Preached on 6 May 2018 at Church of the Ascension in Seattle, Washington
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B
Do you ever have a sort of Epiphany and think, “Oh! Now, I get it.” only to find out some time later that you didn’t? As we sort of stumble our way through Acts, it sort of feels like that’s what is happening with the early church and particularly with Peter. It can feel that way in the modern church, too. Well, in life in general for that matter.
We’ve been looking for the characteristics of an Easter Church in our readings from The Acts of the Apostles, this season. The word for today, is Hospitality.
Usually when we talk about the hospitality of the church, we are looking at it through the lens of the church as host. We ask ourselves questions like:
How open are we to each other and the Other?
How do we welcome the newcomer, the visitor, the stranger? How well do we care for them? Do we include them; talk to them; feed them; help them feel comfortable participating?
There’s another side to hospitality, though. We can look at hospitality through the lens of the church as guest.
Let’s play a little catch-up first. Our reading is from the end of the chapter from Acts.
The story starts out in the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion who lives in Caesarea. He and his whole household are known as “God-fearing.” That means he has studied Judaism at least to some extent. He is devout and worships the God of the Jews and supports Jewish causes. He’s still considered a gentile, though.
He has a vision of an angel of God who instructs him to send for Peter, who is staying with Simon, the tanner in the town of Jaffa.
The scene shifts and we see Peter on the housetop, praying at midday. He, too, has a vision. He sees something like a huge sheet lowered from heaven and on it are all manner of creatures. He hears a voice say, “Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter responds that he has never eaten anything profane or unclean. But the voice persists, “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane,” the voice says. This happens three times and Peter tries to figure out what it means.
While he’s puzzling over this vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrive with their request. The Holy Spirit has to stir him from his puzzling and tells him that he is to go with them. So he invites them to stay the night and they set off the next morning along with some of the “brothers.”
They arrive at Cornelius’ house where his family and friends have gathered to hear what this man, Peter, has to say.
So, here we have Peter as the guest. He has to break with his own traditions and customs and the rules of purity just to go into the house because Cornelius is a gentile. When he hears Cornelius’ story, Peter begins to preach.
“Now I get it. God has no favorites. Anyone of any nationality can be accepted by God.” He finally understands his vision.
He goes on to preach about Jesus and while he is still speaking the Holy Spirit interrupts him and the Spirit is poured out on all the people gathered there.
Just like what happened on Pentecost in Jerusalem, they begin speaking in tongues and praising God.
There can be no doubt, God is the one at work here. Peter is merely the messenger. He realizes that he must baptize them. Who is he to put up any barriers or require any preconditions be met? God has just demonstrated that these people, these gentiles are fully part of the family of God.
Here we see the hospitality of the church is as a guest. Peter goes to be the guest of Cornelius. He shares the gift God has given him all who are gathered there. And then they stay as guests, as new-found family, for a few more days.
In this experience, Peter sees God doing a new thing. While he has understood the Jews as set apart and the Gentiles as Other, he now sees that God includes everyone as fully in the family of God, just as they are.
I wonder, what if we did what we could to shed our privilege. What if we were to go and be a guest; to listen; to hear the gospel afresh? To see Christ in someone new; to hear Christ in a different voice?
It could be in a coffee shop or the park, at the grocery store or at work. Or maybe it could be in going to a place or being in a group of people where you are the stranger, the minority, the Other.
What if we were to practice hospitality toward God? If we were to graciously, and joyfully receive God and God’s Word and God’s Holy Spirit in new ways and in new people and in new voices? What if we were to be more open to the guiding of the Holy Spirit?
What if, we were to realize that when it comes to the hospitality of the church, we are not the host.
We are always the guest. God is the host.
Everyone who comes here, whether it’s been for all their life or for the first time today, everyone is already part of us. Together, we are part of the family of God.
The Easter Church practices hospitality;
the hospitality of God.