Well, here we go again. Like last week, our readings this Sunday tell us of visions – both the reading from Revelation, which itself is one gigantic vision, and the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. I can almost hear your incredulity. We like to think of ourselves as sophisticated, enlightened people who make solid decisions based on evidence and reason. Visions of giant sheets filled with wild animals seem a little premodern for people like us.
Let’s look at what’s happening in this vision Peter describes in Acts. I like to think of this story as an extended exercise in God asking us – all of us – “What do you know?” What do you really know?
We meet Peter trying to explain himself to the “apostles and believers” in Jerusalem (11:1). He’s getting flak from the church because he’s been hanging out with the wrong people. In the previous chapter of Acts, we hear about Peter not just eating with uncircumcised men. He saw the Holy Spirit come upon them, and then he baptized them, accepting them fully into the community of God’s people – all without their having gone through the process of becoming Jewish.
Now, we can see this at a surface level and critique the Jewish followers of Christ for being exclusive or small-minded, for wanting to keep the doors to “the club” closed. But that’s really not fair. Their concern wasn’t about ritual rigor; their concern was about the survival of their faith. Except for a few blinks of the eye of history, Jewish people have always been a minority presence in other cultures that would have been happy to see their way of life evaporate. The Roman Empire was no different. So, from a Jewish perspective, keeping the Law – keeping themselves set aside as God’s own people – that was the only way to ensure they’d still be there in the next generation.
But Peter had this vision, as he told his new church gathered to grill him. He was minding his own business, praying, when he saw “something like a sheet coming down from heaven” (Acts 11:5). And on that sheet was the passenger list from Noah’s Ark – every kind of animal he could imagine. And God said to him – very clearly, and three times for emphasis – that all these animals were now to be featured on the Jewish dinner menu. That made no sense to Peter, and it may be hard for us to imagine just how little sense it made. It ran contrary to everything they knew. It would have been like God telling the Southern Baptist Convention they should serve mixed drinks and play cards.
And then, Peter received a visit from non-Jewish strangers who asked him to follow them to a different city and share whatever God gave him to say with a Roman army officer named Cornelius. Now earlier, Cornelius had had his own vision, with God telling him to summon Peter and listen to what he would tell him. So, based on the vision of the animals, Peter told Cornelius and his household that God shows no partiality; they were welcome in God’s beloved community just as they were, and that they too should follow the risen Christ. And as Peter said all this, he witnessed the Holy Spirit come upon them just as it had come upon the apostles themselves. Being a keen student of the obvious, Peter suggested it might be a good idea to baptize these people and make it official. As Peter told his church meeting, “If … God gave them the same gift that [God] gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17) For Peter, the truth had changed. What he now knew with all his heart wasn’t the same as the truth he’d “always known” just a few days before.
Blessed with hindsight, we can see Peter was right. But in the moment, Peter was asking the faithful to let go of something they had “known” all their lives. The stumbling block here wasn’t the challenge of God’s new mission to show all people how deeply God loves them. The stumbling block here was the people God had chosen in the first place, people none too happy to have Peter rock their theological worlds. The truth of this story about the “conversion of the Gentiles” is that God’s chosen people were being called to just as much conversion as anybody else. For God’s mission to go forward, both “clean” and “unclean” people need to change how they think, need to turn in a new direction, which is what the word “repent” really means and what we’re all called to do. As Will Willimon writes, repentance is the “joyful … necessary … turn of a life which is the recipient of God’s gracious turning toward us.”1
That change of heart and mind, that turning in a new direction – that’s something God has been asking of faithful followers of Christ for a long time now. Think about some of the things the Church has “known” to be true at various points in its history. Once, we knew it was a sin to lend money at interest. Once, we knew that God had given the Pope authority over the Western Church wherever faithful people lived, even in England. Once, we knew Americans couldn’t have bishops of their own. Once, we knew that black people weren’t fully human like white people and certainly couldn’t be in church leadership. Once, we knew women couldn’t be priests or bishops. Similarly, once we knew that the sacraments of holy orders and marriage couldn’t apply to gay and lesbian people. Once, we knew people who were divorced and remarried couldn’t receive Communion. And now, we know (at least officially) that only baptized people can receive Communion – but I wonder how long we will insist on “knowing” that.
We Episcopalians are Christians of the Big Tent, and that’s a complicated way of being church. It’s messy. It means we bump up against people who don’t see the world the same way we do, as each of us grows more and more into the “measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). But as we struggle sometimes in asking, “Whom do we welcome?” – “Whom do we include?” – we’d probably do well to remember to ask ourselves this question: Who wouldn’t Jesus include?
Just as the Church has had to un-know several things across the ages in its ongoing process of conversion, so does each of us. I’m only 51 years old, but there are lots and lots of things I’ve been blessed to un-know. I once knew that church was a scam. I once knew that I would never have children. I once knew that I hated standing up in front of people and talking to them. I once knew that my marriage wouldn’t last. I once knew that I could never be a priest. Even after the whole ordination thing happened, I once knew that I would never be called to serve in a church “like St. Andrew’s,” whatever that means. I once knew that I could never get a book published. A hundred times along the journey, God has asked me to change my thinking away from what I “knew.” As Will Willimon says, repentance is “the divine gift of being able to be turned toward truth”2 as God continues to reveal it – the truth about God, the truth about the other, the truth about ourselves.
So, Peter received a vision. And I would dare say we receive visions, too. It does happen, especially when we’re paying attention, that God asks us to make changes we wouldn’t have seen coming. But how do you know that it’s the Holy Spirit talking to you and not the chili you had the night before, as friend of mine likes to say?
I think we get some hints in this story about the conversion of Peter and Cornelius and the early Church. We might know it’s the Holy Spirit when we hear the same message of change multiple times. We might know it’s the Holy Spirit when the change is affirmed by multiple sources. We might know it’s the Holy Spirit when the change is so great that it would seem to take the action of God to pull it off. We might know it’s the Holy Spirit when the change is affirmed by our hearing of God’s Word – in Scripture, in proclamation, in worship. And when we know it’s the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves right there with Peter: “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter asked. Even the dim disciples could see it: “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). Who’d have thought?
So … what do you know? And what might God be asking you to un-know? What repentance – what change of thinking, what turn of direction – is God inviting you to take?
The thing is, our pesky deity calls us to change all the time. I believe that’s not so much because our brokenness is so deep; I believe that’s because God’s M.O. is to make things new. We can read it in Scripture; we can see it in the resurrection of springtime; and we can hear it from surprising sources sometimes. I want to play you a snippet from one of the most deeply theological pieces of popular music ever, a song from Paul Simon.
God and His only Son
Paid a courtesy call on Earth
One Sunday morning
Orange blossoms opened their fragrant lips
Songbirds sang from the tips of Cottonwoods
Old folks wept for His love in these hard times
“Well, we got to get going,” said the restless Lord to the Son
“There are galaxies yet to be born
Creation is never done….”3
“Creation is never done.” Well, I guess that’s not precisely right. Eventually it is done, in the sense of God bringing to fulfillment the work of reconciliation on a cosmic scale, bringing heaven and earth back into the unity God intended “in the beginning.” At the final restoration of that unity between heaven and earth, as we heard in today’s vision from Revelation, when the home of God comes to be fully among mortals and the restless Lord no longer has “got to get going” – that’s when God proclaims, “It is done!” (21:6).
But my hunch is that, even at that moment, God’s sense of “done” will be a lot more fluid than we can imagine. Even on that day when earth and heaven are one, even when “the home of God is among mortals” (21:3), even when “death will be no more” (21:4) – even then, I believe, we will still be works in progress, along with all creation. For “see,” God says, even at the story’s end – “See, I am making all things new!” (21:5).
1. Willimon, William H. Acts. A volume in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988. 100.
3. Simon, Paul. “Love and Hard Times.” So Beautiful or So What. 2010. Lyrics available at: http://www.paulsimon.com/track/love-and-hard-times-3/.