Then Peter began to speak to them:
I truly understand that God
shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does
what is right is acceptable to him … everyone who believes in
him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
Acts 10:34,35,43b (N.R.S.V.)
There are many who think that Christianity is just a collection
of platitudes, but it really doesn't make much practical difference.
Peter, the Apostle, said in our passage,
I truly understand that
God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him
and does what is right is acceptable to Him. This is a staggering
statement, particularly from the mouth of Peter. These words,
shows no partiality, literally means
not lifting the face of
anyone. In Near Eastern culture, when people were in the presence
of another of greater prestige, they would turn the face away, not
look at the person in the face as a sign of respect. What a person
of high prestige might do is reach out and raise the head of someone
they wanted to single out and to whom they wanted to show partiality
by saying, in effect,
You can look at me. The passage speaks of
God not having favorites, not being partial.
Today we often hear the Irving Berlin song,
God Bless America
and see a sign with those words. We say,
Yes, of course; God Bless
America; may God guide and bless our land. This is a good and
valid prayer. These words do not mean, however, that God especially
picks out America as better or superior or special, and that we
deserve — ought to have — a special blessing from God as no other
country has had. I would like to suggest that if Irving Berlin were
alive today, he should write another verse, which would go something
God Bless America and people of good will in every nation.
That is exactly what our passage for this morning says,
understand that God shows no partiality; God doesn't lift up the
face of people in an impartial manner. In every nation anyone who
fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.
Let us apply this perspective to church life. There are those
who say that they don't like the old hymns; and they say they like
up-tempo, a little more pizazz. Then there are other people that
I don't like that up-tempo pizazz. It's too noisy; it makes
too much racket; I don't like that. So, some smart person sitting
in a corner says,
Hey, I know what we'll do! Let's have a service
that has the up-tempo stuff at one time, then we'll have another
service for the slower music. We'll have the under-30 crowd here
and the over-30, 40, 50, 60 or 70, 80 or 90's crowd there Then
everybody will be happy. This idea is based on the market
give them what they want. And, what do you know, it
works … in a way. However let's think about the price that is
paid. One price is that we are segregating the Church; we are
breaking the Church into interest groups, and we are giving people
what is in their age-appropriate, culture-appropriate range. The
downside of this approach, and I think this is a big downside, is
that by segregating the young from the old and the old from the
young, we lose the opportunity of the young knowing and loving and
learning from the old. We miss the opportunity of the old knowing
and loving and learning from the young. The young have much to
teach the old, and the older have much to teach the young.
Scripture says that in Jesus Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew;
there is neither male nor female; but we are all one in Jesus
Christ. I say if you don't like the slow music, learn to like it;
appreciate it; love it; expand yourself; love the people who love
that. If you don't like the fast, loud music, learn to open your
hearts to it and appreciate it.
Niebuhr, over fifty years ago, wrote a book called The
Social Structure's Denominationalism. Richard Niebuhr was a
great theologian of that time, brother of the famous theologian
Reinhold Niebuhr. Richard Niebuhr made the point in his book that
Protestant denominations are divided up pretty much not according to
theology, but according to class. People like to be around others
of about the same class as they are. It has been found that most
people won't go to church in a neighborhood in a lower class than
the neighborhood in which they live. People like to be with other
people like themselves — of the same social status, that wear the
same clothes, the men get about the same kind of hair cut, the women
have about the same kind of coiffure, and households make about the
same amount of money. People outside the church sometimes say,
church is like a club; everybody in the church is pretty much alike.
What is this business about Christ cutting through differences?
The church ought to be a place where we have rich and not so
rich; we have young and not so young; we have white collar and blue
collar. A church ought to be a place in which we have a variety of
races. You know, didn't we learn the song as kids,
Red and yellow,
black and white; they are precious in His sight. The Church should
have a multiplicity of racial and cultural expressions joined
together in worship.
Somebody will say,
What you're asking is too hard to do; it's
just human nature; people like to be around people like them; it's
natural. I would say, yes, indeed, it is natural; it's natural for
people to commit adultery; it's natural that people sometimes hate
and kill. We should challenge nature. If we have a vision like
this for our Church, we pay a price. But it's a price worth paying.
I have heard people comment that you cannot be a Republican and a
Christian. I have heard, with the other ear, people say that if
you're really a Christian, how could you be a Democrat? I think both
statements are complete malarkey. I can't find anywhere in
scripture where it says,
Woe unto you who are Republicans; woe unto
you who are Democrats. I'm very happy having a Democrat over here
and a Republican over there. There isn't one, politically correct
philosophy. We don't all have to be the same theologically.
There are those who want sameness in a church. There's much
strength in that perspective because everybody's alike; everybody
agrees. It makes people good because they get a lot of support.
However, one also pays the price of having one's ideas challenged.
I'm here to tell you that there is not one correct view in the face
of which all others are wrong. We look at a diamond and we see
different colors; we see different perspectives. Of course there
are boundaries. There comes a time where we draw the line, and we
That's just off the chart. I'm just saying and applying what
Peter has said in our passage. That's the place for us to be as a
Church. I'm willing to pay the price of going in that direction.
In football it's called a reverse. The quarterback hands the
ball off to a running back, who goes to the left, drawing the
opposition. He then hands the ball to another running back who goes
to the right. Positive reverses happen in life. People who have
been terribly sorrowful will say after a period of time,
life like I never had it before. It happens all the time. Life
from death. Death and resurrection aren't just about Jesus Christ.
There is a woman who was admitted to a psychiatric hospital many
years ago. In those days they gave people insulin shock. She had a
number of those insulin shock treatments. I believe then later she
had electric shock; she also had innumerable medications and kinds
of psychotherapy; she was in and out of hospitals for decades.
Finally she was better and it lasted. I asked her,
You've had it
all; what was it that turned your life around; what made you whole
out of all of that treatment? And she said,
It wasn't the shock
treatment; it wasn't the psychiatrists; it wasn't the medications.
Then what was it? She said,
It was that the last time I
was in the hospital the other patients accepted me. She could be
wrong. Maybe the shocks and drugs really did help her. However,
from her recounting, it was her being in a community in which she
was embraced. She was accepted. She was accepted for who she was,
warts and all, differences and all. It was a transforming
experience. Many people's lives have been transformed because they
have experienced forgiveness and acceptance from other people and
ultimately from God. Our mandate is that we are commanded to
testify that He is the One ordained by God, who calls us to accept
people as they are, differences and all. Everyone who believes in
Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name. And that is a
transforming experience. That's not just an idea. That's just not
a platitude. That's reality. That's powerful.
The Gospel is more than good intentions. It is power to transform our lives. It transforms our narrow, provincial interests. It transforms us so that we can hear and listen and embrace people who are different and who may be seeking and troubled. The gospel transforms sometimes from death to life. May this power be a reality in our church and in all of us.
The foregoing is from a sermon by Carl O. Bickel at the United Parish of Bowie on January 13, 2002.
© 2002 Carl O. Bickel