Friday, May 04, 2007

Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2007, Acts 11:1-18

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Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2007

Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:1-18, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Once in a small town church on a Sunday morning as the worshippers were gathering almost ready to begin there was a huge roar out side the church. It was the deafening and unmistakable sound of machinery, motorcycles. The windows of the church rattled as the engines roared, and then there was silence. The congregation all looked at the pastor who was standing in front ready to begin. The silence was very loud. It seemed to last for a lifetime. The doors of the church opened and in walked two bikers. They were dressed in leather, unshaven, dark bandanas on their heads. The usher froze. He didn’t know what to do. One of the men grinned at him and took two worship folders. Still in shock the usher moved aside and the pair found a seat near the back of the church. For everyone the service felt odd. They did everything just as they had always done, and yet, it seemed different. When everything was finished, the bikers left greeting the pastor on the way out the door. “Thanks,” was their only comment. The others waiting to greet the pastor stood still until the sound of engines roared again and began to fade in the distance.

“Well, what do you think of that?” said one of the faithful, lifelong members. She was an elderly woman. “Pastor,” she said, “why do we let people like that into the church?”

“Well,” came the answer, “we let you in didn’t we?”

This is exactly what St. Peter is describing to the Christians in the church at Jerusalem.

“Peter, why do we let folks like that into the church? Those are gentiles! They are unclean. They do things that we don’t understand. They don’t bathe like we do. They ride scruffy donkeys. They wear weird cloths.”

Peter gives a simple answer. “When I preached the Word of God to them and told them of Jesus life death and resurrection, they received the Holy Spirit. They believed it. They trusted in Jesus for their forgiveness. They have faith. I had to baptize them.”

To understand this completely I think we could think a bit about another account from the bible. Way back in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, there was a prophet named Jonah. He was called by God to go and preach to the Ninevehites. Now, in case you’ve forgotten, the Ninevehites had a problem and it was more than just sinful behavior. They weren’t Jews. They were Gentiles. Oh, they were sinful alright, an very much so. They were blood thirsty warriors who piled up the dead bodies of their enemies at the city gates so the body could be witnessed by everyone passing by. They defiantly had that strike against them. But more to the point, and probably more important to Jonah, they were Gentiles. They didn’t deserve God’s love and forgiveness, they only deserved his wrath and anger. He didn’t want them to be saved. So he jumped on a boat in Joppa and headed out to sea as far from Nineveh as he could possibly get. God had other plans. He sent a storm to sink the boat. When the sailors found out it was Jonah’s fault the prayed that God wouldn’t hold them accountable and tossed Jonah overboard. I think it’s important to note that Jonah agreed with them. He would rather die than go to Nineveh. A great big fish (probably created for this very purpose) came and swallowed Jonah whole. And after three days in the belly of a whale, Jonah had a change of heart… mostly. He agreed to preach. The fish spit him out near his destination and he reluctantly walked into the city. “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.” It was a very Lutheran sermon. It had both law and gospel. The law: Nineveh will be overturned. The Gospel: forty days. In other words, God’s giving time to repent. And repent they did. From the king right down to every dog, cat and rat. They all dressed in mourning clothing and pleaded with God to forgive them. And that’s just what He did. He couldn’t way to forgive. In fact, as Jesus says, God answers our prayers even before we are finished asking. Nineveh wouldn’t be destroyed after all. No just to show how deep the distrust of folks who are different can go, Jonah wasn’t so sure. He sat outside of town waiting for the earth to open up and swallow it whole. It didn’t happen and Jonah wasn’t happy. A tree grew up over night and gave him shade while he waited, but he still wasn’t happy. The next day the tree died, and Jonah went into a tirade. But God put him in his place. Jonah! You care more for that tree than you do the people of Ninevehwho I died to save…

Wait a minute! Hold the phone pastor; I thought you said this was in the Old Testament? Jesus didn’t die yet. How could God have said that? Well, of course you are right. He didn’t say that exactly. What he said was that they were children who didn’t know God. But I think it is very telling they way God saved them. Jonah dies for three days. After he rises he brings salvation to the whole city. Sound familiar. That’s Jesus and us. Jesus died his death on the cross, stayed in the belly of the grave for three days and rose again to bring us salvation. It’s a great story. It’s a great story of God’s love and forgiveness. Jesus died to take away our sins. And through the water of Holy Baptism he brings you into the church… or should we say He “lets you in?”

The Jews in Jerusalem had a Nineveh problem with the Gentiles. They were actually shocked that the Holy Spirit came to them. It took God’s vision to Peter while he was on the roof trying to take a nap to turn even that great disciples mind about them. Peter had to see their faith. He had to see that they had received the Holy Spirit before he was completely convinced. In the end he said he simply had not choice. He had to baptize them because God had opened the door of salvation through Jesus life, death and resurrection even to Gentiles. And aren’t you glad He did? You and me sitting here, well there’s not a Jew in the pew. We are all Gentiles; people who were lost until faith in Jesus was planted in our hearts through God’s Word, water and the work of the Holy Spirit. And we’d be lost too if that same Spirit didn’t come to us every week right here in God’s Word, preached into your ears. Our faith would die of malnutrition if that same Spirit didn’t use the bread and wine, and the body and blood of Jesus to make it grow. When you look around the room here you can glorify God and say with the church at Jerusalem, Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life. (Acts 11:18, ESV)

Ah, but there’s always just a bit more isn’t there. In fact, we began today with a story that may have come at you in a way you didn’t like. We think we are pretty open to have the Good News of sharing Jesus with other folks. But I think, in reality we have a Nineveh problem. Well, it’s only natural. There are folks out there who are different. In Sioux Falls the racial fabric is changing pretty quickly. How many of you have thought to yourself that you’re glad we don’t have to deal with all that kind of change? When you first heard there would be a packing plant in Howard (before you know it was an organic packing plant) were you afraid we’d have an influx of neighbors from the south? How’s your Spanish? What about PBM? Are you glad that some of the shift workers there are only imported for a day? Or even closer to home. There are people right here in Howard, that you’d rather would just get up and walk out. “Why did we let them in here anyway?” And that’s the city we’re talking about, not to mention St. John’s Lutheran Church, 502 South Main St. Howard, South Dakota 57349. How would you react if someone like that walked into our church? Do you have a Nineveh problem?

Of course you do. It’s called sin. It comes from a sinful nature. It lives, and breathes death into you every day. It’s not just the Nineveh issue either. That three letter word with “I” in the middle is part of everything you do. You try to tackle it but you can’t. You try to ignore it but you can’t. You want to do better but you can’t. When you see that, that’s when you know you need a Savior. That’s when you rejoice that God “let you in” to the family through baptism. The water connected with God’s Word through the work of the Holy Spirit

…indicates that the Old Adam [that is the sinful nature] in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. [Luther’s Small Catechism]

…to quote the Small Catechism. It’s about Jesus and what He as done for you.

he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (Titus 3:5-8, ESV)

In that life giving water, God created a New Man that is devoted to good works. It rejoices in the spreading of the Good News of Jesus to everyone. So what about those Nineveh people out there? Well, Jesus shed His holy and precious blood for them, too. Faith in Jesus come by hearing (Romans 10:17). They belong here. You might ask the question, how do we get them to come? The answer is, we don’t. The Holy Spirit does. He uses you, He works through you, right were He has plopped you down to be His inviting voice. Pray that He would open your heart to the opportunities. Invite a biker to church, that’d be a good start. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.