An Impartial God
Rev. Dr. Robert T. Carlson, Jr.
May 6, 2018
Last weekend, I learned that I was in complete remission from the cancer that I had been diagnosed with last November. We had already planned a family get-together on Sunday evening—the first in more than 6 months. While I was undergoing chemotherapy, my children were very good about telling the grandsons to take it easy around me. But Sunday evening, the gloves were off. The boys were ready to run.
We have invented a game that is a variation on freeze tag where the boys can only be caught while running. Once they are caught, they go to jail, which is the deck in the backyard. So as the game was beginning, the youngest—three-year-old Evan—came up to me and asked: “Jail is just pretend, right?” I assured him that jail was only pretend, so he said to me: “Ok. Then you can chase me.” And he took off running and laughing at the same time. Now I’ve been accused of sometimes telling these stories and not telling how the story ends. I will tell you that I chased him but I could not catch him. I am out of shape, and he is small enough to duck under trees easily. I didn’t stand a chance.
We all want to know what to expect in this life. Whether we are 3 or 30 or 3 times 30, we want to know what the rules are; what is real and what is pretend. We think that as long as understand the rules, we should be able to get through this life with just a few scratches. That is not always the case.
In the 10th chapter of Acts, God throws Peter—a Jew—together with Cornelius—a Roman. Neither one of these two men is anxious to play this game. They distrust one another and distrust the God that seems to be calling them together. Peter should know better by now.
According to Luke, the first time Peter met Jesus, Peter understood that this encounter was overwhelming and unwanted. Peter let Jesus come on board his little fishing boat in order to teach the crowd from the sea. But when, upon Jesus’ request, he put his boat out into the deep water, they catch enough fish to almost swamp the boat. Peter gets down on his knees and confesses to Jesus that he is unworthy; that the holiness of Jesus will swamp him. But Jesus does not let Peter off the hook. He bids Peter to follow him, and Peter does follow. He falters more than once, but since the resurrection of Jesus, Peter has been willing to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit without fail. Until now.
Now Peter is being called into the presence of a Gentile. He is being asked to eat food and associate with people that he has considered unclean his whole life long. He is being asked to let Jesus shake up his well-ordered life once again. To follow Jesus is to have all of our well-ordered divisions and well-fortified barriers undone. As the young lawyer finds out, when you ask about the identity of your neighbor, it is likely that you will hear an answer that you are not prepared to hear. You will hear that your neighbor is found among every nation, tribe, race, and creed in the human community.
Jesus recalls the prophet Malachi who asks the people of Judea: “Has not one God created us? Is there not one father of us all? Why then has each one of you deserted his brothers and sisters and broken the covenant God made with our fathers?” Malachi proclaimed that God is no respecter of persons. He borrowed the image of the goddess of justice, a woman who is blind-folded—not to the facts, but blind so as not to be influenced by nationality, race, or status.
Cornelius, the Roman Gentile, receives a vision of an angel sent to him by God. Although Luke tells us that Cornelius is a God-fearing man, he is not sure what to expect from Peter. For his part, Peter is given three visions where God tells him that there is nothing created that can be considered unclean, and still, Peter resists. Neither Cornelius or Peter seems to understand that God intends to bring them together in order to break down barriers. Old divisions that began in mistrust and fear of the other, have become institutionalized—set in concrete—by law and tradition. But the resurrection life that Jesus has given to us will knock down those walls.
Whether or not Peter understands or even agrees with the expanse of God’s action, his encounter with Cornelius brings him to accept the limitless reach of God. By the end of this passage, Peter seems to realize that he was being absurd to imagine that he could have prevented God from accomplishing these new connections between Jews and Gentiles. We know this by the way he asks: “Who can withhold the water for baptizing these people?”
What Peter understand is that God accepts all people who fear God and seek to do what is right. By the time Peter opens his mouth to talk with Cornelius and his household, Peter has learned that God does not show partiality. He is an impartial God and no respecter of human accolades and status. God in Christ has a message that cannot be resisted—it is a message of peace for all people. Peter insists that it is Jesus of Nazareth who teaches us to discern what is right; who is the one ordained by God as the judge of the living and the dead. And everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins. This is the goal of the Gospel: forgiving sins. And the purpose of forgiving sin is to enable people to become fully functioning, fully image-bearing human beings within God’s world—already now, and more fully in the age to come.
The forgiveness of sin is not simply a personal experience; it is a new state of being, a new world, the world of resurrection. Resurrection is the moment that the prison door is flung open. Something has happened within the actual world of space, time, and matter, and as a result everything is different. This new reality is hard to perceive except by faith in Jesus’ death-defeating resurrection. The Book of Acts describes what happens to people—all people, Jews and Gentiles—who are learning to live in God’s new world: they worship and they witness to the transformative, peacemaking power of God in all places.
Maybe you heard the jockey who rode the winning horse at the Kentucky Derby yesterday. When a reporter shoved a microphone in his face, the first thing he said was to give glory to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It may sound awkward and embarrassing—certainly out of place, even to those of us who believe—but there it is: worship and witness.
A story is told about the jazz musician Charles Mingus. Mingus was born in the border town of Nogales, Arizona in 1922. In his autobiography, he claimed that his ancestors were German, Swedish, African American, Chinese, and Native American. Mingus was mostly raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, and he was in high school when he started to play the bass that became his signature instrument throughout his career.
As a child, he was only allowed to play religious music, and Charles Mingus would say that it was the discipline of prayer at Wednesday Night Prayer Meetings at the Holiness-Pentecostal Church in Watts that gave shape to his life as a composer and musician. In 1970, Yale University held a jazz concert to raise money to establish a department of African-American music. Leading jazz musicians were on the stage, including Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Mingus. Shortly after the concert began, someone called in a bomb threat attempting to disrupt the concert and discourage the university from this new initiative.
Police arrived to clear the concert hall, but Charles Mingus refused to leave. Mingus urged the officers to go ahead and get all the others out safely, but he was adamant that he would remain onstage. He told the police: “Racism planted that bomb, but racism is not strong enough to kill this music. If I’m going to die, I’m ready. But I’m going out playing Sophisticated Lady.” Outside the concert hall, the crowds could hear Charles Mingus playing Duke Ellington’s dreamy song. That night, it became a protest song. The crowd stood outside the theater’s open doors and Charles Mingus, with nothing but his bass, filled the air with the sounds of passion and protest, hope and life. Worship and witness.
One of the unexpected blessings of my cancer has been the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and mentors with whom I had grown out of touch. Rev. Jim Brown was a mentor and friend to me—a leader in our denomination for many years. Throughout my illness, Jim counseled me to not give in to fear. And he shared stories with me—stories of courage and hope, like this one:
Jim and his wife, Nina, spent ten days during the Christmas holiday in the Holy Land along with 8 other Presbyterian leaders. Jim and Nina stayed with a man named Daoud Nassar, a Palestinian Christian, and his family. Outside the Nassar farm entrance, the family has placed a sign that reads: We Refuse to Be Enemies. On a cold and windy Saturday night, Daoud piled his guests along with his three small children into an ancient van. They wanted to go to Bethlehem for Sunday worship. It was a long drive and they left while it was still dark outside. Along the way, they came to a check point where soldiers stopped the van and the lead officer demanded that everyone get out, ignoring Daoud’s plea to spare his sleeping children from this ordeal.
Daoud awakened his children, saying quietly in English so the soldiers would understand: “You will wake up and see soldiers with guns. You shouldn’t be frightened because they seem to be friendly people.” When the soldiers finished their search, the officer called Daoud over and said: “Sir, I feel we need to apologize to you and your family. What we did was not right. We were afraid and we let our fear determine how we would treat you. Please forgive us.” Worship and witness.
These are small stories, sure—but they contain within them the seeds of a revolution—a revolution that is continuing to change the world. The words and deeds of Jesus were not pretend. They were very real and meant to inspire us along the way in this very real world. Christ’s resurrection can and does make a difference. It can give a new shape to the way we live our lives and the way we treat other people.
If we listen carefully, we may well hear that the music of Easter is still playing. It plays long after we have left the building. It plays in places so dark and fearful that you and I cannot imagine that it is possible to even make music. The music moves us into what Jesus cared most about: a life filled with hope and love, the work of bringing peace near to hand, a desire for justice in a world where justice has become rare. The risen Christ is with us. His Spirit is among us, forgiving us and calling us to forgive one another, so that we all might be filled with new life. Thanks be to God. Amen.