The Fifth Sunday of Easter; Year C (5/2/2010)

Grace is Grace

Lessons: Acts 11:1-18 Psalm 148 (13) Revelation 21:1-6 St. John 13:31-35

Prayer of the Day O Lord God, you teach us that without love, our actions gain nothing.  Pour into our hearts your most excellent gift of love, that, made alive by your Spirit, we may know goodness and peace, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

11:1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Acts 11:1-18 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

At Saint Peter, we recently embraced a new Mission Statement for our congregation. It is a statement not so much about what we do, as it is about who we are. We understand ourselves to be a people that is “welcomed into God’s grace, just as we are” and “sent into God’s world as a reflection of Christ’s love.” Welcomed and sent. I like the dynamic interchange of these two components of the faithful life. It is a helpful way for all of us, members of Saint Peter or not, to think of what it means to be in a relationship with a God who loves us, but who doesn’t love only us. As we become more and more filled with God’s love, we become more and more capable of being God’s gift of welcoming love to the world.

This week I am thinking about the first half of that mission statement. In it, we understand ourselves as a welcomed people, because we have a welcoming God. Our God offers a radical welcome to the whole world. A welcome into redeeming grace. A welcome into transforming forgiveness. A welcome into the comfort of salvation. A welcome that knows no boundaries. A welcome that sets no preconditions. A welcome that is granted even to those of us who deserve it least.

Our experience of being welcomed by God defines who we are. It finds a place at the very center of our identity. Right with God, we are freed from all the frantic searches for well-being and purpose that define our time. We are freed to live in peace, comfort and joy — knowing that because of God’s radical welcome, all is well between God and us.

The sense of welcome in the community of faith doesn’t end there, however. It isn’t nearly that self-serving. We further believe that those who are welcomed by God are called to become God’s instrument of welcome for the rest of the world. That’s why, during the past few months, I have taken to standing out on the sidewalk in front of our church on Sunday mornings. I am there waving to people who drive past the church, shaking hands (and petting dogs) with those who are strolling by, and reaching through windows to welcome those who turn in to worship with us. I am not there with the naive belief that my presence on the sidewalk will help people feel welcome at Saint Peter, or into the Christian faith. I am there, instead, as a reminder to myself and to everyone else at Saint Peter of how important this is. We who have been welcomed, must in turn become welcoming. As we live into that calling, we will find that Saint Peter will become more and more the community of faith we want it to be: a vibrant, lively congregation, in which people experience God’s welcoming grace.

The early church experienced God’s welcoming grace in some very powerful ways. Some of them received it first-hand from our Lord, before he ascended to be with God. Some of them received it from those who had been touched directly by Jesus. Others received it from the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry on what Jesus began. The experience of welcoming grace was rich in the life of the early church. But this week’s first lesson suggests that it wasn’t always easy. As a matter of fact, they often found that people missed the concrete nature of the old system — a system that had more to do with earning God’s favor than receiving it. And so the temptation was always at hand to “add something to grace.” Paul called them “judaizers” or “the circumcision party.” These people believed that before one could receive the grace of God through Jesus Christ, one had to become Jewish — one had to begin obeying all the Jewish laws (including circumcision) that separated them from everything (and everyone!) that was unclean. But, of course, to add anything to grace, is to render it meaningless. Grace plus obedience is not grace. It is just obedience.

In this week’s first lesson, God gives a vision to Peter. A vision declaring that which was formerly called unclean is now called clean. A vision in which those who were formerly unwelcome, are now extended the hand of fellowship. A vision in which God’s people are called to stop obeying rules and traditions that divide between those who are inside and those who are outside. A vision that helps Peter and the others to realize that there are no preconditions to God’s grace. It is given freely, to all who will receive it, regardless how little they deserve it.

Grace is grace, and that is the heart of our faith. The amazing, radical grace of God’s has captured our hearts, and put us at peace. We now commit ourselves to sharing that grace in all that we do. After all, “If then God gives others the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who are we that we should hinder God?”

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel

  1. Who was the church tempted to exclude in the first century?
  2. Who does the church (and my congregation) tend to exclude today?
  3. What did Peter learn about welcoming from the vision God gave to him?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What group or class of people am I less inclined to welcome fully into our faith?
  2. What preconditions am I tempted to lay on others (or myself) before grace can be received?
  3. What might I do to be more “radical” in the way I welcome others into the faith, or into my church?