Sermon: When You're Not In Control by Rev. Ben Roberts

May 15, 2022

A sermon for Foundry UMC, - Rev. Ben Roberts
Acts 11:1-18

There are numerous aside from the point takeaways for this passage. For instance, God wants you to take naps and eat snacks. It's okay to eat bacon. Wonderful and good as they are just not the point.

This 5th Sunday of the Easter season the author of Luke Acts continues to tell a story of an expanding early church community. In this passage what we are being treated to is a recounting of the conversion of Cornelius and his household. Peter’s version here given as he says “point by point” is offered to the believers at the church in Jerusalem. Any story of a conversion or out pouring of the Holy Spirit in someone's life should be an immediate cause for celebration. But this isn't a celebration, it's more of an interrogation.

There is a distinction noted about the communities involved. In this case the distinction is noted in the passage as circumcised or uncircumcised believers. That is, those following laws and rituals including dietary restrictions physical observance and those who do not. The Israelites and the gentiles within an expanding Christ follower community. But the interrogation doesn't feel necessary if it was just a matter of did you or did you not do the ritual? Instead, the questions are rooted in long standing traditions involving the identity of those to whom God comes. Peter's actions in dining with and staying with this gentile household is a real cause of concern for believers’ whose identity, assurance, and to some extent control is tied up in the observances of purity practice.

In seeking to be generous, I’m not sure it can be overstated the significance of Peter transgressing norms in this story and perhaps that’s part of why a story of a single household takes up almost a chapter and a half of Acts. Karl Kuhn, a Professor of Religion at Lakeland College puts it this way in a commentary for this week; “such purity norms reinforced for Israelites their identity as a people set apart to serve God, to honor God’s Torah, and to receive God’s deliverance. Purity codes for many Israelites…emerged from and reinforced Israelite understandings of how creation, humanity, and daily life were to be ordered, or “mapped out.” They reflected essential elements of their worldview that defined their role and place as the people of God.”[1] Once more those norms were predictable, outlined, taught from birth, they were somewhat manageable and Peter himself adhered to them.

Peter reports how he argues with a voice in his vision telling him “kill and eat.” In verse 8 he recounts how three times he pushed back on what he’d been shown and told, “by no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” Not only this, but in Chapter 10 he also double-checks the people who were sent to fetch him essentially saying, “Y’all know there’s rules about me coming to your house, right?” But all the same, Peter knows he’s not the one in control of the situation and has been sent out to bring the good news. Comforted or spurred along on some level by an answer from heaven saying, go without hesitation, “make no distinction between them and us,” “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

But still, and not without good reason the believers in Jerusalem encountered I imagine all manner of unsettling feelings when they first received the story: anger, betrayal, fear, uncertainty. And based on some of the Greek words used in the text, possible reactions include meddlesomeness or seeking an altercation. I’m not sure I blame them either because frankly from their view things were out of control and possibly perilous for their own wellbeing.

It's almost a little too simple this story. Sort of the biblical version of 1/2 hour sitcom. Main characters are introduced conflict emerges quick solution is found and everything is wrapped up in 1 1/2 chapters. It sounds rather nice as a way to get past the entrenchment of us versus them thinking.

With no shortage of factional conflict all around us these days, I'd very much appreciate a quick solution and movement toward celebration and reconciliation. Sadly, it seems the propensity to leverage religious practice against one another as justification for conflict or controlling others has not abated much at any point in history. Even now we are being told that a justification for Russia's fratricidal invasion in Ukraine is for the protection of “ethnic Russians,” but also for the defense and preservation of a religious orthodoxy which ascribes no tolerance or acceptance of LGBTQIA+ persons in society (specifically noted parades) neverminded being welcomed in the church. Of course, there are other false justifications and there are many more layers to the conflict, but it is nonetheless the leveraging of us vs. them thinking to enact violence against those who are otherwise just your neighbors.

Similar ideas related to purity and orthodoxy have brought our own denomination to this point of division where rather than invite the stories of the work of the Spirit in people’s lives, we’ve drawn our lines and actively sort ourselves into camps. Some of the simplistic religious justifications have been framed as differences related to biblical interpretation, but there is of course at play issues of power, of finance, and of control. I have been very aware of my own lack of a generous spirit on this whole matter of late. Based on repeated histories I’m sure we too are not immune from being pitted further against one another nor immune from some seeking to leveraging these same justifications to enact violence against each other. Indeed, we see it from individuals and groups, but we now draw more lines around larger camps, and it saddens me. As that happens, I invite myself to be aware of my own reactions of us and them thinking and want to guard against being so walled-off, I might miss what Spirit is doing beyond my lines.

And we know there’s not just one violent conflict happening in the world with religious justifications at the fore. We know that it’s not just the UMC experiencing separations along ideological lines. We know our fragile political realities in this country are fraught with seemingly deepening synthetic tribalism and racism drawing and separating the population out into us and them.

It's a lot to try and bear and very little of it do we have control over directly. It’s unsettling at best and too often dangerous, but there are forces at work in the world that some feel more than comfortable leveraging for their own gain. Whether the root is fear or greed. Or whether it’s a matter of feeling one’s identity tied to specific rules and practices. Or if someone feels they must separate out or attack because their own relationship or favor with God depends upon it, this approach of us and them lends itself to destroying peace within if not between one another.

Now let’s be clear, there are things worth fighting for. There are times it’s necessary to separate out for safety of vulnerable communities (spiritual, mental, physical safety). The caution in this is not so that we accept harm or injustice in the world. I think there’s a call in here to be pliable with the at times necessary lines drawn, so that we don’t wall ourselves off so completely or deeply we forget that God exists beyond those walls too. Not only does God exist beyond whatever US we’ve fallen into, but Spirit does work there as well. And can even do it with them.

Step by step, the passage says in verse 4, Peter explains to the believers in Jerusalem what had taken place. It was necessary because they seem to be very twisted up about the situation, they criticized him. What were you doing Peter? You know you’re not supposed to do that? Feels like there’s an undercurrent of “you’ve put yourself at risk” or worse “you’ve put all of us at risk.” We had this thing all figured out and now you’re breaking all our rules.

Enter Peter’s defense; “I know, I tired, multiple times I tried to refute the voice God sent to me in a vision. Told the Lord all about how I don’t eat unclean things. Three times in fact. All the same the word came to me, do not call profane what I have called clean.” Peter accredits himself, “I know the rules,” but then must find a way to shake the community out of their us them box because they’re about to miss it. This whole interaction is only happening because they already knew what had happened, but we’re shown the first reaction isn’t celebration, it’s trepidation.

He pulls them back from the brink not with a harsh return of chastising, but points them to the work of the Spirit at the house. What’s been called the “Gentile Pentecost” took place as Spirit was poured out upon Cornelius’ house as Spirit had been pour out on others. Making no distinction between us and them. Verse 17, “If then God gave them the same gift [given] to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” They were silenced, then they praised God.

Not bad Peter, pulling the group back from the brink by pointing to the work (or blaming) the Holy Spirit. And it’s true, she doesn’t really check with anyone, as Pastor Ginger says, Spirit will do what Spirit’s going to do.

Two things here, first; Peter does not tell the story “step by step.” There are a number of details in chapter 10 that are left out of this recounting. Primarily that this whole thing started by Peter going to pray…getting hungry while attempting to do so…and falling into a nap…I mean a trance… he took a nap. But maybe, I was prying and fell asleep because I was hungry isn’t the message the church needed that day.

Second, I don’t love the English translation in verse 18; “they were silenced.” Little too harsh for the situation and misses something about what happened in the space. Though, there are a number of people or groups I would love to silence with a recounting of the work of the Spirit, I think there’s something else in here for us. It’s a little more than not speaking or not making noise; the Greek here, hésuchazó (hay-soo-khad'-zo) has additional uses including to cease from altercation, leading a quite life, a mental condition of awe, and even to refrain from, not just speech, but work and meddlesomeness.

It's fun, but I think my favorite this round was from the French translation I work with, “[at this word those listening] “retrouvèrent leur calme.” They found their calm. I love that, lost sight of my calm for a minute, Peter and Spirit helped me find it.

Part of the calmness likely comes because there is recognition that their identity (including important acts and rituals central to the practice of their faith) and their relationship with God isn’t subsumed or at risk because of what happened with the gentiles. Instead, the reminder of the baptism by water and the Spirit. That we’re incorporated into a larger family. Rev. Dr. Choi Hee An puts it like this, [the community is a place where believers share “the same whatever we have and they have together. … After we share what we have and what they have, we become them, and they become us. Our individual cultures are not erased, but we and they become one, in the sense of living with one another in mutual respect and support.”[2] The invitation to life goes further, thanks be to God.

I know the purpose of the story is to show the expanding early church and the ways the early Christians were figuring out life together. Balancing a melding of traditions or no traditions at all and a joining of diverse groups into one. Try as I might, I do still read into this the similar acts of established groups within churches or congregations who see new people arriving and joining and reacting in less than hospitable ways. It does make me wonder about our denomination and the ways our polity seeks to exclude even those people for whom it is obvious Spirit is active and poured out in their life and ministry. Who are we to hinder God?

I’ve tried to be generous with the group in our story and imagine what it must be like to feel out of control or as if something is being taken away from you because of what someone else has. But I also feel a strong impulse to just say, “can’t you perceive what’s happening here. The evidence. The active of God, the good work and fruit of the faithful? Get off your privilege and make room on the bench.” They should get some credit though, because at least they question what was happening rather than simply saying over and over, “but they’re gentiles!” And trusted relational leadership in Peter helps them along, knowing they’re not in control, to discover and not miss the ongoing work of God in the world.

It's also unlikely the author of Luke-Acts intended to offer strategies of spiritual and communal resiliency in these verses. Nonetheless, they are present.

There’s a reminder that the church in Jerusalem is part of something larger. That the baptism by water and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit connects them across all manner of lines.

They are connected to a larger purpose. They are a community of mutual support and care. What they have is shared with others and what others have is shared with them. That even when things happen beyond their control (scary, sad, or wonderful) they are incorporated into a community that bears with one another through all those things.

In a spiritual sense, Peter reminds them the work of God in the world continues. Spirit doing what Spirit does to draw people into life and the love of Christ. These are all things that help a community and individuals build resiliency in the face of stress and trauma: a sense of purpose, acts of service, spiritual practice, relational connections.

Part of resilience for times that are stressful or beyond our control is taking better stock of what is in our control. You will not control Holy Spirit. While we can assume the work of Spirit will be positive, any situation beyond our control can be questioned. We can situate it within a rubric of the fruits of the Spirit. Are these things or my re-actions to them making me more joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle. Or am I practicing self-control within my reaction? There are things in the world that we can control even as the world itself and many events of life and community remain far beyond our grasp.

Within our church community we can exercise some of those healthy things to make us more resilient as we bear with one another. There are spaces for service, for learning and expanding skills, for retreat and rest, and places you can both help care for others and get care for yourself. The prayer ministers and the care teams to name a few. You can engage in a larger purpose, to share broadly the love of Christ and extend in the place a radical welcome for whomever Spirit brings through the door. In your relationships that I pray you will continue to build out with one another, you can share the work of the Holy Spirit in your life and in others. I think one of the best things Peter does in this story is to show where Spirit has been at work in wondrous ways helping the community to find their peace and their praise. May we in days that are difficult find the same.

[2] Choi Hee An, Sixth Sunday of Easter; Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, A lectionary Commentary, Year B