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Changing with Peter without just being grossed out
Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that changing our minds was a terrible thing. I remember a few years ago, I got to spend some time with an old high school friend of mine. Even though we were very close at some point in our live (I think I was even in his wedding), we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. I made some quip during a game of Settlers of Catan that he and I probably don’t disagree about anything. I was being hyperbolic, but I really didn’t think it was far from the truth. He then made a few comments about subjects that I hadn’t thought about in years, but that we nevertheless had a difference of opinion on. I think my whole approach to politics and theology has changed as I’ve grown older, but I was surprised that his thought was that we would just stay stuck in our old caverns of thought.
I suppose we kind of get tattooed with the things we say and believe and I think that can be a problem. You say one thing when you are sixteen and it never leaves you. That kind of stubbornness may seem like a virtue, but I’m not so sure. It’s very interesting to see what people will never live down—and these days, we witness a lot of it. Some newspaper quotes something someone said twenty years ago and they have to defend it as if they believe it now. I think there is value in changing your mind; in growing, in learning, in adapting even. Not only does that prospect seem impossible to some, it seems immoral!
We can be so rigid with how we think and process, and we can sometimes stay in our ruts in the name of consistency, or the Christianese word: steadfast. I don’t think our inflexibility is a virtue. I suppose if we change, we look weak, impressionable, stupid. I think, alternatively, we are humble, and we are flexible. Those are traits of a healthy person, in my opinion. If we can learn to be malleable and flexible, I think we develop resistance to breaking.
I actually think the less flexible we are, the more likely we are to make a radical change that throws out all of what we have learned, just so we can “be consistent.” So rather than maturing our young faith into adult faith, we just lose the whole thing. We never learn to change our mind, so we just throw it all away. We are rigid in our fundamentalism, not just of faith and Christianity, but of anything, and we rebel because we never learned to adapt.
The whole New Testament is filled with that kind of flexibility. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is a major agent of change in the book of Acts. Just last week, I was sharing about Saul’s conversion. He was a Christian-persecuting Jewish person, who became a Christian-discipling follower of Christ. The big change the faith movement needed to undergo was how to include people that were not part of the Jewish order. There were large cosmopolitan cities with that had Greek and Roman influence and many people who were far off from being Jewish culturally. So how could Christianity become more than just an off-shoot of Judaism? How could it include so-called foreigners?
Luke indicates a moment where the Gospel moves out in all directions to all people. It’s a great moment of change. And it is directed by the Holy Spirit, not just the good will of Peter or anyone else. Let’s start from chapter ten, verse nine.
Peter goes up to his roof, probably at an usual time (noon—the hottest part of the day.) Not surprisingly, it’s hot and he’s tired and so he falls into a trance. And then something like a large sheet falls from heaven.
The figurative sheet is filled with animals, from the earth, the sea, and the sky. The voice of God calls out to Peter and tells him to kill and eat, even the unclean animals (Leviticus 11 tells you more). Thinking it could be a test or a temptation, he emphatically refuses. He is really serious about not eating this food. To relate to a bit, imagine having a dream where a sheet of mice, rats, cockroaches, and other gross things comes down from heaven and having a voice tell you to eat them. Peter is more than just grossed out, he’s trying to follow the law that he has been loyal to for a long time. But God has made the food clean and it is time to eat. God declares the food clean and demonstrates such a radical cultural and legal change, for the purpose of inclusion. Luke tells us that Peter saw this vision three times, which reinforces the point that this vision came from God.
The changes here are not just for good, they are leading us into a new era. What else has God made unclean? Us! Through the work of Jesus Christ.
The next day they leave on their way to Caesarea, with some companions form the city of Joppa. Immediately when Cornelius sees Peter, he falls at his needs and begins to worship him. This may be an act of respect and paying homage than worship, but Peter’s response seems to indicate Cornelius is ready to worship Peter himself. A similar thing happens when Paul and Barnabus in Acts 14 are offered sacrifices and refused. Part of Gentile conversion is getting them not to worship people. Gentiles have to change too. Luke isn’t deifying anyone in Acts but Jesus, this emphasis is important culturally and otherwise.
Peter then explains the revelation that’s come from the Spirit. Previously, for a Jew to interact with a Gentile would make him ritually unclean. But now, it is not unclean. What we eat, who we relate to, and so on. The old laws are being undone and the world is changing. Although it may not be clear to us if the food laws are explicitly abolished, we at least know that the social norms are being undone.
This all sets the stage for Peter’s direct sermon of the Good News specifically to a Gentile audience. Something of a Gentile Pentecost occurs right after that.
The big thing that we are getting from this is the importance of the church being inclusive for the sake of mission, that for God changing to include people into the Gospel is of the utmost importance, so we are committed to breaking traditional barriers for people and the church.
How can we change to include the next person? Throughout history, it seems the church has changed quite a bit. Floating around Facebook this week was an article that wondered whether Christians and Evangelicals could co-exist (it was a response to one that wondered whether gay people and Christians could co-exist). The author’s main point was that Christians have changed over time—how we baptize, the role of Mary the mother of Jesus, even how we participate in the military.
Sometimes culture is the driving force behind why we change. Other times it is tradition. Sometimes we want to get back to our roots. Sometimes a leader’s style or preferences are why we change, too. But in my opinion, cultural pressure or preference just isn’t a good enough reason to change. We aren’t just changing to co-exist.
God changes us for the sake of inclusion, just like he changed Peter and the whole Jewish way of doing things. He wanted non-Jewish people to have a chance to follow up, and the Jewish customs were just a major road block. Many of the Jewish laws we now overlook have to do with health, good agriculture practice, or even making sure that the Jews weren’t participating in pagan rituals. Thousands of years later, the question for the Christian movement was whether or not these laws were important enough to exclude someone from following Jesus.
Peter had a vision from God that led him to change. He was confused and reticent. But he had faith to follow God into new territory. The core of his faith was not altered, just changed enough to include. I think we need to model the same discernment and courage when we are making changes too.
Did you know Circle of Hope is in its own process of adaptation and changing too? This whole year has marked a shift in how we do things. The Hub, which is comprised of our Director of Operations (Nate Hulfish), our Business Manager (Matt Abraham), Luke Bartolomeo as Communications Assistant—plus our four local site supervisors (Britani, Steve, Bethany, and Christina)—is changing in a lot of ways. They are giving us major administrative capacity. The fruit of that is the pastors getting “out there” more, making relationships, meeting people, and being on the ground more than in the office. Rachel Sensenig is beginning an incremental transition to pastoring Broad & Washington and we are praying together about who might plant the next church. Rod is transitioning into his new role too: Development Pastor.
The result of the pastors kind of getting out of the middle of everything, is the opportunity for our Leadership Team and Cell Leaders to continue to emerge. They are our main leaders who are leading us into what’s next. They are the Cell Leader Coordinators—who oversee our pastors, nurture and disciple our cell leaders. The Capacity Core Team, who works with the Hub, to further our operational capacity. The Compassion Core Team, which pulls us into new territory, helping our reputation in the region as compassion lovers. And the Church Planting Core are the apostles challenging us to change and grow even more.
But change is hard, and it is easy to let our anxiety lead us and get nervous about what will happen and stop it. The culture of your cell and Circle of Hope, the culture of your family, and even the culture of the church at large resists change. But sometimes even a minor disruption can lead to a large change that ripples out from us and changes the world.
So two questions we may want to ponder are 1) What is God leading me to change personally in my life? 2) How does God want Circle of Hope to change?