Not THOSE People!

Not THOSE People!

May 19, 2019*

By Pastor John Partridge

 

Acts 11:1-18                          

 

How many of you have friends that are so close that they have become family and are included in almost everything that your family does?   Or, how many of you with children, have some of their friends that are so close, that they can show up at your house at almost any time of the day or night, just walk in without knocking, help themselves to whatever is in the refrigerator, plop down on the couch next to you, as you’re watching television, and just look over and say, “Hey.  What’s up?”  Many families have friends like that, but if push comes to shove, we would all have to admit that – legally – they aren’t really family.  In order to legally be a member of the family you must either be born into the family, or you must be legally adopted through a very particular and well-defined legal process.

Church membership is a little like that.  Anyone can attend church here, and if you come for a while everyone will know that you belong here, but in order to “legally” become a member, there is a process that must be followed.  Some churches make the process super easy; others make it harder than it needs to be, and ours is just designed so that you understand how our system of church governance works and are familiar with some of our theology and ways of doing things.

But Jesus’ church was a little of both of those things.  The people of Israel, as the descendants of Abraham, were both a family and a church.  And, after thousands of years of history there were systems and processes in place for everything.  While you might be free to move there from another place, you couldn’t just show up one day and declare that you were a citizen of Israel or announce that you were now Jewish.  It just didn’t work that way.  Either you were born into the family, or you had to follow a particular, and specific, path of education, ritual, and even surgery, in order to become a Jew.  And even then, you, and your family, would probably remain on the outside of much of the culture for generations to come.  Taken together, it was hard to even think about becoming a follower of Israel’s God.  That was not what God had in mind, and one of the things that Jesus came to do, was to fix that.  But changing that culture, and that way of thinking, even among Jesus’ own disciples, was not easy as we see in the story that Luke shares with us in Acts 11:1-18.

11:1 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance, I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’

“I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’

“The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.

11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’

15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

In this story, the followers of Jesus hear a rumor that non-Jews, Gentiles, had heard, and accepted, the message of Jesus Christ and that Peter had been the one who had told them.  And so, when Peter returns to town and re-enters the community of believers, they get in his face and criticize him for doing so.  “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”  How dare you have contact with people like that?  How could you?  Good people simply don’t share hospitality and friendship with those people!  It surprises us a little, but the followers of Jesus were so much a part of their culture that they couldn’t separate what they had been taught by their culture from the things that were taught in scripture and by Jesus.  They had been so indoctrinated by their culture, and by their leaders, that they believed what they had learned, even when scripture taught that these things were entirely wrong.  This hits us hard, because we are often guilty of exactly the same misunderstanding.

Peter explains how God called him to do what he had done, but in retelling of his story, we notice how even Peter was stuck in the same cultural pattern.  Peter was desperately trying to be a good Jew and he refused God’s direct command two times, before, on the third repetition, he was finally convinced to break from a lifetime of training, teaching, and practice.

And, at the moment Peter surrendered to the will of God, three men arrive and ask him to go with them.  Gathering six other believers, Peter travels to the home of these Gentiles, preaches the good news of Jesus Christ, the Gentiles believe, repent of their sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  But there is something that we skipped past a moment ago.  As Peter prepares to leave his house and travel to the home of the Gentiles, he gathers six other believers to go with him, specifically six other men.  And although this may appear to be sexist, there is a cultural, and legal, reason for his doing so.  First, Peter, plus six others, is seven, and seven is the number of perfection, and that may have had some connotations for good luck or for the blessing of God, but there is something else.  Under Jewish law, the testimony, or witness, of three men is required to establish something as true and factual.  So, when Peter takes six men with him, he is preparing for the possibility that he might have to testify about what happens there, whether that something is an act of God or the commission of a crime of some kind we don’t know.  But in either case, when Peter returns to Jerusalem, and is criticized by the other disciples, Peter testifies to what happens with seven witnesses, one more than twice the number needed to ascertain the legal facts, so that there can be no doubt about what happened in that place.

God is truly at work, and those people have surely been invited into God’s family.

Of course, “those people” are us, the Gentiles, the non-Jewish believers.

If you’ve been in church for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that Paul is the one who we generally associate with missionary outreach to the Gentiles, and although that’s true, it is here, that Peter really begins ministry outside of what had been the “normal” outreach to other Jews up to that time.  Although Peter’s calling isn’t to become a missionary to the Gentiles, it was Peter and his six witnesses who proved to the disciples and the gathered church in Jerusalem that reaching out to the Gentiles with the good news of Jesus Christ was something that God was doing and something that God intended for the church to do.  Can you imagine how difficult it would have been, just a few years later, to convince this same group of people that God was calling Paul to carry the message of Jesus Christ into Greece, and Rome, and to nations full of what were thought of as pagan unbelievers if it had not been for the witness of Peter and his six friends?

What Peter discovered was revolutionary and hard to accept, but it was obvious to every witness that God was reaching out to “those people” as well as to the Jews.  It wasn’t just about Israel or the family of Abraham anymore, the boundaries that divide human beings are broken and erased for good.  God isn’t just calling the Jews, or the insiders, but anyone who hungers and thirsts for God and for what is right.

And that all sounds fine… right up until we remember that those words are supposed to speak to us in the twenty first century just as they did in the first century.  The mission of Jesus Christ hasn’t changed and neither has the mission of his church.  These were words that the early church wrestled with and they are words that we are still wrestling with two thousand years later.

Why?

Because no matter how far we’ve come, we still seem to find ways to divide people between insiders and outsiders.  Maybe “those people” are no longer the Gentiles, but we still find ways of labeling them as “hopeless,” as “outsiders,” “lost causes,” and yes, “those people.”

So, think about who “those people” might be for us.  Who are the outsiders, the outcasts, and the unwelcome?  And once we have an idea of who that might be, let’s find ways of reaching out them and inviting them in.

Because that’s exactly what Jesus has called us to do.

 

 

 

 

 


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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Who Are You in the Dark?

Who Are You in the Dark?

April 21, 2019*

Easter Sunday

By Pastor John Partridge

 

John 20:1-18                          Acts 10:34-43

 

What do you do when you are alone?

When Patti (my wife) is working, or out of the house, and I am home alone, I admit that I sometime don’t really do anything at all.  But other times, I use her absence as an opportunity to do chores in the garage while her car is out of the way or, despite the fact that Patti doesn’t mind that I have hobbies, I sometimes take time, in her absence, to engage in hobbies, or work on my projects, without worrying about what other chores might need done around the house.

But what we do when no one is watching can be revealing.

C.S. Lewis once said, “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching”

And 19th century evangelist D. L. Moody said that “Character is what you are in the dark.”

It is by that measure that we discover a revealing piece of the Easter story.  In John 20:1-18, we meet Mary Magdalene…

…in the dark…

20:1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

On Sunday morning, the first day of the Jewish week, the earliest that it was permitted to do work after the sabbath ended, Mary Magdalene is up before the sun and already on her way to the tomb where Jesus had been buried on Friday.  In an era thousands of years before the invention of the alarm clock, Mary is up and dressed and out of the house while the roosters are still asleep.  It is almost certain that she has been awake for most of the night.  And, while it is still dark, she discovers that the stone has been removed, the tomb is empty, and Jesus’ body is missing.  In her despair, she runs to find Peter and John, and they return with her to investigate, only to find that everything is just as she had described. 

After confirming what Mary had said in the first place, Peter and John go back to the places where they had been staying during Passover, but Mary did not.  Mary could be in no other place than the place where she had last seen Jesus.  She had followed him alongside the disciples for years, she had followed him and watched his trial, she had followed him and watched his crucifixion when almost everyone else had fled, and she had followed him that evening as he was buried in a rush before sundown.

But now, Jesus was gone.

And Mary could think of no place that she’d rather be than the last place that she had seen him.  And so, she sat beside his grave… and she wept.  But pausing to look inside the tomb again, perhaps for the twentieth or thirtieth time, each time hoping to see something different, but each time seeing the same empty tomb, and suddenly… there is something different.  Angels.  And the angels ask, “Why are you crying?”  And as she turns away from the tomb she sees, but does not recognize, Jesus.  Possibly because she was looking through her tears, and possibly because she simply didn’t expect to see a dead man to be standing upright and asking her questions.  But everything changes with a single word.

“Mary.”

Only Jesus spoke to her that way.  Only Jesus had that voice.  Only Jesus used that tone.  It was a voice that she knew so well, and had heard so often, that it was utterly unmistakable.  And she knew.

She knew.

Mary may not have yet understood how, or why, but she knew that Jesus was alive.

And in the last moment that we see Mary Magdalene in all of scripture, she goes to tell the disciples what she had seen and what she had heard.


Think about that for a moment.  After spending three years preaching, eating, sleeping, walking, and living with the disciples, Jesus appears first to Mary and not to any of the disciples.  In a culture that was all about men, Jesus appears first to a woman.  Surrounded by healthy people, Jesus announces his return to a woman who had been afflicted with, and whom he had cured from, demonic possession.  This is one of the pieces of the story that help us to believe that it must be true, because it is completely counter-cultural.  If you intended to write a fictional story in order to establish a new religion, this is clearly not how you would have written it.  Unless it was true.

Jesus was alive, Mary becomes the first missionary of the Resurrection, and I think that it’s quite likely that it had everything to do with Mary’s faith.  I suspect that these events may have been on Peter’s mind when he gave his great speech in Acts 10:34-43.

34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

God does not show favoritism but accepts everyone who fears him and does what is right.  We must go out into the world and tell everyone that we can find about the Gospel message, the Good News, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ because we are witnesses.  We may not have been standing beside Mary or been in the room when she told the disciples, but we have surely seen the evidence of how Jesus has changed our lives and we know the miracles that he has done in our families and in the lives of the people around us.

We are witnesses.

Jesus has commanded us to preach, and to testify, that he is the one who God has appointed as judge, it is about him whom the prophets have written, and those that put their faith in him will be forgiven of their sins.

We know that Mary Magdalene probably came from a family that had money, but her life was anything but easy.  When she came to Jesus she was described as having the worst case of demon possession of anyone that the disciples had met.  She was said to have had seven demons, or allegorically speaking, a perfection of demon affliction.  But unlike nine out of ten lepers that Jesus healed, unlike the thousands of others whom Jesus healed of various afflictions, and unlike even the disciples themselves, Mary Magdalene did the thing that Peter promised and couldn’t deliver.  She stayed.

Mary.  Never.  Left.

Throughout his ministry, throughout his trial, throughout his crucifixion, Mary was there.

And in the dark of that Saturday evening, and the dawn of Sunday morning, Mary was there.

And so, if D. L. Moody was right, if “Character is what you are in the dark,” then on this Easter Sunday morning we know what kind of character that Mary Magdalene had but all of us are confronted with this question:

Who are you in the dark?

 

 

 


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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Six Degrees of Social Media Separation


    In the last few decades, there has been much talk about “Six Degrees of Separation,” which is the idea that any person in the world can be introduced to any other person in the world, by being introduced through our networks of friends.  Statisticians have demonstrated that anyone in the US can be introduced to almost anyone else in the US by going through only two or three friends.  But as often as we hear such things, it is still amazing when it happens “in real life.”
    This week I received a private message on Facebook from a woman I never met.  And that was the beginning (or possibly the end) of an unusual series of connections through my life and through social media.  To understand the connections that led to this message, let me go back in time to high school.
    After my eighth grade year, my parents moved to the south side of Akron, Ohio.  At our new church I met Keith and Jamie Weaver, who would, within the next few years, depart for Kenya, East Africa as missionaries through Africa Inland Missionwhere they would serve for twenty five years.  After I graduated from college and began working in Cleveland, I was back at that same church and reconnected with Keith and Jamie during their occasional visits home. 
    When the time came for them to consider a return to the states, our church realized that no one (other than their children) had ever had the opportunity to visit them in Kenya.  Two women, Sandi, and my wife, Patti, volunteered and along with our missions committee, we decided that we would raise the funds to send them. 
    While Patti and Sandi were in Kenya visiting Keith and Jamie, they met Steve and Nancy Peifer.  Nancy was the librarian at Rift Valley Academy; Steve was the guidance counselor and also ran a feeding program at local Kenyan schools (Kenya Kids Can).
    With that as background, we return to the funeral preparations for my father.  As soon as it was available, I posted his obituary on my Facebook page and many friends, including Steve Peifer, posted their condolences. 
    The next day I had a private message.  The woman who sent that message acknowledged that we had never met. She had seen my name pop up when Steve had written on the link to my father’s obituary and it had seemed familiar.  She followed the link, read the obituary, realized who my father was, printed it, and showed it to her parents.
    What we discovered was that our fathers had sung together in college, he had been the best man in my parent’s wedding and my father had been the best man in theirs.  Our parents had exchanged letters and cards, but over the years had lost touch with one another.  She sent me a current photo of her parents to give to my mother, and I sent a current address so that they could send their condolences and reconnect.  My Mom was a little stunned when I handed her the photo and explained who it was.
    I know that we live in a connected world, but it was still exciting to see old friends reconnect because of two children on the Internet, two missionaries to Africa, an obituary, and social media.

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A Dream So Big



    My wife, Patti, and another member of our church first met Steve Peifer during a trip to visit Keith and Jamie Weaver, missionaries sent by our church to the people of Kenya.  There, Patti met Steve and worked with this beautiful wife Nancy in the library at Rift Valley Academy.  I first met Steve at my home church when we invited him to come and tell us about his efforts to feed hungry school children that he describes in A Dream So Big.  Since then Patti and I have answered a call to pastoral ministry and have not only followed Steve’s adventures through his regular emails, but have, on several occasions, invited him to speak in the churches where we were serving.  I don’t think that his story has ever failed to astound his listeners. 

     
    Steve is an average, middle class guy whose life was turned upside down and who, through no particular plan of his own, ended up in Kenya, Africa seeing things that most of us cannot imagine, and doing things that we would be afraid to do.  Throughout this story, Steve insists that he is not an amazing man, just a man through whom, God is doing amazing things. 
 
    In A Dream So Big, we meet Steve, Nancy, and their family before the adventure began, at home, in Texas.  We walk with them through one of the most difficult times that a parent can imagine, the loss of their child, Steven, and then follow them as they head to Africa.  At first, their African adventure is intended to be just a year away to sort things out and to process the pain and the trauma of losing a child, a time for their family to be together and to heal.  But, as Steve often points out, Africa changes a person.  After a year in Kenya, the Peifers feel called, if not compelled, to return on a more permanent basis, and it is then that the real adventure begins.  
    Not content to see children lying in the dirt at school because they are weak from hunger, Steve sets out to change the world, or at least his little corner of it.  Steve asks, and with the help of his friends and supporters in the United States, begins to provide lunches for two schools nearby.  Two schools become four, and then ten, and by the end of the book become a truly extraordinary number.  Providing food not only allows the children to be free from hunger, but gives them the strength to get an education and an incentive to stay in school.  Even with these successes, Steve is not content.  Building on the feeding program, Steve and his friends begin to build solar powered computer centers.
    Just because I said the word computer, do not be tempted to think that this is just another story about wealthy, white Americans swooping in to “rescue” Africa.  Those stories are old and they often are the picture of “Ugly Americans” with all the cultural insensitivity that you might expect.  That is not Steve’s story.  Steve builds a program in which the villages take ownership of their schools and their computer centers.  The parents know that when these children finish school and head into the city to find work, as most of them do, that they will find good paying, skilled jobs instead of living in the slums fighting with untold thousands of others for a handful of unskilled jobs.  The school children, their parents, and many others have seen Steve’s vision, and it is a vision that can break the back of poverty in Africa.  It is a vision that can change the world.
    I highly recommend A Dream So Big.  As you follow Steve, Nancy and their family on this amazing adventure, you will laugh out loud at the ridiculous situations in which Steve finds himself.  But you will also weep at the poverty and hopelessness that he sees all around him.  A Dream So Big invites you, not only to follow along, but to be a part of this incredible adventure.  I have no doubt that Steve Peifer is changing the world, one child at a time.  When you read this book, you will discover that you can too.
Steve’s book, A Dream So Big will be released next week and can be found on Amazon here: A Dream So Big.