“The Power of Story”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Before we read the text from Acts 11, let’s look back one chapter. In Acts 10, Peter climbs up on a rooftop to pray, and he has a vision. He sees a sheet lowered from heaven, and it’s full of animals that the Hebrew scriptures explicitly label unclean. A voice says, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.” Faithful to his Jewish heritage, Peter interprets the vision as a temptation, not an invitation, so he refuses. This happens two more times, and each time ends with the same pronouncement: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter soon learns that he received this vision as preparation to receive Cornelius, an uncircumcised Gentile, as a full member of the Church. And during Peter’s and Cornelius’ first meeting, the Holy Spirit descends on Cornelius and his family, and they begin praising God.
Peter and the small group of circumcised brothers who are with him are thunderstruck. Having been taught – as a matter of identity and security – to separate themselves from Gentiles, they never expected to welcome such people into the family of faith. But neither could they deny what they were seeing and hearing.
In what was, at the time, an unthinkably radical move, Peter, without hesitation, says to his colleagues, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)
With that story in mind, let’s read Acts 11.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’
15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If 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?”
18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (NRSV)
Did any of that sound familiar? In back-to-back chapters, Luke tells the exact same story. In chapter 10, Luke narrates Peter’s story as it happens. In chapter 11, Peter retells his story to the church council, the circumcised believersin Jerusalem.
There are at least a couple of things in play here. For one, biblical literature often uses repetition as a means to emphasize the theological significance of a teaching or an event.1Luke is making it clear that Peter’s vision of a welcoming and inclusive church is essential to a faithful and a spiritually healthy understanding of God.
The ancient kosher laws did important work. They helped to set the Hebrews apart as a kind of anomaly – a monotheistic culture in a polytheistic world. And Israel’s God got deeply involved in all aspects of Hebrew life – so much so that people were told what kind of animals they could and couldn’t eat, what kind of animals they could and couldn’t use in sacrifices, what kind of fabrics they could and couldn’t wear, and, of course, what kind of people they could and couldn’t welcome and associate with.
While the ancient Hebrews lived as an anomaly, there’s a foreshadowing anomaly in the law, as well. In the midst of all those restrictive laws, that included casting suspicion over all non-Hebrews, God gives specific instruction on dealing with “aliens,” people who cross territorial borders and enter Israelite domain. “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:33-34) Scripture repeatedly bears witness to God’s expectation that the faith community show hospitality to people from other lands and cultures.
Peter and his fellowcircumcised believerslive in the midst of a growing tension between the laws that set them apart as Jews, and the call to welcome everyone. That tension is growing because the life and teachings of Jesus have made clear that whatever can be achieved through hospitality takes precedent over whatever might be gained by protectionism. One major difference between true and false religion is that true religion offers compassion to those who get labeled otherand treated with suspicion and contempt. False religion tries only to keep itself safe. This lesson had to be learned through repetition – thus the repeated stories of the Pharisees learning it, the disciples learning it, Saul learning it, Ananias learning it, Peter learning it, the circumcised believerslearning it. And now, their stories are teaching us.
That brings us to the second thing in play. As we acknowledged, in chapter 11, Peter tells his personal story, his testimony, to the church council. He shares with his colleagues a transforming experience that called him to break with the legalistic practices of their tradition and accept uncircumcised Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ. “Who was I that I could hinder God?” he says. By implication, he’s saying to the entire faith community – then and now – Who are we that we can hinder God?Peter unambiguously summons others to follow him in opening wide the doors of the church – as wide as the arms of Jesus were opened on the cross.
Those who oppose Peter have plenty of scripture to back up arguments against his reformist policy. But Peter doesn’t argue some new doctrine. He tells them a story. Just like Jesus did. Repeatedly. He shares a purely subjective experience as a way to explain his actions and to call his brothers and sisters to a resurrection posture toward the creation.
One commentator on this passage says, “Stories, not arguments, change lives…Generally,” he says, “arguments [and debates] tend only to crystalize differences…to keep two sides apart…[creating] winners and losers.”2Isn’t that the way so much of our culture is dealing with differences now – one “side” trying to beat down people on the other “side,” and not only with arguments but with insults? Stories work differently. They have the power to move us toward rather than away from each other.
I really struggled at this juncture in the sermon. What direction should I take? What kind of illustration would work the best? But there’s just too much going on: immigration, race, climate change, abortion, gun violence, hunger, defense spending. You name it, and our culture is saturated with opponents warring with each other in win-or-lose battles. And on the whole, it seems that most of us are weary of all the reminders about all the things that cause friction and division. So, in spite of the fact that today’s text invites an illustration of the power of storytelling, I’m simply going to challenge us, once again, to listen more carefully and compassionately to each other.
I will say this: the issues – immigration, race, climate change, abortion, gun violence, hunger, defense spending – may be classified as political because elected officials create policies about such things, but for followers of Jesus, they are, at heart, theological/spiritual issues. How we interact with each other as human beings, and how we grapple with our differences as we interact, has everything to do with how we understand God and how we embody Jesus.
Telling our stories honestly, and listening respectfully to others tell theirs, lays the foundation for all the conversations and decisions that follow. Wherever you think you stand on whatever spectrum, if you speak and listen in love, you will be opened further than you expected – maybe further than you wanted. You may or may not change your mind on an issue, but you will have a new perspective. Whatever the case, through that process, you will find yourself closer to God because you will find yourself closer to your neighbor.
1Robert W. Wall in his article Exegetical Perspectivein Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. P. 451.
2Ibid. But from Stephen D. Jones’ article Homiletical Perspective. P. 453.