Who belongs?

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 11:1-18: Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Yesterday a young white man, who had bought into the theory of the great replacement, murdered ten Black people in Buffalo. The shootings of Asian women in Dallas earlier this week appear to have been motivated by anti-Asian racism. Other shootings in recent years have targeted Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Mexicans, as well as the LGBTQ community. These communities are targeted as outsiders, polluting (in some way) society. So it is a matter of good timing that today’s reading from Acts provides an account of the process whereby Peter came to include gentiles in the Church.

In Acts, Peter returns to Jerusalem and is criticized by the “circumsized believers” (the Jews) and asked why he went to “uncircumsized men” (gentiles) and ate with them. This is a question about purity, one that Jesus had faced as well. Peter describes his journey: he did not initially want to engage with the gentiles. When his vision orders him to get up, to “kill and eat”, Peter refuses, saying “‘nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth'”. The voice from heaven tells him, “‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'” This exchange is repeated two more times before the vision ends.

When three men arrive at the house where Peter was, the spirit told him to go with them, and “not make a distinction between them and us”. He follows the men to a house, where the host tells him that he had a vision that he should send for Simon, called Peter, for a “message by which you and your whole household will be saved”. Peter tells his critics that when he began to speak, “he Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning”.

As far as Peter was concerned, if they received the Holy Spirit as the disciples had in Jerusalem, they were included in the Church. And his critics were silenced, saying, “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life”. They were forced to see that God acted in ways they did not expect. It is hard to exaggerate what a transformative experience this was for both Peter and the other disciples in Jerusalem.

Today we still struggle, in both church and in the world, with questions of who belongs. Sitting in the Diocese of San Joaquin, where a former bishop tried to take the diocese out of the Episcopal church over the ordination of a gay bishop, we are familiar with these debates in the church. But desire for exclusion exists outside the church as well, motivating a wide range of political groups. Whether they are anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, anti-Black, anti-gay, or anti-trans, they seek to define some group or groups as outside the boundaries of “us”.

Who belongs? Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: love one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Or, in the two great commandments, those who love God and love their neighbor. In the words of our Baptismal Covenant, we should “seek and serve Christ in all people”. At the end of the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus asks his listeners, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36). Here being a neighbor is not a fact, but an action. Similarly, for Jesus, love is an action, not a feeling.

In the account from Acts, Peter is taking the teachings of Jesus into a new context, bringing new people into the church. We, as Christians, are constantly challenged with understanding the Gospel in a world very different from the one Jesus lived in. Who belongs, in our church or in our community? How are we neighbors to them?

If we follow Peter, and the parable of the Good Samaritan, we find ourselves looking to behavior. Peter saw that his audience of gentiles had received the Holy Spirit just as the disciples had. Jesus saw that the Samaritan acted as a neighbor to a man in need. We too need to be neighbors to those in need.

Who belongs? Those who love God and love their neighbor. This is not, Peter tells us, passive. And he, as well as other Christians in Jerusalem, had to admit that their boundaries had been wrong.

We can be neighbors to everyone in need. But we can also say that if you are excluding people from your idea of neighbors, whether because of race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender identity or any other characteristic, you are not showing the love that Christ ordered us to show to each other.

Who belongs? From the beginning, the Church has struggled with this question. In today’s readings, both Jesus and Peter offer an answer. If we follow the Spirit, we know, like the early Christians in Acts, God has given “the repentance that leads to life” not just to “us”, but to those we least expect. And so we welcome all who will try, with us, to love one another.

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