Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Jesus Started It: Breaking Down Walls

Preached in Kahlotus on Sunday, May 5, 2013
(Adapted from a sermon that was preached on 5-20-2007)

Scripture readings: Matthew 25:31-46; Acts 11:1-18

I was twelve when my family moved to a small town in the Sacramento Valley. Everything was different from what I had known before, and I didn’t know anybody. My class was divided into two classrooms (two teachers), and we would switch classrooms after lunch.

Photos Around Washtucna in April 2013
There was a boy in the other class named George. I seemed to get along with him from the start and we would hang around together for lunch, and during breaks. One day, Mrs. Hendrix, who taught us English, and History, and a few other things, warned me to stay away from George. She wouldn’t tell me why, but she warned me that he would be a bad influence on me. She even talked to my parents and warned them about George, and my parents had a talk with me about how I needed to keep away from George.

For some strange reason, I never found out what was wrong with George, and I think he moved away, the next year. I never asked any of the other kids, because I was new, and I was afraid of looking stupid. I also hated being in trouble with my teachers and my parents.

So I avoided George. And I knew that he knew what was going on. I built a wall between us, and I made other friends. There must have been something wrong, that I couldn’t see, that the grownups were protecting me from.

Maybe it is a good thing that I will never know the answer to that. It is just one of those things that I think about from time to time.

The Book of Acts teaches us how to see the kind of changes that the Holy Spirit likes to make in the followers of Jesus. There are patterns in the life and work of the Holy Spirit!

One of the patterns of the Spirit is the pattern of welcome. The Holy Spirit breeds a special brand of welcome. It is the kind of welcome that not only opens doors between people, but crosses borders, and breaks down the oldest walls.

The first chapter of the Book of Acts warns us about this. Jesus tells his disciples that they were being called, and sent by him, to be his witnesses, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Jesus commanded his people to go and reach out; to cross boundaries.

The first few chapters of the Book of Acts tell us that the disciples started out by not going anywhere. They might have thought about it, but they didn’t go and do it. It’s true that they had plenty of things to think about, and worry about; and a lot of things to do. The truth is that they would never have gone anywhere unless the Lord has essentially forced them to reach out and to cross those boundaries: to bring the presence of Jesus to people who were not at all like them. 

In the eighth chapter of Acts, persecution came, and most of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were scattered. Some of them actually found shelter among the traitorous-half-breed Samaritans, and they couldn’t help sharing Jesus with them, and the Samaritans received Christ and the life of the Holy Spirit.

Philip brought Christ to an Ethiopian in the desert. The Ethiopian took Christ with him, in turn, to his homeland far away, south of Egypt. That was one of the ends of the earth in the ancient world.

Then, Peter was staying in the house of Simon the Tanner, in the town of Joppa, on the coast west of Jerusalem. It was a surprising place for Peter to stay, because there was a prejudice against tanners. There were Jewish tanners, but, since tanners worked with dead animal products (hides), they were always what they would call “ritually unclean”.

Respectable, pious brothers and sisters of the Jewish people would avoid touching a tanner, or a member of a tanner’s family, or even the guest of a tanner (like Peter), or anything a tanner might possibly have touched. (Of course, once leather was processed it was OK to touch. Leather was alright to touch, but not the tanner who made it.)

So the borders that Jesus had talked about to his disciples (the borders they would have to cross, to be his witnesses) were not just borders measured by miles.

Jesus was interested in the ability of his people to cross borders of respectability and unrespectability. Jesus wanted his people to cross the borders of untouchability.  Jesus wanted his people to cross the borders between people that are drawn by culture, and by history, and by income, and by family background, and by behavior, and by conflict and misunderstanding.

Those borders are not lines drawn in the sand. They are walls and no-man’s lands full of razor wire and explosives.  But Jesus wants us to cross those borders with his love and compassion, and with the message of his good news.

God is on a mission of welcome, to give all people peace with him: abundant everlasting life, through Christ. In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul talks about this plan: “a plan for the fullness of time to unite all things in him (in Christ), things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:10)

You can never find anyone or any group of people who are not the target of the love of God in Christ. No one is excluded. No matter what you know about them. They are still a target of the love of God in Christ.

You might not have the gifts, or the opportunity, to reach out to them. At least you might not think you do. But you cannot say no when God shows you his love for them. And you definitely cannot add another stone to the wall that divides you from them.

Cornelius, the Roman army officer, welcomed Peter, the common fisherman, by bowing face down on the pavement at his feet. No one of Cornelius’ rank would do such a thing. The Romans were highly conscious of the impassible walls of division between different ranks and levels in society, and between cultures, and particularly between themselves and the Jews. This was the way they were raised. This was the way everyone around them thought.

Peter, who still couldn’t help wanting to go on believing that Jesus Christ fulfilled God’s promises to the people of Israel in a way that would make them (apart from all other people) into the kingdom of God, overcame that belief. In the tenth chapter of Acts (the original version of the story) Peter welcomed Cornelius, and his family and friends, by simply coming inside his house, and lifting Cornelius back to his feet, and treating him as an equal.

Peter explained how he could welcome Cornelius. He said: “God has shown me that I should not call any one impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)

When God teaches us to welcome others, it does not mean that we are giving our approval to bad and risky behavior, or to bad attitudes. The welcome that God wants us to give others is not a welcome that enables others to harm others or themselves. It means living in the present, living in that very moment, and treating that other person as if that person was the target of God’s love, and, therefore the target of our love.

Love does not mean sentimentality. Love is not a warm fuzzy feeling. Love is not warm fuzzy thinking. Love is the will to make good possible. The will to make good possible is the heart of grace.

The welcome of God does ask you to treat others based on how you should be treated by others, sinner that you are. It also helps to know how God is really dealing with you, sinner that you are.

I don’t think the Lord overlooks anything, but he does look at you with the will to make good possible. God has a long range plan for you, but he focuses on the present moment to empower the grace in you that will make good possible. The wonder and miracle is that he wants you to assist him in his work with others, even when you are in need of so much work, yourself.

And the most amazing thing of all, and the thing we often don’t understand at all, even though it is at the center of being a child of God, is that the Lord doesn’t welcome you just to bless you and make you feel good. Certainly, in the Bible, the Lord never welcomed anyone to make them comfortable.  The Lord welcomes you into the joy of your master.

You never understand the joy of your master until you know that this joy is not just about you. The Lord’s joy involves welcoming others. It is a kind of hospitality and it often begins with sacrifice and work.

The Letter to the Hebrews tells us about this. It says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:2-3)

Jesus came down from heaven to save a lost human world, and so he crossed the greatest barrier of all in order to take that barrier down. This was his joy. This is the joy of your master. The joy that motivated your master, who did the work of the cross for you and for others, becomes your joy too.

Some people actually enjoy their work. The Lord enjoys his work of reclaiming, and rebuilding, and nourishing others. The Lord wants you to enjoy taking part in his work; even when it means crossing lines and breaking down walls to do it.

The first thing that happened in this story was that an angel came to Cornelius, and told him to send for a man named Peter, who would bring a message that would save him and his whole household. But why didn’t the angel give Cornelius that saving message?

The angel could talk. The angel was there. The angel could have done a much better job talking than Peter could. But Peter was a follower of Jesus and so Peter needed to be in the business of breaking down barriers. He needed the barrier in his own heart to be broken down.

This is necessary for us as well. We all have such barriers in our own heart, and other people have barriers with us that need more than a wave of the hand by God to tear them down.

The tearing down requires us to be there. We are a human shaped tool that can reach into human shaped barriers. God became truly human to reach into us and then make us his partners.

When Peter came with the message, and when God brought the message home to their hearts, before Peter ever had a chance to finish speaking, Peter could have told Cornelius: “Now, you can be the core of a new church, a Gentile church. And we will go home to our Jewish church. And we will meet in our place. And you will meet in your place. And we will all be friendly neighbors.”

But they did not become good neighbors. They become one church together in Christ.

Robert Frost wrote a poem called “Mending Wall.” It is a story about him and his neighbor, once a year walking the stone fence between their small New England farms and putting the stones back up that had fallen off during the winter. The neighbor says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But Frost says: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall; that wants it down.”

God wants walls down. All the bad walls in the world have been built by sin; by pride, by anger, by abuse and injustice, and other causes too numerous to mention.

The walls are simply sin. God came down in Christ, and died on the cross as a sacrifice for all the sin and evil of this world. And so he came to tear down the veil that separated us from him, and to make us messengers of that same peace that will tear down walls.

1 comment:

  1. Good sermon, as always and lots of think about.
    I once had a Social Studies teacher, who made a point to say that all the lines drawn on maps dividing the land into countries, are imaginary, the lines themselves do not really exist, they are put there by man.
    Just something I have never forgotten.