We have spent the last twenty weeks—every week since Epiphany, way back in January—reading the gospel according to Matthew. That’s a long time to spend in one gospel.
Over the last four months, we’ve heard Matthew’s version of the life of Jesus. The call of John the Baptizer, the temptation in the wilderness, the beatitudes and parables and sayings, the miracles, the triumphal entry, the last supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the short time that Jesus had with his disciples after the resurrection.
Today, we’re leaving the gospel according to Matthew and entering the time after Jesus left the community of believers that he had created. Over the next month-and-a-half or so, we’ll spend some time in the book of Acts and some time in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. We’ll spend some time getting a picture of the early church.
And in today’s reading, we see a moment in the life of that little community that was trying to make its way in the world being faithful to a lord and savior who wasn’t hanging out with them every day. This is an important moment. This is a beautiful moment. This is a moment that changes the church forever.
Peter is Jewish. And it’s important to know that, at this point, following Jesus is a Jewish thing. Peter worships the God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Peter follows the laws and traditions of the God of Israel. Peter is a disciple of Jesus, a Jewish teacher and a Jewish prophet and the Jewish messiah, who was sent to Israel to save the Jewish people.
And Peter has found himself in front of a man and his household who are… gentiles. Cornelius is not Jewish. He is not a follower of Jesus. Sure, he is a man who worships the God of Israel… kind of. He fears God and gives alms and prays constantly. But he is a gentile. He is a soldier of the Roman Empire. He is stationed in the capital of the Roman province of Judea, which is not Jerusalem. He enforces Roman rule. He is a foreigner and an occupier.
They are face to face with each other. And they have both had visions.
Cornelius’s vision was simple. An angel of God appeared to him and said, “Send men to Joppa to find a man named Simon who is called Peter. He’s staying in the house of another man named Simon, who is a tanner, by the seaside. Have your men bring Simon—the one called Peter, not the tanner—to you. He’ll tell you what you need to know.”
Peter’s vision was mysterious. He saw all of the foods that the God of Israel—the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—commanded the Jewish people not to eat. And a voice said, “Peter, eat!” And Peter said, “No. I have never eaten anything that is unclean and I’m not going to eat anything that is unclean now.” And the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” And this happened three times. And then the food disappeared.
And now Peter is standing in front of these people—these gentiles—who fear God… who give alms generously… who pray constantly… to whom God had sent an angel. And it clicks. Peter gets it. God had made these people—these gentiles—clean. Peter could not call them profane. Before they were anything else, they were… loved by God.
There’s a rule in preaching that you’re not supposed to show your work; you’re not supposed to preach about the sermon.
But I’m going to be honest with you: I struggled with this sermon; I’m still struggling with it.
I’m struggling with it for two reasons.
The first reason is this: a little over a week ago, a man walked into a synagogue in Poway, California, and shot people. He killed one person and injured three others. And if his gun hadn’t jammed, he would have killed and injured more. And he wasn’t the first person to do this—he did it six months after a similar, but more deadly, incident at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—and he won’t be the last.
He is part of a growing American white nationalist movement. A movement that is recruiting on college campuses. A movement that interrupted an anti-racist book event last week. A movement that marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, a couple of years ago. A movement that has armed civilian militias patrolling our southern border. A movement that has a voice in our government.
A movement that is willing—maybe even eager—to draw the lines between who is inside and who is outside in blood.
Those lines are almost always drawn in blood. The blood shed by the Trail of Tears and the slave master’s whip and the lynching tree. The blood shed by inquisitions and pogroms and concentration camps. The blood shed by men who walk into houses of worship—in Charleston, South Carolina; in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; in Poway, California—and open fire.
The second reason is this: I would like to believe that this congregation does not need this sermon.
I have been your pastor for more than a year. I know you. I don’t know you as well as I will, but I know you. We are an open and affirming congregation. We have a plaque on our hallway wall and a statement on our website that says that we celebrate all people. I cannot imagine a member of this community using a racial slur… or posting on a white nationalist message board… or picking up a gun and walking into a house of worship.
But I also know that white nationalism is just the most visible form of white supremacism. And I know that white supremacism flows in the undercurrents of American society. We are so wrapped up in it—I am so wrapped up in it—that we don’t even notice.
And I know that before and after the lines between who is inside and who is outside are drawn in blood, they are drawn in words:
“We can’t let everyone in.” “Why can’t they pull their pants up.” “He should have shown more respect.”
We need this reminder. I need this reminder. Before anyone is anything else, they are loved by God.
I want to be clear here: that doesn’t erase our differences. We are still a beautiful tapestry of different races, ethnicities, cultures, socio-economic statuses, sexual orientations, gender identities, marital and family statuses, ages, and abilities, among other things. And those differences matter.
But before we are anything else, we are loved by God.
I know, “before we are anything else, we are loved by God” is a nice sentiment. It would look good on a greeting card or a throw pillow.
But, when Peter has his epiphany, he does what he does: he starts preaching the gospel. He tells Cornelius and his household the story: that Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, that he went around doing good and healing people, that he was crucified, that he rose, that he ate and drank with his disciples, that he commanded the witnesses to his resurrection to preach and testify.
And while he is still speaking—While. Peter. Is. Still. Speaking.—God pours the Holy Spirit out on Cornelius and his household.
As a preacher, I would like to believe that Peter’s words are so powerful that they cause God to pour out the Holy Spirit. But I kind of think that God interrupts Peter. I kind of think that God sees Peter trying to draw a line between who is inside and who is outside—i kind of think that God sees Peter waiting to see if Cornelius and his household will accept the gospel—and that God says, “No. I got this. There is no line.”
And so Peter does the only thing that Peter can do: he baptized them. You see, baptism isn’t something that we do to bring people over the line and into our community. It is something we do to acknowledge a basic truth: that God has erased the line and brought everyone into his kingdom.
And here’s the truth: “Before we are anything else, we are loved by God” is a nice sentiment. It is also a revolutionary one. It would look good on a greeting card, or a throw pillow, or emblazoned on a banner at the front of a grand parade of love.
“Before we are anything else, we are loved by God,” is a call to greater love.
It is a call to speak up when we see lines being drawn between who is inside and who is outside.
It is a call to speak up, and say, “God loves you too much—and I love you too much—to leave you in your oppression.”
It is a call to speak up, and say, “God loves you too much—and I love you too much—to leave you in your hatred.”
It is a call to revolutionary love and wild grace that will make the whole world clean and holy and good. And no one will be able to call it profane.
Because before this world is anything else, it is loved by God. And that is good news.