By: Marthame Sanders
April 19, 2015
Our faith should be as sure as the ground we walk on.
Our lesson this morning jumps ahead in the Book of Acts quite a distance. In the last two weeks, we went from the empty tomb on Easter to the disciples’ reunion with Jesus in the Galilee. Now, we have fast-forwarded past Christ’s ascension to heaven, the beautiful chaos of Pentecost, the organizing of the early church in structure and finances, the martyrdom of Stephen at the command of Saul, and the scattering and regrouping of the Christian movement to avoid further persecution.
And now today, we read the account of the first Gentile convert to the fledgling faith. We need to remember that, at this point in the story, Christianity was not its own separate faith or ideology. Instead, it had become a mystical Jewish sect, following the teachings and miracles of their rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus had some key interactions with non-Jews in his three years of public ministry that helped lay the groundwork for how the church would approach the conversation. But this moment is a pivotal one, the first step in a complete transformation of Christianity.
God ends up orchestrating the whole encounter, like some kind of divine matchmaker. Cornelius, though a soldier of the occupying Roman forces, had already become a worshiper of the Jewish God and had brought his whole household – family, servants, and all – into the fringe of the foreign faith. And then, in the middle of the afternoon, he has an encounter with an angel.
The angel uses this as an opportunity to connect him with Peter. The impulsive figurehead of the disciples had relocated to Joppa, along the Mediterranean Coast, to find some shelter and safety. So as Cornelius’ messengers are making their way to Peter, God is preparing Peter to receive them with a mystical vision. Up on the roof, he sees an image that pulls apart the very foundations of ritual practice. The distinction between Kosher and non-Kosher no longer applies. When the messengers arrive, Peter connects the dots. Our lesson today skips over Peter’s trip to Caesarea to meet Cornelius face to face, but it does end with his new insight that “God shows no partiality.”
And Christians never discriminated against anyone ever again.
That last part is not true, of course; but the heart of this story today is so earth-shaking for early Christianity that its core message has radiated throughout the church’s history, even up until today. As Presbyterians, we have codified this idea of God changing hearts and minds with the phrase, “The Reformed Church, always being reformed.” In other words, we hold things lightly, because there is always the possibility that we might not have it right; that we, too, might have a vision on a roof or a mid-afternoon encounter with God that will change us in unexpected ways.
One of many such moments was the birth of the Confessing Church movement in Germany in response to the rise of National Socialism. The so-called “German Church” endorsed Hitler’s policies and philosophy, a kind of theological baptizing of a racist ideology. And yet, there were Christians who were deeply disturbed at what was happening and wanted to make clear that not only did they object to these trends, but they did so because they were convinced that Jesus commanded them to be bold in the face of injustice and horror.
Martin Niemoeller was a pastor in this resistance movement. You may not know his name, but you surely know his famous quote, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. They they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak.”
Another was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was vocal enough in his opposition that he was sent to prison and then was martyred in a concentration camp. A third was Karl Barth, who in 1934 drafted the Barmen Declaration, the foundational document of the Confessing Church. He eventually fled to the United States, and became an influential theologian. This Barmen Declaration is part of our Presbyterian constitution, one document among many that Presbyterians see as important moments of the Church speaking to particular moments in history. Many of these moments owe their origin to Peter’s transformation.
What his vision reveals is a theme that we seem to touch on regularly here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian: God’s tribe is always bigger than ours. And there continue to be crucial moments in our history where we recognize this so that our vision of community might look more and more like the kingdom of God. Progress can be long and slow; and yet, it is progress. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Our lesson today gives witness to that progress. Just a few verses beyond where our readings end, Peter baptizes Cornelius’ household. And as he does, Peter’s Jewish cohort sees Gentiles having a charismatic experience that paralleled theirs in Jerusalem on Pentecost: speaking in tongues, understanding languages they’ve never learned…And the story continues to expand. Peter and Paul meet in Jerusalem, wrestling over what Gentile converts to Christianity might mean, eventually agreeing that they do not need to be circumcised or keep Kosher laws in order to be part of the body of Christ. Even in its earliest days, Christianity was marked by its desire to grow and change, to be an incarnate faith that may look and behave in different ways at different times. And yet, no matter what, it should be as sure as the ground we walk on.
A few months ago, I started taking yoga classes. Once a week, I make my way over to the Y to take my place between the folks who are limber in ways that I’m pretty sure God never intended and the so-called duffers who inspire me with their persistence. I started because I needed the stretching regimen. Periodically, our teacher veers into the spirituality of yoga which, I will say, is not my cup of tea. But eventually, we end up in my favorite position, Shavasana, which is lying on the floor on your back, with your eyes closed. It’s heavenly!
This past Friday, as we lay there and I snuck in a quick nap, our instructor said, “You don’t need to do anything now. The floor has you fully supported.” What I first heard as a rather obvious statement (“Of course the floor has me supported! Isn’t that the definition of ‘floor’”?), quickly struck me as the perfect metaphor for faith. It’s there, supporting you, reliable, because that’s what it’s there for. You might have to watch your step, careful to navigate the twists and turns beneath your feet. But ultimately, it’s there whether you look down or not; in fact, it’s there whether or not you even believe it’s there.
You see, God is reliable. God has us supported. As strange as it might sound, whether we believe in God or not, God believes in us. And that knowledge is what gives us the trust, the awareness, the truth on which we can stand firm and act in faithful ways to see God’s tribe as much bigger than we would ever imagine. What it takes…are the quiet moments on the rooftop. Just as Peter paused in prayer and his vision came into focus, there is a need for us to carve out space into which we can invite the Holy Spirit to inspire, move, and transform us.
It might take different shapes for each us: whether it’s lying down in Shavasana, sitting up on the roof or in the back yard in quiet meditation, or what the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard referred to as walking “myself into my best thoughts”, our openness to God’s invitation is best served by our willingness to pause, to quiet, to still the rush and the noise.
The point is simply this: we all set foot on the same ground of faith! It’s there, beneath us, whether we look down or not! God’s got us! We can rest assured, trusting in the same Jesus who sends angels to Gentiles and visions to Jews and, yes, even elders to Presbyterians!
It is this knowledge that allows us know that there is progress, even when we cannot see the bend of the arc beyond the horizon. It encourages us to speak boldly but hold things lightly so that we might both be instruments of God’s grace and recognize that gift in others. And it unifies us, bringing us together as God’s people in ways that will surprise, awe, comfort, and challenge us.
Because sometimes, all it takes is a moment on the roof.