Acts 10: 44-48
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 They heard them speaking in other languages and praising God. Peter asked,
47 “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” 48 He directed that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited Peter to stay for several days.
Just this past week there was a story in the news about an Episcopal church in Orlando, FL who refused to baptize a child because the child’s parents are two gay men. Baptism is supposed to be a time to celebrate new life and spiritual community, but in this case, it turned into an occasion of judgment, discrimination, and heartbreak. These dads had just recently become fathers by adopting this child, named Jack, and all they wanted to do was celebrate him and bring him before God and the faith community to make promises to raise him up in the church and to be affirmed by the congregation that they would not be alone in doing this. They wanted to celebrate this child’s life and the life that is ahead of him by receiving the sign and seal of God’s grace upon his head with water. One of the dad’s said that “Jack’s baptism turned out to be the very opposite of what it should have been. It became about Jack having two dads, rather than a community opening its arms to a joyful little soul, one of God’s children” (Huffington Post).
My heart breaks for this family. And it breaks every time I hear stories like this. This is just one of many examples of how we, as the church and as individuals, put up roadblocks between people and the church, and even worse, between people and God. A question came from the family: “Is this how the church loves its neighbors and respects the dignity of human beings? Or are we only afforded that respect and dignity if you fit the church’s view of what a family is?” In this case, unfortunately the church’s view of a family did not match up with what stood before them with these two men and their adopted son. They missed the opportunity to widen their views and their hearts, and therefore missed the opportunity to let God show them a wider view of what the family of God looks like.
This text from the book of Acts sets out to do just that: to bring us a wider view of what the family of God looks like and to challenge ourselves to do away with the roadblocks we put up that keep other people out, whether as individuals or as a church. The text we heard this morning is really the climax of a much longer story where God is really working on Peter in order to bring about big changes and new things in his life and the life of the early church. When we pick up the text, Peter is speaking to a group of Gentiles (non-Jews) at the home of Cornelius, who is a centurion of the Italian cohort and a Gentile who worships God. Peter has just come from seeing a vision from God where God has told him that animals once considered unclean to eat are no longer unclean, but made pure by God. So already Peter is on his guard to expect the unexpected and open to the possibilities of the new thing that God is doing. An angel then calls Peter to see Cornelius, an uncircumcised Gentile man who asks to hear a word of teaching from Peter about Jesus. Upon greeting the household, Peter confesses that he is really learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another and that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, not just for some.
As he is speaking, the Holy Spirit begins to fall on all of those gathered there: circumcised believers as well as non-circumcised. Jew and Gentile. Men and women and children. And what does the text say? That the circumcised believers that came with Peter were surprised and astonished that God had given the gift of the Holy Spirit even to the Gentiles. In reading the gospels, we already know that there are many times that the disciples just don’t get it, and here is yet another example. They have been under the assumption this whole time that Jesus came, died, and was resurrected for the Jewish people alone. They heard Jesus say “go and make disciples…but only disciples that look like you, act like you, and believe like you do” instead of what he actually said: “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
But now the disciples begin to see the real meaning of what Jesus has instructed them to do. “All nations” doesn’t just mean people who look, act, and believe like they do, but Jesus has extended the family of God to include those who they believe may not be “eligible” for the family of God at first glance. And most importantly, they begin to learn the lesson that it is really not up to them to decide who is in or out. It is up to God to decide this, and it is their job to be those who bring the good news to all who will listen and believe, that we may become one in the family of God.
Peter and the Jewish believers were surprised and astonished to see the Holy Spirit being poured out upon those gathered there, but they shouldn’t have been. God had already been working in Peter’s life to remove the roadblocks that were keeping him from seeing that all belong and are eligible for the family of God- not just the Jewish people and those who were circumcised or who looked and believed just like the first disciples did. God worked in the heart of Peter to remove the roadblocks that he had set up between him and those who are different. God worked in Peter to remove the roadblocks around his heart that Peter may be that vital instrument that is working to bring about real change in the life of the early church and start a revolution that would eventually transform the world with the radical message of a God who shows no partiality. So, too, God works in our lives to remove the roadblocks that we place around ourselves that keep people out. I pray, too, that God works in our church to remove those roadblocks that may exist. Some we may not even realize!
The Council of Bishops has been meeting in Berlin, Germany this past week. I have enjoyed following our Indiana Bishop, Mike Coyner, on facebook as he is posting updates and pictures from his time there. The Bishops are hard at work making decisions and statements about important issues that are facing the United Methodist Church around the world. They released a statement earlier this week about racism. In the letter, they make a plea with the world and United Methodists around the world to cast a vision for a world community where human sacred worth and dignity defeat acts of xenophobia and racism. They ask people around the world to repent of our own racial bias and abuse of privilege in order to love God more deeply and build relationships that honor the desire of people everywhere to be seen, heard, valued, and kept safe.
The Bishops acknowledge that our hearts break and our spirits cry out at reports of migrant people being attacked and burned on the streets of South Africa, the flight of Jews from Europe, the plight of Mediterranean refugees, and racially charged protests and riots in cities throughout the United States. These are all harsh reminders that systems are broken and racism continues, and that this reality impacts every area of life- in the church and in the world.
I am reminded over and over again that the church is to be the exception to the rule, especially in this case. We are to be evidence of a world that can break through the road blocks of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, injustice, and intolerance. We are to be models of Peter along with these first disciples who recognize and acknowledge that God is doing a new thing, and we are not to stand in the way of that. Too often we see people and churches putting up roadblocks to keep people out rather than inviting them in as God would have them do. Today, may we open our eyes to see the roadblocks that we may be putting up as a church. Perhaps we could do a better job of offering hospitality to someone who looks or dresses differently than we do, or engaging in conversation with someone who has a different outlook or opinion on a possibly contentious issue. Perhaps it’s going out of our way to invite someone to this church who we know has been harmed by the church as a whole in the past. The church has done a lot of harm to too many people. Let’s be a congregation that begins to remove those roadblocks and practices the wide welcome of God.
There are those roadblocks that we put up ourselves, as a community, or as a church, and then there are those roadblocks that life just throws our way- those things that we have no control over or struggle to understand. Sometimes, I hear people say that “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I think that’s complete crap! God doesn’t place roadblocks in our lives. Rather, God works in our lives to remove roadblocks- the ones we put there ourselves, or the ones that just happen to be there for reasons that we cannot understand. Today is Mother’s Day. And while we celebrate our mother’s and the women in our lives who helped shape us, love us, and encourage us, we also need to take the time to grieve with mothers who grieve, to grieve the loss of mothers, and to acknowledge the real struggle of women who struggle with infertility and infant loss.
My good friend, Katie, who you all have been praying for, struggled with fertility and pregnancy issues for years, and suffered through several miscarriages. She and her husband, Matt, were on the list to be called for adoption when they found out that Katie was pregnant again. They started praying for a miracle and asked their friends and families to join them. Katie’s infertility was a roadblock that they would have to overcome in some way, and they were determined to tear it down. When little Hannah was born last week at 26 weeks at 1 lb, 10.8 oz, it was a scary time, but also a joyful time. After 10 years of longing for a child of their own- Matt and Katie looked upon the face of their own daughter. It takes strength and courage to overcome the roadblocks in our lives. Whether it is grief or trauma, anger, resentment, or in Matt and Katie’s case, infertility- roadblocks exist for all of us.
Roadblocks also come in the form of people who do not understand us or take the time to hear our stories. Each day we hear stories of children being bullied at school for any number of reasons. This week, I stumbled upon the story of Josh, who lost his father. He moved to a new school, and in his grief, distanced himself from the other students. He put up pictures of his dad in his locker, but some of the kids ripped them down and began to make fun of him for missing and loving his father. He became more and more isolated, sad, and alone. But after some time, he decided to do something very simple in order to counteract the bullying that he was experiencing. He decided to start opening doors for people at school. Let’s hear what he has to say about why he decided to do this (start watching at 2:35-3:35 if you’re short on time, but the whole video is fantastic):
Josh went on to become prom king and a public speaker in local schools about overcoming the bullies that try to pull others down. He gives courage and hope to hundreds of students and changes their outlook on life. Looking back on his decision to start opening doors for people, he says that he never thought that doing something so simple could be so rewarding. Josh made a decision to take down the roadblocks of his grief, his fear, and his bullies in order to turn it all around. In turn, the entire school began to have a new outlook on how to treat one another. His simple act of removing his roadblocks, as well as literally removing the roadblock of a closed door, made a world of difference in the way people saw each other.
In our lesson from the book of Acts today, it is Peter, following God’s lead, who opens the door for the Gentiles to receive the gift of the Holy Spirt and access into the family of God. It is now our challenge to continue to open that door and take down any and all roadblocks that keep people from experiencing the full grace and acceptance of God and entrance into the family of God. Roadblocks can sometimes be simple to get rid of- as simple as the act of opening a door for someone, and that has multiple rich meanings. But sometimes roadblocks are more difficult to get rid of because maybe they have been there for years, growing and festering, with a long history of misunderstanding, ignorance, or simply stubbornness in not being willing to see what is on the other side of it.
But hear this good news: God is working in each of us, just as he did with Peter, to remove those roadblocks in our lives, our churches, and in our communities, no matter how reluctant we may be, no matter how stubborn we are, no matter how much anger or hurt is on either side. We hear Peter proclaim the good news when he says, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” Then he led them to the waters of baptism where roadblocks were torn down in the name of Jesus Christ. No one could stop them. What roadblocks are you carrying around with you? Will you allow God to work in your heart to tear them down in the name of Jesus Christ? Amen.