Sunday, April 24, 2016

Welcoming the Gentiles

Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35

I want to start today by talking about the meaning of Gentiles. We usually think of them as non-Jews. In the Old Testament, non-Jews were treated well, even though they were recognized as different.
In about 200 - 160 BCE, a Roman ruler named Antiochus Epiphanes IV took to persecuting the Jews. He desecrated the Jewish temple, outlawed Jewish worship, and forced the Jews to worship Zeus. Eventually, the Maccabees led a revolt and retook the temple in the event celebrated as Hanukkah.
Because of this persecution, the Jewish people began to fear any outsiders. They began to be more resistant to outsiders, to Gentiles. Food rules had always separated them from others, as did circumcision. By the time of Jesus, a Gentile was an enemy.
Jesus spoke frequently with Gentiles and made it clear that they were among those whom God loved. Even the disciples wondered if he really meant it, to love everyone.
It became more clear after the resurrection, when Jesus sends the disciples out to all nations – to both the Jews and the Gentiles. And it becomes even clearer when Paul’s and Peter’s stories are related in Acts. Paul reports visions in which he is told to go certain groups of people.
This wonderful story in today’s reading from Acts is a sort of a summary of a longer narrative. Peter is now in Jerusalem after being in Joppa – near where he raised Tabitha from death. While there, Peter had a vision – three times the same vision.
He sees a large tablecloth covered with food Jews never eat, but which are tasty dishes for Gentiles. In the vision, Peter is told to take and eat, and Peter refuses. He declares that he never eats unclean food. But he is told again to take and eat. And, What God has made you must not call unclean.
Finally, Peter gets the message. He is sent to the home of Cornelius in Caesarea, where he converts the entire household and baptizes them. The good news of the resurrection is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Further, he gets the message that Gentiles are not unclean; they are also children of God. They, too, are to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
Peter relates his story to the disciples and believers in Jerusalem. It seems they take a few moments to consider the meaning of his story. Then they get it. God has given to Gentiles the baptism that leads to life. But, there will be many arguments about what that means.
This is a huge change for these Jewish Christians. Must believing Gentiles be circumcised? Must they obey Jewish food laws? Eventually, the answer will be no to both, but it will be a hard-fought battle within the community. In the end, they remember God’s words. What God has made you must not call unclean. And: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
In our time, we struggle with similar issues. Who are the Gentiles of our time, and what is our relationship with them? Do we think of them as unclean, as unloved by God?
Do we believe that people of color are equal to the dominant white people?
Do we believe that immigrants, documented and undocumented, are God’s children, whom God loves, who deserve to be treated with respect?
Do we ordain homosexual people with partners and accept that the Holy Spirit speaks to and through them?  
Do we accept that God, our One God, has many names and revelations and that people worship their God with the same faith and passion that we do?
It takes time, and conversation, and prayer. It takes listening to God remind us what God said to Peter and Paul so long ago. Love as I love, and do not make unclean that which I have made clean.
As a woman and as a female pastor, I can tell stories of rejection, of being treated as a sort of Gentile, because of who I am. You know my story here at Hope. Here’s a different story. In my first job after college, I was told that John, who was hired six months after I was, got paid more because he had a family. In truth, he was a newly-wed. I had two children, and my income fed the four of us. But, I was a female, so not worth as much.
Others have told me their rejection stories. For example, I remember Inez telling me how as a child she tried to scrape the brown color from her skin so she looked more white. Being treated as a Gentile is painful.
But I have also heard stories of welcome for Gentiles.
I found this letter from George Washington, yes, that George Washington, addressed to the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island. They had written to congratulate him in 1790. Here is an excerpt assuring Jewish people of their welcome in America.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.
G. Washington
There has been a lot of conversation about the US accepting Syrian refugees. One of the destinations for them is Dearborn, Michigan, where Iraqis, Syrians, and other Arab peoples have been settling for decades.
In such communities, new immigrants have a familiar cultural setting in which to make a new home. Mahmoud Karaz and his family fled Homs after a house bombing killed two relatives. They spent three years in Jordan, with no real home, before being able to come to Michigan. These Gentiles know there is no way they can return to Syria, and look forward to making the US their new country.
In today’s reading from John’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples how to love – as Jesus loves. He knows the first disciples will fail him, and betray him, and run away. But he loves them anyway. Jesus tells us that we are loved, and called to pass on that love, even to Gentiles.
This week, ask yourself how well you love. Notice the way you label some people as unclean, as Gentiles, even if you really don’t want to. Find a way, even if only in your imagination, to love the Gentiles. Remember, Jesus loves them, why shouldn’t we?

Please pray with me. Lord of love, we give thanks for your love for us. Help us to love others, including those we think of as Gentiles. Forgive us for our lack of love.  In your holy name, we pray. Amen