No Prerequisites to Grace

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A sermon given on May 9, 2021, by the Rev. Teri Daily on Acts 10:44-48…

Peter is no one-dimensional character – the dramatic roles played by Peter throughout the gospels and the stories of the early Church reveal a rich, complicated personality. We’ve seen already Peter the fisherman – who with his brother Andrew left his nets the moment Jesus called, and followed him. There’s Peter the rock – the foundation on which Jesus would build his Church, the keeper on earth of the keys to the kingdom of heaven. We’ve seen Peter the would-be warrior, who pulls out a sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave in the Garden of Gethsemane. There’s also Peter the betrayer, denying his relationship with Christ while warming himself over a fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. Peter the shepherd, who’s commanded by Jesus three times to “Feed my sheep.” There’s Peter the miracle worker, who heals among others a man paralyzed for eight years. And now in today’s reading from Acts, enter Peter the pioneer, the one who breaks completely new ground.

To really see what’s going on in the four verses we read from Acts, we have to take a step back and look at the larger context. The tenth chapter of Acts begins with a Roman centurion, a Gentile named Cornelius who is living in Caesarea. One day he receives a vision in which an angel says to him: “Send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter.” So as two of Cornelius’s slaves are approaching the city of Joppa in search of Peter, the story cuts to a hungry Peter praying on the roof of a house. And while he’s praying, Peter falls into a trance and receives a vision. A large sheet comes down from heaven, full of four-footed creatures, and reptiles, and birds.  And a voice says to Peter: “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” To which Peter responds, almost a little defensively: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice comes back with a gentle reproach: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

As Peter tries to figure out what to make of all this, in what is the perfect timing of the Spirit, the men from Cornelius’ household knock on the door. Peter then journeys to Caesarea with the men and enters the home of the Roman centurion Cornelius. Already Peter finds himself in new territory, for in his own words, “It is unlawful for a Jew to associate or visit with a Gentile.” Peter begins to tell Cornelius and all those gathered at his home about the good news of Jesus. And it’s here that our reading for today finally picks up. Peter doesn’t even get to deliver the grand finale of his sermon; while he’s in the middle of talking, the Holy Spirit steals his thunder and is poured out on the Gentiles gathered there. They begin speaking in tongues and praising God. It’s a second Pentecost of sorts—the first one being in Jerusalem among Jews, this one taking place among the Gentiles.

I suspect that this might have been a lot for Peter to wrap his mind around in a twenty-four hour period. He goes from having a system of clean/profane, Jew/Gentile, chosen/not chosen to having all those categories upended. What did it mean for his own identity – an identity that had been formed around being pure, Jewish, and chosen? It hadn’t been all that long ago that Peter’s own inclusion among the Messiah’s inner circle might have seemed to be stretching things a bit – a fisherman, no relation to the priests or scribes, most likely very little education. How quickly Peter becomes “the establishment” in this new community only to then find another group knocking at the door. The problem is that we always think we’ve earned our place at the center, not realizing that in God’s economy of grace the center is everywhere and it’s always a gift. 

The whole Bible is leading us to this earth-shattering understanding; it takes us in ever-widening circles – beginning with Abraham and Sarah, to their descendants, to a people, to a nation, to the foreigners within their borders, and ultimately to all nations as the Holy Spirit can’t be contained in Judea but pushes the walls of election ever further and further out. It seems to be such a simple concept, this all-inclusive and freely-given love of God. And yet there’s nothing that’s harder for our minds to grasp – it goes against everything we’re taught (at least subconsciously) and every way we know to function in the world.  Richard Rohr puts it like this:

What God does in biblical history (and wants to do in our own lives) is to lead people beyond the idea of a bilateral contract in which we must earn, deserve, and merit, to an experience of pure, unearned grace, a unilateral or “new” covenant with an Infinite Love Source. This is a huge humiliation for an egocentric or narcissistic personality. Only the central theme of grace is prepared to move people beyond a bad and tired story line of reward and punishment. As Marcus Borg wrote in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, only a personal experience of unearned love (“grace”) can move us into a religion beyond mere “requirements” to a religion of actual transformation of consciousness. Very practically, this is experienced as being moved from a God-view of scarcity and limitation to a God-view of infinite abundance. If this is not an earthquake to your understanding, you have not yet had the experience.[1]

The Holy Spirit is always trying to move us from the idea that we have to earn, deserve, and achieve our place with God to the realization that God chooses us before anything we can do, believe, accomplish, or become. The Holy Spirit is always trying to remind us that our true identity is not what we name ourselves or what others call us; our truest identity is simply the Beloved. It’s not something we control; it’s pure gift. 

In the passage from Acts Peter hasn’t finished preaching, Cornelius’ family hasn’t even had the chance to say they believe, they haven’t even been baptized yet when the Holy Spirit is poured out on them. As Jesus tells his followers in the gospel reading from John, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” The Holy Spirit always beats us to the punch, always sets our own ego straight, always reminds us that God chooses us before we ever choose God. 

It’s so simple and yet it’s one of the very hardest things to truly comprehend, to live into. So here is a challenge. I want to challenge us this week to become a little more aware of how this message of grace has yet to be made real in our own lives. Pay attention to the times and places that you feel compelled to earn love this week, to deserve your worth, to buy in some way your status as a child of God. Pay attention to the times you compare yourself to others, despair of your own imperfection, or feel a smugness in your own accomplishments. And when you experience that catch of the ego, take some deep breaths and hear the words of Jesus: “You did not choose me but I chose you.” Any following of commandments, any loving of our neighbor, flows out of that freely-bestowed chosenness; it does not precede it. There are no prerequisites to grace. Let that sink in for a while. It’s enough to shake up our whole world.

[1][1] Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati: St. Andrew’s Messenger Press, 2007) 159.

No Prerequisites to Grace
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