Note: Artwork on the wall of the Saint Paul’s Community Church in Swiftwater, PA is alluded to in this sermon. The piece is an image of flowing water on a cross-shaped canvas. Jackie Lima of Easton, PA created the artwork. A picture of the artwork was not included in this post due to copyright law.
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Scriptures: Acts 10: 34-43
Today, we celebrate Easter Sunday, the day our Lord Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead. Every year, we celebrate and discuss how eagerly we await his return. Jesus’ disciples believed he would return in their lifetime to establish the Kingdom of Heaven. Obviously, that didn’t happen. We’re still waiting.
But I believe the door to the Kingdom of Heaven can be opened quickly if humanity so chooses. We already have the key, and it can be found in Peter’s speech from today’s scripture reading. Peter’s speech is a beautifully succinct summary of the gospel, but if we simply admire his speech without looking at the context around which he gave it, we miss a very important point.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
As Jesus promised, the disciples received the power of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem at Pentecost. After Peter addressed the crowd, many Jews became believers. The disciples began a commune, and there were two different types of Jewish believers in Jesus within this commune: the Hebrews, who were from Judea and Galilee, and the Hellenists, who were from outer-lying regions.
So, from the very beginning of our Christian history, there was diversity within the community of believers – even before gentiles become involved.
The Hellenists spoke Greek and had been influenced by Greek culture since they had lived outside of Jerusalem prior to moving to the city. The Hebrews spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, had always lived in the area of Judea and Galilee, and regularly worshipped at the Temple.
The Hebrews were proud of the fact that they had always spoken the language of their fathers, had always lived in the promised land, and had always worshipped at the Temple. In Acts chapter 6, the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected, so perhaps the Hebrews thought themselves superior to the Hellenists.
So, from the very beginning of our Christian history, partiality (or prejudice) infiltrated the community of believers – even before gentiles became involved.
At this point, the apostles had fulfilled the part of the mission of being witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. The “to the ends of the earth” part would be more challenging. This part would be fulfilled through the gentiles who, as we know, eventually became involved.
Our scripture reading for today is a speech that Peter gives in response to the first gentile believer in Christ, the Roman Centurion Cornelius. He and his family were what the Jews called “God-fearers.”
Now the Hebrew word “fear” can also be translated in some contexts as more like the English word “awe.” So, we could say that the God-fearers revered the God of the Hebrews and to some extent attached themselves to Judaism and its practices without going through the conversion process.
Cornelius received a vision from God to send for Peter. The next day, Peter was up on the roof of his house, and he also received a vision: one that challenged him to eat foods that would be considered “unclean” according to the Torah.
You see, Jews were traditionally forbidden from associating with Gentiles. But after the vision, Peter said, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
Then he began his speech with words that I believe are the key to the Kingdom of Heaven and would open the door quickly if only enough of humanity would truly understand them. Peter said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
God shows no partiality because we are United in Christ. But unity does not mean sameness. This beautiful piece of artwork in our sanctuary serves as a good illustration: this cross with the image of the flowing water.
It has an interesting history. It was loaned to us for a time. When the artist wanted it back, we realized that we had all grown quite attached to it. So, we took up a special offering and purchased it so that we could continue to be inspired by it.
The droplets of paint that make up the image are all part of the unity of this one piece of artwork, but they are not all the same. Some droplets may be the exact same color, but some are different. If this were not so, there could be no image of the flowing water.
Without the availability of different colors of paint, there could be no image. It is a great blessing to artists to have such a tremendous variety of colors with which to create images. This artist deliberately chose specific colors to create this image that says something about the Christ, who is symbolized by the shape of the cross. The image on the cross says something about who Christ is.
We are like those droplets of paint. Together, we make up an image that says something about who God is. Without our diversity, there could be no image. God is infinite, so it makes sense to me that God would need an infinite variety of life through which to express his infinite nature.
God shows no partiality. We are created in His Image, and He places great value on each of us because each of us is part of the unity of His Image even though we are not all the same.
The different colors in this beautiful piece of artwork are all unique, but unique doesn’t mean special. Imagine if one color judged itself superior to all the others and decided to steal all the light for itself so that it could outshine the others. What would happen to the image?
Imagine if some of the colors decided that certain colors shouldn’t even be in the painting. What would happen to the image? Do mere droplets of paint even have the power to do these things? Of course not! Who do they think they are? The artist?
If a color is there, then it has value equal to all the other colors, for the image would not be what it is without each color. The artist purposely selected that specific color for the image; it was not a mistake.
The same is true of each and every human being. God is the artist, and we all know from Genesis chapter one that he liked His Creation. Everything in Creation is part of His Reflection. No part is more special than another. Each unique human being is equally valuable in God’s sight, for without him or her, His image would not be what it is. God shows no partiality.
Who do we think we are if we judge other parts of God’s image to be inferior or an abomination?
The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not ask the question, “Are you in God’s grace?” or even “Are you saved?” These questions imply that it’s possible not to be. The moment Jesus resurrected from the dead, he answered “Yes” to these questions on behalf of all humanity. “Jesus Christ is Lord of all.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ asks one question to people of all nations: “Do you know who you are?” Do you know that you are Life itself, the Perfect Image of God, who is Perfect Being? If you do, then you can recognize your eternal life in Christ. Death has no sting; the grave has no victory. But if you don’t, then you live in fear of death, and that is hell.
God shows no partiality. These words were quickly forgotten because of our human pride. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of the person we are: proud of our gender, race, culture, religion, lifestyle, and so forth.
But when our pride is inflated to the point where we decide that we are superior to others because of our gender, race, culture, religion, beliefs, lifestyle, or whatever, then we are making these things more important to us than the love that binds us together in Christ.
At that point, our pride has become the sin of idolatry. We have made our personage a golden calf, and we are bowing down and worshipping it. People who don’t know who they have no other choice. So of course, they will cling to and viciously defend this image of who they think they are. But the truth needs no defense. Our true identity in Christ needs no protection.
Jesus was very proud of his Jewish religion and culture. Certainly, his primary mission was to his own people, but he never snubbed others. Jesus taught that if you are Jewish, then follow the Torah properly, and teach others to do the same. If you are not Jewish, you are still worthy because you are part of God’s Image.
God shows no partiality. Jesus believed every human being, as part of God’s Image, is valued by God. When we talk about the unconditional love of God, we’re not talking about sappy romantic love; we’re talking about treating every human being as equally valuable and equally deserving of respect and care.
Jesus treated everyone that way – both Jews and non-Jews. His arms stretched out on the cross to embrace all people in God’s unconditional love. If we say we love Jesus, then we must embrace all of humanity as he did – and that includes ourselves.
So, I tell you, my friends, whichever part of the diversity of God’s Image you represent, represent it gloriously. Let it shine. Don’t believe anyone who tells you you are inferior. Don’t believe anyone who tells you you don’t belong. You can be proud, but always remember that the glory belongs to God.
Peter said, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” I believe Truth is like an underground river in our hearts that we all have access to. Each culture taps into that underground river and constructs a well from which to drink of this Truth. The main material is some form of scripture. Each culture attempts to live life to the fullest based upon their understanding of their scriptures, out of which beliefs and traditions also emerge and become part of the well.
Since each culture is different and understands things in different ways, the materials used to build these wells are all different. The wells may look different, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t express the Truth each in a different way. I believe Christ is the only way to the Father, but I also believe that Christianity is not the only way to Christ.
God shows no partiality. With this statement, Peter confessed that Judaism was not the only path to Christ. Eventually, he turned the reins of the gentile mission over to the Apostle Paul – a pharisee who dedicated his life to Torah. He placed the burden of Torah on himself as a Jew, but he did not insist that other believers in Jesus become Jews.
Unfortunately, Paul was unable to convince other Jewish Christians that it wasn’t necessary for believers in Jesus to become Jewish, and gentile Christians returned the favor. They eventually began criticizing Jewish believers in Jesus for continuing to follow Torah. If both had been secure enough in their true identity in Christ; they would not have been so threatened by cultural differences.
Instead, both sides clung to their “Jewish” or “Christian” identity. In the end, both sides protected their identities by creating definitions. This made it very difficult for Jewish believers in Jesus to find acceptance because they were unwelcomed by Jewish communities for believing in Jesus and by Christian communities for continuing to follow Torah. Because of this conflict, the number of Jewish believers in Jesus began to decline.
God shows no partiality. Christ had not yet entered into the hearts of enough people for those words to stick, but I believe that has changed.
I know it doesn’t appear that way at times, but I believe most people want peace on earth and that can come only through accepting the value of every human being and every human being’s right to be respected and cared for just as much as every other human being.
How can we in this day and age allow Peter’s words to enter into our hearts and finally bring about the Kingdom of Heaven? First, we need to honestly ask ourselves, “Do I truly believe that God loves every single human being on this planet just as much as he loves me? Do I truly believe that every single human being on this planet deserves as much respect and care as I do?
It’s easy to answer, “Of course I do!” But we humans love to feel special. We can easily treat people unequally or tolerate their unjust treatment without even realizing it.
Next, we need to take the time to get to know people who are different from us. It is human nature to gravitate toward those who are more like us. We enjoy the company of like-minded people. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as we don’t spend time only with people who are like us.
When we do that, it’s easier to vilify people who are not like us because we don’t know them. Often, much of what we think we know about them isn’t the truth. We humans like to pretend we already know people even though we haven’t taken the time or effort to actually get to know them. That’s why stereotypes are so popular.
If we really want to challenge ourselves, we can take the time to get to know someone we really dislike. Here in America, especially these days, we don’t seem to have as much of a dislike for people who are religiously different from us as we do for people who are politically different from us. So, I challenge you to get to know someone with different political ideas.
I’ve read several stories about a Republican and a Democrat actually taking the time to have a civil conversation. They realized that they have a lot more in common than they thought. That helped to greatly “soften” their harsh attitudes toward one another. In fact, it might even have helped them embrace one another as equally worthy human beings. What a miracle!
Let that miracle and others like it spread throughout the world, open the hearts and the arms of all to embrace every human being in the Love of Christ, and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven quickly. Amen!