“The Same Gift”
a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, UCC
May 15, 2022
Scripture Reading: Acts 11:1-18 NRSV
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’
8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’
15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
There are some things I wouldn’t eat even if God told me to. I have never been real
adventurous as an eater. No chocolate covered ants, no escargot, not going to do
octopus or squid, sorry. I’ve had foie gras once. That was plenty. Fortunately, God
has never told me to eat anything. I have probably needed God to tell me NOT to eat
some things, but that was more about quantity than quality.
I can sympathize with Peter in this Scripture reading. He reports on a vision he
had of a heavenly picnic sent down from God for his meal. Of course, there is a lot
more going on here than personal menu preferences. Let me try to start at the
beginning of this passage, walk us through the issues and see what it has to say to us
The first “believers” as the Book of Acts calls those first followers of Christ
after his resurrection, were all Jewish. Some of the leaders were requiring any non-
Jews to follow all the Jewish customs, not only about food but about circumcision.
They were basically requiring anyone who wanted to be part of them to “convert”
completely to Judaism. After all, Jesus was Jewish, they were Jewish, they believed
he was the Jewish Messiah. They believed him to be God’s anointed for the Jewish
people. Then we hear about the story of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes down,
people of many different nationalities and religions become “believers” in Jesus as
Today’s reading is one of the key cornerstone stories of how this event on
Pentecost spread so that the believers learned to welcome all people. Remember, in
the Jewish understanding there are Jews and there are Gentiles. Gentiles are
everyone who is not Jewish. Like us. Or anyone of any other race or religion who is
not Jewish. Before this, it was assumed that Gentiles had to become Jews to be in
with the Jesus crowd. This was a gate they used to keep people out.
So the story tells us that Peter has been eating and having fellowship with non-
Jews and some of the original Jewish believers are unhappy with Peter. “How can
you hang out with those people?” So Peter tells them the story of his dream of
having all this unacceptable food come down from heaven, food called “unclean” for
Jewish people. And he refuses to eat. “Never, Lord, I have never once eaten a non-
kosher hotdog! Or a shrimp.”
But here is the key: God says, “don’t call unclean what I have called clean.”
And Peter goes to the house of a new believer, a Gentile, and he sees that they have
the Holy Spirit and he says,
“ 16 I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water,
but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift
that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could
hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God,
saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Here’s the problem.
Two- thousand- plus years later “believers” are still trying to put up gates to keep people out. They do it on things they call beliefs rather than laws, commandments, or whatever, but it is the same thing. They believe they have the power to control God’s grace. They want to claim to know who is in and who is out. Of course, they are in, but anyone who doesn’t believe like they do, worship like and control others the way they want to are NOT “in.”
they do, hate who they hate, and control others the way they want to are NOT “in.”
And if this were the only example of God saying this is not God’s way that would be one thing. But the Bible is full of examples of God breaking down barriers and opening doors and defying the fences that humans put up to keep people away from being in loving, forgiving, healthy relationships with one another. We Christians think we have an exclusive hold on God. We think that we know God’s mind about who God approves of and who God doesn’t approve of and we narrow the whole faith thing down to deciding who gets into heaven and who goes to hell, while people are dying in this life because of injustice, and evil, and wars, and hatred invented by man – and it is almost always MEN, who want the power and control
over others in God’s name.
I was at a clergy meeting this past week and there was a pastor there who
“testified” that he was so concerned for his brother-in-law’s salvation that he told
him, “I would rather break your arm here and now than see you end up in hell for
eternity.” I was flabbergasted. I’m sorry but I do not believe in that God. I do not
believe in a God who would rather we beat, abuse, or kill others in order to save
them. What are we talking about, the second – coming of the Spanish Inquisition?
How about if we start with the most basic understanding of God: God is love.
And how about if we then recognize that love is a gift, love is unconditional – or it is
not love, it is manipulation – and that love is not earned even by what we believe or
don’t believe? I think that is what Peter discovered in that dream he had. I think
what he realized, and what those early “believers” realized, before the whole thing
became the “Holy Roman Empire,” and power and control became more important
than the free gift of God’s love. This passage reminds us that God has given us all
the same gift: love.
As we attempt to become more aware of how this love of God can be shared
with our sisters and brothers dealing with mental health issues, I am even more aware
of how we have stigmatized and excluded and feared those who are victims of mental
health issues. Instead of helping and loving we have excluded, judged, and jailed
them. Our jails are full of people with a variety of mental health issues and none of
them are getting the love and treatment they need to be well.
I think of family members who dealt with addiction and ended up in jail and all
it did was destroy their self-worth and their health. I think of colleagues who try to
minister to others while they are dealing with their own anxiety, depression, low self-
esteem and self-worth. They are pouring out their hearts and souls and they are
empty inside and many violate their ordination vows and the law itself by getting into
improper relationships. Yes, even clergy deal with mental health issues.
But the good news is that God has given us all the same gift: a perfect love
that does not exclude us. Not only are we not excluded for eating shrimp or for not
being circumcised, but we are not excluded for feeling like something is broken in
our lives, or because we don’t believe in a certain set of dogmas or doctrines that
limit God’s love to others.
Peter uses the phrase “the repentance that leads to life.” We have often heard
that word “repentance” translated as if it means to suddenly be overwhelmed with
guilt and to fall out in fear and trembling. The word in Greek, perhaps you already
know, is “metanoia.” Some have tried to equate it with a “turning around” or a
“changing of one’s mind.” I’m not sure any of these are enough. I think they are too
internally focused, too “psychological” in the contemporary sense of that word.
I want to suggest it means to “enter into a new reality.” That’s what I believe
repentance means. I believe it is to suddenly see, by the power of the Holy Spirit,
that God doesn’t just want to save our souls for the afterlife, even if it is for eternity.
Jesus kept talking about how the “Kingdom of God” was here, now. He kept saying
it was very near. He kept describing it as a new reality where relationships were not
determined by power and control of others, not by breaking their arms or forcing
them to eat certain foods or believe only certain beliefs but by love that sought the
very best of blessing for all, that sought to serve others.
That’s the reality I want to live in. That’s the God I worship. That’s the
Savior I know. I don’t believe in a Jesus that wants to break my arm even if I never
recognize how much he loves me. I don’t want to have Jesus break your arm because
you never accept what someone else says you have to accept to be loved by God. I
want people to stop breaking other people in God’s name.
I want to live in a reality where we are all seeking to heal one another,
mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually by loving each other without
conditions. I believe that is the same gift God wants to give to each and every one of
us. And I believe that is salvation. AMEN.