Summer is almost here. And while you are making plans to pack your bags for the beach or dreaming of nights out on the patio, I’m making wholly different plans and plans that bring me great joy and…a bit of anxiety. 77 Westminster folk, from preteen age to late sixties will embark on four different trips – two mission trips, two youth conferences. The smallest trip has 15 and the largest, 43, and the following thoughts keep going through my mind: am I insane? will I sleep? how many bandaids do I need to pack? and here is the most important one: how will we ever make all those people feel at home when we are so far away from what we know?
To feel at home, to feel included, like a crucial part of the team, is an innate desire for God’s children, young and old and in between. I know this well from leading youth trips. In an attempt to make that happen, I try to do things like arrange travel so that the ones who always stand at the margin and the ones who are always making the margin are given hours to practice the art of inclusion. The line from My Shepherd Will Supply My Need comes to mind as the chorus I will secretly sing to myself my every waking hour this summer: No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home…
Like a child at home – fully known, fully accepted, fully free.
To create a space where one feels at home was the imperative for the Holy Spirit that day when Peter preached and the Gentiles and Jews listened together. Ever aware of the human bounds and margins we build, the Spirit came into the space as a sledgehammer, breaking down the walls of the haves and have nots, the shoulds and should nots, the us versus them. Our God has been doing such since the beginning of God’s people because since the beginning, God’s people have worked hard at dividing and defining ourselves against "the other."
We hear time and time again in the Old Testament how God commands us to welcome the stranger: On holiness, God spoke this to Moses in the book of Leviticus: "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt."1 Again in Deuteronomy, as God teaches the essence of the Law through Moses, it is said: "You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."2 We hear our Savior preach the same message of boundless love saying in his final teaching before his crucifixion: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…for I was as stranger and you welcomed me."3
Perhaps God continues to send this message to us through God’s word, through Christ, through the Spirit because it is one of the hardest messages to live out in reality.
Here is the truth: all of us have felt like the stranger, like the outsider. And on other side of the same coin, we have been the ones to make people feel like the outsiders.
You know the feeling, don’t you? People standing in a circle at a party or perhaps even on the courtyard outside, while you stand just a few feet away yet miles away from the conversation. Maybe you’ve grown accustomed to it and so have created defense mechanisms. I learned quickly that I would always be last to be picked for a playground game of any kind so I took to talking to the teachers, making myself look important and as if I had better things to do. Maybe you go and look at your phone as if your emails are absolutely demanding to be answered right that minute or maybe you make yourself scarce, fading away into the background until you can slip away without notice.
You also know the feeling, don’t you? Seeing that person who just makes you feel uncomfortable or anxious or trapped or just bored so you scramble to find anyone else to talk to to avoid an interaction with that other person. Or again – taking out your phone to feign busyness or a fake phone call, skirting a word shared. I’ve been guilty of this feeling and I am ashamed for I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end. It can be as innocuous as not answering an email or a text because I just don’t feel like dealing with someone who makes me feel all squirmy inside or averting my eyes from that acquaintance because ugh – I just don’t think I can do it and I’m wearing my workout clothes and I don’t have on make-up and I definitely didn’t brush my teeth after drinking that huge cup of coffee. I – we – make excuses all the time and it is natural. We’ve been doing it since the beginning and God, three-in-one, has told us over and over again that there is another way. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Love the stranger as you were a stranger yourself. And from our text this morning: the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.
There could not be a greater divide between Peter and Cornelius and their respective cultural groups. The two groups, as Peter noted, were forbidden by law to even interact with one another. As Chris preached about last week in his sermon on the Ethiopian eunuch from earlier in the Book of Acts, divides among God’s people were many in this time period. Groups of people were sectioned off and given strict order to remain within their bounds be it that they were unclean or profane or simply just too "other" to be included in the fold.
Oh, how I dream such were untrue today. Whereas back in the time of Peter and Cornelius, the divides were among those who were baptized or not, or circumcised or not, today’s boundaries are a bit more nuanced: what neighborhood you live in, what school you go to or send your children, which team you root for be it sports or politics, what car you drive, what food you eat, what shoes you wear, who you love. It is an endless list we carry around, whether aware of it or not. It can seem comforting to think we know where we stand – if we do this, then we are included here, if we do this, we are excluded there. We somehow feel more assured by these boundaries we draw, as if to say: this circle is at least visible, at least manageable – to step outside of it is to put ourselves at risk.
Oh, how I know such could not be more truer today than it was in that moment at Cornelius’ house: The Holy Spirit’s opens that circle we so tightly draw and opens it so that we might be set free.
When the Spirit came and descended upon all who heard Peter’s words – the Jews and Gentiles alike – something happened to Peter, to everyone there. No where else in the writings of Luke and Acts do we hear of the Holy Spirit descending on those who were not baptized. This is the first time this has happened and is, to Peter and those gathered, the ultimate sign that God moves beyond all human boundaries to bring the Good News. There is no stopping the Spirit and there is no stopping the gospel imperative: all are deserving of inclusion, all are worthy of feeling at home.
Peter realizes this and something inside him changes. His friends are astounded that the Spirit should enter the hearts of such strangers and Peter says to all there, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" as if to say, "What is ours is no longer ours but is everyone’s – such our God ordained." What’s mine is ours, what once belonged to this inner circle is for all, we are not the dictators of a boundless God. Peter commands that all the Gentiles be baptized, an outward sign of something we already know deep in our hearts: we all are claimed by God. It just takes a little nudging from the Spirit to live it out.
After the baptism takes place and the water on the Gentiles’ heads dries, the newly welcomed do something so out of bounds, so significant. The last line of our passage reads: "Then they invited him to stay for several days." They – the once outsiders – invite him – the symbol of the inner sanctum – to stay, to dwell, to be at home with them for not just a night but days on end.
Easy to ignore after such a dramatic scene, this line of the story remains my favorite. It is the crescendo of the song for me, the point when I can hear and know that the Gospel message Peter preached that day was no longer words floating in the air but truth woven into the fiber of each and every person’s being: you – you who were once alone, once considered worthless, avoided, ridiculed, ignored, are at rest. You, sweet child of God, are given a place here. No more or a stranger or even a guest – you are like a child at home.
It is darn near impossible to think of ways we might sing this same line every waking hour. I know too well how hard it is to live a life of full inclusion – of making sure that everyone feels at home, feels that they are not "they" but are "we." I know how intimidating it is to provide enough cracks in our ceaseless facade so that the Spirit might come in and change us mid-course. I would love to tell you that I embody such life but I don’t. I try. I try to open my heart, my mind, my soul and every once in a while, the Spirit catches me in these acts of vulnerability and the circle I draw to keep others out starts to disintegrate just a bit.
I wonder if the same might be true for you and that together, we might promise to try and embody these acts of vulnerability, of systematically and purposefully eliminating the boundaries we so consciously and unconsciously create. Maybe it looks like actively seeking out that person who confounds you or annoys you and inviting that person into a conversation. Maybe it looks like putting yourself in the small circles that seem secured by an invisible lock and encouraging people to open up, even an inch or two. Maybe it is something wholly more extravagant than that like instead of categorizing people and assuming we know how someone feels based on our own false delineations and befriending those who are "other" to you so that you might come to believe there is no "other" in God’s kingdom. And maybe, you and I might embark on the most intimidating of all missions – believing that this is true, that this is for you: no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home. All praise be to God, whose love for us is boundless and eternal, Amen.
1. Leviticus 19:33-34
2. Deuteronomy 10:19
3. Matthew 25:34b, 35c