by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“Peter began to speak to [those gathered at the home of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius]: ‘Now I begin to see that God shows no partiality. I truly understand, that in any nation anyone who is in awe of God and does what is right is acceptable to God.’” — Acts 10:34.
When it comes to my reading list— my personal, general reading— I am and have always been fond of biographies. I think one reason that’s true is no one, no individual, can be reduced to several words.
To use today’s slang no one can be or should be reduced to a sound bite. Indeed, I like biographies because most of the time you need at least a book length treatment of a person to do justice to, to delve into the complexities of anyone’s personality, to do justice to, to delve into the ambiguities of anyone’s life.
To use myself as an example, Bonnie, my wife Bonnie— sometimes, and rightfully so— says I’m a geek. She once got me a pocket protector as a present because she noticed I had been in the bad habit of carrying a number of pens in my shirt pocket. Occasionally, they leaked. Pens in a shirt pocket, which leak— how geek-y us that?
On the other hand, there is a distinctly non-geek side of me. In my younger years I played second base on a softball team in a parks league in Queens, New York. That team finished in second place for the whole county. Mind you, we lost the championship game by a score of 19 to 1. But we did come in second.
Further, I was 35 before I had my first sit down, behind a desk, kind of job. I was always on my feet. Even when I worked at a brokerage I had to walk back and forth all over the floor of the 5 World Trade Center building.
That floor was the equivalent of a full square city block. I always wore a pedometer and most days I would log about seven miles. That doesn’t sound too ‘geek-y’ to me. As I said, it is impossible to define anyone in a couple of words. We are all by far too complex for that.
This leads me to a story, one which I may have told before, but if I did it was a long, long time ago. It’s about something which happened to me when I was in High School.
From the history about myself just outlined, you might be thinking— “Well, Joe only got geek-y when he got older.” And that would be wrong. As would be true of anyone, I am— my story, my history is— by far more complex and textured than that. The first two years of my High School career were spent in a parochial school under the tutelage of the Christian Brothers. In a history class one of the teachers, a cleric, pointed out the book of Luke and the Book of Acts were two volumes of one book, written by the same author at the same time. The Gospel of John somehow got stuck in between.
Having heard that information, the geek-y side of this active teen went home, pulled the Bible off the bookshelf and read through Luke and Acts as if they were one book. (Slight pause.) If I have said this once I have said it a hundred times. For me, reading Luke and Acts as one book was a conversion experience. (Slight pause.)
And these words are from Luke/Acts in the section commonly called Acts: “Peter began to speak to [those gathered at the home of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius]: ‘Now I begin to see that God shows no partiality, I truly understand, that in any nation anyone who is in awe of God and does what is right is acceptable to God.’” (Slight pause.)
The lectionary readings we hear on Sunday often do not tell the complete story. The portion of this story at the beginning of Chapter 10 we do not hear says Cornelius sees a vision. An angel instructs this Centurion to seek out Peter.
Cornelius and all of the household of this Centurion are described as (quote:) “God fearing.” In short, they are Gentiles who attend a local Jewish Synagogue and believe the God the Jews proclaim is the One True God.
But, as Gentiles— as uncircumcised— even if they go to the Synagogue and believe, they do not conform to the law. Hence, they can never be real members of the community.
In the meantime Peter has a vision. In the vision the Apostle sees a sheet lowered from the sky which has all kinds of animals in it. In terms of Jewish law, these animals should not be together because they are considered clean and unclean— animals fit for consumption and not fit for consumption.
An angel tells Peter to kill all the animals and to eat them all. This action does not conform to Jewish law. Yet this action is contained in a message from an angel.
Peter is confused. And that is when the people Cornelius has sent to fetch Peter show up and ask the Apostle to return with them.
Peter travels to the house of Cornelius. And this is where today’s reading picks up, with the response of Peter in the form of a sermon.
That brings me back to what I have labeled as my conversion, to my taking the Bible off the shelf and reading the Book known as Luke and the Book known as Acts as if they were one book. If you do that— and, indeed, I challenge you to do that— to sit down and read these books as one— I think you will find this story becomes pivotal. It sums up much of what the writer of Luke/Acts has to say.
And what is it the writer of Luke/Acts says throughout this writing? God is a God of all people, not just some. God is not a God of retribution.
Lt me add to that, though, some more things that can be drawn out of this writing. God is a God of the poor. God is a God of the rich. God is a God of the outcast. God is a God of the socially acceptable.
Perhaps more importantly, God is a God of mercy. God is a God of hope. God is a God of peace. God is a God of relationship. God is a God of freedom. God is a God of joy. God is a God of justice. God is a God of love. (Slight pause.)
I want you to notice some things about what I just said. First, if someone pictures God as a God of mercy, hope, peace, relationship, freedom, joy, justice, love— that pictures God as having many attributes. In short, God cannot be summed up one way. God is not one dimensional. God is not a sound bite.
On the other hand, when God is pictured as a God of retribution, that is a one dimensional God. God gets put in a box. God becomes a sound bite.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has said the God of Scripture is drawn with intentional, artistic illusiveness. Intentional, artistic illusiveness— said another way, you cannot and should not put God in a box. You cannot and should not make God a sound bite.
And the box in which we humans seem to try to place God most often says God is not a God of all people. God is only a God of my group, my tribe, my race, etc., etc., etc.
If there is any lesson to be learned, if there is any conversion to happen when we read Luke/Acts, it is summed up in the words of Peter. (Quote:) “…God shows no partiality,….” (Slight pause.) I think when we understand God accepts all people, and can truly embrace and faithfully live out the imperative that God accepts all people, then we have had a conversion experience. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Community of Christ—  that actually came up in our adult study this morning. Community— together— you can’t commune with God unless you are in community. Now, that’s blasphemy in terms of modern thinking. It’s ancient thinking. Ancient thinking says (rumor to the contrary) ‘love your neighbor.’ You can only love your neighbor in community.”
BENEDICTION: May the Spirit of the God of light and love, the God of truth and justice, the God of song and joy, the God of all, be with you this day and forever more. Amen.
 Community of Christ (NCH # 314) was the closing hymn.