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5/17/09 - Easter VI - Alexander Webb

posted May 21, 2010, 6:29 PM by Unknown user   [ updated May 21, 2010, 6:29 PM by Terry Brady ]
In the name of the One, Holy, and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

What does the “average Episcopalian” look like? For a lot of years, the “average Episcopalian” was thought to be white, straight, and male. He was thought to be fairly well off, well educated, and well connected. But, the face of our Church has changed dramatically in the last half-century. God has moved in new ways, and God is moving still.

Let me tell you a story, and as I do, see if you can figure out what story I’m telling:

The Church is divided on a major theological question. There is a certain group of people who see themselves as Christians, but the Church is not sure whether God can really bless people like them. The Church begins to divide into two camps over whether or not those people can be considered Christians. Charismatic leaders emerge on each side of the issue. Conferences are held, and a heated debate ensues.

The leader who favors inclusion shares his experiences, and tells how God is at work in the lives of those people. They live in families, and they raise children in the context of holy relationships. Yet, the other leader will hear none of it. He has been in the Church for a long time, and has never worshipped next to those people. His arguments are scriptural. God chose people like him, and he sees no way that God
could ever bless someone like them.

Have you figured out who they are? Can you name the group that longs for inclusion?

It is tempting to think that the story I just told was about the movement for GLBT equality in the Episcopal Church, but my story is older than that.

Not all that many years ago, you might have thought I was talking about the women’s movement within the Episcopal Church. You see, the big question for our Church in the 1970s was whether or not women could be ordained or serve in positions of church-wide leadership.

But, my story is not about women or about gay and lesbian Christians. My story is far older.

Some might think that the story I just told was about equality for African Americans. Well into the nineteenth century, African Americans were required to sit in the balconies of Episcopal Churches throughout both the north and the south. There were no African American priests in our Church until the ordination of Absalom Jones in 1802.

But, my story is not about African Americans, or about women, or about gay and lesbian Christians. My story is far older.

My story comes from the Acts of the Apostles, and the two charismatic leaders are St. Peter and St. Paul. The church-dividing issue in the first century was whether or not Gentiles could be considered Christians. Paul thought that everyone who accepted Christ was a member of the Church. Peter disagreed. For Peter, God’s chosen people were the only ones who could become Christians. In other words, Peter believed that Christians had to first be Jews.

With whom do we identify in this story? Perhaps we see ourselves as the excluded Gentiles, or as the heroic St. Paul, arguing for total inclusion. However, we miss the point of this story if we fail to consider the ways in which we might be behaving like St. Peter. You see, Peter didn’t set out to be exclusive. He just never accepted the possibility that God could be at work in the lives of those Gentiles.

We deceive ourselves if we think that the movement for GLBT equality will make the Church completely inclusive. Our history shows that there will always be one more group of outsiders, and that the Church often fails to realize that it is being exclusive. I wonder which will be the next group of people that needs to fight for full inclusion in the Church. Might it be illegal immigrants? Might it be homeless people? Might it be our own young adults, who are affirmed as adults in this church once they turn sixteen,1 but tend not to serve on vestries, as Eucharistic Ministers, or on major committees that are not focused on youth?

In our reading from Acts this morning, God resolves the question of inclusion. Peter is telling a room full of Gentiles why it is impossible for them to become Christians. Suddenly, God interrupts him, and the Holy Spirit descends on everyone in the room, both Jew and Gentile.

Peter’s followers are astounded.2 You can imagine that every eye in the room was fixed on the leader of the established Church. What was Peter going to say? What would he do?

The first words out of Peter’s mouth were a humble reversal of everything he had ever taught: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Then, “he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”3

You can almost hear Peter’s voice. With fear: “Let them be baptized.” With hesitation: “Let them be baptized.” With faith that God was doing a new thing in his midst: “Let them be baptized.”

This story is about Jews and Gentiles. But, it’s also about gay and lesbian Christians, and it’s also about women, and it’s also about African Americans. It might even be about young adults. This story is about every group of people that the Church has ever made to feel unwelcome, unwanted, or unworthy. This story is about every person who does not look like the “average Episcopalian.”

What Peter learned on that astounding day is what we must learn every day: God loves everyone. God has no rejects, no outcasts, no unlovables. Everyone has a place of honor in God’s Church.


1 Canon I.17.1(b), although Article II of the Constitution of the Diocese of Washington requires that Diocesan Convention
delegates be at least eighteen years of age.
2 “Astounded” is used in Acts 10:45 (NRSV). “Astonished” is used in Acts 10:45 (KJV, NIV, and NKJV)
3 Acts 10:47-48