(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on May 19, 2019, Easter V)
Growing up, I learned at church that conversion was the most important moment in your life. It was the moment when you finally surrendered to God. It was the moment you gave up your struggle against sin and turned your life over completely to God. Usually you did this by saying a prayer. An adult—maybe the pastor, or maybe a camp counselor if you were at summer camp—would give you the words to say. I still remember a Sunday School teacher telling me that the day you were converted was like a birthday, that you should cherish it and always remember it.
I wonder if Peter cherished the day of his conversion. If he did, I wonder which day he cherished. Perhaps more than any other character in the Bible, Peter complicates the conversation about conversion—because it is not clear when he is converted. Was Peter’s conversion the day when he left his fishing nets at the Lake of Gennesaret and began to follow to Jesus (Luke 5:11)? If this were his conversion, I’m not sure it really took, because he and the disciples demonstrate a distinct lack of trust and the occasional misunderstanding in their gospel adventures. Maybe his conversion was later. Maybe it was the day when he confessed that Jesus was “the Christ of God” (Luke 9:20). But again, I’m not sure how effective this conversion was, because later Peter denies Jesus not just once, but three times (Luke 22:61). Maybe, then, his conversion was the moment in today’s scripture when he receives the Spirit’s enlightenment regarding the question of who and what are clean and unclean (Acts 10:1-11:18).
I could go on with even more examples, but the point to be made is clear by now. Peter is the founder of the church, the first and foremost among the church’s leaders. And he is continually converted, continually changed, continually wrong and continually reformed. There is no single moment of conversion in his life. Rather his entire life is a story of conversion.
If that is the case for the leader of the church, the Christian par excellence in the early church, then how much more so might it be the case for you and me?
A Seismic Shift
Today’s scripture ends with the joyous proclamation, “God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (11:18). Generally readers have focused on the gentile of the story, the Roman centurion Cornelius, as a model for conversion. But as I’ve already suggested, there is another conversion in today’s scripture, another example of repentance. And in my mind, it’s just as significant if not more so. It’s a seismic conversion.
For centuries, the Jewish people have kept a safe distance from the gentiles, the people outside the Jewish faith. On the surface, this separation was simply the result of the Jewish law. Certain foods, such as pork and shellfish, were prohibited. To mingle with gentiles would be to risk the possibility that they might eat forbidden food. But on a deeper level, this separation was a matter of cultural survival.
Imagine that you are a Jewish person living in first century Palestine. Roman soldiers patrol your streets daily. More and more, you’re hearing people speak the common language, Greek, instead of the sacred tongue, Hebrew, or its cousin, Aramaic. It’s not hard to see where all this is going. Living as a minority in the empire of Rome, the Jewish people face the slow decay of their identity. If you are not careful to protect the boundaries between “us” and “them,” then one day you will wake up and everyone will have become “them.” Your eating at separate tables and keeping a distance from the gentiles is nothing personal. It’s simply a matter of preserving your identity, your rich heritage as a Jewish person.
Now it’s important to remember that the earliest followers of Christ were Jewish followers of Christ. They maintained their Jewish identity even as they proclaimed that Jesus was the messiah. Peter was no different. So you can imagine his surprise when he has this dream where God tells him—not once, but three times (hmm…that’s beginning to feel like a theme in Peter’s life)—that what Peter calls unclean, God considers clean. If that’s true, that’s a potential deathblow to Peter’s heritage. The table had been one of the last strongholds of Jewish identity: one of the places where the Jewish people could clearly distinguish between “us” and “them.” Now, though, there’s nothing to prevent mixing at the table. There is no forbidden food. But that’s not all. After Peter has his dream, he visits with the family of a Roman centurion, Cornelius, and there he discovers that this “clean” and “unclean” business does not pertain only to food. It pertains to people too. For the first time in his life, he sees the Holy Spirit in a gentile. He’s flabbergasted. He’s overwhelmed. The fault lines of his soul have shifted. He is converted. He repents. As he says to the church in Jerusalem, “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?” (11:17).
All of which is to say: Cornelius, the Roman soldier, is not the only character who changes in today’s scripture. Peter and the church also change, as they come to welcome gentiles into their gathering as equals. Without that change, you and I (who are gentiles) would not be gathered here today.
Accepted Just As They Were
What’s perhaps most revolutionary about the change in Peter and the early church is that they do not require their newfound gentile brothers and sisters to adopt their way of doing church. They could have said, “We see, friends, that the Holy Spirit is with you. But in order to break bread with us, you will have to adopt a few more practices: you can’t eat pork, you have to observe the Jewish high holy days, and sorry, guys, but circumcision is a must.”
Instead, Peter and the early church saw that God had already accepted the gentiles just as they were. They didn’t need to do anything else to belong.
It’s sort of like what happened up in Alexandria, Virginia, a little over a decade ago at Fair-Park Baptist Church. Fair-Park had merged ten years before with another Baptist church as both congregations diminished. After ten years of their merged existence, however, they were declining once more. So they began to explore the idea of a church re-start. What emerged was a bold proposal: how about a church that partnered intentionally with the local arts community? And not only that—they wouldn’t require that the artists adopt their way of doing church. In other words, this wouldn’t simply be church with an artistic flourish. This would be artists doing church in a new way. They wouldn’t have to use the same formulaic, paint-by-numbers liturgy that the church had used for years on end. They wouldn’t have to wear their Sunday best in order to attend. They wouldn’t even necessarily worship on Sunday.
Like the gentiles in the early Christian community, the artists did not have to adopt the present blueprint of church in order to be included. Why not? Because Fair-Park recognized that the Holy Spirit was already moving among the arts community. “Artists engage the transcendent and the prophetic on a daily basis,” they observed. They are always finding fresh, insightful ways to express ancient truths. Perhaps their gifts were just what Fair-Park needed in a time when it had more and more trouble connecting with the community around it. What resulted from the convergence of this church and these artists, looks very much like what we see at the end of today's scripture. It was a repentance that led to life—for the church and for the artists.
If the early church is any indication, we as a church are always being called to conversion, to repentance. The Spirit is always one step ahead of us, somewhere beyond us, drawing us into new ways of being the church. And the good news is that our conversion, our repentance, leads to life—not only for us, the church, but for others in the world too.
I wonder how our church might be called to conversion today. I wonder if there is a community outside these walls where the Spirit is moving. I wonder if there might be a way to welcome them into our community without all the conditions: Sunday worship, a certain unspoken attire, gathering in only one building. I wonder if there might be a way for us to gather with them around a table somewhere, somehow, to break bread and bear witness to the body of Christ.
In a little over month, we’ll sojourn for a Sunday with the memory care unit and other residents at Symphony Manor. And a month after that, we’ll sojourn with the homeless and the hungry downtown by the Coliseum. These are folks who would be unlikely to join us on a Sunday, to do church our way. But I have a holy hunch we might find the Spirit moving among them. Them for whom “daily bread” is a daily, real-life prayer; them who are unencumbered by possession and its enslaving effects; them for whom trust is a way of life, even though for many of them it has been regularly betrayed.
Perhaps in them we will encounter the beginning of our own conversion, our own repentance that leads to life.
Whose embrace is bigger than we imagine,
Whose table is not a boundary or a border
But a banquet of unconditional welcome—
Lead us on the next leg
Of our journey of conversion.
Draw us out of ourselves
And into the community,
Where your Spirit is already moving.
Draw us into the repentance
That leads to life.
In Christ, who reconciles us to one another: Amen.