051919 Easter 5c
Acts 11:1-18; Rev. 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
This has been quite a week for witnessing what different people consider pro-life.
- As she signed a bill to criminalize abortion, Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivey described it as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God. The next day the governor oversaw the execution of a man who was sentenced to death when he was 19. The LA Times reported, apparently, Ivey is not averse to returning some of God’s sacred gifts. Many consider opposing the death penalty to be pro-life.
- President Trump proposed a new immigration system based on skills rather than on family relationships. At least temporarily, it ignores the plight of immigrants already living insecurely in the country and those in line for visas. Trump calls it “The Envy of the Modern World.” Nancy Pelosi called it “dead on arrival.” Many think that one can’t be pro-life and anti-immigrant.
- On Friday the democratically-controlled House passed an Equality Act that extends Civil Rights Protections to Gay and Transgender People. The Republican House minority, Senate Majority and White House are poised to defeat it. Can one be pro-life and discriminate against certain groups?
Every 3 years each Sunday of Easter includes a selection from the Book of Revelation and from the Book of Acts. The passages for this Sunday and next describe life as newness. Revelation describes it as a new heaven and a new earth, where God will dwell permanently with mortals. The Book of Acts shows how life changes in the new creation: Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit; the Church gains new insights into God; people of faith, no matter their religion, are welcomed into the community of Jesus’ followers; and women become leaders in those communities.
When I began to prepare this sermon, I was just going to show how God calls us to life. However, against the backdrop of debates this last week, I think we need to examine the theological roots of different understandings of pro-life. How do such radically diverse views of life arise? And, how do all sides manage to call themselves Christian. Today we will explore why life in the new creation doesn’t always follow the rules we’ve been taught. Next week we’ll see how the biblical images of a new Jerusalem are used to justify different views of life.
Peter has been called before the Church Council to explain why he baptized a group of Gentiles. At that time the church consisted entirely of Jewish Christians. They assumed that since Jesus was Jewish, that people had to become Jewish in order to follow Christ. But Peter had just baptized the first Gentiles in Cornelius’ house because the circumcised believers accompanying him heard them speak in tongues and extol God. Peter could barely believe it himself. Jews considered Gentiles unclean and impure; therefore, they were beyond the waters of baptism. But when Peter saw that the Holy Spirit had fallen on Gentiles, he concluded, Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?
Episcopalians get a clue about what’s going on here by remembering the prayer we say over the water at baptism. In that prayer, we thank God for the waters of creation, when the state of existence changed from chaos to order; for the waters of the Red Sea, when the Hebrew slaves left behind slavery and moved into freedom; and for the waters of the Jordan, when the children of those slaves moved from a nomadic to a settled life. The water of baptism is the water of life, and it initiates us into a new reality.
But for most of history religion has been used to justify the way things are rather than to usher in a more just arrangement. I think that’s where different opinions about the meaning of life arise. So Peter, like everyone else, wasn’t ready to move directly into including Gentiles in God’s plan. So God gave him a vision to help him move away from a religion that taught him to say no to a relationship that allowed him to say yes. He tells the church council that three times he saw a large sheet coming down from heaven. On it were four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles and birds of the air – all things that Jews considered profane. He heard a voice: ‘Get up, kill and eat.’ When he protested the voice replied, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’
Immediately, men arrived from the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, whom Peter would have also called profane and unclean. Peter connected his vision to the invitation to Cornelius’ house. So he went. When he arrived he said, “You know that our law prohibits a Jew to associate with a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)
Listen well to what Peter says and doesn’t say. He didn’t say there are no profane or unclean things in the world. He said we shouldn’t call anything created unclean. You see, in human matters reality isn’t a given, independent of what we believe it to be. Peter came to understand that we construct reality as we describe it. The words we use shape the reality we describe.
In the world I grew up in women stayed home, Russians were monsters, Mexicans were lazy, gays were fags and Jews were greedy. Those words created my reality. Society assigned a level to each group, and made certain groups responsible for our problems. We can only make war when we turn our enemy into something less than ourselves – less than human even.
It’s threatening to question the labels our culture puts on people. We don’t usually make a lot of friends that way. Scapegoating exists in all cultures. The word comes from the Hebrew practice of ritually placing the sins of the people on a goat and sending it out to the desert, symbolizing that the sins of the people have been removed. The scapegoat restored a sense of the sacred to the lives of both individuals and community. Communities need to restore the sacred to thrive; scapegoating as a way to accomplish that goes very deep. When Hitler said that Jews and gays were the source of Germany’s problems, he was making them scapegoats. When the President said that Muslims are the greatest threat of terrorism in the country, he was making them scapegoats. When a government blames immigrants for the rise of violent crime, it is scapegoating.
The good news is that people with a vision of heaven already know that one group of human beings can never be less than another group. The Gospel dismantles scapegoating as the basis of social order. It undermines systems that restore order by blaming certain people for its problems. Jesus refused to scapegoat lepers, the lame, menstruating women, tax collectors, prostitutes, eunuchs or any other category. He dismantled this inherently violent practice by dying on the cross for refusing to do it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that people who have seen what heaven-on-earth looks like always reject scapegoating. People who consider themselves followers of the Gospel find that sometimes the pull of the scapegoating mechanism is stronger than the Gospel for them. So Peter, who had walked with Jesus as he dismantled scapegoating, resisted the vision the Spirit used to break him from the practice of scapegoating. But he got it when he met Cornelius’ people. He realized at that moment how much it matters what we call people. No one and no-thing should be called profane, unclean or illegal. This is counter-history, and it comes from heaven, as it subverts the world from inside. In that story the righteous learn not to call anyone unclean; so-called “repugnant” people learn to stop calling themselves repugnant; all of us learn to stop calling the parts we see as less acceptable in us repugnant. To be open to the Spirit of God is to be pro-life in a way that is much more radical than many pro-lifers understand.