Sermon: Not What We Expected – Or Wanted

May 15, 2022

Psalm 148
Acts 11:1-18

by Eric Anderson

Let’s be clear: Simon Peter had not been behaving properly.

Things had started well enough. He’d traveled to Lydda; he’d healed a man named Aeneas. He’d traveled to Joppa; he’d raised a woman named Tabitha. Strictly speaking, that’s where the trouble started.

You see, he’d been on the ragged edges of ritual uncleanness, and had probably crossed it. According to the ancient law recorded in the nineteenth chapter of Numbers, touching the dead made one unclean. For that matter, entering the tent – and I guess the house – where someone had died also made someone unclean. That wasn’t a terrible ordeal – you’d become clean again in a week if you were properly washed on days three and seven – but it was something of a nuisance if you had other things that needed doing. So if you can remember the bedside of the deceased Tabitha from last week, Simon Peter had entered the house, had spent time with the women who had actually touched Tabitha to wash her body and prepare it for burial, and finally had taken her hand.

I grant you that he’d taken her hand to raise her to life, but still… he was doing things he probably should have avoided if possible, but he really couldn’t avoid them, could he? No.

It wouldn’t have been proper to spend the night in Tabitha’s house, I’m pretty sure. She was a single woman. So Simon Peter went to stay with another Simon, which is awfully confusing and does make me wish that first century parents had chosen some other options for names, and makes me grateful that Jesus had decided that his friend Simon needed a nickname like Peter, but maybe it was the coincidence of names that encouraged Simon the host to welcome Simon the guest and give him a place to pray and have a vision.

This Simon was not, however, someone you would expect to host visions. He was a tanner. Tanners work with the hide of dead animals, treating them with salt and bark-infused water to produce leather. It’s an incredibly useful trade, but because first century Jewish tanners worked with things that were dead, they constantly had to cleanse themselves in a ritual sense. It was a strange place for an observant Jew like Peter to spend the night. But there he was.

And he had a vision. And a summons. A summons to a Gentile’s house, another space to make himself ritually unclean. I mean, the poor guy couldn’t avoid it. Or could he?

That’s why he was in so much trouble when he returned to Jerusalem. His fellow leaders of this Jesus movement, these friends and devoted disciples, were pretty upset. Visiting the house of the dead, okay. We get that. And it turned out really well, we must say. Staying with a tanner? Really, Peter, couldn’t you have done better? But I suppose not. You stay where you’re welcome; Jesus told us that.

But Gentiles. You didn’t have to go there. Not just any Gentiles, either. Roman soldiers. A Roman officer. However devout he might have been, he’s still a Roman soldier, and you know what we last saw Romans doing, Simon Peter?

That’s right. They were crucifying Jesus.

And you not only visited them, you ate with them. You baptized them. You stayed with them.

Why? Because you had a vision?

This is Maren Tirabassi’s amazingly insightful viewpoint on that vision, from her blog Gifts in Open Hands:

From Tabitha to the Tablecloth

She was the reason Peter came to Joppa,
and when he looked back,
he realized that it wasn’t only
so that he could show
Dorcas and her friends she was alive,
but so that he would be.

It was as simple as her two names,
Tabitha for Jewish friends
and Dorcas for her Greek ones,

In a time when Jew stayed with Jew,
Greek with Greek,
Christian with Christian,
and deep between lay fear or prejudice,
envy, condescension, hate.

This one woman welcomed them all,
(wearing herself out doing it),
and it reminded Peter
of someone he once knew,

so, when he had a dream
of a floating tablecloth,
full of everything he called unclean,

he was half-ready for the voice,
telling him to learn to be a guest,

just in time for a knock on the door,
just in time to spread a tablecloth

for Joppa and Jerusalem,
for gay, lesbian, cisgendered, queer,
trans, nonbinary, bisexual,

for those who receive Covid vaccines
and those who do not,
for those called pro-choice
and those called pro-life,
for Republican and Democrat,

and mostly everyone willing to be called
Tabitha and Dorcas …
(or anything but late for dinner)
at God’s table for the world.

What a glorious, glorious vision: a tablecloth to spread across a common table. But a vision was probably not enough. Not for Gentiles. Not for Romans. Not for a Roman centurion.

It took an intervention of the Holy Spirit.

Mitzi J. Smith writes at Working Preacher: “Before Peter baptized them, God poured out God’s spirit upon the Gentiles. God’s spirit will work despite, through, or prior to our ritual constructions. This is comforting knowing how often we get things wrong and how often we persist in making distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ based on race, language, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, our fears, and other differences, real and constructed. ‘The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us,’ 11:12. The Spirit counseled Peter to accept what had already been true about God: God does not show favoritism.”

Even if – and let me be very clear about this – even if we’re not really interested in including “them.” Even if we’re sure that “they” are going to cause an awful lot of trouble. Even if “they” have already been causing a lot of trouble. Even if “they” are not what we expected – or wanted – and this has all come about because one of our leaders has been far less responsible and observant and sensible than they should have been.

But God does not show favoritism.

Not even to white people.

Yesterday an eighteen-year-old white man carried out a long considered plan to kill black people in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. Why? He had adopted white supremacist beliefs, in particular something called “replacement theory,” the idea that people of color are supplanting white people. You might recall the young men marching with lawn torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, a few years ago, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”

Yesterday’s dead join those slain by another young man in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, those who died in the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, those who perished in the attack on Latinos at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019, those shot and killed when the gunman fired on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, the Asian women murdered in Atlanta in 2019. It goes on and on.

The stories about the suspect’s background haven’t come out yet – reporters are out there interviewing as many people as they can find, I’m sure – but I’m afraid there’s something they’re likely to discover and report. I would be very surprised to hear that the suspect did not claim to be a Christian. I would be very surprised to hear that he did not subscribe to the beliefs of white Christian nationalism as well as replacement theory.

Let me say once more what I should not have to say: the Christianity of Jesus and the Christianity of Simon Peter’s vision are utterly incompatible with white Christian nationalism or racism. The Christianity of Simon Peter’s vision is about embrace and welcome. It is about living as good neighbors. It is not about rejection, violence, and death.

Those who say otherwise lie and repeat lies. Those who act otherwise grieve God even more than the human grief they inflict. Those who say otherwise are foreign to the heart and mind of Christ.

Simon Peter learned that almost two thousand years ago. When will we? When will we?

What are we to do about it?

I guess we’re going to have to repeat ourselves, to say again and again the thing we should not have to say: Racism and racist ideology have no place in the Church of Jesus Christ and no place in God’s world. Violence and murder have no place in the Church of Jesus Christ and no place in God’s world.

Let’s not stop there. Let’s get that message to those who amplify the words of hate and violence. There is an individual who has given credibility to the idea of replacement theory and his name is Tucker Carlson. He can have that opinion if he likes. But you and I have no obligation to pay him to share it, and in sharing it encourage the kind of violence suffered in Buffalo yesterday. Look for the advertisers on his show and ask them to pull their support. Tell Fox News to drop him and all the others whose racism drips from their speech. Write the cable system and tell them that Fox News does not belong in “basic cable” as long as it contributes to racist ideology and instigation of violence.

Pray that we, as Christians, find at last the way of Jesus that Peter did, and rejoice to learn that God loves us all.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

Yes, the sermon delivered is not precisely the same as the sermon prepared. We hope it’s better.

The image is Saint Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius (late 1600s) by Jan Erasmus Quellinus – Own work, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on May 15, 2022

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