One of the things that a well-crafted narrative can do is to help us see with fresh eyes what is already in front of us. A story that is told with flair, but lacks any connection to our lived realities isn’t nearly as powerful as a simple one that provides some insight into where we are. This is, in part, why I love that we read through Acts during Eastertide in the lead-up to Pentecost. The Acts of the Apostles, written by Saint Luke, is a story that has wild features and peculiar components, but at its core, it’s the story of the church; it’s the story of us.
The story we hear in our lesson from Acts is a shorter retelling of something Peter had just experienced. After his time with the Gentiles, and the conversion of one in particular, Cornelius, Peter went up to Jerusalem and began to recount what had happened step by step, and when they questioned how he could eat with the Gentiles, he explains the bizarre vision of a sheet coming down from heaven with all sorts of creatures that to keep clean, a Jewish person wouldn’t eat, but in this vision he was commanded to eat the unclean animals, but Peter resisted because his identity as a faithful Jewish man was important to him, but the second time he resisted, the voice from heaven said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” After this vision, three Gentile men came to him and the Spirit told him to not discriminate against them and he entered their house to eat and to preach the gospel. And then, what is sometimes referred to as the Gentile Pentecost, the Spirit fell upon all the people just as it had on the day of Pentecost. And then Peter remembered the word of the Lord about being baptized with the Holy Spirit and told the believers in Jerusalem, “Who am I to hinder God?” And their objections about the inclusion of the Gentiles were silenced and they praised God.
Now, this isn’t the story of us because of the vision that Peter had or because we need to talk about what’s clean and unclean, this is the story of us because it’s a story of how the church struggled to change. The church has struggled to change since the literal beginning. The church doesn’t just struggle with the changes that growing pains bring, though that’s definitely part of it, but what we see here today is that they struggle with the changes that come when the church listens to the Holy Spirit. Today’s passage from Acts is about what might have to change when we realize that God is inviting us to participate in the work God is already up to in this world.
As a Jewish person who worked with and followed Christ, Peter held onto parts of his identity, and what he ate was part of that. This vision is bizarre, and it takes Peter a while to understand it. Throughout history this vision has been interpreted in many ways, but I don’t think this vision is proof that God doesn’t care what we eat or that kosher laws are invalid for those of the Jewish faith, what this vision was about was that Peter held on to parts of his identity, but that in Christ all things are made new. Because the truth is, nothing is immune from the newness that resurrection brings, not even those things that we think of as foundational to who we are. In the resurrection, God has made all things new, and that includes us and how might be put to work in this world.
When Peter recounts this story for the church at Jerusalem, the believers are shocked. They are shocked because they see what Peter did as a clear violation of something so widely accepted that they don’t even pay attention to the work of the Spirit in it. The Spirit has changed everything, there is no longer Jew nor Gentile in Christ, but what they are worried about is who Peter ate with; they are not concerned about the newness that the resurrection brings, but about maintaining the status quo. All of the barriers that society had put into place were broken down, but these believers struggled to see how the Spirit was changing the line between insider and outsider because they were worried about whether or not it was proper for Peter to eat with the Gentiles.
After the believers pushed back against Peter on his willingness to eat with the Gentiles, vision or not, Peter went on to recount their conversion; he went on to tell them how, just as the Holy Spirit had fallen upon them on the day of Pentecost, it had also fallen on the Gentiles. In light of God giving these Gentiles the same gift that was given to those in Jerusalem who believed in the Jesus, who am I, Peter said, to hinder God?
Who am I to hinder God? Who am I to hinder God? That sentence has racked me all week long as I have prayed through this text. Who am I to hinder God? My reaction has often followed suit of the believers in this narrative, for “When they heard this, they were silenced.”
My sisters and brothers, we are at a very particular moment. We are on the cusp of a very particular moment in history, in our community, and in our journey of faith together as the congregation of Christ Church, and I think now is the time to ask ourselves, “Who are we to hinder God?”
There is so much happening around us that we might be called to do, and I can name a few for us from the pulpit, but you are likely thinking of your own already. How do we minister to, empower, and advocate for our neighbors facing homelessness? How do we strive toward the inclusion all while respecting the dignity of every human being? How do we get out into our community and help those desperate for hope come to know the love and grace of Jesus Christ?
My sisters and brothers, we are at a very particular moment in history, and the Spirit is already at work, and it’s our job to pay attention, to listen, and to do our best to answer that invitation to participate in the work God is already up to in this world. It won’t be easy, because it will require that we acknowledge and accept, like Peter, that nothing is outside the bounds of being transformed by the resurrection, not even the things we may love about ourselves because living into our baptism is a process, not an event. It will take moments of quiet contemplation and prayer and it will take moments of powerful and engaged action; it will require us to look honestly at what we see as our foundation, and we will have to reconcile those whom we think are on the outside of God’s grace.
These are some of the questions with which we are tasked during this moment of our journey, and of course. I don’t have the answers, but I do want us to all consider how God might be inviting us as individuals and us as a faith community to do kingdom work in this world. So, get creative and get prayerful; get ready to do some work and to step out in faith, because it’s God who invites us to join in, and who are we to hinder God?
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church, at the 8:00am service for Easter 5C on Acts 11:1-18.