Who was Baptized?
Acts 11: 1-18
Who was Baptized?
Last week we spent a lot of time looking at the idea that God was still sending messages to us. And we we talked about how the wise men received messages, maybe unexpected messages, and how they followed those messages. We talked about how the wise men were themselves a message, and an unexpected message, to the Jewish people that was challenging what they thought they knew. We talked about how the Holy Spirit sent messages to the early church, and how listening to those messages from the Spirit shaped the early church into what was the beginning of what we understand now. And we ended up talking about how that hasn’t really changed; that God continues through the work of the Spirit to send us messages, to mold us and shape us into a more perfect Body of Christ. Today we’re going to talk a little bit about how that happens what it looks like for the Spirit to send the Church a message. We have discussed in the past the ways God sends messages to individuals. However, this story explains to us and shows us dramatically the process by which God sends a message to a church at large. This story is very literally a message sent to Peter, that then gets extended to the rest of the church; both through the vision and subsequent events. This is a message about what is clean and what is unclean. God declares something that was previously unclean, and previously unclean because of God’s law, to now be clean. That’s what’s happening in this passage: not only the food that we see on the blanket, but also by extension the Gentiles have been now declared to be clean for purposes of the worship of the Lord. By the way, this passage is why you can go from here and have a bacon cheeseburger for lunch; so please do you have yourself a bacon cheeseburger, and thank God for this passage while you do it. But for the longest time I really found this passage to be interesting just for what’s going on. It’s dramatic. And it’s huge for the narrative of the church, but also the implications for what it means that God can do in our lives. It means that God can actually declare that things are changing. This is the most clear moment in scripture where God declares a change. This isn’t a reinterpretation of a passage, this is saying that what was before is now different. It’s the most clear moment we see of anywhere in Scripture. I just find that moment to be interesting and fascinating. If you know what happens in communities, you might expect that there would be some pushback. God is sending Peter a message. Peter is a long devout Jew attempting to do everything a good Jewish boy should be doing, which meant that he ate kosher. He didn’t eat pig. He didn’t eat cheese on meat. He didn’t do that kind of thing. And so when he hears the message, you see pushback from him. God has to repeat the message to Peter three different times (seems a pattern with Peter that he needs things three times). God gives the message to Peter three different times before Peter finally accepts the message and then, after another message, Peter is astounded that the Holy Spirit would fall upon the the Gentiles and he finally agrees to baptize them.
Then he comes back and there is pushback from the community and the elders that we see around him here. And that’s what we actually have in what was read today: the pushback from the church. They ask Peter, “why are you doing this? Why did you baptize Gentiles? Don’t you know that the Gentiles are unclean? Don’t you know that God doesn’t favor the Gentiles?” And Peter is able to convince them that he’s had this vision that God is declaring the Gentiles to be part of the church. And we see here that although there is a consensus during this meeting, complications would come up later. In just four short chapters from now we will have something called the Council of Jerusalem, which is where all the leaders would gather with Paul on trial this time, as Paul has been spreading this message that the Gentiles don’t have to become Jews before being baptized with all the painful implications therein. Paul is saying no. A lot of the leaders of the in the church are saying yes, which indicates that maybe they didn’t get the message from Peter back in this passage: the message that the Gentiles are OK, they’re not unclean, it’s not unclean to be a Gentile and you don’t have to become a Jew. It indicates that there was a group of dissenters from this meeting that weren’t actually convinced, they just stayed silent. And they went out in the parking lot and begin to gripe against Peter. They were going around after Peter and after Paul saying that the new Christians could be saved, but first they had to be circumcised. And God has to send another message to the church through Peter and through Paul that that was no longer required, which is also, notably, a change from direct Scripture in the law. If you know your church history then you know that what happened was that we continued to have these councils. The counsel of Jerusalem was merely the first, but it certainly was not the last. For several years we would just continue to have these counsels that would be talking about big major decisions and major arguments we were having among the leadership of the church as we crafted a new orthodoxy: what it meant to be a Christian. We would be having these arguments, and we would have counsel to come together to decide what the correct thing was: to discern through prayer and study of Scripture what we believed was of God; and then they would codify what the majority decided into things called creeds which then everyone had to say. Credo, in Latin, means “I believe.” Everyone would have to say they believed what the majority said in this council because the church believed the council was discerning what God was saying to this theological argument. Things like the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are things that were the result of these arguments among the leadership. Things as central to our faith as whether or not Christ was divine, the formation of the Holy Spirit, and how the Holy Spirit works in the world, whether or not laity can read the Scriptures: all of these things have been discerned through this process of councils; what we might today call committees or conferences. Some famous ones that were most recently decided through this discernment process in various denominations were things like whether or not slavery was to be allowed in the modern times, whether or not women should be ordained (about half the denomination say yes, about half of them say no, but they’ve gone through the same process). And of course in the Catholic church the last council was in 1969 in the Vatican, The second Vatican Council, where it was decided that mass should be done not in Latin, but in the language of the people of the area, and also that laity were allowed to read and interpret Scripture themselves; that was not limited only to the priest and pope. Of course these were things where we we decided we were being led to change a previous opinion. And they are not the exception, they are actually the rule. Quite often we wind up altering at least somewhat what we went into the council with. And even the councils aren’t exceptions: things change over time as we receive the new revelation through the work of God in the midst of our world. If you look in the Scriptures you’ll see some of those changes as well as we move through time. In the very beginning of the old testament polygamy was the norm. It wasn’t one man, one woman; it was one man and a bunch of women. If your husband died, his brother would take you as another wife, and that would add another woman to his group of people. Jacob the one who would become Israel himself, had four wives. That was the norm. Overtime we came to the idea that monogamy was what was actually best practice and what the Lord desired. The most interesting one to me is that we moved from the very beginning where worship was in tents throughout the community, in individual houses in the time of Abraham and the Egyptian enslavement; to where the worship must be codified into one temple, one central location of either the tabernacle in the wilderness or the temple once that gets built in Jerusalem. Then fast forward to the time of Jesus and we see they’re all back out worshiping in synagogues in local communities; and now we arrive to where the United Methodist Church states, “the most important location for ministry is the local church.” So we moved from many locations, to one central location, back to many locations. Discernment from God for the time. This is just to name a few of the things that throughout history God has given us a new path to walk. So this kind of thing happens in the life of the community of faith. The next question is how does it happen? What is it look like for God to speak a new message into the church? In the United Methodist Church, we believe that the primary directive from God is always Scripture. Of course Scripture doesn’t change, right? When Peter was getting his revelation about kosher no longer being an important thing for God’s people to follow, that didn’t change the kosher laws that are still written in Leviticus for us. Scripture does not change. So although the primary directive for our life comes from Scripture, we have to figure out a way to get the new understanding from God, to be open to God‘s direction in our lives.
Wesley understood the process to be outlined in something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. I will point out that term was coined for 100 years and after Wesley‘s death, and he probably wouldn’t have liked the term very much. The reason for that is that it implies the four sides are relatively equal, and in Wesley‘s mind they were not: Scripture was primary, scripture was more important than anything else. I like the image of a wind chime where scripture is the middle rod and other smaller rods make music with it when they hit it. But without scripture, of course, no sound would come. There’s three other parts of the process. Our tradition, the traditions of the church and the Jewish tradition before that. Our own natural born reason. And our own experiences. Of course of Scripture is primary, but our tradition helps us to understand the Scriptures. So we should always look at what the people who came before us heard when they read the scripture. And then evidence and our own reasons combine with our own experiences to help us apply the scripture and the tradition to new questions that come before us; new situations that always rise up in the world around us. Through this process, the church body is able to discern answers to questions that arise in the midst of our lives. So let’s take a look at at how that worked in our reading that we see here in Acts 11. First off, we see the scripture of course stays the same: pigs are outlawed, you don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk, that all that still remains. Yet Peter winds up doing something outside the tradition; the tradition being that Gentiles are not included in the worship of the Jewish God and Peter included them by baptizing them and bringing them into the church. The elders confront him about this, they point to traditional understanding of worship and salvation. Peter replies, “I’ve had an experience (in his case of vision) from God. I’ve had experience that tells us that God is stating tradition needs to change.” One person in this case brings forth an experience that challenges the tradition. And there is, of course, Scripture that backs up God speaking in visions, and Scripture the backs up God giving messages to the people. And so now we have a situation that needs resolved. So they enter a council, they enter a conference, and they use their reason collectively to determine if Peter‘s experience is enough for them to believe God is directing them to change.
Now in this case the elders, well most of the elders, agree with Peter that this experience is enough of an experience for change. They believe that God is sending a message. Now, obviously there were some who didn’t agree with that because they went around afterwards trying to undo it, but they have come to conclusion at the end of this meeting that the tradition needs changed, we need to include the Gentiles in salvation. That is a new message from God. But that’s how it works, that’s how change happens in the body of the church: God speaks to an individual, or group of individuals they, then bring it to the council and the council decides yay or nay on whether or not that experience is enough, or whether they agree that this experience is of God or not. Now, all the ones I’ve listed were times when they decided the experience was of God and they changed tradition. But sometimes they don’t decide that. The Catholic Church has decided that God has not declared women to be ordained yet. A lot of Southern Baptist churches remain in that same vein. In The United Methodist Church we have decided that God has directed us that the experience was of God and we have used our reason to conclude that women should be ordained. As you might have heard a few times recently, in the United Methodist Church we have entered into this process again. We are going to be in the process this time relating to human sexuality, in particular whether or not those who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals should be allowed to be ordained or not; and whether homosexual marriages should be allowed in our properties and to be conducted by our clergy. Throughout the United Methodist Church, or at least since 1972, we have stated that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. In other words, we have declared the practice of homosexuality to be contrary to the Christian tradition. Ever since 1976, and certainly it is grown in the last 10 years or so, a significant group of our leadership has said they have seen experiences and had experiences that tell them that God is pointing us in a different direction on that question, and that we should move forward with a different tradition.
Three years ago it was determined that we would take break, and that we would begin the process of discernment. We would engage our reason into this question to determine if a change of tradition was indeed being instructed by God, or whether these these experiences were of the world. And a group of our bishops collected a group of leaders, both lay and clergy, from around the entire denomination that were of different entering ideas about the question; and they asked them to study scriptures, to pray, to talk with each other, to discern together, to use their reason, and report back. They have done so. And in late February, the General Conference, our primary legislative body, will get together to decide upon the report; to continue to use all of their reason, and to determine if this group that brought forth experiences is of God.
I will mention this has happened in the past. When it has happened in the past, our leadership has determined tradition should not change course. I don’t know what will happen in February. I don’t know if we will change on this issue in February, or the following June, or 20 years from now, or never. I would ask your prayers for the delegates to General Conference who will be deciding this question that is before them. I will mention that on Wednesday, January 23 at 6:30 PM I will hold a question and answer session here in the church that you can bring any question you want to bring about the general conference, about the question, about our history with it; whatever you may bring. And I will give my best to answer it. I don’t want to spend too much time here, as I know it’s not really that important to some people. But for those who care deeply, you’re more than welcome to come that night, or come to my office, or email me questions; whatever you need for that. I am open to you.
But I did want to point out in the larger church that this kind of thing can happen. Whether it will happen with this or not I don’t know, but it can happen where our teaching changes. And I wanted to say this is how it happens; this is how we believe God speaks into the life of the church in the 21st-century and moving forward. Because no matter what happens in February, that teaching will remain, and God will remain active and working in and around Spring Hill United Methodist Church. Next week will be on a different topic, I promise. We’ll have a little bit lighter topic and more traditional sermon. But I do want to mention that God continues to speak to us. And so this week, continue to be open. Continue to open your hearts and your minds. Allow God to fill you with new experiences. Allow God to work within your reason to show you what the Spirit is doing around you and within you. And allow God to teach you this week whatever God wishes to teach you. And may you experience that openness and joy they can come only from from listening and loving our God. Amen.