The Most Damaging Word for the Church

(Acts 10:44-48)

When I was in fourth grade, the front desk lady came to our class and asked if there were any of us who’d like to play an instrument.

Yes, please! I wanted to play something really cool, like trumpet or the saxophone or lead guitar for Deep Purple. I had big dreams.

“All those who raised their hands, please come to the office after school today to sign up.”

I waited all day for the chance to make my way to the school office to sign up for the next step on my life journey to superstardom. I kept going back and forth in my head, trying to figure out what I should play, what would be fun, cool, and, of course, easy. I figured I’d just decide once i saw the list. One instrument would call out to me, beckoning me to a life of stadium tours and limo rides.

When school finally let out and I ran to the office, I asked the front desk lady if I could see the sign-up for playing an instrument. “Sure thing,” she said. “You’re the first one.”

Yes!

I pulled the paper to me, prepared to have my muse whisper an instrument in my ear—kind of like an elementary school musical sorting hat.

But when I saw the instruments on the list, there were only two options: Violin or viola.

What? Only two? And I had no idea what a viola was, but I was pretty sure nobody in the Doobie Brothers played one.

“What about, like, the trumpet, or whatever,” I wanted to know.

“Oh, I’m sorry sweetie. This is orchestra signups. Band lessons don’t start until fifth grade.”

You have got to be kidding me. Who plays the violin? Nobody plays the violin. Only old guys with crazy hair and big side burns. I couldn’t believe it.

On the other hand, it was an instrument … such as it was. So okay, fine.

I signed up.

My parents were thrilled … until I actually started playing. I won’t bore you with hackneyed sounded-like-a-cat-being-tortured-with-an-eggbeater descriptions that are so popular in relaying the horrors of listening to first-time violinists. Suffice it to say, the sound was horrific—something the U.N. should take up in any future emendations to the Geneva Conventions as prohibited treatment of captured enemy combatants in war.

But my parents needn’t have worried. I didn’t like practicing, so they weren’t much subjected to the torment of the damned.

My lack of practice didn’t escape my violin teacher’s notice, though. Every time it was the violins’ turn to play, she got this horrified look in her eyes. And she would stare at me in disbelief—as if to say, I thought the cat-torture metaphor was about as close as the limitations of words could take us in describing awful violin playing—but you, my young friend, have demonstrated the need for a linguistic descriptor that is even more violent and grating.

As a consequence of my aversion to practice, I didn’t learn anything about playing the violin. And to make matters worse, my violin teacher broke her leg in the spring, and was out of school for a couple of months. I don’t remember what she did—probably some terrible resining accident, or a result of stabbing herself in the thigh with the bow after a run in with Paganini’s Caprice No. 4 in c minor.

So by the time of the spring concert our little fourth grade orchestra was woefully unprepared. And I the least prepared of all. After a year of playing violin, I knew nothing.

You’re probably saying to yourself, “Oh, he’s just being modest.”

No. I’m not. I knew nothing. Not one thing. I knew no more than I had in September when the front desk lady came to my classroom and filled my head with musical fantasies.

Wait. I take that back. I had learned how to play one thing: a pizzicato version of the Purina cat food commercial I picked up goofing around in my bedroom one day. You know, “Meow, meow, meow, meow.” I’m not exaggerating. That was the extent of my grasp on the great American song book.

So, when my teacher announced that we were expected to play the next week at the Spring Concert, I asked what I thought a perfectly obvious question: “Play what? I don’t know how to play anything.”

She waved her hand and said, “You’ll be fine.”

Not one to be easily brushed off, I said, “I won’t be fine. I don’t know how to play anything. What am I supposed to do, just sit up there and look like a big dope?”

She said, without much apparent difficulty imagining me sitting anywhere and looking like a big dope: “Well, you don’t have to play. You can just move your bow, and people will hear the fifth grade orchestra and think it was you.”

This was not the thing the rest of my orchestra class wanted to hear. They were better string players than I was, but they didn’t know much either. And the thought of making fools of themselves in front of God and everyone didn’t appeal to them any more than it had to me.

One of my classmates said, “You want us to be on the stage and fake like we’re playing? That doesn’t sound right.”

And my teacher, feeling the moment slipping from her grasp, said, “You’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Even Derek can do it.”

Do you want to know how to crush a kid’s spirit? Just put “even” in front of their name. I never picked up a violin again.

But it’s not just kids. You can belittle anyone with that one word: “Even.”

It’s in our text this morning.

Since Jesus’ ascension, Peter had been tromping all over Judea enthused, ready to talk about Jesus at every turn. He’d been the center of attention. Big crowds. Lots of conversions. The offerings were beginning to look a bit more respectable. God was moving. Everything was exciting. He figured he pretty much had this whole thing figured out.

And then one day, as we find in the beginning of chapter 10, Peter is praying on a roof in Joppa. He gets hungry, and the text says he fell into a trance. “He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.”

And a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

And Peter, always the stubborn one says, “No way. I’ve never eaten anything profane or unclean.”

The voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times in his dream.

Well, of course we find out that what this vision is speaking to is the approach of some envoys from a Roman centurion named, Cornelius, who wants Peter to come talk to him about God. The problem is that, on the one hand, Peter is a Jew … but, on the other hand, Cornelius is a Gentile.

As you know, Jews and Gentiles just didn’t mix. Gentiles weren’t allowed into their country clubs. They didn’t want those shifty Gentiles dating their daughters, or moving in and lowering their property values.

No, Peter was brought up in a good home, and he knew not to associate with those people.

But in spite of his raising, Peter interprets the vision to mean that God is sending him to the Gentiles. And Peter, foot-dragger, and dawdler that he is, says, “I’d rather die than mix with those people.”

But the voice says, “I made all a-y’all. So there’s only my people.”

Three times this happens. Peter is bound and determined to stay, and the Holy Spirit is bound and determined for him to go. So that, finally, when Cornelius’s people come, Peter, tired of fighting with the Holy Spirit, just packs his shaving kit, fires up the minivan, and heads out.

When Peter and his gang finally get to Cornelius’s house, Peter says, “You know, I’m not really supposed to be here. If my daddy saw me right now talking to a Gentile, in his house—oh, I don’t want to think about it. But here I am anyway, so what do you want?”

Unfazed by Peter’s bigotry, Cornelius says, “God told me to send for you, so I did.”

So Peter tells him about Jesus—how he suffered and died and was raised on the third day. And, lo and behold, our text for today says, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word … even the Gentiles.”

Did you hear that? Even the Gentiles. You know, those people.

So much about God and about us is wrapped up in that phrase: “even the Gentiles.” When God shows up, bearing the love most powerfully present in Jesus, everybody gets an invitation to sit at the table … even the Gentiles … which is to say, even the folks most everybody else has written off as “those people.”

Let me ask you a question: Had you been able to ask Peter before the trance whether or not he wanted to go talk to some Gentiles about Jesus, what do you think he would’ve said? Do you think he would’ve seen this ending to our little story?

No … right? Peter didn’t want to go.

Now, let me ask you a more important question: Do you think God cared what Peter wanted? When God called, do you think God fretted over Peter’s prejudices, about whether or not Peter had spent his whole life up until that point as a participant in a bigoted system?

All right, so let me ask you this: Why didn’t God give much attention to what Peter wanted, or about whether Peter was even the best person to go?

Because this story’s not about Peter. It’s a story about the Holy Spirit. And it’s about what the Holy Spirit can do through us to live out God’s reign of unfolding peace and justice … even among the people respectable folks didn’t realize were in the draft pool.

Following Jesus is scary because, according to Acts, God moves us to go to “even the Gentiles,” to those people who might not look like us or talk like us or love like us or dress like us, and invite them to sit around God’s table, the same one that so many us were taught was reserved for people like us.

Following Jesus is scary because it asks us to live out the story about how God has shown us a vision of a new world, where the word “even” is stricken from the lexicon—a world where everyone’s welcome, without regard to their their race, their immigration status, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, or their bank account.

Following Jesus is about confronting our fear of “those people,”” and learning to love the people God loves. And, in case there was any question, God loves everyone—even the people who seem unlovable by the standards of polite society.

And I’ve got news for you: God knows we’re scared we’re going to look like dopes, but God isn’t much worried about how we feel.

Why?

Because this isn’t a story about us. The church is a story about foot-draggers and dawdlers called by God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live out the good news of Jesus Christ in the midst of a lost and dying world. Whether we want to, or whether we feel adequate to the task isn’t the issue. The issue is the Holy Spirit.

The church flourishes where those who are called by God decide once and for all that regardless of the cost, they will go where God tells them to go and love who God tells them to love.

According to this story, there’s a whole world of people God wants to embrace—people some folks think ought to just stay out. But God’s relentless.

God comes to us and says, “There are some people who need to know they have a place at my table. I want you to go to them and love them for me.”

“Which folks?”

“All my children. You know who I’m talking about, the ones no “respectable” church wants. The ones who’ve been systematically told they’re not welcome. The ones who don’t have anybody to speak up for them. Don’t talk right. Don’t dress right. Don’t have the right kind of money. Don’t live in the right part of town. Don’t love the right person. Don’t have the right skin color. Don’t worship me the way you do. I want you to go to them.”

Even the Gentiles? Even those people? They’re really not our sort of folks, you know. We wouldn’t have anything in common. Can you imagine how awkward the conversations would be? Can’t we just welcome people like us?

And God says, “No.”

The most damaging word the church can utter is “even.” The church has killed too many people’s souls by wondering if, you know, it’s all the same to you God, do we have to welcome even those people?

We can’t do it any more. We have to go. Those people are the people Jesus wound up getting himself killed for.

And God’s willing to risk sending even us.

—Amen.

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