A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Friday, April 19, 2013

Sermon (April 28) - "One Small Step"

     On a very cold winter day several years ago, I was driving on Interstate 75 in northwest, Ohio when I saw a sign for a McDonalds at the Wapakoneta exit and I thought, “A nice hot cup of coffee sounds pretty good right now.”
     So I get off at the exit and turn into the McDonald’s parking lot.  And maybe some of you know which McDonald’s restaurant I’m talking about, because on a wall inside this particular McDonalds’, a New York Times newspaper, dated July 21, 1969 is proudly displayed.
     And the headline reads, “Men Walk on Moon.”  I was standing in the home town of Neil Armstrong who was the first person to step on the moon and the one who said what has become one of the most famous quotes of all time, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” 
     Before buying my coffee, I just stood there, reading this article about this world changing event, perhaps one of the most incredible events of our modern era and just thinking how that event has shaped our thinking.  
     It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “If we can send a man to the moon, we can certainly…(and from there you can fill in the blank.)  “End world hunger.  End homelessness.  Stop crime and violence.  Make broccoli taste good.” 
     OK.  Maybe some things are beyond our reach.
     I was only six years old when Neil Armstrong made history on that summer day in 1969, but whenever I look at a full moon now, I can’t help but to be in awe of that remarkable event. 
     As I left that McDonald’s restaurant on that cold and chilly day, I came away inspired by how one small step made such a big difference in our way of thinking.
     Two thousand years before Neil Armstrong made history on that mid summer day, another man is about to take a small step which will literally change the world.  We know him as the Apostle Peter from our scripture passage this morning, who earlier that day was given a vision from God to begin breaking down the barriers that had existed between people of the Jewish faith and people who were outside the Jewish faith. 
     And because Peter obeyed the vision that God had given him to go to a pagan city and to the home of a family outside of the Jewish faith, Peter’s one small step into this home, led to an entire family receiving Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  But unlike Neil Armstrong, Peter will not come back to a hero’s welcome where he will find a plaque commemorating this historic event.
      When Peter arrives home, everyone is up in arms at First Jerusalem Church.  News had already gotten back to them that people outside of the Jewish faith were now joining the church.  They can’t help but to notice all the new faces in their most recent pictorial directory, which wouldn’t be a bad thing, except that a lot of these last names are pagan names like “McDowell” and “McCoy.” 
     “These two guys don’t know Moses from Adam.  How did they ever manage to join the church?  I mean, who’s next?  Let’s just go ahead and allow murderers to join the church.  Oh wait, I guess that guy from Tarsus, Paul joined the church two chapters ago, didn’t he?  What is this world coming to?”
     This is what Peter is facing when he arrives back following his historic mission. 
     And all Peter could tell them was that he had been given a vision from God.  And the vision was a large sheet that had been lowered from the sky containing all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds which were considered ritually unclean.  And this sheet which contained all of these creatures had landed uncomfortably close to Peter there on the ground.
     And that’s when Peter heard a voice, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”  At first Peter refused because he had always followed the rules of his faith, but the voice kept saying, “What God has made clean, Peter, you must not call profane.”
     And after Peter heard this voice, the sheet disappeared and standing in front of him were three men who had been sent from Caesarea to find Peter and take him to the home of Cornelius and his non-Jewish family. 
     After Peter finished telling his story of how this entire family had become part of their church family through Jesus Christ, the leaders at First Jerusalem Church were speechless.  And then it began to dawn on them that because of Peter’s small step, God’s salvation through Jesus Christ was being offered to the entire world. 
     One of the biggest highlights of my life was when I had the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land and visit the area where the city of Caesarea was located during the time of Peter. It’s right along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and it was a picture perfect day with blue skies as I stood in that historic area with a friend.
     Our tour guide talked about this same story from the Book of Acts and he said that without Peter’s faithfulness to the vision that had been given him, the church would have very easily kept their faith in Jesus Christ to themselves and within their own Jewish faith.  But because of this story, people with last names like McDowell and McCoy are invited to become part of God’s covenant family.
     And when our guide shared this scripture with us, he had us look out at the beautiful Mediterranean Sea and he encouraged us to not keep the Christian faith to ourselves, but to share it with the entire world, just as Peter did in the city of Caesarea and just as the Apostle Paul would later do by going all the way to Rome with the Gospel.
     Have you ever noticed how bold and audacious our church’s mission statement is?  “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  In other words, our mission as a church will not be completed until that day when the entire world will reflect the love and goodness of the God of all creation. 
     I don’t know about you, but sometimes, just the city of Lancaster seems monumental to me.  And then you think about Fairfield County and you wonder, if we can’t even take care of our own back yard, how in heaven’s name will we be able to change the world?  Peter reminds us that God’s transforming love happens when we focus on taking the small steps.
     This morning, I’d like to think about some small steps that we can take to make a difference in our world.
     The first small step is probably the most obvious small step, but without it, we can’t really even begin to talk about the others.  The first small step is for each of us to ask ourselves, “Do I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”
     Peter was one of the first disciples to follow Jesus.  And not only was Peter one of Jesus’ disciples, but he was also an eyewitness of Jesus following his resurrection.  Peter saw Jesus in his resurrected body and knew that Jesus was the embodiment of God. He knew that through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus that he was the fulfillment of the covenant that God had made centuries earlier with Abraham and Sarah.
     Peter had taken that small step of being a disciple of Jesus.  Being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean that we’re perfect or that we are all of the sudden given a halo to wear around our head.  Remember, it was Peter who often struggled to be faithful to Christ and who had denied Jesus three times. 
     Being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean that we won’t stumble and have doubts.  It means that we have placed our faith in the one who promises to walk with us every step in life.
     The second small step is to begin to break down barriers that separate people.  We live in a barrier oriented world where we have Liberals and Conservatives, Methodists and Baptists, Young and Old, Public School and Home School.  We have all of these labels that it’s amazing that there’s any sense at all that we can say we have something in common.
     Brian McLaren is a Christian speaker and the title of one his books is “A Generous Orthodoxy.”  I have never seen a longer subtitle for a book in my life.  Here’s the subtitle of this book.  “Why I am a missional, evangelical, post-protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed yet hopeful, emergent, and unfinished Christian.”
     How’s that for a subtitle?  Even just the title of this book covers most of the barriers that we so often find in the church.
     In order for Peter to take his small step inside a pagan home, he first needed to set aside his own agenda in order to take on God’s agenda of extending God’s gift of salvation to the larger world.
     What small step might you take this week to break down a barrier that divides people from one another?
     And here’s a third small step God may be calling you and me to make this week.  Invite someone to a worship service or a church event.  Three days from now, my phone alarm will go off reminding me that it is the 1st day of the month which means that I need to be thinking of at least two people to invite to church during the month of May. 
     I will write down names of people who come to mind that I might invite to our church. It’s amazing how God opens up opportunities to extend a simple invitation to come to church some Sunday.  Whenever somebody joins the church, it’s usually because someone has taken the time to personally invite them.
     What small step is God calling you to take this week in inviting someone to church?
     As a parent, I can remember how excited Penny and I were when our kids took their very first step.  We called our families long distance to tell them the good news and we made a big deal about that one small step.
     I just want you to know that every time you or I take one small step in having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or breaking down a barrier that separates people, or inviting someone to church, God is overjoyed and heaven celebrates.  Who knows how your one small step will change your life or the life of another person? 
     Your small step might not get you on a plaque in a McDonald’s restaurant.  But that one small step along with my small step, eventually, just might transform the world.

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