Open Communion *

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This recording is intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family.  While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given.

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Leviticus 20:22-26
Acts 11:1-18

Rumor was… word on the street was… among the apostles and believers living in Judea – that Gentiles had accepted the word of God. So when Peter returned from his international mission trip to Jerusalem… he didn’t get the response we might have expected. I mean, if someone comes back and tells me that anyone has accepted the word of God… this would be a good thing. Right? Don’t we want everyone to accept the word of God?

But this was not the reception for Peter. Instead, the text says the apostles and circumcised believers started criticizing him… started arguing with him. “Peter, what were you thinking? What were you doing? Why did you do this? Peter, (in the words of Ricky Ricardo)… you got some splaining’ to do?”

If Peter had been Presbyterian, we might have set up a disciplinary committee to consider charges.

My question is why? Why aren’t they happy when people – anyone accepts the word of God and wants to join in the Christian community? Under Peter’s leadership, the church was growing… expanding into a new community… the Gentiles. He stayed with them. He ate with them. Got to know them personally -people like Cornelius. He discovered they were devout people… who feared God, gave alms generously, prayed constantly to God. They were committed to God and seeking to live as servants of God.

So what’s the problem? Here’s the problem. They were still Gentiles. Pagans. Unclean. Not one of us.

And before baptizing them, staying with them, eating with them, Peter never demanded that they follow the dictates of the Torah. He did not demand that they first change: undergo circumcision, keep the laws of Moses, and then and only then be received into fellowship of Christ’s followers. That was the problem. A huge problem for the early church leaders.

Well, the word of this got back to Peter’s closest colleagues: James, John, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew and the rest of the other apostles in Jerusalem. And they were not happy. These were the ones entrusted with the truth of the gospel… And they were shocked by what they have heard has happened. ‘Why Peter? Why this? Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”…1.

So when Peter returns to face his old friends, he tells a story that he knows will be hard for them to understand. He tells of a vision that came to him three times. As if to say, this was not easy for him either to be convinced that this was where God was leading the church. You don’t go around changing hundreds of years of tradition and hundreds of years of scriptural interpretation easily. Peter understood how hard this was for them.

What we hear today is Peter retelling the story of the vision – it is his witness, his testimony about how his mind and heart was changed by God regarding the Gentiles. Not by an argument or a discussion or a debate over scripture… but by the leading of the Holy Spirit – a spirit that ever seems to be in the business of stretching God’s people…enlarging their vision.

Peter re-tells his vision where a voice invites him to eat all manner of unclean animals… that the scriptures had clearly forbidden him to eat. When he resists, he hears a voice simply say, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Again, this happened three times. And Peter tells them that the Holy Spirit told him not to make a distinction between them and us.

That’s how he came to change his mind. Or that is how God changed his mind – this was divine intervention!

What I love about Peter is that when he returns home and is faced with the criticism and attacks…”Peter does not argue points of theology. He does not attack his colleagues who were critical of him. He did not go on a campaign to convince his colleagues to change their minds [or form advocacy groups for the gentiles]. He only shared his own personal experience of seeking to be faithful to God.” 2.

This is another story of many stories you’ll read in the book of Acts, of being faithful to God and to God’s leading the church to break down all sorts of barriers in their culture and world – even when it causes controversy.

Which may lead you to wonder… as it does me… “What barriers is God calling us to break through in our time?” Lord knows, we’ve seen our share of barriers being broken throughout Christian history.

Just in my lifetime, I have heard stories of churches barring African Americans from worship or leadership. I remember the story my friend Roland Perdue tells about a session in Texas telling him to stop welcoming African Americans to church. The Session told him that! And this was just 40-50 years ago.

In my home church, we had an active ministry to the inner city. Our church invited African American children and youth to come to Vacation Bible School and youth group. Some parents didn’t like it. Some refused to send their kids to VBS or Youth Group if African Americans were present. Can you imagine such a thing? Thank God that would not be the case today. It was a huge barrier broken. In fact some of those African American kids later became elders in the church.

I remember a time when divorced people believed the church would not welcome them. After all, everyone knew back then that divorced people were going to hell.

The church seems to always struggle with barriers. What are we to do with people with disabilities? Mental or physical. Are they welcome? What about people who are not educated or from lower socio economic class? Or do not fit in with “our group.” I heard a preacher once say that every church should have it’s fair share of PHds and AFDCs. (Aid to Families with Dependent Children)

Today, and this is no surprise to you, the mainline church (Presbyterians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans) are wondering about how to relate to people who are homosexuals. Some denominations ban them from membership. We don’t. But we have our debates over leadership.

Today, as I think about coming to the communion table my mind thinks about how many people have been barred from this table.

It used to be that Presbyterians could not take communion unless they had a token in their hand. The token told the minister that the person had been visited by an elder the previous day… that the elder had examined their faith and found them worthy to receive communion. No token, no communion.

When I was growing up, children were barred from the table. That’s why when I joined the church it was called a communicant’s class… not confirmation class. We would be allowed to commune only after becoming members.

So when someone suggested that children might be welcomed to the table… man, was there a church fight. People argued and fought. Some threatened to leave the church. Some said, “How can the children understand what is going on?” to which the other side said, “Do YOU understand what is going on here? Can you explain the mystery of this grace? And if this is a means of grace, how do we bar our baptized children from receiving it?”

Man, I remember that fight. Some left the church when the children were welcomed to receive communion. They said it was just not right. Said we had compromised our standards.  Back in Newton, I knew a Lutheran minister who would not give communion to his own father. Why? Because his father was not Missouri Synod Lutheran. They practiced closed communion. Barred from the table.

Not so in the Presbyterian church. We broke that barrier a long, time ago. We practice open communion.

What barriers do you think God is trying to break in our time? Or do you think God is done breaking barriers… God is done disturbing us with visions and dreams.

Today, when we come to the communion table… remember, this is not our table… this is not a Presbyterian table… this really is the Lord’s table. The table of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Look around this table (and it is a huge table-it wraps around the world), and you will see people will be coming from east and west and north and south… they will be black and white and Latino and Asian… Jew and Gentile… Palestinian and Guatemalan and Iranian and Iraqi… they will come from South Africa, Ethiopia, Thailand, Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands – people from all kinds of places… and they will be young and old… they will rich and poor… literate and illiterate… abled and disabled… they will be straight and gay… divorced and single and married… Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist…. They will even be Duke, Carolina and State fans!

Look at this table, and you’re going to see quite a crowd gathered for this meal. Maybe you and I would and maybe we wouldn’t have invited all of them to a meal at your house or mine. But God has. And maybe that is all that matters. For what did God tell Peter? ” What God has made clean, you must not profane”

And who are we to argue with God. Amen.

1.  Adapted from Pete Peery Sermon, First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, May 9, 2004
2.  ibid

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