Today marks the end of the program year for our Christian Formation program. It’s a custom here at Grace that on this day we recognize all those who have worked in our Christian formation program as teachers and as volunteers and to invite the children and youth in the program to participate in our service by serving as ushers, lectors, and Eucharistic ministers. Things are always a bit chaotic on this day, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We experience the full breadth and depth of our congregation—its diversity in ages. And we see concretely how our Christian formation program has grown over the last decade. This year we added a second class during the 10:00 service to accommodate that growth, and next year, we anticipate dividing the older group that meets at 9 into separate classes for middle and high schoolers. Much of the success of the program is due to the energy, passion, and creativity of Pat Werk, and also to all those volunteers whom we will recognize later in the service.
That’s all a sign of growth and change at Grace. While we might welcome such growth, it’s also important to recognize that growth brings with it some challenges. We may not know or recognize everyone who worships with us on Sunday mornings; the presence of children in our services can also make things a little more chaotic, and not just on this Sunday morning. And we are struggling with space. As we consider splitting the youth into two classes, finding space for the second class to meet will require some flexibility and creative thinking.
In the book of Acts, we read the story of the spread of the gospel and the growth in numbers of the followers of Jesus in the first years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Luke tells us a story full of drama and excitement but he also records some of the conflict that such growth involved. We see some of that conflict here, in the story of Peter and Cornelius.
Have you ever been in a situation where someone you respected, someone in authority told you to do something you had never done before, something that went against everything you had been taught, would have challenged your very sense of identity, who you were, how you understood yourself, your deepest values? Can you imagine that? How would you respond?
That’s just what happened to Peter. He was staying with Simon the Tanner in Joppa and as he waited for lunch, he had a vision that unsettled him and challenged his very sense of self. A cloth comes down, on it are all sorts of unclean animals. A voice calls to him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter refuses. The same thing happens three times, and just as the vision comes to an end, messengers sent by Cornelius knock at the door. Peter and some others go with them. Peter preaches to Cornelius’ household, the Holy Spirit comes down on those present, and Peter baptizes them.
We hear the second version of that story, as Peter retells it to the gathered community in Jerusalem after his return from Caesarea. It wasn’t a simple update from Peter to the home office. There was grave concern about what had happened while he was traveling:
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
In other words, they weren’t bothered that Peter had preached to Gentiles or that he had baptized them. What concerned them was that he had eaten with them. Peter had visited Cornelius, stayed with him for several days, and had eaten at his table. From Luke’s perspective, this all would have been offensive to observant Jews.
Let me take a moment to unpack this. It’s crucial to compare the New Testament accounts with what we know from other sources and in this case, Luke is mis-stating the nature of Jewish practice in the first century. Certainly, observant Jews maintained strict dietary laws—eating only those foods that were clean by biblical standards. That’s what was at stake in the vision Peter had. But the notion that as Luke records a bit earlier (Acts 10:28) “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile” is wrong. In 1stcentury Palestine, it would have been impossible for Jews not to have had contact with Gentiles. So Luke is depicting Judaism in negative terms here, and also caricaturing the position of Peter’s critics.
Now certainly there were important issues at stake. We will see the conflict again next week as we hear the story of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem and the so-called Jerusalem council. The question whether Gentiles who accepted Jesus as the Messiah needed to be circumcised and to follow Jewish dietary laws was an important one. From the perspective of 21stcentury Americans, it’s hard to understand what was at stake, and to take seriously the concerns around circumcision. We know how the story ended.
But given the resurgence of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism, we must recognize when new testament texts and their authors present Judaism in negative light and provide cover for contemporary anti-semitism. This is one of those places. It’s obvious to us that circumcision and Jewish dietary laws no longer apply and we regard those who wanted to maintain them misguided. They were in a very different place. The relationship between the Jesus movement and Judaism was not defined. The emergence of two religions—Judaism and Christianity—was not at all an obvious development.
But there are other lessons for us here. We should think carefully about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the ways in which our sacred texts and Christian history have led to persecution, anti-semitism, and ultimately the Holocaust.
We often look at the story of Acts, the spread of the Gospel, the movement of the Holy Spirit, and the resistance to that from certain parties and interpret our own experiences and the life of the 21stcentury church in light of that narrative. How many times have people said when change is happening in the church, that the Holy Spirit is moving or doing a new thing? When the question is asked that way, the speaker always is advocating that change is good, that the innovation is a faithful adaptation of our faith to new realities.
I’m not so sure. There’s a passage in Deuteronomy that I’ve always found helpful here. The text is addressing the rise of false prophets and raises the question of how to distinguish true from false prophecy. Well, the answer that’s offered isn’t particularly reassuring—basically the advice is to wait and see whether the prophecy comes true. In other words, you can’t really distinguish true and false prophecy until after the fact.
Our congregation is experiencing change. The Episcopal Church is experiencing change, Christianity in America and worldwide is experiencing change. We may be uncomfortable with some of those changes; we may welcome them but as faithful Christians our ultimate task is to discern the work of the spirit, to listen to scripture and tradition, to pay attention to voices on all sides of an issue, and seek God’s wisdom and will in the midst of it, recognizing that our perspective might not be correct in the long run.
And the vision we receive, the voice that tells us, “Get up, kill and eat” may be heaven. It may also be our stomachs growling.