Breaking Boundaries

Drew’s sermon for April 28th, 2013 was about boundaries, the way we create and maintain them, and what happens when something happens that forces us to challenge them. The text for the sermon is Acts 11:1-18. May it find you well.

Breaking Boundaries

When I first started college, I joined a Freshmen Men’s Bible Study, run by a couple of juniors. A few weeks in, when I mentioned that I was going to join the Frisbee team, one the leaders said he was really “worried.” “You’ll have to deal with a lot of temptation on the Frisbee team.” I hadn’t experienced anything of the sort. Frisbee was, and still is, for me, a place where I can do something I love in an environment that is always friendly, respectful, and inviting. But that night when we prayed it was for me and a fellow who wanted to play rugby, to resist temptation. Of course it was only partly a prayer, it was also a warning. If you want to be one of them, you probably aren’t one of us. It wasn’t long before I found myself on the wrong side of a few more of these prayers and stopped going to Bible study altogether.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran preacher, who grew up in a very fundamentalist tradition. Their church believed that they were the only real Christians out there. And so whenever she made new friends, her parents would say, “Oh, is your new friend a Christian?” and she’d be forced to say, “No, she’s not. She’s a Methodist…”[1]

A few years ago a friend of mine was getting married, and so he and his fiancée went to premarital counseling with the pastor of her church. He called me later, confused. “The pastor kept saying how important it was to go to a Bible-believing church. What does he mean Bible-believing church? Are there really churches that don’t believe the Bible?” There aren’t of course, this is just a way of drawing lines in the sand between our interpretation of the Bible and someone else’s interpretation of the Bible.

The reason I bring these stories up is that they all address something fundamental about our story for today. Boundaries. Who is in and who is out. There is a lot you could say about boundaries. They are necessary for the orderly function of society. They help us know where we belong. Without them we don’t know who we are. But they are often defined by who is out instead of who is in. They are often drawn as narrowly as possible.  The work to maintain them is almost as damaging to those inside them as it is to the people who are excluded.

For a boundary to exist, there has to be an in and an out. In our story for today there are people who are definitely in. That would be the circumcised believers. And there are people who are definitely out, i.e. Gentiles, like Cornelius the Roman centurion.

Then there is Peter. He is in the group, but just barely. He’s on the margins, and he walks a very fine line. Of the people in the group, he ought to be the most secure in his position. He was a disciple, one of the closest to Jesus. But he keeps doing things that blur the boundaries, and upset the border police.

Take where he’s staying in Joppa, for example. He’s at the house of a tanner. Tanners at that time used human urine to tan the leather, which is of course an unclean bodily emission. What is Peter doing staying at the house of someone who is unclean? This is the kind of thing that made the circumcised believers feel uncomfortable.

Remember at this point following the Way is still limited to the nation of Israel. And in the 1st century Jewish community there were very strict laws about cleanliness and about table fellowship. With his little Joppa adventure, Peter has broken both.  When he gets back to Jerusalem, the reception he gets is cold to say the least. This is how social boundaries are maintained. No one on the opposing side ever receives as much scorn as the one who reaches across the aisle. Since you can’t punish the people who aren’t in your group, the harshest punishments usually fall on the people who are out on the margins blurring the lines.

This is easy to picture in your minds. People who would greet Peter with a hug go for a handshake. Sidelong glances are exchanged. People fold their arms and look pointedly in other directions. And finally, someone just says it out right: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

This seems like a silly objection, right? Or does it? I remember in eighth grade I made friends with someone cooler than me in science class. I started sitting with him and his friends every lunch, feeling good that I had moved up the social ladder. And one day one of my old buddies confronted me about it, “You don’t care about us, you’re off with your cool friends now.” And he was right. Back then, who you sat with was who you were. Sitting with the cool kids made you a cool kid. Sitting with the unclean made you unclean.

Now Peter knew this was going to happen. Not so long ago he would have been saying the same things. As he told his story you could tell that he wasn’t just telling the story of the conversion of Cornelius and his household. Peter is telling the story of his own conversion. Before he had his vision, Peter thought that Jesus’ message was just for the people of Israel. When he had the vision of the sheet filled with animals, clean and unclean, and the words “Go, kill, and eat,” he resisted strongly. He had to hear it three times before it got through to him, but once it did, he changed his stance. He once saw God’s saving message as limited, but now he understands the depth of God’s love.

Now there is another conversion going on in our story. And I would argue that this conversion is even more spectacular, even more unlikely, even more miraculous, than the other two, though no one sees a vision.

Picture in your mind again that room full of cold stares and pointed silence, sidelong glances and whispered comments. And imagine what it might be like to be in that room when Peter finishes speaking. The room is so silent you could hear a pin drop. Barely a breath is drawn, as everyone looks around, searching each other’s faces to see what they think. And then, just as Peter’s shoulders are starting to fall, just as he’s thinking, “Well now they’re going to let me have it…” an eruption. Joyous whoops. People shout “Glory to God in the highest!” and clasp Peter’s hands with warmth. They rejoice.

This is not the kind of thing that happens. This is a group that prides itself on being separate; its very definition is dependent on the fact that Gentiles are not included. To take this bold new step will involve giving up their self-defined boundaries, letting go of who they are. Make no mistake; they are the heroes of this story. They are the ones whose bravery and courage should be celebrated and praised. They knew that to move in this new direction would mean chaos. Their orderly understanding of the world will collapse. They can see how it’s going to get messy (and believe me, it does). But if this was the direction that God was leading them, who are they to refuse to follow? And so follow they did. And as they followed, they rejoiced.

They rejoiced because they could see what this one event means: there are no limits to God’s salvation. God is committed to giving repentance, forgiveness, and new life to everyone, not just a select few. They don’t groan that it’s not fair that these Gentiles will be saved without ever experiencing the oppression the Jewish people have suffered. They celebrate because they know the wonder of God’s grace and they are happy to share it with someone else.

We should be more like them. We should be more willing, more ready to let our worlds be changed upside down. We should be slower to tell people that they don’t belong, and quicker to admit that we are wrong. We shouldn’t draw our boundaries to exclude the people God wants to save. We should draw our boundaries to include everyone to whom God’s love extends.

There is a lot to be said about boundaries. They are a fundamental aspect of human society, and they have more effect than we realize. They determine who we associate with, they shape our behavior, they define who we are. And one other thing… God breaks them.

[1] Bolz-Weber, Nadia (2012, July) “Wednesday Night Dome” Sermon given at ELCA Youth Gathering 2012 in New Orleans, LA.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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