Acts 11_1-18 beyond human love Easter 5
I have a gift here to give to you, but I want to ask the following question: Don’t answer aloud, just put up your hand if you know the answer…How many days did it rain on the earth while Moses and his family were in the ark? Who says 40 days and 40 nights? Who says none? The correct answer is none of course, Moses never built the ark. Go and hand out the prize of chocolates to those who got the answer wrong. The people who got the answer correct miss out!
That didn’t seem fair did it? How is it right that undeserving people get the prize? Shouldn’t those with the right answer be given all the rewards and accolades? Deserving people deserve a reward. That’s why we love to watch the reality TV shows like backyard bitz, that help deserving people who have had a hard time get some normality back to their lives. We like the shows because they do a good turn for someone who has had a hard go, and they give us a warm feeling, knowing someone deserved has been helped and loved.
Who likes it when someone undeserving get’s an award, like I just gave? When we see someone who knowingly or deliberately gets themselves into trouble, and yet is given support, help and love, we think its unfair. Think about someone you know, a family member or friend who has got themselves into a bind, financially or relationally, a friend who has an addiction or caught up in public and deliberate sin…what do we naturally think? “They made their bed, let them lay in it; let them suffer the consequences of their actions.’ Sure, we may give them lip service, say a few words like ‘I’m sorry, how sad, or better luck next time’. But ask us to actually do something to improve their situation or outlook and we judge them unworthy, undeserving of our love and attention.
Yes, there needs to be consequences for bad behaviour, but can we allow the consequences to overshadow love and the total radical grace of the gospel? Can we allow our sense of unfairness to rule our responses? Perhaps we are afraid of what others might say about us if we do? Or afraid that loving someone undeserving and speaking to them about Jesus might cause some ramifications within our church community; cause infighting and unrest?
These were the sort of questions that would have haunted Peter as he come to terms with the gospel message of Jesus. Peter was a strong and committed Jew and of course one of Jesus’ disciples. He was an apostle of the Lord called by him to spread the good news of Jesus death and resurrection for the salvation of the world. He was sent by Jesus to love the world as he himself had loved the world.
At that time, even though Peter had experienced Jesus mixing with sinners and outcasts and witnessed his death and the resurrection for the atonement of sins, he never comprehended the radical call of the gospel…that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ For Peter, the WORLD Jesus died for was his world, the Jewish nation, those who had the law and promise of God; the chosen nation and so deserved the right to have Jesus as saviour. Peter’s understanding of the gospel was constrained by cultural and religious pressures to conform to ‘the way things are.’ His love and compassion, like ours often is, was limited by personal boundaries and constraints; limited by fear of causing an affront to other godly people and so limiting the gospel to only those who deserve to be loved.
When God caused Peter to fall into a trance, he asks him to eat religiously forbidden food. Peter answers ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ In the vision, God is showing Peter the radical nature of the gospel and says ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ The vision showed Peter that the forgiveness of sins and salvation is for the WHOLE WORLD, for all people, not just the Jews, as the prophet Ezekiel foretold ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.’
Peter, acting in the power of the Spirit, comes to the joyous realization that salvation is for the undeserving. When he witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the gentile household of Cornelius, he responded ‘So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”
As we look around our empty churches, it reminds us that perhaps things are not as they should be or could be. Our broken relationships, our lack of love for undeserving people, our limited efforts to announce the gospel of Jesus, all remind us that somehow, perhaps, we are a little like Peter was. That inadvertently we have only loved and spoke the gospel to those we felt deserve our gift and attention; those we think are worthy. Perhaps deep down we feel guilty of conforming to cultural and even church pressure to keep ‘things the way they are.’, lest there be arguments and disunity over allowing such undeserving people to enter into fellowship with us and hear the message of salvation…all while still living in sin.
Today, hear the Easter gospel message…that there is no one who deserves to be saved. No one is guilt or shame free. No one can claim to deserve God’s love or be undeserving of it, simply because of what they do, how they love or what they say; not Peter, not Paul, not you, not me. All of us, by the pure grace of God, are forgiven and loved by God. Grace, by its very meaning is ‘undeserved love.’
It is God’s choice and action to send his Son Jesus to the cross to pay for our sin and to raise him from the grave to make us into sons of God, as St John announces ‘to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-‘ You have been given this gift, you have the gospel word from the bible, you have the Spirit, you are rich in glory and have all that God offers…he has kept nothing from you.
Though once we were like the forbidden food, outside of salvation, now, by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have been grafted into God’s family and this is the message we have been commissioned to proclaim. The other day, my wife Julie went shopping with my youngest son Kyle. He was lucky enough to be given a chocolate bar by Julie, who bought one each for the other children, which he promptly and joyfully ate. He was so excited about his gift, that the moment he got home, he burst in through the door and announced ‘look what I got and mum has bought you one too!’ The joy of the gift could not be contained, it had to be announced. Even when the others weren’t as excited over the gift and seemed undeserving of such a gift, out of his joy he handed the chocolates to them anyway.
We have this gift of salvation and we have the commission of Jesus to go and tell others, as Matthew records ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’, but often, the joy like my son Kyle, does not accompany the proclamation of the gift. Old judgmental habits escort our mission efforts and taint our message and stunt the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church, like it was with Peter. We fear we will cause arguments and conflict in the church because we might become uncomfortable with new and different ‘undeserving’ people sitting in the pew with us and this fear drives us to choose between the deserving and undeserving.
God released Peter from this fear as he prayed. Just as he has released Peter, God will release you from this fear also. Pray as Peter did. Pray for joy. Pray that God would give you his Spirit. Pray that love, passion and joy will accompany your gospel message; a joy so great that you see that things do not have to be the way they are. God is ready to give you and the church here a vision and purpose, pray as Peter did that the Spirit would reveal those he is calling. Jesus encourages us to do this very thing and promises that when we pray, not only will he give us immeasurably more than we ask for, he will also give us his Spirit, as Jesus said ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you…If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ Then perhaps we too might be like Peter, surprised by the working of God in town and announce with joy ‘who was I to think that I could oppose God?” Amen