More than Tolerance
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

May 13, 2012

Acts 10:44-48
John 15:9-17

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

Much has been made in recent years of tolerance. Whether in regards to change, or diversity, or simply getting along with people we don’t like, tolerance has been lifted up as a virtue. I can understand why. In a world where differences of political opinion or social philosophy rates the nastiest of name-calling and each side labels the other as the cause of the ruin of our country, tolerance would indeed be a virtue.

Have you ever read the comic strip “Rose is Rose?” In it, Rose has a young son, Pasquale. Pasquale has a guardian angel, which only he can see. One day, while Pasquale is being particularly centered on himself, his guardian angel tells him, “Tolerance is important. You never know when you are the one being tolerated.” I find it a humbling reminder, and I need reminding every now and then.

In Acts, we read of the reaction of some folks from Jerusalem to what happens when some Gentiles, some non-Jews, hear Peter’s preaching. A little background might help. Peter has just had his vision of all the various animals, which he is told by God to kill and eat. Peter protests that these animals aren’t kosher. They are unclean according to God’s own laws. Peter grew up observing these rules. He knows them as well as he knows himself. But God says, “Do not declare as unclean what I have declared to be clean.”

This is a radical moment in the life of the church. The commandments about food were how, alongside sabbath-keeping and reading the Torah, that the people of God differentiated themselves from the people around them.

But in Peter’s vision, God is doing a new thing. Do not declare as unclean that which I have declared clean.

When Peter awakens from this vision, he is told that a Roman centurion is asking for him to come and preach. This being a Gentile, a foreigner, a soldier in the occupying army, we might expect Peter to decline such an invitation. But Peter immediately makes the jump from food to people. The breaking of the boundaries with food, Peter applies equally to Cornelius.

Which brings us to these Gentile hearers of the word. In them are seen the gift of the Holy Spirit. In them is seen the presence of God. And this freaks out some of the church who believe that in order to be a good Christian, you first have to become a good Jew. The folks with Peter from Jerusalem are astonished that God could manifest such works in these Gentiles.

When Peter gets back to Jerusalem, he gets in trouble for this. “How could you eat with Gentiles? How could you go and talk with unclean people?”

He explains the vision he was given, and the invitation he got when he awoke. And he then says something amazing: “And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.”

We live in a time where we are all about the distinctions. Are you Republican or Democrat? Are you Congregationalist or Baptist? Are you SUV or hybrid? Are you Michigan or Michigan State? Do you have children or are you infertile? Are you sheep or goat (and by the way, we know which is which don’t we?!)?

Tolerance in such a world seems to mean being able to be civil with someone at the dinner table, all the while figuring out how to tell our friends about how wrong this person is when we leave.

That is not what we see in the story of Peter. First of all, the categories do not fit nicely or neatly. Cornelius, a foreign centurion, has done great acts of charity, and prays to God all the time. Black and white categories don’t fit. Democrat or Republican leaves out a whole lot of people in the middle, or of a third party, or of no party.

It is possible to be both Congregationalist and Baptist, or to be Catholic or Presbyterian, or Jewish, or Hindu, or Muslim or none of the above.

There are hybrid SUV’s.

And some people root for both Michigan and Michigan State, and other folks don’t care either way.

There are people who do not have children by choice, and those who want to but cannot. There are people who have children but choose to offer them up for adoption. And there are couples that have a child but still deal with infertility.

The problem isn’t tolerance. The problem is our categories. “And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.” If God isn’t interested in the differences, then why do we get so hung up on them?

What it comes down to is that we need something more than tolerance, more than polite nodding of our heads while silently disagreeing. John says it far better than I ever could.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

To follow Jesus is to love one another. This doesn’t mean we always like one another. It doesn’t mean we always agree with one another. But we are called to love one another.

How widely we cast this “one another” depends on how big we think Jesus is. If Jesus is merely an itinerant teacher, a preacher, a worker of wonders, then the “one another” we are to love is those around us when we hear the word.

If he is Lord of the church, then this “one another” we are to love means fellow believers.

If, as John says, he is the Christ, the Lord of all, the Word made flesh, then the “one another” that is meant is truly all of us, our world of neighbors.

For God so loved the world.

Let us love one another.

“And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.”

Thanks be to God.