"Who Am I To Hinder God?"

Scripture:  Acts 11:1-18

"I’m Telling!!"

I have a brother who is three years older than me.  When I was little, I idolized him – I wanted to be around him constantly, to play with the same toys he played with and to do all of the same things that he did, all the time.  Unfortunately for me, he didn’t always appreciate his little brother following him around all the time, and, every once in a while, there would be some conflict between us.  For example, I might do something like…  Continue following him around when he had friends over and I had been asked to leave them alone.  When he would get too tired of it, he would do the one thing, the only thing that could keep me away: He would tell on me.  “I’m telling mom!”  Those are some extraordinarily powerful words when spoken between siblings.

Sometimes, to counter his tattling, I’d want to get my foot in the door to offer my rebuttal to my mom, so as my brother rushed upstairs to lodge his complaint, I would shout up the stairs after him, “I didn’t do it!”  Eventually Chris outsmarted me, though, and realized he only had to pretend to tattle on me.  I remember a number of times when I called up the stairs saying, “I didn’t do it!” only to have my mom respond, “Okay?  And what is it that you didn’t do to your brother?”  “…Nothing…?”

Brothers And Sisters

I was struck that our reading from Acts this morning opens with the leaders of the Jesus Movement – referred to as “the apostles and the brothers and sisters in Judea” – questioning Peter regarding his actions.  Apparently one of the brothers or sisters in the community had tattled on Peter, because as soon as he returned to Jerusalem from Caesarea, the council greeted him with condemnation.  “So, Peter, we heard that you have been sharing meals with Gentiles, hmm?  What on earth were you thinking, compromising yourself and our entire movement like that?  Well, Peter, what do you have to say for yourself?!”

Fortunately, Peter responded better than I usually did when somebody tattled on me.  Rather than deny any wrongdoing, he explained his actions to them, step by step.  He walks them through the events that led him to make his controversial decision to share in table fellowship with a group of Gentiles.

He initially had his own reservations about doing so, he told them, but it all started to change when he received a vision from God.  In that vision, a large sheet – I imagine it as a giant tablecloth or picnic blanket – was lowered from heaven by its corners.  On the sheet were all sorts of animals, representing many different animals that the Jewish kosher laws forbade Peter to eat.  Much to Peter’s surprise, he hears the voice of God telling him to get up and eat these foods that he had always been told were forbidden.  Peter refuses, insisting that he never has, and never will, eat anything unclean.  But this process happens two more times times, which lets us and Peter’s audience know that there was no mistake or misunderstanding – this wasn’t a fluke, but Peter understood God correctly.

Immediately after the vision ends, three Gentile men appear, and Peter hears the Spirit telling him “not to make a distinction” between himself, as a Jew, and these Gentiles.  So he goes with them to Caesarea, fellowships with them, eats with them, shares the Good News with them, and is there to experience the Holy Spirit fall upon them – the unclean Gentiles.  In his heart, Peter finally understood what his vision meant. He tells the incredulous apostles, “Though I was reluctant at first, I eventually saw what it was that God was doing.  And I realized, if this is how God is at work in the world, reaching out to those people who I have always understood to be unclean and unworthy, then I need to change my own perceptions and get on board with where the Spirit is leading me.  I cannot stand in the way of God’s love.  Who am I to hinder God?”

Reordering the World

This section of the book of Acts is acknowledged by many scholars as a major turning point in the history of the Christian movement. To throw out the requirement of being circumcised and becoming Jewish before one was able to become a part of Christianity meant throwing out a major element of what held this community together.  Up to this point, the community had been tied together by the Holy Spirit - sure.  But they were also tied together by their own actions through following a strict set of purity laws that only the Jews followed.  To allow Gentiles into the fellowship solely on the basis of the Holy Spirit took a lot of power and authority away from the Jewish leadership.  Instead, the power was held solely by God through the Holy Spirit, which has a reputation for blowing wherever it pleases.  This is disconcerting for those in charge.

So, we have in this passage the beginning of a new twist, a new development in the spread of Christianity.  The actions of the Holy Spirit affirm that the Good News of the gospel is good news not just for those within Judaism, but for all people, even those who have been classified as unclean and unholy.  The Spirit is calling for a reordering of the world as the early followers knew it, where it’s not about what they do as believers, but what God does in them, for them, and through them.  The events and conversations contained in this section of the book of Acts forever changed the Church’s understanding of who’s in and who’s out.

All of that leads us, the readers and hearers of this passage today, to simply take it as a matter of church history.  This passage tells us that, early on in the movement, Gentiles were included.  And we’re happy about that, right?  It was the right thing for them to do.  After all, most Christians today and throughout history have never been members of the Jewish faith.

Who Are We To Hinder God?

But we are sincerely missing out if we take this passage solely as a lesson in church history.

We cannot stop at letting this passage help us to understand where Christianity has been.  We need this passage to be our guide as we seek to understand where Christianity, and we as Christians, need to be going.

You see, this passage is about Peter and the early Church, but it’s also about us. Somewhere along the way, Peter crossed a line – from trying to be faithful to the laws of Judaism that had guided his whole life, to actually withholding the good news about Jesus – the very news that had changed his whole life – withholding that from others so that he didn’t have to break rules about who to eat with.  And all of a sudden, Peter was acting in precisely the same way as the Pharisees who Jesus was always criticizing.  Peter was deciding who should and shouldn’t get to hear the good news, and deciding that only people who agreed to follow the same rules that he followed would be able to hear about Jesus.  How quickly Peter messed up one of the main things Jesus taught and lived – God’s love is for everyone – and how quickly he started behaving in ways that added qualifiers to who got to hear the good news.

This passage is about Peter, but it’s also about us.  Because so often, we so quickly make the same mistakes that Peter made.

I started out my sermon this morning by talking about the human tendency to tattle on one another.  Sometimes I think that our favorite person to tattle to is God.  If we are truly honest with ourselves, how much time do we spend tattling to God in our minds and hearts about what others are doing or which rules of ours we think they are breaking or ignoring altogether?  How often do we plead with God not to make us encounter the people in our world who we have classified as unclean and off-limits?  Who is it that we say, “I’m fine with loving that person…  from afar and in an abstract way.  I’m fine with God caring for that person, but I’d really prefer to not have to come into contact with them.  At least not on a regular basis, and only on my terms.”  We even slap labels on our disagreeable neighbors to disenfranchise them: they are “liberal” or “conservative” or “homosexual” or “fundamentalist” or “Muslim” or “poor” or “wealthy.”

We must remember that when Jesus gave the Great Commission and sent his disciples out in mission and ministry to the world, he didn’t say, “Go out and make sure everyone is behaving in the right way” or “make sure that everyone agrees with one another perfectly.”  No, Jesus sent us out to share good news – that God is with us always, and loves us always, so come, and follow.

The rest of this stuff that we so often get bogged down with is simply not our responsibility.  Whether someone believes exactly the same thing as you do, or has the most theologically sound understanding of a passage, or is acting in what we believe is the “right” way…  God does not ask us to monitor one another.  We can help each other. We can work together to grow in faith.  We are called to be a community, to live out our lives of discipleship together and work together in mission and service.  But we can free ourselves of worrying about being the judge of right and wrong.  God’s got that covered. It’s a task we can cross right off our list. Because when we, faulty as we are, try to decide what’s best for others, we end up building dividing walls, creating strife and hostility, and worse, like Peter almost did, holding back on sharing the good news of God because we never let ourselves build enough of a relationship with someone to do so.

Peter had a vision, one that God made sure Peter got, showing it to him again and again – and it revealed that Peter was trying so hard to please God and be a good follower that he was actually standing in God’s way.  And the last thing Peter or any of us wants to do is become an obstacle between someone and God.  Peter summed it up with a perfect line: “Who was I, that I could hinder God?”

Who are we to hinder God?  Who are we to get in the way of God’s work, God’s mission, God’s love, God’s Kingdom here on Earth?  We’re God’s children.  We’re beloved. And God is breaking down walls and boundaries left and right in our world, so that we will sit down together, all of us, at God’s table.  Our job is to help God break down those boundaries and walls, because the Spirit is going to blow where it pleases, anyway.  

Your homework this week?  It is simultaneously both easy, and hard.  Don’t hinder God.  Serve God.  Listen to God.  Strive to love others like God loves them.  Pave the way for the Spirit, rather than standing in its way.[1]

[1] [1] For inspiration throughout this sermon, I owe thanks to Elizabeth Quick and her sermon from September 30, 2012: “Room at the Table: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (Accessed online at bethquick.blogspot.com/2012_10_01_archive.html)