Summer Sermon Series: Acts 11:1-18

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We’ve been reading through the story of Acts this summer.  We’ve heard how the church started out scared and unsure of what to do without Jesus, and then went onto being pushed by the Spirit to go out and grow.  In the beginning, everything was new and exciting and everyone got along.  As the church grew, new leaders arose to step up and do even more exciting things to start spreading the story about Jesus beyond Judea.  We’ve seen how the Holy Spirit keeps pushing boundaries to radically include more, and more people. 

As we’ve gone through these first chapters, some disagreements have started to crop up.  Mostly just little ones up until this point.  Like the whole dispute over which group of widows was getting more food at the church potlucks. 

Today, we get the big dispute—the point where the Spirit has pushed too far.  It took 11 chapters, but we’ve finally gotten to the point where even the head leader gets criticized.  In today’s reading, Peter himself is on the hot seat.  Only instead of enduring the scrutiny of the chief priests like in the early chapters, this time Peter suffers condemnation from his fellow Jesus-followers. 

What was his crime?  Let’s rewind a little and take a look. 

Back in chapter 9 verse 31, we read “Meanwhile, the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.  Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers….” 

So at this point, the church has been very successful.  It has grown and spread to all the territories that surround Jerusalem and Judea.  Peter had the job to go “here and there among all the believers.”  He traveled to the different cities encouraging and healing and visiting all the churches.  People respected and appreciated him. 

But then, one fateful day, Peter stopped to pray.  Let me tell you, prayer can be dangerous.  When we really open ourselves up to God, the Holy Spirit never seems to waste the opportunity to do something big.  Peter was just praying like a good disciple should, and all of a sudden, he fell into a sort of trance.  God forced him to see a vision that was very uncomfortable for him.  There was a big sheet lowered down with a huge picnic of all the foods forbidden to him.  All the things that he had been taught were unclean.  All the things that Jewish people never ate.  All the things that he had learned to mistrust and consider repulsive.  God sent all these things down in a vision and told Peter to eat them. 

It’s hard for us to imagine how shocking this would have been for Peter.  This goes even farther than eating foods we don’t like, or eating foods on the restricted list of whatever diet we might be on.  This was a matter of his very identity.  Eating these kinds of foods would be a betrayal to his people, and would feel like a betrayal to God. 

And yet, God persisted and sent down this vision not one, but 3 times.  Peter protested each time. 

He couldn’t go against these traditions.  He couldn’t go against everything he had been taught was right. 

The Holy Spirit worked extra hard in this story.  At the same time as she sent these visions to a very reluctant Peter, the Spirit also came to a Gentile man named Cornelius.  This man was a centurion, a person of power, a person who wasn’t Jewish.  And yet, the story says that Cornelius feared God, and prayed, and gave alms generously.  He seemed like the perfect candidate to hear the story about Jesus.  He was already living like a Jesus-follower, except he didn’t know about Jesus yet.  And, he wasn’t Jewish—which meant he didn’t follow all the Jewish traditions. 

God sent an angel to tell Cornelius to send for Peter, and where to find him.  Unlike Peter, Cornelius immediately responded.  He sent two of his servants and a trusted soldier to find Peter and bring Peter back to his house. 

Just as Peter woke from these disturbing visions, the Spirit told him that 3 men were searching for him.  She told Peter to go to them “without hesitation.”  God orchestrated this coming together of Peter, the leader of the Jesus-followers, and this Roman Centurion.  The Spirit worked hard to prepare Peter for this meeting. 

When Peter met Cornelius and heard his story, Peter responded by saying “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”  He then told everyone there his story about Jesus.  And then, the Holy Spirit showed up again and filled the room.  All these non-Jewish people received the Holy Spirit just as all the other Jewish followers of Jesus.  So, Peter baptized all of them and stayed with them for several days—which meant he ate with them.  He ate all those foods he was never supposed to eat. 

This story is almost more about the conversion of Peter than about the conversion of Cornelius.  The outsider already believed in God in the best way he knew how.  It was Peter than needed a change of heart.  He learned that sometimes and experience of God trumps tradition and religious teaching. 

Peter was put on trial for this conversion.  Being leader of the church didn’t give him immunity from criticism.  He had to tell his story about his experience of God.  In our reading this morning, the Jewish followers accepted Peter’s story and celebrated.  As we read further in Acts in the coming weeks, we’ll see that this is one of those meetings where the decision gets re-visited out in the parking lot and comes back into debate in future meetings.  We don’t always like to accept what God is doing.  We don’t always like to see what God is up to. 

How might the Spirit be calling us to convert?  In what ways could God be calling us to change our hearts?  Who do we fear?  Or who do we see as “unclean”?  Who do we keep out or avoid?  How is God at work extending a radical welcome to someone we prefer to shut out?  How do we dare to enter those choppy waters where our experience with God might be trumping a tradition or religious teaching? 

For us as Christians today, our issue isn’t so much food.  But we do struggle with people outside our religious tradition, just like those first followers of Jesus did.  I believe God is still at work, breaking down barriers.  The Spirit still strive to change the hearts of Jesus-followers. 

I want to share with you a story I came across in the Washington Post last week Saturday.  I saw God at work breaking barriers and changing hearts in this story.  The article was entitled “Love Thy Neighbor?” by Stephanie McCrummen.  The journalist told the story of how a Muslim doctor, Ayaz Virji, moved to a small farming town in western Minnesota three years ago.  He and his wife looked forward to all that small-town life had to offer.  The town welcomed this new doctor and his family.  They made friends and settled in. 

After this past presidential election, however, things changed.  This town was in a county that overwhelmingly voted for Trump, and even if people may have voted for him for other reasons, all the anti-Muslim talk about things like Muslim registries and shutting down Mosques made this family legitimately afraid.  They “noticed more silence from certain friends,” and wondered what people secretly thought of them.  They seriously considered moving, but decided to stay. 

At this point is where I see the Holy Spirit at work.  A Lutheran pastor in training approached this doctor and asked him to give a talk about Islam to the community.  She was horrified by some of the things she was hearing people say.  The doctor hesitated at first, but he accepted pastor Mandy’s request.  It went well enough, that he was willing to take another request for a community talk in a neighboring town.  This one didn’t go so well and ended with “several men calling him the antichrist.”  By the time a third request for a talk came in, friends were offering him things like a bullet proof vest, police security at the talk, and generally begging him not to do it.  Dr. Ayaz Virji did the talk anyway.  Pastor Mandy was there to introduce him, and Dr. Virji gave a very moving talk.  People responded positively, including one man who said, “I hear a lot of pain from you this evening…um, I’m sorry.”  People were respectful and truly heard what he had to say.  They applauded him at the end. 

 Jesus calls his followers to love their neighbors—even the neighbors who are different from us (like in the story of the Good Samaritan).  It sounds so simple, but sometimes it’s hard for us.  Throughout the centuries, Christians have struggled to show kindness toward people who were different.  And throughout the centuries, the Spirit has been at work changing hearts and converting us, just like with Peter back in the beginning days of the church.