Saturday, April 23, 2016

“Where Will God Call You? Will You Say, ‘Yes’?”

           This Sunday, April 24th, we will explore the story of the Apostle Peter and Cornelius, see Acts 10.  The story takes place after Pentecost, during the early development of the Christian church, as Peter and other Christians began to spread out from Jerusalem, sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  At this early point in the development of the Church, all Christians were devout Jews and Christianity itself was little more than a spiritual renewal movement within Judaism. 
            Peter was a devout Jew, meaning that he had chosen a life defined by study of Jewish scriptures and a morality of rigorous adherence to Jewish laws, including maintaining ritual cleanliness.  Maintaining ritual purity involved only eating certain prescribed foods, prepared in the prescribed manner; it also entailed avoiding social contact with Gentile—that is, non-Jewish—persons.
            By contrast, Cornelius was a Gentile.  Cornelius was an officer in the Roman Army.  Yet, Cornelius was also a very devout man, in his own way.  Luke, the writer of Acts, describes him as “a devout man who loved God with all his household; he gave offerings generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:2). 
            One day, God spoke to Cornelius through a vision, or dream.  In the dream, an angel told Cornelius, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.  Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter.”  Cornelius was eager to obey God and to learn from Peter, so Cornelius sent three men to find Peter.  Whereas Cornelius was very excited to have Peter visit him, for Peter there was a problem:  As a devout Jew, he was religiously prohibited from visiting in the home of a Gentile or having any social contact with Cornelius.  To do so would make him ritually unclean.
            Nonetheless, God had a special message for Peter. 
             The next day Peter, who had been fasting, went up on the roof of the house while others prepared some food for him to eat.  As he waited on the roof, Peter fell into a trance and had a vision as well.  In his dream, Peter saw a large sheet being lowered to him.  In the sheet were all types of different animals.  Then, a voice said to Peter, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat” (Acts 10:13).  Unfortunately, when Peter looked at the animals in the sheet, he saw that they were species of animals that Jewish Law prohibited for food.
            Since Peter tried very hard to maintain ritual purity by only eating the prescribed foods, he replied, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (Acts 10:14).  But, then, God made a startling comment:  “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15).  This scenario played out three separate times.
            Peter was completely perplexed by his dream.  And, he was still trying to figure out what it all meant, when the men sent by Cornelius arrived at the house where Peter was staying.  Then, God spoke to Peter through the Holy Spirit and said, “Look, three men are searching for you.  Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them” (Acts 10:19-20).
            So, Peter invited the emissaries sent by Cornelius to come into his house and stay with him.  The next day Peter, along with some of his friends who were Jewish-Christians, went with the Gentile men and returned to Cornelius and entered his home. 
           Now, just to be clear here:
Ø  Peter talked with the Gentile messengers, even though that was prohibited by his moral code, a code he believed that was given by God.
Ø  Not only did Peter talk with the Gentile men, he invited them into his home and ate with them, once again violating the Jewish law.
Ø  Finally, Peter went to Cornelius’ house, once again violating the Jewish law.
When he met Cornelius, Peter said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who loves God and does what is right is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34-35).  Then, Peter began to tell Cornelius, along with all of Cornelius’ family and friends, about the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When Peter finished speaking, he—along with his Jewish-Christian friends who had come with him—were astounded to see that all of their Gentile listeners were filled with the Holy Spirit and wanted to become Christians as well.  So, Peter said, “‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’  So Peter ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:47-48). 
Peter’s decision, confirmed by his Jewish-Christian friends, proved to be a major turning point in the development of Christianity.  Through his openness to the vision that God gave him on the rooftop, Peter came to see that God’s love was not restricted just to one religious group.  Instead, God reaches out in love to each of us and seeks to be in divine relationship with all of us, regardless of age, race, nationality, sexual orientation, or anything else that differentiates us.  On the basis of this realization by Peter, Christ’s Church was transformed, becoming more open and more faithful.
Although the friendship of Peter and Cornelius occurred long, long ago, I think that there are two very important lessons which their relationship can teach us about being faithful Christians in the twenty-first century:
1.      God sometimes calls us, individually, in completely unexpected ways.  When Peter went up to the rooftop to wait, the last thing he expected was that God would call him to go and preach to Gentiles.  In fact, Peter thought that even socializing with Gentiles was unfaithful to God!  Just as Peter, we must always be open to God calling us to go in completely new and different ways.

2.      God does not intend for the Church to be a musty museum, where nothing changes and everything is rigidly set in tradition.  The Jewish purity laws which prohibited eating certain foods and from having social contact with Gentiles had been in effect for thousands of years by the time of Christ.  At one point in time, these laws were helpful, but for the newly emerging Christian faith, it was time to set them aside.  God does not expect Christ’s Church to be static and unchanging.  Instead, the Church is a living and growing community of faith, intended to provide healing and spiritual growth in our current social context.  Just as our world is currently undergoing rapid change, so also the church must be willing to change and adapt in ways that enhance its mission and ministry. 
Come, join us this Sunday at Christ Church-Lincoln, as we examine this rich story of Peter and Cornelius.  This Sunday is also Confirmation Sunday and we invite you to join with us as we welcome, with great joy, our 2016 confirmands into full church membership.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Friday, April 15, 2016

"Caring for Creation"

            This Sunday, April 17th, Christ UMC will be celebrating “Festival of God’s Creation” Sunday—or, Earth Day as it is more commonly known.  The theme of our services will be “Caring for Creation” and our principal scripture reading is Genesis 1: 27-31.  Part of this scripture says:

“So God created humankind in his image,
                                                  in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”

            Since this passage of scripture is part of the larger story of creation in Genesis 1, it frequently gets caught up in the sometimes bitter debate among Christians, concerning the implications of the theory of evolution for religious faith.  While questions of science and faith are critically important in their own right, these few verses make a major contribution to Christians’ understanding of our relationship with nature—and, our relationship with God.

            As persons of faith, it is essential that we understand what these verses say about our relationship with nature and our relationship with God. 

            So, this Sunday, we will set aside questions of evolution and its implications for Christian faith.  Instead, we will focus on what these verses tell  us about our relationship nature and our relationship with God. 
             When we faithfully interpret the scriptures, it is important to ask about the context of those persons who first read a particular passage.  In other words, what would the first Hebrews have thought about, as they were reading this passage of scripture—or hearing it—for the first time?  What would the scripture mean to the first persons who heard it?  To faithfully interpret the scriptures, we need to take seriously how the first readers would have understood the passage. 

            Biblical scholars remind us that the first Hebrews to read this passage were living in a context in which they were surrounded by the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures.  Both cultures were ruled by either a Pharaoh in the case of the Egyptians or a king for the Mesopotamians.  In these cultures, the chief leader was described as possessing the “divine” image of that culture’s god.  As someone possessing the image of the divine, the supreme ruler was the divine representative on Earth.  For the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the Pharaoh or king was supposed to care for all of the citizens, as well as the country’s environment.  Biblical scholars refer to this understanding in Egypt and Mesopotamia as the “royal motif.” 

            The first readers of Genesis 1: 27-31 would have interpreted this passage within their context, surrounded by the cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia.  They would have understood God as saying that, actually, all people are created in God’s image—not just the king or Pharaoh.  Further, they would have understood God as saying that everyone is responsible for caring for one another and for nature—not just the king.  Bernhard Anderson and other biblical scholars have argued that Genesis 1 takes the Egyptian and Mesopotamian understanding of the “royal motif” and “democratizes” it, ascribing the royal image of God to all of humanity, rather than simply to one particular individual who happens to be king. To be created in God’s image is both a privilege and a responsibility.[1] 

            When we take into account how the first Hebrews would have read and interpreted this passage, then Genesis 1: 27-31 offers profound answers for two of the most profound questions concerning life:

1.                  What is the relationship between human persons and God?  God sets humans apart from the rest of creation as being special and different.  In this special relationship, God makes humans stewards of the rest of God’s Creation. 

2.                  What is the relationship between human persons and nature?  God gives humans dominion in verse 28.  However, dominion is not synonymous with domination, as when one wrestler dominates another.  Instead, dominion refers to the charge that someone has to care for another.  Thus, the human relationship with nature is one of stewardship, or care for God’s Creation, reflecting the love and care that God has for Creation.

Come and celebrate Earth Day with us this Sunday.  We will reflect on our special relationship with God, as well as our special calling to be good stewards of God’s beloved Creation.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings.  Come and join us.

       Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


[1] See Bernhard W. Anderson, “Human Dominion Over Nature,” in Biblical Studies in Contemporary Thought, vol. 10, ed. Miriam Ward, R.S.M. (Burlington, Vermont: The Institute, 1975), 41.