Sermon May 15, 2022

“Made Clean – Like Brand New”

by Rev. James Rausch

In God’s wisdom and power… in God’s timing… God can remake and renew anything.  When things get fouled up beyond our ability to repair them, we can be assured that nothing is beyond God’s ability.    In the movie, “Bruce, Almighty,” Jim Carrey plays a television reporter who becomes frustrated with God and critical about how God is performing in the job.  So, God, played by Morgan Freeman, allows Bruce to take over for a while.  He soon finds that it’s not as easy a job as he imagined, and his attempts to satisfy everyone’s prayer requests – while trying to get his own life to work out – end up in turmoil and chaos.

Bruce meets God in an empty warehouse where God, Morgan Freeman in a custodian’s outfit, is always tidying the place up.  He hands Bruce a mop, and they work together on the floor.  As they finish up, God says of the mess they cleaned up together, “It’s a wonderful thing.  No matter how filthy something gets, you can always clean it right up.”  Lesson learned, Bruce sets about the process of cleaning up his mistakes, and in the end is happy to leave God’s power entirely in God’s hands.

There have certainly been some terrible messes we can point to in this world that seem to be beyond cleaning.  There are losses which appear to have become hopelessly beyond restoration.   I like metaphorical comparisons to illustrate faith concepts, and I ran across one years ago that has stuck with me.  I can’t verify that it was an event that actually took place or if it is merely a legend.  Either way, what happens in the story is entirely plausible.

Michael Faraday [1791-1867] was one of the great scientists of all time. He was a hero to Einstein.  One day, being a devout Christian, Michael Faraday referred to the resurrection of the dead, and when he did so, he overheard one of his students sneeringly refer to such an impossible outcome. And Faraday took a silver cup, and he put it in a jar of sulphuric acid, and the acid dissolved it. It was absolutely gone. Nothing visible remained.  Then Michael Faraday took a handful of common salt, and he put it in the jar. The salt acted as a catalytic agent, and it caused the silvery molecules to precipitate, and they fell in a mass to the bottom.

Michael Faraday took the mass of silver at the bottom and took it to a silversmith, asking the silversmith to make the blob of ore into a fine cup like it was before. The next day, Michael Faraday brought it back and held it in his hand and showed it to the class, saying “My dear pupils, if I, just a mortal man, can make this cup disappear and dissolve so it cannot be seen anymore, then re-gather its elements and fashion it again into a beautiful cup, cannot the Lord God who made heaven and earth gather out of the sea and out of the dust of the ground and out of the heart of this earth our elements, wherever they are, indestructible – gather our elements and refashion us into a glorious body, like unto His body, the Son of God?

For most of my life, I have taken it on faith that God can do things that seem entirely impossible to me.  When I think of death and resurrection, my thoughts have been satisfied to conclude that, if God created me from a mixture of elements in the first place, God can do so again, no matter what happens to me.  I believed this confidently even before we knew what we know now about DNA.  This new knowledge has served to reinforce my faith that God’s methods, which have been entirely beyond my grasp, are now proving to be more plausible than ever to the human mind.

In the long-evolving process of getting to know God and understand God to the extent that humans are able to understand, the Bible shows our earliest ancestors in the faith living by what we might call a primitive understanding of God.  Apparently, when working with humanity, God allows for the slow nature of progress and change.  Much of the Old Testament period of more than a thousand years was spent in developing the Hebrew people into a monotheistic, law-abiding nation through whom God could enter into human existence.  Part of getting the nation prepared to bear this function required building up in them a strong and distinct identity, separate and identifiably different from other nations.

It worked.  God’s plan came to fruition in ways we can trace back to Bible prophecies that astound us.  But one of the consequences of acquiring a distinct identity was the establishment of some pretty strong barriers of separation between peoples.  God’s Hebrew people correctly saw themselves as chosen.  But they didn’t realize that this was not to grant them status and privilege over others.  They were chosen instead to a holy task, one that was intended to bless all the families of the earth.

In the fullest revelation of what we can know about God, Jesus lived among the people, died for their sins, our sins, and was raised from the dead.  These events brought a vastly new understanding of God’s nature and plan.  The people could scarcely take it all in, as the revelations were so powerful and overwhelming. The changes that came as a result would again require centuries of patience from God to allow humanity to accept the realities our new understanding would bring.  

One of, if not the most colossal changes was neatly and compactly described in today’s reading from Acts.   After more than a millennium of drawing religious distinctions between themselves and all outsiders, which they called the Goyim, or Gentiles, God was now revealing that, with their task completed, the blessing of all the families of the earth was to begin.   Those faithful Jewish people who had been conditioned to think of themselves as chosen and separate, now had to learn what Paul later stated so beautifully in Romans 10:12, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

Luke, who is believed to have written both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, gives a “telescoped” view of how this change was discovered and dealt with in general terms.  Just as a telescope is elongated to be useful and is compacted for storage, so too Luke’s telling of this and many other complex stories needed to be compacted, simplified in order to fit the limited space he had on the scroll.  So, while the story we heard today sums it up neatly, we need to remember that these events occurred over a longer period of time than the story seems to indicate.  The change was momentous and highly controversial.  Luke had to keep just to the most important highlights to make the story effective and digestible.

Luke writes, “The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.”  To us, this sounds pretty mater-of-fact.  However, we need to be aware that for the Jewish people of that time, this news was jarring to the point of near-panic.  This was unheard of – a blatant violation of centuries-old traditions.  So, when Peter, of all people, was discovered to be at the center of this mess, made it to Jerusalem, the people wasted no time in giving him an earful.  “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”  How could you do such a thing?

As is typical in tribal cultures, controversies were discussed and settled by the elders of the tribe, sometimes with an elder chief presiding.  And in this case, the issue was important enough to include the whole community in the audience to hear the facts and observe the process of resolution by the elders.  Peter begins to speak in a way that appears to us like it was pretty much an easy-going, everyday conversation.  That was not the case at all.  Peter was being treated like a suspect – a blasphemer and betrayer.

I love to imagine the tribal council resembling what we might see in a similar native American situation.  The parties involved make their charges and explanations for the chief and elders to hear and deliberate on.  There is tremendous gravity in this situation, and everyone feels it.  Peter courageously, and surely nervously, told of his vision.  A large sheet was lowered before him from heaven with animals known in longstanding Jewish tradition and law to be unclean and unsuitable for eating.  Three times his vision occurred, each time with the instruction that Peter was to eat what was before him.  His whole life he dutifully avoided doing such a thing, so this was about as jarring to his Hebrew sensibilities as anything could be.  “I have never eaten any unclean thing.”  But the voice in the vision was insistent, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Peter then described how God brought him together with three Gentile men and instructed all of them to dine together in the home of one of the men – Absolutely forbidden for a Jew to do such a thing!  Yet Peter pleaded his case that God directed the whole thing.  The climax to his testimony came when he revealed that the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles just as it had on the twelve disciples.  It was unmistakably recognizable to Peter, having experienced it himself.  Peter stated, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”  Luke wraps up the story neatly, but with very little detail.  “When the elders and the people heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

The end.  Great story.  But we should be aware that it wasn’t resolved quite as easily as this concluding line suggests.  The many omitted details were supercharged.  This was the case that gripped everyone.  Like the OJ trial years ago, everyone watched, and everyone had an opinion.  Most everyone had an emotional response as well.  Today if we tried to summarize the OJ trial in a paragraph, we could do it.  But to keep it that brief would require us to leave out tons of details in order to allow the highlights to be described.  That’s the way it was for Luke, writing for all time this world-altering series of events, but keeping it to a precious few words for his readers.

We recognize that all things are possible for God.  In the case of eliminating the distinction between Jewish and Greek believers, the task included letting a long-cherished and deeply-familiar social framework fall away – one that had been vital to the development of the Hebrew people as a “task-charged nation” for longer than anyone could remember.  To illustrate this, I think of rockets launching into space.  The largest parts of the unit carry the enormous amount of fuel required to propel the tiny capsule to its place in orbit.  Those massive and indispensable tanks, once they have completed their task, are jettisoned and they fall away.  They were critical for a time, but became unnecessary when their function was complete.  It all happens in a matter of minutes during a space launch.  But with humanity, change takes much longer to come about.  When something we have known as a trusted framework, critical to our identity and functioning is suddenly shown to have completed its purpose – ready to be jettisoned – we typically have a very difficult time of letting go.

But if the capsule in space remained attached to the great boosters, the whole purpose of the trip into space would be impossible to complete.  They have to be discarded for the mission to continue.  Our Jewish ancestors in the faith were human just like us.  Many could not accept what Peter testified to.  Many were unhappy with the elders’ ruling.   The passage of time softened the hardened feelings of many, but the work still continues today.  So, when you hear Luke say that the story ends with the people having no further objections, and saying that Gentile inclusion was thus affirmed, please know that while these highlights reflect what really happened, it wasn’t as quick or tidy as it might appear to us reading this telescoped summary.

A saying attributed to Heraclitus goes like this: “The Only Constant in Life Is Change.”  Ben Franklin is quoted as saying, “When you are finished changing, you are finished.”  Well, more world-altering change was to come.  Paul’s expanded teaching of the radical new understanding of humanity spelled this out in Galatians 3:28,  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

How long did it take for acceptance of the Gentile believers to become mainstream?  How much longer did it take for most people to give up their acceptance of, and reliance on, slavery as an essential part of how society functioned?  How long has it taken for women to be afforded equal rights and standing?  The changes are still taking place.  And the old framework is taking a long time to fall away; partly because many of us are reluctant to let it go.  And really, this process of change makes for a very messy world.

But remember what Morgan Freeman, playing God, said in the movie. “It’s a wonderful thing.  No matter how filthy something gets, you can always clean it right up.”  God, whose patience and love exceed our best imaginings, spoke to John in a time when things were a horrible mess.  To faithful believers who were at risk of being jailed or stoned to death for following Jesus, God said in Revelation 21:1-6, “I am making everything new!”   A new heaven and a new earth.  A new holy city in which God dwells together with the people.  He will ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

The book of Revelation acknowledges the horrible mess the world was in during the late first century and subsequent years.  In strange apocalyptic language it describes how difficult it is for God to clean up the mess. There is a conflict raging, and evil seems to be out of control.  To the persecuted believers, John’s visions were an acknowledgment of their suffering.  And they were given to assure people that God is actively engaged and is in ultimate control.

The promise of God making all things new is a delightful fountain of hope for us, but it is also a reminder that things are changing.  To welcome the new, we might need to learn to stop clinging to some things that were useful and good in their time, but must be released in order that we might be free to take the next intended step.   All things will be made new.  May we let go of all that prevents us from living our lives with eager anticipation of the renewal that comes from God’s gracious hands.