I love this story in Acts! It is such an important story that it is told twice, once as a simple narrative and a second time by Peter as he defends his actions before some very critical believers in Jerusalem. This is the story that is told to model how the new Christian community welcomes change as their movement grows in unexpected ways. The detailed narrative is in chapter 10, the chapter before what we heard this morning.
What do we learn from this powerful story about how the church welcomes change? First, our scriptures teach us that we should not be surprised by something new. In fact, we should learn to expect new things from God. We read in Isaiah 43:19, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” That is the arc of the Biblical story. God is always ahead of us.
So how does change happen in this story? The Holy Spirit plants this new idea through visions to both Cornelius, the Roman centurion, and Peter, the devout Jewish disciple of Jesus. This change comes from both outside and inside the faith. Peter refutes the idea of eating unclean animals using the law that he knows well. If this vision is a test on scriptural purity, Peter ought to be passing it, but he keeps having to take the test over again and hearing a new word from God, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter is a good Jew. He knows the scriptures and he follows the law given in the Torah. He has grown up in the faith and is observant. He knows the tradition.
While Peter is still trying to make sense of what he has seen, the Spirit told him that three men were going to ask him to go with them. When they arrived, Peter offered them hospitality and then went with them to meet Cornelius the next morning. Because of the vision he saw and the nudging of the Spirit to go with the men, Peter was willing to venture into a new place that was off limits to an observant Jew. He hardly preached a few sentences when the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his household and friends with such power that Peter was astonished. He saw the fruit of the Holy Spirit where he never expected it. He experienced God working in a place and a way he never imagined with people Peter had learned to call unclean. Peter remembered the words of the voice in his vision, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” When he interpreted his experience in light of his vision, we came to the conclusion that he could not withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit, even though it was against the Christian understanding of both Jewish law and tradition. He reasoned that God had already acted on behalf of these Gentiles, therefore he needed bless and welcome them into the body of Christ. Of course he had to defend his actions before the rest of the Church. It took time and many other experiences before the Church fully welcomed Gentiles without requiring them to become Jews first. There were a number of questions that needed to be addressed. Change takes time. But we have a model for learning how to follow God into a new future.
This is a powerful story about how we learn to discern that God is doing a new thing, at least new to us, and embrace change. As Methodists, we ground our discernment in scripture. That’s where we begin. And so it’s important for us to know and study the scriptures, to read them carefully for genre, audience, intent, and to consider the limits of translation. We read the scriptures for their witness to the experience of others of the power and mystery of God. But we don’t stop with the scriptures. We use a four pronged approach to try to understand how God is leading in change: scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.
We look to the tradition of the Church to see how faithful Christians before us have interpreted scripture and found meaning for their lives. The tradition is our history, and as history, it includes our best ideas and our worst mistakes. We learn from both. What has worked in the past, and what has not? We can look to the tradition to see how the Church has embraced change over the centuries to know that neither the Church nor the faith is ever static—and that is precisely why both have endured.
The third prong of our discernment model is our own experience. After all, the whole of the Bible is a record of human experience. Your experience and mine is as relevant and revelatory as that of Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Ruth, David, Ezra, Isaiah, Hosea, Peter, Andrew, John, Mary Magdalene, Paul, Barnabas, Lydia, or Timothy, just to name a few. We also try to make meaning out of the events of our human lives and our encounters with the divine. Our experiences often challenge our beliefs and expectations and make us have to rethink our suppositions. I remember moving to Japan as a young bride and encountering a culture entirely different from my own. It was a revelation to discover another world where the language, architecture, customs, religion, money, traffic rules, everything was so very different from the world I knew and still good and effective and normal for its citizens. Wade Davis, an Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society, says it this way, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” Our experience teaches us about the unique manifestations of the human spirit even when we do not travel. All we have to do is listen to the experiences of others with an open mind to embrace new possibilities.
Finally, we apply our God-given ability to think and reason. I like Brian McLaren’s quote on the front of our bulletin,
I guess you could say that the Bible is a book that doesn't try to tell you what to think. Instead, it tries to teach you how to think. It stretches your thinking; it challenges you to think bigger and harder than you ever have.
There are so many questions we can ask. Where do I see God in this? Do I see the fruit of the Holy Spirit? What do I know that I didn’t know before this experience—about God, myself, and what it means to be human? If I were the other person, what would I need or want? What is the most loving response? Would people know that I am a Christian by my love in the way I act?
These are the four tools we use to discern God’s leading in times of change: scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. We often call these the Wesleyan quadrilateral, but as you can see from Peter’s story, this is a biblical model. We need good tools for discerning the direction to take because we know that change is certain in life. There are a number of words that Christians use for change: conversion, transformation, newness of life, rebirth. I like “changed from glory into glory.” It acknowledges that we don’t move from wrong to right, but from one best way of seeing God to the next best way of seeing God.
We have just made an important decision in adopting our new welcoming statement and joining the Reconciling Ministries Network and the five ethnic caucuses that work for full inclusion in the United Methodist Church. Not only have we agreed to be fully inclusive in the way we do ministry, we are joining the work of changing our governing document, The Discipline. Living into change takes time. As we are changed from glory into glory, may God grant us deep wells of wisdom and wide margins of grace.