“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” –Acts 11:17
The writer of Hebrews tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”(Hebrews 11:1) This would suggest that belief is not based on data that can be measured or verified but rather on intuition. Today I am questioning why do we believe what we do…about God…about the human condition…about life and death and how do we handle the possibility that what we believe could be wrong?
One of the lessons in our lectionary today is that wonderful account of the conversion of the Apostle Peter. Church teaching on this passage from Acts does not refer to it as a conversion but that is what it is. Peter is given a vision that completely changes his view of the Church and God’s people. As a faithful, practicing Jewish Christian Peter had been adhering to the Law of Moses while trying to follow the new Way of Jesus. As the Christian faith was spreading and the Church was growing it began to attract an increasing number of non-Jewish believers. This was causing conflict in the new congregations because Jewish law was very clear about the segregation of Jew and Gentile. While there were those who welcomed the non-Jewish converts there were others who, adhering to Jewish purity laws felt it was unacceptable to fraternize with the Gentile Christians. Peter was being chastised for visiting and eating with the Gentile converts…the uncircumcised.
He explains his actions by recounting a revelatory vision and experience he had received from the Holy Spirit. In the vision, he saw a sheet lowered from heaven containing all manner of animals, all of which were considered unclean by Jewish dietary law. Peter heard a voice telling him to kill and eat. Peter argued that he had never eaten anything that was unclean. The voice replied, “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” Peter said this happened three times and then the sheet was pulled up to heaven. At that point, Peter awoke and found that he had visitors calling him to Caesarea where he was led to baptize the man who lived there and all of his household. When Peter saw the Holy Spirit poured out upon this Gentile man and his family, just as it was with Jewish converts he realized the message of his vision. All were welcome into the body of Christ…Jew and Gentile….God made no distinction between persons and those whom God had created clean were not to be considered profane.
Peter would continue to have internal conflicts with this new inclusive worldview and the Apostle Paul would rebuke him for reverting to his old ways but at this moment Peter understood that God was doing a new thing in the Church. The Holy Spirit moved as God willed and all those who were being baptized into Christ were able to receive the gift of the Spirit…Jew and Gentile. If God is doing the inviting who then was Peter to deny the welcome.
While it was true that some of the lessons of Jesus seemed to be in conflict with the Law, as most understood it, he had not openly advocated breaking it. After his resurrection and ascension, it was left to his followers to interpret his teaching, as directed by the Holy Spirit. .As the early Church grew in size and diversity there were changes in the interpretation of Jesus’ teachings and in the worldview of its members.
In Peter’s vision, the Holy Spirit made it clear that there were no second class members of the Church. All were equal in the eyes of God and the idea of a separate “chosen” people were no longer useful. In the new faith, all were chosen…all were worthy…all had been redeemed by the same Lord. I am sure it was very difficult for Peter and the others to accept that their former way of looking at the world…at the Gentiles…was wrong. If God had created them clean why were they only now being welcomed into the company of God’s people? Of course, there had always been converts to the Jewish faith but they had been required to become circumcised and to abide by specific rules for proselytes. In this new manifestation of the faith, they were acceptable and accepted as they were. Of course there were actions that were forbidden in the Christian faith but for the most part, the converts maintained their cultural identity and practices.
While Peter’s conversion was not quite as dramatic as Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus it was just as life-changing. Saul, who became Paul also learned that, although he had been acting on what he believed to be the will of God he was in fact terribly wrong. Peter finds out that while he thought himself to be adhering to the commands of God he too was in error. The similarity here is that both the previous actions of Saul and Peter denied the common humanity of those whom they considered being outside of the grace of God.
The lesson for all of us is that we must not become so convinced of our own righteousness that we forget that we too can be mistaken. None of us sees the way clearly and all of us run the risk of being wrong…in our interpretation of scripture…in our understanding of human nature…in our perception of our brothers and sisters. We all have internal bias…a particular lens through which we view the world. The wise know this and guard against making assumptions without information.
The Holy Spirit is still moving through the world and through the Church bringing new insight and inspiration helping us to see the Way of Christ more clearly and hopefully helping us change for the better. The Church has two thousand years of history and looking back we can see where she has changed for the better and sometimes for the worse. The church is influenced by culture and has seen her share of corruption. She is only as holy as the people who are her body. We must be alert to those places where she has failed to live out the Gospel call to love. The Church must lead the way in the search for truth…in acts of compassion and in her support of the vulnerable and the oppressed. We must not be conformed to the corruption of the world but rather be a beacon of light and hope in the darkest corners of society.
The Church is us and will be what we make her for better or for worse. We must never stop striving in our efforts to become more and more like the Christ we serve both individually and as the body. We must keep our eyes open to see our own flaws and be open to the guiding of the Holy Spirit when she leads us back to the Way.
In the Revelation to John, we hear the one seated on the throne saying “See, I am making all things new.” God is constantly renewing us …renewing the Church…renewing the world. This renewal is full of promise and the hope that God’s love will eventually prevail, sweeping away self-interest, self-aggrandizement and the incessant lust for power.
It is the love of God that powers the renewal of individual and community. It is this love that shows forth in our lives and in our actions as followers of Christ. Jesus told his disciples that the world will know them by how much they love. This is how the world will know us …by our love for one another. If we let this love grow in us and let it be the force that drives us it will become the lens through which we view all things.
We will look at one another in love…we will look at the world in love…we will look at ourselves in love. This love will keep us honest. It will keep us true to Christ and to ourselves. It will give us the strength to forgive when we have been wronged and the humility to ask forgiveness when we have wronged others. This love will give us ears to hear the call of the Holy Spirit leading us forward whether it is a path we know or a completely new way if it leads us to greater love it will eventually lead us closer to God.