Word of the Week

Resurrection Unfolding: Openness
Acts 11:1-18
Preached at Broadneck Baptist Church, Annapolis, MD

I don’t know about you, but it is easy for me to think at certain points of my own story of faith that I have “arrived” at what is the right way. That I’ve finally had enough education, enough life experience, enough personal reflection to make a sound judgment on what I believe on a particular issue is right.

I’ve talked to enough people.

I’ve read enough books.

I’ve been in church long enough. My mind is made up and that’s that.

Before I entered seminary in the summer of 2003 one such moment in my life occurred. I had figured out, or so I thought at the time, the only “proper” or “theologically sound way” to talk about God.

All of this came about thanks to a new friend introducing me to a new genre of books: feminism. These new books I began reading described the world in ways I’d never heard of during my 20+ years of growing up in small, Southern Baptist centric Tennessee towns.

In my childhood church, when we prayed, we always prayed to our “Heavenly Father” called God “He” and if you really wanted to be seen as extra holy, you’d be sure to capitalize in writing any pronoun reference for God.

But after reading and discussing texts new to me like Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissent Daughter, I believed I’d arrived at an epiphany. I’d been taught all wrong. No, no. Never again would I pray to God in male dominate language. Never again would I use the word “He” to refer to God. God wasn’t a man or a woman after all—I believed so why did we refer to God as such?

As part of my new personal practice of referencing God without a gender association, I simultaneously started looking down on those who weren’t as “enlightened” as me. I don’t believe such was intentional. Or even such thoughts often left the confines of my brain.

But, because I’d made up my mind on this—openness to others was out of the realm of possibilities.

In fact, one time, I dared to correct my husband’s dinnertime prayer, in which addressed God as, “Heavenly Father.” Later, I reminded him in my serious preacher tone of voice: “If he was going to say father than he needed to say mother too.” You can imagine how well that went over and I’ve barely since lived such down (the prayer criticizing incident as we now refer to it as)—not one of the shinning star days of our married life for sure …

But is this what growing in our faith is really supposed to look like? Illumination that puffs us up with self-righteousness and isolates others who may think or have a different experience of God than we do? Is this what resurrection unfolding in our lives becomes?

I know that for these past four weeks, Pastor Abby has been helping you stick closely to the idea of resurrection as a season, of resurrection as something that is not a one-time experience, but something that unfolds and finds resonance in surprising ways over time. And such is certainly the case with our resurrection story for today.

In Acts 11, we find a story that asked Peter and asks us, as readers, today to reconsider how open we are to the fresh wind of the Spirit moving among us. Especially as the Spirit’s wind moves through our most cherished set of religious, spiritual, Biblical, or whatever you want to call them beliefs—and says:

Why are you excluding those who believe differently from you?

And, what might you learn about God if you include them?

What I find most interesting about Acts 11 is that it is not the first time we’ve heard the details of the interaction between Peter and Cornelius. Probably the tale you’ve most heard read of this story (if you’ve heard it before) comes from the Acts 10.

In Acts 10 we learn that Peter—the disciple of Jesus, Peter—has a vision while he is on the roof praying. In this vision he see the heavens being opened and a something like a large sheet coming down from heaven full of all kinds of animals. And Peter, hears a voice saying, a voice he believes to be the Lord: “Get up, Peter. Kill and Eat.”

Such a directive did not seem to Peter to be of the Lord. For this word of “eat whatever kind of meat you’d like” went against everything he’d believed to be true about purity.

And not just the kind of purity for purity sake, but prescribed words from the Torah, words that told generations of Jews what relationship with God entailed. There was just no way that the Lord would ask him to associate with people like that!

But after asking the Lord again, Peter receives confirmation that he’d indeed heard correctly. And before Peter could over think his way out of his vision, several men from the household of Cornelius, a non-Jew (who also just had a vision from the Lord about making contact with Peter) showed up. These Gentile men asked Peter and his friends to journey with them to Caesarea.

Peter goes, shares the gospel with this non-Jewish crowd at the home of Cornelius, and as a result the Holy Spirit comes upon all those who gathered. And, then, Peter could not deign that God loved these kinds of people with whom he had previously kept at arm’s length. Peter saw new life coming to this family before his eyes! Soon a baptismal service was in order to make it all official.

In this life altering moment, Peter proclaimed: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

But by time we get to the re-telling of the story in Acts 11 (where Cornelius’ name is not even mentioned specially by the way), we find Peter giving testimony to how this experience opened him up.

For word was getting back to Jerusalem and the established religious guard were upset: Jews eating with Gentiles? No way! If the purity laws were out, in the way of Christ, what was next? As is true of most conversations like this, fear paralyzed.

Yet, in the midst of it, what was Peter going to say for himself?

What follows is not an argumentative debate or even a lecture in proof texting the Torah, rather it is Peter, in a very pastoral way, in a very loving and patient way telling his story of what the movement of resurrection had looked like in his life.

He brings the conversation back to Jesus—how Jesus taught his followers that after he left the earth, the Holy Spirit would be given, the Spirit that would lead this followers in all things.

Peter gives personal witness to the fact that his heart and mind changed. Saying, in the way of resurrection there’s one sign that emerges as guide and that is: the Holy Spirit.

Peter speaks boldly in verse 17 when he says, “If then God gave them (referring to the Gentile believers) the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

Or, in other words, “Listen fellas, if the Spirit is a work, you can’t discrimmate. You have to accept. You have to be open to what resurrection looks like even if it is nothing like you’ve ever considered before.”

The believers at Cornelius’ house certainly had the Spirit, and for this, Peter explained to the Jerusalem leaders that openness was unavoidable.

The first time I ever preached a sermon on the Peter and Cornelius story, I was a new full-time pastor as an associate. I had to wait my turn to preach and it when it was finally my turn to speak, I wanted it to be good—piercing, really hitting a home run. When I found out that Acts 10 was the lectionary on that day, I was thrilled. I was thrilled because I knew this text would give me the opportunity to call out the congregation on all the ways I felt their actions did not show openness to the gospel. It was a home-run in the making: for I had so much to say!

But, looking back on it now, I think the particularities of what I defined as “openness” mostly missed the point. For, when I re-read this sermon again this week, I realized that I preached a message that was in line with beliefs that held true for me at that time—acceptance of people I accepted, theology of people I believed in, and acknowledgment of doubts I had already explored in my own life. I hoped the sermon would encourage the congregation to be more like me.

But is this really what openness to the Spirit is all about? Converting people to believe exactly as you do?

Anne Lamott has become famous for saying: “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

And it’s true, isn’t it? While it is easy to create an agenda that you think is the “proper way” or the “right way” or the most “theologically astute way,” it’s not always the God way.

The Spirit really cares little for all our nonsensical categories.

The Spirit really cares little for who we think was made more beautifully in God’s image.

The Spirit really has no time to waste on those who can be approved by church councils and denominational boards for who has the most pristine theological pedigree.

The Spirit lives and moves and breathes in all kinds of people . . . even people, from our perspective, that we find very little common ground with actually often it is the Spirit moves in people we don’t agree with very much.

Professor Roberta Bondi of Emory University Divinity School says in her volume, To Pray and to Love this about being open to the Spirit in one another: “the goal of life . . . if you want to live by love is not to live by principles . . . rather relationship.”

Of course this doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when living as God people in a particular community as you are doing here that you won’t need to be prescriptive or prophetic. Or that principles of faith don’t matter. Or that there won’t be times when the church will discern together on something and not every one will come along 100% and relationships will suffer.

But, it does mean that as we are open to the Spirit, our theology will shift as we grow and the people in whom we converse with about our faith to might just shift too. And, our church has to reflect this kind of growth.

Rather than sticking with labels people place on our faith or our communities like, “progressive” or “conservative” or “justice centric” or “evangelistic” we’ve got to be ready to move with the Spirit, even if there isn’t a label for what exactly it means.

I don’t know what kind of people in your life you have trouble seeing the Spirit of God in or welcoming in your community—

-people who strongly support a political party you don’t belong to

-people who make poorer driving decisions in the car than you do

-people who live in neighborhoods you don’t feel comfortable in

-people who live in regions of this world you don’t like too much

-people who worship with louder or softer voices than you prefer

But, regardless, we are all called out on our exclusive behavior of one kind or another and asked us to be open to the new.

For me today, if push came to shovel and you asked me how I prayed, I’d tell you I rarely use male language for God- as I have since 2003. But, I have been gently led the Spirit over the years, in particular in the last year to be more inclusive in conversation with those who do. After all, Jesus calls God His Father throughout the Gospels . . .

Not only does this make family mealtimes more nurturing and loving environment for both Kevin and me too, but it opens me up to learnings about God that I might miss if I am too stuck on the “proper way.” And, it has given me some friends back and let me to new ones too—friends that might not call God the same thing I do, but who are full of the Spirit with much to teach.

In a world of words flying across the internet and on cable tv about why this party or this type of person or this kind of church is bad for believing or doing a certain thing, what a resurrection it could be if we let the Spirit unfold in us direction.

If we let the Spirit unfold in us expanding wisdom

If we let the Spirit unfold beyond labels we place on ourselves or others

If we let the Spirit unfold in us renewed community

If we let the Spirit unfold in us most of all, love.