God's Open House

Sunday, May 6, 2018

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“In the Way”

In 1560, in Geneva, John Calvin and Pierre Viret, another Swiss reformer proposed that communion tokens be issued to members of Reformed churches to provide them entrance to the Lord’s Supper. They were rejected, but the next year, two other principalities did begin issuing communion tokens, and the practice was taken up in several other countries, and became especially common in Scotland, through which they found their way into the United States. And for many years, churches required a communion token for someone to receive the Lord’s supper.

The way communion tokens worked is this. Before communion was held, the pastor or elders of the church would meet with each member and interview them on their faith, theology, and understanding of the catechism. If the pastor or elders thought the member right in faith and worthy to receive communion, they would be given a token. The token could be presented at services in order to receive communion. Because every member had to be interviewed and checked for right faith and doctrine before each eucharist, communion was not taken very often back then.

Communion tokens and other similar processes were ways of fencing the table. The idea was that it was the responsibility of the pastor and leaders of the church to build a fence around the table. Occasionally it was a literal fence, but more often it was a figurative one, made by systems like communion tokens and an emphasis by the pastor on who should or should not take communion.

If a system like that had existed during the time of the apostles, Peter totally would have been one of those whose job it was to determine who got tokens and who didn’t. Peter was one of Jesus’ disciples (and a favored one according to the Gospels). Peter was one of the leaders of the post-ascension community, and at Pentecost he is the one whose speech to all of Jerusalem is recorded. He’s the leader of the community, and he and the other leaders decided who is in and who is out, who belongs and who doesn’t

And yet somehow, at the beginning of our story, Peter finds himself in the house of Cornelius, a Gentile and a Roman centurion. These people are definitely on the wrong side of the fence. Peter is an observant Jew, and observant Jews do not enter the households of Gentiles, nor eat with them, nor associate with them if possible. This was more than just a custom; it was a matter of existence. In an increasingly Greek and Roman world, Jewish law was a matter of survival and identity. Without it, the Jews get swallowed up by the dominant culture.

Yet here he is. Peter had learned that to follow the Holy Spirit means going in directions you never expected.

It had all started with a strange vision. God had shown him a sheet with every type of unlawful animal and told him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter wouldn’t dream of eating such things, but the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane. Three times, the vision came to him. Strange indeed.  And while he was still trying to understand this vision, three gentiles came to him, from Caesarea, asking for him by name, and if he would go to Caesarea to speak with their boss, a centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius had had a vision from God, telling him to call upon Peter. Peter knew the law. It was wrong for him to go. It was unlawful; it was profane. But his dream was still echoing in his ears, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And so Peter, puzzled, had gone along.

You can imagine that by the time Peter got to the house of Cornelius his gears were really churning. Why was God sending him to Gentiles? What was he expected to say? Peter had spoken to all of Jerusalem, to the chief priests, and at his trial. But he had never spoken to Gentiles. They didn’t belong, they didn’t understand. How would they understand words like covenant and Messiah? But Peter was willing to listen to God’s voice.

“Lord, I don’t know what you’re doing with this, but here I am,” he seems to be saying. And so he tells the story. The same story that he told at Pentecost, and to the chief priests, and to any Jew who would listen. And he was clear. This is the message that God sent to Israel. It began in Galilee, spread through Judea, preached by Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem. But before he could finish, God did something else surprising.

The Holy Spirit came whooshing through the room like it was Pentecost all over again. And Peter was stunned. Because could this really mean what it looked like it meant?

And he said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

What we have in this story is not just one conversion, but two conversions. The household of Cornelius comes to accept faith in Jesus. But Peter also comes around to seeing that God’s mission goes beyond the Jews, to Gentiles and even to the ends of the earth. Peter moves from someone who has a pretty good sense of the limits of God’s mercy to one who is constantly being surprised by the blessing of God’s grace. This is the narrative of the book of Acts, in which the Holy Spirit is constantly moving further and faster, and the disciples are breathlessly trying to catch up.

Over the history of Christianity, and the Reformed movement, the same thing is true. Over and over again, the limiting categories that we have used to draw the line around God’s grace have been pushed through by the Holy Spirit. Every time we draw the line the Holy Spirit calls us past it. Yet somehow we keep expanding the boundaries only as far as the Spirit has dragged us. At what point do we say, maybe we’re not good at deciding who should be in and who should be out, and consider that it might be best to just stop drawing boundaries for God all together?

What Peter learned, and what we are struggling to learn, is that it should not be for us to set limits on the love of God. God sent Peter. And then God sent Peter the understanding of why he has been sent. What we can learn from him is that we should go into the world, not trying to protect God, but expecting to be amazed at where God will lead us next.

We don’t put a fence around the table here in Pitman. Because we know that God’s love would break through any fence we try to put up. And because making sure that people are righteous before they come to the table would obscure the point. Communion is the meal of God’s grace. It is not just for the righteous. It is the sign and seal of the love of Christ that has united us with him and makes us righteous.

The lesson of this story, and of the whole book of Acts and perhaps of the whole of Christian history is that the Gospel is wider and more inclusive than we can imagine. If we want to be faithful to God as Peter is, then we should go where the Holy Spirit leads us, even when it leads us to places and people we don’t expect. We should err on the side of grace, assuming that more likely than not God’s mercy will be greater than our expectations.