Are You Ready?

Acts 11:1–18, preached by Sana DelCorazón on June 09, 2024

I am so excited to be with you, First Congregational Church of Minnesota. Not only because this is one of my favorite Christian communities in Minneapolis, but also you have a lot of people here who are near and dear to my heart: Chris Bohnhoff, who was my partner in crime at United Theological Seminary (thank you for the invitation); Melissa Harl, one of my favorite professors on the New Testament and Clyde Steckel, most beloved UCC polity expert. It is truly a blessing for me to come here this morning to share the good word. And if that wasn’t enough, this morning I am going to preach to you about one of my favorite characters in the Christian Bible and we are going to talk about evangelism, a bad word among progressive Christian churches.

As a born and raised Pentecostal Christian, while most teenagers were busy doing more interesting things like testing boundaries and breaking rules, I spent most of my high school career saving souls! Don’t worry, I am no longer interested in saving souls but saving lives! My previous home church in Philadelphia liked to tease me because they said I was the most evangelical member of the community—and how could I not be? Who doesn’t want to spread the good news of gospel—of God’s unconditional love to the world, but particularly to people like me, queer people of color who want to be seen, heard, and held in a diverse spiritual community. I was and am delighted to hear about First Church’s commitment to outreach and goal of welcoming twelve people into this beautiful, open and affirming community. This is a bold declaration that I want to commend and meditate on this morning.

We live in a culture that idealizes individualism and independence. So many people are searching for belonging and connection, and in my humble opinion, a healthy Christian community offers interdependence and belonging in community where your presence matters to others and their presence matters to you. Interdependence and belonging not only means you acknowledge that your liberation and existence are tied to my liberation and existence, but it also means there is broad friendship, mutuality of purpose, and abiding care for one another. It means we have a shared mission and vision of the world—God’s vision of the world. It means we are touched by the possibility that we have something to learn from each other. It means that we belong to one another, that our hopes and struggles are not held alone.

Peter learned this lesson in today’s passage. In Acts 10 and 11, we read the story of Cornelius, a pious Roman citizen. We know from the scripture that he was a Gentile convert to Judaism. During his afternoon prayer, he had a vision to send for Simon Peter to come to his house. Cornelius doesn’t doubt that the vision he had was from God and immediately sends messengers to where he is told Peter would be. The following day, we read of Peter’s vision that isn’t quite as clear. Peter sees all sorts of animals, both clean and unclean, and hears a voice telling him to eat them all. Peter, a law-abiding and kosher-eating Jew, refuses because, well he is a good Jew, who follows the law of the Torah. His vision ends and he is perplexed when Cornelius’ messengers arrive at Simon’s house. The Spirit of God tells Peter to receive them and go with them. So he does, but Peter has no idea why he is going to see Cornelius.

With a group of six witnesses and the three messengers, the next day Peter goes to Caesarea where Cornelius is waiting with his relatives and close friends that he has gathered. Upon entering the house, Peter reminds Cornelius that it is unlawful for him as Jew to associate with or visit Gentiles and immediately asks why he sent for him. Did I also mention that Peter hated Romans? Cornelius explains his vision and how God commanded him to send for Peter. Acts 10:33 states “So I sent for you immediately and it was so good of you to come. Now we are here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” At this moment, Peter realizes that God does not show favorites but accepts all people who obey God and do what is right. This conclusion is revolutionary.

Peter goes on to explain the ministry, life, and resurrection of Jesus and the good news of the gospel. As Peter speaks, the holy spirit falls upon them. This astonishes Peter. How can this be? If the holy spirit is in Gentiles, then God the creator did not intend to exclude anyone from the community of God’s care and love. Through the power and witness of the Holy Spirit, Peter welcomes Cornelius and his tribe of Gentiles into the community of believers through baptism. The scripture for today ends with Peter stating to the Jerusalem leaders, “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” I cannot emphasize this enough: This is a big deal.

As Gentiles, this is where our entrance into the community of followers of Jesus formally begins. Up until this point, the mission of Jesus and disciples was directed to the people of Israel with a few exceptions. We talk about those exceptions a lot but they are rare. Jesus during his ministry directed his message primarily and almost exclusively to his people—other Jews. It was Peter at this moment who expands the table of belonging through a vision and his experience with Cornelius. The vision he has makes clear that all are under God’s care, not just the Jews. The central claim in the book of Acts is that the whole point of Jesus’s story and God’s grace is that Christ’s love extends to all. First Church is very strong in this aspect of Christianity. You believe and know that we are all beloved Children of God. However, since the early church opened itself to Gentiles, Christian churches have struggled to be as open to all, and in relationship with people who don’t look, think, worship or live like us.

Peter tells us over and over again in his recount of what happens that this isn’t of his doing. Peter’s vision is from God. In his defense to the leaders of Jerusalem, he goes step by step in detail on what happened; Peter explains he did not initiate any of this. The vision came to him. He was called by others to come, to heal, to preach and to baptize. God was speaking through him.

As a Jew, whose ritual purity and dietary regulation defines his identity, Peter going to a Gentile’s house was problematic. The way one lived, who one interacted with, what one ate, was how Jews defined and regulated their holiness, their purity, their separateness as God’s people. So when Peter was questioned by the council of circumcised believers, they weren’t objecting to the conversion of Gentiles, but they objected to Peter entering the house of a Gentile and eating with him. The problem was that Peter shared a meal with new friends who were different, who were outsiders, who were impure. In being willing to socialize and eat with the Gentiles, Peter was abandoning his heritage as a Jew, violating the laws of the Torah, and jeopardizing the identity of the messianic community as the people of God. But Peter did this because he realized that God’s plan outweighed tradition and Torah instruction. God’s kin-dom includes everyone. Peter came to understand clearly and accept literally that you cannot make profane or unclean what God has created clean.

In this story there are at least two important conversions. First, Cornelius and his kin become a part of the community of Jesus followers. And then there is Peter’s conversion. Peter changes what he believes and how he behaves because of God’s vision and what he witnesses. Peter’s experience with Cornelius, an officer of the army occupying his land and oppressing his people, is life-changing for him and for us. Because Peter and Cornelius were willing to listen to the spirit of God, to what God told them to do, we are here as disciples of Jesus, trying our best to follow in the ways of Jesus.

We learn from Peter and Cornelius to trust in God by erring on the side of love and staying open to the Holy Spirit. This means questioning and breaking down our preconceived notions of who belongs. It means a change of heart comes when we see the Spirit at work in the stories of strangers, recognizing in them the same Spirit that is working in our own lives. Both men (Peter and Cornelius) and those around them are changed by this experience. And this encounter forever changed the trajectory of our faith community. It is through this religious and spiritual experience that Cornelius’s life is saved and Peter understands more about God’s nature and love.

I want to point out that what happened here did not happen overnight, at least not for Simon Peter. God through the Holy Spirit has been working on Peter for a long time, preparing him for his holy assignment. In the Gospels, we meet a man who was like us in many ways. He was an ordinary fisherman from Galilee, not a highly trained academic. He struggled with pride, anger, and self-confidence. But his life was transformed by his encounter and relationship with Jesus.

A quick summary of Peter’s life goes like this: in John chapter 1, when Andrew first brought his brother Simon to Jesus, he seemed anything but a promising spiritual leader. But Jesus immediately gave him a new name—Peter. Peter, who I believe is one of the most colorful disciples in the Bible, was an open-hearted, loyal, impulsive, and fearful man. Remember when Peter saw Jesus walking on water, he asked if he could do the same. Jesus said yes, so Peter leapt out of the boat then became fearful and began to sink. Remember when Jesus emphasized the trouble his followers would encounter, and many fell away. Jesus turned to the twelve disciples and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go. You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:66–69). Remember in the Upper Room, after Jesus warned them of his upcoming trouble and that they would desert him, Peter bragged, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Matthew 26:31–33). And after Jesus was arrested, Peter folded when the pressure was on and denied his teacher, whom he loved. However, that was not the end of Simon Peter’s story. Just as Peter had denied Jesus three times at his arrest and trial, Jesus allows Peter to affirm his love three times after his resurrection at the Sea of Galilee. This story of Jesus cooking fish for his disciples by the shore and asking Peter if he loved him three times is one of my favorite stories of reconciliation and love in the Bible, a story I come back to over and over again to remind myself of God’s unconditional love and grace.

See, Peter was an ordinary man who was willing to be transformed to do the will of God. He was not super-educated or wealthy or unusually favored. Peter was a man who had weaknesses, prejudices, biases but who yielded to the Spirit’s transforming power to do what God wanted him to do and who God wanted him to be. He knew who and whose he was, a beloved Child of God, and we see throughout the gospel, his transformation—so much so that he is willing to let go of his social and cultural upbringing to welcome Gentiles into the fold and share time, space, and a meal with uncircumcised men.

Peter’s hope and desire was that we, the readers of his epistles, might also be transformed by the power of the same Holy Spirit. Peter prayed in 1 Peter 5, that after you have suffered for a little while, God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you as well.” (I Peter 5:10–11). Peter’s conversion story reminds us that God, through the Holy Spirit, wants to transform us to do God’s will in the world. It is only through our transformation that we can do our holy assignments. In this case and in this community, you have named for yourself part of that assignment—to radically include and expand the table for new members to this community. This is not an easy task.

I know this is a loving and gracious community, and you do a great job of taking care of each other, particularly the older members of this congregation. I also know that most churches operate like a social club. Yeah, I said it! Actually Martin Luther King Jr. said it. On June 5, 1966, Dr King said, 

Church is not a social club, although some people think it is. We get caught up in exclusivism, and they feel that it’s a kind of social club with a thin veneer of religiosity, but the church is not a social club. . . . The church has a purpose. The church is dealing with man’s ultimate concern.

I know we do not mean to be exclusive but we act like it. This isn’t just a problem here; it’s everywhere. We say in the UCC, “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcomed here,” but then I look around at most UCC churches and ask myself why doesn’t the congregation reflect the diversity of the community or our country? How have we failed to reflect the diversity of the body of Christ in our own churches? And most importantly, who do we exclude and who do we harm with the limits of our love or our ability to be open to the stranger, the unfamiliar, the marginalized? 

These are hard questions we must ask ourselves. Because what we need isn’t better advertisement to draw more people into community. Our work of bringing the good news of God to individuals who feel marginalized requires us to change and have continuous conversion experiences like Peter did. Extending radical hospitality and expanding the table of love to others requires continual conversion. It means that if we are to grow and thrive, we must stay open to the conversion process. We must remain open to the Holy Spirit and how she is at work within each of us individually and collectively.

The truth is that welcoming new people requires change and discomfort, and maybe this is what Peter means when he says discipleship and following the way of Jesus requires some suffering.

Welcoming new people into community means first preparing ourselves and the whole community to do and be who we say we are. It means doing the internal work of removing the barriers within ourselves that separate us from God and being able to truly love and be in covenantal relationship with our neighbors. Peter’s vision is asking us to move towards radical inclusion and expansion of God’s table to all people, and Peter’s life showed us how. Peter’s conversion led to more people being welcomed into the community of Jesus. His retelling of the story of the Holy Spirit’s gift to the Gentiles helped others change their minds about who was in and who was out.

So, yes. I know you do everything you can to welcome folks here at First Church, but here’s what I wonder. Have you finished your welcoming work? Is it enough to say every week, “You are welcome here?” Is it enough to declare it in our mission statement: “All are welcome?” Is it enough to sing a pretty hymn “All Are Welcome Here?” Or might there be more work to do, as individuals and as a community? And if so, are you ready to be changed and transformed by the Holy Spirit like Peter was? What internal work are you as a congregation doing to prepare yourself to receive twelve new people who might not look, think or act like you do, twelve people who will change the culture of this community? What else might you as the body of Christ need to do internally to prepare for radical inclusion and expansion at First Church? And most importantly, are you excited to do God’s work of radical inclusion and expansion by being and staying open to change and discomfort?

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen and ashe.