Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Acts 10: 1-6, 9-16, 23b-28, 44-48)
It is a weird time to be the church – would you agree? Here’s what I mean by that: what seemed to work for years and years is not necessarily working anymore. Things that felt comfortable, familiar, reliable have been turned upside down and inside out.
Now we can choose to understand this in a couple of ways. We can see it as signs of a church that is dying; a church that is on life support and breathing its last breaths. There are a lot of people out there who’ve subscribed to this interpretation, because the optics at face value appear to suggest it. It’s also how we tend to respond to things we don’t fully understand. We’re afraid of it. We deem it as not good. The church is dying.
I must tell you that I, for one, have grown weary of this “sky is falling” mentality, for a number of reasons. For one, it does the church no good. It is also not a faithful response to our calling. But most of all, it is simply not true.
Which is why I am grateful that there’s another way to look at all that is happening in the church. Right at this moment, God is in the process of stretching our minds, expanding our vision, calling us to deeper discipleship. Right at this moment, God is doing a new thing in our midst, a new thing that in some ways feels like an old thing, which is why today we’re looking back at the very early church to see what we might learn from it as we move forward.
I have to think that’s what Peter was thinking in our scripture today: man, it is a weird time to be the church. There he is, up on the balcony for his daily prayers, when a vision overcomes him. A vision of this huge blanket, dropped down from the heavens, full of all kinds of foods strictly forbidden by his Jewish diet. I mean, full of it. You could not have assembled a smorgasbord more at odds with his faith than this. And to make matters worse, it was around dinnertime. His stomach grumbling.
I try to put myself in Peter’s sandals and wonder if he thought he was the butt of some divine practical joke here. Or if not that, a test? Either way, Peter was determined to be neither a punch line nor a failure. He may have denied Jesus three times in the heat of the moment, but that was ages ago. He would be faithful this time. He would not eat what lay before him.
I try to imagine how strange it was for Peter to hear that voice from above, that voice that came with the blanket and the food, that voice commanding him to eat. Eat that. Grab the knife and fork, tie the napkin around his neck, and dig in. This from the very same God who’d been telling his people for thousands of years precisely not to do that thing.
So what does Peter do? Not surprisingly, he pulls a Peter. He pushes back: God, I’ve never eaten this stuff before in my life, and if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not start today, thank you very much.
The response God gives Peter, spoken three times because it is that important: If God says it’s okay, it’s okay. If God says it’s okay, it’s okay. If God says it’s okay…… (it’s okay!)
It is a weird time to be the church!
A little earlier in this 10th chapter of Acts, and woven neatly into the overarching narrative, is a story about a man named Cornelius, a member of the Italian guard – which, in Jewish parlance, means he is a Gentile. He is being called, more or less, to become part of this new thing God is doing, to follow Jesus. So he receives a message from God saying that a man would be coming to see him. Now the reader knows that man is Peter. But Cornelius doesn’t know it yet, he’s never met Peter before. And Peter doesn’t know Cornelius either – mainly because Cornelius, a Gentile, is somebody Peter would never have had a reason to know.
So following his vision, when Peter does meet Cornelius – the kind of person he’d normally have nothing to do with – it all becomes clear to him. That vision of the blanket and the food; that repeated command: If God says it’s okay, it’s okay. Suddenly it’s not about the blanket and food anymore. Centuries of Torah law telling Peter that interactions with Gentiles were not worth his time. Centuries of law, now in the process of not being discarded but redefined, rewritten. Expanding horizons with broad strokes.
What we have here in the 10th chapter of Acts, my friends, is a good ol’ conversion story. Just not the kind of conversion we might think.
For when we say “conversion,” an image typically comes to mind. A warm muggy summer evening, a pitched tent in an open field, propped up by four tall stakes at the corners and an even taller one in the middle. Rusty metal folding chairs, arranged in makeshift aisles. And up front: a small raised platform, maybe a simple wooden box, enough for the preacher to stand on. In one hand, a worn-out King James Bible; in the other, a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his brow. He preaches and preaches and preaches, whipping the gathering into a frenzy, until that moment at the sermon’s pinnacle when he commands the sinner to come forward and receive salvation in Jesus Christ.
At least that’s what I hear happens. I mean, I was raised Presbyterian.
The interesting thing about conversion stories like this is that they’re usually seen as one-time events. Someone makes that decision, comes forward, experiences conversion. And that’s it, they’re good to go. The truth of the matter is that conversion is an ongoing process. I love how author Kathleen Norris puts it: “The very cells in our body are busy changing, renewing themselves, every few days. Yet we remain recognizably ourselves.” That’s conversion. We are constantly evolving as people of faith, forever being molded and shaped by the Holy Spirit. We are never a finished product.
This story in the 10th chapter of Acts is commonly referred to as the “Conversion of Cornelius.” My sermon title captures much the same. But we probably should ask ourselves if Cornelius is the only one who experienced conversion that day. Is he? For when Peter speaks about a changed heart and expanded horizons, it’s not the Gentile he’s referring to. He’s talking about himself. The conversion of note here is his. A conversion instigated by a simple truth that came to him in a vision, three times: If God says it’s okay, it’s okay!
Peter is not alone in his conversion; not by a long shot. Even in this weird time – perhaps because of it – the very church itself is undergoing conversion as well. And what exactly is that conversion?
I wonder if you remember from your history class the Lewis and Clarke expedition of the early 1800’s. Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend Second Lieutenant William Clark were commissioned by then President Thomas Jefferson to explore the western half of the country, which had recently been acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. More specifically, the two men and their “Corps of Discovery” were tasked with finding the water route that connected the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean – a water route that everyone knew for sure existed somewhere, a water route that would give the one who found it exclusive control over trade and commerce in the New World.
What a shame that such a water route does not exist.
Now they didn’t know that, of course. No one did. For hundreds of years it’d been widely assumed by everyone that this water route was out there somewhere. It wasn’t a matter of whether it existed, it was only a matter of when it would be discovered and who would find it. The French were looking for it. So were the British and the Spanish. And now the Americans were taking a crack at it, with Jefferson’s backing.
The Corps of Discovery departed from Illinois and headed up the Missouri River. Fifteen months in, the men and their canoes reached a critical juncture where a small portion of land would take them to the Columbia River, which would then lead them to the Pacific Ocean. They would only have to carry their canoes a short distance before finding water again. That’s what they thought. Instead, what they found was not a gentle slope leading down to the river but the front line of the Rocky Mountains. Much to their surprise, there was no water route at all.
And it wasn’t just the shock of three hundred years of assumptions being wrong. It was that all the men had counted on and prepared for in this massive expedition involved canoes. News flash: canoes do not work without a body of water to canoe in. And it would be one thing if they had come upon plains or even rolling hills. They were facing the Rocky Mountains. The assumption all along had been that the geography west of the continental divide was the same as the geography east of it. They were totally unprepared for what they found.
Now they eventually made their way to the Pacific Ocean, but only because Lewis and Clarke and the Corps of Discovery came to a conversion of sorts; came to terms with the fact that all everyone had thought had been dead wrong, that plans would have to be dramatically altered and their entire mission reframed, that a canoeing expedition in the blink of an eye became a hiking excursion. There were no experts, no “best practices.” There was only themselves and their capacity to adapt to the change.
In his book aptly titled, Canoeing The Mountains, Presbyterian pastor and noted author Tod Bolsinger suggests that the church might have a thing or two to learn from the Lewis and Clarke story. Bolsinger claims the church, for far too long, has not only acted on assumptions about navigating in the world that are dead wrong, but has actually structured the church to thrive in that flawed reality. We have assumed that the “geography” of the church of the future is the same as the geography of the church of the past. We expected water but instead have found mountains. And all we have are canoes.
This is the leadership moment of the church today. We are canoers who have run out of water. There is no route in front of us, no map, no quick fix or easy answer. But this is actually good news. We have found ourselves in a divine moment. This is an opportunity to express even more clearly what it means to follow and serve our God. The church at its best has always been a Corps of Discovery. It has always been a small band of people willingly heading into uncharted territory with a mission worthy of our utmost dedication. That is most certainly our calling now.
How exactly does one canoe the mountains? How do we navigate a reality we always thought to be unclean and now are told is okay? How does the church encounter the kind of conversion needed to not simply survive in our new world but thrive in it?
Let me tell you how:
- We listen – deeply. We do more listening than talking.
- We take in our surroundings. We see what is begging to be seen, not just what we want to see.
- We learn what we need to let go of in order to grab hold of what needs to be held.
- We grieve the loss of what once was – and then we move on.
- We trust one another. We assume the best, not the worst, in each other.
- We realize that our best learnings, our most impactful growth, comes from when we fail. And so we are not afraid of failure. In fact, we welcome it.
- And in the end, we keep our focus on what truly matters. Not how many people come to church, or how many programs we had, but whether the kingdom of God on earth has been served because of who we are.
So much is happening around us, beloved. So much in our city, our country, our world. All of which makes it a weird time to be the church. Because what seemed to work before doesn’t necessarily work any more. What once was familiar and comfortable has been turned upside down.
But while the church may be changing, we know – we celebrate – that the mission of church has not. The mission of church – to share the love of Jesus Christ with the world, to work diligently to build the kingdom of God on earth; to, as our Trinity tagline proclaims, “grow together and welcome all” – that has not changed for the past 2000 years.
So my friends, do not fear. The church is not dying – not even close. The church is experiencing conversion all over again. It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last. And for that, in the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing The Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, pg. 35.