David A. Davis
April 24, 2016
A week ago Friday the Princeton Packet published a letter to the editor that I signed along with the other three elected officers of the Princeton Clergy Association. It was letter to the wider community in response to the disturbing story of kids from Princeton High School playing a beer drinking game in the basement of a neighborhood home. It was more than a beer drinking game. It was a beer drinking game labeled “Nazis vs. Jews.” Someone at the party “snapchatted” a picture. A student not at that party received the snapchat, posted it on her blog and wrote about how wrong and hateful and stupid it was. The Packet gave a headline to our letter that read, “Religious Leaders Condemn Anti-Semitic Act.” You will excuse for parsing words here but our letter never used the word “condemn” nor did it declare anything “anti-Semitic.” The Rabbi himself suggests that what was most offensive was the trivializing of the Holocaust, making a game out of such a horrendous event in history. The letter tried to name the various issues that bubble up from that party but none of us were interested in “condemning” anyone. I agree with another community leader who said to me “these kids lives might be changed forever in a world that only knows their faces. But in our community, every one of those kids has a name and when you know the names the response is just different.” She wasn’t defending what happened only lamenting how everyone involved has been portrayed and treated by the dark underbelly of social media.
When you know the names. There had to be names. Here in this story from the 11th chapter of the Book of Acts, there had to be names and faces. These few chapters of the New Testament tell the story of Cornelius, the first Gentile to respond to the Gospel, the first Gentile Christian. The conversion comes when an angel visits Cornelius and when Peter has a dream in triplicate of that sheet and the animals and the voice of God. Peter took six people with him and headed to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and so he called together friends and family. Peter’s sermon at Cornelius’ house had that great opening line, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” While Peter was speaking, the Bible tells it, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard what he was saying. The Spirit fell on the Gentiles in the house. New Testament scholar Beverly Gaventa points out that it is the only time in Luke and Acts that the Holy Spirit comes prior to the act of baptism. The Holy Spirit coming that day to Cornelius, to the Gentiles. The Holy Spirit coming, it didn’t accompany a baptism but it wasn’t spontaneous either. It was a unilateral, unrequested, non-mandated, unmerited, boundary shattering act of God.
Peter and the six people he took with him. Cornelius and his friends and family gathered. It says they invited Peter to stay for several days. So there had to be names and faces. Here in what I read to you, it’s too bad Peter doesn’t use any names. As he defends himself to Jewish Christians, he tells what happened, he tells it step by step. But he doesn’t use any names. Maybe if they knew the names, their response would have been different. You heard their response. It started right when Peter returned to Jerusalem. The apostles and believers had already heard that the Gentiles had accepted the word of God. Those apostles and believers, they didn’t ask Peter how many souls had been saved or how many people were added to the church that day. They didn’t ask about the Spirit thing, the speaking in tongues and extolling God part. They didn’t ask him to defend his actions theologically. They didn’t ask for the scriptural support for baptizing those Gentiles. They didn’t even flat-out ask, “Peter, how could you baptize them?” No, what they said was, “Why did you go and eat with them?” “How could you eat with them?” Laws. The religious connotations of what to eat and how to prepare. “How could you eat with them?” They are not us. They are not part of us. “Peter, how could you eat with them!” Of course it wasn’t “them.” It was Cornelius and his friends and family. There were names and faces. When you know the names.
I have only repeated a sermon once here at Nassau Church. It was a sermon on Vashti in the Book of Esther. Vashti who refused to dance naked before the king. The sermon was entitled, “Here’s to Vashti.” One repeat in 15 years. Until now. Almost ten years ago I preached a sermon on Peter and Cornelius. I repeat a significant portion now not because the sermon was all that great but because it is oh-so-relevant. That sermon title was, “Us and Them.” The people of God don’t have the luxury of allowing “them” to become a four-letter word. As if life in the community of faith were a cable news show where a liberal-leaning host invites a gun advocate on just to excoriate him and make fun of him. Or as if being a faith leader today grants you the authority to pronounce that all who disagree with you on important matters are going to hell, a sort of church sanctioned demonization of “them.” As if we Presbyterians, steeped in the tradition where people of good conscience can disagree about important things, as if we could ever settle for the rhetoric of our life together being shaped by two people on television trying to talk over one another, or radio talk shows intended only for like-minded listeners, or a two-party political system that has elevated “us and them” to an apocalyptic, scorched-earth way of life. I’m not sure there is any room for “them” (the term “them” with all the scandalous and disgusted tone I can muster intentionally left dripping from the word), I’m not sure there is any room for “them” in the Body of Christ. And that’s because of Cornelius. The conversation about “them” in scripture, in the New Testament Church, the discussion was never the same. It was no longer “them,” it was Cornelius.
In 2004 Professor Peter Gomes gave the opening convocation address at Harvard Divinity School. Dr. Gomes was the minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard University and he taught at both the Divinity School and the college. When delivering his address Professor Gomes stood right in front of the then president of the University, Larry Summers. It was a tense moment because the president and one of his deans had made it clear to the university and to Peter Gomes privately that they had little time or commitment to the Divinity School and Memorial Church in the future vision for the university. Peter told me the dean had said to him if they were building the university today Memorial Church would never have such a prominent place in Harvard Yard. To which Peter responded, “Well, it is where it is and I don’t suppose you will move it anytime soon.”
The address became an occasion for defending the existence of a theological education that continues to claim and grow out of its own Protestant Christian roots. The roots upon which that university and Princeton’s were both founded. At one point Peter Gomes noted the irony that the setting for the address, for the opening of the semester in the Divinity School was in a theater, not in the stately gathering place of Memorial Church. The reason we are here and not there, he said, is that “one of our students in recent years accused me of praying too ‘theistically.’ I’m not sure what she meant, but I knew she didn’t like it.” He went on to say… “I speak as an out-of-the-closet Protestant Christian with decidedly Trinitarian tendencies, and as such I believe that the well-laid Protestant Christian foundations of this school are broad enough not only to embrace Christianity as its central tradition, but also the great wealth of religious traditions, which because of that foundation, have come now to join us. If this school’s future is to be worthy of its past, that future dare not compromise the essential Christian identity of the place, without which no other identity here would be possible.”
You hear the wisdom of his argument? The inclusiveness and hospitality and respect of the other embedded in the historic Protestant Christian identity is what allows the place to flourish in all its plurality. Without that outward lean of the tradition, no other tradition would be present at all. Not only that, few if any of the other traditions would have ever welcomed the other to begin with. Roman Catholic. Orthodox Jew. Evangelical Christian. Even a secular approach like that of the former Harvard president and the student who thought the prayers were too theistic. That pure secular approach that some would assume best describes a place like Harvard now offers little welcome or engagement with people of faith. For far too many, those who don’t agree simply don’t belong. They ought not to be welcomed. They become “them.”
Professor Gomes wasn’t preaching a sermon that day with the university president looking over his shoulder, so he stopped a bit short. There is a prior step in his description of the well-laid Protestant Christian foundation of Harvard Divinity School and the university of which it is a part. A prior theological plea to make. That would be the unilateral, unrequested, non-mandated, unmerited, boundary shattering act of God. The embrace of the other radiates not from the tradition, but from God. Presbyterians remain committed to things like “God alone is Lord of the conscience” and “people of good conscience can disagree about important things” not because we or the tradition have been particularly good at it; far from it. We remain committed to it and stand for it and live into it because of God, the grace of God, the unpredictable grace of God, the wondrous grace of God. The prevenient grace of God. The unearned grace of God. The undeserved grace of God. The grace of God that is new every morning, new every morning. The grace we celebrate every with each and every baptism.
There is no room for “them” in the Body of Christ. I mean that word that comes with all the intended sinful disdain of humanity’s collective use of the term. God is so much greater than our hearts (I John). “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians). “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on them” (Acts). The unilateral, unrequested, non-mandated, unmerited, boundary-shattering act of God.
Remember, before we were us… in the story of salvation history, before we were us… we were them.
© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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