“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?”
In their classic song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” The Who sings: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” What the Who are implying is that it doesn’t really matter who is in charge of things – liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, universalist – things are pretty much going to stay the same.
Sometimes I’ll hear people say something like, “I wish we could be like the early church. If only our church was like the church we read about in the New Testament, everything would be okay.”
Well, you know what? Our church is just like the early church. Even after 2,000 years of studying the scriptures; 2,000 years of being led by the Holy Spirit; 2,000 years of changing from old bosses to new bosses, old theologians to new theologians, old preachers to new preachers – even after all of that, things are pretty much the same now as they were in Peter’s day. Meet the new church, same as the old church.
In the old church, Peter had the audacity to go and preach the gospel to people who were considered, by a lot of people in the church, to be “unclean.” And Peter got called on the carpet for it. This despite the fact that, as far back as Abraham, God made it abundantly clear that all the peoples of the earth would receive God’s blessing. God chose to use Abraham’s descendants as the means of delivering that blessing, but God never implied that the blessing itself was to be limited in any way.
When Jonah tried to keep God from blessing the people of Nineveh, God insisted, and, as is always the case when God insists, God got his way – the Ninevites received God’s blessing. The prophets Elijah and Elisha each raised a young man from the dead; neither of those young men was Jewish, yet they both received God’s blessing.
There are other stories as well, yet despite this evidence in their own scriptures, the idea persisted among the Jewish people that, because they were God’s “chosen” people, they were the only people God cared about.
And that is such a dangerous trap to fall into. When we start thinking that we are God’s “chosen,” then it’s not too much of a stretch to start seeing everybody else as “unchosen,” or unclean, profane, an abomination. We start thinking that everybody who disagrees with us, everybody who wasn’t born where we were born, everybody who doesn’t look like us, talk like us, live like us – we start thinking that God really doesn’t like them.
God chose us, not them. Therefore, we are better than they are. We are good. God likes people like us. People who aren’t like us are bad; they’re unclean. God doesn’t like them.
The next thing you know we’re making up names for such people. They’re liberals, or conservatives, depending on which side you’re on. They’re Jews, or Catholics, or Muslims. They’re black, they’re gay, they’re Hispanic, they’re rednecks, they’re elitists. Often we come up with truly ugly names or labels for “those people.” Why? Because we’re better than they are. We belong to God!
Peter thought the same thing. Peter was a Jew, a circumcised believer, and Peter honestly thought that only circumcised believers could receive the Holy Spirit. Peter genuinely believed that only Jews, God’s chosen people, could become disciples of Jesus Christ.
And you know, it’s hard to blame Peter for thinking this way. That was the way Peter was raised, that’s what Peter was taught – at home, at school, at church. Day after day Peter was taught, by people who were in positions of authority, that the Jewish people were “chosen,” and that Gentiles – anyone who wasn’t Jewish – were “unclean.”
The fact is, Peter probably never gave the issue much thought. And, of course, that’s the problem right there: not giving the issue much thought. Seems to me that we always get into trouble when we make up our minds about something without really giving it much thought. Whenever we simply repeat what we’ve heard others say – whether it be our parents, our teachers, our preachers, or someone on Fox News or MSNBC – when we simply parrot the thoughts of others, we’re not using the gift of reason that God gave us.
Now, let me make it clear that children should listen to their parents, and their teachers, because children haven’t yet learned how to use their gift of reason. That’s part of growing up: learning to use our minds, learning to think for ourselves. Until we’ve reached the point of maturity – and some reach it much later than others! – we’re not expected to be responsible for our own thoughts.
But we can’t stay that way forever. Eventually, whether at the age of 18, or 21, a little younger for some, a little older for others, at some point you have to be responsible for yourself. You have to use the brain that God gave you. You can’t just keep on believing everything that someone else tells you, without thinking it out for yourself – because someone else might be wrong.
Peter had been taught since childhood that the Jewish people were the only people who could receive God’s blessings, and even though Peter was able to break with traditional thought in following Jesus, he still clung to the belief that only Jews could be disciples. Peter had heard it repeated so many times that it never occurred to Peter that God might have other ideas. And this is where Peter’s thought process was, one afternoon in the town of Joppa.
You see, the story that Peter tells here in chapter 11 is the story found in chapter 10 – the story of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius lived in the town of Caesarea, while Peter was staying in Joppa. One day Cornelius had a vision; Cornelius’ vision instructed him to send for a certain man named Peter, in Joppa.
The next day, as Cornelius’ men were approaching Joppa, Peter had a vision of his own – and what a vision it was! In this vision, God showed Peter a variety of animals which the Jewish people would not eat because their scriptures – our Old Testament – said that these animals were “unclean.” God told Peter to “kill and eat.” Peter refused, saying that he had “never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But then God said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Cliff notes version: In his vision Peter was also told to go with the men from Cornelius, so Peter ended up going to Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, where Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius and his family and friends – all Gentiles. After Peter finished, all those gathered in the house received the Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” Even those unclean Gentiles!
This surprised Peter as much as anyone, but Peter had the good sense to realize that this was God’s doing. Peter, after all, had been following God’s initiative, doing what God had sent him to do. Peter put two and two together – what God said in his vision, plus the Holy Spirit falling upon Cornelius and the other Gentiles – Peter put two and two together and came to the conclusion that the Gentiles weren’t “unclean” after all.
Good old Peter. For all his stubbornness in other areas, Peter came to the realization that it’s not our place to decide whom God should bless, whom God should save, whom God should call. It’s not our place, it’s God’s place. God alone is allowed to make those decisions.
That was good enough for Peter, but meanwhile back at the ranch – or in Jerusalem, anyway – the other leaders of the early church, all Jews, of course, all circumcised believers – the other leaders of the church weren’t too happy with Peter. Let’s face it, Peter had really pushed the envelope. In fact, it’s safe to say that, in preaching the gospel to, and the baptizing, a bunch of Gentiles, Peter had torn the envelope wide open. The folks back in Jerusalem were quick to criticize Peter for his actions.
Meet the new church, same as the old church.
Nothing has changed over the past 2,000 years. Back then it was: you have to be circumcised, you have to follow the Jewish purity laws, in order to be a Christian. Today it’s: you have to belong to a certain church, you have to be a member of the right groups, you have to believe what certain religious leaders tell you – you have to think like we think, act like we act – or you can’t possibly be a Christian. Trust me, our United Methodist Church is not immune to such thinking.
It’s like we in the church have learned nothing. We still try to hinder God. We still try to tell God who God can and cannot bless. And, heaven help us, we still criticize anyone who dares to take the gospel to people we don’t approve of – people we consider unclean, people we think of as profane, people we call abominations.
Author Michael Crichton once wrote that “there is too much certainty in the world.” I believe this is especially true in the church. It’s one thing to have that “Blessed Assurance” that Jesus loves us; it’s another thing altogether to be absolutely certain that our way is the only way. We are so certain that we are right, and we can’t wait to tell other people just how wrong they are.
I’m certain that God cannot possibly have called you into the ministry, because you’re a woman.
I’m certain that you can’t join our church unless you learn to speak better English.
I’m certain that you’re too young to be teaching a Sunday School class.
I’m certain that you’re too old to work in Vacation Bible School.
I’m certain that if you invite those people to church, God won’t bless our church any more.
In all these ways, and hundreds more, we try to hinder God. We try to limit God’s blessings to us, and those like us. The late baseball executive Branch Rickey is reported to have prayed: “God bless me and my wife, my son John and his wife; us four and no more. Amen.”
We are so certain of our own rightness that it never occurs to us that there might be another way, a different way, to come to believe in Christ Jesus, a different way to worship God. We are so sure that we know best who deserves God’s blessing and who doesn’t, that it never occurs to us that it’s up to God to make that decision. It never occurs to us that our way might be right, but at the same time those who disagree with us might be right, as well. God just might be big enough for all of us.
I guess what it comes down to is this: How do we know? How do we know what’s right? How do we know if what we feel is God calling us, or something else? How do we know it’s God calling us to do something, when everybody around us thinks that what we’re doing is wrong?
I mean, it’s one thing to take Peter’s word for it that he had a vision from God. The people in Jerusalem did. After Peter explained everything “they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”
No, it’s not too difficult to take Peter’s word for it. But what if I got up here and told you that I had a vision from God – a vision that goes completely against our conventional United Methodist Christian thinking, totally against what you hear from the leadership in the Church? If I did that, if I did exactly what Peter did, I’d probably be a candidate for a nice, relaxing stay in a mental institution.
And I’m a preacher. Imagine the reaction if one of you did the same thing! Would we listen respectfully, and take your word for it that God had called you? Or would we scoff, and tell you that you’ve completely lost your mind? I know what I think we’d do.
So, how do we know? Well, being good Methodists, we have a tool called the Quadrilateral. John Wesley didn’t actually invent the Quadrilateral, but he tweaked it and made it a part of the Methodist movement. The Quadrilateral says that God is revealed to us in four ways: Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience.
Scripture: the Bible. Reason: our God-given ability to think for ourselves. Tradition: what has come before us in the Church; what the great thinkers like Wesley, Martin Luther, Thomas A’Kempis, C. S. Lewis and others have thought and written about over the years. Experience: the Holy Spirit working in our lives.
Some churches today view the scriptures as the only source of divine revelation. Sola scriptura in Latin: scripture alone. This point of view totally ignores the stories we read right here in the book of Acts – the stories of Peter and Paul and the other first generation Christians. God didn’t stop Paul on the road to Damascus and tell him to read the scriptures until he understood who Jesus was. No, God gave Paul an experience – God knocked Paul on his keister and blinded him!
God didn’t tell Peter to read the scriptures about where God promised to bless all the peoples of the earth, about how Jonah was sent to Nineveh, about Elijah and Elisha and Naaman and all the blessings God bestowed upon various Gentiles. God gave Peter an experience – a vision, followed by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit to a group of Gentiles right before Peter’s eyes.
Now, reading the Bible is important, make no mistake about that. God is revealed to us by the scriptures. But God is revealed in other ways, as well. And, let’s not forget that scripture is only as good as our interpretation of it.
Interpretation comes through reason – we use our brains to interpret the Bible; and interpretation comes through tradition – we pay attention to the way those who have come before us interpreted the Bible; and interpretation comes through experience – we interpret the Bible based on what has happened to us in our own lives.
Back to that story about Paul on the road to Damascus. Remember, Paul was a Pharisee; he knew the scriptures forwards and backwards and upside down. But Paul interpreted the scriptures a whole lot differently after his experience on the road to Damascus, didn’t he?
It’s not that Paul discovered new scriptures, it’s that his interpretation changed. Paul went from devoutly believing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God wanted him to persecute, and execute, Christians, to being the instrument God used to spread the gospel message. And Peter certainly interpreted the scriptures differently after his experience with Cornelius.
We have to be open to our experiences with the Holy Spirit. God’s word can be found outside the pages of the Bible. As we can see in this passage this morning, God’s word often takes the form of a surprising turn of events. But again, how do we know these experiences are from God?
We have to ask ourselves three key questions: In what I am doing, is God being glorified? Can people see God’s Spirit at work? And last but not least, through what I am doing, are people developing new or closer relationships with God?
If the answer to these questions is “Yes,” then we can rest assured that God is at work in our lives, no matter how radical our words or actions might seem to others. It doesn’t really matter if what God is calling us to do makes sense to other people, as long as it makes sense to God.
After all, who are we to hinder God?