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Encountering God’s Radical Inclusion

Date: 15/05/2022/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

Easter Encounters: Encountering God’s radical inclusion
15 May 2022
Rev Miak Siew

This Easter season – we return to the lectionary for our sermon series “Easter Encounters.”

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Let me start off with a question –

What does the word ‘Gentile’ mean?

1. Someone who is non-Jew

2. Someone who is non-Christian

3. Someone who is non-Roman

4. Someone who is an outsider / outside of one’s tribe

Some of you may have a sense of de ja vu. Many many years ago, my mathematics teacher, Mr Eio, gave us the same test during the remedial classes. I failed the first 2, and the third one, I got passed. But he said – “this is the third time you did the same test. You should score full marks.”

Likewise, I am asking this question again to see if you have been paying attention last week.

Pauline said she used to think the word ‘Gentile’ means anyone who is non-Jew. Due to tradition and Bible translations, this is the most common understanding of the word ‘Gentile’. But do you know the Jews were not the only ones who used this word?

She pointed out – “At various points of history, the Romans, Greeks, Jews and even Christians all used the same term ‘Gentiles’ to mean anyone other than themselves. Humans have a general propensity to exclude those who do not belong to their own tribe or people group.”

In every language, in every culture, there are always words and ways to define who belongs in the group, and who doesn’t. There is always the “US” and the “THEM.”

The lectionary passage today, however, teaches us something very different.

Acts 11:1-18

11:1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.

11:2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,

11:3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

11:4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,

11:5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.

11:6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.

11:7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’

11:8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’

11:9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’

11:10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.

11:11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.

11:12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.

11:13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter;

11:14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’

11:15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.

11:16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

11:17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

11:18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

“God is about including everyone, not just those within your tribe.”

The passage from Acts 11 is largely Peter recounting what happened in Acts 10, explaining to the circumcised believers who criticized him saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

Have you been asked a similar question before?

“Why did you go to the XYZ and eat with them?”

<M> Who asked that question? And who was the “THEM?”

XYZ can be any group of people that has been defined as “THEM”

And we, in the name of our religion, define who are the “them.”

My seminary professor Mary Tolbert says – anything in the Bible that is repeated is important.

In Acts, there is a small detail that is repeated 3 times. The last verse of Acts 9:43 “Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.” In Acts 10:6, the angel tells Cornelius “Peter is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” Cornelius repeats this when he shared why he had sent for Peter – in Acts 10:32.

I had, in the past thought that the repetition of Simon’s vocation is so that we don’t confuse Peter with Simon – after all Peter’s name is also Simon – Peter is the nickname given to him by Jesus.

In preparing for this sermon, I realised that it is significant that Peter stayed with Simon the tanner.

A tanner is someone who makes leather from animal skins.

In a culture that is very focused on being ritually clean and unclean, a tanner is one of the occupations that is looked down upon – because a tanner works with dead animals – and touching dead animals renders one unclean (Leviticus 11:39)
But a tanner’s job isn’t just ritually unclean – it is also literally a dirty job.
Dan Clendenin, founder of Journey with Jesus writes:

“Simon the tanner was a socio-economic outcast. Tanners worked with dead animals. The filth and the stench were awful. Imagine how Simon looked and smelled at the end of a hot day. He would have been the object of social disdain. Almost anyone would have felt superior to him.

But Simon the tanner had joined the Jesus movement.  He found acceptance there that society never gave him.  And so Simon the tanner hosted Simon the apostle.

Given our human propensity for justifying ourselves and scape goating others, the Jewish purity laws lent themselves to a moral hierarchy between the ritually “clean” who considered themselves to be close to God, and the “unclean” who were shunned as “dirty” sinners who were far from God.

Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people who were considered polluted or contaminated. Jesus rejected ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.”

In a marvelous stroke of irony, Luke says that it’s in the home of Simon the tanner, a Gentile who handled animal carcasses every day, where Peter the conscientious Jew had his vision — surprise! — of unclean animals. Peter learned that even though purity laws forbid him to associate with Gentiles, especially one as “dirty” as Simon or as suspect as a Roman soldier like Cornelius, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism.”

Pauline challenged us last week to not limit what God is doing. God is about breaking the barriers and limits to what we consider possible.

The circumcised believers who criticized Peter did so because that’s what they believed. They had all sorts of ideas of what was clean and what was unclean, and who were close to God, and who were far from God. And this isn’t too far from someone today who says “The Bible Says It, I believe it, That settles it!”

Rev Dr Eric Elnes from UCC writes:

By trade, a tanner works with dead animals. If this tanner goes to synagogue or participates at all in the temple rituals, he likely has to keep a very rigid schedule to make sure he is ritually clean. By contrast, of course, Peter is clean – he makes it abundantly clear (I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean!) – but he is staying with someone who is perpetually in a state of uncleaniness.

Why would Peter do this? I wonder if Peter, like so many contemporary Christians, sees himself as being edgy. “I am clean, but I have a friend who is a tanner.” How does Peter see himself in relation to the people he’s going to interact with? Does he flirt with the line while maintaining the taboo? Kind of like those who are quick to say they have lots of close friends who are gay, but their religion doesn’t allow them to condone such a “lifestyle?” Peter does not need a well-developed argument for why he does not interact with the Gentiles. His belief believes for him. His community believes for him. His Scriptures believes for him.

Peter is jolted out of what he has known all his life about what is clean and unclean by a vision – a vision that did not just happened once, not twice but three times! (Remember again what my professor said about things that are repeated in the Bible. It means this is important)

Peter got out of his comfort zone and goes with Cornelius’ men as instructed and when he meets Cornelius he tells Cornelius, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”(Acts 10:28)

This coming Tuesday, 17 May, is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Transphobia.

**God of moon & stars

  • Lyrics are challenging – “God of the pure and undefiled God of the pimp and paedophile.”
  • I heard this worship song – interestingly when I went to Jakarta Theological Seminary with Rev Yap for their LGBT week.
  • It left a deep impression on me – I witnessed what inclusion looked like – in the oldest Christian sme

What a fitting reminder to God’s radical inclusive nature than what Peter said?

 ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears God and does what is right.

Peter learned that even though purity laws forbid him to associate with Gentiles, especially one as “dirty” as Simon or as suspect as a Roman soldier like Cornelius, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism.”

This isn’t the only example of how God continues to challenge people to break away from their ideas of who is close to God.

In Deuteronomy 23:1 “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” Yet, the prophet Isaiah 56:3-5 says

“Let no foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will utterly exclude me from His people.”

And let the eunuch not say, “I am but a dry tree.”

For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who choose what pleases Me and hold fast to My covenant— I will give them, in My house and within My walls, a memorial and a name better than that of sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”

This inclusion continues in Acts 8, where the Ethiopian eunuch – a gender non-conforming foreigner – is one of the first converts to Christianity, baptised by Philip just as who he is, without needing to change anything.

Also in the same chapter in Deuteronomy 23:3 clearly says “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”

But the great grandmother of King David, Ruth was a Moabite. And she is one of the four women named in Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel according to Matthew. God is telling us through the inclusion of Ruth, a Moabite as an ancestor of Jesus. A Moabite, who, according to the law, was not allowed to be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, whose descendants, even to the tenth generation shall not be admitted

<M> What is God trying to tell us?

But that isn’t the end of the story. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we find out that Peter backtracked.

“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.”

(Some of you may get confused here – like Tabitha (Aramaic) who was also called Dorcas (in Greek), Peter (Petros in Greek) and Cephas (in Aramaic))

So Peter stopped eating (fellowshipping) with the Gentiles when those men from James (brother of Jesus) arrived in Antioch. The pressure from peers was more powerful than having visions from God. We cannot underestimate the power of pressure to conform with the in-group because we want to belong.

Yet, we are here today, gathered as a faith community, worshiping God despite the exclusivists. This is the core of God’s radical inclusive nature, the nature of love.

This is where Paul argues for inclusion – “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

Excluding people runs against the nature of love.

One way of excluding people is by defining who belongs in the group, and who doesn’t. Who are the “US” and who are the “THEM.” And we do it by labelling and naming the “THEM.” It allows us to draw the line between us and them. Labelling makes them the “other.” It allows us to discriminate, to hate, to vilify, to denigrate. This is the strategy of othering. This is how human beings deal with cognitive dissonance arising from causing another human being harm and suffering. That is how decent human beings can commit atrocities like genocide. The “other” is not one of us – they are not even human. This is an act of dehumanisation.

God created humankind in God’s own image – this Divine Image (Imago dei) is imprinted on every human being. When we dehumanise the other, we desecrate and trample on that image.

We are guilty of this too, when we label those against them as “fundies,” “bigots,” and even “Thioliban.”

Can we, encounter God this Easter season, and open ourselves to God’s radical inclusive love?

Yes – include even those we may think of as our enemies.

When we obsess with laws, and rules, that draw lines we lose sight of what love is, and what love means.

Romans 13:8-13

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”[a] and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”[b] 10 Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

The early followers of Jesus included Simon the tanner, Cornelius, the Roman centurion – an army officer of the occupier, his entire household, the Ethiopian centurion and many many others who didn’t fit in.

Today, are we still as radically inclusive? Or have we, like communities in the past, who fall back to seeing things as “US” and “THEM?” Who are excluded today?

<M> Who are the people God is inviting us to embrace and include? Who are these people we tend to exclude because of our tribal tendencies, our inclination to view people different from us with suspicion?`

Our understanding of God’s radical inclusive love is embedded in how we celebrate communion. You would know we celebrate an open table – all are welcome to partake of communion.

What some of you may not know is this – before the Covid pandemic, we have added a detail in our communion liturgy. We will pour some of the wine onto the wine cups when the wine is consecrated. This is adapted from the Jewish practice during Passover described by Larson in “Bound for Freedom – The Book of Exodus in Jewish and Christian Traditions.”

The Rabbis realised the danger of triumphalism and self-glorification in the story of Exodus and the final victory over the Egyptians. In the Red Sea crossing, the fact remains that Israel is saved and a considerable part of the Egyptian people are afflicted and finally destroyed. Aware of this dilemma one rabbinic commentary describes a scene in front of the heavenly throne. The angels wanted to sing a song of praise when they witnessed what happened to the Egyptians and as the Israelites break out into a song of deliverance. Before they even start, they are reproached and silenced by God with the words “The work of my hands are drowned in the sea, and you want to sing songs?”

Any suffering, even that of the oppressor should make us reflect upon and subdue the joy we may feel. A reminder is given in a very concrete way during the Passover meal. In connection with a listing of the ten plagues in the Passover Hagadah, some drops of wine in the cup are spilled out at every pladgeu. The cup of joy cannot be full when one’s own salvation is achieved while others are suffering, even if it is one’s persecutors who are hit. This custom is explained during the meal and leaves a permanent impression on the participants.

We hope that even as we pour our some of the wine, we will in a small way affirm our solidarity with those who still suffer. Our joy is only complete when there is Shalom, when all of creation is in right relationship with God, and with each other.

In the past 2 years, we have not done this detail – because we have been serving communion in these disposable cups. We are exploring how we can include this detail and also move away from the disposable cups which are really, environmentally unfriendly too.