Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”Acts 11:1-18
My sermon from the Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 15, 2022) on Acts 11:1-18
A few weeks ago, my three year old walked into our hometown’s library with the kind of confidence only a three year old has. She made her way to the children’s section and pulled a dozen books off the shelves. We dragged them over to a table and she asked me to read them out loud. I didn’t really know where to start so I chose a book by Cori Doerrfeld. On the cover was the image of a young child with curly dark brown hair who was wearing green and white striped pajamas. The kid was crouched into a ball, with their knees pulled close to their chest. But instead of being completely sad, they wore a slight smile because a gray fuzzy bunny was hugging them. As I flipped open the book, I read out loud the title to the story: The Rabbit Listened.
The story began by introducing the young child on the cover. Their name was Taylor and Taylor was about to build something amazing. Using a bunch of small wooden blocks, Taylor assembled a castle that stretched high into the sky. It was awesome but then suddenly, everything came crashing down. Taylor, who had done nothing wrong, curled up into a ball, feeling every one of their feelings. After a bit of time, a talking chicken noticed something was wrong. They rushed over to offer their condolences and invited Taylor to talk and share about everything they were feeling. But Taylor didn’t feel like talking so the chicken left. A moment later, a giant bear strolled by. The bear assumed Taylor must be angry and said they could, together, roar and growl and shout about how unfair the whole thing was. Taylor, though, didn’t feel like shouting so the bear left. It wasn’t long before an entire zoo of animals came to see Taylor, including an elephant who offered to fix the castle and a hyena who wanted to lighten the mood with a few jokes. An ostrich came by, inviting Taylor to stick their head in the ground and pretend that nothing happened. And when that didn’t work, a snake slithered by and said they should go find someone else’s castle to knock down too. But Taylor didn’t feel like doing anything and so they all, eventually, left. Taylor kepting sitting there, barely noticing the rabbit who showed up next. The little bunny said nothing as it inched near Taylor. And when the space between them was practically non-existent, the bunny stopped and curled up next to Taylor. The rabbit, unlike the others, said nothing and instead let its presence be the only thing filling the air.
The reading we heard a few moments ago from the Acts of the Apostles is, I think, Peter telling others about the power of presence. As we heard last week, Peter was hanging out in the city of Joppa after he met the disciple Tabitha. A commander of the local Roman garrison named Cornelius learned he was near. Cornelius, unlike other soldiers, was a God-fearer: someone who believed in God but who hadn’t converted to Judaism. He was a gentile – a non-Jew – who served in the army that killed Jesus. Peter, as a follower of Jesus, was supposed to stay far away from people like Cornelius. Cornelius, though, sent messengers to find Peter and that’s when God sent Peter a dream. In his mind, Peter saw a picnic blanket descending from the sky covered with all the foods he didn’t eat. But that doesn’t mean Peter was a picky eater. He was a faithful follower of God who followed the Bible including when it said some foods were okay to eat because they were spiritually clean while others were not. These food laws were not primarily about maintaining someone’s physical health. They were, instead, a daily reminder showing how God’s people were set apart from others so they could serve God, honor God’s law, and trust that God would deliver them. The rules about eating were not experienced as a burden. They were seen as a sign of how every bit of our life, including the meals we eat, mattered to God. This encouragement to be distinctive helped Peter imagine that since God gave everything its proper place, Peter’s place was always with his God. But then God, through a vision, invited Peter to eat new things. And when he awoke, everything had changed. He soon met Cornelius’ messengers and agreed to visit this commander of the Romans. I imagine that when Peter entered his home, he might have been inclined to be anything but himself. He could have pretended he wasn’t Jewish or that he loved Rome or that he didn’t remember what the Romans had done to Jesus. Peter could have acted as if his identity didn’t matter but he chose something else instead. Peter stayed fully himself and when he saw Cornelius, he didn’t ask him to be anything else either. Instead, they both shared their experience of God with each other. Through their mutual telling, listening, and paying attention to one another, the Holy Spirit formed them into something new. They were both who they always were but, through Jesus, they were now bound together in a way that couldn’t be undone. Their individual stories were no longer just their own stories but were now integrated into the lives of others. Wherever Peter went, a part of Cornelius’ story would be with him. And when Rome sent Cornelius to fight in some far off place, a part of Peter would be with him too. Through Jesus and in Jesus, the baptized, the faithful, and all who follow Christ, are now fully present within each other’s stories.
Now the rabbit, when she curled up next to the kid who was busy feeling all their feelings, didn’t ask Taylor to be different. The rabbit didn’t insist on talking, shouting, laughing, helping, or getting Taylor to do anything. The rabbit just sat there, letting its presence show Taylor they weren’t alone. And once Taylor felt seen, noticed, and accepted, it’s then when they talked, shouted, laughed, roared, cried, and started building a new castle once all the feelings were fully felt. The rabbit didn’t have to know the right thing to say when she saw Taylor in distress. The rabbit just had to be there so that Taylor could see how the rabbit knew Taylor mattered. The vision of the picnic blanket full of the things other people ate wasn’t, I think, an invitation for Peter to stop being who he was supposed to be. Rather, it was God’s way of inviting Peter to see how our practice of distinctiveness sometimes makes us not as fully present to others as we should be. Peter, before the vision from God, probably wouldn’t have entered Cornelius’ home. But once he got here, he discovered how Jesus was already there. Sometimes the most loving and Christian thing we can do is to simply be present with other people. We can enter their spaces, their struggles, their joys, and sit in their heartaches. And when our traditions and experiences that make us distinct keep us from being actively present in the lives of others, we can remember how Peter’s distinctiveness grew when he noticed what God was up to. God was already swirling within the life of Cornelius and God is also present in the lives of everyone you meet. The rabbit listened by first being present to Taylor. And we can be fully present to all our neighbors if we work to listen to the ways God is moving through their lives. To do that well, we, and everyone else, need to be fully ourselves. If we pretend to be anything but, we risk failing to embrace how, through Christ, the stories of others have become our story too. We might not always known exactly what to say when someone is being fully themselves. But we can stay with them because, even after Jesus was killed on the Cross, Jesus chose to stay with us too.