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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, today’s 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 cow paths.”

The Church? On cow paths?

I would toss this criticism aside—except 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 it’s time to act. Reacting to choruses, reacting to different worship styles, reacting to the changing neighborhoods around their church. So they’ve learned to say no more than yes and while the rest of the world is changing, we’re 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. “Let’s begin a new outreach to children in the inner city—I’ve 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 it—everyone voted yes! “What an exciting idea!”

Stage two: disillusionment. Three weeks into the new ministry . . . “We don’t 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? They’re 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.” “They’re 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. “I’m 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 it—and 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.

Doesn’t take long for news to travel—especially 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. That’s scandalous. But to many among the first generation Christians, what Peter did was just as scandalous.

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 . . .

don’t look like us

don’t worship like us

don’t dress like us

don’t sound like us

. . . and Peter holds a revival for them—never once asking them to become adopted Jews or to keep Jewish customs and laws. So as I said, it doesn’t take long for news to travel—especially 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. He’s 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. He’s tried to be obedient to the Law. He’s seen the light. He’s 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 they’ve accomplished in a few short years: they’ve established a food pantry to be distributed among the poor of Jerusalem. They’ve 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. They’re building the kingdom of God and it seems to be in Jerusalem. And they know who lives in God’s Kingdom—they do.

Peter is a bigot; owns a kind of vision about the Good News that keeps it on the cow paths—and 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 Peter’s 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: they’re 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, I’ve never envied those gentiles who eat scrapple. How could anyone stomach such unclean flesh?”

“What I call clean, don’t you call unclean anymore. You hear me, Peter?”


“But I’m 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 Bull’s 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 they’re 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 that’s 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 world—the world of all ages and ethnic mixes, of all cultures and cuisines, the world of all languages and people—that God gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have everlasting life.”

And that’s 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 criticism—do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” That’s 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 path—though reluctantly—and 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 arm’s length, because God calls it good? Would you trade in—if asked—a closed mind for the courage to act instead of react? Then watch out! As someone has quipped, “When you soar like an eagle, you’ll attract the hunters!” Taking a new path can bring you criticism, but with it comes great joy as well.

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.