Building Community: Hindrances
We have some family stories in our collective knowledge that we love to tell. If you spend a lot of time with us, we will tell you about how my big brother Jim used me as leverage to stand up when he was six and I was a newborn, making my mother quite anxious indeed. We will tell you - or at least my mom will tell you - about the note I got home from my sixth grade teacher saying that I was doing a much better job at not correcting him in class all the time, even though my mom never got the first note that was sent home - which I have no recollection of receiving… We will tell you lots of stories about Tim and Todd as toddlers, born 14 months apart and always getting into trouble together, like when Tim, who we’d nicknamed BamBam, tore the lining of the playpen infant Todd was in and pulled him out and dragged him underneath the buffet table that now sits in my dining room, causing my mom to wonder how her children had disappeared when she stepped out of the room for two minutes. We will tell you stories about my mom getting lost in a number of different situations. We will tell you stories about my grandparents, stories that we’ve told and retold so many times that my younger cousins, who were really too young to remember some of these things about my grandpa on their own, know the stories well enough to feel like they were there. When new people start to become part of our family, like my sister-in-law Jen, or Emma, who will become my sister-in-law in less than two weeks now, part of the way we welcome them into the family is by telling them these stories. I can tell you stories about my mother or my grandparents as young people, even though they happened before I was alive, because I know them by heart. And we don’t even need new people around to have an opportunity to tell these stories. We tell them to each other. We tell them when we get together for holidays and celebrations, or when we’re sitting at the hospital bed of a sick family member, or when we’re just hanging out. We all know the stories, and we tell them to each other anyway.
I’m guessing that many of you could say the same thing about your families, your stories. What are some of the stories that you tell over and over in your family? (Pause for sharing?) Why do we tell these stories over and over? What makes us repeat these stories? (Pause for suggestions?) We tell these stories, I think, in part because they just bring us joy in remembering. We tell them because we want our loved ones who have gone before us to be alive to those who have come after. I want my niece and nephew to know what kind of man my grandfather was even though they never met him. We tell them again and again so that we don’t forget. We want to remember. And we tell these stories because they’re identity stories. They tell us and tell others about who we are. We tell stories that highlight the character of the people we’re sharing about. We tell stories that remind us of the nature of our family - how we stick together, how we persevere, how we’ve stayed close to each other. We tell our stories, again and again.
Today, as we continue thinking about Building Community as we journey through the book of Acts, we come across an example right within the text of a message being delivered, a story being told over and over. Our reading comes from Acts 11, but Acts 11 is really a retelling of everything that happens in Acts 10, so we’ll start there. In Acts 10, Luke, the author, tells us that there is a man named Cornelius in Casearia who is a centurion in the Italian Cohort of the Roman Empire. He’s a Gentile, that is a non-Jew. Luke describes him as a devout believer in God who gives alms generously and prays constantly. But he is not Jewish, not part of the covenant between God and the Israelites. One day, he has a vision where God tells him to send for a man named Simon Peter. And so he gathers a small team and sends them off to find this Peter.
The next day, Peter is waiting for his meal to be ready, and spends some time in prayer on the roof of the place where he’s staying. And he falls into a trance. He has a vision of a large sheet, like a tablecloth we might think, lowered down from heaven, and on it are many kinds of food, all kinds of food that would be forbidden for Peter to eat according to the Torah, the law of Moses that represents the covenant between God and the Jewish people. And as the sheet is lowered on all this food that is considered unclean, Peter hears a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter responds, “No Lord - I have never eaten anything unclean!” But the voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” And then this scene is repeated two more times. Peter, Acts tells us, is “greatly puzzled” by what he’s seen.
And right then, the men sent by Corneus arrive. Prompted by God, Peter goes with them back to Cornelius’s home in Caesarea. When he’s there, he tells them what he’s figured out from his vision: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean, and so I came, even though it violates the law for me to share in your home in this way.” Peter shares with them the message of Jesus, starting with these words: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” While Peter is preaching, the Holy Spirit comes to everyone present. And Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” They are all baptized as followers of Jesus, and Peter stays with them for several days.
At the start of our text for today, word has spread that some Gentiles have accepted the word of God, and everyone wants to know how it happened, and specifically, why Peter ate with and stayed with people who were Gentiles. Peter explains to them step by step, and we get a repeat of everything that just happened in the previous chapter. As he finishes his story, he concludes, “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?” At first, the apostles sit in stunned silence. But finally, they praise God, realizing: “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
I don’t think we can fully understand the mind-boggling radicalness of the idea that people could become Jesus-followers without first becoming part of the covenant of Judaism. It makes sense to us that you can become a Christian without becoming a Jew because we have done so for thousands of years now. But this was not at all clear to the apostles, the first followers of Jesus. Jesus himself was Jewish, and he spent most of his ministry preaching and teaching among Jewish people. He was very critical of some of the practices of the religious leaders in his tradition, but he spoke of himself as a fulfillment of the law and prophets that are the heart of Judaism. Peter and the other apostles aren’t opposed to Gentiles becoming Christians. They just can’t envision someone becoming a follower of Jesus without adopting the same religious practices that Jesus himself did. When Paul comes along in the book of Acts as a newly converted follower of Jesus, and he suddenly wants everyone to let Gentiles be followers of Jesus without adopting Judaism, it seems preposterous. Deciding whether or not Gentile followers of Jesus need to become part of the covenant tradition of Judaism is the major struggle of the early church, and it permeates the book of Acts and the writings of Paul.
So, this story of Peter and the unclean food and the decision to baptize Cornelius and the others even though they are Gentiles who have no plan of adopting Judaism gets repeated. Peter’s vision is repeated, and the story is repeated, back to back, because is it so important. This realization - that God’s Holy Spirit is in the Gentiles as well, that they too have received God’s word, and that the apostles should do nothing to hinder these Gentile believers from embracing Jesus - it’s a watershed moment that shapes Christian identity forever, and Luke rightly feels it can not be emphasized enough. He wants to tell the story over and over to make sure we get it, to make sure we don’t forget, to make sure that we don’t hinder Gentiles who are making their way to Jesus.
He’s right to think folks will need reminding. In Paul’s writings elsewhere in the New Testament (see Galatians 2), we find evidence that Peter didn’t always stick to the lesson that he learned here. When confronted again with other influential church leaders who thought that adhering strictly to the practices of the law was an important part of following Jesus, Paul says that Peter reverted to refusing to eat with Gentiles. The place of the Gentiles in the church is an issue that divides Peter and Paul and the other apostles for many years, and they have to “agree to disagree.” But eventually, it doesn’t matter anymore. Because the gospel of Jesus, the good news of God’s redeeming love and grace has already taken hold among Gentiles, and Gentile Christian communities grow and grow.
Maybe we wonder: how could Peter change his mind again, when he had this vision from God? How could he have gone back to separating himself from Gentiles? And yet, we do the same. We forget. We fall out of the good habits we try to cultivate. We forget the way we felt when we were sure of God’s message, God’s call. That’s exactly why we need to tell our stories, why Luke tells this same story back to back, why God shares the vision with Peter repeatedly. We have to remember our identity, and remember the nature of the God we serve, remember that the message of Jesus will not be hindered, when somehow, like Peter, we forget.
As followers of Jesus, we have to make sure that we don’t add requirements and expectations to the message of God that are from us, not God, and try to pass them off as God’s ideas. We need to be careful that instead of trying to help folks follow Jesus, we don’t end up implying that they’re supposed to follow us, and what we do and how we behave. Unfortunately, for a long time missionary work conflated the accepting Jesus with accepting the culture of the missionaries. When I visited Ghana when I was in seminary, for example, the first worship service our trip leaders took us to was an Methodist church in the capital city. The service used prayer books from the British Methodist, and people wore clothing traditional to the British Methodist and Anglican traditions, and the liturgy, the order of service, was exactly replicated from the British Methodist tradition. Our trip leaders wanted us to see what it looked like when missionaries not only shared the gospel, but also attached their culture and practices along with the gospel. This tying together of cultural practices with the gospel messages is something many Christians have been working hard at recognizing and changing. For example, many of you know that Don and Glenda Schuessler have been part of mission trips to Cambodia in the last couple years. The team they’ve worked with has really increased its focus on making sure that Cambodian Christian leaders are the ones who are ready to serve and love and teach any people who become followers of Jesus as a result of their time there.
But making sure we don’t hinder God’s work among new followers of Jesus goes beyond missionary work. It is a message we all need to hear, because we’re still stuck on thinking: if you don’t live your life in the same way I do, you can’t or shouldn’t have access to God in the way I can. I don’t think we think we think that! But our actions and attitudes sometimes say otherwise. We think: If you want to follow Jesus, if you want to be a disciple, if you want to have God in your heart, it also means that you have to do XYZ - these other expectations that we’ve attached to being a follower of Jesus. Maybe we have clear ideas that Christians should speak in certain ways, or listen to certain music, or attend certain groups, or wear certain clothes, or vote for certain candidates or policies, and so on. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have some expectations about what it means to follow Jesus. But we need to be very aware that what matters are God’s expectations, not ours. We need to be very careful that we aren’t hindering the work of God, and that we aren’t attaching requirements to the good news that come from us and not from God. God is way better at extending grace, mercy, love and forgiveness than we are, thanks be to God, and we need to let God decide how to do that work. The last thing we want to do is hinder someone else getting to God. We’ve talked about that before - how seriously Jesus speaks against that, and how frequently the New Testament warns against being a stumbling block for others on their path to God.
God shows no partiality. God has given the gift of the Holy Spirit in places that are unexpected. And God has said that only God will decide what is clean or unclean. Who are we to hinder the work of God? In our hearts, I know we don’t want to. But sometimes we need reminding. And so we tell ourselves our story: this story from Acts that Luke so wanted us to know by heart. We tell ourselves the stories of the scriptures, that start with us being made in God’s image, each one. We tell ourselves the story of Jesus, so that we remember who he is and how he loves, and so that others come to love him like we do. We tell ourselves the stories of the times we forgot, so we remember to remember. And as we tell the story - God’s story - we praise God - because God has given the gift of repentance that leads to life even to us. Thanks be to God. Amen.