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When Vision Is Inadequate
based on Revelation 21:1-6 and Acts 11:1-18
By Rev. Jon Tsubi

Christian communities face many challenges, but none is greater than what we find in Acts 11 this morning. I think we could safely say that this may be the single greatest obstacle to being the Kingdom of God present in our world. Luke presents a case study that begins in chapter ten and concludes in the next chapter. Let’s look at the story.

Peter is outside Jerusalem at a sort of seaside resort--though he’s taken the no-frills vacation deal. He’s lodged above a tanner which is not the most pleasant place to get away from it all. He’s hungry and while waiting for dinner to be served, he falls into a dreamlike trance. The vision must have been to him like tales from the crypt--it’s just awful! He sees a vision of all kinds of animals-yet upon closer examination these are not Jewish-friendly types, but the very animals that Moses had declared "unclean." Not a problem, just let them march on by. "Peter, rise and kill and eat them!" Yikes! This must be a vicious attack from some demonic spirit, trying to turn him from the way! But the dream occurs three times and that strong voice repeats the imperative, "Rise . . . eat; what I call clean do not call ‘unclean’."

Turns out that the voice and vision come from a heavenly, not demonic source, and Peter is directed by the Spirit to take what would have been a scandalous step-to go with gentiles to their home. If you’ve watched Tevi in Fiddler’s Roof lately, you know how tough tradition is to break. Peter has been pushed beyond the limits of his tradition. And it takes a vision-replayed three times-to convince Peter to move out of his stuck-ness and adopt a new vision of God.

In the end, Peter makes a breakthrough in hearing beyond his usual listening to scripture. He "hears" of God’s interest in people other than from his own provincial group-think. So he obeys what he now takes to be God’s directions and enters a gentile home. Holy Pentecost! It happens again-just like they had experienced in Jerusalem years earlier. So evident is God’s blessing, that Peter up and baptizes these new gentile Christians and lingers on several days to get them started in their new life in Jesus Christ.

Now comes the reckoning. So scandalous are Peter’s actions, that word has spread all the way back to Jerusalem before he even returns. "What were you thinking, Peter?" "How dare you revile our sacred tradition-you know what we think about gentiles!" "What do you have to say for yourself? Speak up!"

So in the spirit of Daniel in the lion’s den, Stephen before the Sanhedrin, or in recent metaphor, Condoleezza Rice before the senate investigation, Peter makes his stand. He simply tells of the events that have led to his break with tradition-the vision, the visitors, the Holy Spirit’s clear words of direction, the Pentecost and the signs and wonders. Tells it all.

Only after he gets it all out on the table do his critics change their mind about his bizarre actions. "God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of turning from sin and receiving eternal life," they announce in profound bewildered befuddlement.

Peter and his colleagues are similar to many of their group and age-they are provincial-quite localized-in their thinking. Peter has grown up in Israel; his experience and culture reflects a religious tradition that has become both rich and exclusive. To those of us who live daily in a racially diverse culture, this must seem like a quaint, though antiquated story that we don’t really need to take seriously anymore. But as Thomas Long has insightfully pointed out, while theological traditions guide us into faithful conversation with scripture, those same traditions can also make us hard of hearing. Traditions too often become fixed systems, Long says, no longer open to listening to any new claims of scripture.

That’s where Peter and friends are in this story that Luke narrates. Peter is stuck in a tradition that has closed the doors on any new possibilities for God’s vision. The early Christian leaders back in Jerusalem are also stuck in a fossilized, provincial vision. The tradition that once helped them to listen to God now keeps them from hearing anything that God might be saying from outside their accustomed way of hearing.

I think Luke wants to send the message loud and clear that even our visions of God must always become places for new soundings and listenings. God’s Vision has the capacity to grow grander, larger than our last vision of God. When we cling to past visions of God’s work among us; when our vision becomes ossified and hardened so that we no longer listen for God through scripture for new the activity of God, we may miss the opportunity and adventure of participating with what God is doing now.

Compare Luke’s story to the lesson that we have in Revelation 21. Another vision. In this vision, God has swept the existing earth and heaven as we know it into the cosmic trash bin. But God is not one who delights in tohu wabohu-chaos-God simply builds a new heaven and earth. And God further creates a holy neighborhood for the world. A neighborhood where God personally chooses to live. Can you imagine living next door to God? Wow! (No more wild parties on Friday night!) This vision is magnificent because it describes a God who chooses to live among human beings, to be with them. We see a God who chooses to remove what pains people and what hurts them and brings them tears.

The vision of Revelation 21 has God making all things new-ever new and signing off on that promise. The God who is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega-the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet-offers "to all" who are thirsty springs of the water of life. Cornelius was certainly thirsty for those springs of water; that Peter discovered. All of the Gentiles that day were thirsty for God as well. But it took one person to break away from a limited vision shaped by tradition and culture to see a new vision-the Revelation 21 vision-before such thirst could be quenched.

Put the two visions together and we come to a faithful picture of our mission as the church. On one hand, we honor tradition as the place where we faithfully listen to scripture and live out of our vision. But on the other hand, we must beware of our own deafness that our tradition creates. God’s has a longer and wider embrace for the world and a vision for the world that goes well beyond our visions. Nothing short of a new heaven and new earth. In God’s new heaven and new earth, all and everyone-gentiles, strangers, disenfranchised, da odda guys (Hawaiian Pidgin), and all sorts of beings that descend from heaven vision-like-are welcomed to the springs of the water of life. Amen.