Sermons

"Testify in Love": Sermon for Easter 5, Year C

"Testify in Love": Sermon for Easter 5, Year C

Apr 24, 2016

Passage:Acts 11:1-18

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Easter

Category: Love

Keywords: baptism, love, spirit, testify, vision

Summary:

In the book of Acts, Peter testifies to the Christian community at Jerusalem, defending his decision to dine with Gentiles, breaking the purity laws of the Torah. Peter describes a vision he had, providing his divine justification for including the Gentiles in Baptism. He says "who am I to go against God?" But how do we know that this testimony--or ANY testimony--is REALLY from God? Can't just anyone SAY they are having a "vision" and then say "who am I to go against God?" This sermon breaks down how we know that Peter's actions were, indeed, from God. This sermon also is part of Youth Sunday at St. Andrew's. If you listen to the audio, you will first hear the "testimony" of Bubba Givens, one of St. Andrew's youth, who describes what it was like to be part of a mission trip to the Diocese of Navajoland in New Mexico last summer.

Detail:

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

One of the very interesting things about the scripture from the book of Acts is the testimony from Peter. The Christian believers in Jerusalem, who still maintain close adherence to the Jewish Torah as well as their Christian beliefs, question Peter’s practice of eating non-kosher food with the Gentiles. “How can you do this?” they ask. Peter then goes into his testimony where he tells of a vision—a dream—in which he is instructed to change his understanding of what God considers clean and unclean. Peter joins with the Gentiles, going against all tradition. In defending his actions, Peter says, "If 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?"

Of course, today, the majority of us here are Gentile recipients of this gift—this broadening of the understanding of to whom God’s grace and salvation is intended. We are grateful that Peter had his vision, and ate with those Gentiles. We hear his testimony: “who was I that I could hinder God?” and we agree with him! We say: “Great job, Peter!”

“You, tell ‘em, Peter!”

“Open up their minds and hearts, Peter!”

But, there is a potential problem with this scripture.

 There are many ways that it could be abused.

I remember when I was in college, I had a small black and white T.V. set in my dorm room. The rabbit-ear antennae could pick up a few stations from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, especially at night.

Late at night the two things that came on with any regularity were strange infomercials and preachers.

This one preacher, who I won’t name, ultimately became quite famous (and then “infamous”). But he was truly captivating to watch on the little twelve-inch black-and-white screen.

His program consisted of him looking directly into the screen at the viewers and getting “visions” of things going on in their (“our”) lives.

He would say: “Ohhhh, I’m getting a vision right now!! Somebody out there has a pain in their neck. It’s been hurting for a while! Ohhh, that pain is terrible!! The Lord wants me to tell you the pain is ending NOW!!!”

Then he would add, “Now that your neck feels better, be sure to send our ministry a love gift as a sign of your acceptance of God’s gift and God’s grace.”

Then the vision would start again: “Ohhh, here’s another vision… Someone is hurting from lack of a job. The Lord wants you demonstrate your faith by sending in a love gift to my ministry—the address is on your screen. The larger the check, the greater your faith, and the faster the Lord will remove this burden from you.”

To give full disclosure, I did not “buy into” what he was selling, but during some of those late college nights, I did find him entertaining and quite mesmerizing.

And we might ask this preacher, “How do you justify using scripture the way you do? How can you possibly think it’s okay to get away with this type of abuse of people in the name of God?”

But I imagine he might just answer, “Hey, I’m just doing what Peter did in the Book of Acts. I'm just getting visions from God. And who am I to stand in the way of God?"

If we look at that story in Acts again, it is a pretty far-out, fantastical story.

The Christian believers in Jerusalem basically have all agreed that Christianity is a Jewish religion. In other words, to be Christian means one still follows the Torah, adheres to the purity laws, and the males are all circumcised. So it is quite a shock when they hear that Peter, probably the most prominent of “the twelve,” has not only baptized Gentiles, but more shockingly, is dining with them—which is a violation of the purity laws of the Torah. How can he justify these things? This will change everything!!

So Peter then tells his story. He tells his outrageous, crazy, fantastic, incredible, surprising, holy story. He had a vision! This vision included poetic details, like “a sheet being lowered, with animals of all kinds on it.” Peter, in his vision, heard a voice telling him to “kill and eat.” But Peter says that he would never eat anything profane. He would never go against the purity laws!

The voice in his dream tells him that God determines what is profane or not. In other word, the vision gives him “permission” to dine with the Gentiles. It gives him space to open his heart to others when they approach him.

As Peter continues his testimony to the Jerusalem crowd, he explains that these Gentiles approach him. They tell him that the Holy Spirit wants Peter to “make no distinction between himself and them. He accompanies them to their home. Once there, he learns that they have been visited by the presence of the Holy Spirit. He knew that God’s presence and God’s love was not supposed to be hoarded sheltered. It’s supposed to be shared and spread. That’s the call of the Christian.

So this is what Peter meant when he said: “Who was I to hinder God?” God was already there! God sent for Peter, not the other way around.

When we look at what Peter did here, I think we can safely say, this is not what the preacher on my late-night college TV, and so many others like him, try to do. We cannot simply conjure our own visions for our own benefits and claim they are from God. There is actually a standard.

So what is that standard?

How do we know if we are actually hearing what the Spirit intends for us to do in the world?

How can we trust the testimony of others when they tell us they hear God speaking to them?

In the Gospel of John we heard today, we have a clue to the answer.[i]

Jesus is at the last supper with his disciples. Jesus had already washed each of his disciples’ feet and instructed them to follow his example. But now, he tells them that he is giving a “new commandment.”

This commandment is: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus goes on to explain to them that by this commandment “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."[ii]

So this is benchmark. This is measuring stick. This is litmus test.

This commandment given by Christ just before his death and resurrection is the summary of our charge as Christians.

We are to ask ourselves and ask of ourselves, “are we loving each other as Christ loves us in all we do?”

Using the Holy Scriptures and the pulpit as a means to increase wealth or fame does not seem to be a proper use of the Gospel. Trying to use scripture to justify holding onto well-worn political or social positions that promote exclusion rather than inclusion is simply wrong. Visions that are not, ultimately, about “loving one another as Christ loved us” are false visions.

Today, Youth Sunday, we heard the testimony of Bubba Givens. He and several of our Youth and their leaders spent time last summer traveling to the Diocese of Navajoland.

Bubba’s testimony meets the Gospel standard, right?

He tells us the purpose of their trip. He tells us the fellowship and love they shared as part of the journey. But they also shared the love of Christ, and received the love of Christ in this time together.

This is the essence of the New Commandment in John. They love one another as Christ loves us. And, like Peter, they are now testifying to what they have seen and done in the Spirit.

Peter has a vision because he is asking: “am I loving as Christ loved me” as it pertains to the Gentiles. Peter is asking: “Does excluding the Gentiles fit with “loving Christ as Christ loves us?”

“Does refusing to eat with them, even though it’s in the Torah, FIT with ‘loving Christ as Christ loves us?’”

“OR, is it MORE fitting to lovingly include them and baptize them as part of the Body of Christ?”

His vision confirmed that opening the waters of baptism to the Gentiles and breaking bread with them was of Christ.

This was Peter’s vision. Peter’s testimony was in line with Christ’s commandment to love one another.

So what is our testimony?  

What visions do we need to be open to receiving in our lives?

Where can we grow our faith and spread the Good News in places we had not thought about before?

Who in your life needs you to show them the love of Christ, without judgment and without shame?

How do we open our hearts and mouths to the commandment of Christ to love one another each and every day?

Amen

 

[i] John 13:31-35.

[ii] John 13:34-35 (NRSV).