Peter's Buffet

The Rev. Amy Spagna Easter 5C – April 24, 2016 Acts 11:1-­‐‑18,   John 13:31-­‐‑35


When I was in elementary school, I was a proud card-­‐‑carrying member of the Lunchbox Crew. The privilege of buying lunch in the cafeteria, instead of bringing it from home, was a rare treat. Usually that meant my sainted mother hadn’t had time to bake bread for sandwiches. Regardless, the dollar she handed me on the way out the door on those days meant getting to savor the opportunity to stand in line with the other kids, peering over the sneeze guards to see what the cafeteria ladies were serving up. One of their more wonderful offerings was a triple-­‐‑decker peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the best any kid could want – the kind where the peanut butter oozes out the sides and the middle layer of bread somehow just got subsumed into what it was trying to hold together. On one non-­‐‑lunchbox day when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I had my heart set on one of those PB&J’s, so much so I could almost taste those gooey layers by the time our class’ lunchtime rolled around. So you can imagine my shock and horror when there magically appeared on my tray… a meatball sub. Meatballs?! On a hot dog bun?! What a disaster! Now, I’d been taught to accept what I was served gratefully, but by the time the line snaked its way up to the cash register, I was really distraught. How could I possibly eat such a thing as a meatball sandwich, even though I was having trouble finding the words to ask for what I really wanted?

We find Peter in more or less the same spot today. While he’s not standing in a school cafeteria line, he does have to try to make sense out of something which, at first glance, doesn’t make much sense at all. He’s had a vision, from God, in which he’s presented with a buffet of proteins to make any chef envious. However, there is nothing on that buffet which he can eat, thanks to his adherence to Jewish dietary laws. If he touches any of it, he will become ritually unclean. It’s absolutely repulsive, and unthinkable to him, until the voice from heaven tells him 3 times that he can have whatever he wants, without penalty. Once Peter snaps out of the trance which produced this vision, he’s puzzled. While he does know there’s a real-­‐‑world application for what he’s just seen, initially he is not sure what that is. His confusion is only lifted after three messengers arrive, and ask him to go and visit with the Roman centurion Cornelius. While he is a Gentile, Cornelius is, by all accounts, an, “upright and God-­‐‑fearing man, who is well-­‐‑spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (Acts10:22, NRSV). The very next day, Peter goes with these messengers to meet with Cornelius. What he finds is exactly as the messengers describe: a Gentile who has come to believe in Christ, and whom Peter can find no reason not to baptize.

When Peter returns to Jerusalem, and has to report all this to community there, the consequences are nothing less than staggering. The conservative Jewish Christians who made up most of the membership were uneasy at best when it came to interacting with Gentiles. However, Peter’s story serves to completely change their understanding of who Jesus is, including who Jesus is FOR. The vision of the buffet, along with the baptism of Cornelius, vision has hammers home the theme that Jesus is for EVERYONE, regardless of whatever heritage they may claim. Peter is among the first to recognize that it does not matter: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

It’s a devastating realization for him, and for those who were listening… because it requires changing, fundamentally, their understanding of “community” – beginning and ending with the God who was the reason for its being. The Early Church really struggled with the issue of who should be included as a “real” follower of Jesus. Fortunately for us, they were led to the conclusion that the old rules about belonging didn’t hold water any more. They’ve been superseded by Jesus’ death and resurrection – events which served to open up yet another pathway to God for anyone who came to believe in him.

This episode also serves to demonstrate how Peter, and the rest of the disciples, have taken Jesus’ final commandment to love one another to a whole new level. By hearing, and acting on, God’s direction to welcome Gentiles into their community, they’ve pushed its boundaries outward. They’ve put into practice the realization that this commandment is not intended only as the introduction to a long, final lecture given to a select group of graduate students. The Resurrection, and subsequent spreading of Jesus’ message throughout the world like wildfire, have transformed into a do-­‐‑or-­‐‑die thing. Peter’s vision only reinforces the reality that there is no choice in loving one another in the same way God loves us. It is THE requirement for joining the ragtag group of disciples which had gathered to break bread with Jesus. Of course, there is one small catch. The kind of love Jesus talks about here is the kind God shows for the world, not the friendly kind of affection you and I might feel for each other. The English language does not easily distinguish between them.

However, there are two different verbs for “love” in Greek: phileo, to be fond of others as I am fond of my human friends; and agapao, to love another to the point of death, as God loves us. Jesus uses agapao appears three times in delivering this final directive. The repetition serves to hammer home that his intention – and that of his Father -­‐‑ is that his disciples love one another with the same reckless abandon as he does.  To do so does not mean entertaining a sweet, sentimental feeling. Instead, it requires taking the action of putting one’s love into a lived context.1

For Jesus, that meant allowing himself to be murdered in a very public and brutal way, and then allowing God to take care of the rest. Peter’s realization, not all that long afterward, points to how the consequences are universal, and not limited to a group of people which had come to believe in God in a particular way. God’s love is given freely, without being restricted to a specially chosen group of people, and at the expense of others. In Peter’s context, that means it applies to those who do not share his Jewish heritage. And, it’s up to him to help open the doors and welcome them into the Christian community. It’s a really audacious claim to say that God chose everyone, not just a small group. By making it, Peter runs the real risk of getting the boot from his leadership position, having people call him a heretic, or worse. Fortunately for him, his audience believes him, and is willing to act on the basis of that belief. But, it doesn’t come without a fundamental change in their understanding of God’s very nature – a change which can be very tough to process on an intellectual level. That tough processing can all but shut down the rest of the system while it’s happening. Once it’s done, however, what we’re left with is a way of being which has a tendency to make us so much more than what we are – if only we will allow God to take what we have, bless it, break and share it.

Embracing this new kind of life is inherently risky. It involves far more than just whether we get meatballs when we want a PB&J (and didn’t tell anyone about it!), or whether we can go right ahead and pick up that lobster with a side of   bacon-­‐‑wrapped

1 Karyn Wiseman, “Commentary on John 13:31-­‐‑35.”

scallops. We risk that our long-­‐‑held assumptions about who we are, both as a community and as individuals, might be challenged and overturned. Despite the new and improved version we get back in the process, losing a piece of our identity is no picnic. We are still challenged to engage with people who are, for all intents and purposes, outsiders of one sort or another. Just as Peter was, we are called to be very deliberate about including them. They are EVERYWHERE – most especially, they are the ones who don’t look, or talk, or act like us, or who aren’t “from here.” What we lose in daring to be in authentic relationship with them is our own fear over how the peanut butter will be chunky when we expected creamy, or the jelly will be grape when we wanted strawberry. Instead, we get so much more: the endless buffet of knowing, serving, and loving other people as God loves us.

Mapping Your Journey Through Lent.


      Today is the first Sunday of Lent and through this season we understand that we are a people invited to holy journey.  A that began on Ash Wednesday when we received a mark of ashes on our foreheads.  On our journey together in Lent we are reminded that we are a people struggling- with our mortality, our frailties – our temptations, fears and insecurities- and yes with our sins- and as we journey together we become a people of God. 

            But there are some practical questions which may pop into our mind.  Questions that all of us ask when we are on a trip.  Where are we going?  How do we know we when we get there? And for our holy journey some of us may ask what makes our journey different from the rest of the world which also travels.  And some of us can be like impatient kids in the back seat who ask “Are we there yet?”  And with these questions-- scripture can help us.   

            Through our scripture and through the lectionary readings in Lent and we understand that the story of God’s people is a story of a people who are always on a journey.  Adam and Eve moving out of the Garden of Eden into the Wilderness, or Noah traveling through the uncharted oceans to find land or Abraham and Sarah traveling from Ancient Iraq to the land of Caanan.   Jacob- traveling alone away from his home and then coming back home with his family.   There are times the story involves God’s people traveling to places like Egypt to survive and at other times they journey to escape slavery and captivity as they did in Egypt and Babylon.


The consistent theme is that the people of God are always traveling- where are they going? – most times to the  “promised land” a land which means for them- a place of peace, security, hope- a place they could call home. But the truly ironic thing is that the promised land may not be physical destination it may be something altogether different –because-- in the places they end up – all ways fall short of expectations.  For there is always trouble brewing in Eden and outside of Eden.

Notice even in the Gospel, the moment Jesus is Baptized, the moment he acknowledges his understanding of his vocation as “Beloved Son of God”- he is driven into the wilderness, he begins a journey that tests his call.  But also notice that as he traveled, his sence of security, hope and peace was not some place- Jesus seemed always seemed to be at “home” where ever he went. Maybe because he understood that he was never alone- God was always with him.  This is a piece of wisdom  that each generation of faithful Israelite eventually learn.  It is a lesson that we may learn as we journey with God- if we go with God we are always in the promised land.  This makes our journey uniquely holy!


   Today in our liturgy- we began by praying the Great Litany. Traditionally, Anglican Churches engage in this liturgy on the first, second, third and fifth Sundays of Lent, although many churches pray this litany on the first Sunday of Lent as we do today. For us, it marks the beginning of the journey of Lent.  You might have some questions about this litany. 


First off what is a litany – it is a series of petitions that are said in a responsive fashion between a leader and an entire congregation.  In the Great Litany, nearly every area of prayer is addressed.. including prayer for the church, the world, the government, and the poor. These petitions are prefaced by a series of requests asking God to deliver us from all manner of afflictions: evil, sin, heresy, schism, natural disasters, political disasters, violence, death, and the list goes on.


For those of us who are new to the Episcopal Church the Great Litany might seem a bit peculiar or awkward.   It might seem like we are doing some sort of  liturgical aerobics, yes--it is not a something that is done in other religious traditions. Because really-- what church ever begins a service with ten to twelve minutes of a cappella chanting of prayers while a congregation repeats a refrain the entire time. The chanting is done all while the choir, clergy and lay ministers process into the sanctuary and continue to process around the sanctuary until the entire litany is over.


But this litany roots us- to an ancient tradition.  The Great Litany is the first piece of liturgy that ever existed in the English language. Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, compiled this litany from Catholic, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox sources at the request of King Henry the Eight in the 16th century .  Prior to this point all church services were in Latin. King Henry VIII commissioned this Litany because at the time it was the practice for litanies to be offered in procession through public neighborhoods.  And the King was disappointed that people were not responding and joining in the prayers. He observed that this was because the people “understode no parte of suche prayers or suffrages as were used to be songe and sayde.”


It remains to today almost entirely the same, sung to the same chants Cranmer originally assigned.


Through this procession of community- in prayer we acknowledge several realities.  First we understand – that prayer is central to our life together and mission in the world.  The Great Litany helps us to see that we need God’s intervention and involvement in all areas of our lives.  It also reminds us that we are on a journey with God and with each other. And it is in the midst of this journey that we let go of our illusion of  control, and empty ourselves to God.  And finally, we understand that regardless of where we are, when we are with God--- we are at home. It may be cliché sounding --but friends wisdom tells us the –the destination is never as important as the journey and who we travel with.   


What a wonderful way to begin Lent.







Water to wine- the act that welcomes all

There is the story of Johnny Carson, the host of The Tonight Show speaking to an eight year old boy. The young man had rescued two friends in a coal mine in West Virginia. As Johnny spoke with the boy, it was clear that boy was a Christian. So Carson asked, if he attended Sunday school. When the boy said yes.  He asked "What are you learning in Sunday school?" "Last week," came his reply, "our lesson was about when Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine." The audience roared with laughter but Carson tried to keep a straight face. Then he said, "And what did you learn from that story?" The boy shifted a bit- it was clear that he hadn't thought about this. But then his face lite up and he replied, "If you're going to have a wedding, make sure you invite Jesus!"


To the modern hearer, it might be a bit puzzling to hear that Jesus’ first public act in John’s Gospel Is turning water into win-now I know you might say—hey by Episcopal standards that this is an exceptional miracle.  But really water into wine?- In the Gospel of Mark--Jesus’ first public act is an exorcism, in Matthew it is the Sermon on the Mount; in Luke it is a sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth on the sabbath.


So what is John's is trying to tell us about Jesus and his ministry in this first story?

Let’s look and see: 

Jesus’s family is invited to a wedding in Cana of Galilee and he and his disciples tag along.  As we look into this story we see a little bit of comedic tension between a mother and her son. Reminding us though Jesus is God, he is still a son.  Mary is a demanding mother has faith in the abilities of her son.  So much so she goads Jesus to take care of a problem.  A problem that would have been a shameful experience for the family of the bridegroom.      


So what does Jesus do—he directs that six stone water jars which were to be used “for the Jewish rites of purification” to be filled with water.  The water in those jars would have been used for making people ritually clean to participate in the community celebration.  This is important because in the Gospel of John, there is a running debate between Jesus and the religious authority.  Where as the Authorities adopt of posture of following the rules that allowed some to be in and others to be out.  Jesus offers a grace that welcomes all.  By changing this water into wine, Jesus makes a symbolic statement that foretells Jesus’s ministry. Because really Jesus could have gotten water from any where else to may wine from but he chose the Jars of purification and repurposed them for grace.   The jars could not be used for ritual purification any longer.  In other words no would have to jump through hoops to be made clean or worthy to join the party. 


John calls this miracle the first of many signsthat reveals the glory of God in Jesus.   In the Gospel there are  6 other signs that reveal who Jesus is.  The signs could be miracles but they didn’t have to be.   For John the signs confirmed belief, encouraged faith, transformed individuals.  For John it is not the miracle that was important- for you see once the wine is gone- it doesn’t really matter how good it tasted but what is significant is that the sign helped the people to discern that there is something special going on- God is doing something and especially with Jesus.   The sign of the changing of water into wine at Cana- lead those disciples who on the fence about Jesus to be confirmed in their faith!  It lead them to a deeper commitment to God through Jesus. 


For you see in the Gospel of John,  those who could recognize the signs were people who could spiritually see and understand the power of God as opposed to those whocould not see the signs and who were spiritually lost. 


Signs are important for us in our world as well .  We see a stop sign and we do what? We stop of course!   We see the flashing lights of a police car we immediately recognize the sign and slow down or pull over- and pray we don’t get a ticket. 


In church there are signs that are brimming with great symbolism, Baptism is one:  when a child- or an adult and the baptized it is a powerful sign, we call it a sacrament an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  The sign tells us something about holiness of the act and the holiness of the promise being made.   


Sometimes there are signs that are not so positive, this past week in the news we encountered a sign in our Anglican Church.  A sign that revealed a deep division within our Anglican church,  as we wrestle with hard issues of who is welcomed and included by God in our church.  I am speaking of course of the recent sanctioning of the Episcopal Church by Anglican Primates.


The sanction recommends that, the Episcopal Church, for a period of three years, “no longer represent the Anglican Church on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, and should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committeeand they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”


The sanctions were imposed in response to our churches decision at General Convention last June to change canonical language that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman (Resolution A036) and authorize two new marriage rites with language allowing them to be used by same-sex or opposite-sex couples (Resolution A054).


But even though there is a call for sanctions the Primates called for an unanimous desire to walk together in the grace and love of Jesus Christ. 


What we might understand from this sign is that there is still a lot of work to do to reconcile differing perspectives in our Anglican Church. 


But in the midst of the great work that has to be done.  Our presiding Bishop Michael Curry and our Diocesan Bishop Nick reminds us, that Jesus calls us to be House of prayer welcoming all people.  We are church firmly and courageously hold to the understanding that whether you are gay or straight, black, white, latino, Asian, young or old, conservative or liberal the Episcopal Church is your church!  And that our church is part of movement that began with the first miracle in Cana of Galilee. A Jesus movement- a movement of justice, it is a movement that acknowledges that God loves us- all of us. 


I am proud our church, I have faith in our church – because it is a church that welcomes all with the grace of God!


Because friends Jesus has been invited to our party- and his isour community.  And by God’s grace we will by the g walk and pray with those who do not share our point of view.  And by our walk we will  fulfill our vocation to welcome all to Jesus.  And we will be a community that isvisible sign of God’s inward Grace! So that all may learn and believe!