Acts 10: 44-48
At the end of my first year in seminary I did a summer unit of clinical training at Deaconess Hospital in Boston, where one of my assignments was the heart unit. The head of the unit offered us a short tutorial on heart disease and described some of the therapies, surgical and non surgical. “Every July 1,” he said, “I get an eager and talented bunch of new residents, fresh out of medical school and committed to saving these patients from themselves, from all the bad habits that in many cases have led to heart problems: poor diet, no exercise, too much stress, etc. And I am going to tell you, aspiring clergy, exactly what I tell them: MOST people would rather die than change.”
Pretty stark words, but often true. Change is never easy, and has often been viewed as the enemy. In 1803 the preacher Jedidiah Morse, who on the one hand established a school for girls in New Haven, because he was distressed that girls were not being educated, nonetheless also said, “Let us guard against the insidious encroachment of innovation, an evil and beguiling spirit now stalking to and fro on the earth.” In 1854 the Transcendentalist of Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau, complained about the construction of a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas. “Why do we need that?” he asked. “Maine and Texas have nothing important to communicate.” In 1906 the composer John Philip Sousa lamented that phonographs were causing a deterioration in American music, and in 1926 the Knights of Columbus warned that the telephone would break up families and the practice of visiting friends. And just last Sunday I read an article in the New York Times about the resistance Pope Francis is facing, because he has chosen to be more concerned about issues of economic and social justice, rather than abortion and divorced Catholics, whom, he hinted, might at some future time be allowed to take holy communion. He is a heretic, some have charged, which means that his thoughts are not the thoughts of the cardinals, resisting change.
Change is never easy, and the church also has a long history of resisting change. When Martin Luther began what became historically known as the Protestant Reformation, the most scathing criticism against him had to do with innovation---Luther’s way of interpreting scripture and authority. What makes you so confident that your new interpretation is right? he was asked. And this charge of innovation greatly troubled Luther, who insisted, “I am not innovating. I am simply returning the church to its glorious beginnings, when the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification was rightly understood and taught. Perish the thought that he should have a new idea.
And yet history shows us that new ideas and change are inevitable. The church, though very similar to the synagogue, was not exactly the same thing. And the writings that became known as Christian scripture, the New Testament, are not the same as the Old Testament. Yes, there is continuity, but there is also something new. And we see something new in our text this morning from Acts.
Peter would later be called before the elders of the church to explain his actions---not only eating with a despised gentile but also baptizing him. For Jewish Chriatians this was completely outrageous behavior. Gentiles were considered unclean, and although Jews and gentiles did have business dealings with one another, that was as far as the relationship went.
Now earlier in Acts Cornelius, a Gentile, had a vision from God in which he was told to send for the apostle Peter. And Peter had a dream in which foods deemed unclean in Judaism came floating down from heaven along with a command to eat. Peter was a faithful Jew, and even in his dream he would not eat. But then a voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, he acknowledged that Jews should not call on gentiles, but then he admitted that God had told him he should not call anyone profane or unclean. Peter then preached to Cornelius and his friends about Jesus, and while he was speaking our text says the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. All---no distinction made between Jew or gentile. But, of course, some of the Jews were upset, astounded that the gift of the Sprit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. This is a god-smacking moment, when people feel as if their whole world has been disrupted by something new. And they don’t like it. Peter realized this; he realized he was in the midst of a spiritual crisis, and so he asked his fellow believers, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing when they have received the Spirit?” No one dared say a word, and so Peter baptized Cornelius, his family and friends.
Make no mistake about it; this was an incredibly radical shift, a complete disruption of what had been the normal operating principles, and later (in chapter 11), when Peter faced his critics in the Jerusalem church, who were horrified that he had welcomed gentiles into the body of Christ, he asked them another question: If then God gave them the same gift as he gave us when we first believed in Jesus Christ, who was I that I should hinder God?”
Hinder God: sometimes we do just that, because well, we resist the change that God would bring. But how do we know if the change is of God? How do we know when and if we are hindering God? How did Peter know the embrace of the gentiles was the way to go, the way God would have him go? And the truth is: he did not fully know. He made a leap of faith, trusting in a future he could not see while hoping that future is indeed in God’s hands.
The Bible was written not when the events being described actually happened; it was not written by the people who lived through them, but rather it was written by those who were looking back and reflecting on the past in view of the present. And as the early church was growing and becoming a gentile church, Peter’s decision looked like the right one. But when it was made, who really knew?
Peter took a risk, and indeed the bible is full of risk takers, people who pushed against the religious conventions. Jesus pushed against them when he told the story of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help a wounded Jew; he pushed against conventions when he healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman. And Peter pushed against the conventions when he went to Cornelius’ house and baptized him. Such actions made people feel very, very uncomfortable, but these stories remind us that God often comes to us in moments of radical discomfort, when our beliefs look vulnerable, and we suddenly find ourselves asking tough questions, not so easily answered. Churches, like people, sometimes do hinder God, but we are assured that even when that happens, God does not give up on the church just as God does not give up on people. God continues to show up again and again and again---until the church and we finally get it. So we might ask ourselves now: What is God trying to tell us? Where is the new thing God is trying to do in our midst?
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!