Trouble Back At Headquarters
A homily based on Acts 11:1-18
by Rev. Thomas Hall
A leader once confided to me, When it comes to change and risk,
todays successful organizations are traveling the super highway, our schools are
starting to get on the county highways, but the church is still plodding down old, worn
The Church? On cow paths?
I would toss this criticism asideexcept that it came from a
prominent church leader who cares deeply about the Church. He spoke to me as if he were in
a confessional booth. I see so many congregations that are reacting when its
time to act. Reacting to choruses, reacting to different worship styles, reacting to the
changing neighborhoods around their church. So theyve learned to say no more
than yes and while the rest of the world is changing, were still stuck on the
same old cow paths.
Our reluctance to leave the familiar paths can be described in the six
stages of a church committee:
Stage one: wild enthusiasm. Lets begin a new outreach to
children in the inner cityIve seen so many kids on the street corners on
Sunday mornings; we could bring them to church for Sunday School and a lunch, then drive
them back. Yeah! What a great idea! All in favor, say
aye! Can you believe iteveryone voted yes! What an exciting
Stage two: disillusionment. Three weeks into the new ministry . . .
We dont have enough people signed up to drive. I never intended to
help out every Sunday. I have a bad feeling about this.
Stage three: panic and hysteria. These kids are animals!
Did you see them? Theyre playing in the gym with their street shoes on!
People are complaining of gum wads under the pews! Some of our regular
parents are concerned about germs getting passed by them. Theyre running
willy-nilly between Sunday School and morning worship.
Stage four: search for the guilty. Whose idea was this?
I just want to go on record that this was not my idea; I had reservations
about this whole thing from the start. I think the pastor needs to step up to
the table and take responsibility for this failure.
Stage five: punishment of the innocent. Im never going
to listen to a thing that woman says; I mean it. It was her idea.
I just want to say again, that I was against this from the start. I know
a bad idea when I hear itand this was one of em.
Stage six: promotion of the non-participants. We owe a lot to
you for your constructive criticism. Thanks to you we have our church back
just the way it was. Maybe you would consider chairing our mission committee;
they need some common sense.
In Acts 11 it seems that the early Christians are already beginning to
plod down a safe, well-worn cow path. The path has four right turns; forms a closed box.
Inside are those that the Jerusalem Church had been preaching the Gospel to. Ethnically, a
very familiar group. So when one of the Christian leaders makes a left turn and travels
down a new road outside the box, trouble begins to brew.
Doesnt take long for news to travelespecially if the news is
laced with scandal. In fact, scandal has surfaced at Caesarea among the Gentiles. Peter
and six members of the summer mission team are suddenly yanked off road and recalled to
headquarters. Now most of us would equate scandal with a church leader caught sniffing
coke, getting drunk, or carrying on an affair with a church member. Thats
scandalous. But to many among the first generation Christians, what Peter did was just as
His crime? He has actually gone into the very living room of a
non-Jewish soldier and preached the gospel to house full of gentiles.
He has stepped outside the box. Has left the cow paths. He has found the
courage to act instead of react. He has gone right up to folks who . . .
dont look like us
dont worship like us
dont dress like us
dont sound like us
. . . and Peter holds a revival for themnever once asking them to
become adopted Jews or to keep Jewish customs and laws. So as I said, it doesnt take
long for news to travelespecially if the news is laced with scandal.
The apostles and the brothers throughout all of Judea heard that the
Gentiles also had received the word of God. When Peter went up to Jerusalem, those who
were in favor of circumcising Gentiles criticized him: You were a guest in the home
of uncircumcised Gentiles, and you even ate with them!
Point of clarification those who were in favor of
circumcising Gentiles, suggests that as long non-Jewish converts submitted to a
surgical operation and got themselves cut into the covenant and kept the Law,
it was okay to welcome them into fellowship.
Peter is no cutting edge kind of guy. Hes as stubbornly
narrow-minded as many of his colleagues back in Jerusalem. He would sooner be caught in
some back alley at gun point than be seen in a non-Jewish home. He has it together; his
Jewish-Christian faith has it together. Hes tried to be obedient to the Law.
Hes seen the light. Hes been saved from hopelessness and sin. Jesus, his
fulfillment, has changed everything. So he, along with the Christian community in
Jerusalem, now basks in the Good News about Jesus for several wonderful years.
Consider what theyve accomplished in a few short years:
theyve established a food pantry to be distributed among the poor of Jerusalem.
Theyve got an exciting ministry similar to our parish nurse ministries that flourish
in Jerusalem. Their healing ministries have brought wholeness and health to many.
Several of the original apostles who walked with Jesus still hold
services in Jerusalem. Theyre building the kingdom of God and it seems to be in
Jerusalem. And they know who lives in Gods Kingdomthey do.
Peter is a bigot; owns a kind of vision about the Good News that keeps
it on the cow pathsand away from the rest of the gentile world. Good News is for
owning, for protecting, for blessing us.
A closed mind maybe a good thing to lose, but it takes three visions to
lose Peters closed mind and open him to new possibilities. Peter is hungry and in a
trance he sees a vision of animals. Now Peter, who has never tasted pork products, is
bewildered by the vast array of animals that come crawling, flying, and jumping on to his
dish. He certainly has the rabbinic truth about slimy things like reptiles and such:
theyre unclean, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. But now God says to go ahead and
order sausage and eggs; says not be so concerned about ritual uncleanness.
Peter says, You know, God, Ive never envied those gentiles
who eat scrapple. How could anyone stomach such unclean flesh?
What I call clean, dont you call unclean anymore. You hear
But Im not really talking about food, Peter; this is about
sharing my Good News with others.
Oh, it is? Yeah, I know, People need the Lord. The
Goldsteins, Levi Bulls family, Prime Minister Sharon, they all need the Lord.
Actually, Peter, I was thinking more African, Caucasian, more
Asian and Hispanic those people who need the Lord.
But theyre not Jewish . . .
So Peter cautiously makes his way to Cornelius house to share the
Good News. And with the exact same results as he had experienced a decade earlier in
Jerusalem on Pentecost Sunday. He hears again folks worshiping God in many tongues and
languages and thats what convinces him that Good News is for sharing, not
containing. The world he thought was ensconced in John 3:16 suddenly erupts: God so
loved the worldthe world of all ages and ethnic mixes, of all cultures and cuisines,
the world of all languages and peoplethat God gave his only Son, that whoever
believes in him would not perish but have everlasting life.
And thats what gets him into trouble with headquarters.
What might this story say to us? Is it telling us to expect criticism
when we seek to step outside the box in order to share the Good News? Does this story
challenge us to look deeply at how we present the Gospel? Are we more concerned with how
our worship feels-sounds-looks to us than whether or not it connects with outsiders? Can
we discern between gospel and tradition?
Finally, with whom do we identity with in this story?
Maybe we have too often identified with the brothers back in Jerusalem.
They were fully Christian too, just more content to walk the narrow paths of what was
familiar to them, and resistant when God placed a new road to high adventure before them.
A writer once said, to escape criticismdo nothing, say nothing, be
nothing. Thats all the motto we need if we choose to stay on the cow paths. No
one will criticize us for playing it safe. But should God ever give us some of his vision
for world God loves, we will never again be satisfied with business as usual.
Or do we identify with Peter, who eventually leaves the cow
paththough reluctantlyand finds himself on the road to a new adventure? Are
you prepared to walk away from the familiar paths when God gives you a greater vision of
his purpose? Would you be willing to embrace a ministry that you may have held at
arms length, because God calls it good? Would you trade inif
askeda closed mind for the courage to act instead of react? Then watch out! As
someone has quipped, When you soar like an eagle, youll attract the
hunters! Taking a new path can bring you criticism, but with it comes great joy as
Are you ready to be transformed from small thinking into great ideas for
offering ministry? Then exit the cow path and jump into mission and see what new roads of
adventure that God takes you down! Amen.