15 May 2006

them

From Acts 10:44-48: “ . . . even on the Gentiles . . .”

OK, so I’m not exactly a big Jim Carrey fan. I liked him in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, but not so much in the Ace Ventura movies or in Liar Liar. I know and I confess that the reason I didn’t like the funnier movies is because I can be just way too serious at times. But, putting all that seriousness aside, I have to say that I did sort of like Bruce Almighty.

In case you never saw Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey plays a character by the name of Bruce. He’s a television reporter who’s up for this big job . . . but he doesn’t get the job that he thought he deserved. So he gets pretty mad about it and Bruce starts yelling at God and blaming God for the lost job. Then Bruce starts rattling off all of the other things that are wrong with the world and wondering why God doesn’t do something about those things too. Apparently God, in the eyes of this character named Bruce, isn’t doing such a good job of running the world.

So Bruce gets summoned to meet with God . . . and when Bruce meets with God, God asks the question, “Well, do you think you can do a better job?” Now, that’s a tough question.

It is all too easy to criticize from the sidelines right, we call it Monday morning quarterbacking, second-guessing someone else’s decisions. Well, in this movie, God decides to give Bruce a shot at running the world. God gives this regular guy Bruce, a TV reporter up until now, all of the power and strength of God.

And of course, Bruce does some of the same things that any of us might do. Bruce begins changing things in order to make Bruce’s world a better place to be. He’s driving around and gets stuck in traffic so Bruce parts the cars in traffic, just like he is parting the Red Sea. He makes what he considers to be improvements around his home, with his wife, and with his dog. And any of us might do the same thing, right?

You might simply call it “selfishness”. But actually, I think it is a bit deeper than that. I think that what is really happening here is that we are placing ourselves as the judge of what is right and what is not . . . and generally that means that what appears to be right for us and what we believe is good for us is the standard by which we judge what we also believe is good for others. Quite literally that means placing ourselves in the position of God . . . and in Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey’s character quite literally acts as God, at least for a little while.

But it is a great question! “So what would you do if you had the power of God? What are the things that you would set right that you have always seen as wrong?”

The answer to that question may reveal how all tend to see life from where we stand. We see our problems from where we are, from our perspective, through our own eyes and not anyone else’s. We see the world from whatever little piece of dirt we happen to be on at that time. It is something about being human that makes us think that we’ve got the answers based on our little slice of experience. Now that’s okay if you understand that it is only a slice. Trouble happens when we don’t think that what we are seeing is only a slice; trouble comes when we assume that what we are seeing is the whole pie.
In Acts 10, Peter has just finished preaching a sermon in which he starts out with this phrase in verse 34, “Truly, I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” That’s how he starts his sermon that day. Peter emphasizes that the way that the people of that day knew God was only a part of the story . . . it was their part of the story, but it was not all of the story.

You see a lot of the hearers of the original message about Jesus were born out of the people of Israel, those who were Jewish by religion and ethnicity. This was how they had always known God, and this was how they expected to continue to know God. This was the place where the Jews had stood for thousands of years, the way they had known God for thousands of years. This was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Promise.

Now, these people understood and accepted that something new had happened in the person of Jesus, that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, but these early Christians continued to understand that from their Jewish context, their Jewish roots, from that small piece of dirt where they stood.

Then Peter shows up, and says, “But God doesn’t care whether you are Jewish or Gentile, whether you were descended from Abraham or whether you are a non-Jew. God doesn’t care . . . as long as you know and respect God and follow the ways of God!” And this absolutely floored the people of that day . . . and aren’t we glad for it! For us, this means that we are grafted onto the vine, so to speak. God is saying that we who are gentiles are also accepted by God! We are the ones who would not have been accepted without the work of Christ. By all means we should say a rousing “Amen” to what God did for us through Christ.

But here’s the kicker: we can say “amen” all day long when it means that we receive the benefit. After all, as Gentiles we were the outsiders. We were the ones that God reached out to. We are the ones that Christ said were also welcome at his table, this table, the Lord’s Table. But sometimes the hard part is seeing the way that I have come to know God as the way that everyone should come to know God.

It is hard if you are a person who has played by the rules so to speak, to accept someone who has not. Truth be told, the rules I followed were the rules I believed in. That doesn’t make them wrong, but God may just work in other people through different ways. God may be working in someone’s life in a way that we do not expect, that we cannot imagine, that seems to break the rules of how we believe that God should act in the world. And when God does something in a way that we do not understand or that runs up against our own idea of who God is, well, frankly, we are surprised! And sometimes, we get upset about it!

And this is exactly what the Jewish Christians there with Peter did. They couldn’t believe that God was present with these Gentiles! But the evidence for this was right there in front of them. God was speaking to them and through these Gentiles!

I have to admit that sometimes I rush to judgment about how God may not be working in someone’s life; sometimes we as the church may do the same, with people who are different, who may not exactly fit into the same mold as we do.
What is wonderful about this passage from Acts is this: there are two messages.

To those of you who are Gentiles (read this as outsiders, folks who have been told again and again that you don’t belong): Know that God accepts you even though you may have come to God in a different way than these others.

And to those of us already in the church who find ourselves thinking that we have come to God in the “right” way: Be careful. Peter baptized those Gentile Christians on the spot. It was evident that they knew God and that God accepted them. Peter’s question was how can we as mere people, humans who are not God, how can we say that they are in or out of God’s favor? How can we withhold the waters of baptism from them?

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