The Rev. Melanie McCarley
The American naturalist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau once said “Things do not change, we do.” That may be true. But it doesn’t make change any less difficult. Take today’s lesson from the Book of Acts as a case in point.
In today’s reading, we are confronted with one of the most radical changes faced by the fledgling church. It’s the story of the Jewish apostle Peter and the Gentile soldier Cornelius. Now, there are many layers to this story, but here’s the important point of which to take notice. The real convert here—the individual whose heart needs to be opened—well, it’s not Cornelius, the centurion. It’s Peter, the believer.
Let’s take a look. A bit earlier in Chapter 10 of the Book of Acts we encounter Cornelius, and we learn that he was a good and devout man, who feared God, along with all of his household. He gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly. And God sends an angel to visit Cornelius, bringing him a message, telling him to visit a certain Simon who is called Peter.
The next day Peter is praying, and he receives a rather peculiar vision: Take a moment to imagine, a tablecloth descending from heaven filled with a delectable array of pork bbq, mouth-watering shrimp salad and lobster rolls. It might be the picnic of your dreams—but it’s a nightmare for a good Jew such as Peter who keeps a kosher kitchen. Along with a vision comes a command: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And just as Peter is puzzling over these words, who shows up, but Cornelius who invites Peter into his home—at which point the words spoken from Heaven are made perfectly clear. Peter repents and confesses: “God has shown me that I should not call any person impure or unclean.”
And this is what brings us to this morning’s reading where we are told that “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers (Christian Jews) who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirt had been poured out even on the Gentiles. And Peter said…”Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? And (boom), just like that, the way was opened for Gentiles (that, by the way, means people such as you, myself, and little Livinia and her sister Shea, who will be baptized at 10:00 a.m. thereby welcoming all people, the world over to receive the sacrament of new birth).
Change is hard. And, as the book of Acts demonstrates, where it is particularly difficult, is for those groups of people organized into communities of believers. That’s right—the church, at times, finds change to be challenging. Are you shocked? No? Neither am I. I’m fond of telling folks that every time I go into a church building built prior to 1900 I offer a prayer of thanksgiving if I discover there is electricity. Why? Because someone, at some point, had to offer the novel suggestion that installing wiring and flipping a switch could be just as good—and maybe even better than lighting candles. And, I’m willing to bet it resulted in months of heated vestry discussions about the cost of candles versus that of electricity, the look of the flame versus the bulb and—that phrase most all Episcopalians have heard at one time or another at some point during their faith experience: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Change is difficult.
But here’s the rule of thumb that we need to follow (not that we’ve always been good about it, but here it is, nonetheless), and it’s set by Holy Scripture and St. Peter, the holder of the keys to kingdom himself. In verse 34 of chapter 10 of the Book of Acts, Peter says: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” While none of us knows exactly what Peter meant when he blurted out these words—we can take a broad hint, that what he means is that it is better for us to throw open wider the doors of the church than to hold them shut tighter. In other words, far better to welcome more people into the church, even if it means some get in who shouldn’t, than to keep out some that should be welcomed with open arms.
How can I be so certain this should be the posture of the church? Well, not only does Peter say this, we have the words of Jesus to point to. Our Savior described his kingdom as a field of wheat that’s infested with weeds, a net full of good and bad fish, and a field of wheat that needs to be winnowed. In other words, we should work, hope and pray for a better church. This much is true. But we should leave behind any dream of establishing a perfect church. Those kind of boundaries are not up to us to determine. That is a job better left up to God—and that, I suggest, is good news. Because the God I believe in is infinitely more kind and gracious than we are, even at our very best.
I began today’s sermon with words from Henry David Thoreau: “Things do not change, we do.” This morning, it is our privilege and joy to baptize Livinia and Shea Riley, and to welcome them into the family of God. Each time we welcome a new member into the faith of our church, we open ourselves up to the possibility of change. With God’s Grace, with the Holy Spirit that will live and move within Livinia and her sister Shea, we believe that these children will be changed—more and more into the likeness of the people God wants them to become. And, if that is the case, then we too will be changed as well by their involvement in our lives. Now, that’s a remarkable thing. As Livinia and Shea make St. Paul’s their home, they will change this community of faith, and we, through our involvement with them, will change these girls as well, offering them support, gifting them with words of challenge, wisdom and grace, and opportunities to strengthen their spirits minds and hearts.
In the end, the church is not made of bricks, mortar or stone—but of human beings, of holiness, spirit and grace. We are permeable—we, like Peter, are able to change. With prayer, with an openness to the Holy Spirit, we too can be receptive to brave change as was Peter, who opened his heart to the truth of God, and in so doing, threw open wide the doors of God’s grace not simply to one man, Cornelius, but to the whole world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.