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There Is No Distinction Between Them and Us

Date:5/19/19

Passage: Acts 11:1-18

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

A few months ago, Amanda and the girls invited some friends to join them for a day at the Texas Discovery Gardens. They walked through the gardens, visited the snake house, participated in the butterfly release, and then… ate bugs. Yeah, you heard me. They. Ate. Bugs. The gift shop at the gardens sells dried meal worms, dried crickets, and ant lollipops. If you have been around Amanda much you know that she loves to encourage our girls to try new things. She understands that these new experiences help our daughters stretch themselves, take small risks, and develop a sense of adventure. Pushing their limits just a bit makes them better people. So, Amanda bought the sour cream and onion meal worms, the nacho cheese crickets, and the watermelon-flavored ant lollipop. She tried them, the girls tried them, and even our friends’ kids tried them. The meal worms were the hands-down favorite of the group. In fact, not only did the kids try the meal worms, they devoured the entire package and asked for more. Oh, to have a world where we explore and appreciate our differences… and we even ask for more.

Doesn’t it seem that the world, this country, even this city is embroiled in a struggle over our differences? It seems that conflict abounds over race, gender, age, ability, and religious faiths. In fact, slavery still exists in the world, whether it’s the blatant owning of humans for labor, or the trafficking of women and children, or our prison system as a form of modern-day slavery. Most of us have the luxury of not thinking about the poverty and the oppression of those on the margins. Presbyterian minister, Rev. Mary Newbern-Williams agrees. She says, “Although we have made many strides, we have not arrived. Therefore, the struggle continues, for as long as inequalities exist, human beings will engage in the fight for justice. Marginalized people will continue to keep the struggle at the forefront, in hopes that the new heaven and the new earth to which Revelation refers can be realized, even in this lifetime.”

That new heaven and new earth that Rev. Newbern-Williams is referring to comes from Revelation 21, which says,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

This new heaven and earth, this time when all things will be made new as it says in Revelation is what all people, especially oppressed people are yearning for. They want a time when different peoples of different backgrounds of different experiences can say to one another as Peter said, “There is no distinction between them and us.” It is a struggle in which we must all participate, in which we all must strive and invest. Rev. Newbern-Williams concludes her assessment of this text by saying, “We enjoy conveniences that others do not experience or possess, living in comfortable homes, driving to and from our places of business, enrolling our children in good schools, and helping them plan for their futures. It is crucial to accept these things as gifts and never to take them for granted, remembering that God has placed us into positions in which we can effect change, advocate for others, and pray for their well-being. As people who are often considered ‘privileged’ by many standards, we are called to care for others. Caring for others is a means of responding to Christ’s unconditional love.”

And, as an Easter people, this story of Peter’s vision of a blanket from heaven is vital to who we are and who we should be as followers of Jesus who daily respond to God’s unconditional love. And it’s such a strange and wonderful story, isn’t it, Peter’s vision of a sheet coming down from heaven? This story is actually in chapter 10 of Acts but is retold here in chapter 11, which we read today. But the story is generally the same and we see that Peter was hungry, probably fasting, and had a vision of a sheet or a blanket coming down from heaven with creepy crawling creatures and other unusual animals on it. And God said, “Bon appetite! Eat up!” And each of the three times the sheet descended from heaven, Peter saw the yucky food and was like, “Nope, no way.” Peter’s response to God’s picnic invitation was not simply squeamishness. Peter found the menu disgusting. None of those animals on that blanket were acceptable as food. And so, Peter’s “no” welled up from deep within him, a deep sense of obligation to his religious tradition as an observant Jew. Peter had spent his lifetime trying to remain ritually pure and religiously clean. It was easier to say no than to learn about and accept God’s new definition of inclusion and love.

But the voice of God would have none of Peter’s prejudices. The voice from heaven said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, then everything was pulled up again to heaven. And after the vision departed, Peter was summoned from Joppa to Caesarea to go see Cornelius, a Roman and a Gentile. Peter went and the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and the rest of the Gentiles. Peter learned from this that all people were now being included by God and that even the Gentiles – the non-Jews, foreigners, and outsiders - were now a part of God’s community. Peter said in verse 17, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” Maybe we should echo Peter’s words. Who are we that we should prevent God’s inclusive love? Who we are we that we should prevent the Easter spirit from going out into the world to bring life to all people?

As I’ve said time and time again, we are still in the season of Easter and we are still, even today, being called to be a resurrection people that brings life to the world. But we have learned from this story about a blanket from heaven with unclean foods on it that Peter, at first, wanted to retain that distinction between Jew and Gentile. Holding fast to his religious restrictions and beliefs was more important to Peter than Jesus’ call to welcome all people to the table. But what Peter needed to remember was that Jesus died precisely because of who his friends were and whom he welcomed. And, as a resurrection people, we should be transformed by that same Spirit of Jesus and welcome all to the table.

Yet, Peter’s response revealed that it’s really difficult to transform ourselves without the help of God. Because it is only with God’s help, with the power of Easter now unleashed, that we are equipped to leap over the boundaries that separate them from us. And we must have confidence that the Holy Spirit power that helped Peter see a new world where God did not show partiality, is the same Easter power still at work today through you and through me.

And we need to remember that Peter ate with Gentiles and baptized Gentiles, but he was still not sure they were equal to the chosen ones, the people of Israel, the Jews. And it took a marvelous vision from heaven, a vision from God sent to Peter three times, before he realized that whatever prejudices and preconceived notions he had of people he considered “the other,” it was only through the power and purposes of God that there would be no distinctions between them and him. And I find it interesting that the voice said this to Peter three times, wonderfully echoing that infamous three-time denial of Jesus back in the gospel story. Peter, as is Peter’s way, needed an extra reminder, or two, or three, of the miraculous new heaven and earth that God was creating because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I think the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a similar vision from God, one like Peter’s where, with God’s help, a new and beloved community would be formed. Pointing toward his vision for the end goal of the fight for desegregation in the United States, King was quoted, “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding and goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men… it is a love that makes no distinction between a friend and enemy.”

Duke professor Will Willimon tells the story of a congregation of rainbow colors, a congregation of beloved community. Many races, nationalities, and languages had found a home in this congregation. So, he asked the pastor, “How did this happen?” And the pastor replied, “God only knows.” And Willimon persisted and said, “No, I’m serious. How did this happen?” He wanted to know what techniques, programs, or styles of leadership accounted for such a rich, rainbow-colored church. “I’m serious,” said the pastor. “God only knows because this congregation is not something that I produced. It’s what God miraculously gave.”

It’s so difficult to welcome all to the picnic of God, all to the table of Jesus. I’m sure there are those in our religious tradition or in our city that will scold us and say we aren’t supposed eat with them or baptize them or love them or support them because it violates the boundaries of scripture. But it is only through the power of the Easter spirit that the distinctions and the differences and disparities all disappear. And if the vision of a new heaven and earth doesn’t change us, then God will direct us to get to know those who are different than us. Peter was called to go to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile and a Roman. And it took Peter awhile to figure out that the vision wasn’t about unclean food or rules or regulations, it was about people, all people. And that every single person was now called into the new reality where there are no more distinctions.

And this hungry dream of Peter is important for the church today. Whenever boundaries are broken, and fellowship at the table happens, and all people are embraced by the church, then we have truly witnessed a vision from heaven. It is an act of a God who does not show partiality and makes no distinction. The church is made up of Easter people and we should be a miracle to the world. The Christian church should be a kind of protest to the way that people are usually gathered, in our groups and cliques and affinities… in a world where like attracts like. The church should be a post-Easter miracle of God where all people, insider and outsider, Jew and Gentile, black and white, gay and straight, friend or enemy, healed and broken, all are needed for us to have heaven on earth.

So, friends, can we help create that vision in the Book of Revelation that calls to fruition a new heaven and new earth right here and right now? What would it take to make that happen? What would it take to cherish Peter’s words that call for us not to make distinctions between people of different backgrounds? What would it take to lean into those words, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us?” I’m not sure what the answer is. But what I do know is that maybe we all need a vision like Peter’s of a large sheet that holds the diversity of this world, a large blanket which makes a big tent where we all fit under the care, the protection, and the love of God. Maybe then we can begin to realize a new heaven and a new earth, a new world where there is no distinction, only celebration at the rich and beautiful and vibrant life created by God. So, what’s in your sheet? What are your hidden prejudices? What work do you need to do this week to bring God’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth to Dallas? For if we figure that out, maybe we will come to realize that there really aren’t distinctions between them and us.

Amen.