Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Acts 11: 1-18)
Somewhere out in the world, there is a church facing a choice. It was inevitable, really. It was bound to happen. For years and years, the church had existed quite nicely, doing all the things that churches do. They gathered for worship on Sunday mornings. They came together for fellowship. They took time to learn and grow in the faith. They served those in need. For years and years, this church had been doing all of those things; doing them well, in fact.
And then one day, something happened. Actually it wasn’t really “one” day – it was many days, many years. People saw it coming but weren’t entirely sure what to make of it or what to do about it. And then it was there. What came was change. The Spirit at work. And it wasn’t one single thing, either; it was any number of things. The neighborhood around them started to shift. People stopped coming and joining like they once had. Giving was down. It was weird because in one way it felt like loss, like something was dying; but in another way it felt like something else was being born. The Spirit at work, you see.
And there were those in the church who thought the thing to do, the only thing to do, was to hold on tightly to what had always been, to keep things just as they were; to worship and fellowship and learn and serve just as they had for all of those years before. And by and large they thought this because all the change coming at them, it felt more like loss than something being born; and no one likes to feel they’ve lost something they’ve cherished. And that’s kind of how they were feeling.
Let me stop there to say that you are probably wondering what church I am speaking of. So I want to tell you that I am not, in fact, talking about this church; not that I couldn’t be talking about it or any church out there in this day and time, since all churches I’m aware of are experiencing some variation of this narrative. No, the church I’m talking about is the church we meet in the text this morning, the scripture that Rebecca read to us – not an individual church but the early church; the church that wouldn’t actually be called “church” until nearly half a century after Jesus’ life.
And it was inevitable, really, that things would get to this point. Back at the beginning all there was was a gathering of those Jesus had sought out and called together; a motley crew if there ever was one. Fishermen and tax collectors. Women and men. All of them Israelites; all Jews just as Jesus himself was. Over time this gathering grew bit by bit, both during and after Jesus’ lifetime. People like Peter and Paul, Phoebe and Chloe, all helping to move it along and grow. And they did what churches do – they worshiped, they had fellowship, they learned, they served.
And then one day, something happened. People saw it coming but weren’t entirely sure what to make of it or what to do about it. And then it was there. What came was change. The Spirit at work. The church was on the cusp of extending outside Israel, the only physical space it had ever known. And that meant that the church would no longer be made up of exclusively Jewish folk, as it had been since its inception, but now would count among its fold Gentiles as well. Those who were not Jewish. Which was a big, big change. And it was weird because in one way it felt like loss, like something was dying; but in another way it felt like something else was being born. The Spirit at work, you see.
And there were those in the early church who were not happy with this, who thought that such a step would be a step too far; that the Gentile world was not a world worth saving, people who lived in faraway places like Corinth and Ephesus and Phillippi and Thessalonica and Galatia and Rome and everywhere in between. And they preferred keeping church with people they knew and trusted, people who looked like them and talked like them.
But even more than the people. if you want to know the real truth (a truth that perhaps they themselves could not fully express), the real issue was not those other people as much as themselves and the change they would experience should the church broaden its vision. And they didn’t want change. They wanted church to stay exactly as it was.
And so they went to Peter – the one who’d been there from the beginning, the one they saw share a meal with those who were not like them. They went to Peter, who they knew and trusted, and told them that things were going a step too far, that what was happening felt a lot like loss, like something was dying.
And that’s when Peter shared a strange vision he had just the other day; a vision of a large sheet lowered from heaven itself, and inside the sheet were all manner of creatures – four-footed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. Things that, to a Gentile, would look like nothing more than an odd assortment of creatures in a large sheet; but to a Jew like Peter were the embodiment of everything unclean in Jewish dietary law. He hears God’s voice telling him to kill and eat. And he’s horrified, because the mere suggestion of this amounts to the worst possible nightmare for a faithful practicing Jew. To eat this would be to defile one’s body and, by extension, defile one’s very faith. And he tells God no.
To which God replies:
What God has made clean, do not call profane.
And because important things in the Bible often happen in threes, this entire scene plays out two more times: the sheet, the command, the refusal, the response:
What God has made clean, do not call profane.
This, Peter tells his questioners, this is why he now dines with those that he used to consider less than. This is why he, along with others, would spend the remaining years of his life telling the Gentiles about Jesus and pushing the church into unchartered territory, literally and figuratively. This is why Peter feels passionately that the church’s future can never be found in what has always been but in what is yet to become – that change has indeed arrived, that the Spirit is most assuredly at work. This is why Peter tells them:
If God gave the Gentiles the same gift God gave us
when we believed in Jesus,
who are we to hinder God?
You know, one of the things I love about Peter is the way he’s constantly growing and learning something new – whether it’s how not to walk on water, or how to make bold proclamations, or how to receive the grace of God after three agonizing denials. Peter is a work in progress, and I don’t know about you but I kind of resonate with that. That’s what this vision is about, really. And we have to give God some props here, do we not; the way that God makes God’s vision for the church about as clear as it could possibly be. A church unbound, not limited by what has always been; a church that views change not as something to fear but something to embrace, a church that is willing to let go in order to go. A church that is willing to stand up and speak out for things that matter, like grace and love and mercy and compassion and forgiveness and justice; and against things that are the antithesis to all that, like things that are happening all over the world today; like what happened in Buffalo just yesterday.
That is what God wants from us.
And yet it appears that is not always what we want for ourselves, is it? More often than not, the churches we encounter are churches who are comfortable with things staying the same. They are quite satisfied with the way their needs are being met. They’re fine with others coming, of course; as long as those others are willing to acquiesce and get on board with what is already there. They’re more inclined to fling their doors open on Sunday morning for whoever might come in, and less inclined to go out those doors themselves and see what it is the world needs from them. They are more at ease looking back than looking forward.
Churches do not like change.
And yet, there is God is dangling the sheet right in front of us.
In her book Sailboat Church, author and former PCUSA moderator Joan Gray uses nautical imagery to describe two very different kinds of churches. There is one she refers to as the “rowboat church.” The primary understanding of life in the rowboat church is that God has given the church a basic agenda (make the world a better place, save souls, help the poor) and left it up to that church to get on with it. The prevalent attitude is one of two: either “We can do this.” or “We cannot do this.” Rowboat churches define themselves, and their capacity to fulfill their purpose, by the resources they do or do not have: money, volunteers, charisma and skill of leaders, and demographics of its community, to name a few. And most importantly, the progress of a rowboat church, as the name suggests, depends exclusively on the rowing abilities of its members: how long, and how hard, they are willing to row. And it is not surprising that rowboat churches wind up requiring a lot of rowing.
Sailboat churches, on the other hand, are different. Sailboat churches do not over-focus on their own situation, the resources they have, the limitations either of those might present. Instead, sailboat churches focus on constantly discerning God’s unfolding will in its midst. Rather than think it is all up to them to “make church happen,” sailboat churches engage in an intimate partnership with God, trusting God to provide and do what only God can do. They make nurturing a relationship with Jesus and with each other a top priority. They are guided by scripture and prayer. Sailboat churches are often pushed beyond the wisdom, money, and abilities they currently have, but often find that those things are there when they are needed. And most importantly, while people are certainly active and engaged in a sailboat church, it is not the drudgery of rowing, because the Spirit is the wind filling its sails, moving it forward and taking it in the direction she wants it to go.
Rowboat churches and sailboat churches – I think Joan Gray is on to something. Here’s the curious thing, though: if I were to ask you which church you’d prefer, I’m guessing you’d probably say a sailboat church, right? Who would not want to be part of a church that’s living into a vision, a church with the wind at its back, a church where ministry is not experienced as constant rowing?
And yet the fact is, so many of our churches and church members these days are rowing like crazy. That’s what the early church was poised to become before God dangled that sheet in front of Peter. It is something to ponder, isn’t it, that had Peter not heeded the vision, had the early church of long ago not put down their oars and let the Spirit fill its sails, you and I would most certainly not be sitting in this sanctuary today on the other side of the world.
So who are we to hinder God?
You know, I’m struck by the honest dynamics at play in the creation of the new church that we find in this story and throughout the Book of Acts. Along with spreading the good news of Jesus, the early church was equally invested in building community. Author M. Scott Peck maps out four stages of community formation. There is at first what he calls pseudo-community, which is characterized by conflict avoidance and the minimization of difference. Next comes chaos: strong differences emerge and efforts are made to bring them into alignment. These efforts often deepen the conflict – which sounds like a bad thing, but doesn’t have to be. Emptiness follows, the third stage, where members empty themselves of barriers to communication. Prejudices and biases are revealed. Agendas are abandoned. This leads to true Community, the fourth stage, where members begin to speak their most vulnerable truths and others listen.
I love that the pinnacle of his community formation is not an action plan or “measurable goals,” but rather a reality where vulnerable truths are spoken and heard. Where people are engaged with one another. Where, absent agendas and biases and fear, something like God’s Spirit has room to work. I wonder if this is the moment where that Spirit can fill those sails and lead us where she would have us go.
If nothing else, friends, the 11th chapter of Acts begs us to ask where we are as a church. Where are we, Trinity, in the stages of community formation – somewhere in between chaos and emptiness, perhaps? How many of us are tired of the rowing, and what would it be like to do some sailing instead? It’s fascinating to watch the way things play out in Acts, and even in its prequel Luke: a willingness to include outsiders and extend the boundaries of who’s invited in – and because of that, all the new ideas and visions that come from it; ideas and visions that certainly bring some amount of chaos and emptiness that might feel like loss, but also chaos and emptiness that really is about something else being born.
May God’s spirit carry us forward into our future.
In the name of 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.
 The actual ending of the verse reads “Who was I that I could hinder God.” I’ve adapted it here to broaden the audience.
 Adapted from Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission And Practice by Joan S. Gray, pg. 2.
 Adapted from Sailboat Church, chapter 2.
 http://atlc.org/members/resources/four_stages_community.html. Also a paper from fellow By The Vine member Tim Hughes Williams.