It’s an odd episode the lectionary serves up for a Sunday of the baptism
of one of the newest daughters of our congregation.
It’s not one of the very well known stories of the Bible,
but I hope Jill and Greg will over the years teach it to Sonja.
Not just to know Peter’s curious vision,
but to act out its world-changing promise.
You see, for Christians,
Peter’s vision and his actions that flow from it
are at the heart of how we understand God’s love–
and thereby how we practice our faith,
…how we see ourselves and treat others.
It’s a picnic blanket dropped down from heaven
crawling with all sorts of creepy animals Jews would never think of eating.
They were forbidden by the law and by custom.
A picnic blanket full of every ‘not on “ok to eat”’ animal on the culture and religion’s list.
But just as much–
the animals on this picnic blanket
— it’s not just about the rules —
they weren’t really very appetizing to think about eating.
Beatles. And muskrats. And vultures.
That’s important to remember–
Peter’s vision is about something so deep that it seems almost unnatural to us.
Something that causes a wave of revulsion to wash through us.
I remember I once ordered Frogs Legs in a Cambodian restaurant on Washington Avenue. Katsu was with me. He looked horrified, and asked a second, then a third time what it was I had just asked for. When I carefully made sure he understood I was expecting a plate of frogs legs to be put before me, he then said in the most serious voice:
“Michael-san, we Japanese, we don’t eat amphibians.”
You’d have thought I was dropping live newts in my mouth!
But this picture of a picnic blanket full of stomach-turning anti-delicacies,
still alive and moving around,
that’s not enough for the narrative of Acts to make its point.
There’s also the voice.
The text identifies it as “the Lord’s voice.”
A commanding voice from heaven,
unmistakably directing Peter to “kill and eat.”
He refuses of course.
You can hear the indignation in his voice…
God just asked a faithful, kosher-keeping early Jewish Christian
to dive right in and savor a pork and shrimp casserole!
As I said, it’s sort of a squeamish vision and an arcane episode for a baptism Sunday, but thematically, it’s perfect.
Because Peter’s religious experience
and the visit and conversion of the gentile Cornelius that came of it
(ironically in the previous chapter)…
they aren’t really about food.
Or any religious rituals.
Rather, they are the whole world around us.
And all the people in it.
It’s just right, downright appropriate for a baptism to stretch us with God’s love.
To challenge our faith in and practice of the love of God,
the faith into which we are about to baptize Sonja.
Church, Peter’s vision is not really about what should be on the menu.
It’s about who God can gather at the table.
Or, more broadly, who are communities can embrace and encompass.
If you want to really begin to get it,
imagine God just invited you to share a meal
with whomever you wonder why we even waste food on…
Peter, the church’s first Pope, if you will,
has this godly vision is about people.
But not about who — in terms of Jewish inclusion — is circumcised.
Or even — in terms of Christian inclusion — who is baptized.
(But for Christians, it certainly means that baptism is open to everyone!)
But it’s even bigger than that.
Not just about who we worship with or how we believe.
It’s about who we recognize.
About whether we are yet loving to the limits of who God can welcome.
In his religious experience, Peter can see that God’s love trumps all the limitations of human civilization and human fear. He recognizes God’s love overwhelming all the boundaries we put between ourselves and others and in God’s way,
As a first step, Peter lives out this faith by receiving the gentile Cornelius’ invitation and welcome.
Then, Peter recognizes God at work in the life of someone he thought beyond God’s concern.
And, the final move, when Peter really steps out on the limb, is when he takes the unprecedented step of inviting and welcoming Cornelius as a companion and brother in faith.
If Easter showed that neither death and the tomb can’t stop God’s love.
It turns out, thank God, neither can life nor all we do and don’t do to limit it
and diminish one another.
Beloved, the Gospel is not just that we can welcome
this precious little girl this morning.
But about how much bigger God’s love is.
About how like God,
Sonja and all the rest of us are to see all people as holy and sacred,
…how God freely offers everyone a love by which
we are created, carried, transformed and redeemed.
It’s Peter’s question from the end of our reading, “Who are we to hinder God?”
Who really are we to hold back or try to restrict God’s love from the breadth and reach of its flow?
Peter’s faith and practice bursts the boundaries of Table and Temple. Because God’s care extends to all people. God is the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of all.
To follow, we too must so believe and act —
recognizing, welcoming, caring for and loving every last one.
On our own, we all have multiple long lists of who is in and who is out;
Who’s sacred and who’s not;
Who matters and who doesn’t;
Who is worthy of our respect and care and compassion,
and who can be overlooked or disrespected or dismissed.
All the dichotomies and tribalisms we imagine and live out:
The clean and the unclean.
The holy and the profane.
The orthodox and hopelessly wrong.
Saint and sinner.
Innocent and guilty.
The worthy and the unimportant.
I invite you to look around this Sanctuary — it’s not a rhetorical invitation! Really, look to your left and to your right. Turn around even. And begin to see “all God’s people”
with wider eyes. And softer hearts.
No longer male and female.
Rich and poor.
Black and white.
Jews and Muslims.
Catholics and Protestants.
Gay and straight.
American or immigrant.
English-speaker or not.
Christian or not.
No more “Us” or “Them.”
God already includes all who have been excluded,
all who have been sent to the back of the bus
by all our fears and the tribal passions that come of them.
The scales were removed from Peter’s eyes,
his faith has grown to see
that he and all the followers of Jesus are under a new commandment
that violates all usual human social distinctions.
May we lose our scales and begin to see the Christ in one another.
The presence of the risen Christ is a Spirit that crosses boundaries.
That reaches out to and offers a hand to those who are put down or thrown out.
We who confess Easter are recruited to a similar generosity of love
that calls and moves us across all the boundaries
that would keep us to ourselves and hinder God.
Church, I’ve said it before (and I bet I will say it again before long):
Faith is never about who’s right and wrong, but about how much we love,
because we are loved that much.
At Old First, we believe, we are to be:
But gathered together nonetheless
in our service to love.
That together in that service that comes of love,
with this little girl we are about to baptize,
and with the God we know in Jesus Christ,
we may make a surprising, even transformative journey.