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There was once a man living in the city of Joppa who received a message from God. God or god’s messenger told Jonah to go to the city of their greatest enemy, the oppressor of Jonah’s people, to the villain of every story that they ever told, to proclaim the necessity of the Ninevites to repent and reconcile with God. God took the direct route, telling Jonah exactly what she needed Jonah to do. It was a call and an invitation to Jonah’s life I’m behalf of God to serve as prophet to Ninevah. Jonah tells God at the end of that story “I know who you are. You God are gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” And those are the reasons that when he was given a direct call by God, Jonah peaced out and ran in the opposite direction.
It seems God has learned some lessons between Jonah and Peter, one of which seems to be to come at it from the side and help the person come to their own conclusion so they don’t take off.
Jesus’ disciples were probably still in a state of shock. They were still trying to figure out what had happened, how Jesus was raised, and what it all meant for them. They were figuring out what the plan was going to be, how they were going to make disciples when Saul showed up and for the cleanliness, for the purity of the religion, for the safety of the faith, began arresting and imprisoning Jesus followers. The disciples that weren’t from Jerusalem but had stayed, left the city and scattered.
And so, there was once a man living in the city of Joppa who received a message from God.
It must have been unsettling for Simon Peter to have this vision while starving, of a sheet full of animals that he wasn’t suppose to eat. There were laws there were expectations there were rules about what kind of animal should and should not be eaten. And Peter was well trained in the rules.
God taught Peter what he needed to know in metaphor instead of just telling him, because, he learned from Jonah. And it must have been weird. Peter must have been confused. I’m sure he knew there was something to understand but it wasn’t until he heard the story of Cornelius that things clicked.
See, Peter lived in a time when boundaries and categories were important. Historically, one would need to know who was part of one’s family, tribe, community, allies. Peter was living under occupation, so they needed to know who the leaders were, who were affiliated with them, who was friend or foe. Boundaries and categories helped him make sense of the world and the people in it. Boundaries and categories kept people and communities and beliefs safe. Simon Peter and Saul were both understanding their world through these boundaries and categories.
We understand boundaries–they set limits when we play capture the flag or tag. They divide nations. They help us understand the category, the place to put each person into so we can better understand them and the world. We have categories because denying the difference in people means we deny their cultural identity. It’s why we stopped saying “I just don’t see color…” when speaking of people–there are pieces of someone’s racial and cultural identity that make them who they are.
But for Simon Peter, the categories, the boundaries that had been put in place, would keep him from visiting with Cornelius, and would have made it impossible for Peter to even consider that God would or could care about Cornelius.
Sometimes understanding turns to fear and turn us into someone like Simon Peter had been, who understand that people are different and need to be kept at a distance. And sometimes it turns to violence and you into Saul.
The problem lies when we use these categories to ascribe some kind of value on a person. When we use these categories to decide if someone is worthy of community or love or compassion or basic human dignity or life. The problem lies when we take somebody’s worst moments whether they be their mistakes, their flaws, their failures, and worse, defining the whole person or group by that one thing.
While these categories could celebrate diversity and overcoming and the complicatedness of the human experience, they are often used to keep us separated, to sent boundaries, to keep one group of people, like Saul was doing, clean, pure, without any other complicating factors or… well… categories.
See, sometimes categories cause us to be afraid and there isn’t a very long walk from fear to violence.
We saw it in the last 2 weeks when four young people young people were shot in the midst of making mistakes. Something about the people who shot them were so full of fear of the person before them that they couldn’t pause to ask a question, to consider an alternative narrative than the one that they had created in their minds, with the categories they had put these young people into. They were not shot for their mistakes. They were shot because someone had put boundaries in place and the only way that was seen to maintain them, regardless of anything else, was violence.
That is where this almost always seems to end. We are either celebrating diversity or it ends in fear, separation, and violence.
Cornelius, while someone who lived the Jewish God, prayed to God, did good in the name of God, was accepted by God, was never going to be a full member of the religious community because there were boundaries, and his place as the most Roman of all Romans, from an important family of Romans, and a leader of the Roman military, all those categories that Cornelius was, would keep him from full participation in the community of God.
When the sheet came down, the categories and boundaries that Peter had always understood to be the way things were, the ones that kept some people on the outside, were torn down. God revealed that the welcome was wider, broader, all inclusive. It is revolutionary, it is radical, it is inclusive of all and it spreads across the universe.
And Peter sees it: the moment the universe changed and everything expanded, love expanded.
It is a love the is inclusive of the diversity of all people, embracing all.
And Peter could have just celebrated that it happened, that this is who God is, but he went beyond. When Peter returns to Jerusalem, the council there are so mad. Why would he baptize that Roman? Why would he change the rules of what they were doing? Why wouldn’t he just live by the rules, the categories, the boundaries they had always lived by?!
But Peter tell them about the Spirit, how before they had done anything else, before he had baptized any one, before Cornelius confessed a thing, before Peter even finished speaking, the whole household was filled with the Spirit, speaking in unknown languages, proclaiming the Good News of the Risen Christ.
Peter tells the leaders in Jerusalem, just has he tells those in Cornelius’ house, who are we to deny the Spirit’s moving their lives, we cannot stop when God has already set in motion.
That is part of our call–to be on a the lookout for the movement of God, for the movement of the Spirit in our world, and know that it might show in the least expected places, in the least expected places. The Spirit is shown in how we care for each other, in our kindness and generosity, anywhere someone stands up for justice in the face of injustice the Spirit of God is there. When new in creative thinking makes it possible for people to live more fully and abundantly human, have their needs met, their community is full, have space to be creative themselves–the Spirit is moving. The Spirit is present where there is art and music and dance and laughter and joy and grief and pain, where there is beauty and where there is struggle. The Spirit is always moving to bring new energy, new vision, new expanse to the church–where there is hope, there is the Spirit
So we are part of God’s wide and expansive welcome that spread across and changed the universe. We are part celebrating who each of us are and making space for someone completely different. We are to be all inclusive of all people, knowing God is working in us and them to make room for whomever comes next.
Like Peter, we say that there are no boundaries to God’s love, so who are we to not love our neighbor? Like Peter, we say that there are no categories of people who are not good enough or undeserving, so we are we to keep anyone from community? Like Peter, we say that the Spirit of God is at work in all of creation, so who are we to say any are undeserving?
This is what we do! This is who we are called to be–a community that shares the story of God who came to live among us and taught us that love has no boundaries.