A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on May 15, 2022
Acts 11:1-18 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?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “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. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 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. 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; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’
And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 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.’ 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?” 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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
There are two kinds of people in the world: the people who want something new and different every day, and the people who, like me, could cheerfully do things the same way for the rest of our lives.
Today’s Scripture is a story about those two kinds of people.
There were the people – called the “circumcised believers” here – who want to hew as closely to the past as is humanly possible, and the people, Peter and his followers, who were stepping out into new ways.
Except, of course, that parallel isn’t strictly true. Peter was no fan of change. Neither were his followers. What they were, were people who, when they absolutely had to, were open to change, willing to change. And the other folks? They simply didn’t believe that change was necessary, in this time, or this place.
Let’s look at what was really happening in this story: it’s early days, really early days in the development of the Christian way. What we’re seeing in this story is the beginnings of the separation of Jesus’ followers from the Jewish faith, not yet an argument between Christians and Jews. In those days, almost all those who followed Jesus were themselves Jews. They kept the Jewish customs and laws, but, just as some Jews were Sadducees or Pharisees, these Jews were followers of Christ, proto-Christians.
And then gentiles, people who were not Jews, began to follow Jesus. So the early community began to get into a heavy discussion of just what these new folks would have to do, how they would have to live, in order to be authentic Christians. This discussion goes on throughout out all of the book of Acts, and shows up in other New Testament books as well. Did they have to formally convert to Judaism? Did they have to keep kosher? And the question here – could Jews and non-Jewish believers eat together?
These are real questions. What do we have to do, believe, follow, in order to be authentic? What makes us Christians?
But the focus today is on how we deal with new ideas and change….on how we work out answers. As I said, this is hard stuff. I hear it in just about every church I work with: we’re all willing to do what’s needed, but, wait a minute, what do you mean we’re not going to do that one thing I really like? Or that thing which I find so deeply meaningful?
I don’t know about you, but I’m happy as all get out to offer new things for new people, so long as it doesn’t mean I have to give up something that I really love. And it’s easy to adapt to new ways, new contexts, so long as I feel as though I still have control… right? You know what I mean???
So when the disciples got all upset because Peter had dared to eat with gentiles, because it destroyed their picture of Peter as a great, trustworthy, guy… it reminds me of those folks who loved their pastor right up until they saw him marching with Martin Luther King…. Or who respected their pastor until the day the church stopped using hymnals, or went to demonstrations, or . . .
In this case, the folks who felt as though control was slipping from their fingers began to criticize Peter. Here’s the good news: they talked with him about their concerns. They didn’t stand out in the parking lot. They didn’t meet at Brew Bakers. They didn’t tell Peter’s wife they were upset. They spoke to him. That gave Peter the opportunity to share with them how his mind had been changed by the dream God sent him. He saw that God was giving him a new way, and the confirmation was when the men from Caesarea showed up and asked for his help. They were gentiles (you can read their full story in Acts 10)… the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household.
When Peter told Cornelius about Jesus, Cornelius immediately was struck by the truth of the story and the Holy Spirit fell upon him. I dare say Peter was astonished, but it served as sure confirmation that God wanted them to be welcoming to gentiles, as they were, without them having to first become Jews.
As Peter told his story to his fellow believers, they too were convinced that God was telling them to leave behind the requirements they’d lived for so long, and to begin to look at new ways to understand what it meant to live as a follower of Jesus.
As we look into our future, we’re going to find things – large and small – that we need to discuss, decisions that will have to be made that will be difficult, changes that will require us, either temporarily or permanently, give up things that have been so very important to us in order to gain something essential to our witness. Maybe some of those things will be easy to set aside – like the church which stopped requiring their deacons to wear morning coats when they served Communion. Maybe the future will ask hard things of us. Maybe my easy thing will be your hard thing, or vice versa. When those times come, remember this: when we pay attention to what God is calling us to do, it’s easier to see the authentic, the faithful, way to proceed.
I don’t mean to say that when we look to God for guidance that the answer will always be clear or simple, because that’s just not so. Looking to God, however, pulls us away from our own personal preferences, draws us out of “what I’ve always done” toward the redemptive conversation about how we follow Jesus. It takes us from “I” to “we”. Without God, we’re simply debating personal preferences. With God, we’re basing our decisions on something beyond ourselves.
With God’s guidance, we will find ourselves echoing Peter, when he says, “who am I to hinder God?”
© 2022, Virginia H. Child