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Fifth Sunday of Easter, 05/06/2007

Sermon on Acts 11:1-18, by Samuel Zumwalt

1Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, 3"You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them." 4But Peter began and explained it to them in order: 5"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. 6Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. 7And I heard a voice saying to me, 'Rise, Peter; kill and eat.' 8But I said, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' 9But the voice answered a second time from heaven, 'What God has made clean, do not call common.' 10This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. 11And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. 12And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. 13And 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; 14he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.' 15As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' 17If 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?" 18When 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."



            In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

            It is fashionable in some circles today to use this text as a proof text for why it is permissible for them to abandon 2,000 years of Christian teaching and practice.  The problem is, of course, that this lesson is about God breaking down the walls between Jews and Gentiles - which is the next logical step of the Hebrew Bible's promise that God is also the God of the Gentiles.  In short, there is no radical break here with the Hebrew Bible's essential teaching that Israel was to be a light to the Gentiles, in the hope that the Gentiles would come to worship Israel's God.

            Furthermore, there is no break in this text with the New Testament gospels, because the Lord Jesus there routinely demonstrates continuity with the Hebrew Bible's prophets.  The Lord Jesus teaches that God is a God who made the Sabbath for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath.  God is a God who desires the sacrifice of a contrite heart more than the routine performance of ritual behaviors.

            Finally, the Lord Jesus is the very revelation of God.  He is God in human flesh.  While His earthly ministry was directed to the lost sheep of Israel, the Lord Jesus frequently shows mercy to a few Gentiles and even marvels at the greatness of their faith.  Here in Acts 11, it is true that the dietary laws of Judaism are no longer required, which is indeed a break from the law of Moses.  But, if anything, this text is an embodiment of the new creation begun in Christ Jesus, which reflects the gift and responsibility of God's image bestowed upon man and woman in Eden.  Furthermore, it reflects the blessings of Israel extended to the Gentiles through the promise to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12.

            In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul declares: "So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus, and if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise" (3:24-28).

            By Baptism into the Lord Jesus' death and resurrection, the Gentiles have become Abraham's offspring, too.  It is sheer grace that the walls between Jews and Gentiles have been broken down in Christ Jesus.  It is sheer mercy that the dietary laws that helped to define Israel under Mosaic Law are no longer constitutive of the New Testament people of God; however, it does not follow that anything goes under the banner of Christian freedom.

            It is sometimes argued by some Christians that whatever the Lord Jesus does not expressly forbid is therefore permissible.  Again the Acts 11 text is put forth as an argument that just as God no longer required the keeping of Moses' ritual dietary laws, so now God no longer has any expectations of His people beyond living a life of love - however that may loosely be defined by individual Christians.

            Of course, to come to such a conclusion, one has to have a cut and paste New Testament similar to that used by the American president and political philosopher, Thomas Jefferson.

            Over and against that, one needs look no further than the way the Lord Jesus teaches about God's law in Matthew 5:17 ff.  Christ Jesus makes clear that God's Law is more demanding for disciples rather than less.  Yes, only Christ perfectly keeps God's Law, and yet He calls His disciples to follow Him in surrendering our will and our lives to His heavenly Father.  In Matthew 5, the Lord Jesus is explicit about human attempts to circumvent God's good and gracious will. 

            Again St. Paul also helps us to understand the limits of how one may use Acts 11 when he writes to the Romans: "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (6:1-4).  

            Our call to discipleship does not permit us to depart from 2,000 years of Christian teaching and practice just because we have decided that we are somehow more knowledgeable than both the Lord Jesus and His apostles when it comes to the human mind and the human will.  To call our present day sociopolitical agendas the work of the Holy Spirit is indeed an act of hubris when they fly in the face of the clearest teaching about what God expects of His people.

            Indeed the development of doctrine within the life of Christ's Church must show an organic connection between the clearest teaching of Scripture and decisions made by the whole Church.  Small segments of the Christian community may indeed propose to the whole Church a particular development of doctrine.  But, it is incumbent upon them to demonstrate how a proposed change is in continuity with the clearest teaching of Scripture.  If the vast overwhelming majority of Christians do not accept the proposed change, citing the clearest teaching of Scripture, it must be said that the small minority that decides to walk apart from the whole Church has excommunicated itself from the whole.

            At the same time, it is also possible that the Church on earth could increasingly fall into grave error, particularly, if by majority vote, the Church decided to walk apart from the previous generations of Christians that now are numbered with the Church Triumphant.  One only needs to think of the great Arian heresy to remember that this could happen again.         

            We must return to Acts 11 and how it is intended to function within the whole Church of Christ of every time and place.  Namely, Acts 11:1-18 is a clear Word of God that henceforth frees the Gentiles from having to keep the Mosaic dietary laws in order to be included in the New Testament people of God.  Presumably they are free to keep the dietary laws henceforth, but these will not be a necessary requirement for receiving the free gift of God's forgiveness and mercy in Christ Jesus.  The text is, thus, not meant to be used to arrive at whatever radical breaks with the past we in the present might wish to propose because these seem good to us, and we now wish to be good to the Holy Spirit.

            As Lutheran confessor Philip Melancthon made clear in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, God's Law never stops accusing us.  This is a natural extension of Christ Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5 and Paul's admonition in Romans 6.  Because we do not, as Luther says of the First Commandment, fear, love, and trust God above all else, we stand as sinners under constant judgment.  Because we do not in and of ourselves live faithfully obedient lives in every relationship and with every gift given, we stand already accused and condemned.  We need someone to save us from ourselves.  We need God's only Son Jesus to free us from sin, death, and evil.  And by our Baptism into His death and resurrection, He does promise to take our sin and death and give us His righteousness as a free gift.

            Of course, so far so good, as we sinners hear rescue and mercy as God in Christ turns to us in love.  And we, already despairing over God's judgment on our sin, turn with joy to the mercy of such a God who in Christ has come to save us from ourselves and every evil. And we, who do not deserve it, are clothed in the waters of Baptism with Christ's own righteousness, so that our Father in heaven remembers our sin no more for Jesus' sake.  We are made children of God through no effort or merit of our own.

            And, of course, we like the beggars we are before God, having learned where to find food that does not perish, hasten to God's table weekly to receive the Lord Jesus in bread and wine for the forgiveness of sin and the strengthening of the fragile new life within us.  And, of course, we like the filthy children we are by nature, hasten again daily to the waters of Baptism to be washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.  And, like little children freshly washed, are lifted from the waters to be clothed again as God's children.

            It is, at this point, that Lutheran Christians tend to falter and break ranks.  Some want to say that it is enough to return weekly to God's table of grace and daily to God's bath through self-abandonment to God's mercy in Christ.  And, then, whatever else happens to us as the Holy Spirit works on us and in us is beyond our knowing - one step forward and six steps back.

            Others of us hear, for instance, the call of the Holy Spirit to be active in seeking "...the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God" (Colossians 3:1).  Others of us hear the call of the Holy Spirit to remember, again as St. Paul says, that "...you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3).  And we remember the Lord Jesus speaking through the prophet Micah saying: "Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God" (6:8).  And we know that God's mercy in Christ and the gift of our new life in Christ open our hearts and minds to seek actively to do the good and gracious will of God.

            Yet, some of us Lutheran Christians are so afraid of works-righteousness that we are, as the old joke goes, like the pastor on his deathbed who knew he was going to heaven because he had never done a single good work!

            Some of us Lutheran Christians are so afraid of appearing legalistic that we end up seeming to have an aversion to God's good and gracious will as clearly stated in Scripture.  Some of us spend our lives, like the old Monty Python Dennis Moore skit, dimly trying to figure out how theoretically to preach Law and Gospel, that we seem to miss the obvious.  Those that are comfortable in our sin need to be afflicted!  And those afflicted by our sin not only need the comfort of the Gospel; we need to flee from the very things that keep afflicting us.  Yet, it's not rocket science to recognize that sometimes we are quite content to flee instead from the very God who wants to rescue us.

            This again brings us back to Acts 11!  The Gentiles were not going to find mercy by observing Jewish dietary laws nor would ritual circumcision for Gentile males make them people of God.  Only God in Christ could break down the walls between Jews and Gentiles and offer a welcome to the New Testament people of God to all ethnic groups.  Having received Baptism, the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Gentiles now knew where to find the Bread of Life and where to be washed clean when soiled by daily sin.  But it is ludicrous to suggest that God's welcome, and, if you will, God's inclusivity were the extent of what it means to live Holy Spirit invaded lives.  It is ludicrous to suggest that because God's mercy in Christ Jesus is given apart from the keeping of Mosaic dietary laws that, therefore, God no longer has any good and gracious will other than letting us do what seems good to us and what we think ought to be good to the Holy Spirit!

            So today's Acts 11 text is not a perpetually new paradigm that we can unplug the particulars of the text and then rewrite it to say what seems good to us and what we think ought to seem good to the Holy Spirit.  Rather, the Acts 11 text reminds us that God has in Christ shown mercy to sinners like us though we do not deserve it.  And God's Holy Spirit does not intend to redecorate our old lives of sin so that they look marvelous.  God's Holy Spirit intends to kill us, to separate us from our addiction to brokenness, and to give us again the life the Lord God created us for in the first place.  Such a life looks like the Son of God who forgot Himself and who obediently gave His life away in humble service to God and neighbor!

            In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Samuel Zumwalt
St. Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
E-Mail: szumwalt@bellsouth.net

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