Page last updated



Catching Up With God
a sermon based on Acts 11:1-15
by Rev. Frank Schaefer

I'd like to begin by sharing a little humorous notice: about The Perfect Pastor.

....The Perfect Pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes. He condemns sin roundly, but never hurts anyone's feelings. He works from 8 a.m. until midnight, and is also the church janitor.

....The Perfect Pastor makes $40 a week, wears good clothes, drives a good car, buys good books, and donates $30 a week to the parish. He is 29 years old and has 40 years' worth of experience. Above all, he is handsome.

....The Perfect Pastor has a burning desire to work with teen-agers, and he spends most of his time with the senior citizens. He smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his parish. He makes 15 home visits a day and is always in his office to be handy when needed.

....The Perfect Pastor always has time for parish council and all of it's committees. He never misses the meeting of any parish organization, and is always busy evangelizing the unchurched.

....The Perfect Pastor is always in the next parish over!

If your pastor does not measure up, simply send this notice to six other parishes that are tired of their pastor too. Then bundle up your pastor and send him to the parish at the top of your list. If everyone cooperates, in one week you will receive 1, 643 pastors. One of them should be perfect.

Have faith in this letter. One parish broke the chain and got its' old pastor back in less than three months.

This humorous letter has something to do with today’s message. It is just human nature that we have our certain expectations: a congregation has certain expectations of their new pastor, and more often than not, there are a few surprises. Even if a church would hire the re-incarnated Jesus, I’m sure some people would be complaining about something. Often in the gospels, not even the disciples could catch up with what Jesus was doing. Often they were dumbfounded as Jesus did something they did not expect. It was almost like Jesus was saying: "surprise" at every corner of the way.

Well, after Jesus had ascended to heaven and the church began to thrive following Pentecost, God had more surprises in store. This morning we read about a major crisis in the young church of Christ--one that required the meeting of the apostolic church board in Jerusalem.

Peter must have been sweating bullets when he was called before the apostolic board in Jerusalem.

I know very well how Peter must have felt. I’ve been before the board of the ordained ministry. That really put the fear of God in me. Can you imagine what it is like to be asked theological questions by a panel of 6 board members, trying to determine if my knowledge, my background, my calling, etc. is good enough to be an ordained minister.

Perhaps that's how Peter felt as he was charged with serious charges before the council at Jerusalem: he was accused of having watered down the gospel of Christ. He was accused of starting churches among the non-Jewish population in Europe and Asia Minor and news had traveled fast about outrageous worship practices.

I can imagine the conversation:  Is it true, Peter, that these Gentile believers do not observe the Jewish law? Is it true that they eat pork and other things which are an atrocity to the Lord? And is it true that they don’t worship in Synagogues, and that they don’t keep the Sabbath holy?

What was Peter supposed to say, but yes, yes, and yes. Yes, it is all true!

Outrageous! It’s a case of...heresy!

It wasn’t so much the fact that Peter made Gentile converts. There had been plenty of other Gentiles, like the first martyr Steven, but these Gentiles also converted to Judaism (the men were circumcised, and they observed the Jewish law in addition to Jesus’ teachings).

At that point in time, Christianity could not be separated from Judaism. In fact, Christianity was seen as the true Judaism, the fulfillment of the Torah and the prophets. The apostolic board at Jerusalem charged Peter with no less forging a separation between Christianity and Judaism, a new form of worship among the Gentiles that the apostolic board had a hard time accepting as inspired.

So, really the fundamental question was one that is so familiar to us too: what is the proper way to worship God, what does a true Christian service look like? There are churches who don’t believe instruments are appropriate in the worship of God, others feel that the hymns being sung must be at least 100 years old. Some feel that women must wear a certain headdress when worshiping, others feel that men and women must sit apart. Some think that handling snakes should be a part of the service, others feel that getting into an ecstatic state and raising your hands is what pleases God, still others insist that the full gospel is only practiced wherever people speak in tongues. And the list goes on and on.

Jesus once spoke to the issue of worship when he had a conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria. He said: "the time will come when believers will worship God in spirit and in truth." Jesus said it would no longer be important where you worship-whether it be in Jerusalem or Mt. Horeb, but that God can be worshiped anytime and anywhere, certainly alluding to the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

What, then, is appropriate in worshiping God? Some styles of worship certainly appear to be more appropriate than others--and some of them right out offend us. It certainly cannot be that anything goes! But it is certainly also true that God does not just prefer one style of worship. What the apostolic board at Jerusalem was trying to uphold was some sort of standard for worship and Christian life-style for those that became Christians without having been raised Jewish and the apostle Peter was entreating the board on their behalf.

How did Peter become such a radical for change? I mean we are talking about Peter-the disciple about whom Jesus once said he was the rock upon which the church would be built. Peter of all people should have known the standard, he was trained by Jesus himself!

Peter wasn’t the type of person that embraced change, in fact, he had a hard time himself with the kind of work the apostle Paul was doing among the Gentiles. He was very skeptical about Gentile believers. He, too, had to catch up with God. He had to catch up with what new thing God was doing-and that was hard for him.

What changed Peter’s mind and ultimately that of the council at Jerusalem was what he saw God doing among the Gentiles. First, God spoke to him through a dream. What a radical dream it was too. I think we must think about how difficult it is for a person who was raised with the strict Jewish dietary laws, to eat anything that is unkosher. No wonder Peter retorted: No way, Lord! I will never eat this unclean food." And God answers: "Don’t call unclean what God has made clean!" God was doing a new thing.

Secondly, when Peter was preaching at Cornelius’s house-a Gentile family--before he could ever make an altar call, before he had even finished his sermon, the Holy Spirit fell on these people like on the day of Pentecost.

Even though it went against what Peter believed in, the important thing Peter realized was: God was in it. This was God’s doing, and you cannot stand in the way of the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Reverend Chuck Smith of the Calvary chapel in Costa Mesa discovered that when God led this congregation to reach out to the un-churched young people in their community. This was in the 1960s when young people were rebelling against the status quo of society. Suddenly they found themselves in a controversy as these long-haired, unkempt, unshaven, jeans-wearing people sitting in the pews next to them. I mean these young people didn’t know how to behave in church. And in the mid sixties behavior was a big deal--if you went to church in the sixties you dressed up. But pastor Smith and his congregation realized what Peter realized: namely that the power of God was changing these young men and women. They may not have known the church etiquette, but their hearts were on fire for Jesus and their lives exuded the love of Christ. Pastor Smith and his congregation realized that they needed to catch up with God and they continued to reach out to them, even though this meant to see their worship style change drastically. And as a result this church was instrumental in starting the Jesus people movement, in which tens of thousands of "hippies" found Jesus Christ.

One thing we can glean from our Scripture reading this morning is the question: is our worship service a life changing experience? It is not the only criteria, but it is the one that carried the day through the early church crisis. In the end, it meant a radical change for the church of Christ. Christianity was ultimately separated from Judaism, at least in culture. In a sense you could say that Christianity became of age. And so it comes that we today do not adhere to the Jewish dietary, Sabbath, circumcision and many other laws.

At our church, we too, must catch up with what God is doing: We’re blessed with growth and are running out of parking spaces, pew seats, Sunday school rooms. We, too, got to catch up with God, so we don’t stand in the way of the work of the Holy Spirit. What is our challenge? In a sense, we have to find a way to channel the outpouring of God’s blessings. We have to make sure that our church building, our programming is expanded so we will be able to accommodate the people God is sending us.

It is quite obvious to me that God wants us to be in mission in our community or else he would not be sending all these wonderful people. The question this morning is: are we willing to change, are we willing to rethink? Are we willing to be in mission even if it means that we may have to give up something?

Dave Locherty, a church audit consultant with Easum Bandy, shared how he challenged a family during one of his seminars. This family proudly pointed out to him that they had been worshiping God with their entire family which spanned 4 generations in this particular church pew for many years. Dave Locherty then asked this family a question. He said: "would you be willing to give up your church pew, if it meant that an unchurched family from the community would find Jesus Christ." The family could not answer that question. It was almost like the story of the young, rich, ruler, who sadly turned away as he was unable to follow Jesus because he was not willing to part from his money.

Are you and I willing to give up our pew? Are we willing to make sacrifices to be in mission and outreach? God already works in surprising ways among us, folks, and God is calling us to catch up with what he is doing! God wants us to be in mission and outreach as he wanted Peter and the young church to be. Let us not ignore God’s doing among us. Let us be deliberate about catching up with what God is doing here at Iona. Expect the unexpected at Iona. It’s an exciting thing to be on the forefront of what God is doing. Praise be to God for counting us worthy to be part of his great work. Amen.