by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
My sister and her husband attend a church that is part of a tradition that does not ordain women to the pastoral ministry. It’s not a major theological point for them or their congregation, nobody ever condemns women in ministry – they simply don’t think about it or talk about it. “Men are ministers and women aren’t” is just a part of the way the world is for them; as normal and ordinary as the fact that the sun comes up in the east.
A few years ago I was the guest preacher at an ELCA Lutheran congregation near where my sister’s family lives in the Pacific Northwest. The family, including my 14 year old niece Jennifer, came to hear me. The pastor, who happened to be a woman, celebrated communion. After service, the family headed home while I stayed to do a little church consulting work with the congregation. Late in the day I drove to my sister’s house for dinner. While passing the meat and potatoes, I innocently asked, “Well, how did it feel to see a woman in a collar leading worship?” Before anyone else could say anything, my niece put down her fork and said, with a hint of astonishment in her voice, “Well, I didn’t even know that a woman COULD be a pastor.”
For Jennifer, it was as if the sun had suddenly popped up in the west. A women in ministry was not just unusual, or rare or extraordinary – it was unheard of, it was not normal, it was wrong – like saying 2 + 2 = 5 is wrong, like saying the sun goes around the earth is wrong. Jennifer’s whole universe of meaning had been thrown for a loop by seeing a woman in a collar and an alb and a stole, standing behind an altar and consecrating the communion elements. She did not know that women could be ministers.
In much the same way, Peter’s universe of meaning was thrown for a loop by his strange vision – not once bu three times. Most of us know that the animals on the sheet were, as Peter put it, “profane and unclean.” But are we really aware of how completely shocked Peter was by the idea that God was asking him to eat these things? It wasn’t just a matter of eating things that were outside his comfort zone – like an old southern boy like me trying to eat lutefisk. No, it was much more than that. The idea of eating these things was just wrong, in a deep, serious, contrary to the meaning of the way the world is sense. And, on top of that – for Peter the voice telling him to “kill and eat,” the voice that said “call nothing I have made unclean” was the voice of God, the very one who had declared these things off limits in the first place. No wonder Peter had to receive the vision three times. He was reeling because his world was crashing down around him. He did not know that you COULD eat these things.
And then Peter discovers an even deeper and more disturbing truth – this whole vision episode wasn’t about food anyway – it was about people. It was about Gentiles, about folk who were “profane and unclean,” at least in the eyes of a traditional faith like Peter’s. When he awoke from his trance, people were standing there who wanted to see him, people who were Gentiles, people who who said they had been sent from God. And with God’s words about “nothing I made is unclean,” ringing in his ears, Peter heard the command of the Spirit to “go with them and to make no distinction between them and us” He did not know that God COULD love these people.
So Peter and six other Hebrew believers went to the house of the Gentiles who had ask for them to come. He preached and the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles and suddenly Peter remembered what John the Baptist said, all those years ago, “I will baptize you with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
And then the light bulb really goes on for Peter. “God loves all people as much as, and in the same way as, God loves me. Therefore, who am I to hinder God? Who am I to get in the way of God’s love?” Who indeed. Peter has turned a corner, he has moved from not knowing that God COULD love Gentiles to understanding that he himself is expected to be an agent of God’s love for all people.
And so are we.
When I was in elementary school we loved to play a game called “Red Rover.” We divided the group in half and formed two lines facing each other about twenty or thirty feet apart. The captains took turns yelling out something like, “Red Rover, Red Rover send Willy right over.” Willy would get up a head of steam and run at the line opposite him. The people in the line would hold hands tightly, bracing for impact. If Willy broke through the line, he could claim a prisoner to take back to the other line with him. If he did not, he had to join the other side. There was a girl who liked me. She passed me notes and looked funny at me on the bus. One day the captain called out, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Delmer right over.” This was a popular thing to do because I seldom was able to break the line. I backed up a few steps and ran as hard as I could toward the required place, which was where the girl who liked me holding tight to another kid’s hand. When I got there I sliced through the line like a hot knife through butter, tumbling to the ground in surprise at my easy victory. The boy who had been holding the girl’s hand was screaming at her, “You cheated, you cheated. You let go. You let go!” And she smiled sweetly and said, “Yes I did, ‘cause I love him.” And I promptly died of embarrassment.
Today, the Spirit of God invites us to cheat in the name of love. Today, the Spirit of God command us us to make no distinctions between them and us, whoever them may be. Today, the Spirit of God reminds us that God CAN and DOES love all people because, after all, God loves us.
Amen and amen.