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Sunday, June 18, 2017
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34 & Acts 10:1-16
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Since our Practicing Faith series has had us jumping all over Acts, I want to take just a moment to put today’s story into its context. Acts begins with Jesus telling his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit to come on them, which happens at Pentecost. The disciples – Peter especially – begin preaching and healing throughout Jerusalem, and thousands of people are flocking to the way of Jesus. As this movement grows, so does its opposition, and Stephen is stoned to death for his profession of faith in what God has done through Jesus. At the end of this terrible scene, a man named Saul stands by, approving of what has just happened. Orthodoxy has been defended, and Saul will be zealous in making sure this movement ends. Having solicited orders to round up followers of Jesus, Saul “sees the light,” as it were, on the road to Damascus. Jesus meets him, and everything changes. We begin to know him as Paul, and he is discipled by the very people he came to round up.
By now we’re a couple of years into the Jesus movement. Peter’s stature in this movement looms large, and when you’re a leader, you face an enormous amount of pressure to maintain the status quo. Paul’s missionary journeys haven’t started yet, so among the believers there really isn’t much of a perception that they need to add the Gentiles into the mix.
But then, Cornelius happens. He is not only a Gentile; he’s a powerful servant of the Roman Empire. Cornelius has a vision about Peter and sends messengers to find him. About 30 miles to the south, Peter has a strange vision about eating animals that he wasn’t supposed to eat, setting the stage for the story of Cornelius’ conversion (along with his whole household, I might add), becoming an unexpected addition to this Jesus movement.
God gets Peter to change his mind about what he thinks God is up to in the world, showing us that openness is a key practice of Christians.
Have you ever changed your mind about something, particularly something that you held as a core belief?
I have. I want to share with you one story where God reoriented what I believe about the world. I’ve been around long enough that you know that I take Scripture very seriously, that I’ve taken my faith very seriously throughout my life, and that I continue today to orient my life around my faith in Jesus and how God’s Word orders my steps. My worldview does not change quickly or easily, so when change happens, it comes with a strong belief that God is calling me to see things differently, even if it meant I was wrong before.
Women in Ministry
You may find this surprising, since I’m married to a pastor and since I gladly serve alongside a talented pastor who is a woman, but I didn’t always believe that women should serve in a pastoral capacity. All of my pastors growing up were men. I did not know a single female pastor, and I held (and continue to hold) in high regard Scripture, which includes texts like 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, where Paul writes, “(As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?).” If God’s Word says women should be silent, then how can a woman preach, right? I wasn’t against women; I was for God’s Word.
Then God put Jess in my life. Jess grew up in a church with similar beliefs about the role of women in the church. She knew strong women who worked at the church, who did everything a pastor did, but who bore the title “Director,” since women weren’t allowed ordination. Yet, Jess had a call from God to be a pastor, and she swam upstream to fulfill her calling. It was as clear as day to her despite her having no models in her life. Dating a woman called to pastoral ministry sent me into a mode of searching because, obviously, I had to come to the point of affirming this or of getting out of the relationship. We served together in an unordained capacity for a year, and her gifts became more and more obvious. Together we read a book called Gender and Grace, which tackles this question in a way that I could listen to it. We applied for seminary together, loaded up our lives, and started summer Greek.
Now, it might sound like I’m dense at this point, but I really was wrestling with the issue, and part of my hesitation at that point was based on a lack of exposure. I still had only heard a couple of women preach, and I really never felt comfortable listening because I was back and forth in my mind questioning if this was OK.
A few weeks into seminary, we began attending Hopewell Presbyterian Church in New Jersey. We needed to join a Presbyterian church as part of the ordination process, and Hopewell was the first church where people actually said “hello” to us. (Side note for all of you on the importance of friendliness: When people show up in church, it matters how warm you are to them. Here we were – a young couple with a one-year-old (in many churches this was like a unicorn showing up on Sunday) – and it took six visits to different churches to finally get a hello!) Anyway, the pastor of Hopewell was the Rev. Dr. Virginia Smith. Ginny was the first female pastor to whom I ever listened where I stopped thinking about her gender and just started listening to her proclaim the good news. Ginny moved me that next step closer to understanding God’s work in my life and in my own marriage. Listening to her confirmed that the way I viewed God’s way in the world had changed for a way I believe to be better and more faithful to my reading of Scripture.
I should also share with you another God moment in this story. In 1990 I was baptized at the Wayne Park Baptist Temple in Erie, Pennsylvania, by the Rev. Dr. Richard Smith. Dr. Smith moved from Erie a few years later, and my family also moved to a new church around that time. After the move, his marriage fell apart. He went through a divorce, moved to upstate New York, and ultimately decided that his calling was to be a Presbyterian pastor. While there he met another Presbyterian minister, named Ginny, and they wed. A few years later they moved to central New Jersey so Ginny could be the pastor at Hopewell Presbyterian Church.
So, the pastor who welcomed me into the Presbyterian Church was married to the pastor who welcomed me in the faith 15 years earlier. Isn’t it amazing the way God works?
It took me years of study, prayer, and experience, but God changed my mind on the role of women in ministry. Not only was this good for my marriage, but it has also been very good for the way I approach ministry. I am so thankful for these strong women in the church who have patiently waited for a person like me to see what God was doing in them and in the church. I firmly believe that we are stronger as a church and as a denomination because of this openness to women in ministry. And I am so thankful for these faithful women whose resolve and belief have now shaped me as a pastor.
As part of the very foundation of what it means to be a Presbyterian are these words: We affirm, “’The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God’ in the power of the Spirit” (Book of Order, F-2.02). The very fabric of our faith is to seek the Spirit’s direction, and sometimes that direction means to change course, to be re-formed according to what God is doing in the world.
This was not easy for Peter. He protests, even after such a vivid vision. Who would blame him for protesting? We really need to see this story from the vantage point of a minority group trying to maintain its identity in a culture and a world ready, willing, and able to consume it. The less you cling to the things that make you distinctive, like dietary laws, the more you potentially assimilate into the broader culture. This clinging to the distinctives becomes all the more freighted with meaning when it is tied to an absolute belief about what you believe about God.
Let’s put ourselves in Peter’s position 2000 years ago. He is on treacherous ground in his theological conviction that “Jesus is Lord of all.” Scripture did not make that claim and would not make that claim until well after Peter had died. Scripture did, however, uphold the dietary laws. Who is Peter to decide what is essential in the Bible and what changes with the times? He was a fisherman, who spent three years with Jesus, so he has had a personal experience that very few people ever had. But here he is a couple of years removed from Jesus’ departure, and it’s clear that God is not done changing Peter’s understanding about what is permissible and what is out of bounds for the follower of Jesus. This changing of understanding directly contradicted the accepted Scriptures of his day, and Peter had to trust that this was what God was up to now.
This is another story of conversion, not just of Cornelius but also of Peter. Cornelius, this Roman centurion, had to be open to hearing the gospel message from an uneducated fisherman from Galilee, and he was. He received it with joy, and life came to him and to his whole household that day. But Peter had to be open to changing his mind as well. God took Peter’s way of understanding his world and shook it up – not to throw away the old understanding but rather to see it in an entirely new light.
“Disciples are those who at times say, ‘Lord, I do not know where you are leading me, but here I am’” (Willimon 96). This is what Peter had to do. This, too, is what we must do. We are reformed, but God is always re-forming us, according to the Scriptures through the Spirit. We must always be open to the movement of God in our lives. We must always be attentive to the ways that God wants to change our perspective, to reorient us to the expansive nature of God’s work in the world.
If it wasn’t already clear by now, then let me make it so. Only one-third of the way through the Book of Acts, God has consistently surprised the world by how God in inaugurating the church in the world. Think about it. By this point in Acts we have:
This gospel calls us to new understandings about the world. It calls into question all our assumptions about others and their way of life. It calls us to read and know the scriptures, while calling us to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church and to individuals still today.
I have changed my mind about a lot that I thought was right while still holding fast to my Lord and Savior Jesus. I know that has been part of God shaping me into who I need to be today. I’m sure God will keep chipping away at me in the years to come, knocking away the things that are wrong or nonessential, until people see less of me and more of Christ. This is my prayer for me – that I would be willing to change my mind when God speaks. This, too, is my prayer for you. May we be a church reformed, always reforming according to Scripture in the power of the Spirit.