I know you’ve all been in a situation where someone tells you something "important" and then tells you – this is for your ears only. Don’t tell anyone. It’s just between us. It might be something about the job or a family situation, but whatever it is you’re sworn to secrecy. That kind of thing happens all the time, and often for good reason. Though, it’s tempting to tell others. When I’m told something like that, I often will try and clarify it. Is it okay to tell Cheryl? Or something like that. But the reason we’re told to keep it under our hat is that some things just need to be kept quiet and private – for the good of all.
There are some things we just love to share – whether it’s the latest gossip or news of a friend or family member who has done something interesting or even heroic. We especially like to talk about our kids – if we have them. You know, like: Brett has received his acceptance letter to Cal State Northridge!
1. UNBINDING THE GOSPEL
But there are other things, things we could talk about, but we don’t. Some things, we say, should just be kept private. Interestingly, one of those things we tend to keep private is our faith. For some reason, we feel compelled to keep things quiet. Perhaps it’s for a good reason. Poll after poll tells us that those outside the church look at those inside the church and don’t see much that’s appealing. The words people use to describe Christians aren’t ones like compassion, love, or graciousness. Instead, they use words like arrogant, narrow-minded, and most common of all – hypocrite. It’s no wonder we tend to keep our mouths shut – who wants to be identified with such a lousy group? Especially when there’s a lot of truth to the charges.
Even I sometimes find it easier not to speak of my faith – and I’m a professional Christian. At times I feel a bit leery about telling people what I do, because that can easily put up walls of defensiveness or end conversations. It’s easier to talk about politics than religion!
The best policy, so we are told is to keep our faith private. And many of us have heeded the call.
There is a great new series of books written by a Disciples pastor that challenges that idea. Gay Reese has written a powerful book called Unbinding the Gospel, which the Elders are reading. In the past month she has published two more books – one for church leaders called Unbinding Your Church and another one for the church as a whole called Unbinding Your Heart. As you can see, each book talks about the process of unbinding or unleashing something.
The other day, in her victory speech, Hillary Clinton said: "I listened to you and I found my voice." I think that this statement has something to say to us. I’m not going political, so don’t worry. Whether or not you like Hillary, that sentence has something to say to us. The world is saying to us – something is missing, and Gay Reese says to us – we need to find our voice. She talks about how we Mainline Protestants have been reluctant to tell the stories of our faith in God. We’ve been reluctant to share the stories of our journey with Jesus. It’s one of the reasons why our churches haven’t grown – we’ve discovered good news, but we’ve kept it to ourselves.
2. A UNIVERSAL GOSPEL
Peter knows how we feel. Before Cornelius’s messengers knocked on his door, he too was reluctant to share his story. At least he was reluctant to tell the story of Jesus to non-Jews. He just assumed that the message of Jesus was meant for the ears of only a few, but God has a way of changing things. God can find ways of redirecting our thinking as happened with Peter, who received a vision that opened his eyes to a new reality.
In this vision, Peter discovered that God shows no partiality. That is, if God declares something clean, then it’s clean, and God told Peter that Gentiles were clean too. Indeed, everyone who does right knows God. Everyone who believes in Jesus and names him Lord is forgiven. Not just a few, but everyone. That’s because this is a Universal Gospel.
There are no boundaries – it doesn’t matter how old or young, how rich or poor, your race or your gender, your sexual orientation or your marital status. The good news is for all. Now Peter needed some convincing. He just assumed that God loved his people, and his people alone. But he had to learn that Jesus was Lord not just of his own people, but all people.
3. THE CALL TO SHARE THE STORY
When Peter answered Cornelius’ invitation, he responded by telling them about Jesus. He begins with the baptism by John and then he moves on to stories about Jesus’ life and ministry and teachings – how he went about doing good things and healing the sick. Peter then told how his enemies put him to death and how God redeemed Jesus by raising him from the dead. Finally he tells Cornelius that Jesus had appeared to him and to others and made them witnesses of the Gospel. Now, after his vision, Peter understood that this was a message that should go to all people. In responding first to God’s vision and then to Cornelius’ invitation, the Gospel had been unbound.
We are called by God to share our story, but the story of Cornelius reminds us of how important it is for us to listen for the invitation to share that story. Too often, when people tell the story of Jesus they do so in a way that’s coercive. They make you feel like if you don’t say yes you’re going to hell. They focus on the wrath of God, rather than the love of God.
Peter does talk about the judgment of God and he talks about forgiveness of sins. That’s a central theme of his message, but he shares it in a way that invites a free response. Such is our calling as well. We are being invited today to let God unbind our hearts so that we might unbind the Gospel that has changed our lives.
This morning we began singing a new song. I first sang it at the General Assembly. We sang it as well at the Regional Gathering. It was written by Bill Thomas, the music minister at Church of the Valley. I hope that this song will ring in your hearts:
"I see a church with a vision;
I see a church on a mission."
"I see a church who has made her mind up,
and she’s building her hopes on things eternal.
She’s holding to God’s unchanging hand."
Indeed, that is the church that I see as well! It is the church that God is inviting us to be.
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
January 13, 2008
1st Sunday after Epiphany