Sermon – Outside the Bubble. April 28, 2013
This sermon was preached on April 28, 2013 by Ann Elyse Hicks and Mark Smith (seminary interns) at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ.
New Testament Reading: Acts 11:1-18
Look, I understand why you would be upset. I understand why many of you are angry over what happened. That’s why I’m here before you now. I do not want to preach or argue with you, but I do want you to hear my story; I want you to hear what happened to me in Joppa.
My story could have happened to any of us, really. It all started while I was praying. I had a vision, you see…
Peter was one of the most important apostles. He was the one Jesus called the rock on which the church would be built. He was later named the first Pope.
He’d been going around, meeting with other early Christians. He’d been performing his own miracles, healing and raising from the dead, right before this happened to him. Now, those might have seemed fairly unusual to the average person, but to Peter they were his work – the same work that he’d seen Jesus do.
And now he’d had a vision, one that seemed strange even to him …
I know! It sounds crazy; I know it sounds impossible. I know that you have doubts about the reality of my dream. Please, trust me a little longer. Keep listening to my story for a few more minutes. In this vision, there was a giant blanket lowered down from the sky until it rested right in front of me and on it rested every single type of animal … that I have never touched in my life. They were there, all the animals that I, that we avoided — there was pigs, lobsters, shrimp, a cobra.
And then, as if seeing all these animals was not enough to make me cringe, a voice, God’s voice, called to me, telling me to “Get up, kill, and eat.” I was revolted. I was horrified. How could God expect me to do something like this? What do you mean, what did I do? I told God no. I said that I would have nothing to do … with those unclean animals. I would keep to our traditions; they served our ancestors well, all the way back to Moses. Why should I suddenly abandon that, step outside the tradition, and try something new?
Up until now, the apostles assumed that what had happened before Jesus died was the right thing to do. That only Jews could be Christians. That Christians had to keep the Jewish law, including such things as circumcision and following the rules about eating food. It was even wrong for a Jew to associate with a Gentile in many cases. Of course, we know that Jesus didn’t follow the rules, but then the apostles weren’t Jesus.
There were boundaries around that early Christianity. And only Jews were able to practice it properly. The early Christians had created a bubble around themselves, by their practices, by what they ate and how they ate it.
Sometimes we in the church can create bubbles around ourselves. We can choose to keep things the way that they are, to keep doing things the way that we always have, because … “it’s comfortable. It works for us. It’s right.” We may resist change because change is uncomfortable to us, or because we worry about what others might feel. We might worry that a change will cause people to leave, without considering whether others stay away because of the way that we already are.
Well, after I told God no, God responded to me. God said that all those animals on the blanket were clean, and that I must not consider them profane. This happened, this vision with the blanket from heaven happened, three times, and I can honestly say I never quite figured out what I was supposed to learn. In a way, it was God telling me that the traditions that I held dear were, in fact, harmful for the church. I could not understand it. I could not make sense of it at all.
This was a big deal for Peter. His dream overturned his core beliefs. He was being told that the laws that he had learned as a child were wrong. And not just wrong, but getting in the way of doing God’s will. God told Peter that his creation was good, even though these parts of creation – the pigs and lobster and snakes – were things that Peter was taught were unclean and unacceptable. God was telling Peter that he (and the rest of the Christians) needed to get out of the Jewish bubble and to talk with and eat with and spread the Word with Gentiles.
It’s hard to look at something or someone or a new idea and to fight down your fears or anxiety or assumptions. I’d imagine that Shannan might have a hard time if she were told – by God, no less – that she needed to bless snakes on Blessing of the Pets Sunday. It can be tough to take that risk, to make a change in the church or in the world, knowing that it could upset you, or upset someone else. But then who are we excluding because we don’t make that change? Are we keeping snake-lovers from the Gospel message, because we don’t like snakes? What is the bubble here at Watchung Avenue? Who is inside the bubble and who is outside the bubble? Are we right about that? And should there even be a bubble?
While I was still praying, I was jolted back to the present by these three men shouting to me, waving their arms in greeting. They invited me to go to dinnere with them in Caesarea, and after my vision, well, I went. I felt called by the Holy Spirit to go, and not to comment on their differences. I mean, I went to dine with Gentiles, when I have never before even sat with them. I don’t know what I was thinking. I only knew that it was the right thing to do.
And the owner of the house where we went, Cornelius, he did not seem to know why I was there either. He had been convinced by the Spirit to invite me. Here we were, two strangers, united by our visions, by our call to dine together and learn together.
Peter and the rest of the Apostles were very aware of the work of the Holy Spirit. They had been given their gifts by the Spirit at Pentecost. They were in turn giving the Spirit to others through the laying on of hands. They felt the call of God through this working of the Spirit, and were quick to listen to it.
And so when Peter heard the call of the Spirit to go and visit the house of Cornelius, he went. He went even though Cornelius was a Gentile and not a Jew. This was against much of what he had been taught, because Jewish purity laws made interactions between Jews and Gentiles difficult – particularly the sharing of meals.
Peter would have been stressed about this. He knows that it’s the right thing to do, and Peter tells us that he was told by the Spirit to go. Perhaps it was something like the Spirit telling Shannan to go to the zoo, enter the snake’s cage, and eat a picnic meal. When God tells you to do something you do it … but it can be hard.
Peter went outside of the bubble. Cornelius went outside of his bubble, too. It would have been very unusual for a Roman Centurion to invite a Christian to visit and eat together.
What would going outside of our bubble here mean? What does going outside of your bubble mean to you?
Well, after dinner, I started preaching a little bit. Y’all know how I can be. Anyways, we were all sitting in Cornelius’s living room, and I was bringing a lovely message, when I remembered Jesus saying to us that John baptized with water but that he, Jesus, would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Do you remember that teaching?
And I realized, like a flash of lightning, that we were all baptized with the same Spirit. We had, each of us in that room, received that same gift—life in Christ. Where had my hesitation come from? How could I have ever thought that eating with Gentiles was bad, or that we could not learn from each other? How could I have ever resisted leaving my comfort zone when God called me to do exactly that? Who was I that I could hinder God?
This was a historic moment. Peter preached at the house, and the Holy Spirit descended on Cornelius and his family. Gentiles. Non-Jews. The faith in Jesus had been taught to someone from outside of the Jewish bubble, and they accepted it and God accepted them.
For Peter, the bubble popped. It was gone. There was no longer Jew or Greek, no longer male or female. Jews and Gentiles together shared the uniting faith in Christ. And remember, we are those same Gentiles.
This was the big payoff. The chance for the apostles to do what Jesus had commanded them before ascending into Heaven – that they would be his witnesses to not just Jerusalem, not just Israel, but to all the ends of the earth.
And we as their successors are called to do the same. We are to preach the Gospel to all. And so the question falls to us – what bubbles have we created? Where does our hesitation come from? Are we hindering God’s work?
We have a chance to move beyond what we have known. When we accept new people into the faith, we are accepting their new ideas as well. The gospel message of Jesus is eternal. But the way that we hear and experience this message changes as we grow in the Spirit, and as the church faces new challenges in each generation. We have God to guide us, always and forever, through each and every time of change.
And so we Praise God for the gift of the Spirit
What God has made clean, you must not call profane.
Make disciples of all nations.
Get outside the bubble.