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Response to Resurrection: Get Ready to Change

May 5, 2019 Sermon
Response to Resurrection:
Get Ready to Change

First Scripture Reading:  Acts 10:1-17

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3 One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4 He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8 and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance.

11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate.

Second Scripture Reading: Acts 10:30-48

30 Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31 He said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ 33 Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Message – “Response to Resurrection: Get Ready to Change”

Today, we move on from the book, the gospel of Matthew, from which we’ve been reading for all of 2019 to date.  Today, we move on to the next book after the gospels, the book of Acts. I wonder what you think about the book of Acts, how you would describe it if you were asked to provide one summary sentence.

  • Some people consider Acts the story of the birth and early growth of Christ’s Church.
  • Some people call Acts the biography of Paul’s Christian ministry.
  • Some people look at the title, Acts of the Apostles, and proclaim that title to be the summary: it’s the book describing the ministry stuff Jesus’ apostles did.
  • Some people – including me when I lead a Bible study on the book of Acts – describe the book as a recounting of the work of Jesus’ apostles to spread the gospel of Jesus to the ends of the earth.

As I considered this week how I would describe the book of Acts in light of where we are in the Christian liturgical calendar, during the season of Eastertide, specifically this Sunday on the third Sunday of Eastertide, I discovered that my answer changes just a bit.  During this season of Eastertide, as we consider how God reveals through the scriptures that we should respond to Jesus’ resurrection, it seems to me that the book of Acts could be described as the efforts of Jesus’ apostles to respond to resurrection without Jesus’ physical presence in their midst.  Which, come to think of it, is a fair description of us, the modern Church. Our lives, our work as followers of Jesus, comprises our efforts to respond to resurrection without Jesus’ physical presence in our midst. So, perhaps, when it comes to figuring out how WE should respond, we should pay special attention this book.

We might just find some ways God desires our response to be different from what we’ve always thought.  Indeed, what we find today about how God desires we respond to resurrection is quite different from how many of us ACT like we have wanted to respond.

Did you notice what was happening in the story of our reading for today?

The story is about Peter.  Peter, one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples, Peter, who was seemingly portrayed by the gospel writers as being as opposed to change as just about anyone I’ve ever encountered:

  • Remember Jesus giving Peter this name?  When we first encountered Peter, his name was Simon, but Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter as a revelation of Simon’s character.  And this new name, Peter, literally means “rock”. Just out of curiosity, when you think of a rock, do you think of something that is more changing or UN-changing…in the relative span of a human lifetime, anyway?
  • Throughout the gospels, Peter said things that make us modern Christians cringe.  And even though he spent three years with Jesus, Peter kept on saying such things until the very END of the gospels.  Not much change going on, even though Peter spent so much time with Jesus.
  • And remember what Peter did on the night of Jesus’ arrest?  Even after hearing Jesus tell him that Jesus MUST be arrested and killed, Peter tried to stop Jesus’ arrest and death from happening; Peter drew his sword and tried to defend Jesus with force.  Peter just couldn’t change to go along with Jesus’ plan.
  • Indeed, Peter was so resistant to change that, at one point, Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” – all because Peter couldn’t mentally or emotionally go along with the change Jesus had in mind.

I could provide more examples, but my point is this: Peter, even though he traveled for three years with Jesus, Jesus who was all about transformation and change, Peter resisted change.  Peter kept on being Peter. At least , that’s the way the gospel writers present him.

But then, THEN we get today’s story from Acts, Acts which describes the apostles’ response to resurrection…even PETER’S response to resurrection.  And Peter’s response to resurrection is to finally, after all this time, accept the new life of Christ by CHANGING something he did not want to change about his faith life.

As the story begins, Peter is described as “the rock”, literally “Simon who is called Peter”, which , to me, is Luke’s way of reminding his readers that Peter is the unchanging one.  And as the story begins, Peter is an observant Jew, someone who follows the great many commandments – now considered to be 613 – of the Old Testament or Torah. And one of those commandments, found in Leviticus 11, describes the animals that God’s people are permitted to eat and are not permitted to eat.  Among those animals God’s people are NOT permitted to eat are those in Peter’s vision, described in English as “four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air”.  We learn in the story that Peter resists change.  Even after God TELLS Peter to eat the animals in this vision, Peter refuses, saying, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”  Peter has never done it before and, by golly, he’s not gonna start now.  (Which, to me, sounds a little like what I hear from modern Christians.)

This is really an amazing…and shocking…story.  Peter, in his attempt to be a good person of God, has faithfully kept his understanding of God’s commanded desires from 1,500 years prior.  And even as Peter receives a vision from God – and, yes, Peter recognized this vision and voice to be from God as evidenced by Peter responding with the title “Lord” – even as Peter receives a vision with a NEW commandment from God to “go…and eat”, Peter REFUSES.  And Peter, being the rock he is, doesn’t refuse to change in the way God commands him just once; no, according to the story, Peter refuses THREE TIMES. Peter is really resistant to change, even change commanded by God!

Shocking, right?

Except that maybe it shouldn’t be…so much, even for us.

We in Christ’s universal Church, we imagine ourselves as changed beings, as transformed, as people of new life.  But don’t we sometimes cling to “old” ways, even to the ways of society around us, the ways into which we were formed, instead of being open to true new life in Christ?

I was at a conference a week and a half ago with ministers and other leaders of congregations in the Central Rocky Mountain Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  And these people, they were on fire for God, on fire for Christ. They arrived with hope that they would learn something critical about how to have new life and how to share new life with their congregations.  They were hungry for something from God that would make all the difference in the world.

And yet, they also revealed by certain actions and comments how difficult it can be to change.  What I’m about to tell is not meant to be disparaging toward them but rather is meant to be like a mirror to hold before ourselves, a reminder that we ARE them, that we are Peter, clinging to old ways, OTHER ways than resurrection.

One of my dear friends, the man who taught me how to fly fish in real streams (Curtis Rosencrans taught me how to fly fish here in our church parking lot, which was great, but this man helped me take what Curtis taught and put it into field practice in northern Wyoming): this man, a man of deep faith who has served Christ’s church for as long as I’ve known him, said at one point when we were in a conversation about preaching amidst the divisiveness that characterizes our nation right now, he said something like: “I’m just not sure I could ever even have a conversation with a bigot or a racist.”  Sounds like good sentiment. I get it. I really do. I understand this inclination. Racism and bigotry are big problems today. (By the way, I get that bigotry, which is defined as “intolerance toward those holding other opinions” is actually what this man was displaying in his comment…I get that, but let’s put it aside for a moment to get to the bigger point about Jesus.)   As I thought about this man’s comment, I thought back to Jesus. What did Jesus do with people who held not just different opinions but downright sinful opinions and with people who did sinful things? Do you remember? He ate with them. He talked with them, often not giving them much of a choice – remember Zacchaeus? Jesus invited Jesus’ self over to Zacchaeus house. Sometimes he even worked a miracle for sinners.

I wonder, when we cling to prejudices, even prejudices against prejudice, and refuse to talk to people on the other side of the aisle because we just can’t tolerate what we believe they stand for…are we really just doubling or tripling down in our efforts to be unchanging, like Peter?

And there was another man at this conference who  grew frustrated at what some others were saying about how we as modern followers of Jesus need to do a better job of prioritizing God, prioritizing Christ, prioritizing the way of Jesus…in order to have new life.  This man got so frustrated that he finally said rather loudly to the whole group that he hears Christians talking about prioritizing God first, Church second, and family third, but he’s just not willing to do that. He’s gonna place he and his family first and foremost and that’s just the way it is and he doesn’t want to be told differently.  So he shut down what had been a rather powerful conversation about new life. Even as I was frustrated that the conversation got shut down, I want you to know, I GET what he was saying. Deep down, I often want to place my biological family first, as well.

But I wonder, when we demand to place our biological families first and refuse to even consider what Jesus meant when told us His family are those who hear the word of God and do it, or when he told us the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, going on to define neighbor as something very different from our biological families…when we refuse to consider how Jesus calls us to something different than how we’re inclined to live, are we doubling or tripling down in our efforts to be unchanging, to refuse to respond to the new life of resurrection, like Peter?

There are so many other ways we do this.  I don’t need to share them all. YOU, each of you, know how it is that you cling to the old ways, know how it is you struggle to accept the change required for new life.

Fortunately, Peter’s story did not end with his thrice refusal of God’s offer, God’s command to change.  After refusing to eat, Peter pondered what to make of the vision. However, when confronted by the Gentile Cornelius and Cornelius’ Gentile friends, Peter figured it out.  Peter had understood that only Jews could receive the new life of Christ, that only Jews could be members of the Church. Peter did not WANT to let Gentiles in…but Peter also understood that God’s vision was calling him to do something different, to change from his long-held beliefs, even beliefs about what God wants, how God works, and through whom God will work.   And despite everything that had come before, Peter CHANGED. That was Peter’s response to resurrection in this story. Post-resurrection, Peter seems to have realized that he was living amidst a new world, a changed world, that was all around him, if only he could see fit to change himself in ways that would allow him to live into this changed world of new life.

My friends, WE live in the midst of a post-resurrection world.  This world, this kingdom of God, it’s all around us. But we have to respond to resurrection with a willingness to change in order to live into it.

I don’t know what ways God is calling you to change in response to resurrection, but God is calling you to change…somehow.  That’s part of the definition of “new”, part of the definition of “new life”. It requires change. Are you willing to discover how God calls you to change, even in terms of your understanding of God, so that you can fully receive new life in Christ?  I hope so, I really do. Amen.