Peter had some explaining to do. The church in Judea heard that he had been baptizing and worshiping with Gentiles, or non-Jews. The early church was made up of Jewish converts. In fact, the church was not called "Christian," according to Acts, until just after our passage, where we learn that it was at Antioch, where many new converts were baptized, that the disciples were first called "Christians" (Acts 11:26).
Peter had some explaining to do, and he told them about the vision he had before meeting with the Gentiles. He said he saw a sheet with animals on it come down from heaven, and heard a voice telling him to kill and eat the meat of those animals. But Peter was a good practicing Jew, and ate kosher. He knew those animals were considered unclean. He told the Lord he could not eat them. Yet God persisted, saying that these animals had been cleansed. This happened a holy number of 3 times before the vision ended. Then, said Peter, 3 men appeared. In the original version of the story, there were 2 men, but perhaps there was a soldier with these men sent from the Roman centurion, so there may have been 3. Or the writer might have liked the use of the number of the Trinity to give the story more religious power. At any rate, Peter went with these men to the centurion’s house, and heard about the vision which told the man to look for Peter. Peter then preached a short sermon, telling these unchurched people about Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. Then Peter participated as many at Caesarea were baptized. Peter told the church at Judea that "the Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us."
This was a big change for the church. Even though they were worshiping Jesus Christ, the early church still saw themselves as Jews, and the Jews were, from the beginning of the biblical message, the chosen people of God. Outsiders were just that – outsiders. They were not readily or easily accepted. Yet, the text tells us that these faithful people, who confronted Peter upon his return from baptizing Gentiles, were silenced. They took a holy moment before responding. And then they praised God, rejoicing that God had gifted the strangers with repentance and salvation.
This part of the Book of Acts is all about the church changing. Here, in reality, though Jesus had already preached it and lived it out, the church changed from being exclusive to being inclusive. Just a bit earlier, even Peter had said it was "unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile." Yet, with this vision, God had shown him a new way of looking at what the church once considered "unclean," or not allowed
The people of Peter’s church who gathered to question him could have responded in many ways. They could have protested and argued with Peter, citing Scripture that disagreed with his position. They could have walked away and withheld their pledges in protest. They could have left to go join another church that more suited their way of thinking. These are ways many people react when they are not happy with what a church is doing or a preacher is preaching. Yet these new Christians did not react in any of these ways. Instead, they sat in holy silence, and then they accepted this radical new way of life that Peter had offered them with praise to God.
In our Seekers’ women’s study group, we looked at a similar Old Testament passage this month. We are studying Professor Frances Taylor Gench’s book called Faithful Disagreement. Our chapter for April looked at Jeremiah 28, where Jeremiah and another prophet were trying to comfort the exiled Israelites. The other prophet told the people they would soon be freed and restored to Jerusalem and their former life. Jeremiah interpreted the Word of God differently. He knew that the people of God were in for the long haul in exile. Yet Jeremiah did not immediately refute the other prophet.
Jeremiah was a dramatic prophet, and he was wearing a yoke around his neck as a symbol of the yoke the people of God were enduring in exile. The other prophet, by the name of Hannaniah, dramatically went over and broke the yoke off of Jeremiah’s shoulders to show that God would soon free the people. Jeremiah, says the text, "went his way." He was silent. He said nothing. Some time later, Jeremiah went to talk with Hannaniah. But at this very crucial moment, with many faithful Israelites watching, rather than risk reacting inappropriately, the prophet silently walked away.
This is a very good practice, says Professor Gench, when we are confronted with something with which we disagree. Instead of immediately launching into what we think, perhaps with the heat of anger fueling us, she suggests that in times of such conflict or startling news, we bide our time a bit. She says to think and pray about before we speak (a task often easier for introverts than for extroverts).
The church today is changing. So many people are saying this these days. At least in the circles we pastors tread, there is much talk of such things as the Emerging Church, or the NextChurch, all proposing new and radical ways of being the church, in worship and in space, in program and practice. We, as Presbyterian pastors, are being urged to listen to these new voices, and to consider new visions for the church ahead.
A recent article in the "Presbyterian Outlook" magazine was written by a 2nd year seminary student at Princeton. Nick Ison said he was unchurched as a child and got interested when he went with friends on a high school mission trip to Mexico. When he went to seminary, he was startled by what he found there. He had been brought to church by the practice of mission, with active service for and with others. Yet nowhere in the curriculum of the seminary did he find this service even mentioned, much less practiced. He says the church needs to change because "the need is real: the need for engagement, the need for conviction, and the need for a more unified vision of what Christianity looks like in a country where fewer and fewer young people care about religion but increasingly care deeply about service." (Outlook, April 1, 2013)
Brian McLaren, in the preface to his highly popular book, A New Kind of Christianity, says: "Some see the Christian faith [in reference to biblical figures like Sarah and Elizabeth] an old woman past her prime, closer to a nursing home than to nursing new life. But I see it differently," he says. "I believe that in every new generation the Christian faith, like every faith, must in a sense be reborn again. That means the Christian faith has the possibility of being forever young." (McLaren, p. xi)
Despite what we see here at Westminster, as we take in new members (as we will do today, and do several times a year), the mainline denominations are shrinking in membership, and have been for a number of years. Many non-denominational churches are seeing great numbers in attendance, yet research shows that their membership is very fluid, and that when folks become dissatisfied with them, they simply leave church all together. It is much easier to be unchurched these days than it was when many of us were growing up. There are many alternative ways to be spiritual without going to church. And there are so many other exciting and interesting activities for folks on Sunday mornings than there ever used to be. So the question is asked often among clergy circles – Does the church need to change in order to stay viable, alive and well? Brian McLaren says "Something isn’t working in the way we’re doing Christianity anymore." (McLaren, p.9)
In Will Willimon’s commentary on this Acts passage, he says that stories like this are "stories about beginnings – the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the church, the initiation of a new mission, as well as the beginning of a new life for the individual person." Such stories are conversion stories, and "Conversion is the beginning of the Christian journey," he says, "not its final destination." Willimon quotes Hans Kung, the Swiss Catholic priest, theologian and author. Hans Kung says in his book, The Church:
"We must entice people from the world to God. We are not to shut ourselves off from the world in a spirit of asceticism, but to live in the everyday world inspired by the radical obedience that is demanded by the love of God. The church must be reformed again and again, converted again and again each day, in order to fulfill its task." (Willimon, p. 104)
The church is changing, the world is changing, rapidly. It seems like we are always on a fast moving train, and we have to jump on and off, running to get where we need to go. When life is so hectic, we often react first to whatever shocks us with our emotions – happy and supportive, or angry and disagreeing. If we can take away one lesson from our passage today, maybe we will remember to first be silent and meditative, to not react immediately, but to take some time in prayer before we respond to those things that startle us, or anger us, or scare us.
As to the future of the church, Willimon wisely reminds us that church is not all about "winning souls," or bringing in people. Bringing in people may be the by-product of the church at work. Stories like the one we read today are about what God is doing, not what church programs might be successful or draw more attendance. If God is at work in the church, and in us, then we will be able to change as we are needed to change. We need but be silent and listen for a while. Then, maybe we too can "make no distinction between them and us," and we can break out in praise to God every day of our lives.
Glory be to God. Amen.
Acts, by Paul W. Walaskay (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1998)
Acts, by William H. Willimon (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1988)
A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian D. McLaren (Harper Collins Pub., NY, 2010)
"Vision of a Generation" by Nick Ison, in The Presbyterian Outlook (Volume.195, No. 07, April 1, 2013)