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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
May 19, 2019 at 10:30 AM
Central Passage
Acts 11:1-8
Easter 5C

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: May 19, 2019 – Easter 5C

Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148


Choosing Joy


              At Holy Mercy Lutheran Church in the mid-1990s, folks were worried. The neighborhood, formerly a white, working and middle-class neighborhood, was dramatically changing. Most of the manufacturers had left town in search of cheaper labor elsewhere. With dropping incomes came all sorts of social ills associated with poverty: drug use, higher crime rate, broken families, deteriorating houses and apartments. Many folks at Holy Mercy left to find greener pastures elsewhere.


              But something remarkable happened with those that stayed.


              This congregation knew the usual script. They knew that most of the time, congregations in a changing neighborhood doubled down and resisted the change. They knew that they tended to remain inside their own walls and cared only for their own. Instead of a mission-driven congregation, they knew that such churches often became preference-driven. They wanted to avoid that at all costs.


              So they embraced the new neighborhood. They started a licensed preschool and daycare, available to everyone regardless of ability to pay. They held voter registration drives. They started a ride-sharing service. They opened a computer learning center, complete with classes on how to use Microsoft Office and how to formulate and track a budget online. When the grocery stores in the neighborhood left, leaving only fast food restaurants, several members (with the help of a LOT of outside funding) organized a small co-operative grocery store employing area residents. Most of all, and most controversial, they adapted their worship service to the people coming in. They sang different hymns. They tried different liturgies. They experimented with different worship times. Holy Mercy embraced and lived out its name.


              The happy ending to this story would be that the congregation grew and grew. That’s not what happened. The congregation did not grow in numbers. They’ve remained at about 150-165 worshippers every Sunday for the past twenty-five years, down from 350 in 1990.


              But if you want to find a congregation that is spiritually growing; that is willing to be close to its Lord in forging relationships with the people they are among; that sees its circumstances not as something to mourn but as an opportunity, it’s hard to find a better example than Holy Mercy. That congregation has chosen joy.[1]


              And the early Christians, thank God, chose joy as well.


              We hear Peter recount the story in our first reading today. In chapter 10, Peter visits the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who has summoned Peter on the orders of an angel. Peter has his own vision, which he tells us in our reading, which convinces him that he should not consider anyone impure or unclean. As Peter is preaching to Cornelius and his household, the Holy Spirit interrupts and manifests itself the same way it did on the Day of Pentecost. Peter realizes that God has already made up God’s mind and that he better get on board with what God is doing. “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have,” Peter says. “Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?”[2]


              Of course, there is resistance to what God is doing. When Peter returns to Jerusalem, the criticism is sharp. “You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!”[3] Remember that the Christian faith was still a sect within the larger Jewish world at this point. All members of the church were Jews. They observed Torah, which included God’s commands about clothing, diet, and behavior – commands which set Israel apart as a holy people to God. After all, God told them, in Holy Scripture, that they were not to be like the other nations.[4] They were to act differently, eat differently, dress differently. And now, Peter is overturning that by staying and eating with Gentiles. It’s hard for us to comprehend how great an offense this was. It went against the plain-sense, black-and-white meaning of the words of Scripture.


              Notice what Peter does. He knows that his brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ have not seen what he has seen. They have not had the vision that he has had; they have not seen the Spirit descend on Gentiles like he has. So he has to go slow. He goes “step-by-step”. He gives an orderly account – the same Greek word used at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel to describe the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Peter has to have patience. And the people have to have open minds and open hearts to hear what Peter is saying. This all has to be guided by the same Holy Spirit that fell on the Gentiles just a few verses ago, or the nascent Jesus movement will certainly collapse into squabbling and infighting. Peter concludes his step-by-step account with these words: “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”[5]


              Well, thank God that those early Christians did not stand in God’s way. Or we would, as Rabbi Pinchas Lapide wrote, would likely still be offering horsemeat to Wotan on the Godesburg![6] Those early Christians received the news of God’s work, not with regret. Not with pining for the good old days. But with joy. They rejoiced in the news that God had opened up the way of salvation for Gentiles as well. They praised God. They got on board with what God was doing, realizing that the spread of God’s saving word was not up to them! They were not the gatekeepers! They were not in control! They were merely the servants. And that was a joyous thing.


              It’s no coincidence that Psalm 148 was chosen by the lectionary committee to follow the first reading. The psalm is a summons to all creation – even the parts of creation associated with death and chaos – the sea monster and the waters – to loudly praise the Creator of all. God is doing stuff in Hartford City. God is bringing his saving word to all kinds of people in Hartford City, even people like us. Who are we to make church all about us? Let’s get on board with what God is doing. Let’s join the grand chorus of praise of what God is doing, from the highest heavens to the deepest darkest depths of the sea. If we only open our ears and soften our hearts and minds, we will hear it. We will see more clearly what God is doing to bring life, hope, and mercy to hurting people in a hurting world. And in seeing God’s work, we will have the privilege of joining that eternal hymn of praise with our own voices.


              Let us pray.

              Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to see what you are doing among us. And in seeing your grace at work, help us choose joy as our response. Amen.


© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.




[1] Holy Mercy is a pastiche of several congregations that Pastor David has known and worked with, including Holy Trinity Lutheran in Des Plaines, Ill., Luther Memorial Church and St. Paul’s By-the-Lake Episcopal Church in Chicago.

[2]Acts 10:47, CEB.

[3] Acts 11:3, CEB.

[4] Lev. 18:24, Deut. 28 and 32, and many other places in the Old Testament.

[5] Acts 11:17, CEB.

[6] Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, (Wipf and Stock: Eugene, OR, 1982), 15.