If Not Now, When?

Acts 11:1-18

11 The apostles and the brothers and sisters throughout Judea heard that even the Gentiles had welcomed God’s word. 2 When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him. 3 They accused him, “You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!”

4 Step-by-step, Peter explained what had happened. 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying when I had a visionary experience. In my vision, I saw something like a large linen sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. It came all the way down to me. 6 As I stared at it, wondering what it was, I saw four-legged animals—including wild beasts—as well as reptiles and wild birds. 7 I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!’ 8 I responded, ‘Absolutely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 The voice from heaven spoke a second time, ‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’ 10 This happened three times, then everything was pulled back into heaven. 11 At that moment three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered that man’s house. 13 He reported to us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter. 14 He will tell you how you and your entire household can be saved.’ 15 When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. 16 I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”

18 Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, “So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.”

Last Sunday was not only Mother's Day; it was the beginning of an observation in our house that we call the Festival of Christymas, which is the days between Mother's Day and Christy's birthday, which is tomorrow. We went to see the new Marvel Studios movie Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Not exactly Christymas material, but hey, all five of us were together, and so it was a good day for her and for all of us. At the end of every Marvel movie when you get to the credits about halfway through and then at the very end they have what they call post-credit sequence. They are kind of Easter eggs that hint at possible connections between the movie you just watched and a future movie or television show. The brief little Snippets, about maybe 30 seconds long, just kind of peak your interest and make sure you're connected when that next part of the puzzle is revealed. Well at the end of last week's scripture text there was kind of like an end credit scene. After Peter heals Tabitha there's one line where the writer says and Peter stayed in the house of a certain Tanner named Simon. Who is this Simon? A new hero or villain? What kind of costume does he wear?

Staying with Simon should have been a moment of pause for the Apostle because being a tanner involved working with the carcasses of dead animals which would leave Simon and his entire household ritually unclean. Peter should have had a kind of natural resistance to staying in that house, but he agrees to go. Now in chapter 10 Peter is still staying at Simon's house. He's on the roof one day praying and he has a vision. Feeling hungry, a sheet containing many different animals descends from heaven. A voice says, “Kill and eat.” Peter resists because many of the animals on the sheet are ritually unclean, but the Spirit says nothing I have made is unclean. After having three helpings of fried shrimp for the first time in his life Peter is awakened from the vision to see an entourage arriving at Simon's house. They were sent by Cornelius, a Gentile- Roman citizen- living in Caesarea. Wiping the cocktail sauce from his beard with a napkin, Peter immediately understands the real-world implications of the vision.

Like the summons Peter received last week when he was called to minister to Tabitha in Joppa, Peter leaves another place of successful Ministry when called. He smiles to himself he enters the Gates of Caesarea. It was in this very town that Peter experienced both a high point and a low point of his ministry as a disciple of Jesus. Jesus had asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Well, some say that you are Elijah, some say that you're John… but Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” It was Peter who said, “You are the Christ!” “Correct!” Jesus said, and you will be the foundation of my church! It was a great moment. But in the same conversation Jesus goes on to say that the Son of Man eventually must be betrayed, killed, and rise again. Peter emphatically says, “No we will never allow that to happen.” Jesus responds to Peter, saying, “Get behind me Satan. You are being more of a rock to stumble over than a rock on which to build a movement.” Ouch.

So much has happened since then: Peter has learned and grown, become wiser,  more able to control his emotions. He's also suffered profound defeats, experienced grief and celebrated many victories. And now he's back in Caesarea, only this time the theme of the day is not the demand and expectations of discipleship- it's the question of who should receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Upon hearing Cornelius’ testimony including his own vision of the Holy Spirit, Peter recounts his Christian witness for Cornelius' household. One commentator actually called this interaction in Acts 10 the “Gentile Pentecost.” Those traveling with Peter were astonished to see the Holy Spirit come upon Gentiles! Peter then asks his Entourage who am I to keep them from being baptized? And no one has a reasonable debate point! So Peter has everyone baptized and they all stay at Cornelius’ house for a few days. So in the span of a week Peter has stayed in the house of a ritually unclean Tanner- remember our Easter egg guy- experienced a vision saying all animals and therefore all people are clean, baptized a Gentile household and then stayed in their home. If you are playing a ritually unclean version of Bingo, your card is full and it is time to claim your prize.

Peter is then summoned to Jerusalem to appear before the other leaders of the Jesus movement. In a way he's being called to the principal's office. The other original disciples, now themselves Apostles, focused their Ministry on Jerusalem and Judea and only on the Jewish people. Peter had breached protocol by bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. Peter's defense to the Jerusalem Council is to simply recount the events of chapter 10, only this time in chapter 11 as he's retelling the story, he inserts the context of the work of the Holy Spirit. He recalls Jesus' own words from Acts 1:4: “John the Baptist baptizes you with water; I will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Now in Acts 11:17 Peter says, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?” For a moment the room is quiet but suddenly it bursts with joy and everyone in unison praises God, saying God has enabled the Gentiles to change hearts and Minds so that they may have new life.

Every now and then, I hear people speak about God's time as if God's time is only in the future. Something will happen that I want but it's almost always in a distant future- if it's God's will it will happen in God's time. I asked and prayed for something and I didn't receive the answer I wanted immediately, but God will take care of it in God's time. God's time is always a future thing. What if: God's time happened immediately and we were so focused on the regular things of Our Lives that we missed it? Perhaps God's time moves much faster than we realize and  maybe we are stuck and comfortable in our own time waiting for God's future when God has already moved ahead of us?

Jesus's final words to the disciples, recorded in Acts chapter one, are a sort of game plan for their Ministry. After the Holy Spirit comes, “...you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Jerusalem and Judea = Jewish people. Samaritans and the ends of the earth = non-Jews. Perhaps what surprises Peter and the other Apostles is not that Gentiles were converted and given entry into the church- after all that's part of the game plan- but God's timing arrived so much sooner than they had expected. They were not prepared for the necessary shift in focus and Mission, and were not ready to make room for others to join God’s salvation party. Not yet. Not now.

Reading the initial reactions of Peter and the other apostles to the Gentile expansion, I was reminded of Martin Luther King Jr's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. From behind bars, Dr. King writes to the moderate white preachers of Birmingham who expressed concern that protests had come to their City at this particular moment, calling them “unwise and untimely.” Why not wait? Dr. King's response was that we cannot wait, we must not wait. God's people have waited four hundred years for justice in America. In the minds of most Southerners and many Northerners “wait” most likely meant “never.” Dr King writes,

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well-timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘wait!’ it rings in the ear of every negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ We must come to see… that ‘Justice too long delayed is Justice denied.’

Last year Grace was invited to be part of a North Texas Conference pilot program of churches called the Journey Toward Racial Justice. Considering the church’s past anti-racist work and my own interest in it, it was an easy yes. A team was created. We discussed issues going on in the society and the community, surveyed the congregation’s interest, and began formulating ways to do anti-racist work in the community. We decided to partner with several organizations already doing work in Grayson County toward establishing a historical marker on the courthouse grounds to commemorate the Sherman Riot of 1930. The Sherman Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, of which Grace is a longtime member, was involved, as was a group from Austin College, which has many connections to Grace Church. A large group of about 30 residents began meeting monthly at Grace to strategize- the only outside group to meet on our campus during the pandemic. Our Journey Toward Racial Justice team created the George Hughes Memorial Scholarship fund, raised more than $4,000, and invited Grayson County high school seniors to reflect on the events of 1930. Nine applicants responded. I spent much of Friday reading essays about a history not taught in history classes in Grayson County. I myself spoke to the Grayson County Commissioners Court, the longest 3 minute sermon of my lifetime. I organized a civil rights bus tour for spring break this year. Everything we did was a response to our discernment that the Holy Spirit was moving for racial justice in Grayson County.

Each of these efforts was met immediately with resistance. People in our church expressed disappointment when I used the words “Black lives matter” in a few sermons. After my three minute speech at the courthouse a woman I had never met before said “Shame on you” and called me a Marxist. A member of our church left the congregation because of the Civil Rights Tour, saying we should not be doing things to divide people but bring them together. Last Monday many of the same folks who were involved in this effort for a historical marker and other members of the community met at the courthouse to commemorate the 92nd anniversary of the riot. A woman commented on Facebook that we should not do things that divide people, but bring people together (not the same person who made the same comment about the Civil Rights tour). It has not been divisive work at all; in fact, people wearing George Hughes t-shirts stood alongside a man wearing a red Trump hat and another man wearing a Confederate flag on his t-shirt. Y'all I have been at baby showers that were more contentious than this gathering at the courthouse. It was a peaceful, joyful experience of listening to stories about heroic individuals acting for the right during an awful moment in our history. One person commented that anti-racist work needn’t be done, because it's God's work, not ours. But friends that is not how God works. Again from Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I've heard numerous Southern religious leaders admonish their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: ‘Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.’ In the midst of blatant Injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white Churchmen stand on the sidelines and mouth Pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic Injustice, I've heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, unbiblical distinction between Body and Soul between the sacred and the secular.

Remember it was to the white moderate preachers of Birmingham Dr King wrote his letter from jail 60 years ago, urging them to act for justice. In Jesus’ last appearance with the disciples they asked, “Lord are you going to restore the kingdom now?” Jesus responded by saying it isn't for you to know the times or seasons. They had a play book to follow: start in Jerusalem, spread the Judea, to Samaria, and then to the ends of the Earth. That was it. There was no specific timetable. In their minds the time for the Gentile mission was always later not now. Too often later or not now means never. The proof that this work is not finished was painfully obvious in Dallas and Buffalo NY over the weekend. Three women of Korean descent were shot at a salon on Friday- the third in a series of recent attacks on Asian businesses. Yesterday an 18 year old white supremecist murdered ten people, nearly all African Americans, in a prodominently Black neighborhood in Buffalo. He had racial epithets written on his weapons of war.

What if Peter had said no to the invitation to go to Caesarea? If he was so sure of his understanding of God's time he could have said, “Someday I'll go but not today.” That's certainly how the Peter of his first visit to Caesarea would have reacted- that will never happen, that's against the rules! But the second time he's there, Peter is not the same Peter: he's been changed by Easter and Pentecost. What if the other apostles and leaders had said, “Let's not rush, let's not ruffle feathers.” The resurrected Jesus and the Holy Spirit redeemed and empowered them as well, and now they are open to achieving Jesus’ mission, no matter the gripes, no matter the calls to the principal's office, the threat of losing partners, or even physical harm. 

Today, we discern the Holy Spirit to still be at work for racial Justice and reconciliation in Grayson County and beyond. Peoples’ lives and wellbeing are at stake. We join work already begun by others, adding to the network of voices already speaking for justice. This work is accomplished by people who, like Cornelius and his household, change their hearts and lives, that they may have new life. It is accomplished by people like Peter and the other apostles, realizing the gameplan is moving forward on God’s time, not their own, and they need to get with the program. Instead of waiting for God to act in some unforeseen future, not now, we should ask Peter’s question: “How could we stand in God's way?”, lest God look at our inaction and say “Get behind me Satan, for you are a stone that could make me stumble. You are not thinking about God's thoughts but human thoughts.” In the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit amen.