11 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
8 “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
9 “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.
11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
I heard a true story this week from a pastor in a Reformed church who had participated in a conference where members of the Reformed tradition and members of the Seventh-Day Adventist church had come together to discuss their similarities and their differences. He said that for two days they worshipped together, prayed together, and talked together about their shared faith in Jesus Christ. And of course, one of the things that you do when you come together with a group of church leaders is you eat together.
I’ve found that some of my best conversations and friendships have developed over a shared meal. But there was an extra challenge at this particular conference. Many if not most Seventh-Day Adventists are vegetarians, a lifestyle choice that they base on their reading of the Bible. However, the Reformed Church members living in the northern part of the Midwest would not consider it a meal unless it at one time had a heartbeat. So the planners of the conference spoke to the caterers and asked that they prepare ½ of the meals vegetarian, and ½ non-vegetarian. Sure enough, each individual plate came out divided ½ vegetarian and ½ with meat.
Now that is one way to build relations with other denominations. The first five minutes of every meal included exchanging food with people from the other church. You can’t call someone a stranger after you have shared food from the same plate.
Our text for this morning is one that I approach with some excitement and some trepidation. I am excited because I can see that God is doing something new in today’s text. God is shaking up the status quo and bringing those who had been considered outsiders into the church. But I have some fear as well, because I am sure that there have been times that I’ve done more to keep people out than to bring them in. So today we are going to talk about changes in the church, and what markers are necessary for the church to move forward into a new way of seeing.
Before we get to this text, I want to point out that this is not a change in ethics, what is right and what is wrong, as much as a change in social practices. It is still wrong to steal from people and to beat your spouse. Notice what it is that the Jews were accusing Peter of in verses 2-3, “So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’”
Peter isn’t accused of breaking any ethical teaching. And the Jews don’t seem to mind that Peter preached the Gospel to the Gentiles. They are upset because he went into the house of a Gentile and ate with Gentiles. That wasn’t okay, but now it is. So what changed? The Jewish Christians experienced a paradigm shift. You do know what a paradigm is, right? 20 cents. No, Webster’s defines a paradigm as “a theory or a group of ideas about how something should be done, made, or thought about.”
Paradigm shifts don’t come easily, and they don’t come often. Sometimes, they even come painfully. Take for instance a paradigm shift that happened in my own life recently that I only became aware of this week.
My son came home from school this week with his first-ever yearbook. He is finishing his first year of elementary school as a kindergarten student at Ware Elementary. Of course, it is fun when people ask him “Where do you go to school?” and he responds, “Ware.” And they repeat, “Yes, where?” Again, he says, “Ware.” They usually just walk away at that point.
So Paxton comes home with this yearbook, and I do what I’m sure many parents have done over the years: I begin to look through the names and pictures to try to figure out who these kids are that my son has been talking about for the last nine months. There is something very unsettling about my six-year-old son knowing people that I don’t. I read through the names, through the Kayleighs and Hayleighs, the Brooklyns and the boys with first names that used to be last names. Some of the names are familiar, many are not. I read one name, Ezra Decker, which sounds familiar, but not entirely. Not entirely, that is, until I get to the last page of the yearbook, where there is an inscription, “This yearbook is dedicated in the loving memory of Ezra Decker.”
Ezra, if you don’t recall, died earlier this year. He was six years old. He lived just a few blocks from our church on Orange Street. His name jumped out and sounded familiar as I read through the Kayleighs and Hayleighs because I had read it a many times in our local newspaper.
The death of a six-year-old child is always tragic, and I’ve had to deal with these kinds of tragedies far too often in my life. But this one had a different effect on me.
After I had put that yearbook back down on the table, I went down into my basement to work on a project. As I was changing the battery pack on my drill, I felt a weight on my chest and a heaviness on my shoulders. I knew that what I was experiencing was a physical, visceral response to having the memory of a child I’d never met before thrust back into my consciousness.
But I’ve dealt with the death of children before, even children that I actually knew. So why was the death of this six-year-old causing me to react in this way? Because Ezra Decker’s picture was on the next page, the one right after my own six-year-old boy’s. Even though I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, my body was reacting to the fact that there are a lot of similarities between these two six-year-old, kindergarten students from Ware Elementary School. The biggest difference being that my son will finish kindergarten. Ezra Decker will not.
The reason I tell this story today is because I realize that I have experienced a paradigm shift over the last six years or so. As I’ve been saying, I have known death, even the death of a young child before. But being a father and knowing that if a few things were different that this could have been my child makes me think about the entire situation in a different way. I’ve experienced a paradigm shift, and I now see the situation differently.
A few weeks ago we looked at the story of Saul’s conversion and I noted that Luke tells that story in the book of Acts three times, so it must be important. Likewise, today’s story is also told three times in Acts, so we should really pay attention to this one. There is something that we must not miss in this event.
If you read this book in order, you find Luke telling the story first in real-time in chapter 10 and then our text from chapter 11 is a retelling of the event by Peter. We find some important information in chapter 10, so let’s look at that quickly, and we will go back and forth between the two chapters to try to get a better picture of what is going on.
First, we are told that they are in Caesarea, which would have been a major port city in the first century. Because it is an important city, the Romans are going to want to have their most powerful leaders in that city. One of those leaders is a man named Cornelius, whom we are told, is an officer, and I assume a gentleman. We are also told that he is of the Italian cohort. Italy wasn’t a big Jewish hub in the first century, so we can assume that he is a Gentile.
So Cornelius was a Gentile who was a leader of the enemy’s army, a leader among those who were oppressing the Jewish people. But we are also told that Cornelius was a “God-fearer,” which is a designation that was often given to someone who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but never when through the necessary steps to become a full Jew. He didn’t practice the Jewish food laws and he had not been circumcised.
Because he was not a fully converted Jew, Cornelius could not enter the main part of the Jewish temple to worship; he would only be able to enter the outside courtyard. Not only that, because he didn’t practice the food laws, he couldn’t be considered “clean,” and he would not be permitted to eat in the home of a Jew and the Jews would not eat in the unclean home of a Gentile. So Cornelius could come to church, but he had to listen from outside, through the windows, and he couldn’t stay for the fellowship meal.
We can be critical of these Jewish practices, but let us remember that they were being faithful to the Torah. Some Jewish guy didn’t just decide that it was wrong to eat certain foods or dine with Gentiles. This was commanded of them as a way of being holy, set apart from the rest of the world as a witness to their allegiance to God. I applaud their faithfulness, because to be honest, I like pork chops and bacon, and I’m not sure how well I would do giving those things up. And these laws were in place for close to 1,500 years. You don’t just stop keeping a 1,500-year-old law on a whim.
What happened was a lot more than a whim. We are told that Peter has a vision. And if there is any doubt that this is the same Peter that we find in the Gospels who is always a little slow to understand, but very quick to speak, Luke tells us that Peter’s vision needs to be repeated two more times before Peter understands what’s going on. Peter sees a sheet, filled with “unclean” animals, and he hears a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”
Peter assures the voice from heaven, “Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” To which the voice replies, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This is the first thing that I want us to notice, the first marker of a God-initiated paradigm change is that it is often repeated. When God is bringing about a paradigm change, we likely won’t catch what is going on the first time. Maybe it is just Peter’s personality, but I don’t believe that it is. It is in our nature as human beings to not like change. Perhaps this is a part of what it means to be created in the image of God. God does not change, so why should we?!
No, God does not change, but God does change the way he does things. Remember that whole incarnation thing? So when God is about to do something different or something differently, and when God expects something different from us, I think God is going to communicate that change to us as many times as is necessary. It isn’t like one day something major is going to happen you’ll be like, “Huh, I didn’t get the memo.” God tells Peter three times to kill and eat, and Luke tells this story three times to make sure his readers get the message.
We are given some more explanation as this story goes on. This vision isn’t just about what to eat, but with whom one can eat. This is a metaphor for the Gentiles and eating with them. We know that Peter understands this message, and he eventually ends up at Cornelius’s home and in today’s passage Peter has to defend himself for entering the home of a Gentile and eating with them. He gets it. But in Galatians 2, we find Paul criticizing Peter because Peter was refusing to eat with Gentiles out of fear of what other Jews would do to him. Change is hard, but if it is of God, the message will be persistent.
Let’s return to the text to find the next marker of a paradigm change. That marker is what I will call “the discerning community.”
Peter has his vision and hears the voice from heaven three times, but there are other people involved here as well. After his vision, Peter goes downstairs where he is met by three men from Caesarea, whom we are told were sent by Cornelius to find Peter and bring him back with them. Peter goes with them, and he meets with Cornelius, who has also had a vision.
As this major dividing wall is being torn down between the Jews and the Gentiles, it isn’t just one person, Peter, who receives the message. Peter and Cornelius are given similar messages from God to essentially find each other. When Peter goes back to Jerusalem, the people are asking him questions about this experience, and after explaining it to them, they agree that God is doing a new thing.
I often hear people saying things like “God is telling me to do this,” or “God is telling me to do that.” Or even more so, “God is telling me that the church needs to do this or that.” I can be a little skeptical; I think that’s normal and probably even a good thing. I once heard a pastor say that he had four different women come up to him and tell him while he was single that God had told them that they were supposed to marry him. I’m not saying that God never speaks to just one person, but let’s just say that it is best to have major changes confirmed by a group of people with whom we have a strong relationship and that know us well.
I’m reminded of what of former employee of our denomination said is her normal response when people would come to her about becoming a pastor. She told me, “When someone comes to me and says ‘I think that God is calling me to be a pastor,’ I always respond by saying, ‘That’s great! Who else thinks so?’”
This wasn’t done in an effort to squash anyone’s calling or enthusiasm. She was simply noting that when God is bringing about a major change, God usually gives that vision for change to multiple people, like Peter and Cornelius. And if a discerning community agrees, then we take a little more notice of these callings.
The final marker of a paradigm shift that I wish to point out is in many ways the simplest, but also the most challenging because it can’t be nailed down. This marker is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives Peter and Cornelius their individual visions. The Holy Spirit tells Peter to go with Cornelius’s men. And the Holy Spirit descends on everyone in Cornelius’s house that heard Peter preach. Because the Gentiles received this gift of the Holy Spirit, the Jews accepted their conversion as being authentic.
Yes, this is the most obvious marker of change. It needs to be the leading of the Holy Spirit, not just some human idea. Fred can’t decide one day that we are going to start sacrificing cats on the altar to Jesus just because he doesn’t like cats and would like to see something done about their surplus population. This change must be initiated by the Holy Spirit, the change must be guided by the Holy Spirit, and the change must be seen through and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
My friends, God does not change, but we are called to see the world in fresh and new ways all of the time. Now we see through a glass dimly, but one day, we will see clearly. When a major paradigm shift is upon us and we are called to see the world differently, I hope that we will use these practices to confirm that this change is from God. Is it repeated? Is it affirmed by a community of believers? And is it of the Holy Spirit? If so, I want to be a part of it, and I hope that you do, too.