Do you remember when you used to get bills in the mail and they included a return envelope and the return envelope was postage-paid? Do you remember feeling a sense of outrage when companies in an effort to save money sent the envelopes but you had to put your own postage on? And now, many bills do not even come with a return envelope or some bills are sent through email. Some things just change over time requiring us to change also. And while we don’t always like it we do learn to adapt, we get used to a new norm, and eventually we might even forget what we were so outraged about to begin with.
But when something changes abruptly in our lives, especially something that challenges our sense of correctness, we can find ourselves experiencing a wide range of emotions and faced with some choices. Recently, a number people in our community went through an unsettling experience when hurricane Irma came through. Some of you had to evacuate and stay in someone else’s home, some returned to find that they had no power. Among those who found themselves without power, some adaptation was required to deal with the situation. Some people dealt with this just fine and others struggled. But out of necessity we deal, one way or another with things that come our way.
Our passage today is about necessity. Peter finds himself defending his actions in entering the home of a non-Jewish person and explaining why it was necessary for him to do what he did. It’s helpful here to understand that since we’re reading this passage from the book of Acts, we are reading about the early church. This is a time when most who have converted to Christianity are Jews and they are still following basic Jewish law. There are dietary restrictions, rules about what is clean and unclean, and they live a devout life which is separate from other groups of people. In this passage from Acts 11, Peter is detailing the events of the conversion of Cornelius to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Chapter 10 is the description of what happened Chapter 11 then is Peter’s justification and defense before the church in Jerusalem. During this time it is considered unlawful for a Jew to associate with, or to visit a Gentile and a Jew would definitely not eat in a non-kosher home. For Peter to go into Cornelius’s home (Cornelius was a Gentile) was the equivalent of breaking the law. It was a big deal to then baptize Cornelius into the Christian faith. But Peter had been placed in a situation and God showed Peter something important, something that we sometimes forget. We do not decide who is acceptable to God. In Acts 10:28 Peter says, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean,” for “God shows no partiality…anyone who fears God is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34-35).
In this passage where Peter is recounting his dream and his encounter with Cornelius, Peter gives us some important tools for learning God’s will. First, we learn of God’s will from God rather than our own resources – “God has shown me.” “The Spirit told me.” God is active in making his will known. We also note the use of repetition. In the dream, the sheet comes down from heaven and is presented to Peter to eat and he refuses; it is then presented a second time and then a third time. So three times Peter has specific instructions. When God is guiding us, we can often see a repeated theme. Be on the lookout for similar messages on similar topics, this repetition may be God trying to tell you something. Immediately after the dream Peter receives a confirmation when three men show up at his door. The Holy Spirit speaks to him and says go with them and be impartial with them. The message is further reinforced by his remembrance of Jesus’s words and by Cornelius’ hospitable reception. All of this places Peter in a position to say, “who am I that I could hinder God?”
When we stand on this side of history and read this passage from Acts, it seems so obvious what Peter should do and much of the emotion is wrung out of the situation. But make no mistake this passage is radical, unsettling, and revolutionary! Out of necessity it required a huge change. It required the Jewish Christians to accept the Gentile Christians as equally saved as themselves, without requiring them to adhere to dietary restrictions, clean and unclean restrictions, circumcision requirements, it eliminated their segregation. It required a monumental change. I can’t think that this change was very comfortable for Peter, either, especially as he stood before the leaders of the church in Jerusalem explaining his actions. Or for the leaders themselves as they responded saying, “well then who are we also to hinder God?” As matter of fact if you look through Scripture you will see that following God is seldom comfortable. The people that we read about and revere in Scripture and history were people like you and me who were faced with some very uncomfortable situations and some difficult decisions.
(Because) when the Holy Spirit calls us it is to change not to the status quo, it is a call out of our comfort zone. And we want comfort don’t we? I do. When I think about our church, I love this church, I am comfortable here. It would be so comfortable for us to just continue exactly the way we are. But we cannot, for that is not the way of the Spirit and who are we that we can hinder God?
Just as God reached out to all people in those early days of Christianity, God reaches out to all people today. He equips and prepares people, pastors, churches, individuals to enter the homes of, to eat the food of, to speak the language of all varieties of people. I’ll give you an example. In Tampa there is a church whose worship style is hip-hop. Their pastor goes by the name of Urban D, he dresses in hip-hop style speaks the hip-hop lingo, hip-hop music is the music that’s played in worship. Yet Urban D is a well-educated minister, the son of a pastor. He graduated from Southeastern University and felt God calling him to an urban ministry. His messages are Christ centered and challenging. This successful church has reached thousands who would never have entered the door of a traditional church. Then there’s the Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz Weber who is covered in tattoos. She wears a clergy collar with a sleeveless shirt, and her language is quite spicy. She founded the church, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. She relates to those who come from addicted backgrounds, those who are considered rejected by society, really, exactly those who Jesus calls us to minister to. Her brash style might not speak to me or you but it certainly speaks to those whom she is been called to reach.
Peter was called and challenged by God. His challenge was to follow the way of necessity. The moment and situation he was in required a rapid response, a near-spontaneous commitment to the unexpected opportunity placed before him. Today, I would ask that you individually, and we cooperatively considered where we are being called and challenged to follow God in ministry and service. What necessity in our community are we being challenged to respond to? Are we listening for repeated messages, are we noticing a sense that is being reinforced? If we are not challenged we’re not listening. God is always up to something and “who are we to hinder God?”
You go nowhere by accident. Wherever you go, God is sending you. Wherever you are, God has put you there. God has a purpose in your being there. Christ lives in you and has something he wants to do through you where you are. Believe this and go in the grace and love and power of Jesus Christ. (Rev. Richard Halverson)