Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on September 27, 2009, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost. The gospel reading is Mark 9:38-50.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Pastor Carol and I had a delightful time in Lindsborg, Kansas, last weekend. I was reminded of the vivid contrast of their 140 years of congregational life at Bethany Lutheran Church and our 20 years here at Resurrection. Bethany is a congregation the same size as we are now. In those years they have founded Bethany College, Bethany Home for Seniors, and organized an Oratorio Society that has performed Handel’s Messiah every year since the 1880’s. I pray that next 120 years here will be bring such wonderful opportunities for our outreach into this community.
Today we have our first Table Talks to discuss the policy changes approved at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly last month. I hope that you will accept our invitation to come to the Fellowship Hall after service today to participate and learn.
I am giving this sermon a title: “Does God Ever Change His Mind?” I think the message is timely and will let us remember that this is not the first time in the history of the Church that a major shift in thinking has happened. Today I take us to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, especially chapters 10 and 15, the account of Peter and Cornelius, and the account of the Council at Jerusalem.
In Acts 10, we meet Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian cohort. He was part of the Roman imperial structure that kept the people of Israel in their place as a subject people. He was of course a Gentile, considered to be ritually unclean by good Jews and considered unworthy of being part of God’s family. But Luke gives us some insight about Cornelius. He had found favor with God. Luke writes, “He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” (Acts 10:2)
And there is Peter, a follower of Jesus who tried to follow all the laws and customs of the Jews. He was staying in Joppa at the home of Simon the tanner. He had a vision. In the vision he saw a large sheet being lowered from heaven that contained all sorts of four-footed creatures and reptiles and bird. He heard a voice say, “Peter, get up and kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Luke tells us that upon waking, Peter was told that 3 men were outside the house asking that he accompany them to see Cornelius. For Cornelius had been directed by an angel to speak with Peter. And Peter found Cornelius and in front of him and many assembled witnesses preached one of his greatest sermons, that included these words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him…” And Luke says the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard and Cornelius and his household were baptized.
Now we come to Acts 15 and the Council at Jerusalem. Here is the issue: The first Christians are all good Jews. They understood that Jesus is the Promised Messiah for the Jews. They know their scriptures; they know that all good Jews must keep all the laws and statutes. Then the apostle Paul begins attracting Gentiles to Jesus. They believe and are baptized, but don’t see some of the Jewish laws and statutes as necessary, especially about circumcision and dietary laws. The Council at Jerusalem is called to figure this one out since it is really causing grief. Luke tells us that all the apostles and elders assembled to discuss and pray. What did they decide? They decided that indeed the message of Jesus could be preached to both Jews and Gentiles. Here is the provision for the Gentiles they agreed upon: “that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.”
One of the good lessons we learn from the outcome of the Council at Jerusalem is this: passionate folks of differing opinions came together for the good of the whole Church; they spoke from the heart, they quoted scripture, they listened, they treated each other well. There was no rancor or name calling or seeing evil intention in folks who had a different opinion.
In today’s gospel lesson the very last words from Jesus sound familiar: “be at peace with one another.” Jesus uses those words in scripture more than any other words. It is what he expects of us his followers. In today’s gospel he also says something else that is very timely for today: “John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following our lead.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us…If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
Don’t put a stumbling block before one of these little ones. Most Bible scholars point out that “little ones” refers to folks looked down upon by others, not just children. The call of Jesus a number of times is for his followers to go out of our way to take care of folks considered least in the kingdom, either by themselves or by others
I conclude with a story. (1) Robert A. Schuller, young Robert, tells of getting into an argument with his older sister, when he was eight. “You’re a pig!” he screamed when she refused to give him one of his own toys. Their dad, television preacher Robert H. Schuller, heard what was going on. He came into the room and said to young Bob, “Robert, don’t you every call your sister a pig again.”
“But Dad, she is!” he objected.
“If you call her a pig, Robert, you’re calling me a pig too!” said the older Schuller. Young Bob had to think about that for a while. He certainly didn’t think his dad was a pig. His father could tell that he didn’t full understand what he was saying. “Robert, if your sister is a pig, then I’m a pig. She is my child. I can’t have a pig for a child unless I’m a pig. When you insult your sister, you’re insulting me too. When you mock or belittle yourself, you’re doing the same thing to me. You’re my son.”
The same is true of us. When we belittle ourselves, we belittle the One who made us. When we belittle others, we are insulting God.
The message for today can be summed up this way: Jesus asks that we be at peace with one another in the body of Christ…Jesus asks that we go out of our way to love and serve those who are considered least in our midst…our words are very important: we can use them to build up the Body of Christ or to tear down the Body of Christ…God can give new direction to the Church whenever God chooses…being a Christian isn’t about winning or losing, it is about being faithful…In 120 years from now, may it be said of us, they were faced with a big challenge and they met it with prayer and earnest discussion and intensified study of scripture. They entrusted their future to God. And God blessed them and permitted them many more years of mission and ministry in Jesus name.
(1) Getting Though What You’re Going Through (Nashville, TN: Thomas A. Nelson, Inc. 1986), p. 116