new friend, the descent of the Holy Spirit. Truly God shows no partiality. There is a wideness – and a wildness! – in God’s mercy. There is no taming the Holy Spirit.
The minutes of the meeting of Peter and the believers in Jerusalem might begin, “So you have been visiting the Gentiles and eating with them, have you?” Peter is being questioned by his ‘brothers’ in Jerusalem about his faithfulness to the law. He hasn’t been following the rules. They had heard that the Gentiles had accepted the word of God. They had no problem with that. Cornelius was ‘well respected by the Jewish people’. But segregation was still how they understood what it meant to be God’s people. Separate but equal (maybe).
“This new, emerging church was supposed to be their church. A Jewish church. Their understanding of Jesus was grounded in Jesus’ identity as a Jew—like them.”[i] Eating with Gentiles, for Jewish followers of Christ was still beyond their understanding of what was possible. So Peter takes them through it step by step. The vision, the voice, the invitation, the risk, the meeting, the Spirit. The new understanding. New rules. Wild Mercy.
The wide and wild mercy of God will define the rest of Acts as the people of the way take this Good News far and wide. This is the first of three stories over three weeks that begin with conversion and end at the table. Together. Something that at the beginning would have seemed impossible. Even the story of Pentecost with its tongues of fire and mighty wind and understanding of languages is about Jewish people from all nations. From now on, the people of the way learn how to be host and guest with each other. Next week Lydia, dealer in purple cloth, will become a believer and prevail upon Paul and the travelers with him. The following week the jailer of Paul and Silas believes and then hosts the two missionaries in his home.
The thing that makes this kind of welcome so scary for the rule followers (or actually any community who is preparing to welcome someone new and not like them) is that the new people are not the only ones who are changed. Hospitality to new folks changes the whole community. In a sermon on this text Joanna Harader, a Mennonite Pastor in Kansas writes:
Now, two thousand years after Peter got in trouble for bringing Gentiles into the church community, we still have a problem with racism in the church. It’s not that white Christians think that people of color shouldn’t be in the church or be baptized. Most white folks are all for racial diversity as long as it doesn’t lead to any, you know, actual diversity–different kinds of praying or preaching or music or theology.[ii]
“Yay! You people accepted Jesus!” “Oh no, this is the kind of music we sing.” It’s hard to call that dichotomy true hospitality, wild mercy. Change can be hard. Painful. We celebrate that those others are changed and learn about Jesus but welcoming them into our midst means that we have to change too.
We discerned that Radical Hospitality would be one of our foundational practices. Hospitality is not just nice manners. And radical is not just being extra great at a thing. We’re not talking about welcome that’s a little crazy. We are talking about radical meaning rooted. We are rooted in the kind of hospitality that undoes violence and oppression, rooted in the practices of just peace – wide and wild mercy. The love of Jesus with which we are to be marked. The wildness of the Holy Spirit pushed Peter and the other believers to understand themselves as followers of Jesus in a new way. How is the Holy Spirit pushing us now? What is the wild idea or new community that we are being called to make a part of ourselves?
Peter and Cornelius start it all but Peter doesn’t get there right away. The early church definitely didn’t figure it all our immediately. All of the epistles are about the churches struggle to be on the Way. Peter has to see the wide vision of the sheet 3 times, be invited, follow, listen to the other, stop talking for once, be open to the Spirit. And keep telling the story so that it becomes a part of him and of the community. This is the third time in a row that Acts recounts this story.
I truly wonder what God is setting before us in this moment. What wild merciful vision are we called to ingest? I do think, like Joanna, whom I quoted earlier, that the church struggles with racism. I think we need to educate ourselves about our own privilege and listen to the experiences of people of color. I think we need to figure out what it means to be (most of us) white, educated, well cared for folk. And I believe we would do well to name our relationship to the first peoples of this continent: descended (most of us) from settlers. And discern what our response and action can be to those folk.
I truly wonder what God is setting before us, because I truly don’t know. We are called as community into our own vision of Radical Hospitality and Discernment. I pray that in these next days, weeks, years discern together how we are to welcome and be changed. May we be open to God’s wide and wild mercy, which like the universe, is only expanding. And praise to the One who broke through to Peter and who can break through to us.
Praise the one who breaks the darkness
with liberating light…
Praise the one true Love incarnate…
Let us sing for joy and gladness,
seeing what our God has done…
Praise the one who makes us one.
[i] Joanna Harader, “Acts 11:1-18,” on Spacious Faith. (https://spaciousfaith.com/sermons-etc/new-testament-texts/acts-111-18/)