Everyone, Really?

May 5, 2024

Series: May 2024

Speaker: Bethany Nelson


Today's Sermon


"Everyone, Really?"


Acts 10:44-48
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. 

I feel like today, perhaps more than ever, our world is full of dividing lines, of things that separate us, things that aim to keep the insiders in and the outsiders out. We have not one, but two wars going on right now because of this, and in those wars people who are seen as different or other or “not us” are being tortured and killed.  Terrible things happen when we choose to see someone as an “other” rather than as a fellow human, a beloved child of God.

That being said, our society is not the first to do this, to decide that some people are in and some are out. This was also happening in the early Christian church.  There were the Jews and the Gentiles, both figuring out what it means to be a follower of Jesus … but doing so very separately.  Never the twain shall meet!  They had different rules about all kinds of things, which meant they couldn’t even share a simple meal together because of what each group considered clean and unclean.

This story that we heard from the book of Acts this morning is actually the very end of a much longer story, when God, through a series of visions, begins to break down some of these human-constructed barriers. I find it interesting that the lectionary chooses only this very brief passage to be read, because it’s like starting with the last chapter of a book.  We have absolutely no context for what is happening because we don’t know what has come before.  When I was writing this sermon, I figured I could briefly recap the story for you … boring. Or, I could let Lego Peter speak for himself ... much more interesting.  Let’s watch this short video to get caught up on what happened before the passage we heard today.

Peter visits Corneliushttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Kx_ioknMSA

The divisions that had been so carefully constructed by the humans are no match for the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will not stand for any distinction that serves to keep someone out or make someone less-than.  I love that the Spirit doesn’t even wait for Peter to stop speaking. The text says, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”  Step aside Peter, says the Spirit, I’m going to do my work now. Biblical scholar William Willimon notes that, “The real ‘hero’ of this story, the ‘star’ of this drama is not Peter nor Cornelius but the gracious and prodding One who makes bold promises and keeps them, who finds a way even in the midst of human distinctions and partiality.”[i]

That’s not to say that the humans are inconsequential in this story.  They could have resisted the work of the Spirit. They could have questioned, you want me to love everyone, really? You want me to include everyone, really? And then they could have gone about their own separate business.  But, rather than asking those questions and being filled with doubt or antagonism, they instead responded in the affirmative. You want me to love everyone, really! You want me to include everyone, really! And they did.

It's hard to turn that question mark into an exclamation point. It’s hard to move outside our comfort zone when God calls us to love the one we think is unlovable. But if we say we are followers of Jesus, this is not a choice, nor a gentle suggestion. This is a command.  We heard it in the passage from John’s Gospel.  Jesus tells us, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

Oh, how our world would look different if we actually followed that commandment.  If we, like Peter, actually allowed the Spirit to change our hearts and our lives.  Love everyone, really?  Yes, love everyone, really!  I especially wonder how things would be different in Ukraine and in the Middle East if we were able to love one another beyond, despite, instead of the divisions we have created. Now, I know both of those situations are extremely complicated and are not solved by simply saying “love one another.” But, love is never a bad first step.

I think of the story of Sadako and the paper cranes. Several of you have commented on the paper cranes we have hanging in the narthex for the Easter season, which has brought Sadako’s story to the forefront of my mind.

Sadako was two years old in August of 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on her city of Hiroshima. Sadako’s grandmother was killed in the fires that broke out after the blast, but the rest of Sadako’s family survived.

Nine years later, when Sadako was 11 years old, she was diagnosed with leukemia – often referred to in her town as “atomic bomb disease” due to the radiation exposure by the uranium in the bomb.  She was soon hospitalized, where a local high school club brought her paper cranes as a gift. She was told that Japanese folklore says that a crane can live for a thousand years, and a person who folds an origami crane for each year of a crane’s life will have their wish granted.  Sadako was inspired to fold one thousand paper cranes so she could wish to be well again. Sadly, her wish did not come true, and she died in October of 1955. But, by the end of her life, she had achieved and even exceeded her goal of folding 1000 paper cranes, which inspired her friends, family, and classmates.  Folding the paper became a wish not only for her own health, but for peace … and especially a recognition that peace is in our hands. After her death, Sadako’s friends raised funds to build a memorial to her and all the children who had died from the effects of the atomic bomb. In 1958, a statue of Sadako, standing triumphant over a shell of a hollowed-out atomic bomb and holding an origami crane high above her head, was unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.  At the foot of the statue is a plaque that reads, “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.”[ii]

Sadako folded a few paper cranes. No big deal, right? Except it was a big deal. Her attempt to push back on this disease that was caused directly by war – directly by the dividing lines established by countries that just couldn’t get along – inspired so many people. Her diligence and dedication showed that the human spirit is stronger than war.  That fear and hate don’t have to have the final word.  That even when death is imminent, as it was for Sadako, we can still work for peace and love and for connection with one another.  May it be so.


[i]Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, pg. 480.