A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Easter 5 ~ Acts 11:1-18
Women should only aspire to be housewives and mothers.
People of different races should not marry.
People of different religions should not marry.
Being gay is wrong.
Persons of colour should have fewer, if any rights.
Memorizing facts and figures is the best education.
Smoking is good for calming people.
Only men should be ministers.
I could go on, but frankly I find it abhorrent to even say those things – oh, and just in case you weren’t sure, those things I just said are 100% wrong. Yet a hundred years ago every one of those things I just said were considered to be accepted truths in society at large. They weren’t just opinions – they were settled truths in that day and age. So what happened? Why don’t we collectively still think that way? What happened that those things are no longer be held to be true?
We learned. We grew. We evolved. We widened our worldview. We gained more experience. Science and sociology discovered new things. Courageous people challenged the prevailing views of the day, and the power of their witness moved hearts and minds. Thank God! I shudder to imagine our world if we hadn’t adapted to new insights and changed. And I shudder to think of the things that we accept as being obvious and true today but over time society will look back and judge us to be just as foolish, selfish, unevolved, racist, sexist, closed-minded, and cruel as we often view our ancestors.
Call it evolution, call it progress, call it adaptation, whatever word we choose we should remember that it involves a long and messy process. Big changes and shifts don’t happen overnight – even when we are certain that they absolutely must! I often think of the teaching I heard from an Indigenous elder that said, and I paraphrase, “It took a very long time for us to walk this far into the forest – it will take a very long time to walk back out!” (That an elder was given voice and I was able to learn is a very welcome adaptation!) Sadly, it must also be said that not everyone gets the memo at the same time. Some societies, or groups within societies, change and adapt while others lag behind. (And yes, even that phrasing is pejorative.)
So what opens one group to adapting while another doesn’t? There are myriad reasons, far too complicated for me to get into (or understand), but I’ll try a couple. You go away to school. You get a new job in a diverse workplace. You get to know someone you once thought was an ‘other’. The simplest reason for personal growth is just for a person to have a new experience for themselves and judge it to be a better way than their former way, or thought, or practice. Of course, someone probably had to invite or entice them to try that new thing. Richard Rohr says, “You don’t think your way into a new way of living – you live your way into a new way of thinking!”
I think perhaps the heart of all this is that real change comes when someone you encounter is so passionate in their view that it becomes persuasive. When you encounter someone with that kind of ‘fire in their belly’, who also has sincerity and authenticity, and whose vision, once fully heard though, is so compelling that it stirs the spirit of those who hear – well, that changes everything.
And if you think society at large is slow to change, and grow, and adapt, umm, let me introduce you to a nice little group called ‘church’! Churches are infamous for not wanting to change – anything! And when we really want to dig in our heels we reach deep into our pockets and we pull out this beauty of an excuse for not adapting: “God said!” Or, “the bible says…” Or, the big one, you could probably say it with me: We’ve never done it that way before!
Imagine you’re in Jerusalem in around the year 0038. It’s been a few years since Jesus’ death and resurrection, and you’re at the centre of the fledgling spiritual movement that has launched in his name – the People of the Way. This new church organization has been growing, flourishing even, and more and more people are being drawn into the Way of Jesus. And, as inevitably happens, as your circle grows wider and wider your levels of complexity increase. Remember, this is at its heart a movement of Jewish people. Jesus and his followers were all Jewish. The early church was all Jewish. Until it wasn’t.
Acts 11:1-3 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles (non-Jews) 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 circumcised believers” is code for Jewish persons. Peter is reporting back to ‘head office’ and he’s being called on the carpet. He’s being chastised first for meeting with ‘uncircumcised men’ and second for eating with them. Peter has broken all kinds of rules here. What rules? Religious rules about associating with certain people, and eating certain foods, and sharing the Good News of Jesus with certain people – you know, the rules that ‘everyone knows’ and follows. The practices that they held dear and true. The beliefs and attitudes that they were certain of, that they believed to their toes that God gave to them. The bedrock stuff of their faith.
The Message puts it like this: “What do you think you’re doing rubbing shoulders with that crowd, eating what is prohibited and ruining our good name?” Yikes! Sounds exactly like church! (Well, hopefully not all churches.)
Peter has crossed all kinds of lines, and now he has some ‘splaining to do. I love verse 4 – Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step…
Of course he went step by step. How else do you begin to challenge such deeply held practices? He had to go slowly. And carefully. And he had to be inspiring!
Acts 11:5-6 Peter says, “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.”
You and I hear that and we think “what a nice collection of nature.” The ‘circumcised’ folk that day would’ve heard an affront to their deeply held dietary and cleanliness laws.
Then Peter goes in even deeper. Verse 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ That word ‘kill’ there doesn’t just mean to slaughter – it has a distinct sense of killing for the purpose of spiritual sacrifice. In other words, it’s not just about new foods – it’s about reimagining what was seen as unclean and now seeing it as spiritually worthy. He’s pushing the boundaries.
But Peter is smart, so he takes them on a dramatic tour. Verses 8-9 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ (And you can imagine them all nodding.) But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’
“I didn’t want to do it, because just like you I know what’s right and what’s not – but the voice of God said it again, and again. How could I possibly go against the voice of God!”
Then probably my favourite verse – Acts 11:10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
Why do you think the vision needed to happen three times? Probably because big earth-changing ideas don’t just take root instantly. Peter needed to be led along in his awakening to this new idea of radical inclusivity. Had he just heard the new idea once he may have forgotten it, or ignored it – but three times – clearly God was being emphatic about this new revelation.
And then the story takes a turn. At that very moment of profound spiritual revelation about radical inclusivity and breaking down barriers there’s a knock on the door and three Gentiles are there. Acts 11:12 Peter said, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”
No distinction?! But we’ve always kept a distinction! This is shocking stuff for ‘the church’ to hear. Their buttons are being pushed, and their limits are being stretched – big time!
And Peter tells of a Gentile who had a vision about bringing Peter to them so they could learn from him. So Peter and a few supporters went to the house and wonderment transpired.
Acts 11:15-17 Peter said, “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 (God) gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Verse 18 – When ‘the circumcised’ heard this, they were silenced. [pause]
And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
The Message puts it this way: Hearing it all laid out like that, they quieted down. And then, as it sank in, they started praising God. “It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to Life!”
I hope I’ve been able to convey just how monumental this shift in their understanding was. Peter had a vision for a new vista to open themselves to – but to do so they had to let go of some of their deeply held practices and learn a new way. It’s another resurrection – a dying to the old and a rebirth into God’s new life.
From the first days of the Christian church the watchword has been ‘adapt’. In modern business parlance you hear the phrase ‘adapt or die’. Yup. But adapting doesn’t mean to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It doesn’t mean that everything we used to think and do is suddenly wrong and we have to reinvent everything. In fact, it kind of means the opposite.
It means to not confuse first principles with established cultural practice. We could go through that list of abhorrent and foolish cultural practices that I began the sermon with and in each one realize that there is a better first principle of honouring the sacredness of every person that was being marred by the practice. So the practice had to go.
Think about church stuff these days. In my theology classes 20 years ago I was always in the minority in gender. Draw a circle – Newcastle United, Trinity Bowmanville, St. Paul’s Bowmanville, Ebenezer/Maple Grove down the street, Kingsview Oshawa, Northminster Oshawa – all of these churches are led by women ministers! Ministry used to be all men. We adapted.
Faith United is an affirming church – which means we publically, intentionally, and explicitly state and practice that everyone is sacred and fully welcome here. Persons who identify as LGBTQ+ used to be shunned from churches. We are striving to adapt and change that reality. But just because some get it doesn’t mean all do. Nationally we’re not even at 10% of Affirming churches, sadly. But it’s moving.
For this Easter season I’ve been using more praise music than usual – mixed in with our traditional or classic hymnody. We’re adapting through time. Through the pandemic we adapted how we do church (online) and especially Communion. We learned to prayerfully prepare our own communion elements at home and discovered they are just as holy as when they’re here on the table in church. We adapted.
Every time we’re adapting cultural things in order to eliminate barriers to our first principles – and our greatest first principle is love. If we can learn to hold our cultural things lightly and our first principles tightly – well, that changes everything. “We never did it that way before.” – Yeah, and it’s high time we adapted!
Sometimes it probably feels like everything is changing around you. All sorts of things in society seem to be in flux these days. So is the church. And this I know to be true: we must adapt, or die. We must be ready to let go of some of our dearly held cultural preferences in favour of the deeper principle of sharing God’s love with a world that desperately needs it. I have no idea what the church of the future is going to look like – but I know that whatever shape it takes it must always be focused on love, love, love. Everything else is fashion, or culture, or tradition – all of which are ripe for change – and all of which gotta go if they’re hindering us from loving.
I’m not the young radical visionary anymore. I’m probably more like the gang in Jerusalem waiting to tut-tut Peter for going too far. I’m yearning for the next wave of church visionaries to dream dreams, and pray deeply, and come and explain it to me step by step. I hope I have the grace to hear them out – because if I do, and we can adapt together – that changes everything.