Ancient Modern Family, III: “I Really Am Learning.”
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,
but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
In the month of August, Jo Forrest and myself have the privilege of preaching on the Acts of the Apostles, a sermon series we have entitled Ancient Modern Family. Akin to the TV series Modern Family, the book of Acts is comprised of eccentrics and misfits—each new person added to the family necessitating adjustments and precipitating arguments. Would Modern Family characters Phil, Claire, Jay, Gloria, Mitchel and Cameron be as confuddled as Stephen, Peter and Paul by God’s vision of welcome? I am guessing they would have struggled just as much with the growing eccentricities of the early Church family.
The people in the book of Acts are diverse ethnically, culturally and geographically. Their stories are knit together by the repetition of our common family story: that of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, told again and again in new ways adapted to each situation that arises. The book of Acts is a continuation of the gospel of Luke, written by the same anonymous author, to the same named but unknown Theophilus, a name which can be translated as God Lover.
The book of Acts is an unparalleled and unprecedented history of the early Church. It is rooted by political, geographical, and historical details, but it is not told for the sake of historical accuracy, instead illuminating a wider theological vision: that the story of our God is not just God of some, but God of all.
Last week, Jo Forrest ended her sermon with the stoning of Stephen. After Stephen’s death, the apostles became scattered like dust on the wind, going out from Jerusalem in every direction. And that is why, in today’s text, Peter is summoned, not from Jerusalem, but from the coastal city of Joppa to visit the seaport of Caesarea to preach to Cornelius, a Gentile God-worshiper and leader in the Roman military. Let us listen now, for God to speak to us and among us as we hear today’s text from the book of Acts.
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It is not difficult to imagine today’s story. Visions and dreams might seem farfetched, but honestly, I can relate. Maybe Peter is waiting for lunch, possibly a little hungrier than he thought, and slips into a spiritual dream-like state, picturing food coming down to him from heaven.
I get hungry. I can imagine the scene. It all makes sense. But, can you imagine acting on such visions? Saying “yes” to the disruption of these strangers who arrive at his door?
Having just returned from our Wilderness Confirmation trip, which you have just heard a bit about, it will not surprise you that my own connection to today’s story is influenced by our travels. Wendyll Berry describes it well: Scripture is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Outdoors we are confronted everywhere by wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence.
Standing beneath the stars, pondering our smallness in light of the depth of the universe, one can hardly dismiss the miracles of scripture: even Jesus turning water into wine seems unsurprising. As Wendyll Berry says, without the wilderness, we forget the greater and still continuing miracles by which water—with soil and sunlight—is turned into grapes.
And so, the wilderness shapes my reading of these visions and dreams, by way of three wilderness practices.
- First, leaving our watches behind, we practiced timelessness. We accepted, as wilderness philosopher Sigurd Olsen calls it, the time clock of the wilderness: each day governed by daylight and dark rather than schedules and alarms, eating if hungry and sleeping when tired, becoming completely immersed in the ancient rhythms of life.
- Second, we allowed silence and scripture to echo off the morning sunrise. After breakfast, with all our gear packed up in our boats, we read scripture floating in our canoes and paddled away in a wordless silent prayer.
- And finally, we practiced the mantra know-as-you-go. I am guessing that my wilderness team is cringing at the thought of know-as-you-go. It became so deeply important to our experience that we may have overused the phrase. But it was necessary. Here’s why:Out on a lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, navigational landmarks like islands, peninsulas and bays are shown quite clearly on a map but run together in real life—appearing indistinguishable.
This flusters campers—old and young alike. “We’re going the wrong way” you want to say out loud. “There’s supposed to be a bay up here on our left, but it’s just a wall of trees.” But then, when it seemed like turning back was the only option, as if by magic, the bay would open up before us, and we could paddle right through, continuing our route, exactly as the map predicted.
You see, we took no GPS. There was no little blue dot, indicating on the map our exact location. The paper map was our only guide. And, when more questions arise, like “where will we camp tonight?” or “when will we get there?” we only knew as much as we know at the moment. We could not ask google. We could not call ahead to make a reservation at the next lake over. We could only paddle forward, seeing if there was a campsite vacant. If not, our only choice was to paddle onward, towards the next lake.
And so, a wilderness guide explains: to avoid the anxiety that accompanies the feeling of lost-ness, and to truly dwell in the timelessness of the wilderness, we adopt this mantra: know-as-you-go.
- Know-as-you-go means understanding what you know now is enough.
- It means living contentedly with the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
- It is knowing that the future will unfold into the present, and God will be there, just as God is here.
These three practices: timelessness, silence and know-as-you-go allowed us to be completely in the moment, concerned only about the task at hand, uninterrupted by tweets or texts or alerts. These practices were binding, creating a deep spiritual trust—a divine trust in the mystery of mysteries.
And these practices, I would suggest, bear witness, not only to experiences in the wilderness, but to today’s text as well—to Peter’s faithfulness as he encounters Cornelius.
For one, Peter might not have been able to drop everything and go with complete strangers if he did not, in part, practice a spirituality of timelessness. Yes, this is Peter who we know from the Gospels;
- Peter, the fisherman.
- Peter, one of the twelve; and, to be honest, he was one of the disciples closest to Jesus—present both at Jesus’ transfiguration and Jesus’ night in the garden of Gethsemane.
- And, yes, this is Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times; Peter who wept uncontrollably as the rooster crowed, realizing how hopelessly heartfelt his denials of Jesus had been.
But at some point, Peter is given a chance to turn;
- to turn from denial to faith,
- from despair to hope,
- from deserting Christ to shepherding his flock.
And so, in today’s text, Peter is no longer in denial, but now a revered faithful leader. Peter hears God tell him: Go. Do not ask questions. And so,
- despite all natural inclination to the contrary,
- practicing a sense of timelessness
- wrapped up, truly, in God’s time, not his own—Peter goes.
And, once he goes, we see a second openness: Peter rooted in this know-as-you-go spirituality. Peter asks Cornelius, “Why have you sent for me?” And, once Peter hears how God knit their lives together with these dual visions—Peter replies: I really am learning that God does not show partiality to one group over another.
I love this line for two reasons: On the one hand, Peter sees that God shows no partiality. God’s love is not just for some exclusive group, not just for those who were brought up in this way or that way, not just for those who were part of this story from the beginning. Instead, God is breaking down the barriers between insider and outsider, between us and them. God’s transformative love is not just for one but for all.
On the other hand, Peter sees this love, this wide, deep love of God for all people—and he says “I really am learning…” this.
He sees that God’s love is so expansive that it is only day-by-day that we can learn how deep and wide God’s love truly is. Peter has become rooted in this know-as-you-go theology: that God’s love can be revealed wider and deeper even now, even today.
Today, like Peter and Cornelius, we are united by two visions: In one vision, we have a vision for a child—the child baptized here today. In this vision, we imagine a world where this Church supports Joseph’s parents, supports Joseph’s godparents, and supports Joseph as he grows in faith. This does not mean there will not be struggles. This does not mean that the road ahead will be straight. There will days when know-as-you-go is all that we will know. And yet, in our vision, God is with us—no matter what.
Secondly, we have a vision for these wilderness confirmation participants—children once baptized here or there, then or maybe even not yet. And now, some of these baptismal promises have been realized
- this Church has wrapped its arms around them,
- this Church has nurtured them and is nurturing them
- and these youth can live into new baptismal promises,
- promises to guide and nurture Joseph—to give voice to God’s love in this world that they know.
The Church’s love for these youth is rooted in a sense of timelessness, trusting God’s timing, not our own. This does not mean there will not be struggles. This does not mean that the road ahead will be straight. There will days when know-as-you-go is all that we will know.
And now, as we are all sent out from worship into our everyday lives, we are asked to ponder Peter and Cornelius’ story anew. What new vision might grow among us? Peter says, I really am learning that God does not show partiality to one group over another. How is this true now, in our own lives, in our own contexts? How is God’s surprising welcoming love changing us, now? How is God calling us to live, in light of Peter’s insight into God’s love? Let us prayerfully gather in silence, welcoming God to open our eyes, as we wait upon the Lord. Amen.
 Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays, 2002. p. 311.
 Sigurd Olson, Reflections From the North Country. 1998. p. 28.
 Siebeck, Mohr. The Remembered Peter, 2010. p. 205