Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church   / Robert Bell

Sermon:  “Marriage, Peter, and the President”     Acts 10:34-48      

     It is not even Pentecost, yet it seems that the “holy spirit” is alive and well and already at work!  I wonder how we really feel about that?  For all of our talk about the “holy spirit”, sometimes I wonder if we are really open to it?   I wonder if we really believe that it has the power to challenge us as the scriptures say it once did; whether it has the power to move us; whether it has the power to really change us?

     Many of us tend to see the “holy spirit” as a strictly religious thing. We compartmentalize it off for church and Sunday mornings, like much of our religious thinking.  We see it as an inspirational pill or drug that gets us all excited: moving and shaking; full of enthusiasm; maybe even speaking in tongues; and on the verge of being “carried away” so to speak – a  kind of Holy Spirit “high”.  Nothing wrong with that.  God knows that we Presbyterians need a little enthusiasm; and, there are lots of Presbyterians that I would indeed like to see “carried away”.     Nothing wrong with getting excited about God and about faith . But exuberance is only one aspect of the presence of the spirit, and sometimes it can easily get confused with other kinds of spirits around these days:  the excitement and team spirit at sporting events; on Saturday night’s there’s “partying spirit”; arrogant  patriotic zeal; even making money brings the driven spirit of success. There are lots of different  “spirits” going around these days, aren’t there?  

     In the Bible, the Hebrew word for spirit is “Ruah” and can mean breath, or air, or wind; like in Genesis: “the spirit of God moved over the earth and waters “. One commentary calls spirit “a transcendent newness”. Think of Nicodemis and Jesus’ call to be reborn of the spirit.  Paul calls the gifts of the spirit simply, “mercy and grace”. Jesus had his encounters with the spirit.  At his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon him, and the next words out of heaven were “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased”.  In this case, spirit was a sign of “belovedness”, a sign of God’s love and pleasure.  At the beginning of Jesus ministry in Galilee he said “the spirit of the Lord is upon me” and what that meant to Jesus was “preaching good news to the poor, freeing the captives, proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord”.  At his death,  Jesus said, “into thy hands I commend my spirit”. All Jesus was – all that he did – all that he preached and taught about God – his very life - he gave to God.   Following his resurrection with his disciples, Jesus gives them his spirit and says simply “feed my sheep”,  “feed my sheep”.  So the Bible tells us that God’s Holy Spirit is more than a self elevating drug. It is the spirit of Christ – the life of Jesus – the love of God –getting into your very soul.

     Our lectionary lesson this morning is about Peter coming to realize that rejection and exclusion of those, whom God loves and upon whom He has bestowed His holy spirit is no longer acceptable (even though Peter’s past and natural inclination is to do so).  Peter is learning how to not get in the way of the Holy Spirit at work – God’s spirit of love and acceptance and impartiality to all persons. That is what we read today. Peter opened his mouth (and it surprised the heck out of him) but he said:  “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).  Now this is a long story but it is a good story.  

     Luke in Acts tells us that in Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius and although he was a Roman centurion the bible says that he was a pretty good fellow – prayerful and generous; and Cornelius has a vision of an angel coming to him saying, send men to Joppa and bring Simon Peter, this well known Jew, to your house. And so Cornelius obeyed his vision and sent his servants to do so.  As Cornelius’ men are headed to Joppa, Peter has his own vision. He is up on the roof praying (Who knows why the roof? Peace and quiet? Closer to God?) and gets hungry and while they are rustling up some grub for Peter, he has a vision of heaven opening up and there was a great picnic sheet with animals and birds and reptiles and a voice that said “kill and eat” (I guess Peter was hungrier than he thought) But Peter says “no Lord I have never eaten anything profane or unclean” and I am not going to start now to change my long held beliefs.  And the voice comes back a second time and says “what God has made clean do not call profane”. And this happens three times (everything always happens to Peter three times. That is probably a sign to us not to worry if we do not get God the first time he tells us as a church to do something. Don’t worry, he will keep telling us). Peter is perplexed. He still doesn’t quite understand what is going on and what God is trying to tell him (again a good sign for the church - if we are a little slow- It’s ok).

     And so Cornelius’ men get there and they are milling around outside Peters gate and just like Kevin Coster to James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams, they say: “Peter, we think your are supposed to come with us”; and they remind Peter that Cornelius is well thought of by the Jews and they tell him of Cornelius’ vision. And Peter, just having his own vision and visitation, puts two and two together and the next day Peter gets up and goes.  When he gets there, Cornelius falls on the ground to worship him and Peter says I am a Jew and you know that I can’t associate with you and your household (others like you) or condone what you do; but I am here anyway because God told me that I should not call any man or woman debased or unclean. And, that is all I know. (Acts 10:28) And Cornelius says:  “Guess what? It is the same with me. I do not know why I sent for you either except while I was praying, God told me to do so.” And so Peter looks around and sees not only Cornelius but his whole household and friends and really quite a few of these unclean different types of people and says: “I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right in accordance with the good news that Jesus from Galilee preached.” And then Peter talks about Jesus’ suffering death and forgiveness for all.  And all those present were caught up in God’s new spirit and got baptized.

     All well and good, but when Peter got back to Jerusalem he caught heck from his strictly from the jews for welcoming and accepting and eating with those who were so different and so unclean and so…well not anything like them. And Peter tells the whole story about the visions and smorgasbord from heaven all over again and says:  “If God gave them the same gift and the spirit and the same love he gave us—then who am I to hinder God?” ( Acts 11:17 ) Who I am to stand in God’s way if he wants to do something new?

     Cornelius and his household – “his kind” - were not circumcised. They did not observe the Jewish dietary laws (that prohibited Jews and Gentiles from eating together); and even though Cornelius was one of the better ones he was part of the gentile community considered so immoral and different in their practices that they were considered filthy and almost subhuman.  It is hard for us in the modern world to understand what we consider a little trivial or just a matter of different custom, this matter of dietary laws, but to the Jews it was a big thing. Barbra Brown Taylor (Bread of Angels) says it would be like “Christians coming to church seeing pork chops and scotch on the communion table rather than bread and wine”. Brown Taylor elaborates that if that is not shocking enough for you, then just pause for a moment a think about some of the basic things that make you, you – “the dividing line between you as a good Christian” –and the rest of the world and other people. What are some of the things that are so important to your identity – who you are and who you are as a Christian that you “simply cannot let slide….. And when you have figured what it is and have your basic list, then get ready to let it go. That is what Peter did. God gave him a vision that changed everything he had ever believed about who he was and how he was suppose to live”.  This is what the bible means by the power of the Holy Spirit.

     You know, I was thinking about Peter’s evolution of faith to a point which by the grace of God’s holy spirit now included and accepted those who he thought before so different, so unacceptable, this week when reading the paper and listening to the news about our President’s and Vice President’s historical announcement.  Like Peter, swept up in the worldwind of changing times and the spirit calling forward, sometimes you find yourself in a room or before a microphone not knowing what to say and you open your mouth and well … sort of let the spirit,  sort of let God, do the talking…..and let the chips fall where they may.  Now Mr. Biden is fairly well known for saying off the cuff remarks or “stepping in it” as we use to say down on the farm.  He is always getting himself and the Administration into trouble. But the President is not normally like that. He is cool. He is temperate and thoughtful. And most of the time speaks slowly and chooses his words carefully.  Of course, I am referring to his remarks concerning his personal evolution through his reading and prayer but mainly through his contact with other people; coming to believe that homosexual individuals should have the same rights as others when it comes to marriage.  

     On the surface, of course, this is not a religious issue. Mr.  Obama was speaking as  President not as pastor. We live in a secular state. A pluralistic society based on the dignity and human rights of all persons. Marriages are a religious institution but the marriage Mr. Obama was talking about is a state contract and institution which grants certain rights and status and it does not depend on our religion or our beliefs or our ethnicity or anything else other than who we are as persons and citizens. The simple position, that other Americans regardless of their sexuality have the same rights as I do.  It seems to me on this secular basis there is no counter argument. And frankly the idea that if we let this happen, the whole society will go to pot and folks will be marrying artichokes left and right, doesn’t scare me very much.

     But to us in the Christian community, there is much more to marriage than just a secular contract, isn’t there? And it is to this subject that we must eventually turn and “respectfully and loving”, I repeat, “respectfully and lovingly”, discuss. I know we do not have the time to analyze all aspects of this subject this morning, but I would like to mention just a few initial thoughts as we think about the implications of our scripture message.  Much of the debate we hear begins and ends with the Bible.  You have heard me speak many times from this pulpit about the necessity to not only read the Bible but study the Bible, do our best to interpret the complex meanings of so many different passages. The Bible is not a rule book, an open and shut, cut and dried, simplistic guide on life. And we certainly do not use it to bash people. It is the “word of God” inspired by the holy spirit;  written and gathered over many centuries; featuring all types of literature and different people writing about their experiences of God and His truth. We in the 21th century do not read the bible the same way as the Puritans did. The reformers, Luther and Calvin interpreted the bible differently than the Pope and mid evil Catholicism (Gomes).  Surely, Martin Luther King did not read the bible the same way Jessie Helms did.  We can together look at passages possibly referring to homosexuality; but, when someone makes the ridiculous statement that the Bible says such and such and that is the end of the discussion; well, the Bible also says (in a literalist fundamental fashion) that polygamy is OK – that slavery is OK – that the abuse and torture of children is OK.  We just need to stop this silliness of mindless and heartless Bible interpretation. It just doesn’t cut it for God’s children.

     It seems to me that we have to be honest and acknowledge that much of what we hear from those so vehemently opposed to this equal right has more to do with “sex” than the Bible. And even though it is changing in modern society we do not talk about “sex” very much in public, let alone in church. And maybe we should. We live in a funny world. On the one hand sex is everywhere you turn in all forms of media and yet we shy away from mature discussions of what is so important and part of us as people.  Sex, although basic and natural seems to me to be a fairly complicated involved matter and we are still sorting out many aspects of it, and although I do not think we will ever “figure it out”, so to speak, (it is too personal, and individual, and emotional);  it is important to look at our ingrained and sometimes extremely distorted perspectives of it.  As Peter Gomes points out (The Good Book) we are really not that far removed from cultural and church doctrine that taught the only purpose of sex is procreation and that even though a necessity for the continuation of our species, that we should be ashamed of it. Whether it was Paul (and he had an excuse – he thought the world was going end) or Augustine and the patriarchs of the early church, our cultural and historical thought patterns has ingrained in us a sense of shame about sex. Marriage itself was simply a concession to human weakness.   Don’t get me wrong, I do not advocate being preoccupied, like some are, about sex. In fact, when I hear homophobic slurs and accusations about what those people “do”, I recoil. I become much more private about what “I do”   (I assume that you do not want the pastor in your bedroom and I and positive the pastor doesn’t want you in his).  Sexual procreation is a miracle. But sex is more than procreation. It is a gift of beauty and body and love and such intimate sharing that brings meaning, and wonder, and wholeness and joy to life!  So we need to think about and talk about sex in a mature way and get our heads on straight about that. But we are not talking about that here. We are talking about Marriage – a committed legal monogamous relationship. Marriage is about a lot more than sex.

     I believe that the President’s remarks have raised significant issues for the African American Church community, which put us on the cutting edge. Our Presbyterian Church has just this week passed and confirmed by majority Presbytery vote a change in our constitution to permit gay and lesbian folks to hold ordained office as ministers of the word and teaching elders, as well as, all other offices.  I need to be a good listener in the days ahead to what you think and believe. But let me say one thing. I hope that the discussion includes historical remembrances that there was also a time in this country when the main obstacle to full rights, respect, and citizenship to African Americans was the commonly held belief that they were somehow biologically and morally and religiously – not good enough – inferior – not part of the mainstream - and not deserving of full rights. And, although there were many who knew from a Christian or humanistic view that this was absurd, it was the civil law and reason; folks like President Lincoln who knew “wrong” when he saw it. And, even though he was not totally convinced theologically and culturally; his leadership changed the course of history.  I pray that the church will always be leading the way when it comes to freedom, dignity, and acceptance of all people – but if you are not going to lead the way – Don’t stand in the way – do not hinder God!

     This issue didn’t seem to bother Jesus too much. He didn’t talk about it at all. I think we could probably take a wild guess about how inclusive and loving he might be today. I mentioned earlier that Mr. Obama was speaking more as our President rather than our pastor, but he did mention the golden rule and he did mention Jesus – the true “Word of God” and his suffering death for us all (just like Peter said in our passage). And maybe in the end for the church, on this subject as well as most others, it is more about Jesus’ suffering death for us all than we would like to think about - why he came and what he had to go through -the standing in another’s shoes, the going to bat for them, the unpopular stances, the “ostracized and unclean” in life that was made holy through his love and compassion.  Jesus paid with his life. We should not forget that. Maybe in the end, for us gathered here, it is more than just about plain old fairness – it is indeed about the love of God in Christ - Christ’s Passion. For as we know, there is something about that love that stirs the soul…..and has God putting words in your mouth that you did not think you were capable of.

     We need to be open and patient and loving with each other as a church and a country in the days ahead. These are difficult decisions of faith and politics. For me, on this subject, I have decided to compromise. Jesus can have my heart and Mr. Obama my vote. Amen.