One of my mentors in this vocation to ordained ministry is a priest in Texas who also has a law degree. One of the reasons that we hit it off early on may be the similar way that our minds work. When I took one of those vocational aptitude tests years ago, the report came back that my best job choice would be to become a lawyer. I did not share that fact in the bishop’s election process. One time my priest friend was talking about the law, and he reminded me that cases are not won so much based on objective truth, but on which party can make the better case, or as he later said, which party has the better knight going into battle.
Often that advocacy boils down to parsing the language of the letter of the law, the legalism, so to speak. Where is the narrow interpretation, for example, that allows one person to get by with behavior that another cannot? If you have ever watched “The Good Wife” on television, you have probably seen the lawyers in that fictional Chicago law firm represent—and win—cases for some rather unsavory clients based on the exception, the narrow interpretation. Such rulings generally do not result in any great faith in our legal system. “Business as usual,” we are likely to say as we roll our eyes.
The church also has a talent for this rather unholy use of narrow interpretation. Whenever I attend a vestry meeting of a congregation that is in conflict, I know that we are in for a bumpy ride when someone uses the word “technically.” Getting by on technicalities can make lots of church leaders squirm, including bishops, myself included. “Business as usual,” you are likely to say as you roll your eyes and watch us. Technical behavior never instills much faith.
Sometimes, though, at pivotal moments in the church’s history, business as usual is overthrown, legalisms set aside, and a new generation of people finds a real reason to have faith that is authentic and life giving. If you want an example, look no further than today’s lesson from the Book of Acts.
It is a complicated story in which the universal good news must be seen in the not so obvious details, so listen carefully. To get the full impact of what is happening here, we have to go beyond the immediate story of the recounting of the vision that Peter had of all sorts of animals being declared clean to eat. We must look at the larger story and how the church thankfully avoided the narrow interpretation, avoided any legalism that is so indicative of “business as usual” and so indicative of how bishops and priests and deacons and lay leaders have acted throughout much of the church’s history. On rare occasions, we get it right.
This story from the Book of Acts centers not simply on Peter and his vision, but also on Cornelius, a centurion. He doesn’t even get his name mentioned in our selection from the lectionary today, but in the previous chapter we learn that Peter’s vision was set in the context of bringing Cornelius, a non-Jew, into the church. To get you ready for the power of what is taking place, let me share a few comments about Cornelius that are written in the Book of Acts. It might sound like what a lawyer would say in a courtroom when trying to make a case for his client as being the exception to the rule. “A devout man who feared God with all his household.” “He gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” He had a “devout soldier” who served him. He is called “an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation.” The writer of the Book of Acts is letting us know that if ever there were an exception to the rule of Gentiles being not so good, not so clean, not so chosen by God, then Cornelius is the one.
Who would not want him in the country club? Anyone would make an exception for Cornelius. It is like all those times I have heard and seen and, yes, participated in the process of welcoming the really nice newcomer into our church because, “You know, he is really one of us. He is an Episcopalian and doesn’t know it yet.” Ouch. Business as usual.
But by the end of the story in Acts, after the Jewish believers listen to Peter’s recounting of events, they are silenced. Then, in what it takes the practiced ear to hear, those believers do not say, “God has given to Cornelius repentance that leads to life,” but rather they say, “God has given to Gentiles repentance that leads to life.” Did you hear the difference? Not just Cornelius, the good guy, but to all outsiders. To put it in words that sound clearer to our modern ears, “God has given repentance to everyone who is not one of us.” The early Jewish-oriented, insider church believers give up on narrow interpretation. It is like a judge in a courtroom telling the lawyer, “Your argument is so good that I am not simply setting this defendant free; everyone outside this courtroom who has ever done anything illegal is free as well.” Now, wouldn’t that put a dent in future legal bills and an entire legal system that is built on exceptions and narrow rulings? Wouldn’t that put a dent in the practice of “church as usual?”
The good news in this lesson is that God’s love is beyond simply making exceptions for special cases or really devout and upright and God-fearing people. God’s love reaches out so much further, reaches into the hidden places of the world where we so often refuse to look. If we listen to this good news, we will start looking beyond the really devout people as being the only deserving people. We will go beyond technical fixes, go beyond tinkering a little bit with our institutions. The good news is that if we are listening carefully to the Book of Acts and try to emulate what the believers did then, we will become a place of radical hospitality. We will see Jesus everywhere.
That is what it is going to take to keep the church alive in the 21st century. See Jesus everywhere and start acting on it. See the yardman and the maid as having divine dignity. See the poor as worthy of just compensation. See the immigrant as one of us. See the lonely stranger who has the courage to set foot inside a church building as our friend. See the very people we fear as the people who have the most to teach us. The days of narrow interpretation are over. When we believers proclaim that God gives to everyone repentance that leads to life, then we will see a church whose mission is indeed to restore everyone to unity with one another and with God through this Jesus Christ whom we see in all people.
One day there will no longer be exceptions to the rule because there will be no exceptions. One day God’s love will cover the face of the earth. One day, people who finally feel loved will stop acting in loveless ways. The sooner we get on with living like that as a church, the sooner the kingdom of God will become visible for everyone to see. Amen.