In the name of the God the Creator, Jesus the Liberator, and the Holy Spirit the Sustainer. AMEN.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles today really starts out in the middle of a long passage telling the story of Peter’s vision from God. In this vision God demonstrated to Peter that all animals were now acceptable to eat in spite of thousands of years of prohibitions in the Jewish law. Immediately after this encounter with God messengers from Cornelius arrive to visit Peter. Cornelius is a Roman soldier and a Gentile and he had sent these messengers to fetch Peter in response to an angel’s command. After Peter hears the entire story he realizes that his vision was about much more than food and that is where we pick up the story today.
The problem the apostles and the early church were trying to deal with was that they believed that the message of the Messiah was only for God’s chosen people, Israel. Or if it was for more people than Israel it was still necessary for all believers to observe the requirements of the law.
This change was a radical message for those who had followed the law for so many generations. I’m not sure we can grasp the gravity of this change for them. God had turned the world on its head. But how did they know that this vision, this radical change, was from God? How did they know it was the right thing to do? How did they know that Peter had not been deluded and mistaken? I’m sure some probably left the church because this was, in their mind, so wrong, so unbiblical, to use our terms today, that it could not possibly be from God. I’m sure some probably thought old Peter was off his rocker. I can imagine those on both sides looking up passages in the Scriptures to bolster their various positions. Debates raged in all the Churches.
Does any of this sound familiar to you today? It should. We have been through it through the centuries right down to this very day. It is representative of what caused Church Councils to be called in our early history. It is representative of some of the same things we went through with slavery. We went through it with integration (not having learned our lesson from slavery). We went through it with the issue of remarriage after divorce. We went through it with the issue of women clergy, which is still not a settled matter in many places in the Church. And we are going through it with regard to human sexuality. And it will continue to be a familiar sound for the generations that follow us as well as they continue to grapple with the Scripture in their lives and their world.
And we argue about who is right and who is wrong. We pull out our Scripture verses to bolster our arguments. But the question that haunts hopefully, but unfortunately not, all of us is: who is right? Which answer is the right one to the questions that vex us? Even after Peter’s pronouncements, I don’t think it was a settled issue in the Church. I’m sure arguments raged over it. In fact, only history has proved Peter correct. When people saw God working in the lives of the Gentiles and they could no longer deny the presence of the spirit in their lives eventually the Church had no choice but to recognize the rightness of what Peter saw. It is truly only through the lens of history that we can confirm whether a decision was correct or not. This of course is rarely satisfactory to those on either side of any given debate. Everyone wants to prove they are right.
I sometimes feel that some in these issues we face, particularly regarding human sexuality, people on both sides act like the Spirit of God descended on them and that they have heard a voice from heaven. Rather than approaching this issue in humility and with the understanding that they could very well be wrong, they run about like God has anointed them to single handedly carry the battle and victory for God. In matters theological where there is a very significant difference of opinions and very little Biblical evidence, I wish that every would start every conversation with: “Well I could be wrong, but I think…” And then I wish they would believe it. I cringe when I hear people saying “well the plain meaning of the Scripture in this place is thus and so.” I cringe even more when I hear it from women priests since the pastoral epistles are so clear regarding their position of a male only leadership in the church. It seems to me that some issues just seem to blind us.
Now I’m not trying to say that you should abandon your opinions and I certainly will not abandon mine. But I think that what gets lost in all the debating, arguing, and fighting is what Jesus would want us to do. And that is to love each other and refused to allow our differences to separate us from the love of God or from the love of each other.