With God There Is No Partiality

How many of us romanticize the early years of the church? Somehow believing that everyone who belonged was of one mind and the only conflict the church had to endure was from without and not from within. I know the way the lectionary works, it can certainly seems that way. But truth be told, as you read the letters of Paul and the book of Acts, you come to realize, things were not so wonderful back then either.
The Christian movement in its early years struggled with growing pains and different understanding as to what the church should be, just like the church does today. In this morning’s reading from Acts, the passage we heard is the conclusion to St. Peter’s, and ultimately the early church’s, coming to terms with the growing number of Gentiles converting to Christianity. I know, from today’s perspective, as we worry about declining attendance and overall declining membership across all Christian denominations, one would welcome the problems Peter and the early church were enduring. The issues, however, had little to do with welcoming the gentile world into the church, but more to do with identity and how to incorporate them into the fuller body of Christ. After all, the early church had maintained its jewish identity. Until 70 A.D. most early Christians still worshipped in the synagogues and then participated in communal eucharists later in the week. Most early Christians had entered from Judaism. And most Early Christians saw Christianity, or the “Way” as it was known, as part of a sub-sect of Judaism.
A second issue Peter and the Apostles had to work through is that Ancient Judaism had no concept of conversion. To be a Jew, one had to be born into the faith for all Jews were decedents of Abraham. 
So how was Peter to deal with a growing movement which now attracted righteous and God loving people who were not members of God’s chosen people. . .who had not been steeped in the laws and the ways of Torah. . .who may never understand the dietary and lifestyle restrictions of God. 
Now the Holy Spirit has a way of moving things along, over the course of three nights, Peter has the same dream. In it, he sees the animals of the earth pass by and hears the voice of God to eat of all things. This Peter refuses to do for Torah teaches that certain animals are profaned and not to be eaten. But God says otherwise, God declares nothing God has made is profane. 
At the same time Peter is having these visions, God is also speaking to Cornelius, a man described as an Italian Centurion who both loves God and is generous to God’s people. Cornelius desires a deeper relationship with God so the Holy Spirit brings Peter and Cornelius together. As the two encounter each other, they realize their meeting is frowned upon by the world and this is where our passage from Acts begins with Peter declaring, “‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Years later, St Paul will write to the Galatians,”There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,* heirs according to the promise.”
What all of this tells us is, from the very beginning the church has struggled trying to figure out who it is, what defines its members and ultimately, what defines righteousness. While the specifics of the question has changed throughout the years, the answer never has. The church is for all people, for every nationality, race, and gender. The only ticket one needs for membership is that of having a fear of the Lord.
 On Friday we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. It is the day we commemorate the arrival of the Magi at the home of the Holy Family. So often we forget that the celebration of the Magi has less to do with gold, frankincense and myrrh, but with the Light of God being given to all people and all nations.
How easy and yet how difficult it is for the church to understand this fundamental tenet of our faith. As a species, I suspect the unity of all our faith teaches is counter-intuitive to who we are instinctively. Developmental psychology tells us, one of our first developmental goals is to develop a sense of being a differentiated self from one’s parents. As parents we first notice a child’s sense of individuation when they discover the power of the word “no” as a means to control the world around them. By the age of three, children are naturally curious about physical differences and what it means to be a boy or a girl, or why people come in different colors. At first our differences make the world more interesting, in time we discover how our differences can separate us. 
Last week, I shared how in ancient Judaism, it was verboten to speak the name of God. The ancient tradition taught that words not only define but also limit. Since God is limitless, God’s name was never to be spoken. Our words not only limit and define they also imply value and judgement. What the revelation of the Epiphany, the vision of Peter and the words of Paul continue to tell the Church, is that no matter how we choose to define ourselves or each other, there is only one factor that counts because this is what unifies all of us Christian. One who has been washed in the waters of Baptism, one who loves and fears God, one who has been humbled at the foot of the cross, one who knows that righteousness is not predicated on what we eat or the rituals we choose to keep, but simply on the fact that one chooses to love and serve Christ.
This is what binds us, this is what unites us, this is what brings us together. And, this is what defines us a people of God. 
Despite all of this, the church will continue to have its conflicts as we continue in our attempt to understand who we are, as we struggle to figure out who’s in and who’s out, as we naturally attempt to figure out what righteousness truly looks like. We will always differ as to what we understand the answers to be. This is okay, as long as we remember that ultimately God shows no partiality and that God will continue to challenge us as we are called to expand our understanding of what and who the church is for.

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