Sermon text is Acts 11:1-18
When you hear the word “Truth,” what comes to mind? Is it a comforting word—something solid and trust-worthy? Is it attached to longing—something you seek for, or yearn for? Or is it suspicious—something that comes with a whole bunch of questions, like who is claiming to know the truth; what truth are they talking about; what am I expected to do with this truth?
Now, I have to admit that I am enough of a product of my generation—I’m right on the tail end of the first post-modern generation—Generation X—that when I hear the word “truth,” my response tends toward suspicion. The claim to have truth or to know the truth gets my hackles up. I am keenly aware of all the harm that has been done in the name of defending or propagating “the truth,” including crusades, genocides, terrorism, and cultural imperialism. I’m also aware that very often the people who seem most confident that they know “the truth” are people I disagree with very profoundly.
Now, does this mean that I believe all truth is relative and that there is no underlying reality to the universe—only our individual perceptions? Am I one of those radicals who claims that all that exists is my truth and your truth, and your truth should never infringe upon my truth? That would make this whole being a preacher thing somewhat hypocritical. No, I do believe in truth. I believe that there is an underlying truth to the universe. I’m just skeptical that any of us can claim to have full access to it. I think we can approach truth—we can seek after truth—we can be closer to the truth or further from the truth, but since all we have is our own individual experiences and perceptions to rely on, I don’t think any of us are in a position to claim to know the whole truth. No one has a monopoly on truth.
All this is to say that when I came to this week’s Great End of the Church, I was more than a little conflicted. Maintenance of Divine Worship? That’s something I have plenty to say about. Shelter, Nurture and Spiritual Fellowship? Of course that matters—that’s about relationships! But Preservation of the Truth? I immediately think of the Spanish Inquisition and people being burned at the stake for being heretics and excommunicated for deviating from church doctrine. I think of all the shameful things the Church has done over the last 20 centuries in the name of defending or preserving the truth from perceived attack.
But, then I read this morning’s Bible story—one of the lectionary passages for this week—and hope blossomed in my heart, because this story shows us a very different picture of truth, and how to preserve it.
What does this story have to do with truth, you might ask. Isn’t it about Gentiles and Jews? Isn’t it about conflict? Isn’t it about the Holy Spirit? Yes. Yes, it is about all those things.
It is about conflict over tradition—it is about the council in Jerusalem confronting Peter because he has begun to deviate from what they all know is true—which is that the Holy Spirit is given to the people of God, who are, obviously, the circumcised—the people of Israel, and those who have converted to Judaism. They all know that God has done something new and amazing through Jesus, and they have experienced the power of God’s spirit at work in their lives in new and unexpected ways, but this is still the God of Israel—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the God who made covenant with Abraham and required circumcision as a sign of that promise. This is the same God—the same promise fulfilled. Of course it is happening in the company of the circumcised. Including Gentiles who are not circumcised in this fellowship—sharing the bread and wine of the new covenant—the new thing God is doing—with them? It’s outrageous and offensive, and goes against everything everyone knows to be true about God’s promises.
When the council calls Peter to the carpet, they are defending what they know to be true about how God works. But they also can’t understand why Peter would go and do something so wrong. They know Peter. Peter walked with Jesus. Peter is committed to this movement. How on earth did he get to the point where he would do something that compromises everything they stand for?
So, they ask him for an explanation.
And he gives one.
He tells them about having a troubling vision—a vision in which he is invited to eat all kinds of unclean animals—in other words, to break all the kosher laws. But it doesn’t feel like a temptation. The invitation isn’t coming from some suspicious source—it feels oddly like an invitation from God. He tries to protest, but feels this conviction rising up in him—an inner voice that sounds so much like the Holy Spirit he has been learning to listen to for years—and this inner voice is telling him—if God tells you it is okay, it is okay.
He tells them about waking from the trance to find a messenger coming to him from a Gentile leader. He follows the messenger to Ceasarea, and meeting Cornelius, who wants to know about Jesus. At this point, Peter might be surprised, but there are Gentiles who have converted to Judaism. Maybe Cornelius will become one of them.
But as Peter tells this man and his household about Jesus, something completely shocking happens. Peter can see that these people are filled with the Holy Spirit. God is in them already. He is here, telling them about what God is doing, but just by sitting there, they are showing him that God is doing something even bigger than he ever imagined.
“So what should I have done?” Peter asks the council. “God was there already—the Holy Spirit was filling them already? Could I deny a blessing on people God was already welcoming and filling? Could I say, ‘no, you don’t belong,’ or ‘no, you must fulfill these other requirements’ when God was clearly including them already? No! So I ate with them. And I baptized them, and we shared communion, and God was there.”
And this council who confronted Peter is left speechless. They can tell Peter is not lying. They know him. They would be able to tell if he had changed and way trying to deceive them. He isn’t. He is telling them the truth. And it completely undermines a whole system of beliefs that they assumed were true.
This story makes clear that “preserving the truth” is not the same thing as “preserving tradition,” or “preserving doctrine,” or preserving things the way we’ve always done them. Preserving the truth is about preserving a relationship—an openness to God in which we continue to listen, continue to trust, and continue to move with God’s Spirit.
How do we do this? How do we cultivate this openness to God? How do we follow the Holy Spirit into new places?
Well, I think a big piece is what we see this council doing with Peter. Following God might involve times of solitude and prayer, like Peter has on the roof top when he receives a vision. Sometimes those times of solitude are rich with insight. But the experience is not complete until it is shared. Peter has to tell his story—to share honestly the ways that God has challenged his assumptions and met him in unexpected places. When Peter shares his story openly, and the council listens to him—really listens, with trust and openness—truth emerges, and the whole community can affirm the truth and praise God, despite the fact that all their assumptions have been turned upside down.
What stories do you have to share? You might balk, and think—nothing I’ve experienced is as important or meaningful as Peter’s story. But that’s not what it is about. Whether you feel like your experiences of God have been life-changing or not, what you have experienced is true, and when you share your experience of reality, we all come a little bit closer to the truth of how vast and mysterious and loving and amazing God is.
Let us preserve the truth by telling our stories—by sharing our experiences, or lack of experiences of God—by listening attentively and respectfully to one another, so we can learn from each other. Let us continue to follow the Spirit, who leads us into all truth. Amen.