Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Change of Conviction, A Change of Heart

Acts 10:1-17; 34-35
Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” lists ten of his top most bizarre foods that he likes.  Among them are: Mixed grill udders and intestines from Buenos Aires; Donkey skin stir-fry coming out of Beijing; Pork brain tacos, viva la Mexico; and Horse mane Sashimi from Japan especially good with a bit of ginger and soy sauce.  “Fatty Awesomeness”, he says.
I, on the other hand, am not so adventurous when it comes to eating meat or seafood.  As a general rule when I am in a foreign country I become vegetarian during the trip and it suits me just fine.  I’m more black and white than Zimmern, I know what is delectably acceptable or not, at least here in the States and by my convictions.

Simon Peter saw it my way too until a very vivid trance came along and God showed him a new reality.  We are back to the Narrative Lectionary now that the Easter readings are over and we will be sojourning in the Book of Acts and the Epistle of Romans for a while. 

The Book of Acts shows us how the early apostles struggled to define and build ‘church’ but really, when you take a closer read it is more about how God, through the Holy Spirit, worked through the early Christ followers to determine what the church should look like and to make it into what God wanted it to be.  And God wanted then, as is now, a diverse, inclusive community based on faith and love.  That’s evident all over scripture and in today’s reading.

By now in the Book of Acts, Jesus has ascended into heaven and the disciples, now apostles are left to their own devices.  But the Holy Spirit comes to them and instills in them the a spark of divine holiness by which they are to go out and tell everybody, every nation of every persuasion and tongue the really great and saving news of Christ. And so they do.

Converts were increasing day by day, like the speed of a locomotive.  Peter takes the lead healing beggars and bringing the good news, but there was conflict and persecution.  There always is when something new is emerging.  Butterflies work real hard to get out of the cocoon and chicks peck and peck before the egg cracks. 

Now Cornelius was a good man, a Gentile man, an esteemed centurion of the Italian Cohort of the Roman army.  His story is significant because he will be the first Gentile to be converted to this movement of Christ followers who eventually become ‘the church’.  Up until now they were converting their own.

Caesaria was the seat of the Roman government for Judea so you might expect Cornelius to be aligned theologically towards Rome since the Emperor was viewed as the ‘son of god’. Yet the Bible says Cornelius was devout and charitable.  He prayed often and was fervent in his prayer.  A good man stuck in a bad system.  

Well it was just about 3:00 in the afternoon and an angel comes to Cornelius.  Here we go with the visions!  The angel affirms his piety and tells Cornelius to send two men to Simon Peter in Joppa.  Now Joppa and Caesaria are on the Mediterranean coast just about 35 miles apart from one another and they still are to this day. 

So he chooses two slaves and one good and devout soldier to go, and at Noon they journey south in the hot sun.  While they were on the dusty road Peter, in Joppa, goes on his roof to pray.  And now it’s his turn for a vision; he goes into a hunger induced trance.  This is where is gets really good!

Peter sees the heavens open up and a sheet being lowered by its four corners and inside of the sheet are all sorts of creepy creatures, slimy reptiles, and birds of the air, all together wrapped up.  He is told to kill and eat anything from the sheet!  Yummy! This is like Andrew Zimmern coming to the parsonage with a mixed grill platter of udders and intestines and insisting that I partake of a few.  NO!  I will NOT eat udder – not cow udder, nor goat udder, nor sheep udder, nor any other udder that is my neighbors.  Let me be clear.  I will not eat udder.  It is unclean in my book of food rules.

Well Peter is instructed not once but three times to kill and eat and after the third time, the vision ended just as quickly as it had come.  What you need to know is that this food in the sheet, it’s all unclean for him to eat according to Torah and law.  Peter, was a bit puzzled by this but firm in his convictions of who could be a Christ follower and who could not.  Jews and God-fearers in, Gentiles out.  Gentiles – tref!  Unclean!

That’s until the three men from Cornelius came to him and brought him back to Caesaria to enter Cornelius’s home to talk and for hospitality.  This is when Peter gets it.  Here was a Jew in the home of a Gentile and that wouldn’t have been acceptable.  All the while God’s up there thinking, mission accomplished!

Pete’s convictions change and so does his heart.  He was insistent that the first followers had to be subject to circumcision through the Abrahamic covenant like all Jews until he realized because of this vision, that God’s covenant is much larger than that and God’s love is much wider than we can ever know. You see he hadn’t made the connection yet that his vision about food wasn’t really about food.  It was about people. It was about God insisting that this new fangled way to worship called the church is to be diverse in all ways.  Not only Jews but Gentiles too.

We are reminded in Galatians:
In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises. – Galatians 3: 25-29

I think we get that right?  Anyone can walk through our doors and be accepted and welcomed with the love of Christ.  Believers and skeptics, black and white, affluent and impecunious, gay and straight, fully abled and partially abled, the addicted and the sober, the housed and homeless.  God wants us all, and there is plenty good news to share all around. We get that.

What I want us to look at today is Peter and the change of conviction that he had which lead to a change in his heart.  He went from wearing metaphorical blinders on to having a wide open field of vision.  He did a 360 in his thinking about who can become a Christian, and I say thank goodness for that because we wouldn’t be here today if he hadn’t.

Sometimes we get stuck with our convictions without even knowing that we have become impervious to other points of views or other ways of doing things, or even the movement of the spirit. Convictions, of course, are those things that you hold to be true, that are so firm in your mind that no persuasive fact can make you change the way you think.  While we all have convictions and to a certain point we need convictions to know what we believe in and what we stand for, they can get in our way of compassionate thinking when they become rigid and unyielding.

When was the last time that you changed your mind on a core conviction that you hold?  What moved you to do so?  At the heart of this passage is a radical willingness to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit even when the Spirit leads you away from what you thought was right. Peter changed and because of his change, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the church changed drastically.  It grew and brought the saving grace of Jesus Christ to more people. To you and to me.

God may be changeless, but today God’s church needs to embrace transformation in order to carry out the mission to which we have been called and that is showing people that life conquers death, forgiveness is abundant, that we are to love God and love one another.  The message is clear, that any person, every person can be filled with and is deserving of God’s grace. 

The context of church has changed once again. God has lowered the sheet filled with new delicacies, Zimmern has set before us a platter of yummy udders.  Taste and see!  Are we willing to see anew where God is trying to lead us?  It might just take us getting out of these four walls to do so.  It might beg us to engage our creativity in ways that our wildest imaginations have never even thought of.  And maybe that is the church of tomorrow.

Perhaps, ‘we’ve always done it this way’ will give birth to ‘we’re willing to give something new a try’ for the sake of the church, for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of our ever changing children and youth who cry out for acceptance and love, and yes, church but in their own way. 

They will have young convictions that one day will have to change too but let us, for now, model for them a willingness to follow God’s spirit into the beyond based in faith and guided by God’s light and love.  Taste and see. 


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