Let us pray: Almighty God, in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Open our eyes that we may see the wonders of your Word; and give us grace that we may clearly understand and freely choose the way of your wisdom; through Christ our Lord. Amen. (prayer source)
“Who am I?”
Like a lot of young people, when I was younger I had very definite ideas about just about everything. I was sure that there was right, and there was wrong, and that these things were always the same. Like in that ethical thought experiment: Is it wrong to steal an apple? Is it wrong to steal an apple because you’re rich and bored? Is it wrong to steal an apple because you’re starving? I was quite convinced that, yes, it is always wrong to steal. Conveniently for young me, my logic about this never got around to lying, as I pretty regularly avoided uncomfortable situations by telling white lies, and sometimes less-than-white lies. And so I got to feel awesome about how much I didn’t steal.
Our story in Acts is also a story about rules, about right and wrong and stories we tell ourselves about them. The disciple Peter is arguing with the church elders of Jerusalem: Peter has eaten with this non-Jewish man, Cornelius, and probably not just him but his entire family and household. He’s stayed in their house, and eaten their food, and there is no way that food was clean according to Jewish dietary laws. Peter has broken the law every which way. And rather than denying what he’s done, Peter is saying that, yes, of course he did it, God basically dragged him along kicking and screaming.
So, we have these two camps: the church elders, who’ve heard all these crazy rumors about Peter and are getting worried. ‘We need to keep God’s law,’ they argue, ‘and Peter, you clearly haven’t been doing that.’
Like I said, Peter doesn’t deny this; instead, he tells them what happened. He tells them about his vision, where all kinds of animals were lowered from heaven and he was told to eat. They weren’t clean animals, weren’t animals that Jews ate. After his vision, some men sent by Cornelius come to fetch him, and Peter goes. He preaches the gospel to Cornelius and his household, and they believe and receive the Holy Spirit. “Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, and there it was on those non-Jews. Who am I to deny what God has done? Who am I to stand in God’s way?” he concludes with.
This argument feels familiar. Not necessarily about whether we can eat pork or not, but just this argument about how to follow God well, about when we should keep to tradition and when God is leading us elsewhere. One of the reasons people think Luke, the writer of Acts, smoothed out some of the early church’s disagreements is because everyone agrees with Peter by the end of his speech. Everyone. Come on; we’ve all been part of arguments about God before, or just arguments. Everyone being swayed by a great speech and a great argument is the stuff of children’s TV, not real life. (Although in fairness to Luke, the early church continues to argue about this throughout the book of Acts).
These arguments are passion-filled, often nasty, bitterly-fought battles that stretch out over years and generations. Discerning what God is doing is difficult. Discerning what is important and unimportant is difficult, especially when we and God so often disagree about it. What we’ve grown up with, what we love about our church building, our favorite prayer habit: they are all important, they are all deeply emotional, they are all things we deeply connect with, but they are not set in stone. Sometimes we outgrow them; sometimes we cling to them anyway. Sometimes God pushes them aside to make room for something new, and often we only go along kicking and screaming.
Sometimes our history and traditions are what’s important: Scripture, a history of worship and service (no matter what it actually looks like), prayer, love. And sometimes the way they look changes.
And so often, we are all doing the best we can, and completely disagree. We believe we’re following where God is leading, and so does the person across the table from us who believes the exact opposite thing. That’s what happens in Acts. Every member of the church believed they were following God as they had been told to. They believed they were doing what was right. And still they came together, to listen to one another and love one another.
That is what we are called to do, even when we disagree. We listen to one another. We love one another.
And so let us love one another.