Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
May 15, 2022
Scripture: Acts 11:1–18
Now the apostles and the brothers and sisters 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.”
Two weeks ago Seth startled me awake and alert when he opened his sermon in a most compelling way when he implored, “What does it take for you to change?” In both services, the question produced a kinetic energy as we all wondered if he was really talking specifically to us. Or maybe the question was directed to the person next to us, or someone watching the service via livestream. As Seth spoke about the story of the Road to Damascus and Saul’s powerful, blinding experience that led him to become Jesus’ most ambitious apostle, known to us as Paul, I think many of us had trouble letting go of the question the sermon posed. What does it take for one to change? I have been known to say I embrace change; I welcome it. Yet I realize those feelings have more to do with change that happens around me, in spite of me, and are less true about what happens within. Seth’s question invites us to think about change from the inside out, and perhaps, like me, you have been doing some contemplation around this particular quandary. While I don’t yet have a concise answer, I have absolutely been living with the question.
We have spent the last few Sundays dancing with the Book of Acts, which is all about change. Here are the stories involving the building of beloved community, and what happens to the followers of Jesus when Jesus is no longer with them in the flesh: the disciples who, following Jesus’ death, were initially so afraid of what the future might hold that they hid away in a locked room. Then they found a renewal of courage and purpose and are now out in the world carrying out Jesus’ ministry of love, reconciliation, and—ultimately—transformation. There are big questions and even bigger dilemmas to face, however, because as word spreads about this significant way of living, suddenly the disciples must discern to whom the kin‑dom of God belongs. As the book of Acts progresses, barriers will be broken down and boundaries will be expanded. All of this is radical change for those of Jewish birth who showed their allegiance to God through what they ate and how they lived, long-established laws regarding every lifestyle issue were abided in order to know truth in living and right relationship with the Divine. So as the gospel expands and non-Jews are feeling a nudge towards following Jesus, conversations and conflicts arise over who is “in” and who remains outside of God’s realm.
The scene I read from the 11th chapter of Acts is actually a repeat. The same story is relayed in Chapter 10: bizarre dream with a variety of animals and all. The story bears repeating because it is one of the most pivotal moments in the life of the early church. Before this scene, the way of Jesus was interpreted as being only for a certain people. Even in the movement’s commitment to the new commandment of love, it was exclusionary. But because of Cornelius and his curiosity and his desire to be a part of the way of Jesus, and because of Peter’s heart and understanding expanding through the power of a dream encounter with God and, I believe, his own understanding of the gospel, this is a watershed moment in the enlargement of the Church’s ministry and the shape of the community. Change was possible, it was necessary, and—ultimately—it was revolutionary.
If we long for change in the world, in the church, in our home, in the oppressive systems that exist all around us, we need to be willing to change, too. Peter pursued his ministry with a certain set of beliefs, armed with justification for the way things needed to be done, set on the tenets of faith he would most likely die for in order to defend. And then he met Cornelius, who did not fit into Peter’s framework of God’s realm. We witness a miraculous change of heart, inspired by God, that will now infuse the early believers with a radically transformed sense of the kind of community that is possible in God’s kin-dom. While this profound shift may not seem all that extraordinary to contemporary us, because we have always known the Christian church as a conglomeration of people with very different stories and backgrounds and ways of life, we might liken this moment in Acts to our realizations of the ways we—personally and collectively—have practiced exclusivity: racial injustice, gender injustice, sexual injustice. When we experience our own moments of enlightenment of whom we and the systems we serve have excluded and diminished, then our hearts and our understanding of God’s realm, as for Peter, expand and transform. We change.
Perhaps the most powerful verse in this pericope is 17: “If then God gave them [the Gentiles] the same gift that God gave us when we believed . . ., who was I that I could hinder God?”
Who was I that I could hinder God? Let that question settle in you, and maybe even stir something up in you. Within Peter’s awakening that the gospel was not only for a select people was also an understanding that he needed to get out of the way of God’s work. When Peter could literally and figuratively step aside, God’s grace, and love, and spirit could fill up others eagerly waiting for their encounter with the Divine. It is only when we realize and name that our thoughts and actions are keeping others out; that our well-intentioned yet harmful words and attitudes can be traumatizing to others and deny them a sense of place and belonging—when we recognize these things and stop, we get out of the way of God’s transforming work. We have to own this, name this, make amends and then move aside so that God can be discovered and known by those with whom we may have never imagined sharing a church, or a neighborhood, or a city. Every time the church excludes someone from full participation in the redemptive efforts of God, Peter’s question should trouble us. Peter was persuaded that God did not intend to exclude anyone from the community of God’s care. His conclusion was revolutionary, and had Peter not had his epiphany, we probably wouldn’t be gathered here today. So what must we do to carry on the mission and assure others of their sacred place in God’s kin-dom?
There are many of you here at Plymouth who are working hard to expand horizons, particularly around the needs of justice and equality. This is now our essential work if we ever want the vision of the church set forth in the book of Acts to come into being. But it is not enough to do the work, to experience the personal growth and the change that comes with it. We need to be able to articulate why the work is important, why the barriers between race, class, and gender must be demolished. And that work can begin right here. I wonder, as we welcome new folks into our midst—through membership, fellowship, spiritual formation, and worship—do we expect them to become like us, to honor the traditions of the church and conform to our ways of doing things? What might happen if instead we invited them to take the lead, show us a new way, widen our perspective? That could prompt us towards change in ways we haven’t even yet imagined, and that may not be comfortable, especially when it could impact our sacred understandings. While we don’t have rules about clean and unclean food and thankfully we don’t require confirmation of circumcision in order to be a member of this community, we may have other practices and rituals we would prefer go unquestioned, unchallenged, or unchanged. But as Peter realized, we need to stop hindering God and get out of the way so as to let others have their rightful place at the table.
The Jewish community in the Book of Acts—those first faithful followers of Jesus—for generations lived by sacred law. They honored God through rituals of food and cleanliness, their lives ordered and controlled by a thousand rules of what they believed to be consecrated by the Divine. As they witnessed Peter baptize Cornelius, a Gentile, and heard Peter’s testimony about why God’s realm was for all people—and all means all—scripture reports that their hearts broke open in understanding and acceptance so that they welcomed Cornelius and all others into the gift of grace that leads to life. And suddenly, their rules no longer applied to everyone. They may have lost control, yet what they gained was beloved community.
Everywhere we turn in our hurting world people are getting in the way of God’s inclusivity, hindering the impact of abundant love. We have been conditioned to believe it is okay to exercise control over another by believing that God made us superior. We have been coerced by legislation so that we no longer have control over our own bodies. We have accepted without challenge our hallowed place in dominant culture. And in so doing, God’s vibrant vision of beloved community becomes narrower and narrower. Do we really want to move towards extinction?
So before we question an unfamiliar face at the communion table, or suggest to a newcomer that they are sitting in someone else’s pew, or roll our eyes at a suggestion for a new way of doing an old thing, or ignore someone standing alone during coffee fellowship, let us choose not to hinder God and rather be instruments of grace, embodiments of love.
Radical inclusion begins right here, in this beloved community . . . especially when we understand that beloved community includes all of us here. There. Everywhere.