Drawing the Circle Wider

The Reverend Jacob E. Pierce

The first lesson for the Fifth Sunday of Easter comes from the Acts of the Apostles. After Peter returns from Caesarea, the disciples say to him, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Peter makes his defense by recounting a vision in which he is covered in a large sheet containing “unclean” animals of every kind. A voice tells Peter to “kill and eat,” but Peter refuses saying, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter interpreted this vision to mean that God has also included Gentiles (non-Jews) in the salvation of the world.

Like Jesus, Peter is accused of eating with “un-worthies,” those considered outside the fold. Peter ends his defense by saying, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” This story is the beginning of a major theme in the Book of Acts, which ultimately leads to the Council of Jerusalem, when the Apostles determine that Gentiles are to be full members of the Church.

The Church has long struggled with inclusion but drawing the circle wider is deeply part of the Christian tradition. Remember, Jesus was accused of eating with prostitutes, tax collectors, and notorious sinners.  Jesus, and Peter, chose to draw the circle wider, to include those their communities wished to exclude.

Erring on the side of inclusion is part of our tradition. The Church has not always been quick to draw the circle wider, and it has often taken centuries to convince those in power that change is needed. Looking to the example of our Lord has allowed the Church to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. More recently, drawing the circle wider has allowed us to reexamine who is called to ordained ministry and who is called to marriage.

But here’s the thing, we must resist believing we are finished. It is tempting to believe the circle is plenty big and it need not get any wider. Speaking to a group of clergy in 1909, early Civil Rights advocate and Bishop of South Carolina, William Guerry said, “If we are to be truly catholic [universal], as Christ himself is catholic, then we must have a church broad enough to embrace within its communion every living human soul.”

This story from Acts asks us to consider the people in our communities who are still knocking on the doors of the Church, asking us if we might draw the circle just a bit wider. What fruit of the spirit do you see in your neighbors outside of our faith community? What gifts might they offer the Church?

Consider these questions this week, and as each of us confronts the human impulse to exclude, may we choose to draw the circle wider, erring on the side of inclusion, and remembering that God has never created a person God does not love.

The Reverend Jacob E. Pierce, Priest-in-Charge