Sermon for Sunday, May 13, 2012
The Rev. Adam Thomas
The most extraordinary event in the history of the early days of the church happens in today’s first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles. If I asked you to guess what that event might be before hearing the reading, you might suppose that the event is a dramatic conversion, à la Saul becoming Paul on the road to Damascus. Or a miraculous healing, such as Peter accomplishes when he raises Tabitha from the dead. Or a mystical vision like the one Peter sees when God tells him that all animals are clean to eat. Or a memorable speech, which we would have heard if today’s reading were just a bit longer. Each of these events happens leading up to our story today, and each is quite extraordinary. But none is the event I have in mind. No. The most extraordinary event in the history of the early days of the church is simply one person realizing he is wrong and then changing his mind.
That person is Peter. And we might expect Peter to be a hardliner, sticking to all of his positions and presuppositions just because he had been with Jesus from the beginning. After all, Jesus did give Peter the figurative keys to the kingdom. What could be more human of a reaction than for Peter to lock out any change that threatened the integrity of the in-crowd? As I’m sure we’ve all done from time to time, Peter could have stuck his head in the sand, ignored the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and resisted any opportunity for growth, for reconciliation, or for new possibilities.
But that’s not what happens. So here’s the story, beginning with just a bit of background. The society in which Peter grew up was divided between Jews and Gentiles. From Peter’s perspective, Gentiles were any peoples who weren’t Jewish; that is, people who weren’t descended from the twelve tribes of Israel and who didn’t live their lives in the ways proscribed in the Law. Jews and Gentiles didn’t share things in common, they barely associated, and they went about their lives insulated as best they could from the other. There wasn’t necessarily animosity between them, but there was indifference and a lack of connection. Society was just built that way, so no one really questioned the structure.
That is, until one day when Peter is hungry. He asks for some food, and while the meal is being prepared, Peter goes to the roof of the house and receives a vision from God. All of the animals that observant Jews aren’t supposed to eat appear before Peter, and a voice directs him to kill and eat. Peter balks at the command, saying, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times until the vision has finally sunk into Peter’s bones.
When the vision ends, Peter looks out from the roof of the house and sees three men approaching. One is a Roman soldier, so they obviously aren’t locals. These Gentiles invite Peter to accompany them to meet another Roman, Cornelius, who has also had a vision from God concerning Peter. Never fearing that he might be walking into a trap, Peter goes with them and meets Cornelius and his whole household. And then Peter preaches a fabulous sermon that proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ.
This is where our passage for this morning picks up the tale. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit encounters all who hear him. Peter’s companions, who are Jewish believers in Jesus Christ (the term “Christian” hadn’t been invented yet) – these companions are astounded that the Holy Spirit of God would deign to manifest itself through unclean Gentiles. “But what about our in crowd,” they seem to protest. “We thought we were the special ones. We thought we were the ones that had the Holy Spirit.”
Then Peter remembers his vision of the now clean animals. And he finds himself standing at the precipice of a decision. His society, his upbringing, and everything he has ever known pulls him to reconfirm that Jews and Gentiles can never be united, that the good news of Jesus Christ is for Peter’s people alone. But that same Holy Spirit, which is even now dancing around Cornelius and his Gentile family, pulls Peter in a new direction toward unity and acceptance and radical welcome of the estranged other.
And this time Peter doesn’t balk. He asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And then he baptizes them. With these words, Peter admits that he has been wrong about who’s in and who’s out. He changes his mind, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the good news of Jesus Christ spreads like wildfire to new peoples who simply would have been written off before.
So what can we learn from this extraordinary event of one person listening to the Holy Spirit, admitting he’s wrong, and changing his mind? Society might tell us that admitting wrong is a sign of weakness, that sticking to your guns shows you have the intestinal fortitude to see things through. But sometimes, we are just plain wrong – in how we treat our loved ones, in how we ignore those in need, in how we categorize people who are different from us. With God’s help, we can admit our wrong in these areas and change our minds, thus opening the door for growth, reconciliation, and new possibilities.
Consider John Newton, who for many years was the captain of a ship that packed free people from Africa into hellish holds and delivered them as slaves to the Americas. After a stroke, Newton gave up his active participation in the slave trade and became an Anglican clergyman, but for over three decades he remained silent about the horrors he had witnessed and engaged in. Then, in 1788, Newton finally admitted his wrongdoing, saying: “[The slave trade] will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” Newton went on to be an ally of William Wilberforce, who was the main voice in abolishing the slave trade. We can fault Newton for staying silent all those years, but we can also give thanks that he finally did change his mind and began to work for freedom and justice. Perhaps you’ve heard some words that Newton penned: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
Or consider the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which throughout the 1970s struggled with the decision to ordain women to the priesthood. In 1979, the church listened to the Holy Spirit and changed its mind. And a good thing to, or we at St. Stephen’s would never have been blessed to have Margot as our rector.
Or consider our lives among our families today. How many of us have argued with a parent or a child, a spouse or a sibling? The fight rages and neither side gives in. There’s blame to go around but no one leaves the trenches, no one makes the first move towards disarmament. Pretty soon, we can’t even remember why the fight started, but that doesn’t matter because now the primary purpose is to come out on top rather than to come to a mutually beneficial decision. Who will blink first? Who will be the first to admit the wrongness of the escalation? Who will change their minds in order to find reconciliation?
Peter’s courageous turnabout teaches us that the Holy Spirit is always active in our lives, always surprising us with new possibilities that we hadn’t imagined before. This same Holy Spirit helps us take the opportunities to admit our wrongs and to change our minds. This same Holy Spirit, who danced around those unlikely Gentiles, also dances around and within us. What positions and presuppositions do we hold on to so tightly today that the Holy Spirit might prompt us to let go of tomorrow? What blindness do we cling to that the Holy Spirit will lift so we can joyfully sing, “I was blind but now I see?”
I pray that when the Holy Spirit moves in our lives, giving us the courage to change our lives for the betterment of ourselves, our church, and this world, we may, like Peter, take hold of the Spirit’s hand and dance along.