A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 13, 2012.
Psalm 98:1-9; Acts 10:44-48
And so it begins. For months now, we have been planning and anticipating our church’s one-hundredth birthday, which culminates the end of August next year. Today, as we have all noted from our little historical vignette that began our service, marks the beginning of our celebration. Please do not take this to mean that all the planning is over. Not by a long shot. We still have much, much work to do, especially between now and the end of this August when our centennial celebration officially begins.
If you were to take a look at the calendar, you would note that there are about one hundred days between now and the end of August. For that reason, through the leadership of Joni Lee and our Centennial Planning Commission, we begin today our emphasis on one hundred days of prayer. Near the end of the service we will be giving you a prayer guide. Each week will have a specific prayer theme. For example, week one is devoted to praying for our children, while during week two you will be asked to pray for our community, and on and on. Every day, you will be given someone or some ministry to consider as you pray. It is our way of leading our congregation into a thoughtful, meaningful, and prayerful approach to our birthday celebration.
You might be wondering what all this has to do with the passage we read from the Book of Acts. Well, let me set the context and I think you will begin to see how they fit together.
Simon Peter, to say the least, has been through a lot lately. After three years of being with Jesus, his world has been rocked. As we all know, he started out in the fishing business with his brother Andrew, probably an enterprise they inherited from their father Jonah. If their experience was typical of most folk back then, they were the end of a long line of family generations involved in the business of fishing.
Andrew is the one who changed the course of their lives. He took a liking to John, the baptizer who came out of the wilderness preaching blisters on his throat, as Grady Nutt used to say, telling anybody who would listen that the Coming One of Israel was about to make his appearance. For some reason, which we are not given, Andrew was attracted to the Baptizer and his message. When Jesus of Nazareth came fulfilling John’s prophecy, Andrew decided to leave John, as well as his fishing nets, and cast his lot with the Nazarene. Soon after, his brother Simon did the same.
We all know what happened. Peter soon established himself as the leader of Jesus’ band of disciples, perhaps because of his seniority in terms of age, maybe also because of his natural leadership abilities. But his leadership did not keep him out of hot water, not all the time. Jesus and Peter had their “moments” when his impetuous personality got the best of him, and Peter had to be reigned in by his Master. The conflict between the two culminated the night before Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. Though he knew he had been forgiven of his transgression, Peter would never forget that fateful night of the trial when, as Jesus had predicted, he denied knowing his Lord. The sound of that cock crowing in the night was still ringing in his ears.
Now, Jesus is gone and this movement, which they have come simply to call “The Way,” is resting in his, Simon Peter’s, hands. Every day brings a new challenge. Every hour, it seems, calls for a bold decision. Every step he takes is in a different direction from any thing or any place he ever thought he would come to experience. His head is spinning from the challenge of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to be responsible that the movement lives on just as their Master has done.
And now this. Simon has been having visions... plural. If it had happened once, he might just pass it off as indigestion. Twice, a coincidence, maybe. But three times? Well, because of its persistence, he has now come to believe the Holy Spirit has something to do with it, not that this makes it any easier to believe or understand. The vision is that of a huge sheet coming down from heaven, settling on the rooftop where Simon is resting, revealing all kinds of four-footed creatures, reptiles and birds. He is instructed, in his vision, to kill and eat the creatures, considered by all Jews to be unclean.
While he understands that Jesus has called him to a new way of life, Peter doesn’t believe that even Jesus would want him to turn his back on the fact that he is a Jew. And Jews have their rules... rules concerning how to behave, how to think, how to eat. These creatures in his visions are not on the kosher menu! He would never eat them. He is hungry to be sure, but eat what is displayed on this sheet? Never. Yet, this voice continues to hound him. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane. What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Three times this vision comes to him. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” What does it mean?
Then, he gets a knock on the door. Representatives have come from the city of Joppa with the invitation for Peter to pay a visit to a man named Cornelius. Cornelius is not a Jew. He is a true believer in the God of Israel, but he is first a Gentile. And that’s another rule... what has been given by God to the Jews is for the Jews only. That’s how Simon was raised to believe, that is what he has always believed, and he’s beginning to think that he’s too old to change his stripes.
But the visions – the rooftop, the great sheet, the unclean animals – and now the invitation to go visit a Gentile... what does it mean? “You know,” he says to them, “that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.”
Like they do on TV or in the movies, freeze the scene for just a moment and hear those words again. “You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.” That moment, right then and there as these words come out of his mouth, might have been the major turning point of Peter’s life. Sure, he was around when Jesus was crucified. Yes, he was the first disciple to enter the empty tomb the morning of the resurrection. No doubt he was present when Jesus came and told his followers to check out the scars in his hands and feet and side. But this very moment, when he speaks these words, may have been when this whole enterprise of following Jesus begins coming into sharp focus for the old fisherman.
We can think this based on what Peter says next...
“But... but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” And if he ever had any doubts whatsoever that following Jesus was going to lead him down paths he had never walked before, that doubt was removed when he found himself in the living room of Cornelius in the city of Joppa. As he spoke to those who had assembled there, according to the way the story is told, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (10:44).
What?! The Holy Spirit? But... but they’re... they’re Gentiles! The Holy Spirit can’t have anything to do with Gentiles! Can he?!
But let’s not give Peter too much credit for becoming enlightened all at once. He has not traveled to Joppa alone. He takes reinforcements with him just in case this is all a big misunderstanding. When all else fails, make sure you have good and reputable witnesses with you when you get caught doing what you’re not supposed to do. “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter,” we are told (which, of course, is a reference to Jews), “were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles...” (v. 45).
You’ve heard of a paradigm shift? This event pretty much defines the expression. I don’t know if the earth begins shaking under his feet, but my guess is that Peter is feeling just a little bit woozy at this point.
Have you ever had an experience like that? When the foundation of your belief system, that which you had been taught all your life as being the real and true gospel, turned out not to be as it is supposed to be? That is what is happening to Simon Peter, fisherman by trade, follower of Jesus by avocation, and now major league troublemaker by virtue of God’s own leading.
Oh, just wait until they hear about his back home... I’m going to be in so much trouble.
Simon Peter thought he had put his troubles behind him, that when Jesus forgave him his past transgressions he would be able to walk the straight and narrow, and maybe even take it easy for awhile Now, he’s beginning to suspicion that his problems are just starting. And, of course, he would be right.
That’s the context. Still, what does it have to do with our church and our upcoming centennial celebration? I’m glad you asked!
It is the hope of those who are doing the planning that our centennial will be more than simply the opportunity to celebrate the first one hundred years of our church’s existence. One planning group is known as New Traditions. Their purpose is to guide us toward looking into the future and determining what new adventures we want to experience.
Think about it this way... We are not the same church that began in1912 with that small prayer meeting, and that is not just a reference to the fact that women don’t wear big, floppy hats to church anymore, and the streets are now paved and no longer rutted. Think of the different and various evolutions our church has experienced (if it’s okay to use the word evolution in church J) this past century. Try to imagine how much more that will be true when it comes time for those who follow us to celebrate the church’s second centennial. Our culture has changed, to be sure, and will continue to (gulp) evolve, but so has the way God chooses to weave his will in the lives of his children.
Especially for those of us who grew up Baptist, have known nothing else all our lives, and wear our “Baptistness” like old, comfortable clothes, we might need a Simon Peter/rooftop/vision experience to shake us up a bit.
The future will provide us more opportunities for our world to be shaken. What those are, we cannot yet know. But the Holy Spirit never allows us to stand still. So let’s allow our centennial celebration to do more than just give us an excuse to look back. Let’s look forward too, realizing that, like Simon Peter, just because there are things we were raised to believe, just because certain things may be what we have always believed, just because we may think we’re too old – individually and as a church – to change some of our stripes, that may not be what we need to give our attention to.
So I would suggest this... let’s allow the Centennial celebration to give us the opportunity to open our minds and hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to invade us. If we will do that, we might just have some surprises in store, some new things to learn and experience, some new roads to journey.
If you’re not sure you’re up to the challenge, take a look at old Simon Peter, and your outlook might just be changed. It takes an act of faith, not to mention real courage, to follow God’s leading. Are you ready and willing to give it a try?
Lord, may you find us open to the leading of your Spirit, unafraid to follow you no matter where it may lead. We pray this in the name of the One who walks with us, Jesus our Lord. Amen.