APRIL 28, 2013
I. OLD TIME RELIGION
A little girl asked her mother, “How did the human race appear?” She said, “God made Adam and Eve and they had children and we all came from them.” A few days later she asked her dad the same question. He said, “Long ago there were monkeys and the human race evolved from them.” The girl was confused and went to her mother for explanation. “You said we came from God and Daddy said we came from monkeys.” Mom replied, “Well Daddy was telling you about his side of the family and I was telling you about my side of the family.”
Who is wrong and who is right? Have you ever changed your mind about what you believe? I have. The story of Peter’s vision and his response to that vision is a story about change. Peter was a fan of that old time religion. In his case it was Judaism. He did not believe that following Christ meant he was not now bound by kosher laws. Though it is not well articulated, Peter was of the mind that to be a Christian, you had to follow in the ways and laws of Moses. And it seems that most of the leaders in the early church were of the same mind. Give me that old time religion. If it’s good enough for Moses it’s good enough for me.
But then he had this vision. All kinds of animals that were definite no- nos for a devout Jew. And God saying, “Peter, eat these things.” And Peter says “No way. I have never broken kosher laws. These things are unclean.” And God gets mad and says, “Don’t you dare say that something I have made is unclean.” You see Peter is following a religion called Peter-anity. His mind is made up about things. He sees this call to change his beliefs as threatening and frightening. If kosher isn’t necessary, then what else will change?
II. FLUID FAITH
Like us, Peter was more comfortable knowing what was right and what was wrong and not having anything challenge those beliefs. What Peter was learning from this vision was that faith is fluid. The Spirit is still at work teaching us what is right and what is wrong. That’s hard. Because it means that sometimes we have to admit that we were wrong. There was a time when this church tacitly approved of slavery. But a courageous pastor named Joseph Cory preached that it was a sin. Some of the members didn’t like that. There was a time when this church was turning a blind eye toward racial injustice, but a brave pastor named George Kneirmann preached that it was a sin. Some of the members didn’t like that.
If we are open to the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, then we are always being reformed. We are called to always be open to a new way of thinking about right and wrong. Our history and our doctrines are important. But if we calcify into unchangeable dogma we close ourselves off to what the Spirit is trying to say to the church. We learn an ever new orthodoxy that is based not on our pre-conceived beliefs, but on our openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Peter had this whole thing figured out. According to Peter-anity it was wrong to eat non-kosher foods. Then the Spirit comes along with a new teaching. This is a pivotal moment in the life of the Christian church. It is the moment when the church realized that it could not base its identity on what it was not. There would be no future for the church that was closed off to new ideas or was determined to be exclusive. The Spirit says make no distinctions between them and us. It’s what Will Willomon calls it “the work of the gracious prodding one.”
This is a huge change. The Gentiles are in with God because they accept Jesus the Christ. Christianity will not be just one Jewish sect among many. The leaders of the church don’t like this. They call Peter on the carpet. It seems that after Cornelius, this uncircumcised, Sunday working, Roman gentile and his family were baptized, Peter was their house guest for several days. He came down for dinner. “What are we having?” “Ham!” “What do you mean eating non-kosher with goyim?” And Peter answers, “Hey, who was I to argue with God?”
III. MY OWN AGENDA
I identify with Peter’s experience. I am a convert to Christianity from Rick-ianity. I have at various times been sure of the answers to any questions about what was right and what was wrong. I was guilty of making God in MY image, instead of the other way around. I had my own agenda. And just as in Christianity, Christ is the one who is worshiped and served as the number one priority in life, in Rick-ianity Rick is the one who is worshiped and served as the number one priority in life.
But it’s a struggle to make the change. It’s harder to keep your faith fluid. You have to be open to new discernment. You have to be unafraid of saying, “I was wrong.” I used to try to explain away some things. Like turning the other cheek. That couldn’t be taken literally. In Rick-ianity, I might do that once, but the second time you strike me, you were going to get a right upper-cut. “Go and sell all that you have and give it away to the poor.” Rick-ianty said, “Come on.” If we did that, WE would be the poor. But on the other hand, it forced me to think about how important all of my stuff was compared to the all surpassing love of God in Jesus Christ.
C. I was a delegate to the General Assembly in 1994. And I voted yes on Amendment B which stated that openly gay people could not be ordained as ministers of word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church USA. I was wrong. With a great amount of deeper Bible study to understand the background in those few passages of Scripture where homosexual pedophilia is banned, the Spirit convinced me that a person whose orientation is fixed at birth is as welcome at the table of the Lord as anybody else. A gay friend who was a minister convinced me. He never said anything about it. He just demonstrated wonderful gifts of the Spirit in all that he did. And the Spirit said to me, “Why would I give him such gifts, if he was not welcome at my table?” Who am I to argue with God?
IV. STORY OF A NEW COMMANDMENT
The Spirit does its best work in correcting us when it becomes more than just an issue for us. Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman came out in favor of gay marriage after his son came out as being gay. Now it was not just a political issue. It was about someone he loved.
What do you do with this whole issue of exclusion of other people when the ones who are excluded are ones that you love?
When Peter announces to the circumcision party that he baptized gentiles and they began to demonstrate gifts of the Spirit, they were silent. What could they say? The Holy Spirit was reminding them of the great new commandment that Jesus gave. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
I hope you are not upset with this message. I know that we are not all at the same place on the journey. I do not say this to intentionally upset people or cause controversy. It’s just that when you feel it comes from God, you are compelled to proclaim it; like Cory and Kniermann before me. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. If you want to discuss this, I would be glad to talk with you and listen to you. If you want to argue about it, take it up with the one who gave us that new commandment.
It wasn’t Peter’s argument that changed the church’s perspective. It was the gentle, loving prodder who opened their hearts and minds to new understandings about who is in and who is not. Is your faith YOU- ianity or CHRISTianity?