A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (11:1-18)
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Praise the Lord from the heavens; *
praise him in the heights.
2 Praise him, all you angels of his; *
praise him, all his host.
3 Praise him, sun and moon; *
praise him, all you shining stars.
4 Praise him, heaven of heavens, *
and you waters above the heavens.
5 Let them praise the Name of the Lord; *
for he commanded, and they were created.
6 He made them stand fast for ever and ever; *
he gave them a law which shall not pass away.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth, *
you sea-monsters and all deeps;
8 Fire and hail, snow and fog, *
tempestuous wind, doing his will;
9 Mountains and all hills, *
fruit trees and all cedars;
10 Wild beasts and all cattle, *
creeping things and winged birds;
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, *
princes and all rulers of the world;
12 Young men and maidens, *
old and young together.
13 Let them praise the Name of the Lord, *
for his Name only is exalted,
his splendor is over earth and heaven.
14 He has raised up strength for his people
and praise for all his loyal servants, *
the children of Israel, a people who are near him. Hallelujah!
A Reading from the Book of Revelation (21:1-6)
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (13:31-35)
[At the last supper, when Judas had gone out,] Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
This past week, our elementary and junior-high students have been taking a series of tests known as the Ohio Achievement Assessments, or OAAs. This morning, it’s your turn for a short quiz. Alright, first, here is an easy question for you: when was Saul, also known as Paul, converted? From the days that we attended Sunday School, we have probably been able to give the answer: when he was on the road to Damascus and encountered the risen Christ.
OK. Now here is a lot tougher one, but it’s multiple choice: when was Simon, also known as Peter, converted? In his case, it is not so easy to pin down an exact time or event. Was it (A) when Jesus first met him alongside the Sea of Galilee and called him to “Come, follow me”? Was it (B) at Caesarea Philippi when — in response to Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” — Peter affirmed, “You are the Messiah, the Christ”? Was it (C) on Easter when Peter first encountered the risen Christ? Was it (D) in the gospel that we heard at St. Margaret’s, two weeks ago, when Peter, alongside the Sea of Galilee, affirmed three times his love for the risen Jesus? Was it (E) at the time of the events described in today’s gospel reading, when Peter first came to realize that the new life of the resurrection was intended for all people, Gentiles as well as Jews? Maybe we need that multiple-choice option that says, “All of the above.”
Conversion, it seems, is not something that is easy to pin down. Conversion is not really a one-time thing.
You might think that it is if you listen to the way that some members of the church try to approach it. They treat conversion as if it were the end of a process. “Just accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and you are set for life – and for eternal life, too.”
But in reality, conversion, as the scriptures present it, is a complex process and an ongoing process. In the Acts of the Apostles, for example, it differs from one person to another. It is not the end of a process, but only a beginning. It is not about me as an individual; it is about my new role within the church, participating from now on in its mission to the world. Even more basically, conversion is not first of all about my choice or my action at all: it is first of all about God’s choice and God’s action. That is what Peter discovered in the story that precedes today’s first reading. And, according to the passage that we heard today, that is what the other members of the early church had to discover as Peter defended his actions to them.
In response to a vision, Peter had gone to the city of Caesarea Maritima, which served as the Roman headquarters in Palestine. There he had encountered a Roman centurion named Cornelius and his family. They were good people, but not Jewish people. And there he had encountered the Spirit of God working in them and in their lives. It was nothing that had happened before. The Spirit that, until then, had been given only to Jewish believers, was now working in the lives of Gentile believers as well. That God had touched their lives and that God was changing their lives was undeniable. And so Peter took the unprecedented step of baptizing them and sharing in table fellowship with them.
And some of the other members of the church back in Jerusalem were furious. They demanded that Peter explain himself. Until this time, the members of the church had not allowed any of those people to participate with them in their most sacred actions – not until they cleaned up their act and became observant Jews.
But Peter stood his ground. He put his opponents on the spot by pointing out clearly that the Spirit of God was doing something new, and that the Spirit of God was in fact working in the lives of Gentile believers as well as those of Jewish believers. “OK,” he told them, “You judge. What takes precedence: your Ideas about how God is supposed to work, or what God’s own Spirit has actually done?” Like it or not, they had to concede: “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
How often has that scene been repeated in the history of the church? We think we have God figured out. We are certain that we know how God is supposed to work. But then God does something different: something that we did not expect. “Do you mean that God is working even in the lives of those people: that we need to accept them as full and complete members of the church and leaders of the church along with everybody else?” No matter how often it happens, it somehow still seems to catch us by surprise. And no matter how often it happens, there are still some who fight it and refuse to accept it because it is not what they are used to, it is not what they have “always done.” They are convinced that they have God figured out, and they expect God to conform to their ways of thinking and acting. But God continues to surprise us.
William Willimon describes the situation in Acts, and the situation that continues to occur throughout the church’s history, this way (Acts, pp. 98-99): “This is the way it sometimes is in the church. If Jesus Christ is Lord, then the church has the adventurous task of penetrating new areas of his Lordship, expecting surprises and new implications of the gospel which cannot be explained on any basis other than our Lord has shown us something we could not have seen on our own, even if we were looking only at Scripture. This does not mean an undisciplined flight of fancy into our own new bold ideas or the pitiful effort to catch the wind of the latest trend in the culture under the guise of seeking new revelation. Rather, it means that we are continuing to penetrate the significance of the scriptural witness that Jesus Christ is Lord and to be faithful to divine prodding. Faith, when it comes down to it, is our own often breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, ‘What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?’”
To ask those questions is an integral part of our continuing, ongoing conversion. It requires us to remain open to God. It requires us to start with looking, not at what we have decided to do, and not at what the latest and greatest church program is telling us to do, but at what God might now be doing in the world. That is the beginning: not with our work but with God’s work. And that realization leads us to ask, not what God’s role is in our ongoing work, but what our role is in God’s ongoing work.
As we make our way through the last few weeks of this Easter season and prepare to celebrate the coming of God’s Spirit on the feast of Pentecost, I suggest that we ask ourselves the questions that Peter and the early church had to face, the questions that the church of every age has to face: “What is God doing today? Where on earth is God going now?” and finally, “How can we contribute to and be part of God’s work?”