When Steve and I were young pastors serving the First Presbyterian Church of Medford, Oregon, we took 19 junior and senior highs on a three-week go-and-serve trip to Southeast Alaska. One week was spent in the Tlingit Indian village of Angoon, where we painted the floor of the sanctuary of the local Presbyterian Church and took care of some repairs. But the remaining two weeks were spent on a 64-foot motor launch called the Anna Jackman, which was operated by our national denomination as a floating ministry to the people of Southeast Alaska. This ship visited the remote communities along the Alexander Archipelgao where the onboard chaplain would lead worship services and perform weddings, baptisms and funerals as necessary. And the Anna Jackman also carried groups like ours, kids from the Lower 48 states and their adult advisors who came to Alaska to carry out work projects and to learn about life in the villages we visited.
It was an amazing trip and almost 39 years later, I still have vivid memories of the things we saw and the people we met. And one of those memories is of being in a fishing village which had a tavern that was famous for its enormous and elaborately-carved wooden bar. As is often the case in remote locations, the tavern was the center of town life, much to the dismay of the local pastor and his wife (who were not Presbyterian, I should mention). This couple hoped to draw people away from the tavern and into their church by hosting game nights on Friday evenings, where people could play Scrabble (or whatever) and enjoy fellowship in an alcohol-free environment.
Given the prevalence of alcoholism in Alaska, their vision made sense to them – but they were finding that it did not make sense to the locals, who were not ready to give up the easy camaraderie of the tavern for what they feared would be an uptight evening of boring games. And so the pastor and his wife sat in their church on Friday evenings, while the townspeople gathered in the tavern. One of the adults in our group asked the pastor if he and his wife had ever considered going down to the tavern and hanging out there to get to know the people, but the pastor looked horrified at that suggestion: Go into a bar? Never!
The way that pastor reacted to our suggestion was pretty much the way the members of the early Christian community at Jerusalem reacted when they learned that Peter had shared dinner with a Gentile. Our passage today from the book of Acts begins with these words: The apostles and the believers who were in Judea – in other words, the members of the Christian community based in Jerusalem, the very first church – heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So, when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers [the Jewish Christians] criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” It’s a legitimate question, since Jews kept strict dietary laws that Gentiles did not observe, and surely Peter had not had a kosher meal in the home of Cornelius. How could Peter simply abandon this practice that identified him as a faithful member of the Covenant Community?
Peter understands the concerns behind this criticism, but rather than engage in a debate, he tells the members of the Jerusalem church a story – the story of how he came to be in the home of the Roman Centurion and what happened while he was there. Peter says that while he was staying in a home in Joppa (a city on the Mediterranean northwest of Jerusalem), he fell into a trance while praying. And while in that trance, he saw a vision of a large sheet coming down from heaven filled with all the types of animals that Jews were forbidden to eat because they were considered to be ritually unclean. And, Peter tells his fellow Jewish Christians, while he was taking in this sight, he heard a voice saying, Get up, Peter; choose something from this sheet, kill it and eat it.
Now, we can just imagine the expression on the faces of the apostles and the other disciples when Peter tells them what the voice said, and we can imagine them nodding in approval when he reports how he responded: By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth. But then Peter goes on to say that after he protested that command to eat these unclean animals, the voice from heaven said, What God has made clean, you must not call profane. Furthermore, says Peter, the whole scenario was repeated twice before the sheet of animals was pulled back up to heaven. Now Peter’s Jerusalem critics were probably very confused. What could this vision and this voice have meant? And, says Peter, that’s just how he felt: quite puzzled over what he had seen and heard.
But then Peter goes on to share what happened next: how three men from the Roman city of Caesarea arrived and told him that he needed to accompany them back to Caesarea. So, Peter went with these men, and when he arrived in Caesarea, he met a man who had also had a vision. And in his vision, an angel had appeared to him and said, Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved. And then, says Peter, As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
And when Peter’s critics hear his story, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
This shift in understanding was a major one for the disciples in Jerusalem. Yes, they had all received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (which, by the way, we will celebrate in a few weeks) and yes, there had been people from every nation present in Jerusalem when Peter preached his famous Pentecost sermon. But, as Acts 2 tells us, those people from every nation who were in Jerusalem that day were all devout Jews, which would make sense. Pentecost was a Jewish holy day before it was a Christian one; it was the Feast of Weeks that celebrated the first fruits of the harvest – one of three pilgrimage festivals that drew Jews from all over the ancient Near and Middle East to Jerusalem. So, while the people in Jerusalem on Pentecost spoke many languages, they were still all Jews.
So, while the Jerusalem Christians understood that the Spirit had come to people of many nations on Pentecost, and while they understood the command to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, they were thinking their call was to witness to their fellow Jews in all those places. But now they were being told (as Peter had been told) that their vision was too small. Their call was not just to share the good news with their Jewish brothers and sisters, but to extend their witness to Gentiles. And in order to extend that witness to Gentiles, they needed to get to know them on their own turf.
And in meeting people on their own turf, they would be doing what God is doing in the vision that John of Patmos had – the vision that was our first reading this morning, Revelation 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them; and they will be his people
And God himself will be with them.
God does not form the new Jerusalem by rapturing people out of this world; the new Jerusalem comes to the people – just as God came to the people in Jesus the Christ, Emmanuel, God-With-Us. And so while our call as the church is to be a city set on a hill, a lamp on a lampstand, ironically the best way to be that city set on the hill is to come down of the hill and right into the lives of others.
Which is why one Friday night a month, my husband and Sue Pizor Yoder – well-known to many of you – spend the evening at the Allentown Brew Works where they facilitate a gathering of people who are either pretty much unchurched – or turned off by church. This monthly gathering, known as Pub Talk, is a way for these people to consider serious life issues in a non-threatening environment. Sue and Steve don’t prepare a presentation, instead they just listen and ask questions to move the conversation along. They don’t preach, but the group knows that Sue and Steve are pastors who come at life from that perspective.
And in their approach, Steve and Sue are following in Peter’s footsteps, because when Peter arrives at Cornelius’ house and learns that Cornelius had had a vision similar to Peter’s, suddenly everything falls into place: Peter has been called to bring the Good News to Cornelius. And so Peter launches into preaching mode, telling Cornelius and his household about Jesus and his ministry. But right in the middle of his speech, the Holy Spirit bursts in, interrupting Peter mid-sentence, and falls upon the people in that place. It’s as if the Spirit is saying, “Enough talking, Peter. Just by being here you have given the message that the Good News is for everyone.” Sometimes the best way to share the Good News is to shut up and listen with an open mind and an open heart.
I firmly believe the Holy Spirit has been leading this church through some tough times into a new era. But I also firmly believe that now that we have come through those tough times, the Spirit is not finished with us. Where might the Spirit be leading this congregation next? Peter and Cornelius both had visions that led them into unexpected territory. How is our vision? Can we see beyond the familiar? Are there things we need to see, places we need to be?
Whose stories do we need to hear? What opportunities to make the Good News tangible in Bethlehem are still out there? God alone knows at this point – but the Spirit is ready and willing to sharpen our vision and help us see possibilities that we never dreamed of.