Who Am I to Hinder God?Read Now
Easter 5, Year C
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 "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. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' 8 But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 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. 13 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; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 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.' 17 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?" 18 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."
Hal and I jokingly call this story “The Great Apostolic BBQ.” God uses Peter’s image of all those squirming animals in that sheet to make a revelatory declaration, “Everyone is invited! Ya’ll All Come! No one and nothing is unclean and excluded!” This is a pivotal story in the narrative of the book of the Acts. So pivotal it is actually told twice in the Acts of the Apostles. We have just heard the second telling from Acts, chapter 11, that occurs as Peter gives account of his experiences in Joppa and Caesarea to the burgeoning community of the Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem. You can read the whole story happening in “real” narrative time in Acts, chapter 10. It's not too long, and worth the read, because this story is a game changer for our earliest Christian ancestors.
In Peter’s holy vision he is invited to eat things he has never imagined eating. And he is justifiably horrified as a good Jew who works hard to keep the dietary laws of his time in as a sign of his faithfulness to God. Despite his shock and horror at being invited by God to completely reverse his dietary thinking, Peter pays attention. Something is up. As we heard, he is soon led to understand that his vision is really not about the menu of his next backyard BBQ. It is about God’s inclusive Spirit. God is inviting and commanding the followers of the Way, those faithful Jews following Jesus, to reach out farther than their Jewish community to include all of humanity as God’s people. God is inviting this new community to share the good news of God revealed in Jesus the Christ with everyone.
His startling and disturbing vision gives him an inkling of meaning when the men, most likely Gentiles, maybe soldiers, from the man, Cornelius, show up inviting Peter to the home of this Roman centurion. He and his companions are essentially invited into the camp of the “enemy. ” Though Cornelius is known as a God-fearer, a Gentile seeking the God of the Jews, he is still a Gentile who does not keep the purity laws. He is not a circumcised Jew. He is not one of them. He is also employed by the oppressor of the Jewish people, the Roman empire. Peter and his companions must have thought, “What in God’s Name.....literally....is going on?” Yet they trust Peter’s vision given by the Sprit and they go to Cornelius’ house where the inclusive work of the Spirit is confirmed when Peter hears the story of Cornelius’s vision of the angel. Confirmation really sets in when all the household receives the Holy Spirit just as Peter and the other disciples had on the day of Pentecost. Gentiles are receiving the Holy Spirit of the Almighty, the God of the Jews! God is truly making a new thing! A miraculous thing! A thing of compassion and expansion and love! Peter and his friends understand and rejoices!
After this miraculous experience, when Peter and company return home to Jerusalem they find a not so welcoming community of believers. Their companions following Jesus on the Way do not immediately recognize this new thing God is doing. There’s no “Atta boy” or Good Job” for sharing God’s good news, for helping an entire household into the family of the Risen Christ.....just horror that Peter broke all the laws of purity by dining in a Gentile household. “How could you eat with those uncircumcised people?” From our point of view this may seem so narrow-minded! But we are not part of an oppressed people who has fought form generations, through slavery and exile time and again, to retain faithfulness to God and to one another in order to preserve our way of life and our religion and our very lives. Even though they have received the good news of God through Jesus, old ways die hard. Its that whole domino effect. One broken link in the tradition and belief chain can bring the whole structure tumbling down. And now they are not only under the Romans thumb but are also seen as suspect by the Jewish authorities for following this renegade rabbi, Jesus. No wonder they react first with fear.
If I were Peter, I know I would be really angry and hurt by their question. I might lose my cool and started arguing, quoting scripture to prove my point as I pointed out their complete narrow-minded pin-headedness. And the impulsive, brash fisherman, Peter that we know from the gospels may have been tempted to do that. But Peter seems to have learned through listening to his life – to his fear-based betrayal of Jesus after Jesus’ arrest, to the tragedy of crucifixion and then the inexplicable joy of the empty tomb, to his personal experience of the Risen One. His faith has been transformed. He has learned that “stories, not arguments change lives.”
Step by step he leads his community through the story of this amazing transformation God is offering, implying with each turn in the story, “This is God’s doing. Not mine. It could have happened to any of you. You could be the messenger as well as me.” He says to them, In the midst of it all “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 [these folks] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" And in the silence that follows his story, The hearts of the believers in Jerusalem are transformed. Their minds are changed.. Their faith and its practice is altered from then on throughout the book of Acts. Gentiles are included.
This is a timely message for us, is it not? As we seek to bridge divides in order to bring about God’s realm in our world. As we seek to invite all people, and particularly, those often uninvited in our wider community, into fellowship and service with us and with God. This is a story about the leadership, power and ultimately grace of God found in talking across divides, breaking down barriers that separate us as God’s people! This story is foundational for the ministry we do together as part of the Plymouth family of God because of its message of inclusion and because it teaches us to share our stories of faith.
“It is hard to argue or split theological hairs with a compelling story” Yet as progressive Christians we often shy away from telling our own stories of God’s work in us partly because we know the power of story. We know that story can be used for transformation or to manipulate and twist the facts if used in the wrong ways. We know its power to heal or to distort. And we want to get it right!
We may not tell our personal faith stories of transformation because we do not want to appear manipulative or better-than-thou or self-righteous. Because we cannot find just the right words to speak of the holy, numinous moments that have changed us. Because we don’t think we have all the theological answers that we should have.
I am telling you this morning/evening, my friends, .... you ALL have at least one, and probably many, stories of being transformed by the loving power of God to share. God’s world needs your stories. Our faith community needs your stories, your children and grandchildren need your stories, the children and youth in our Christian Formation programs need your stories. The people in your neighborhood, in your office, at your school need your stories of being transformed in faith. The people who enter our doors through the Homelessness Prevention Initiative/Neighbor to Neighbor program and through Faith Family Hospitality need your stories. Those of you who work in our wider community through our immigration advocacy ministry teams, or Habitat for Humanity, and in our newly forming Stopping Gun Violence ministry team need your stories. We need your stories of stunning insight or quiet revelation, your stories of transformation where, like Peter, mistakes were made before new life was revealed.
For example, I can tell you a brief story of mistakes before revelation....I was 19 and had just finished my freshman year in college. A church youth group friend came to me saying, “I’m thinking of being gay. What do you think?” “Being gay” was hardly on my radar screen at this point in the mid 70’s. I knew that as Christians we loved everyone. I didn’t know the ethics or theological specifics about “being gay.” I didn’t even know that there were scripture passages that could be considered prohibitive. All I knew to say was, “What ever you decide, I will always love you. I think as a Christian you should investigate what God says about it.” Not bad advice on the surface. Unfortunately, being the mid-70’s in Missouri there was not too many places he could go for investigation. He took my my advice literally and that led him into a very conservative Christian group that tried to “cure” him. By the time I found out about this, I had a very different perspective on “being gay.” I had close, close friends who were like brothers, struggling with being Christian and being who they were made to be in the image of God as gay men. I know that I am not God and not responsible for my high school friends faith journey. But like Peter after his betrayal of Christ this memory of my youthful naiveté stings. What pain did my advice lead him into? For a long time now I have understood that all of us are made in God’s image, gay or straight or bi or transgendered or non-binary gender, I have been an open proponent for God’s message of love for all. We are all in the sheet from Peter’s vision together. Now if I were asked in a similar situation, “What do you think?” I would say, I love you just as you are. And I think you should know that God loves you just as you are and made you just as you are. You are fearfully and wonderfully made.
How have you experienced the transforming love of God for you and for all humanity and creation? God’s transformation does not have to come in big dramatic visions and prayers, or dramatic events and moments. It also comes in conversations, reading, day dreaming, serving, parenting, teaching. It is as likely to come in the midst of a work day as in the wonder of the wilderness. Moments so real....then fleeting. Did that just happen? Yes, it did. God is speaking to each of you. Listen and remember. How have you been transformed by faith? What comes to mind? Pay attention to what first comes to you. Then go deep. Make some notes on your bulletin. Think about this for just a moment – 30 seconds to be exact. (Pause)
Now you know there is at least a germ of a story of God’s work made manifest in you. As Peter did, go and tell and rejoice in God’s good news! Who are we to hinder God? Amen.
1) Stephen D. Jones, “Homiletical Perspective on Act 11.1-18”, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 2009, 453.)
2) Ibid., 455.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019 and beyond. All rights reserved.
Jane Anne is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
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