Like it or not
Passage: Acts 11:1-18
Date: May 06, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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How does one chronicle the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, dramatic change, crisis and response? The writer of Luke-Acts gives it one of his best shots in today's lectionary reading. The episode, which may read mundane and boring for us, actually begins a whole chapter earlier. So, if you want the full effect, start there. Today's slice tells a church fight. If it does not quite read that way to us, we are not paying close attention. Besides, we experience too many of those in all sorts of institutions across our polarized land. We are quite weary of them, actually. But, I invite us to listen fully anyway. What eventuated changed the course of history, our history. We might not be sitting here if their decision had gone otherwise. Acts 11:1-18.
The whole written episode looks back, is after-the-fact, happened decades before it got recorded. And what we have are not minutes taken by a trained clerk. Nuances, details, who said what to whom-all that is lacking. To get into it, we need some reconstruction.
Remember Peter: strong-willed, tightly arranged presuppositions about how things should be. Like the time Jesus told him that he, Jesus, would eventually wind up in Jerusalem, be arrested, and executed-and Peter directly contradicted his Lord. Remember when Peter: "Lord, I will lay down my life for you," and then denied him three times instead. It is this stubborn, traditional, fiercely loyal Peter whom we find in this world-changing incident.
But, before moving forward, let us back up a bit more. At that time, followers of Jesus were still part of the Jewish faith. In a sense, they were a small sect imbedded in the larger, Jews who believed that Jesus was the Promised One, the One who fulfilled their scriptural longings. To be Jewish, even as followers of the risen Christ, meant a certain way of life, without deviation. Males were circumcised. There were dietary restrictions; we call them kosher laws. There were forbidden associations, especially with regard to non-Jews, Gentiles. Certainly, Jews did not enter Gentile homes, and most certainly, they did not eat meals together. These traditional and visible boundaries served to strengthen Jews in their faithfulness and sense of identity. The prevailing globalization was Greco-Roman. Immense economic, religious, and social pressures were placed on captive peoples to become more like Rome. You know, "What's a little incense to the Caesar here, a shared cup there, even an occasional intermarriage? Think of the economic advantages, and you can still worship as you please." Faithful Jews sought not to collaborate, not to blend into the prevailing values, but to live by different standards and traditions. Where they were faithful, they were easily distinguished from others. How different that is, for example, from most Christians like us in our land. With our commitment to tolerance, one of our highest values is to blend, to the point of often being indistinguishable from our neighbors who never darken the door of a church or claim the name of Christ.
One more piece before we move on: For the most part, the disciples, the followers of Jesus, originated not in the urban center of Jerusalem, but in the small towns, down around the Sea of Galilee. They would have approached life with a rural mindset, which also meant more conservative, more traditional. It was no different then than today: like the contrast between growing up in Arlington or in Eugene, in Centralia or in Seattle.
So, Peter was probably summoned to Jerusalem, the heart of the Christian sect, to appear before the inner circle, those leading disciples of Jesus. The text says, "The circumcised believers criticized Peter, ‘Why do you go to the uncircumcised men and eat with them?'" What an amazingly civil way for people feeling terribly threatened to ask their burning question. All of the words are deeply loaded: "circumcised believers" means true believers, Jews wholly committed to Jesus Christ as a Jew for his own people. After all, that is what the scripture had said God would do. We can imagine them: "What has happened to Peter? Has he gone off his rocker? Who does he think he is, going to Gentiles, those other people with whom we do not associate, people our God does not even love? And not only did he enter their home, but ate with them, their food, out of their bowls, cooked in their pots." Do you hear their alarm, their fear?
These were tremendously good, faithful Christians, many of whom had known Jesus personally. Totally committed to him, I can feel their anguish at Peter's wayward way. I can also sense their fear, the threat posed by what he did. They thought they had it at least partially figured out about Jesus and themselves. They were thinking within the only framework that they knew, feeling their way into this new reality of the risen Messiah. Not comfortable yet, to be sure. And they had already experienced one severe jolt, when the despised Samaritans received the good news of Jesus. That was a very difficult time, that adjustment, that change of ages old practices and understandings of God. Now this. Cornelius, a high ranking Roman officer in the exclusive Roman cohort in Caesarea, and all of his family, and several friends--They did not even have Jewish ancestral background like the Samaritans did. "They are nothing but Gentiles, occupiers of our land, under the direction of Caesar, who claims to be the Savior of the World. How could our God, our God, the God we know in Jesus Christ, how could our God possibly include those people whom we have been taught to avoid? And what will it mean to us if God includes them?"
This was a monumental church fight, much larger than when our seeking-to-be faithful ancestors in the Church of Scotland battled vigorously over whether or not it was OK to sing psalms in worship. It was much more dangerous than when our seeking-to-be-faithful ancestors splintered apart over whether African Americans could even be part of the church, our church.
Unsophisticated Peter was smart. He had taken six circumcised (i.e. faithful) men with him as witnesses. For an incident to be validated, Jewish law required seven witnesses. So, there they were up in Jerusalem, on trial. Peter sort of told his story. There is more of it in chapter 10, and you can see how it was modified a bit so that it could be heard by these so upset and threatened. Yes, there is a tiny bit of spin here. But, imagine Peter, and his own struggle. I'll bet in that 30 mile walk from Joppa to Caesarea, his internal wrestling was excruciating. How could millennia of unclean possibly suddenly be clean? How could he change everything upon which he had based his faith-life? Was this God's leading, or something else? How would he know?
This great event in our history is not just about the conversion of Cornelius and his family. The Holy Spirit converted Peter as well. And through him and the six witnesses, the leaders of the fledgling Christian community in Jerusalem are converted by God . It all hinged on how they would answer Peter's question: "If God gave those Gentile Romans the same gift God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" Their response turned the church inside out. They faced both profound crisis and amazing opportunity. All that they knew for sure was the work of the Holy Spirit, breaking through beyond their imaginations.
Let us be clear: this is not about the irrelevance of religious practices. Rather, within wonderful religious practices, it is about a gracious struggle to be open to the living Christ. As people growing in Christ, how do we approach each other in our differences? How do we approach the world so that we do not hinder God? How do we do it not with walls up and fists closed fearfully, but with hearts and minds and hands open, open to Christ's opportunities?
By the time the book of Acts was written, Jerusalem had been leveled by Rome, followers of Christ had been expelled from Jewish communities, and the church had become predominantly Gentile, predominantly us. Like it or not, that pivotal church fight established that no one is disqualified, no one is outside the grace of Christ Jesus, no one. Think about all of the people you and I put outside his grace. How terrifying is that? How astonishing is our God?
Today we come to the table of Christ. I pray that he is the center of who we are and are becoming. Yes, we here embody a variety of perspectives about all of the major divisive issues of our day. Among us, at times more traditional members do not feel as valued as they would like, and that grieves me. I also know more progressive members who are frustrated with our walls, our timidity. Both wonder how we might be hindering God. How fabulous it is to have those tensions within us, to ask the questions. They present the possibility of exciting deep respectful conversations. They carry the possibility of openness to God's Spirit, alive and active, out ahead of us, stirring us up, dragging us into the future. We do not need to find our unity on particular issues or perspectives. Rather, like them, we seek our being in Jesus Christ. That is enough. All else, while desperately important, is secondary, like it or not. May it be so.