Open Minds

Acts 11:1-18
5th Sunday of Easter
Elizabeth M. Deibert

I wonder how many times you have changed your mind about something. I am not talking about the little things – like whether to eat chicken or fish or to go to this movie or that one. I mean over time, you changed your mind, opened your mind, listened in a new way to ideas which may have at first made you uncomfortable.

Some of you grew up thinking that people of mixed races should not marry. Sit-ins happened in the 1960's in the south because then and there, it was not acceptable mix races in restaurants. Hard to believe. We’ve changed our minds about these things.

Many of you who grew up Catholic were not allowed to go to a Protestant worship service or certainly not to receive the Sacrament with us. We’re very glad you’ve changed your minds about that.

As I mentioned last week, our attitudes about homosexuality have changed over the last twenty years. Much more open and respectful.

Our thoughts about the right way to discipline children have changed. I remember getting a paddling from a teacher in seventh grade for a minor offense. That would never happen today.

Recycling. I remember just a few years ago I used to think it was a hassle to wash out plastic and glass containers for recycling. Now I do it without thinking.

Peter had a big moment of mind-changing, and it took his influence, along with Paul’s, to change a lot of other Jewish minds about the Gentiles. It may sound like no big deal to you, but for a Jewish person to eat with a Gentile in their day was a big – no, a huge deal. It was to go against all they had been taught, all they stood for, all they knew about the way they identified themselves with the Lord of heaven and earth.

Hear the story of the opening of Peter’s mind:

NRS Acts 11:1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them" 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 "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. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' 8 But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 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. 13 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; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 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.' 17 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?" 18 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."

This was the first big fight in the early church, and I’m sorry to say that the church has been arguing ever since. Arguing over the issue of purity, of what it means to live a holy life, arguing over who is in and who is out, and what is required of those who want to be in. I mean there have to be some rules, don’t there? We can’t just say “anything goes.” Well, in the Presbyterian Church (USA) members are asked three questions, “Do you trust in Jesus Christ, do you say no to evil, and do you promise to be involved?” We do not ask how much money will you give or whether your lifestyle measures up or whether you’ve had some particular experience of the Holy.

We do not exclude based on anything unrelated to basic Christian faith. Yet, it must be said that it matters how you live. Your faithfulness or lack thereof and mine either encourages or discourages others’ faithfulness.

But what does it mean to be faithful?

The Jewish prophet Micah summed it up nicely when he said, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” The Lord Jesus Christ summarized all the commandments by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

There are some folks in the Presbyterian Church who wish we would require leaders (Ministers and Elders and Deacons) to agree to a list of essential tenets of the Reformed faith, but the church keeps always resists that. Why? Because we want to be open to diversity, even theological diversity. We value freedom of conscience, so we ask leaders, “Do you sincerely receive the essential tenets of the Christian faith as expressed in the Confessions of our church as authentic and reliable?” And we do not get any more specific than that.

In my sister’s Baptist Church, everyone who joins the church must sign that they affirm the New Hampshire Confession of Faith from 1853. They believe in confronting those who are not living according to that statement and they remove from membership those who do not submit to their guidance.

I believe stories like this one of Peter teach us to be careful in pronouncing particulars about what we believe is God’s way. Peter thought God way was to be circumcised and to eat only kosher. Peter was not wrong about those being effective ways for the Hebrew people to identify themselves as God’s people and to keep their faith as Jews. But God was doing something new with the Christians. And Peter got the “open-your-mind” message in a vision. He got it in the coming of the Spirit to Gentiles – people toward whom his mind was previously closed. And the question he asked his friends, the ones who would doubt his judgment, was “Who was I that I should hinder God?”

I pray we will always have our minds open to the new things God wants to do among us. One of the key phrases of our tradition is this: “We are Reformed and always being reformed according to the will of God.”

So let us be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains fall out. (Stephen A. Kallis, Jr. or Richard Dawkins) Let us reform according to the will of God.

Now not all changes are good changes, but in Peter’s case, this radical change – opening the church to Gentiles – was required by the Spirit of God, who was doing a new thing for all people. So today, when we examine the changes we might need to make, let us not simple equate progress and change. Traditions which help us in living according to faith, which guide our relationships in faithful directions, which support us in being true to the Christian faith are not to be tossed away simply because they are dated. But let us remember with Peter that all people can have the repentance that leads to life.

So let us listen to the Spirit of Jesus Christ who tells us to love all neighbors – those who are like us and those who are different from us. Let us have open minds toward all the people God may be calling. Let’s enjoy our eclectic blend of music and liturgy and sacraments, worship leaders, and even worship apparel. People might say, “Why did we sing that Baptist piece? Why did we say that Catholic prayer? Why are you wearing that Episcopalian dog collar? And I will say, “Who are we to hinder God?”

Let us be open to what God may want do in the church. Be open to Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant – the three major branches of the Christian faith. Be open to conservative evangelicals and social justice liberals. Be open to persons from all countries and cultures, not just your fellow citizens in the USA. Be open and respectful to Republicans and to Democrats. Be open to persons from all ages, races, socio-economic and educational backgrounds. Learn from them. Be open to persons of other faiths – Jews, Muslims, and others – while still affirming your own Christian faith. Be open to all that God intends to do through you and through people different from you. Because who are we to hinder God?