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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 05/13/2012

Since Easter Sunday, the first reading each week has been from the book of Acts; it happens every year during the Easter season as we hear portions of this sequel to Luke’s gospel that gives us his version of what happened when Jesus wasn’t physically around anymore.  As such, Acts is often understood as the history of the early church but then there are always questions about how accurate the history is but, similar to how we understand the gospels, you have to keep in mind that Luke wasn’t trying to write history as we think of it.  His concern was to tell the story of God working out his purpose, first through Jesus in the gospel and then through the apostles and the church in Acts.  If his telling includes some creative imagination on his part, so be it.  However you look at it though, there is general agreement that Luke highlights many of the issues and controversies and characters that were central to the development of the early church.

One of those characters is Peter who has been the main character in the Acts readings we’ve had this year. Paul takes on a larger role later on, but the early chapters of Acts feature Peter and it would seem that Luke does that intentionally; he wants to emphasize the role of Peter, and again, he’s the one telling the story, so he can tell it how he wants.  Peter’s been around of course, he’s prominent among Jesus’ disciples in the gospel stories, portrayed by all of the gospel writers as the leader of the disciples, so it’s not surprising that he also has a prominent role in Acts.  Prior to being called by Jesus though, we don’t know much about him other than the fact that he was a fisherman by trade, but even not knowing much we can safely make a few assumptions. 

For example, since it’s Mother’s Day, Peter had a mother; she never gets mentioned though; his mother in law does get mentioned, she’s featured in a healing story, but not his mother.  Let’s assume though that Peter is not a whole lot different from those of us who grew up or are growing up in good families where our mothers love us and we love our mothers.  In such families, through words and actions, children are taught what is valued, what is important, what is essential.  In Peter’s case we assume that his mother taught him that the traditions of Judaism were important.  The rituals, the rites, the laws, the disciplines and the festivals were important and essential to who he was; she wouldn’t just leave it for him to decide later on. Peter would have grown up with these traditions and observances being part of the fabric of his life and identity, part of the life and identity of his community.

As Jesus’ followers tried to sort things out after his death and resurrection they did so from a Jewish perspective like the one Peter’s mother taught him.  They tried to understand Jesus through the religion they were part of, the religion Jesus was part of.  In Luke’s telling of things though, Peter has a vision or a dream in which he sees a sheet come down from heaven holding a bunch of snakes and birds and other animals that Peter’s mother had told him he should never eat because according to Jewish law, they were unclean.  But a voice comes to him and says, “Get up Peter; kill and eat,” but Peter being a good Jew and hearing Mother’s voice ringing in his head says “I can’t.  My family, my people don’t eat those things; never have, never will.  Mom says so.”  The voice then says, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”  This happened three times and only then did Peter go and meet with and eat with Cornelius, a Roman soldier, who according to all Peter had ever been taught, he should have had nothing to do with, because Cornelius was an unclean outsider. 

All of this happens in just a few verses in the Bible, but we ought not underestimate the internal crisis faced by Peter.  It may be hard for us to relate to a situation where things you have accepted as being right and normal for your whole life are called into question, things your mother taught you.  With this vision, Peter had to unlearn much of what had been the truth by which he lived, particularly the truth that said there were distinctions, that not everyone was the same, that God himself had decreed it to be so, that Jews were his chosen ones, that non-Jews were outsiders and unclean and all the rites and rituals of Judaism kept it that way.

That was Peter’s world but this vision was calling it all into question, causing him to begin to rethink things.  Maybe the closest we can come to understanding Peter’s situation is to think of the situation between blacks and whites in this country, especially in the South.  I don’t know how many of you saw the movie “The Help” that was nominated for Best Picture this year, but it’s easy for us to watch a movie like that and be kind of disgusted with how white Southerners interacted with their black “help,” essentially viewing them and treating them as less than human. 

From afar we can be quick to judge it to be ignorance and racism on the part of white Southerners, but keep in mind, that’s what their mothers had taught them and their mother’s mothers before that.  That was the reality they were raised with so it was just the way things were.  It doesn’t make it right, but still, most people wouldn’t even question it.   When civil rights protests and laws began to challenge those assumptions it was their whole world being upset, everything their mothers had taught them being questioned.  Lest we be too judgmental, isn’t it true that Duke Ellington wasn’t allowed to stay at the Mather Inn when Anatomy of a Murder was filmed here?  We’re not that far from the perceived truth of that world.

The crisis Peter faced was a world shattering crisis.  It didn’t make sense to him that Jews would openly eat with Gentiles; it didn’t make sense that those he thought were unclean would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Peter’s vision though, began to change things for him…and his vision was the vision of Jesus.  Jesus was forever about breaking down barriers that make distinctions between clean and unclean, insiders and outsiders.  Peter would have personally witnessed some of that barrier breaking but like most of us he was apparently blind to what he didn’t want to see. 

It seems that in our humanity we are forever rebuilding barriers or finding new ones that we’re not sure we want broken down.  We like “us vs. them” distinctions in part because, correctly or incorrectly, the distinctions give life a sense of order; we know where everybody fits in.  What makes it especially hard is that these are often things our mothers taught us, our mothers or others who we just assume are telling us what is true and from their perspective it is true.

What we find though, as we encounter the truth of Jesus, is that some of what our family taught us may not be true.  An encounter with Jesus may mean that we have to unlearn some things just as Peter did.  In his time, the church, as it developed, moved in ways that seemed strange and wrong because they ran counter to truth as they knew it.  But the Holy Spirit was leading them into something new.  They resisted it; that’s what we do when the truths mother taught us are threatened.  But the Spirit was working, moving the early church beyond boundaries that many would have said were impossible to get beyond, that many would have said it would be wrong to go beyond.

We shouldn’t be surprised that such crises have recurred throughout church history into the present.  We shouldn’t be surprised because the Holy Spirit is still at work always leading toward new possibilities, new possibilities that sometimes seem threatening because they do upset the order of our world, they upset the perceived truth of our world.

As Lutherans, we are part of a tradition that is always trying to discern the movement of the Spirit.  We follow in Luther’s footsteps and in part that means acknowledging that some of the things our mother the church has taught us may not be true.  The church, like our mothers, does the best it can, but as Lutherans steeped in the word, we always have to go back to Christ, back to the Bible and sometimes that means we have to rethink things and question that which has been handed down to us; that’s what Luther did.  As we do that, we do so slowly and carefully, always with a degree of fear and humility, always beginning with the assumption that those who came before us may have gotten it right.  There is something to say for the wisdom of those who came before us, including our mothers; but they’re not always right and neither are we.  We may get it wrong sometimes but we trust that if we do, over time the Holy Spirit will reveal that to us.

In the meantime, we do the best we can, just as our mothers have done.  Doing our best means we love one another as Jesus commands us to do and if we love one another, the truth and the errors we make regarding the truth will become surprisingly clear.   Love God and love one another; didn’t our mothers teach us that too?

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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