The Church: Learning Who Belongs

The Church: Learning Who Belongs

Easter 6B
Pastor Mitch Coggin May 5, 2024 Easter

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. I am giving you these commandments so that you love one another. Love one another as I have loved you. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and may be complete. This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.”

While preparing this sermon, I remembered an incident from when I was about 8 years old that has stayed with me. As you know, I grew up in Alabama and this would have been in the 1960’s. At that time, my mom worked for the Health Department and taught classes at the low income housing in our small town and she was also the director of Sunday School at the Baptist church where I had attended since I was born. She created a Sunday School assembly where all the classes, both adults and children, would meet together for a program. On this particular Sunday, two black girls my mom had invited from her work community joined the other white children from my church in the program of readings.

On that Sunday morning, I remember vividly how people were seated around the sides of the room. I remember now the disgust of the adults that two black children were included in our Sunday School Assembly. No one had greeted the girls, no one spoke to the girls. I remember how my mom was ostracised for perpetuating this event as normal when everyone else in the room thought this was not acceptable. Knowing what I know now about events in Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery, other cities in Alabama where the most extreme forms of racism existed; I realize that was the first time I experienced such extreme exclusion of others inside the church. The disease of that day has stayed with me all of these years.

The verses we read from Acts come at the end of the tenth chapter. In order to put the verses about baptism in context, we need to go back and tell the story of Cornelius and Peter that begins chapter 10. Cornelius, a devout and prayerful Gentile who lived in Caesarea had a vision in which an angel tells him to send some of his men to find a man called Peter and bring him to Cornelius’ house.

Meanwhile, Peter, the primary leader of the early church, is having a vision of his own. While he is praying, he becomes hungry. As he waits for his meal, he sees the heavens open and something like a large sheet being lowered to the ground. In it were all kinds of creatures. Peter then hears a voice say, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.” But Peter replies, “by no means, Lord. I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said again, “What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.” This happened three times and the sheet is taken up to heaven. Peter’s prayer is interrupted by the Spirit who tells him that three men have come and he should go with them without hesitation, for the Spirit has sent them.

I remember this passage being discussed in a seminary classroom and how unusual it is that the vision Peter had was written three times. The writing of sacred texts by scribes was a laborious process so repeating a part of the text, word for word, underscored the private battle Peter was having with his long-held beliefs that it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile because of purity laws from Leviticus.

So, Peter goes the next day with the men to visit Cornelius. Cornelius was expecting Peter and had invited his relatives and close friends. As Peter talked with Cornelius and those gathered, Peter said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. Cornelius replied, “So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”

Peter preached to the gathering which brings us to verse 44 and following that we read. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit came to all who were gathered. The circumcised believers that had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptising these people who had received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” They were baptised and they asked him to remain with them for several days. Both the Gentiles and Peter had more to learn about one another.

The story about Peter and Cornelius at the beginning of the chapter is really not about food or cultural or religious boundaries but about who belongs. The last verses are not just about Baptism but about who belongs. In my elementary experience, the schools in my town were segregated by race so the fact that my church life was segregated as well seemed normal. And yet, the reactions in that Sunday School room, even at my young age, made me question who belongs and why?

These Sundays of Easter have been focused on the beginning of the church and what we can learn about ourselves as today’s church. Walter Bruggeman writes, “Without a doubt the resurrection of Jesus is the most important event in the New Testament. But also without a doubt, the second most important event in the NT is the admission of Gentiles into the early Jewish church because their admittance kept the church from becoming a tribe of like minded people. Because of the Spirit we are always being called in the Church beyond our pet convictions about God and Jesus and about money, and government, and neighbours, and sexuality, and whatever we might name. Called out beyond our safe comfort zone. That is what happened in the book of Acts, the discovery that the Spirit would not let the church hold fast in any safe place.” We’ve read all these verses from John about love, but they are really about the behaviour of someone who loves. I can’t say I love you until and unless I behave differently toward you. Every day it is a matter of figuring that out.

Today in both the epistle and the Gospel of John we hear again the reminder, “As God has loved us, so are we to love one another.” Is it repeated because it is imperative or are we not getting it or both? In my young experience in Sunday School, I was called out beyond my safe comfort zone in the church. It opened my eyes to the reaction of people who thought they were in the right. Peter loved the Jewish faith, but it came into conflict when he was asked to love those whose lives were not consistent with his staunch Jewish rules and traditions.

The story of the church is about those who belong and finding ways to welcome outsiders and of making outsiders into insiders who belong and who are baptised together. It is the Spirit who overrides the differences.