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Breaking Down Barriers
Sermon Series: Acts
Breaking Down BarriersJuly 01, 1999 - July 04, 1999 Printer-friendly version
By hearing people talk today, you would think we have eradicated prejudice from the face of the earth. We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. In this nation, inclusive language is the standard for any professional setting. The idea holds that by changing language you can change reality. That sounds plausible, but what if changing language actually doesn’t change attitudes? Then we have a problem. Inclusive language can sometimes act as only a veneer. But when you scratch the surface, you still find the same age-old problem. Prejudicial boundaries are extremely hard to break down. A polite cover is far from sufficient. What we need is a total transformation.
Peter’s shoes.Today’s story presents us with a prejudicial problem. We see three main parties involved: Cornelius, Peter, and the Spirit of God. When I read this story, my tendency is to single out just one person. I find myself really identifying with Peter. Good faithful Peter. Passionate Peter whose mouth quickly says things his brain does not have time to filter. The Peter who has to be told several times before he gets any point. Many times I find myself in Peter’s shoes. Why don’t you join me?
These shoes aren’t very pretty. They have walked all over the Palestinian country-side. They are probably sandals, and due to their extended use I assume that they are much like the favorite hat I can’t get rid of--all beat up, dusty, ragged, barely holding together. In these shoes we walk with Jesus Christ the Son of God for three years. We walk all through the region of Galilee, through the streets of Jerusalem, and even through the hill country of Samaria. In these shoes we traverse up the mountain side of the transfiguration, where Jesus’s glory is revealed. We even walk on water a few steps before engulfed in a sea of disbelief. These shoes have been everywhere. You can bet they weren’t very clean.
In these shoes Peter witnesses Jesus doing many unclean things. Jesus associates himself with tax collectors, thieves, and prostitutes. He speaks with a Samaritan woman, touches a leper, responds with unprecedented grace to a chronically bleeding women. Such things were unclean in the eyes of rabbinical law. But Jesus came to break down such barriers. In fact, Peter was likely present when Jesus defends the disciples eating with unclean hands. Jesus turns to the crowd and says, "Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’" (Mark 7:15). On all these accounts, Jesus breaks the boundaries set by Jewish law. Yet today Peter still questions God about what is unclean. After all of this, shouldn’t he know better?
The boundaries of prejudice are rooted so deep within us. They are like weeds in that each time we think we are rid of them they keep coming back. One day a pastor of a prominent church walks into his office. He looks out the window to see a crew doing much needed repairs in the parking lot. The secretary walks in and says, "These guys want a check as soon as they’re done today." The pastor replies, "We can’t do that. We have to have the treasurer cut the check. You know how they are anyway. They probably want to cash it right away just to buy beer. Not that I’m prejudice or anything, its probably true." My jaw dropped. Because these men were blue collar workers, he pre-judged their lifestyle. I was there in that office, but I didn’t know what to say. What is safe to say is that we all have prejudices. What are we going to when they eventually slip out? It sounds like typical water cooler conversation. Just observations, not prejudices, right? Shouldn’t we know better?
The Sheet. In today’s story we find Peter staying with a leather tanner outside the city limits. Peter appears to be making politically correct strides here. By law the occupation of a tanner is considered unclean, yet Peter is living there. That afternoon, Peter is sitting there praying when he falls into a trance. Something like a sheet comes from heaven. Picture this sheet. What would it look like? There are all sorts of animals: clean mixed with unclean. There are animals prohibited to the Israelites way back in eleventh chapter of Leviticus: rabbits and pigs, mice and snakes, camels, vultures, crows, and even insects. Things you would never find in a New York kosher deli. "Get up, Peter, kill and eat." There are snakes in there...there are mice... "Get up and eat?? You’ve gotta be kidding me!"
This is where I really identify with Peter. It seems like he always has to be told something at least three times before he gets it.
"Get up, Peter. Kill and eat."
"By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean."
"Get up, Peter. Kill and eat."
"By no means, Lord."
"Aren’t you here with that Jesus, the one being tried?"
"I never knew him."
"No, you must have known him."
"Peter, do you love me?"
"Feed my sheep."
"Peter, don’t you trust me?"
"Get up, kill and eat."
Clean and Unclean. When I was in Jr. High, my mom went back to school to become a registered nurse. All my life I remember her working as a licensed practical nurse, but now with us kids old enough, she decided to work full-time and still go to school. Things really changed around the house back then. My sister and I did more of the chores: cooking, cleaning, and laundry. Weekends became a little quieter as mom would close the door to her room and study for most of the day. Things changed. I began to relate to my mom on a different level as she took Algebra again after so many years. Things also changed as she took developmental psychology and could now ‘figure us kids out.’ But perhaps the biggest change came to the Garrison household when my mom took micro-biology. Our house was always very clean. That was my mother’s personality. But when she studied micro-biology, she learned all the names of the thousands of viruses, bacteria, fungi--she saw all the pictures, and found out what they did to humans--after that it was all over. A new level of cleanliness was reached at the Garrison house. There was anti-bacterial this. Anti-infectious that. Bleach the towels after each use. Wash the dishes twice if need be. Food left out more than 15 minutes--throw it away. Cleanliness was taken very seriously.
Yet even the Garrison household of those years could not match the strict measures the Pharisees took on purity. The code for purity was established in Leviticus, but the Pharisees added to it and built more boundaries. In rabbinical law there are four degrees of uncleanness, ten levels of impurity, and six stages of purification. The Pharisees took cleanliness very seriously. For instance, if a Jew went to the market and bought a pot from a Gentile, the pot would be considered unclean because of its contact with the non-Jew. The pot would have to be ceremonially washed under certain prescribed guidelines. Then the person buying the pot would have to be cleansed because he or she touched the pot, that touched the Gentile, that by law was unclean. Understand this was quite unlike the motivation for hygiene in my family. For I believe it’s a mistake to say that God gave these laws to the Israelites only for hygienic purposes--that God only wanted to protect them from disease. It is often said that the ancient Israelites did not have the knowledge we do about bacteria, so God forbade them to eat pork. But God was making a completely different point. The pig was a sacred sacrificial animal used for Canaanite worship. Mice, snakes, and rabbits were used in pagan magic of the time. In Levitical law it was as if God was saying: "This is how the pagans worship, but this is how you are to worship me. This is impure worship to impure gods. But anyone approaching the one true God, must also be pure and holy--as I am pure and holy." Holiness is hard for humans. For this reason there has always been a barrier between God and Humanity. But the incarnation of God broke down the barriers. Christ came to make the unclean clean. Humans can not do it alone. Only God breaks down barriers.
Three sides to every story.We have heard it said that there are two sides to every story. Every good judge knows that there are really at least three sides. Parents experience this all the time with children. There you are minding your own business, when all of a sudden you hear blood-curdling screams and viscious shouting as two of your children suddenly start to fight. There is the plaitiff and the defendent. "She started it." "He started calling me names first." "But you were making faces at me." Now everyone should know that between this child’s story, and the other child’s story, there is the reality of what actually happened. Michael Thompson told us last week that God is reality. His view is all encompassing. He sees things as they really are. For the lesson today, we hear the story from the vantage point of Cornelius the Gentile. We have Peter’s vision of what is clean and unclean. Then there is the ultimate reality of how God sees the situation.
Cornelius’s point of view.Look at things from Cornelius’s point of view. Cornelius was a Gentile in spades. Not only was he Roman, but he was a military commander imposing Roman rule. By Jewish law he was quite unclean. He was outside the boundaries, not allowed to participate in public worship. Yet in his own household, he still feared God and prayed. Is anyone feeling like Cornelius today? An outsider, not accepted or allowed within the boundaries of the church? I gladly welcome you here. Now picture the sheet again. Close your eyes if necessary. The sheet of grace extends to the four corners of the world. Picture it covering all things. It covers every field, mountain, and plane. Can you picture the field? It gives the field its grain, the mountain its majesty, and fruit to every plane. Every creature has breath because of God’s grace. This sheet is not merely a veneer. It embraces us. It wraps around us and transforms who we are. It will bandage and heal any wound you might have: those inflicted by the church, by others, or on yourself.
Peter’s point of view.For those of us in Peter’s shoes, we often view the cleansing work of grace as another boundary that separates us from others. Jew from Gentile. Christian from Non-Christian. Adult / Youth. Smoker / Non-smoker. Rich / Poor. Black and white. But in the sheet of Peter’s vision, clean was mixed with unclean. Not to say that sinful acts are redeemed, but sinners can be. What’s in our sheet of prejudice? Who do we consider unclean?
No Respector of Persons. There are three sides to every story, but God’s vantage point is the true reality. In the beginning, both Cornelius and Peter saw boundaries. The Spirit of God lifts all boundaries. Our text says, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality." Peterson’s Message refers to this as, "God plays no favorites." In His love there is no partiality.
This week my wife and I moved into the manse at Third Presbyterian Church. It is great. This house is huge--it has so many rooms. More rooms than we even know what to do with. It’s like a mansion, where we could stay in a different room each day of the week. But my favorite thing about the house is the back yard. In the back it has a thick wall of trees. There’s a garden--it even has its own pink flamingos. But the best part of the yard is the white-picket gate. When I say gate, I mean just that. There is only a gate--no fence. You can walk freely in and out. You can choose to use the gate, you can not use the gate. It does not matter. There are absolutely no boundaries.
Within the Father’s love we have the same thing. His house has more rooms than the church of old, or the church of today can fill. There is no boundary to His love. It extends to all who will take it. God shows no partiality.
Partiality. This same word shows up in James 2:9. James says, "You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.; But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors." As followers of God we are to imitate Christ. In the same way He plays no favorites and loves all persons, so are we to exhibit this same love. God is calling. Peter set aside his self-righteousness and opened the church’s door to the Gentile world. At Brunswick Church the staff believes God will be opening our doors in a new way. Are we going to build boundaries. Will we exclude anyone because of what is outside of a man or a woman?
God will break down the barriers to His love. Our responsibility is to be like God and love others. We must honor the free range of God’s love. I’m not perfect in this respect. I still see many things that are unclean. But here might be one way we can approach God’s reality. On a sheet of paper, perhaps the back of your bulletin, write down who might be in your sheet of prejudice. This could be a particular person or a group--say the homeless. Write it down and then pray for them.
Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, I thought I had a pretty enlightened view toward the homeless. I believed that Jesus came to lift the downcast. He told us to feed the hungry, cloth the naked. I agreed with all my heart. I thought it was a horrible shame to ignore the poor. But when I moved to Chicago, and really encountered the homeless, I realized the problem was deeper than I thought. When they would stagger up to me--it seemed on every street--with dirty old rags on, they hadn’t showered in weeks, reeking with alcohol, not asking nicely for change, but growling at me, mumbling--it was a completely different story.
Go back to your sheet now. List the reasons for your prejudice. Pray over these reasons. Often prejudice is not founded on facts. For instance, one of the reasons listed may be: "People are homeless because they are lazy." This is not a fact, there are a multitude of complicated reasons for homelessness: illness, domestic issues, falling on rough times again and again that they can no longer could pick themselves up. What reasons on your list are fact, or just your view? God has the power to transform. Pray God will show us His view of the situation and give us the strength to overcome prejudice.
God removes boundaries. He doesn’t play favorites. Our prejudices run deep, but Christ came to make what is unclean clean. There is no partiality to God’s love. Let God renew our minds and transform our hearts. Whether you feel like Cornelius or identify with Peter, may the sheet of grace cover all we do and everything we say. Amen.
To contact Chris Garrison about this sermon, please email or write to: Brunswick Presbyterian Church, 42 White Church Lane, Troy, NY 12180