I have a question for you to consider: Who has a place in the kingdom of God? I have been reading the book of Acts and what I read today seems to answer this question.
First, in chapter 8, the Spirit of God instructs the disciple Philip to explain the scriptures to a eunuch from Ethiopia. Philip does his job so well that the eunuch looks at him and asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” What is to prevent me from being part of the people of God? Well, given that Torah declares that the eunuch has no place and is not welcome in the assembly of the faithful would have been an easy place to start. So, Philip probably thought of a number of things that would prevent this eunuch from being baptized. But somehow Philip, in a breathless effort to keep up with the Holy Spirit, welcomes and baptizes him, and so the eunuch from Ethiopia finds his own place at the table, if you can imagine that. I don’t imagine it was easy for Philip to imagine that, but somehow he did. And the Holy Spirit pushed him along.
And the story continues in Chapter 9. Before Philip has dried off, the Spirit of Christ turns Saul around on the Damascus road, and before Saul can see straight, Ananias heals and baptizes him. Ananias, a saint of God, makes it clear that this wasn’t his idea. But the Spirit of God is headed for Saul, and Ananias refuses to get in the way. He finds himself calling Saul “Brother,” if you can imagine that. Calling Saul, this persecutor of the church, “Brother” took a good deal of imagination and no small measure of the Holy Spirit. But Saul now has his place at the table, if you can imagine that.
On we go to Peter in chapter 10, who after receiving a vision from God, finds himself at the home of a Gentile named Cornelius. And adding one more pathway into God’s kingdom, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the Gentiles. Peter, recognizing that they have received the same gift as he had, makes room at the table and sits down at the celebration meal with them. No one would have imagined that.
So by Chapter 11, the forbidden eunuch is riding along with the apostles, the persecutor of the church is called “Brother,” and Peter is having a picnic with Gentiles: So, it’s time to talk. The church of Jesus Christ had been a nice collection of Jews, and Jews only, who were worshiping the promised Messiah of Judaism. And, I believe, had it been left up to the church, that’s the way it would have stayed.
But it is never left just to us and one thing I know about the church of Jesus Christ is that we are always on the brink of a new day of some sort or another — but it is seldom the result of our plans. You may have noticed that over the last few weeks. The new day comes as a result of a little imagination on our part but mostly because of a strong measure of the Holy Spirit.
So, things are moving in the early church. The world is shifting, the boundaries are blurring and so Peter is summoned before the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. The word had gotten out that Peter was eating with Gentiles. On the list of things that faithful Jews did not do, whether they were followers of Jesus or not, faithful Jews did not sit down and eat with Gentiles. It just didn’t happen. I could point out similar separations in our society but I will leave it to you to pick those out. But Peter was learning that in the church sometimes things that “can’t happen” — just absolutely “can’t happen” — well, in the church, they happen.
So today I have been thinking about how the hat is the acts of God don’t end with the final period to the Book of Acts. They don’t end with Peter. Or Paul.
I have had extra time to read lately and, as often happens, there has been some cross pollination going on. Yesterday I was reading about the end of the Civil War. In the spring of 1865, just a few days after Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House, he found himself in his normal pew at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Just as he was about to come to the communion rail, the unimaginable happened, something that had never happened in that church before. A tall, well-dressed black man stepped down from the balcony and knelt at the communion rail. For a moment, it was simply silent, until General Robert E. Lee slipped from his pew, walked to the communion rail and, right next to this tall, well-dressed black man, General Lee knelt, that the two of them might receive the sacrament together.
It took incredible imagination for Robert E. Lee to think it possible for a black man and a white man to find themselves as brothers at the Lord’s table. But the winds of the Spirit had caught him and that tall, well dressed man up and that is how it happens, step by step, our faith causes us to breathlessly chase after the Spirit; and when that happens, things that can’t happen — just absolutely can’t happen — well, sometimes, in the church, they happen. And now they both have their place at the table which is a pretty good picture of God’s kingdom don’t you think?
I wonder who else might be there?
I don’t know exactly how Peter imagined such a thing as eating with those nasty gentiles, but he did. Do you think maybe the Holy Spirit was surely involved? It couldn’t have been easy. It rarely is easy for us to shake off our blinders and see the broader picture. but the Holy Spirit is always inviting us, step by step, into some new day or another.
All along the church has struggled to imagine a broad and wide gate into God’s kingdom. I know this because I know our history with letting people take communion. Sharing the Lord’s table has not been easy – I mean come on… with women, with immigrants and minorities, with children, with people in and out of prison, with divorced people, with people of different sexual orientations, with drunks and addicts, and all those sinners. Much of the hard work was done before I was old enough to know, but I know it was hard.
It was hard for some of you, just as it was for my dad and the churches he served. Mom and I have been looking at old family pictures. They are amazing and cover lots of time, lots of challenges and changes. There are pictures of my great-grandparents and of my grandparents and great Aunt Carrie who died of the Spanish Flu when she was 25. My mon was named for her. And there is my dad in over-alls in the garden with his mom. When he was growing up in that small town in rural Illinois I can’t imagine he ever imagined that he would risk the kinds of things he ended up risking in the 1960s to expand the church’s notion of who was invited into God’s kingdom. But the Holy Spirit was moving the church, step by step, and it had less to do with any human’s plans or intentions and more to do with the tugging and pulling of the Spirit of God. When you can imagine that an Oklahoma preacher can serve minister to people with whom he could not share a meal in the local cafeteria, when you can recognize that God gives to others the same gift he has given us, then you can imagine that some things that can never happen — absolutely never happen — well, in church, they happen.
That’s the difficult thing about the Spirit — some would even say the frightening thing about the Spirit: The Spirit of God is free, and sometimes the only thing that faith can do is breathlessly try to keep up, step by step.
They called Peter before the leaders of the Jerusalem church: “Peter, why? Why did you go among the Gentiles and eat with them?” Eating in the ancient world was no little thing. If you shared your table with someone, you declared not only equality, but belonging.
But Peter stood before them and told them that he imagined something different. Actually, a better way to say it is the Spirit of God pushed and tugged, and pointed to the truth of God in Jesus Christ, until the church finally changed her mind. It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t result so much from the planning of the church as it did from a little measure of imagination and a generous measure of the very Spirit of God.
So, with all that is going on, culturally, socially, personally, I imagine we are standing on the threshold of a new day, and that makes me a little nervous, because it certainly involves something that has never happened. That’s the way it is for the church of Jesus Christ. Somehow the people of God are able to imagine a new day. And when that happens, things that you think could never happen — absolutely never happen — well, in church, they happen.
So who is going to be gathered into the kingdom of God? Well, there’s an Ethiopian eunuch, a former persecutor of the church, a Gentile named Cornelius, Robert E. Lee and a tall, well-dressed black man, and women and children and others we can’t even imagine. Because imagination isn’t enough. A more-than-generous portion of the very Spirit of God is required
Last night my mom told me that she will soon know things I do not know. That makes me smile, at least in part, because I can already imagine what she will find.