Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Acts 10:44-48
6Easter, Year B, 2015
A curious thing happened on my way to preaching today. I decided that I have been too focused on one particular topic, so I set out to preach a sermon about “true love.” After all, our epistle and gospel lessons last week and this are all about urging us to love one another. So safe a topic, and perhaps refreshingly different.
The trouble is, I just can’t preach “true love” today. As much as we always need to love more, that topic doesn’t set my heart on fire today, doesn’t animate my tongue today.
What caught my attention this week was the widely-shared opinion piece in last Sunday’s Washington Post entitled, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church cool.” The author, Rachel Held Evans, a millennial, wrote that what her generation longs for are the sacraments, authentically lived.
Many of you sent me this article, and I’m very grateful. The article gave me hope, because WE have the sacraments to offer (as do all mainline churches). And WE have an authentic, purely Resurrection expression of the sacraments, authentically lived; not all churches can honestly say this.
The trouble with this op-ed piece is that sacraments are only half the answer. There’s a kind of false hope to be had here, if we breathe a sigh of relief and wait for the millennials to discover Resurrection. We know from our own experience that millennials will not flock to—much less stay at—a church that is only about worship. We’ve been learning and relearning this lesson for millennia.
In our first lesson today, for example, the Holy Spirit intervened in a worship service in a very new church and rewrote the rules, rewrote the imperative. We can’t easily tell this because our lesson leaves out the back story. Our lesson begins, “While Peter was still speaking.” What was going on was that Peter was preaching. And the Holy Spirit—that animating, enlivening, creating energy of God—interrupted Peter’s sermon. “While Peter was still speaking,” the text says, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” To whom was Peter preaching, and what was he saying?
First, the “to whom” part of the question. There was a man named Cornelius, a Gentile. By law, Jews could not associate with Gentiles. And Cornelius was not only a Gentile, he was a Roman Centurion. A leader of the occupying army. And yet Peter, the consummate Jew, was in Cornelius’ house. And preaching, no less.
So why was Peter there? This was not an evangelization visit, and not a cold-call. Cornelius was a God-fearing man, someone who wanted to worship God and who did what he could to support God’s work even though he couldn’t attend worship. And, as Acts chapter 10 tells us, God intervened to bring the church to Cornelius and Cornelius into the church. An angel spoke to Cornelius and told him to go get Peter and bring Peter to his house. So Cornelius sent one of his soldiers to round up Peter.
Can’t you just see Peter standing his ground and refusing to go? But, as events unfolded, God also had been speaking to Peter. God had sent him a dream about unclean food, a dream in which he had been commanded to break church law, to break the custom of his people, and to eat this forbidden food. And then God had told Peter he should go to Cornelius.
So Peter went with the soldier when he came calling. But Peter hedged his risk a bit. He took some people with him. He took some “circumcised believers.” The only Christians at this time were Jewish Christians, circumcised Christians, and some of them went with Peter to break the law, to leave their place and style of worship and custom to go meet with Cornelius.
When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, he discovered that the whole family had gathered. As our lesson says, “many had assembled” to see what God was up to.
So Peter began preaching, sharing the story of Jesus and the Resurrection life. That’s where our gospel begins today, with the Holy Spirit falling on Cornelius and his family and friends, as our lesson says. This happened BEFORE Peter could get to the part in his sermon that instructed those outsiders to repent and believe and be circumcised and be baptized. BEFORE these actions that form a pathway to God.
So the normal order was reversed that day. The Holy Spirit so obviously chose these totally unacceptable people that they were IN. And Peter and his cohort of Jewish Christians stayed with Cornelius for several days, eating their food, no doubt, and perhaps even singing praises to God in a new way.
If we read on in the next chapter in Acts, Peter had to account for his actions. When he was finished doing so, his critics were silenced. Actually, they were more than silenced, the Acts account says “they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”
A few years ago I was marveling about this in a Bible study when an analytically minded person suggested that the written account might just have left out a lot of wrangling, even schism. The winner always gets to write the narrative.
I have been struck this week how closely the Cornelius story speaks to our wish to attract millennials into church, into our church, into the way we church.
I know, you know, that our sacraments are profoundly life-giving, forming a pathway to God. Our sacraments—baptism and communion—are by definition the outward signs of an inner, spiritual grace, like circumcision was and is for the Jews.
But every once in a while throughout human history, when we become too satisfied with our understanding of God, God breaks us open to a fresh encounter with the divine. I believe that God is working on us, on Church of the Resurrection, in just this way, to get us beyond our walls in some way or to get someone new inside our walls. God has prepared us: given us authentic faith, deep faith, and a great knowledge of God-things. Why has God done this? To allow us to die with dignity and grace?
I was struck during Baltimore’s unrest, by this comment in the reporting:
It is said that Baltimore is a city with a church on every corner. But in some neighborhoods today—including the one at the epicenter of recent protests and rioting—many of those churches have been boarded up. Some say they feel church leaders stay inside their buildings too much, focused on internal affairs, even as desperate residents pace the sidewalks outside.
Who is desperately pacing the streets outside our church? What do we have to offer them? How will we allow ourselves to be broken open to do so? And isn’t this the ultimate love, true love?