Our God Can't Be Hindered

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, May 15, 2022
Acts 11:1-18

    I have a friend whose pet peeve is when people wear a combination of either navy and black or brown and black together.  We like to tease her by doing just that to her horror – wearing black pants with brown shoes, a black blazer with navy slacks.  Oh, the humanity!  While we might agree that mixing these colors is a fashion faux pas, most of us probably don’t feel THAT strongly about people who wear clothes that clash.  Many of us probably have quirky rules about what goes with what, however; whether it’s what kind of spread you need with a particular kind of deli sandwich (mayo and turkey, mustard and ham, butter and roast beef) or not eating soup in the summer or drinking cold drinks in the winter.  If you’re in relationship with any teenagers, you’re probably blessed with the classic “eye roll” of some rule that you are breaking that is totally uncool – I’ve been told using emojis is totally “out,” for example.  You name it, we can come up with some pretty hilarious, picayune rules for the “right” way to live life!  Today, the Holy Spirit invites us to reexamine our rules, especially in terms of our expectations of others, to focus on what’s most important to God:  to live and love like Christ.
    To us 21st century Gentile Christians, it might seem at first that Peter and his Jewish Christian friends in our story from Acts today have some quirky hangups.  Peter has this vision of a large sheet coming down from heaven with reptiles, birds of the air and four-footed animals all mixed together on it, and a voice tells Peter to “kill and eat.”  Peter’s resistance is not just his preference to not eat mixed up meat together, or like many of us, to avoid eating snake meat; to eat these foods would be breaking kosher dietary laws for a faithful Jew. Some of these animals are clean and OK to eat, but some are not, and having them all mixed together makes everything unclean.  Furthermore, it may not seem like a big deal to us, but the Holy Spirit urges Peter to go visit Cornelius, a centurion in the Italian Roman Regiment living in Caesarea, a very Gentile person in a Gentile place.  It is against Jewish law for a faithful Jew to visit a Gentile in his home, Acts tells us. How many of us today have Jewish friends and wouldn’t think twice about visiting each other in our homes?  However, these were not minor but major cultural and religious rules for Peter and his fellow Jewish Christians.  Following these laws were a big part of your identity as a person of faith that distinguished you from others in society.  Could you still be a Christian and not be circumcised, not keep kosher laws, in fact, even BE a Gentile?  What about serving in the Roman army when Rome was an unwanted occupier of Israel?  Well, God’s Spirit tells Peter today, “yes.”  We learn through this middle part of the book of Acts that God’s Spirit creates some trouble and conflict for Peter and the early Christians as they try to distinguish what is important to God and what God wants us to value as people of faith.
    Circumcision, a kosher diet, and befriending people of different ethnicities might seem like no big deal to us as Christians today, but our story from Acts challenges us to recognize that God’s Holy Spirit continues to push us out of our comfort zones.  What is important to God, and therefore, what ought to be important to us?  “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter powerfully asks his Jewish Christian friends.  We can ask ourselves where we might be creating barriers to people experiencing a deeper, loving relationship with God because of our judgments, criticisms, and unrealistic expectations.  
    For example, many Christians still today debate about the role of women in the church.  At times, in a majority white Lutheran denomination that is historically European, we have intentionally and unintentionally communicated that if you are not white, heterosexual, an American citizen or speak English as your first language, you are not welcome in the church. Unfortunately, too many Christians have bought into the culture wars of our time aligning a particular political party and its issues with being a good Christian.  Our Christian witness is reduced to our positions on the issues of wearing masks, vaccines, abortion, gun control and so on.  We are not so different than the early Christians who are tempted to put issues, cultural traditions and political ideologies before people. Sharing the good news of what Jesus has done for us is God’s number one priority.  Many good Christians can and do disagree about the issues I just named.  Rather than hindering God’s Spirit to grow people’s faith, how can we be partners with God to allow faith to thrive?  
    Let’s remember along with Peter and those first Christians what is most important to God.  It’s not our ethnic background, first language, citizenship, gender or political party affiliation to name a few.  Rather, what’s most important to God is our relationship to Christ. Jesus is our Lord and Savior. In the chapter preceding the one we read today in worship, we learn that Cornelius indeed is a Gentile and Roman solider, but he and his entire family are God-fearing, regularly praying and giving generously to those in need.  He is hungry to know more about Jesus, and God appears also in a vision to him as well as to Peter.  He eagerly is baptized along with his whole family when Peter offers him this deeper welcome into faith.  How could Peter possibly do differently than to welcome into the life of the church?  And yet, some people want to, and some people still today would turn away people eagerly wanting to engage more deeply in the Christian faith and in relationships in the church.  Peter and Cornelius show us that living like Christ and loving like Christ through prayer, worship, fellowship with other Christians, giving generously and serving others is what truly makes us Christian.
    What’s most important to God is our faith in Christ, and what we hear is most important to Jesus, our Savior and Lord, is to love one another, “just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  Think about it – in giving us this new commandment, Jesus doesn’t give us a list of rules to follow “or else,” but rather gives us this one golden rule – to love like Jesus.  And so, what’s most important to God is that we strive to live like Jesus – with less judgment and more welcome.  With generosity rather than stinginess.  With words of good news to share with those who are too often bombarded with mostly bad news.  With promises of hope and life to those sitting in the valley of the shadow of death.  When we are tempted to draw lines in the sand, may we listen carefully to God’s Spirit.  May we be open to being challenged by other believers who think differently than we do.  After all, as we see over and over in the Holy Scriptures, humans may try to hinder God, but God ultimately cannot be hindered.  In this Easter season, we give thanks that even death could not hinder God’s salvation project for all humanity, and so we rejoice at this opportunity God gives us to live like the resurrected Christ.  Amen.