— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
~~~Fifth Sunday of Easter ~~~
Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35; Psalm 148
Life is full of surprises…and resurrection stories! You never know what’s over the mountain until you’re willing to climb it in order to see.
Scripture readings on Easter and the six Sundays that follow are full of resurrection stories. Many of them end with a feeling of “Who would have believed that?” Biblical scholars refer to many of these events in the gospels as “post-resurrection stories.” The whole book of Acts—the New Testament history of the Church—is about resurrection…not the resurrection story of Jesus contained in the gospels, but about things, people, and the Church coming to life…about the impossible and the incredible happenings.
Today’s reading from Acts 11 actually has its beginning with chapter 10. A Roman captain, Cornelius, head of the Italian Guard stationed in Caesarea, has an unusual spiritual experience. Cornelius is described as a good man, leading his household to worship and honor God. He is a prayerful person, a generous, helpful person to all. At about 3’oclock one afternoon he has a vision in which an angel comes to him. The angel tells Cornelius that God is aware of his kind spirit and tells him to send some of his men to Joppa to the house of Simon the tanner where Simon Peter is staying. “Have them ask Peter to come to your house in Caesarea,” this vision-angel says.
The next day as three of Cornelius’ men are entering the town of Joppa, Peter has a vision himself. In Peter’s vision, a blanket is being lowered by ropes from the four corners. All kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds are on it—things that were unacceptable to eat in Jewish theology and Jewish social tradition. A voice said to Peter in the vision: “Go to it and eat.” Peter told the voice he couldn’t because it wasn’t kosher. It was improper for him, as a Jew, to eat such. Three times this event was repeated in his vision. As he was pondering the meaning of this dream, the Spirit told Peter to go down from the flat roof where he was praying…that three men were there to see him. Don’t question their request—just go with them. “I have sent them for you,” the voice said.
The next morning, Peter left with the men for Caesarea. A few of Peter’s friends went with him. When they arrived at the end of the day’s journey, Cornelius was waiting for them. He met Peter in front of his house and bowed down before him. Peter asked him to get up, saying he was a person just like Cornelius.
Cornelius and Peter shared the experience of their visions with each other. Peter said, “What we are doing is highly irregular; Jews just don’t do this—visit and relax with people of a different race. God has just shown me that no human being is any better than another. That is the reason I came at your request with no questions. Cornelius had other friends and family members gathered with him before Peter. Cornelius thanked Peter for coming to his home. “Speak to us of your spiritual Master and tell us what God has put in your heart for us to hear.”
Peter told everyone gathered how it all began with John (the Baptist) preaching and baptizing in the desert area. How God’s Spirit seemed to descend upon Jesus and anoint him. How Jesus went through the country helping people and healing all who were beaten down…all because God was with him. “His way was different for even us,” Peter said. “We witnessed everything—how finally Jesus was betrayed by his own people and was executed on a cross. Three days later, some of us were witnesses—hand picked by God—and we encountered his risen presence. We ate and drank with him—his spirit. We are to be witnesses that he is the means to a new life for everyone.”
No sooner had Peter given this account than the Holy Spirit came upon all of these listeners. The Jewish people who came with Peter couldn’t believe it—couldn’t believe God’s Spirit being poured out on these non-Jewish, “unclean” people in Cornelius’ household. These Italian-Romans were ecstatic; they were praising God.
Peter turned to those with him and asked, “Does anyone have an objection to baptizing these new friends?” No objections, so they were baptized.
This is a resurrection story. People of the same army who executed Jesus asking to be told the story of this Nazarene and being filled with the Holy Spirit. Jews, who were normally despised by the Romans, were being treated with the utmost respect and were being shown the hospitality so prevalent in the life-style of Jesus.
Turn the page to today’s reading from Acts 11 and you’ll see Peter’s colleagues back in Jerusalem being quite upset with him for crossing such racial, cultural barriers.
How much progress have we made in the past 2,000 years? Walls are built to keep the Palestinians from living in Jewish neighborhoods; walls are built to keep the Jews from living in Palestinian neighborhoods.
The Berlin Wall—referred to as the “Wall of Shame” by the West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt—kept the socialist East Berliners from coming into free West Berlin area, and kept the East Berliners from being able to leave and go into the freedom and democracy of West Berlin.
North Korea’s wall has been referred to as the Korean Demilitarized Zone since 1953. When the Armistice Agreement of 1953 ended the fighting, a peace treaty was never signed. So, technically as far as I understand, they are still at war with each other.
Some sections of the Great Wall of China have been in place since the 7th century BCE. Our own nation has been internally divided during the last few years about the feasibility, effectiveness, and appropriateness of a wall on our southern border to separate us from our southern neighbors—Mexico, and other Central American countries.
In the north Georgia little town I grew up in, the railroad tracks served as a “wall.” The issue and practice of slavery and its economic benefit for many Southern states served as a wall in our nation 150 years ago separating the North from the South. Political parties sometimes erect their own political “walls” in our houses of government created to serve the people.
The Augusta National Golf Club, host to the recent annual Masters Tournament, had a wall that kept African Americans from being members until 1990. (In fact, up until 1990 all caddies were required to be people of color.) In 2012, under Billy Payne’s chairmanship (a fellow-Presbyterian from Atlanta) Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore became members—the first two female members—taking down their second wall.
Churches have even been known to erect their own invisible walls that keep people in and keep people out.
Jesus tore down the wall between death and life and he is still trying to tear them down all over the world.
Sixteen years ago, Melissa Faye Greene (noted Atlanta author) wrote a book about a story that has fascinated me ever since reading it— Last Man Out. The real-life account is about the 1958 explosion that occurred in the deepest coal mine in North America—Springhill, Nova Scotia. Out of the 174 miners that were two and a half miles underground, seventy-five died. Of the ninety-nine survivors, eighty-one were rescued within the first 24-hours. Eighteen were still underground for an incomprehensible nine days in total darkness. Greene chronicles the events of those days and the lives of the survivors in her book. This event may have been the first televised media frenzy, live from the Nova Scotia scene. Cards, money, and donations of clothing poured in to the town as the nightmare continued day after day. Ed Sullivan extended an invitation to survivors to be on his program once they came out. Georgia’s 1958 state officials, seeking to promote Jekyll Island as a resort area, offered to fly eighteen of the survivors and their families for a vacation on this resort island, usually reserved for millionaires. All was going well with this miraculous rescue until everyone discovered that the last man out of the mine was African American and Jekyll Island was a segregated community.
1Melissa Fay Greene, Last Man Out, (Hartcourt, Inc., New York), 2003.
The Easter message is…that regardless of the mine in which you may find yourself entombed…regardless of your feeling “buried alive”…regardless of your feeling scared to death, afraid you will never see the light of day or the light of life, there is hope, there is resurrection, and there is a new life that awaits you! “Hope,” as Suzanne Collins says in The Hunger Games, “is the only thing more powerful than fear.” Amen.