Delivered at Congregational UCC on Sunday, May 5, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.
It is a genuine pleasure to be back here at Newton Congregational UCC (I preached at an Association meeting here a while back) and to be part of an effort to fulfill the United Church of Christ’s mission to be united and uniting.
It is easy, given our structure and polity, to opt out of being in relationship with other congregations. And you likely know the joke about the UCC: If you’ve been to one UCC church, you’ve been to one UCC church. We can be so very different because of geography, ongoing racial segregation, which stream of the merger our church came from (or if our church formed afterward), and our understanding about the leadership of women and the humanity of queer people.
So even though the six churches participating in this pulpit swap are within the same denomination, our willingness to participate represents a kind of boundary crossing and flexibility that is unusual between churches.
It is also a kind of boundary crossing and flexibility that is on its way to extinction in the world beyond our churches. Collaboration has become a dirty word and reflection, rather than reaction, a skill of the past.
But without both, how will our present and our future be anything but divisive and dividing?
Our story today offers some insight.
CORNELIUS AND PETER
We have, in our scripture and our church season, shifted from the time of Jesus the prophet to the reign of the living Christ. It is a shift, as we begin to see in today’s story, that makes for a massive crisis of leadership and the emergence of new doctrine.
Without Jesus, the man, present, who is in charge? How does the reaching, teaching, feasting, healing, praying, and protesting of Jesus before Easter align with the mystery of the Christ after? What does it all mean?
That is the context for the visitation by an angel of God to Cornelius, a Roman soldier, not a Jewish man of Israel. That angel sends Cornelius to Peter. Peter, at the same time, is visited by a vision of lizards and sheets.
When Cornelius, a lover of God yet stranger to Peter’s faith, arrives at the home where Peter is staying, that arrival gives Peter the key to interpreting his vision and the meaning the crucified Jesus and the ever-rising Christ.
Without getting into the story’s weeds about circumcision and food rules, Peter basically says that the message from God is to expand the boundaries of the movement to include people who are not Jewish, like Cornelius. This is significant.
At a time when we could reasonably expect the disciples to retrench, to become suspicious of newcomers and hoard their spiritual knowledge for their own people, Peter does not. Why? Is Peter just a bigger person than most? He certainly wasn’t when Jesus was condemned: This is the same Peter that denied knowing Jesus. What is it that allowed Peter to overcome his previous fears and to resist the human tendency toward tribalism?
Maybe it has to do with that angel.