Scripture: Acts 10:44-48
Several years ago religious humor website shipoffools.com wanted to find the funniest religious joke. They had 951 jokes submitted and after bringing that list down over 10,000 people voted on the finalists. This was the winner of the funniest religious joke: The story goes a man was walking across a bridge one day, and he saw another man standing on the edge, about to jump. The man ran over and said: “Stop. Don’t do it.” “Why shouldn’t I?” asked the jumper.
“Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Like what?” asked the jumper.
“Are you religious?” “Yes.”
The man said to the jumper, “Me too. Are you Christian or Muslim?” “Christian.”
“Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?” “Protestant.”
“Me too. Are you Methodist or Baptist?” “Baptist.”
“Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” “Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?” “Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?” He said: “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915.”
So the man walking shook his head in disgust and said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off.
It may be a silly joke, but the reason why it works is because it pokes fun at a tragic and uncomfortable truth. It we can always split a hair ever finer to better define groups of who is in and who is out, of who is part of “us” and who is part of “them.” As the joke illustrates in human history, organized religion has unfortunately contributed a good deal to this. However, this is not a faith problem it is a human problem. In the 19th and early 20th century there were no shortage of scientists who sought to scientifically explain why one group of people was superior to another, and our current cultural landscape shows that we will polarize to ideological extremes on a wide variety of issues, not just faith based ones. History has shown we tend to associate ourselves into ever smaller tribes, often at the exclusion of others. From a faith perspective, we believe that human nature is imperfect, wrecked by sin and the fall. If excluding others is in our nature, then perhaps that is a sinful part of ourselves we need to rise above. I believe that is the message of this morning’s scripture. At various points in time, Christians have put a lot of effort into defining who is in and who is out of God’s grace. We have wasted a lot of energy to define who is us and who is them, but this morning’s scripture makes it clear there is no them in the kingdom of God. The grace offered by Jesus through his death and resurrection is for all, and there are no outsiders to God’s love.
It may seem obvious to say that salvation through Christ is for everyone today, but that was not so clear in the first century. The question, “who is grace for? Is it for the Jews or for everyone?” is a question that is addressed in the gospels, in Acts, and in several of the epistles. Again, the answer seems obvious to us today, but if we try to place ourselves in the context of the first Jesus followers we can see how it becomes less clear quickly. We have to remember that Jesus was a Jew. The apostles were all Jews, and all of the members of the early church that formed in Jerusalem were Jewish. Even those who were not ethnically Jewish had converted to Judaism well before they started following Jesus. The God that Jesus called Father is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and the God of the twelve tribes of Israel. Especially when compared the religious attitudes and culture of the greater Greco-Roman culture, Christianity did have more in common and probably felt like an evolution of Judaism.
This becomes more clear when human tribalism comes into play, because the Jewish people of the first century made a clear distinction between Jews and Gentiles. The key difference is that the Jews were God’s chosen people and the gentiles were not. The Jews followed God’s law outlined in the Torah to maintain ritual cleanliness and the gentiles did not. By the time of the first century this had developed that Jews were not to eat with or even associate with gentiles so that they did not become unclean by transference. There was a strong “us and them” sense in first century Israel and it was strongly enforced by cultural forces. All indications are that at least for the first several months, the early church- those who followed Jesus- followed these same cultural lines, and salvation through Christ was only presented by the disciples to fellow Jews.
This all begins to change in Acts chapter 10. This morning’s scripture gives us the end of that story. It began though with a gentile who feared God but had not converted to Judaism, reaching out to Peter. In order to prepare Peter for this encounter God gave him a vision that began to communicate the greater truth of God’s grace for all. Peter goes to Cornelius house. His encounter there begins to change Peter’s heart and mind. This morning’s scripture is the culmination of that story where God makes it clear that the gift of salvation is for all, as we heard read from verse 45: “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.” These Jewish believers did not even consider it a possibility that God’s forgiveness, grace, love, and blessings could extend to those who were not already Jewish. Yet, that is what happens in this morning’s scripture.
This morning’s scripture is only the first movement though. Starting in chapter 11 the narrative of Acts begins to turn from the acts of Peter and the other original disciples to the acts of Paul as the apostle to the gentiles. The book of Acts records how the good news of Jesus Christ was shared with Jerusalem, then all of Israel and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. This was the plan of Jesus laid out at the beginning of Acts, and that plan always included extending grace to all the peoples regardless of their ethnic or religious origins. It is in this morning’s scripture that Peter begins to grasp that even the gentiles can be saved, this is where he realizes the fundamental truth that there are no outsiders to God’s love.
Even though Peter began to move in this direction the issue between Jews and Gentiles and salvation in Christ comes up again in Acts. It is also an issue that Paul has to write about extensively in a lot of his letters. While the issue does eventually get settled, it does not take long before for the followers of Jesus we once again begin defining “us” and “them”. Looking back on our Christian history, we have done this in very formal ways. Sometimes we attempt to cut ourselves from other believers claiming their viewpoint is heretical, but most often we make walls between believers and non-believers. And most often these walls are not formal declarations, but they are less rigid beliefs that are held up by cultural norms. This allows us to create an “us vs. them” scenario, where we can feel like the good of the people of the church are always under attack by the them of the “world”. When this happens then we stop treating the people who do not know Jesus as those who in need of help and good news, and we start treating them like an enemy to defend against. When a faith community goes down that tragic road, then the sanctuary has become a fortress for the insiders and the message the church communicates is “no outsiders welcome”.
That is not how it should be, but there are too many people with too many stories of how communities of faith have hurt them deeply by communicating through actions that they are excluded, that they are an outsider, and they are not welcome. Friends that should not happen ever. There is a song by Irish worship band Rend Collective called “No Outsiders” that I think perfectly states why this should not happen. In the first verse they sing: “You’re our refuge. You have no borders. When I was a stranger, knocking at Your door. You took me in
With no questions, and no conditions, When I was a sinner, running from Your grace You called me friend.”
I cannot speak for you, but I identify with those lyrics. When we celebrate the sacrament of communion in little bit we will joyfully proclaim, that Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and that proved God’s love. For us to experience God’s love, we did not have to have it all figured out. We did not have to meet a certain threshold of good actions before God would accept us. If that is true for us, then that is true for them. We should not expect other people to have conform to a standard that we create to be accepted. The good news that we believe, the good news that we are supposed to proclaim is that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” There are not asterisks or exceptions to that good news. God sent Jesus because God’s love was for everyone. In this morning’s scripture Peter first realized that God’s love was for the gentiles as well as the Jews. Today, we need to more fully realize just what it means that God love everyone. It means that God loves the people who vote differently than you do. It means that God loves the people that we dismiss as idiots on social media. It means that it does not matter what a person believes, what pronouns they use, or how we might disagree with them God loves them. There are no outsiders to God’s love.
In the chorus of the song, Rend Collective sings, “There are no Outsiders to Your love, we are all welcome there’s grace enough.” When it comes to how we go about our mission of sharing the good news and transforming the world into a better place that has to be our starting point. Every person we will ever interact with is a person that God loves so much that God was willing to give God’s son for. If God loves them that much, then we should also treat them with kindness. When people interact with us, when they hear us talk, they should hear the love of God expressed not the judgement of an insider. For the early church the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the non-Jews in this morning’s scripture was confirmation that there is grace enough for the Jews and the gentiles. That is still true today. There is grace enough for everyone.
One of the foundational beliefs the United Methodist church, one of the beliefs that set us apart from other branches of the Christian tree, is the idea of an open table. You do not need to be a member of this or any church to partake in the sacrament. One of the major reasons for this belief is the understanding the communion is a means of grace, that through the sacrament we can experience and feel the actual love of God. By keeping the table open we ensure we do not deny that experience to someone God is reaching out towards. In the same way, may our actions and our words not deny God’s love to other people. May we as the people of God conduct ourselves in such a way that we clearly communicate that God loves everyone. May the message that our words and actions declare be to the world that there are no outsiders to God’s love and that you, yes even you, are welcome with us.” May that be so.