In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Two quotes from Isaiah, but examples of a major theme in the scriptures of Israel related to their vocation as a people. God tells Abraham in Genesis, “by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves.” 1
God calls Israel to be a light that draws all of humanity to God’s self. And this movement of the nations of the world (the gentiles—the goyim) to Zion—to the people in whom God’s glory, God’s light, shines—is sometimes called the pilgrimage, or the procession of the nations.
But this vocation is deeply ambiguous. It’s one Israel never feels comfortable about. They accept this vocation, but they also know that their identity as God’s people and their communal way of life is at risk whenever the nations’ attention is turned to them.
Israel is at risk of
• being assimilated—through intermarriage or the adoption of foreign cultural and religious practices—of becoming just one more nation; or
• of being oppressed, exploited, or even wiped out.
And if, as a people, you live with these fears for centuries, it’s easy to see how fear can turn to something worse—like hatred and disgust.
The nations eat unclean food. They don’t share our practices of purity. They don’t keep the Sabbath. They’re not like us. They’re disgusting. Unclean. Like dogs. AND they’re always plotting to enslave or destroy us!
So Israel is to be a light to the nations—drawing them back to Zion and our God. And yet they don’t really want them to come. They fear and even sometimes hate them. Israel’s fear is a more powerful reality to them than their vocation.
This ambiguity that comes from the tension between fear and vocation is the context for the story from Acts this morning.
Just before the bit we heard, Cornelius, a gentile (a Roman centurion of the Italian cohort) was living in Caesarea, giving alms to the poor and praying to the God of Israel. And God noticed and told Cornelius in a vision to send someone to get Peter (“You need to talk to this guy!”), so he did.
At the same time Peter had a vision of his own. He was hungry and saw a sheet descending from heaven with many kinds of animals that Jews were forbidden from eating, and in the vision he heard a voice telling him to kill and eat them. Peter was disgusted at the idea of eating the unclean animals, and he said so. The voice replied, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
This happens three times.
While Peter was still thinking about what this vision meant, the men that Cornelius had sent find him. Long story short, Peter and some other believers go with the men to Cornelius’ home, and Cornelius throws them a party.
Peter shares with them about Jesus, and even as he is speaking, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon them—even upon these (in his eyes) unclean, distasteful, representatives of the dangerous and powerful Roman occupying forces. Peter was surprised to find that the Holy Spirit was already at work in the lives of Cornelius and his family and friends.
But because God had prepared him with that vision, Peter’s response was to baptize them. And be clear what that means. Baptism joins these people—even these distasteful and scary people—to their community, to their shared body—and they become one. And they invite Peter to stay with them—to sleep under their roof, to eat their food, to share their life—for several days. There is more than one way to love. More than one way to lay down one’s life.
It’s hard to overstate the profoundly NEW and RISKY thing this was.
And yet it was also the fulfillment of the vocation of Israel. Because of this event, the people of the nations (the goyim) were making their way to the God of Israel through Jesus the Messiah.
This is not a story (and so, not a sermon) about Peter learning to be tolerant. Only the powerful can be tolerant. Peter and the Church were being squeezed by both the elites of Israel and the military power of Rome. They weren’t in a position to be tolerant. They were the ones needing toleration.
No. This is a story (and so a sermon) about the conviction of vocation, and, by God’s power, overcoming the twin fears of assimilation and destruction.
And this question wasn’t completely settled in this moment. It took time for that. Peter later gets nervous about this new and risky thing and, under pressure from what Paul (our Patron) calls the “circumcision faction” backs down from it. Paul has to get in his face in Antioch and remind him what new thing God is doing—remind him of the vocation of the Church and help him, pretty forcefully, to trust that rather than give into this fear.
But ultimately this event bore fruit that lasts.
The procession of the Nations is about the peoples of the earth on the move—making their way to God’s light that shines in the shared life of God’s people. The light shines in God’s people and the gentiles see it and go to it.
But in this story the Procession of the Gentiles is turned inside out.
Instead of waiting in Jerusalem for the procession of the nations to begin pouring in. In the Acts of the Apostles it’s the Church that’s on the move—like Jesus who didn’t wait for us to come to him, but came instead to us.
You know, even in our liturgy we are a people of Processions—a people always on the move.
• We process in here at the beginning of the liturgy, and not just the people in the formal procession. The procession begins when each of us leaves our house and comes here.
• Later the gospel proceeds from the altar into the midst of the people.
• Then our lives (symbolized by bread and wine and money) proceed to the altar.
• Then the assembly proceeds to the altar to receive back the lives that were brought to the altar now blessed and consecrated and made holy by the Holy Spirit.
• Finally—in the most important procession in the liturgy—we as a congregation proceed back into the world. (Strictly speaking, there are no recessionals in the Church. The Church never recedes. We always proceed, always move forward.)
The whole point of the mass (and of all the processions within it) is the dismissal—the movement, the procession, of God’s life embodied in us—God’s light shining in us—into the world.
And, though this vocation to be a light to the nations is deeply ambiguous to us, too (even “inclusive” Episcopalians find some people distasteful or scary—like those other Christians or those people who never listen to NPR, or those people who voted for him—and we should understand this about ourselves; even we are in danger of having our vocation overwhelmed by our distaste and our fear), the Holy Spirit is being poured out upon the nations out there. Don’t we want to go see it? If we do—maybe, by the power of the Holy Spirit (and maybe only by the power of the Holy Spirit), we’ll even want to become one with them.
1 Genesis 22:18