Sermon for May 15

First Reading Acts 11:1-18

Second Reading Revelation 21:1-6

Gospel Reading John 13:31-35

Sermon “Dancing through Life: God Leads, We Follow”

I am not a very good dancer, but I do know a few basics. Way back in Junior high, my Grandparents insisted that I go the the ball room dance classes at the Episcopal church. I went – keeping good company with a number of generally terrified boys and lots of excited girls. I managed a half way decent waltz, but the faster dances were beyond me. A waltz is a piece of music normally written in 3/4 time – 3 beats to the measure with the emphasis on the first beat: 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Another feature I quickly learned was that someone has to lead or else lots of toes get stepped on quickly and bad things happen. Leading is a subtle art in dance. Ideally only slight pressure with a hand and perhaps a lean of the head. The partners learn to work together and even anticipate each other. Well that is the way it’s supposed to work anyway – my junior high experience was considerably less than that.

This morning, I would like you to consider some similarities with the story we read from Acts. First of all, note that in this story, there are three sections – three beats if you would and indeed the emphasis is on the first. So it is here and doing the Initiating – leading – is God. He answers the prayers of God-Fearing Cornelius and begins to prepare Peter to receive a most unusual invitation. By the rules of Jewish society, these two people should have had little or nothing to do with each other. For an observant Jew like Peter to receive the two servants and the soldier that Cornelius sent was to cross very ingrained cultural lines, But to Go with them and accept hospitality FROM Cornelius would be even worse. If we look forward in the story, that was the offense that he was confronted with: “You entered the home of Gentiles and even ate with them!” they said.

Now, when dancing, there are four feet that must be coordinated and so it is here as well – First, on one side we have Cornelius and his messengers. Right and left of dance partner number one – The Gentiles. The Jewish side has two portions as well – Peter and his Judean Christian brothers. These two unlikely partners are invited by the Host to a most important dance. It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of these next steps. Without them, the worldwide church, would not exist as we know it.

So it was God who takes the lead and as Peter was up on the roof praying and waiting on lunch, he falls into a trance and saw the vision of the sheet we talked about in the Children’s sermon. “Get up Peter. Kill and eat.” Came the voice, only to be met with Peter’s protest that he did not eat such unclean things. Peter heard the puzzling reply, “Don’t call anything unclean that God has made clean” He was still wondering what the 3 fold vision meant when Cornelius’ 3 messengers arrive. God has perfect timing! One final push was required and so the Spirit says “Three men have come looking for you. Get up, go downstairs, and go with them without hesitation. Don’t worry, for I have sent them.” The 3 then relate Cornelius’ side of God’s initiative, showing that God really had sent them.

Time for the Second beat of the measure – Peter responds to God’s leading and begins by inviting the 3 into the house as his guests – not only for lunch but also for the night. The next morning he goes with them to Caesarea (about thirty miles north of Joppa, where Peter was staying). Cornelius actually falls at Peter’s feet in reverence, perhaps believing him to be another angel, but definitely showing how little he understood at that moment. Cornelius repeats his experiences and Peter enters his house to find a large crowd assembled to hear him. Peter not only accepts hospitality and preaches, but quite quickly is forced to accept God’s leading even more dramatically as the Holy Spirit comes to those Gentiles as they begin to praise God and to speak in tongues as had happened to the disciples on Pentecost. So the dance continues and Peter begins to turn in thought and deed to accept a new direction. He orders them to be baptized and receives them as Christian brothers – staying with them for several more days.

The Third beat or step in a waltz normally ends with the feet back together ready for the next sequence, and so it is here as well – Peter goes back to Jerusalem, but is called to account by the other elders in Jerusalem. And it is quite an account that he gives. At the end of it, Luke records this wonderful verse that concluded the reading this morning: [18] When the others heard this, they stopped objecting and began praising God. They said, “We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.” And there we are – both feet back together after God had directed steps that none could have imagined just a few days previously.

What was at stake? The very future of the church. Prior to this, the young Christian church was strictly a Jewish sect, and Jesus’ commission to preach to all the world was mainly thought of as reaching the Jews scattered all over the known world as demonstrated on that first Pentecost. But afterwards that changed, Paul’s mission trips to the Gentiles were now possible. They could be received as brothers without first converting to Judaism. The Dance, once begun would not be easy or always comfortable. Paul had to call Peter himself to account for going back to his Jewish only roots at one point. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul scolds Peter for his backsliding: (Galatians 2:11-14 NLT) he writes:

[11] … when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. [12] When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. [13] As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. [14] When I saw that they were not following the truth of the gospel message, I said to Peter in front of all the others, “Since you, a Jew by birth, have discarded the Jewish laws and are living like a Gentile, why are you now trying to make these Gentiles follow the Jewish traditions?” Peter had started well, but faltered and had to be reminded. But it is this story of Peter and Cornelius marks the critical turning point in the spread of the Gospel and God was initiating, preparing the way and guiding the whole way.

So what about us – We profess that God’s Holy Spirit is active in the world and in our lives. Teaching, Leading and Strengthening those who profess faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. We believe that the same Spirit is active in the unsaved world as well, still loving, calling and creating opportunities to hear the gospel. We profess it, but surely we can be better at looking for it and rejoicing when it is our turn to respond and follow God’s lead.

In his book “Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel” Matthew Skinner writes “Naming God’s activity and perceiving the consequences of the gospel are not easy. Peter needs time. He needs to consult with others. He needs to hear Cornelius tell about his experiences. He needs to revisit things Jesus said. He needs the story to play itself out for a little bit. In the midst of all the visions, travel, and conversations, it looks impossible to know for sure what all the excitement means. Everything makes more sense once the story is done. That’s usually the way it is when we speak about recognizing God. Those kinds of recognitions are rarely self-evident. Discerning God’s intentions and altering our assumptions about people and how to live are always acts of faith. They involve daring to imagine new or unexpected possibilities; sometimes such possibilities correspond with old traditions, and sometimes they reshape them.”

“An act of faith” – that is what our daily lives are supposed to be anyway. Perhaps like Peter we could occasionally benefit from a refresher course. Let’s see – how does that dance go again? O yes – Step one, look for God’s leading. It will be normally be found where Jesus command to “love one another as he has loved us” is honored. He assures us that it is by loving one another that we will be known as his disciples. That is not an easy thing to do sometimes. It was a hard thing when Jesus said it – there in that upper room on the night before his crucifixion. That sort of love is not cheap and easy at all. Particularly since those words were spoken just after Judas has left the room to betray him. It was not easy for Peter to break with the traditions that he had been raised with and offer hospitality to Gentiles and even more so to receive hospitality from Gentiles.

And yet, following the leading of God was so compelling that he took the second step and moved out in obedience. Peter was also willing to, shall we say “face them music” when he got back home and so the that third step of testifying to what he had seen and heard in discerning the leading of God and faithfully stepping out to follow after it. His testimony made it possible to convert those others to a new way of thinking that has resulted in the world-wide church we are part of today.

Where is God pointing and leading today? What is his intention for this congregation? Is it to simply come back here week after week? To merely keep showing up? I suspect not. Do I know where God is leading next? No. But just a few of years ago I would never have believed that I would be in this pulpit every week and sojourning with this wonderful group of Christians. Discerning God’s will is a act of faith. Soon, we will begin a discernment process to take a look at who we are, the community in which we exist and the possible directions God may be calling us. I invite you to be on the look out for the next downbeat of the music. God is in the lead, we must simply follow. It is a Joyful dance.