May 10, 2015 –The 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Summer is almost here, and that means that it’s time to get ready for camp. I remember how special I felt the first time I went to summer camp. My mother ironed labels onto all of my clothes—every shirt, every pair of shorts, every sock, every pair of underwear all had my name on it. And my mother let me use the same laundry bag that she had used when she was a camper. The label with her maiden name was still sown into the bag, and she ironed my name right underneath hers. I had a footlocker into which we stuffed all of my rolled-up clothes. I bought cowboy boots so that I could take horseback lessons. I packed envelopes and stamps so that I could write my family and friends. I was ready. Everything was cool—except for one thing.
The night before we left, my mother came into my bedroom and said that there was something that we needed to talk about. I could tell that this was serious, and her demeanor made me nervous. In the super-awkward conversation that followed, my mother explained to me that, when I was in the shower, I might notice that other boys were different from me. In a short lecture that must have been even more uncomfortable for her than for me, she told me about circumcision. Now, I want you to think about how that conversation must have gone—the words and phrases someone would use to explain to an eight-year-old what circumcision is. It is impossible, I think, for that to leave a child with fewer questions than answers. And I got to camp feeling exactly as you would expect me to—terrified of the shower.
The only thing I could think about was whether they would make us line up in two separate lines so that the circumcised and uncircumcised kids wouldn’t have to shower together. They didn’t, of course. I don’t know if anyone else’s mom had that conversation with him—probably not—but, if so, none of them seemed nervous about it. I, on the other hand, was consumed by fear. Every night for two weeks, I walked into the shower, stood as close to the wall as I could, stared straight ahead, washed my hair and body as quickly as possible, turned off the water, wrapped a towel around my waist, and ran back to my cabin without delay. All I knew was that this mysterious discrimination of the foreskin had the power to separate me from the other kids, and I didn’t want to find out if I was different—if I was weird—if I was left out.
For those two weeks, nothing mattered more to me than circumcision, but, still, I cannot even begin to fathom what circumcision meant to Peter and the first Christians. To them, as faithful Jews, it meant everything. It was an inseparable part of their spiritual identity. To belong to God meant being circumcised; it was as simple as that. Long before the temple was built in Jerusalem, long before God gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, long before God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, God told Abraham that every male who belonged to God would be circumcised. When God chose Abraham and his descendants to be his people and promised always to be their God, God demanded that they ratify that covenant in the act of circumcision. Even if you were not ethnically Jewish, if you wanted a relationship with the God of Abraham and you were male, you must be circumcised—no exceptions.
But then, one day, all of that changed. According to Acts 10, God appeared to a Roman centurion named Cornelius and told him to send for a Jew named Simon Peter. And, at the same time, God appeared to that faithful Jew and told him to go with the Gentiles who were about to knock on his door. And, when they got together, the most amazing thing happened. Peter began to tell them about Jesus of Nazareth, whom the authorities “put to death by hanging him on a tree,” but whom “God raised on the third day” (Acts 10:39-40). And, while he was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon them all, and they began to speak in tongues and extoll God. And Peter and the other circumcised believers just stood there with their mouths hanging open. They were astounded because God had poured his Spirit even upon those Gentiles. In that moment, caught up in the power of the Spirit, Peter asked, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And, sure enough, that afternoon those uncircumcised, unclean, unacceptable, Gentile outsiders were made a part of the body of Christ.
In this one encounter, everything that Peter and his companions knew about religion was blown right out of the water. Consider, for a moment, the total reversal that this event represented. These Gentiles heard the good news and, upon believing it, were given a full, unadulterated share of God’s Spirit. There weren’t baptized first. They weren’t circumcised first. In other words, they weren’t converted first. Instead, God grabbed them right where they were—still on the outside looking in—and brought them into the very center of what he was doing in the world. They didn’t have to do anything. They didn’t need to undergo any ritual. In other words, there was no rule or procedure for this. It just happened, and the leaders of the Christian movement were left to try and figure out what to do about it. Peter’s question said it all: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” If circumcision didn’t matter anymore, what did?
Is it possible that sometimes religion stands in the way of faith? Can it be that all the stuff we do up here, all these garments, all these liturgies, all these ins and outs of religion fail to express what really matters? Could God be working in powerful, Spirit-filled ways that the church hasn’t figured out yet? Are we behind the curve on what God is doing in the world around us? You bet we are.
Throughout human history, God has always worked in ways that surprise us. God chose a childless geriatric herdsman to become the father of a great nation. God selected a ragtag, homeless tribe to be his chosen people. God became incarnate in a Galilean carpenter who ran afoul of the political and religious leaders of his day and was executed on the cross before being raised from the dead in order to set us free from the bondage of sin. God used a persecuting zealot to build up the church. What is God doing today? What will God do next?
Whatever it is, you can be sure that we’ll struggle to recognize it and will resist it until God hits us over the head and leaves us standing there, with our mouths hanging open, wondering, again, what God will do next. That’s because we aren’t on the outside looking in anymore. We are the inside. We, the church, have rules for what is and is not allowed, and we like to think that we get to decide what is right and wrong and who is in and out. But thanks be to God that he is always blowing our expectations away and, despite our intransigence, working in ways that surpass even our imagination. As Peter learned on the day when God shared his Spirit even with the uncircumcised Gentiles, it isn’t our job to prevent God from doing the unfathomable. It is our job to recognize that with God anything—absolutely anything—is possible.