What are you for?

Acts 11:1-18

11Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If 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?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

            A pastor decides to call in sick on a beautiful Sunday morning so that he can play a round of golf.  Of course God is watching from heaven and St. Peter notices what is going on as well.  So Peter says to God, “You’re not going to let him get away with that, are you?”

            “Of course not,” said God.

            The pastor teed up his ball on the first hole and drove the ball 420 yards for a hole-in-one. 

Peter looked at God and said, “I thought you said you weren’t going to let him get away with that?”

            “Who is he going to tell?” answered God.

            Peter.  He is probably one of my least favorite apostles, just after Bartholomew and just before Judas.  I’m not exactly sure why, but he is.  Maybe it is because he is always shooting off at the mouth, saying things without thinking first.  He acts first and thinks second.  He jumps out onto the water, walks a few steps, and then he sinks.  He tells Jesus that Jesus will never wash his feet, then he changes his tune and says, “Wash my whole body then, Lord!”  He cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Malchus, who had come to arrest Jesus and Jesus says, “That’s not what we are about.”  Peter never seems to get it.  He is slow to figure things out.  And perhaps the reason that I like Peter the least is because I see so much of myself in him.

            So I preface today’s sermon with that note, that I am far from perfect myself.  I am impulsive.  I act first and think second, or maybe not at all.  So I write this sermon today not only to the people of Staunton Mennonite Church, but to myself.  I write it as a reminder of what we are for.  We are for the kingdom of God; we are for love.

            Our scripture for this morning begins by telling us that the apostles and the believers in Judea had heard that the Gentiles had accepted the word of God.  And the text doesn’t come right out and say this, but the Jewish believers seem to be upset about this because this was their gospel.  This was their good news.  Since the calling of Abraham, the Hebrew people had been God’s chosen people.  They were the ones that God was going to bless.  They were the ones that God had revealed himself to through the Torah.  They were the ones that had been given the Promised Land.  They were the ones that were awaiting a Messiah.  And they were the ones that believed that they had received their Messiah in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Their Messiah, not the Messiah for all of the world.  They believed that Jesus was God’s Messiah for the Israelite people.

            We all get possessive of our things.  Like a two-year-old, we don’t like to share.  My blocks, my teddy, my mommy, even my God.  And like the Jews in our text, we can be a little skeptical of those that come into our church and worship our God.  Sure we say we want more and more people to come to follow Jesus.  But when they do, we sometimes feel a little suspicious because when people come to follow Jesus Christ, they often bring a lot of things with them.  They bring their culture, their world view, their way of doing things.

            Under the old covenant, to become a follower of God did not simply mean that you profess to believe something.  To become a follower of God meant that you adopted an entirely new way of life.  To become a Jew meant that you must study the Law, that you must recite the Shema every day, that you must let your hair at the temple of your head grow long.  To become a Jew meant that you no longer worked on the Sabbath or ate certain things.  To become a Jew meant that the men would be circumcised.  So when Peter started to share the Gospel with the Gentiles, the Jews got protective of their god (intentionally lowercase).  And you can see it in verse two.  “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  They should have first been circumcised.  They should have gone through the protocol.  Then, Peter, you can eat with them.  Then you can share the gospel.  We don’t want to pollute the faith.

            I once heard a story about a Mennonite woman who had gone off to a remote part of Africa as a missionary.  And her work was paying off.  People were coming to the Lord.  They were assembling together to worship.  And word got back to the bishop of her sending church of all that she was accomplishing.  And the bishop wrote to her and asked, “Sister, are you making the women wear the covering?”  The missionary replied, “Brother, I’m having enough of a time getting them to wear clothes.”

            I hope my point is clear.  Yes, we all want to see all of the world become followers of Jesus.  I do not doubt that the world would be a better place if this happened.  The hungry would be fed, the naked would be clothed, the homeless would have shelter if everyone became a follower of Jesus.  But we tend to put up hurdles and obstacles along the way because we think that everyone needs to do exactly as we do in order to be a follower of Jesus.

            Now I am in no way saying that there is not such a thing as sin and that everything goes.  If we simply look at the last verse of our scripture from Acts we read “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”  The repentance that leads to life.  The word repentance, or metanoia in Greek, means to have a changed mind.  It is more than just speaking words and saying “I accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.”  It is changing your priorities and changing your allegiances to Jesus Christ.  We often hear about people repenting of their bad deeds.  This is more than simply saying that you did something wrong.  This is changing your mind from a status where you once thought that something was okay and is no longer appropriate.

            I think the important thing here is to try.  Trying to follow Jesus to the best of our ability is the point of Christianity.  We all know that not every Christian believes the same things.  That is why we have so many denominations today.  And I have never been one to say that everyone needs to agree on every last detail of my Christian faith in order for me to accept them as a brother or sister in Christ.  I would love it if we all agreed on everything, and we could do that if everyone would just agree with meJ.  We don’t need to turn our backs to what we believe is sin just to get along.  But we do need to learn how to agree and disagree in love.

            In John 13 we have some of the most beautiful and moving scripture in all of the Bible.  In this text we find Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  Not eleven of his disciples, but all of them.  Jesus washed the feet of Matthew, a tax collector and sympathizer, perhaps a collaborator with the Roman Empire.  Jesus washed the feet of Simon the Zealot that would have advocated the violent overthrow of the Roman Empire.  Jesus washed the feet of Judas who would betray him.

            Differences will arise within our churches, within our denominations, within Christianity, and between religions.  That’s just the way it works.  But if we want to convince people that we as Christians have something special here, and I believe that we do, we need to learn to get along.  That doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but we do need to learn to get along.  And I believe that this begins with not judging others.

            I was doing a little research online this week when I came across a blog on the internet.  For those of you that aren’t familiar with blogs, it is a place where you can share information in an interactive way.  Someone can write a post, people can respond with questions, the original poster can answer the questions, other people can weigh in on the subject.  So I came across a blog where someone had asked why the 16th century Anabaptists were condemned as heretics and another group was not.  This is the first line of a response that I read:

“Historically, Simon Mennos and his followers denied the humanity of Christ. They believed He was ‘Celestial Flesh’.”

            Anabaptists and their followers deny the humanity of Christ?  We as Mennonites are a part of the spiritual offspring of the Anabaptists.  And if you have been in this church for a while you probably know that if anything, I emphasize the humanity of Jesus.  My entire theological framework is based on the incarnation.  God came as a human being, experienced everything we experience, yet was without sin.  He showed us how to live and then died for our sins.

            This blogger then went on to give some critiques of the Mennonite Church and the Church of the Brethren.  And if this criticism was from some random person out there in the blogosphere I could have easily dismissed it.  But this person was a pastor in a church just down the road from us.  And he never bothered to come and tell me about his strong feelings and accusations of heresy against the Mennonite Church.  But he sure didn’t seem to mind putting them on a website for everyone to see.

            It took all I had to not reply to his post and critique his religious tradition (and I have plenty).  I could have pointed out to him how he misrepresented the Mennonite faith.  And I could have thanked him for his spiritual enlightenment and sharing from his vast wealth of knowledge.  I mean, hey, I’ve been calling our founder by the wrong name all of these years.  I thought his name was Menno Simons.

            Responding on the blog would have done nothing but make the matter worse.  These things tend to divide us rather than bring us together.  We as Christians are so good at naming other people’s and other churches’ shortcomings.  We are so arrogant about the faith.  What do we have to be arrogant about?  Everything we have is by the grace of God and this includes our knowledge of God.  I think that this is what Jesus was getting at when he said that we are not to judge someone else; that we are to take the 2×4 out of our own eye before we critique the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye.

            Christians judging Christians.  It is an ugly thing.  Yes, we are called to keep one another accountable, but there is a big difference between accountability and judgment.  And I’m pretty sure the job of judge is already reserved for someone else.  Like the Jews that critiqued Peter for eating with the Gentiles, we as Christians are really good at saying what we are against, but what are we for?

After Jesus has finished washing the feet of the disciples (and after he predicts his betrayal) Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment.  “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.”

What we usually do often looks more like judgment than love.  And nobody likes to be judged, do they?  Last Thursday I was walking in the park, pushing Paxton in a stroller.  And he was a little fussy.  He wasn’t screaming, but he was fighting sleep and he lets you know when he needs to sleep but doesn’t want to.

So we are wheeling around the park and I hear a voice calling out of a parked car.  It was a woman who called out, “I hear your baby crying.  You better feed him or change his butt.”

I was a little offended.  I had just fed him and changed him before we left the house.  I felt like I was being judged.  It felt like she was saying, You are a bad, bad father.  And I just wanted to say, “You don’t know me!  Who are you to be able to speak into my life?”  But I do that to others, too.  And I bet I’m not alone.

We don’t receive a daily newspaper at our home.  Instead we get our news online.  So everyday I click on the website of our local newspaper to see the highlights for the day.  Something that I like to do from time to time is to read through the comments section that often follows each article.  People are able to leave their thoughts and comments after an article, often making it a little more personal.  People also can leave their critiques of the news item that is being reported.  It is much like a blog and I think that this is great.  I believe that we all have the right to our own opinion and that we can all gain from hearing from other people.  Everyone has the right to be heard, but not everyone speaks love.  Many people speak judgment.

            A couple weeks ago there was a tragic event that took place in the Staunton community.  A fourteen-year-old boy lost his life while camping with some friends.  The family believed that the boy died because he abused a prescription drug the night before.

            If you get a Staunton newspaper then you know that this rightly made the local headlines.  And I was again drawn to the comment section following the story on the newspaper’s website.  Some of what I read really touched my heart.  There were well-wishes for the family and prayers posted in the comments.  But I also read a lot of things that simply broke my heart.  “What kind of father would let a fourteen-year-old go camping with no adult supervision?” and “Surely the family knew what kind of boy he was.  What kind of parenting was taking place in the home?”

            Unfortunately things only got worse as the week went on.  The family organized a candle-light vigil at the Gypsy Hill Park the following evening.  And as these things sometimes go when you gather together large numbers of teenagers who are not fully able to connect with their feelings and don’t know the proper way to express their feelings, the police were called in to control the crowd.  The older brother of the deceased boy was arrested and he kicked out a window of the police cruiser.  The pregnant, teenage girlfriend of the older brother was also arrested.  And all of this was recorded in another article of the local newspaper and the comments went from bad to worse.  The actions of the family were critiqued, to say the least, by people that didn’t know them and really had no part in the situation.  They just thought that they should chime in and give their two cents.

            We live in a country where we have been given the right to freedom of speech.  But just because you have the right to speak your mind doesn’t mean that it is always going to be helpful.  Is critiquing the father for letting his son go camping unsupervised going to bring Jason back?  Absolutely not.  Do you think he regrets his decision already?  I would think so.  There are certain things that can go unsaid, especially in the middle of all of the hurt.

            Should someone have spoken to the family before hand and tried to help them avoid the path that they were going down?  Sure, but posting something online after the matter is not going to help.  What helps is when people that already have a relationship can speak into the lives of those that need guidance.  That’s accountability.  What I saw in the newspaper was judgment.  I’m smart, your not.  I’m religious, your not.  I’ve got everything together, you don’t.  That’s judgment.

            I have made mistakes in my life.  I have done things out of my own selfish ambitions rather than out of love.  I have made comments and acted out is such a way as to show my superiority over another person.  And I’m tired of Christians being known for what they are against instead of being known for what they are for.  I’m tired of all of the judgment and the lack of love.

            As I said at the beginning of today’s message, I feel that Peter is one of my least favorite disciples because I see myself in Peter’s actions.  I act first and think second.  I wish I could take back some of the things that I have said.  But when we make mistakes, we can try to make things right, but often all we can make are apologies. 

            Have you ever noticed that it seems to take Peter three times until he gets something?  Peter doesn’t realize that he has denied Christ until he does it for the third time (or the cock crows three times, depending on which Gospel you are reading).  Then he realizes his mistake.  After Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him.  And three times Jesus instructs Peter to “feed my sheep”.  And in today’s lesson I noticed something for the first time.  If you look at verse 10 you will see that Peter’s vision was shown to him…three times.  Peter isn’t the only slow learner.  I know these things take time, but we are not the judge.  We do not get to decide who is going to heaven or hell, who is right or wrong.  We must operate out of love and humility.

            I close today by quoting 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?”  Within the church we are not called to judge, but to love, teach, and keep one another accountable.  Outside the church we are called to love with the same love that Jesus showed the tax collectors and the sinners.  What are you for?

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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