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Sunday, January 8, 2017 | 8:00 a.m.
Rocky Supinger, Associate Pastor
Fourth Presbyterian Church
When it comes to the forgiving and transforming love of God [in baptism], one wonders if
the six-week -old screecher knows all that much less
than the Archbishop of Canterbury about what’s going on.
Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking
Our scripture reading this morning is from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, the tenth chapter, verses 34–43. This is a speech—a sermon, really—delivered by Peter, the disciple who denied Jesus after his arrest but who is now an apostle, an important leader of the growing Christian community in Jerusalem. The speech warrants a word of introduction.
It concludes the pivotal story in the book of Acts. It is the story of two conversions: Cornelius’s and Peter’s.
Cornelius is a Roman soldier, a centurion, who sees a vision one afternoon of an angel who instructs him to send for a man named Peter in a nearby town, instructions Cornelius promptly follows. Peter, even as Cornelius’s people are striding down his street, sees his own vision, of a giant sheet being lowered from the sky, filled with all kinds of unclean animals, things that a good Jew like Peter would have been forbidden to eat. Yet the vision reveals to him that he ought not call those things—or anything—unclean.
Stunned by this, Peter hears the Spirit of God tell him that three men are downstairs looking for him and that he should go with them. So he does, and the next day a very unlikely quartet returns to Cornelius’s house, where the Centurion has gathered all his friends and family. When they get there, Peter says, “You all know that, as a Jewish person, it’s not lawful for me to be here in the home of a Gentile. But God is showing me that I should stop calling things like Gentiles ‘unclean.’ So here I am. Why did you send for me?”
Then Cornelius recounts his vision and the instructions he received to send for Peter. He tells Peter, “I sent for you as I was told. Now, then, I’ve called all my people together to hear what God has for you to tell us.”
And so begins our reading in verse 34.
● ● ●
One Sunday afternoon in the fall of 2001, I accompanied my girlfriend to a church service where one of her coworkers would be the guest preacher. My girlfriend (now wife, Meredith) was in her third year of medical school, completing her clinical rotations in Newark, New Jersey, about an hour north from where I had just begun seminary studies.
The church was tucked neatly into a residential street in the middle of a Newark neighborhood neither Meredith nor I had been in before. It looked like a garage from the sidewalk. As we punctually entered the building, we passed by several serving dishes of food and a woman in a nurse’s outfit who greeted us very warmly and handed us plates. This caught us off guard; we were no strangers to churches or church meals, of course, but we were used to them coming at the end of the service. Even so, we gratefully accepted the food and ate quickly, expecting the service to start any minute.
It started about an hour after we finished eating, and by that time both Meredith and I were thoroughly out of our comfort zones: in a neighborhood we’d never visited in a city new to the both of us, surrounded by strangers, pulled into a kind of church routine that was unlike anything we knew or were comfortable with.
The experience only became more uncomfortable from there. The service finally did begin, and only a few minutes into it the pastor invited congregants to share words of testimony. An elderly woman in the next aisle stood up and began to speak, slowly at first, about how good God had been to her. As she spoke, her voice picked up volume and pace, and the three young men in the band up front began accompanying her testimony. Fellow worshipers began to shout amens to her testimony, and then, before we knew what was happening, people began leaving their seats to run and dance through the aisles of that sanctuary.
Meredith and I did not run and dance through the aisles of the sanctuary. We remained seated. The band played and played, and the faithful shouted and leapt and wept and ran around the sanctuary, while we remained glued to our chairs. Somewhere in the middle of all this the woman who had originated the testimony slid, quite imperceptibly, behind our two chairs, placed one arm around my shoulder and the other around Meredith’s shoulder and began to pat us vigorously as she chanted, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.”
We sat through the whole thing.
When the testimony finally spent itself, the pastor again took the pulpit, this time to make announcements, the very first of which was that two friends of the guest preacher were visiting and that one of them—God be praised!—was preparing for the ministry. I’d never met the man, but he looked straight into my soul as he asked, “Brother Rocky, would you like to bring a word?”
No. No, I did not. But you can’t refuse an invitation like that. So I cleared my throat and stood, tentatively, to speak. I was out on a limb, feeling very, very unsteady, as I uttered, “Thank you for having us. We’re happy to be here.” You could hear the limb snap from the drummer to the back door as I awkwardly retook my seat.
The silence that followed seemed to last an eternity. Graciously the pastor resumed the announcements with a paternal look in my direction that said, “Son, you’ve got a way to go.”
Peter is out on a limb in this story from Acts. He’s not even supposed to be here. Just yesterday he was hanging out in Joppa, saying his prayers in the middle of the day, and now he’s in the home of a Gentile, a place where his religious upbringing has taught him he must not go.
And it isn’t any old Gentile, either. His host is a soldier, a centurion, an instrument of the Roman state apparatus that, mere weeks ago, executed Jesus. You know Peter’s nervous. Scared even. He asks—out loud—“What am I doing here?”
Cornelius tells Peter the story about the vision. And then, as Peter looks dumbly on, he looks into his soul and adds, “All of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
Brother Peter, would you like to bring a word?
Uhh . . .
“Thank you for having us. We’re really happy to be here.” Snap!
Out on a limb. You know that position, don’t you? Out of place, overextended, unprepared, unable to recognize the surroundings or the cultural cues. Called on by the teacher who knows you’re not paying attention. Forced to adopt some technological advance you don’t understand. Abruptly asked by a coworker, “You go to church, right? What’s that all about?”
Uhh, thanks for having us. We’re really happy to be here.
These feel like out-on-a-limb times to me. At the risk of getting political, I’ll admit that feeling has intensified since the election in November, when, regardless of how you feel about the results, things showed themselves to be very different from what most of us thought they were. Many of us have felt the branch beneath us bending and swaying in a way we hadn’t noticed before.
Yet it’s not only politics, is it? It’s self-driving cars. And not only self-driving cars. Shootings—police shootings, mass shootings, gang shootings, terrorist shootings. And not only shootings. The cracking of the Antarctic ice shelf. And not only the cracking of the Antarctic ice shelf. Aleppo. And Mosul. And not only Aleppo and Mosul. This book: The End of White Christian America (by Robert P. Jones).
In so many ways it feels like we are out on a limb, unsupported by the norms and the institutions we have always known, unsupported, even, by the branch we’re standing on and on which we depend for our very survival.
Out on a limb. Peter was there. I’ve been there. You have too. Some days it feels to me like the church, no the country, no humanity, no the planet, is out on a limb.
Here’s the good news. Out on a limb is a great place to be. True, the limb may snap. But it also might hold, and we might be lifted to a newer, truer understanding than we knew on the stability and predictability of the stronger branch.
Like this columnist, David Rushee, I like to read in the Religious News Service. He wrote in a year-end blog post last week, “Like a number of left-leaning ‘voices,’ 2016 left me bewildered, disoriented, vertiginous. ‘No one knows anything,’ said Conan O’Brien, and that is exactly how I felt.”
Out on a limb, right?
He continues, “But, as my conservative father said to me the other day, ‘You are at your best after you have been humbled, when you admit you don’t know everything, when you start listening and break out of your liberal elite silo. You have been doing that since the election. Keep it up.’”
I might want to say a word or two of defense for liberal elite silos, but another time. For now, just this: “You are at your best” out on a limb.
The first words out of Peter’s mouth there at Cornelius’s house, surrounded by all those strangers, are “I truly understand.” That is a profound thing to confess, especially if you are a person, as Peter is, who others look to for understanding, who needs to be at their best all the time. “I truly understand,” he says, as the branch wobbles, “that God shows no partiality.”
Peter is at his best here, in the home of a Gentile centurion, where he truly understand how far “God shows no partiality” really goes. As the Apostle Paul, whose own conversion is narrated in the chapter right before this one, will put it to one of the early churches, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
We, too, are at our best when we’re out on a limb making that claim and testifying to God’s impartiality in our increasingly divided and nakedly biased times. It makes you wonder if you can truly grasp that truth anywhere else but out here on the limb.
I suppose this is why we go on mission trips. This is why we go on retreats. It’s why we engage with other religions. To get ourselves out on that holy limb where our reality is contested, yes, but where the Spirit of God may show us something we aren’t otherwise seeing, where we may come to truly understand.
After all, our whole story as disciples, as followers of Jesus, from Cornelius’s house to this house, is grounded in the most out-on-a-limb turn of events you can imagine. The whole thing turns on a single little conjunction: “But.”
“They put Jesus to death by hanging him on a tree,” Peter explains to his Gentile congregation. “But God raised him on the third day . . . “
The resurrection is the founding story for an out-on-a-limb people. It puts flesh and bone on Jesus’ radical teachings that the first are last and the last first, that the meek and those who mourn are blessed, and that we find our life only when we lose it.
The resurrection of Jesus is God’s conjunction to the world, holding up a limb that feels like it’s about to snap: the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it. They put Jesus to death on a tree, but God raised him on the third day.
This is our story. Believing it—claiming it, witnessing to it, preaching it, living it—calls us out on a limb with Jesus, where we are at our best witnessing and testifying, along with all the prophets, to the impartiality of God and the forgiveness of sins. For everyone.
We use words out on this limb. We tell the story. Peter’s got it down pretty succinctly: Beginning with his baptism, Jesus went about doing good and healing. God was with him. They put him to death on a tree, but God raised him, and we’ve been seeing him in the darndest places ever since.
We all can tell that story, beginning with baptism. In baptism we have a beginning that is like an ending, and an ending that is like a beginning.
He was out on a limb from the beginning. In Matthew’s telling, “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”
The Jordan, where God’s people had come into the Promised Land. The Jordan: out there with John and his camel-hair clothes and locust diet of legend. The Jordan: “No, no, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” The Jordan: you’re not doing this right. The Jordan: over before it can begin.
The Jordan: out on a limb.
“But (there’s that conjunction again) Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented.
“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
Submerged in the water and coming up again, dying and rising, the light not extinguished, the Spirit of God descending and the voice of God affirming: You’re mine. I’m tickled to death with you.
This is why we do this, why, I imagine, Jesus commands his disciples to baptize. To bring us back to the Jordan over and over again, to the beginning that is like an ending and the ending that is all of our beginning. Amen.