Sermon April 18, 2010 – Acts 11:1-18

In the period when the books of the Bible were written, there were no paper factories.  Parchment was used for many books, and paper was not wasted.  The arduous process of making pages meant that whatever was written had to worth writing down.

Given this fact, one has to ask why the author of the book of Acts repeats, in two successive chapters, the story of what Peter experienced on the rooftop in Joppa. It seems a waste of material to explain what happened to Peter when he had the vision of the great sheet full of animals and then in the next chapter to put the whole story, with nearly all the details, in Peter’s mouth as he speaks before the Jewish believers in Jerusalem who criticized him for having had fellowship with the people in Caesarea.

It seems that the author’s purpose was not to bore us with repetition.  It was rather to show the power of this story in the controversy. Standing before that informal judgment, Peter could have defended himself with arguments and logic, with theological propositions, with all kinds of presentations.

Debate has its place, and theology is important.  But in this case, Peter was dealing with something so visceral, with such strong prejudices, reinforced by centuries of tradition, that he recognized the uselessness of argument. He needed other means to communicate such a radical reality, so opposed to popular wisdom.

Through story, Peter invited his critics to walk with him through the experience he had lived a few days before. From there, he could begin with them where they were, where he had been the day that he climbed to the rooftop in Joppa. With them, he walked in amazement through that vision.  With them, he looked with disgust at the animals that he was told to kill and eat. With them he answered, protesting that he had never allowed such filth to pass his lips. With them he heard three times the voice saying to him, “What God has made pure, you shall not call impure.”

He invited his listeners to hear the invitation he received from a Gentile, an officer of the oppressor’s army, to come to his home and speak to him of God. And with him, the listeners were witnesses of what happened, such an unexpected thing, when those repugnant strangers received a blessing, not by human action, not through the believers, but directly from God’s Spirit.

We like to live in certainty, but life is not like that.  Life is a pathway.  Life is a journey. Life is something we walk step by step with God.

We go along learning from experiences and from the experiences of others when they tell us about them with respect but with conviction. What Peter had at that moment was the conviction that he had done the right thing. He was convinced that when he took that step, to go with those men to that alien house and speak there of God’s love, he did what God wanted him to do.   

He had lived that conviction, with his six companions who went with him.  He had seen the outcome of that visit, how those people had their lives transformed because of his willingness to go to an unknown place, a strange place, a place that perhaps brought some fear to him for many reasons.  But when he acted in that way, he saw the outcomes.

And when he came to Jerusalem and people began to scold him for what he had done, he could do nothing else than speak with the conviction of his life and his experience of how God had taken him step by step in faith to that moment.

When we face controversy, perhaps the last thing we want to do is expose ourselves in this manner. I feel safer putting forth my ideas, my arguments, my declarations, to convince people.  But I do not want to put myself out there, or speak of my experiences, or what I have learned in life, of what God is teaching me step by step. That is scary to us, right?  That’s about testimony, not just ideas.   

If we give testimony, it may be rejected.  And if someone rejects our testimony, we feel they are rejecting us. That’s why it is risky to speak of our experiences, simply to say what we have lived and lived through, walking with God.  But that is what God has called us to do, and that is what Peter did in this case, with great results. As it says in Acts 11:18, the skeptics in Jerusalem heard these things and were silent. They could not contradict what Peter had lived in that moment.

If we think about it, this is the reality of Jesus Christ among us. When God wanted to communicate in a concrete and clear way, it was not by another book, or by a message, or by a letter.  It was by the Son, who lived, walked, experienced all of our life, and invited us to walk in faith as he walked, seeking the guidance of the Spirit, trusting in God, loving his neighbor and doing good to all. This is what God did, giving testimony among us through Jesus Christ. 

We each have had the experience of seeing how God has carried us through difficult times. Perhaps we do not see it at the moment it is happening. Many times it is when we look back that we realize, as a new way of knowing, that in a difficult place God was with us, walking by our side, helping us to make it through.    

It is beautiful to remember such times and to say, “Yes, God was with me, was guiding me, was helping me, was sustaining me, was supporting me, was strengthening me, was teaching me in that moment.” How much more beautiful it is to face a challenge knowing that God is with us, knowing that God is faithful, knowing that God loves us, knowing that in this situation we will seek with God the best way through.  That is walking in faith.  Faith looks back.  Faith looks forward.

In these days we will, as a church, be looking back and forward.  Some months ago we committed ourselves to walking with the Summer Collegium, and one thing we promised was to study together, speaking and reflecting. In a few days we will begin a project of reflection in which we will think about the history of our particular community of faith.  We will look back at the history of this church, but not just to say “What lovely times those were.”  We will also discern God’s action and presence in the past, in order to look to the future and ask, “Now, in view of all that, what is God calling us to in the future?” We will take steps of faith by not only recalling the past but also anticipating the future.

Those believers in Jerusalem were in a shaky situation.  They were few, they were marginalized, they lived in a small border area of the great and powerful Roman Empire. We are not in their situation, but we are also depending on God’s power to guide us and carry us forward in the vision that God has for us as a church and individually as well.

For Peter, his experience was not just a new mission for the church. It was not just a way for the church to grow and expand into new areas, to people who did not know God.    

It was also a road of transformation for him, and it was not an easy road. Don’t think this was easy for Peter.  We known, reading an account by the apostle Paul, that after some time Peter stumbled.  At a later time, Peter was with some Gentiles and ate with them, but when a group arrived from the Jerusalem contingent, Peter was afraid of their criticism and drew back from the Gentiles. So do not think that Peter is the great hero of this story.  The hero of this story of the Spirit of God who invites us and helps us to walk in new paths of transformation.    

And let us not forget the power of testimony.  Much of what we do when we meet as the faith community is to tell one another of God’s faithfulness. That is why in this church we invite testimonies during the prayers of the people. That is why even when we are not in worship settings, we try to speak of the things that God is doing in the world and in our lives.  That is how we encourage one another.    

Testimony shared among the community has its test.  The community receives the testimony and sees whether it is beneficial to the body. That is why each of us seeks our path in reference to the others.  From the beginning, the church has been a community project, not one of isolated individuals.

The Bible itself is more than anything a great collection of testimonies. In the Bible we do not find much philosophy, or much speculation.  There is poetry in books such as the Psalms, but even many of these are testimonials. Most of the Bible is a collection of stories, of how the people of God have discovered that God is with them, that God is faithful, that God is trustworthy, that God is love, and that when we least expect it, God takes us to new places, new situations, maybe new challenges, new transformations, to comprehend, anew and even more, the great love of God that we find in Jesus the Christ. 

Thanks be to God.

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