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No walls to divide in this Lithuanian sculpture

Acts 10:44-48

Easter 6, May 5, 2024

Holy Trinity Cathedral

“No Us and Them”

In our first reading from Acts, we hear about some people who “get religion”.  After the rising again of Jesus from the dead, his close followers started sharing their stories of good news.  Some of the disciples stayed in Jerusalem; others travelled to towns up and down the Mediterranean Sea.  Because they are Jews, they stay with Jewish families and teach in Jewish synagogues.  But not everyone who hears them is Jewish.  There are also God-fearers- foreigners who appreciated and tried to follow the ethical path of Judaism, even though they were not considered part of the children of Israel.  And there are Gentiles- everyone of some other religion or none.  Jews, God-fearers, and Gentiles alike begin to hear and respond to the proclamation of God’s love and meaning for their lives.  This is more than rules.  It is more than showing up at a temple on certain days.  It is more than giving offerings or having status in a group.  As their hearts turn to accepting Jesus, what they receive is more than religion.   They get the Holy Spirit at work: breaking the barriers between “us” and “them”.


There is more here than a simple story of a group of Gentiles receiving the good news of Jesus and being baptized into the Christian faith.  In the background is divine agency.  God is active even before the human response.  First there is Peter- the disciple that keeps getting it wrong before he gets it right.  At first, he has been very opposed to preaching the gospel to those outside of Judaism.  Haven’t the apostles got enough to do just telling their Jewish brothers and sisters about the Messiah?  Then he has a vision in a dream that expands his understanding of ministry.  God tells him not to call unclean what has been made clean.  That is, he is not to exclude the Gentiles from God’s plan of salvation.  Peter’s frame of reference of “us” changes.  Maybe “us” means all people.


The second main character is a Roman soldier named Cornelius.  He is one of the God-fearers, and he wants to hear more about Jesus.  He’s been doing everything right according to the Law.  Earlier in the chapter he is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God”.  But Cornelius has the feeling that there is something more to life than this.  Then he too has an extraordinary experience: an angel appears to him and tells him to send for Peter.  So Peter travels with some of the believers down to Joppa, and Cornelius gathers his household and his friends and neighbours.  Their hearts are opened to listen to this Jewish emissary, who brings good news even to Gentiles.


Both parties are brought together by God’s will, overcoming the social and cultural barriers that would normally divide the two.  They dare to meet and speak and eat together.  And this Jesus Christ, who judges hearts, forgives sin, and restores community, is alive in the moment.  We hear about the signs of the Spirit: how those who are present all speak in tongues and extol God together.  They are able to love their neighbour and love God.  What further proof of the Holy Spirit in action do they need?  Peter recognizes that God can be active outside of the Jewish faith: believers don’t need to be Jewish in order to receive the Spirit of Christ.  Baptism is simply affirmation of what God is already doing.  Our human response is to publicly attest that in Christ there is no “us” and “them”.


We live in world of deep divisions.  So many relationships fracture along lines of race, culture, class, and identity.  And it is part of the human condition that we think of those who are similar as “us” and those who are different as “them”.  Religion is no different if we think of religion as only a set of beliefs, or a body of practices, or a group that is restricted to those of a certain race or culture or caste.  We are quick to assume we know who God approves of or doesn’t.  Many in our wider society have read history and witnessed our inhumanity to each other in the name of religion.  Atheism can be a recoil from the hurt that has been inflicted on our fellow humans in the name of a deity, as well as a despair of asking for help beyond ourselves.  Those who are considered religious are scorned as fools or feared as fanatics.  Religion becomes a dirty word when misused by the human race. 


How remarkably different is the gospel truth!  Christ overcomes the “us” and “them”.  His Spirit works within those who would be his disciples to push past the barriers and strictures of human structures, even those of religion.  This is a radical way of living, one that challenges the tribalism that dominates human society.  It even challenges the Church.


One of the attractions of the Christian faith from the beginning is this inclusive claim: every individual is a beloved child of God.  At baptism, each is welcomed, valued, and incorporated into the community.  Yet it is difficult it is to leave behind the prejudices of our wider culture.  Even within our faith communities, we can miss the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through those who do not come from our particular sub-group.  Who speaks up at meetings?  Who gets listened to?  With humility, we may recognize the Spirit in those who are not already at the centre.  Peter did.  Even though he was a teacher of the faith, he listened to learn something new about his own assumptions and prejudices.  And those new believers who were filled with the Holy Spirit?  They had the wisdom to invite the apostle to stay and share more with them about his experience of Jesus. 


There is a sign over the front doors of this cathedral.  It isn’t there just to invite strangers into our midst.  The words remind us of our purpose:

“Come, you who have much faith and you who have little.   You who have been here often, and you who have not been here long.  You who have tried to follow, and you who have stumbled along the way. Wherever you may find yourself on the journey of life and faith you are welcome in this place.”


The people in our Bible reading this morning “got” religion in the sense that they truly began to understand what is important about faith.  It isn’t about being right, or being born of a certain race or culture, or about showing up in the correct place to worship.  When we take the time to listen to the sacred voice speaking to our heart, and seek that presence in community, we become aware that we are one in the Spirit.  There is no “them”.  There is us.