Some of the most dramatic chapters in the discipleship story of God with us come in the Acts of the Apostles.
It begins, as we heard a couple weeks ago, with the jaw-dropping account of Jesus returning to heaven, which catches the apostles flat-footed and leaves them gazing up into the sky. Spectacular moments like that continue throughout Acts as its many scenes witness to the formation of the early Church.
I find myself harboring some feelings of envy over this new faith community that’s creating so much awe and wonder. Incredible miracles are performed left and right: The lame are walking freely, the blind are seeing clearly, and at her own funeral, a woman is resurrected completely.
Every time you turn around, a few hundred more people join the thousands who’ve already been converted. The pews are chock full on Sundays, and the new believers spend boat-loads of time together in study and prayer. They enjoy each other’s company at the meal table, and they’re selfless in caring for one another. What church today wouldn’t want to be so blessed!
Granted, the book of Acts isn’t all wine and roses. The believers have some nasty run-ins with the old guard of religious authority. They watch in horror as an angry mob fatally stones one of their first deacons. Many of the faithful flee to safety in the countryside when a guy named Saul spearheads a vicious and relentless persecution against them. But in spite of all the evil flung at them from the outside, within the community – among the rank-and-file faithful, things are looking pretty good, and the future appears ripe with new potential and unimaginable possibility.
Then along comes today’s Scripture lesson, and the apostle Peter finds himself called on the carpet by his fellow believers in Jerusalem.
For some time now, Peter has been away from Jerusalem, the epicenter of the new Jesus movement. The Holy Spirit has kept him busy spreading the Gospel in new lands and sharing the story of Jesus with all kinds of people including – gasp! – the reviled Gentiles. Yup, non-Jews are receiving God’s Word and becoming followers of Jesus Christ, and that’s causing fits among Peter’s comrades in the home office.
The final straw for the powers that be comes when Peter’s missionary efforts result in the conversion of a Roman military officer named Cornelius, and thus Peter gets recalled to headquarters with a demand to explain himself. That’s where we rejoin the story of God with us. Listen with all your senses for the Word of the Lord.
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.” (Acts 11:1-18)
We all like tax breaks when they come to people like us.
We all like various fringe benefits when they accrue to people like us.
We all understand the need for a little extra government assistance when it comes to people like us.
But the moment a break, a benefit, a little welfare-like subsidy goes to someone else, someone not like us — and therefore someone who is not as deserving as we are, because, well, they’re lazy or undeserving, or haven’t paid their dues the way we have, or weren’t born here – at that moment is when it happens: We cry “foul” and dig-in our heels even deeper so we can resist even harder anyone who might want to expand the circle of blessing that we think is only supposed to include people like “us.”
That’s where the Jewish converts in Jerusalem are at – dug in deep and holding on tight to their belief that God in Christ has only come for them and ready to stand up against anyone like Peter, whose experience in the real world allows him to see and understand God’s big picture a little more clearly, differently, and faithfully.
Peter’s witness to the Spirit’s conversion of Cornelius and his entire household knocks Peter for a loop and throws his frame of reference out of kilter. In that holy moment, Peter suddenly sees his solidarity – his sameness, his oneness – with people who aren’t like him. The pool of people whom God intends to bless through Christ is a whole lot bigger and wider than Peter first thought. The Holy Spirit is working on the hearts of the Gentiles, too – folks who definitely aren’t like “us.”
Such crazy talk is heresy among the believers in Jerusalem. The Jewish converts in Jerusalem believe that they’re following God’s plan to set up his kingdom and that the kingdom is only open to them and them alone. And so what Peter is doing among the Gentiles is flat-out backwards and wrong-headed, and Peter had better get his head screwed back on straight. You’re wrong, Pete, and we’re right. Get with the program!
Boom! Welcome to the first major blow-up in the Church, the very stuff of division, and schism, and separation. Imagine that – a church in conflict!
Yet, in a wonderful moment of conflict resolution and peacemaking, Peter manages to hold everyone and everything together by sharing with the naysayers the experience he has with God: His dream about the sheet coming down from heaven, which reveals to him that God is moving in a new direction – working in greater, more inclusive ways than anyone up until now had ever thought.
That day at Cornelius’s place, the Holy Spirit comes down upon the Gentiles just as the Spirit comes down upon Peter and the other believers at Pentecost. Hey guys, listen up, Peter exclaims. What happened to them is what happened to us. God’s tent is bigger than we thought! Who knew? Apparently not me, or certainly not any of you!
After listening to Peter, his fellow believers fall silent – literally. The opening of their minds closes their mouths, and the conflict is resolved, because they let God have the last word.
It ain’t easy to have your perspective widened and your worldview changed, particularly when the process of that happening requires that you simultaneously realize how wrong-headed you’ve been. But the Gospel is relentless. It will never stop pushing you and me in the directions that God’s boundless grace maps out. We should expect surprises – uncomfortable and disturbing though they might be.
In fact, it’s possible that if you’ve not felt surprised by the Lord in a really long time, maybe it’s because you’ve not accepted the gift that he’s been offering all along.
God offers us the gift of repentance – the kind of change in one’s perspective and understanding that leads to new life for ourselves and everyone around us. Repentance isn’t a mere heroic first step you make toward Christ or a sense of feeling sorry for your sins. Repentance is the divine gift of being turned toward the truth about yourself and your beliefs – something that’s quite impossible to do on your own. None of us can turn ourselves around, so God does it for us. Through Christ by the power of the Spirit, God sweeps us up off our feet and carries us along by events very much beyond our power to control.
It’s all part and parcel of being led to respond joyfully and willingly to the Lord’s offer of himself to us – the necessary, quite appropriate turn of a life that is the recipient of God’s gracious turning toward us: An expression of God’s grace that includes Jew and Gentile, virtuous pagans like Cornelius and zealous persecutors like Saul – even stubborn, wrong-headed thinkers like you and me. And the remarkable turn of events is all thanks to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
That’s downright remarkable!
Because in the experience of most of us, when something really new happens inside the Church or in our lives, few of us rush to chalk it up to a new movement of the Holy Spirit. Fewer still launch into a robust chorus of “praise God from whom all blessings flow,” because, after all, no one really loves jettisoning a whole bunch of stuff we’ve cherished and practiced for years and years.
No, that’s not the drill most of the time. Most folks regard as highly suspect claims that this or that remarkable happening reflects a new movement of the Holy Spirit. The response more at the ready than a song of praise is the old-and-tired response that “we’ve never done it that way before,” or “I’ve never thought about it in those terms,” or “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Painfully and slowly are the adverbs that describe making room for a new, and frequently very-different group of people with whom you’re not accustomed to associating. And such holy changes often coincide with some who’ve been around a long time leaving the fellowship rather than making room for newcomers, much less making space in the mind for more heavenly ways of thinking and in the heart for more gracious and merciful ways of regarding the world and all the people in it.
Of course, let’s admit that not every proposed change is of Lord.
But if Acts 11 has anything to teach us, it is that the Holy Spirit is nothing if not frequently surprising. Less hubris and more humility in listening to someone like Peter are good and faithful pursuits. And perhaps most difficult of all is the humble willingness to admit that maybe we had either been wrong in the past or at least that maybe we were missing some key perspectives that we now need to incorporate into our neatly laid out view of the world and how the Spirit of God in Christ is working in our midst.
No, not everything new is a movement of the Spirit. But neither should we think a new thing is impossible seeing as we’ve already got our understanding of what is truly means to be a disciple well in hand and neatly sewn up.
Consider the story of Grace Thomas, born in the early 1900s as the second of five children. Her father was a streetcar conductor in Birmingham, Alabama, and so Grace grew up in modest means. Later in life, after getting married and moving to Georgia, Ms. Thomas took a job clerking at the state capitol in Atlanta, where she developed a fondness for law and politics. So, although already a full-time mother and a full-time clerk, she enrolled in night school to study law.
In 1954, Ms. Thomas shocked her family by announcing that she wanted to run for public office. What’s more, she didn’t want to run for weed commissioner or for a seat on the city council. No, Grace Thomas ran for governor of the state of Georgia!
She was among nine gubernatorial candidates that year – nine candidates, one issue: Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that mandated the desegregating of schools. Ms. Thomas was alone among the nine candidates to announce that she thought desegregation was the right and just decision for the court to make. Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the Polls”! Hardly anyone did, though, and Ms. Thomas finished dead last.
Her family was glad she got it out of her system – except she didn’t, and so decided to run for governor again in 1962. By then, racial tensions in the South were far more taut, tense, and fraught with danger than they’d been eight years earlier. Grace’s progressive platform on race issues earned her a number of death threats.
One day she held a rally in a small Georgia town and chose as her venue the old slave market in the town square.
As she stood there, Ms. Thomas motioned to the platform where human beings once had been bought and sold like commodities and said, “The old has passed away, the new has come. A new day has come when all Georgians, white and black, can join hands and work together.”
At that point, a red-faced man in the crowd interrupted her speech to blurt out, “Are you a communist?!” “Why, no,” Ms. Thomas replied quietly. “Well then, where’d you get all them galdurned ideas?!” She pointed to the steeple of a nearby Baptist church. “I learned them over there, in Sunday school and from the pulpit.”
From early on, Ms. Thomas had spent time carefully listening to the Word of her Lord. And what she heard changed her life and launched her on a very specific mission in life. But to some, thinking that way – much less embracing the idea that the Bible teaches us to think a certain way – was new territory.
Our struggle, then, in the Church and as its disciples, over and over again, is whether you and I can and will accept that our “new” reality is of God, really does spring from God’s Word, and so really is a new perspective to which no less than the Holy Spirit of God is leading us.
Ancient words, ever true – by the Spirit, changing me and changing you. Certainly strong fodder for some soul-searching in these anxious days of disruption and upheaval.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, August 7 , 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Scott Hoezee, L.T. Johnson, Tom Long, and Will Willimon inform the message.