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Carpets, Hair Dryers and Peter

by Rev. Dr. Karen S. Hybertsen

Karen HybertsenActs 11.1-18, John 13.31-35

Right before I was ordained a minister, the chair of the Committee on Ministry gave me two pieces of advice.  First, never get involved in the color of the carpet or the walls.  It’s a losing proposition no matter which side you favor.  And second, you can get wax off the communion table, and just about anything else, with a hair dryer.

Now before you ask — “Couldn’t he have come up with something a bit more profound or at least something biblical? – let me say this. His advice has come in handy a time or two.

A lot of what we do as the body of Christ is on the surface pretty mundane.  We take casseroles to somebody after a bereavement.  We worry about paying our bills.  We sit by someone’s bedside.  We stock shelves in the Food Pantry.  We send an email to check in.  We get the wax off the communion table with our hair dryer.  The body of Christ is now and always will be made up of real people doing the mundane stuff of life with and for others in love.

But we are real people, flaws and all.  We don’t always see things the same way.  Conflict is a part of living in the world and in the church.  We aren’t always going to agree.  Sometimes disagreements get away from us.  Before you know it folks take sides and dig in their heels.  Are you a ‘blue carpet’ or a ‘red carpet’?

Do you really want to get in the middle of that?  Or is it better to take a step back and ask what else is happening to this part of the body of Christ?

That is what is going on in our story from Acts.  There’s conflict in the air.  Peter has just come from Caesarea.  While there he preached the gospel of Christ to Cornelius and all of his household.  When, lo and behold, the Holy Spirit came upon one and all.  Just like it had on Pentecost.  So right then and there Peter baptized everyone.  It sounds wonderful.  More people believe.  God is at work in the world.  Except for one thing, Cornelius was not a Jew.  He and his household were Gentiles.

Word gets out. When Peter arrives in Jerusalem he is accosted by other believers.  What did you think you were doing, baptizing uncircumcised Gentiles?

Peter is on the spot.  So he begins to slowly tell his story.  I had this vision, you see.  There was this big sheet from heaven and it was filled with animals.  And not a one of them was kosher.  Then God says to me, “eat.”   Now I said no.  I mean I never…But God said, “what I have made clean you shouldn’t call unclean.”

It is a familiar story, a Sunday school favorite even.  And his argument sounds perfectly sensible to us.  After all, that’s how the church grew isn’t it?  But it really isn’t so simple.  When Peter had this epiphany the folks who were already believers were Jewish.  The men were circumcised.  They didn’t eat with the uncircumcised and by and large didn’t visit their homes.  Why?  Men and women died rather than eat foods God had declared unclean.  And, circumcision was an essential marker of their covenant with God.  None of that went away just because they believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead.  In their eyes Peter was treading on the essentials of who they were when he went and baptized uncircumcised Gentiles.

Make no mistake.  This is a pivotal moment in the shaping of the church.  Now Peter could have dug in his heels, stubbornly insisting he had done the right thing.  And then where would we be?

The first church I ever served was a 100-year-old Presbyterian congregation.  It came into being after a church fight.  One of the hired hands of a member was moving.  The only day he could move was on Sunday.  So the member let him use his farm wagon and mules.  Word got out.  The church practically came to blows over the propriety of moving on the Lord’s Day.  Folks dug in their heels. Today there are two congregations, one Methodist and one Presbyterian.  The split went right down family lines.  More than 100 years later, echoes still linger.

That’s the kind of situation Peter found himself in the middle of after baptizing a bunch of Gentiles.  Who can join up and be a follower of the risen Lord?  What standards must they meet?  Peter could have dug in his heels.   He could have insisted on his right, as an apostle, to baptize whom he chose.  But he doesn’t.  Instead he tells them a story, his story.  He testifies to the events of the past days. (Why he’s even brought along six believers who witnessed the whole thing).   He makes them feel his own shock and confusion when God tells him to eat forbidden foods.  He walks them through what happened step-by-step.  He shares with them what he remembered Jesus saying about baptism.  And finally he looks them in the eye and asks one question:

Who am I to get in the way of God?

That’s what it comes down to.  The crowd?  It was silent.  No one could think of a single thing to say.  Until finally the people began to celebrate what God had done.  It is one moment in the early life of the church.  It didn’t even completely settle the question of inclusion in the church.  But it does remind us of something that we need to keep before us as we seek to live faithfully as Christ’s body, as we seek to love others as he loves us.

Do we get in the way of God?  Do we get stuck on our idea of what is and isn’t important?  In this story God throws open the boundaries to include all kinds of people.  But all too often we work against that radical openness.  We get caught up on issues and rules, definitions and propriety.  We have a tendency to dig in our heels. We claim the high ground.  But then so does someone else.  And you know something?  When we find ourselves there, it is time to take a step back and ask ourselves if we are getting in God’s way?  It’s time to listen not to ourselves and our fears but to the one who came to bring us life.  It’s time to tell the story of a man named Jesus and what he did for each and every one of us.

May it be so.


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