Monday, April 29, 2013
Sermon: Seeing Visions and Dreaming Dreams
Acts 11:1-18 (Revelation 21:1-6)
Seeing Visions and Dreaming Dreams
James Sledge April 28, 2013
Longer ago that I like to admit, I spent a year as a high school history teacher. One day in World History class we covered a unit of European history that included the Protestant Reformation. As we discussed Martin Luther and his church reform attempts that led to a split with the Roman Catholic Church, a young woman in the class raised her hand.
She was a popular student, a cheerleader, and she had a confused, befuddled look on her face. “Mr. Sledge, do you mean that Roman Catholics are Christians, too?” I have no recollection of how I responded to her. All I remember is how stunned I was by her question.
In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been. This was Charlotte, NC in the early 1980s, and in much of the South, Catholics and Jews were somewhat rare until the late 20th century. This young woman was from a rural background, and she likely knew of Catholics only by stereotype. To her they were those strange people who worshiped the pope rather than God. They were, in some fuzzy sort of way, an enemy, and so naturally they weren’t Christian.
Now clearly this student’s understanding of Catholics was rooted in bigotry that seems almost comical in this day and age. But of course us versus them divisions are a part of just about everyone’s life. We may laugh off some as harmless, like those connected to sports teams or colleges, but many are not.
Racial divisions are still a huge problem for our country. And right now, our partisan, political divide seems to be a particular curse. Having contrasting political parties and ideas can be a wonderful thing, bringing different perspectives to difficult issues or problems. But when the other side becomes a “them” whom we demonize, declare an enemy, and dismiss as evil, the beneficial side of such divisions largely disappears.
For the early Christians, the division between Jew and Gentile was the ultimate us versus them. Jews could not even eat with Gentiles, which caused huge problems as Gentiles began to hear about the risen Jesus and wanted to join the movement. It’s hard to appreciate in our day, but those first Christians did not think they had stopped being Jewish. They did not think they had started a new religion. And so when Gentiles wanted to join, they had to become Jewish first, males be circumcised, abide by Jewish dietary restrictions, and so on.
When some Christian missionaries, notably Paul, challenged this, it caused a bitter dispute that roiled the Church for decades. Many scholars believe that Paul’s arrest and eventual execution was orchestrated not by Jewish opponents to Christianity but by Jewish Christians upset with Paul for welcoming uncircumcised Gentiles into the churches he founded.
This conflict lies behind the story that Luke tells in today’s reading from Acts. Luke writes years later, after the Church had embraced Paul’s thinking. And he uses that conflict to show how the Holy Spirit pushed the Church to move beyond the divisions and boundaries that constrained it.
We heard how Peter saw a strange vision and was led by the Spirit to a Gentile named Cornelius. As he told the story of Jesus to Cornelius and those with him, the Holy Spirit came upon them, just as it had the apostles at Pentecost. At which point baptizing them seemed a foregone conclusion. God had clearly embraced them. How could Peter not baptize them?
But when the Jerusalem folks found out, they were not happy. “How could you associate with them?” demanded the members of First Church Jerusalem. And so Peter tells his story, concluding with the question, “Who was I that I could hinder God?”
Who am I to hinder God? Who would possibly claim to be such a person? Who could possibly want to be the person who tried to stop God? And yet, for all those times the Church lived into God’s new thing, there were numerous times the church has been on the wrong side, standing against God. It tried to keep Gentiles out. Later, when the church became Gentile, it decided to persecute Jews. It justified slavery and called separation based on race “God ordained.” It insisted that God couldn’t use women to lead the church. It said the same about gays and lesbians.
The list goes on with issues large and small. At times church people have resisted translating the Bible into the language of the people, adding pipe organs, singing hymns, adding instruments other than pipe organs, using new Bible translations, and on and on. And all these, from those Christians who fought to keep out Gentiles to those fighting against women or gay’s ordination, did not see themselves trying to hinder God. They understood themselves to be defending God.
There is something about religious folk that wants to believe our way of being religious is the right way. Some of this is just typical human resistance to change, but some of it is a faith and imagination problem. Even though the core event of our faith is resurrection, God’s impossible, unnatural bringing life out of death, we often find ourselves constrained by how things are, by the usual, the conventional, or what we think is possible. We have a hard time imagining or envisioning the truly new or truly different, and so all too often, we struggle to see God’s newness breaking forth.
Just the other day, the US Senate failed to pass a bill to tighten background checks for gun purchases, something that 90 percent of Americans say they favor. Perhaps there are better ways to deal with the epidemic of gun violence, but it seems that Congress isn’t going to do anything. And this is just one of many issues that makes it tempting to become cynical, to throw up our hands and say that problems of violence, poverty, homelessness, and more are too big to tackle, too intractable. It’s just how things are, and we must live with that reality.
But what of those who have seen visions and dreamed dreams? Who were Peter and Paul to confront how things were? What led Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr. to think they could confront the impossible? Who were they to take on the impenetrable boundary between Jew and Gentile, to challenge the power of a corrupt Roman church, to confront the deeply held cultural, religious, and legal enshrinement of African Americans as less than full citizens? How was it they could glimpse a vision of something new that demanded their lives embody that dream, live toward it, and call others to join them in doing the same?
When the book of Acts tells the story of Pentecost, where Jesus’ followers receive the Holy Spirit, it says that this is a new day, one promised by the prophets where God says, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
Jesus is making all things new. The winds of the Spirit are blowing. As followers of Jesus, how can we not catch God’s vision? How can we not dream God’s dream?