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May 19, 2019
A Reading from Acts
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “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. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 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. 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; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 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.’ 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?” 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.”
We live in a time of narrative trench warfare. Our culture trains us to be in the trenches, particularly when it comes to divisive topics. We form an opinion about an issue and find ourselves climbing into the trenches with the others who are on “our side.” In such a climate of division, we often make snap judgements about the stories of others and it becomes difficult to change our minds. We quickly determine who is on our side and who is not. We stop listening to each other because we think we know the story they will tell, and we can’t hear it again. Sometimes it’s too hard, or too painful, sometimes we feel like we can’t understand and sometimes if we’re really honest with ourselves, we just want to hear stories like our own.
We have heard the dominant narratives of our side and the other. We frequently find ourselves too emotionally exhausted and weary to consider that there might be more to the story. We can’t see that we might be missing something, that God might be working through the other persons story as well.
We know that the stories of the bible call us to something bigger than ourselves and our individual lives. But sometimes it’s hard to live into this call. We see the dominant cultural narratives and forget that we are called to participate in a different story, the story of Jesus. We are called to bear witness to the story of Jesus’ life and resurrection to everyone. Sometimes this call feels like too much.
But the world is no stranger to such division, it is in such a time of division that we find the apostle Peter, and the other apostles, who we find doing something radical in today’s passage, they are eating with the Gentiles. The other prominent Jews called upon Peter and asked him “why do you go the uncircumcised men and eat with them?” And Peter responds with a story. This is one of those stories that radically changes the minds of its listeners. Peter was living during a time of division between groups. There were those who were circumcised, like Peter, the Jews, and the uncircumcised, or the gentiles. They begin with an accusation. I imagine this to be said in a sarcastic accusatory tone. Something like, why were you eating with them? But Peter sees an opportunity here to share the wisdom that he has been given. He launches into a story of a time where his mind was changed.
He tells them of a vision he saw, with what some on the pastoral staff (John Leedy) would call a spooky picnic. He sees a sheet coming down from heaven and with it there were all kinds of animals. Peter tells us he saw all these animals, specifically those that would not typically be eaten by Jews. It is a feast that he can’t eat. As someone who recently gave up meat, seeing a prepared feast of food that I have said I wouldn’t eat is very hard. But Peter is strong. He responds to God and says “By No Means.” He explains to God, in case God maybe forgot the laws that Jews follow, that nothing profane will enter his mouth.
Then God calls a second time, this time God says, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And this happened three times, which as we know is the magic number for Peter. It takes him a while to understand the messages that he is getting so after three times, he seems to catch on.
And then, three men appear, and the Spirit tells Peter to go with them. Peter speaks and the Holy Spirit fills them. Here are these people who believe and want to be baptized. Peter realizes, they believe and have the same gifts that were given to him. He asks, who am I to hinder God? Who am I to hinder God? When the Jews heard him, they were silenced and they praised God who gives us new life.
If you’ve been reading Acts lately, you might recognize that we’ve actually heard this story before, in the previous chapter. There we hear the name of the one who was baptized, Cornelius. In Acts 10, the writer of Acts tells us what happened between Cornelius and Peter that led to Cornelius’ baptism. In our text for today, Peter is recounting this story. What stands out in today’s text, is not just that all of this take place in a story that Peter tells, but that he shares this with a group of Jewish believers. When they hear what he has been through, their minds are changed. It’s not just that they humor him and roll their eyes, but they suddenly praise God saying “even the gentiles can repent.” In the scope of early Christianity, this was a huge issue. How are Christians identified if circumcision is no longer required?
They listen to Peter honestly and were open to the way the Spirit might be moving beyond the story, considering how the Spirit might be calling them to respond in the same way. They see that God might be calling them to radical inclusion that includes even the gentiles. Maybe they were wrong, maybe the law is not the only way to life in Jesus Christ.
I want to be clear though, we don’t tell these stories to shape the way that others think or act. If we are telling stories to change someone’s mind, we’re approaching it the wrong way. Peter tells this story not because he wants to change the minds of Jewish believers, but because it impacted him so deeply that he had to share it with others. Story telling at its best opens us up to each other in a way that must be filled by the Spirit because there’s no other way this can happen. It’s not a tactic for manipulation but a call to know the story of those that we encounter. I think this is exactly what we are trying to do when we talk about getting to know our neighborhood. As a church, we are working together to know and respond to the needs of those who live around us, whose faces we pass if we spend time attempting to walk these streets (if you can avoid the construction and the scooters). This is the kind of opening ourselves up to the kingdom that Peter experiences in Acts.
And just as Peter and the disciples probably did after Jesus died, we tell stories to remember things that have brought us together. We tell stories around the table, just as Jesus and his disciples did all those years ago. We tell stories to know each other, and not just know facts about each other but to know what shapes us. We tell stories to laugh and cry and recognize that life is complex, but we are linked not only by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the movement of the Holy Spirit that is working through us for reconciliation.
At Austin Seminary, we are currently working on a story telling initiative where students and the wider community are encouraged to consider storytelling as a spiritual practice. When we engage in story with each other, we open ourselves up to the movement of the Spirit and allow connections to form between ourselves and those that we encounter. This act often takes us outside of the realm of classroom politics and reminds us that each of us carries our own set of stories and experiences. Not only do we find what connects us with those sharing stories, but we also are open to the way that God is working in each of our lives. French Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls this “seeing the face of God in the other.” In this way, story is more than a way to relate with those around us, but a recognition of the ways that we encounter God all the time.
When we tell stories, we are able to enter into community and communication with each other in new ways. The barriers that exist between us are broken down and we are open to the ways that the Holy Spirit moves through us and our experiences. Stories have incredible power in our lives. Stories give us a chance to have conversations and explore questions rather than getting stuck in the trenches of our own opinions, dividing us from each other. When we approach each other with a sense of curiosity and openness, we are able to talk about things that divide us without rehashing the same narrative trench warfare. We can see the issue from the perspective of the one sharing the story rather than getting stuck at the idea itself. Stories give us a chance to get out of our own way and let the Holy Spirit move through us and the world.
It is through story that we know the life and witness of Jesus Christ. It is through story that we come to the table to remember the time that Jesus came and prepared the table for us first. But the power of the table, the power of the breaking of bread and drinking of wine is that it brings with it the significance of the past, but points us to the future. It points us to a table that Jesus prepared where no one is turned away and all are welcomed. Not even just welcomed, but radically welcomed. Arms outstretched, being called to the table to join with God and to be reconciled with our fellow people.
Not only is Peter calling us to the table prepared for all, here, but to a picnic where the places have been set and the food is prepared. God is turning the tables on what we know of reconciliation by leaving the table out altogether but stretching out a blanket on the ground. We are called to come and eat and participate in the great story that Jesus calls us to. Come to the table, share the bread and cup, listen to the stories of our neighbors who are stretched out beside us and tell the stories that are on your hearts. Sit in the light of God alongside all of God’s creation where we are invited to be just who we are in all of our particularities, circumcised or uncircumcised, young or old, man or woman, gay or straight, inside binary structures or outside of them. This table is prepared by God, who welcomes us, arms outstretched, to participate in God’s story where love and grace and reconciliation bind us together.
This message we read today is about a story that changed certain people’s minds. But also, it’s about the thing that changed. It’s about Peter and the Jews understanding that the Gentiles were welcomed by baptism into the Christian life. Arms outstretched coming to the table of grace and love, set by the one who calls us all.
So church, I invite you to go into the world this week, opened to the stories that might change you, listening for the Spirit and where it might be moving, telling your story so that others might know the radical inclusion that we are called to. Listen for the stories of others and know that God is in them all. And maybe, if we continue to listen, we will notice the thread that moves us all and brings us together.