The Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2007, Acts 11:1-18
My dad was an engineer who for a time worked in aerospace. He was involved, with thousands of other people, with the 1960's goal of getting a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth. As a kid I liked, and still like, to look at things that came out of that time. Sometimes, like that little kid, I find myself looking at something and saying “My Dad built that!”
There are a lot of engineers or engineer types in my family going back—and now forward—generations, but I did not seem to inherit the “knack.” I can take things apart and love to know how things work, but putting them back together again and having it operate...well...that's another matter. Don't ask me about the poor, neglected MG in my garage.
Growing up with inventive types, the kind of people whose creativity and artistry shows up in the useful, I have learned a few things. For one thing, invention does not come easily. Another truth about invention is that you will have failure and sometimes that failure will be catastrophic. You try to plan around it and build to prevent it but failure still occurs. If you don't want to risk failure, you will never advance. And, more important, if you cannot learn from failure, there is never improvement.
This is not only true for bridges, spaceships and flashlights; it also true for humans. And for the Church. There is forward movement, sometimes backward, sometimes a little of both. There can be periods of seeming stability and outbursts of change and growth. When the church finds itself in the tension between charisma and order, that's where the Holy Spirit is at work.
In the middle of the Book of Acts, we have in sacred scripture a case study in invention. What is being invented and perfected is the Church. We find that in God's way of doing things, we are co-inventors with God and we are the ones for whom the invention is made.
The lesson from Acts today is a case point. Once Peter went to Joppa, which is a seaside city maybe a day or two away from Jerusalem. He is lodged above a tanner which is not the most pleasant place to stay. Tanning leather is smelly, hot and dangerous. It is also one of those jobs in the spiritual economy of the day that made the worker perpetually unclean because to make leather one has to handle dead things.
It was precisely to these folks that the earliest Church, like Jesus himself, ministered to. Peter already knows that a perpetually unclean Jewish tanner can be a part of the Kingdom of God because of Christ's incarnation, death and resurrection. He is about to cross the next conceptual boundary.
So in this tanner's apartment, Peter is hungry and maybe because of that and the fumes and maybe because of the heat, he falls into a dreamlike trance and there God gives him a vision. But the vision must have been to him like tales from the crypt! He sees all kinds of animals all of which Moses had declared "unclean." Then he hears the voice of God: "Peter, kill and eat!" Peter resists. This goes against Peter's conscience and everything he knows, but God says to him three times “what I call clean do not call unclean."
God reinforces the dream with a knock on the door. It is three Gentiles who have been sent from Caesarea, Caesar's City, to bring Peter back to the home of Cornelius. Cornelius wants to hear from Peter about the Good News of Jesus Christ. Cornelius is a Centurion. Perhaps a Sergeant-Major or some high-ranking official in the Roman Army! You know, the Enemy.
So if a dream and a knock on the door is not enough, Peter witnesses the Holy Spirit descends on Cornelius' household in a mini-Pentecost. They start acting and speaking the way Peter and the other followers of Jesus did back on that first Pentecost.
Now Peter gets it. Actually, he doesn't. Peter doesn't really understand what God is up to but does what he does best: Peter goes with his gut. As he would later explain: “So I said to myself, Self, who am I to hinder God?”
But news travels fast and even in the First Century, the media messes it up. If they had photo-shop and tabloids back then, I get the feeling that page one of the Jerusalem Post would have a picture of Peter's face pasted inside a Roman soldier's helmet with the headline “Guess Who Came to Dinner!”
The story that has beaten Peter home does not focus on the wonderful and amazing fact that Cornelius is now a Christian! Instead of celebrating the outpouring of the gifts of the Spirit in an unexpected place, what gets everyones attention is that Peter went into a Gentile house and ate with them.
I can hear it now. Peter! What were you thinking!?! Don't you know how this will play in the tabloids? Don't you know what a setback this is for the Church? We are a minority around here, you know, and we have to live here! People will use this against us!
So Peter has to go to the sub-committee and explain himself, step by step. What (our reader) read this morning is the recap. Luke actually told the story in chapter ten of Acts. What we heard today is the committee transcript.
Only then do his critics grudgingly begin to change their minds about Peter's bizarre and unorthodox behavior. "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to eternal life," they say. Luke says they praised God but, judging from what comes later in Acts and from what the Apostle Paul says in his letters, that praise was cautious and provisional.
Now all of this is going somewhere. I said that Acts, like all of the New Testament, is a Spirit-given record of the Church learning how to be the Church when that was a truly experimental process and there was no guidebook.
Our lesson from Revelation this morning tells us where all of this is going. Here a vision of the end result. After creation and human sin; after exodus, nationhood and countless covenants; after the incarnation, death and resurrection, and ascension of Jesus; after all the work of all the People of God, this is what God is moving us to: a new Jerusalem. A new heaven and a new earth. God will be at home among us mortals. Death will be no more. There will be no more tears, nor pain, nor crying nor mourning. “See,” God says to John in Revelation. “I am making all things new.” This is where we are going; but to get there requires movement. Notice that word: "making. God is making something new and wonderful, and God is making it in our hearts, and minds. God is making all things new for that to happen, the Holy Spirit will send us to places and to people we don't expect.
We can learn from the inventor to understand the movement of God and what God wants for us. God wants us to be one with each other, with creation and with God. But along the way it will seem bumpy, indirect and we will be occasionally confusing. Just when we think we have everything right, God will move us along: reform us, open us up, renew us, challenge us.
Christian community is an experiment in faithfulness and an invention for mission. Christian communities like ours are experimental gatherings of faithful people under the love, guidance and nurture of the Holy Spirit. Christian communities are inventive expressions of God's transforming power that touches peoples lives for good.
As we experiment with what it means to be Christian community we know this to be true. As we become more and more a community of diverse people, a community that intentionally includes native born and migrant people of many races, who includes white, Asian, Hispanics and Africans, straight and gay, young and old, poor and wealthy, we find ourselves inventing with God ways to be the Church and speak tangible Good News to our community.
With the Spirit's movement there will come resistance. There will come times when we want to control the outcome, we will be tempted to bicker amongst ourselves. We know that the Church has split up from time to time in different camps. We will sometimes act as if we have reached the pinnacle of faithfulness—or least our highest comfort zone. But God will move us along anyway. Lovingly, persistently, firmly. When we look at Revelation, we see where God is taking us. When we look at Acts—and the Gospels—we see what it takes to get there. Experimentation, invention, failure, learning, risk, community, and trust.
Trust comes hard. Peter did not understand what God was doing, but faced with the power of God in the lives of actual people all he could do was trust that God knew what God was up to. When faced with earnest, enthustiastic, spirit-filled outsiders, Peter was faced with a contradiction that shook his soul. Finally, it took trust for Peter to say “Who am I to hinder God?” and then go where God was taking him.