First Congregational Church UCC, Wareham MA May 19, 2019
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9
But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.
16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 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?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Who’s in charge here?
Over in the Connecticut Conference, a group of pastors are talking on-line about what makes a church, a church. It’s been an interesting conversation. Some of us quote the Constitution and Bylaws of the United Church. Some of us cite the attitude of the members of a church, to determine whether it’s a church or a club. Some of us want to identify the activities a church sponsors, or leads, or participates them in – and maybe even discern whether or not they are really church-like.
And it makes me wonder, just who’s in charge of deciding whether a church is, indeed, a church. Our bylaws tell us what makes us a United Church congregation, but they cannot define what makes a church a church. Sociologists can discern that some churches are really clubs, picking and choosing who will be accepted, but they cannot define what is a church. And being a church has nothing, nothing to do with who or how many different groups use our building.
But I don’t want to get lured off into a delightfully diverting discussion of the nature of churches. I know you’re disappointed to hear that <smile> but, for today, the question is not “what is a church””, but rather, who is in charge, in this case – who decides what is a church? It’s not about “what”, but it’s about “who”.
And “who” is a question we all need to answer.
You see, the temptation in our world today is to say that, of course, no one is in charge of me. And in churches, however you define them, one of our temptations is to say that the pastor is in charge. Can you see the challenge if, on the one hand, we believe that no one can tell me what to do, and on the other hand we believe that it’s the pastor’s job to tell us what to do?
So, who’s in charge? If we leave this unexamined, we end up in a place where it’s pretty difficult to move in any coherent way. We can just allow the pastor to do whatever she (or he) wants, so long as it doesn’t mean that we ourselves have to do much. Or it might mean that she can call us to follow and we can, fighting all the way, or maybe even just quietly resisting, because “we’re congregationalist and no one can tell us what to do.”
I think Peter knew this situation exactly. He was a leader, going forward with what he thought God wanted, living in the tradition of Jesus Christ, but then found himself in a tough space, when the folks “who’d always been here” began to criticize his actions.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
The long-term folks thought they were in charge; they thought Peter thought he was in charge. And they were divided. Divided, because they didn’t know who was in charge.
Peter then told them why he was doing what he was doing. And in the telling, he tells us the answer to the question. Peter thought he was in charge, you know, thought he was in charge right up until he had a dream. He didn’t like his dream; he fought against the vision, but it came back again and again.
Peter’s dream was anathema to him, for he dreamt of a great feast spread out before him, filled with foods his faith told him were never to be eaten. I’m sure that at first, he thought he was being led astray. But there was that persistent voice, the voice of God, telling him that there was further light breaking forth from God’s Holy Word, that God was still speaking, that what he had always thought was unacceptable, had been made by God and was good. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
So, who was in charge? Our reading for today concludes: “When they heard this, they [the leaders in Jerusalem] they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Who was, who is in charge? Not the people, not the pastor, but God.
Who’s in charge here? Not me, not you, but God.
It is God who guides our work together. It is our task to listen to God, and when God’s voice is as upsetting as it was for Peter and the Jerusalem Council, to listen to God together, to talk together about how to respond, what to do.
God proposes, God calls, we work together to make God’s will manifest to our world.
We believe that the single best way to know what God is asking us to do, is to listen and talk together. That’s why every voice matters in our church, that’s why it’s so important for each and for all to participate.
Here’s the thing. Following God’s call often means that we have to re-examine well-loved old habits, maybe leave behind things we’ve loved, certainly move into ways we aren’t sure about. The future is ambiguous. Yesterday’s certainties no longer work, and tomorrow’s certainties are yet to be discovered. We are in an in-between time, what the professionals call “liminal time”, literally time on a threshold. It’s not easy.
There are days when I’m sure we’d love to be in a time when all the answers are clear and no one is asking tough new questions. Well, all I can say is that I’d love to be thin, but it’s not going to happen. We can’t spend our time yearning for a time that’s not here. For God has called us to step forward into this unsettling time…
….and it is God who is in charge.
© 2019, Virginia H. Child