On the whole, have Christians helped your journey toward God or hindered it?When a radio interviewer asked poet Kathleen Norris, “Do you consider yourself a Christian?” Norris sighed and said, “My problem with that is that so many people who publicly identify themselves as Christians are such jerks about it.”
I’m guessing that each of us is here today, in large part, because some Christian folk along the way weren’t jerks about it; they lived their faith in such a way that —somehow—God became more real to us. I’m also guessing, though, living here in the South, that we’ve all encountered a few “jerky” Christians.
On the whole, have Christians helped or hindered your journey toward God? Another question: On the whole, have you helped or hindered others’ journeys toward God?
Peter was the apostle to whom Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom of God. Peter is the one upon whom Jesus said he would build his church. Peter, though a bit brash at times, was the true leader of the apostles…
…and even Peter—this one who’d lived with and learned from Jesus, this one who was the hope of the Jesus movement after Jesus was gone, even Peter was hindering others’ journeys to God…because in Peter’s mind, if you weren’t a Jew—if you weren’t like him–the message of the risen Christ wasn’t for you.
At the beginning of the book of Acts, just before Jesus leaves the scene for good, he commissions all the disciples to share the good news “even to the ends of the earth.” You can see how it was going to be hard to get the message to every person on the planet if the main disciple wasn’t going to be talking to most of them.
So, something had to happen. Peter needed a conversion.
Now, there’s a word with some baggage: conversion. A lot of calls to conversion here in the South begin with, “If you were in a car wreck on the way home from church today and died, do you know where you would spend eternity?” (Even after decades of good theology, that question stills gives me chills!) Has anyone else experienced “conversion” as a means to bypass Hell? A couple of my conversions were like that.
All conversions aren’t quite so traumatic, I mean, dramatic. Converting to Catholicism involves attending adult confirmation. Converting to Judaism involves another process. Converting to Islam, yet another.
But all these forms of conversion deal mostly with external trappings. Ideally, the external trappings connect to an internal spiritual experience, but they don’t always.
Here’s what I’m learning about conversion from the nuns: conversion is a lifelong process. One of the vows the sisters take is the vow of “conversion of life.” Conversion of life isn’t the Big Kahuna kind of conversion—like Paul on the road to Damascus. The kind of conversion the monks are talking about are those mental, emotional, and spiritual internal transformations that help us to see the world in a completely different way.
It’s that kind of deep, life-altering conversion that Peter undergoes in today’s Scripture story. As I mentioned earlier, Peter was a follower of Jesus and a die-hard Jew. Throughout most of the first century, there was strenuous debate about whether or not the Jesus-thing was for everybody or just for the Jews (since Jesus himself had been a Jew). In the time right after Jesus’ resurrection, most followers of Jesus assumed that the Gospel was only for the Jews and not for the Gentiles.
So when folks began hearing about Gentiles (non-Jews) “accepting the word of God,” the grumbling started. “When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised (that is, Jewish) believers criticized him saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” That’s when Peter tells them his conversion story, step by step.
I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
So, here’s what Peter means. In Jewish law, eating beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air wasn’t permitted to the faithful. Peter probably thought he was being tested: God would never ask him to break Jewish law or tradition, right? But a second time the voice answered from heaven: ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.”
At the very moment Peter was trying to make sense of the vision, he says,
“Three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’”
So that’s everything that happened to Peter externally. Here’s how those external experiences worked to create an internal conversion. Peter says: “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” Who was I that I could hinder God?
Has anyone done more to hinder God’s work in the world than faithful Christians? Sometimes it seems like those who are most zealous about their faith, miss the mark by the widest margin. Sometimes it is the most faithful who, in their zeal, exclude the very people whom God wants most to welcome into God’s kin-dom. But, let’s face it. Learning to see the world as God sees it…that can be hard work, can’t it? Learning to see the world as God sees the world…that takes conversion after conversion after conversion. And conversion takes work.
My conversion to the idea of the inclusiveness of God’s love for people of all sexual orientations began in my first semester of seminary, the Fall of 1988. I was a good Southern Baptist woman. I had gone to seminary to become—what else could a woman do in the church?—a children’s minister.
Back in the olden days, before Facebook, students used to post comments on the bulletin board in the Post Office. That Fall, nearly all the comments referenced the seminary’s decision to expel a man who was gay. That controversy was a pivotal moment for me. I remember reading all the posts, all the comments from the seminary administration and wondering where I stood on things. Was it right—or terribly wrong—to expel this man?
I wrote to a couple I had befriended in Oklahoma, parental surrogates of a sort. I asked Doris and Charles what they thought, how I should think about the whole thing. They told me, “This is something you need to figure out for yourself.”
It would have been easier if they had simply told me what to believe, but conversion isn’t an easy process. Conversion takes work. I did that work that Fall. I read everything that was posted at the Post Office. I talked to a few friends. I prayed. And by the end of that term I knew, I knew that what the seminary administration was doing was wrong. If that man felt called to ministry, who were they to say he hadn’t been, simply because he loved men?(I now find it ironic that I affirmed gay folks’ call to ministry before I affirmed women’s right to pastor….but that’s another story for another day.)
The thing about conversion, though, is that it’s not a one-time process, at least for most of us. There is a kind of before-and-after-ness to it, but beyond the big decision—“Yes, God welcomes gay folks into the kin-dom of God just as they are”—there comes a whole string of other conversions related to that first one. For me, those conversions involved answering a few questions: How will this realization change how I view and live my life? If God welcomes gay folks into the kin-dom, how will I welcome gay folks into my life and faith world? And if God includes gay folks in the kin-dom, who else might God be welcoming that I am not?
My ongoing conversion process from that first conversion in the fall of 1988 has involved befriending folks who are gay, incorporating more inclusiveness into my theology, being ordained by and serving an Open and Affirming church, deciding to pastor only Open and Affirming churches, which, ten years ago, was a career-limiting decision. Not so much any more, thanks be to God. That ongoing conversion process also has involved helping this congregation live into its ONA identity….something we’ve done a pretty good job of.
Have I always gotten the inclusiveness-of-God’s-love thing right? Um, no. But neither did Peter. Later on, Paul, as he says, “confronts Peter to his face” for welcoming Gentiles to the table of faith, he welcomes them, that is, until the Jewsshow up. When the Jews show up, Peter sits with them. Paul calls Peter on his hypocrisy.
Yeah, okay. I guess technically at that point, Peter was being a hypocrite…but still. He was trying. Paul just caught him in one of those awkward transitional moments that always seem to accompany conversion processes. Changing your life, learning to see the world as God sees it, it’s hard work. It takes time. Conversion is an ongoing process.
So, how about it? On the whole are you helping or hindering people in their journeys toward God? Could another conversion or two help you help others in their faith journeys? What change in mind, what change in attitude would help you to help others in their journeys? What change in mind, what change in attitude might help you in your own?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
KimberleighBuchanan © 2010 (2013)
<!– 11 –>Peter’s Report to the Church at Jerusalem
11Now the apostles and the believers* who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers* criticized him,3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.* These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter;14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.”15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’