“Step by Step”
“Step by Step”
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
May 15, 2022
A couple of weekends ago I was at the Mo Ranch Christian Conference and Retreat Center in Hunt, TX standing along the Guadalupe River which runs through there. And with no human voices around at this particular moment, no highways nearby, no television screens…it was wonderfully, peacefully silent. And…also, there was the water running steadily.
The slight buzz of insects. The birds chirping. The wind catching leaves now and again.
Together those sounds gave voice to what Scripture declares: “all the earth sings your praises.”
And so, at once silence and sound, praise even. Can you think of the last time you heard that silence and that sound?
When they heard (what Peter told them), they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Silenced – the word there does not refer to silencing of all sound because we read, they are audibly praising God. “Silenced” refers to the fact that their quarreling and arguments are now quiet and instead new praise is offered.
Can you imagine if the quarreling of our day, the arguments of our day, the heated animosity of our day…were quieted? Not people just holding in what they really think. Not people just seething under their breath instead of out loud. But if the issues that run to the very heart of our disagreements and the very heart of our identities….if somehow our collective hearts were quieted – and opened unto shared praise?
That feels like it would be a miracle on par with the parting of the Sea. And yet that’s what happens in this most central story. Because this story begins in the singular place of greatest contention emerging among the early followers of Jesus in the ancient world. Because for Jewish people, Jewish Jesus-followers – there was Jew and Gentile. People of God’s way, God’s law, God’s favor. And people outside of that.
And one of the clearest most central ways you made it clear you were keeping God’s law was by what you did and did not do with your body.
- Men of God were circumcised.
- People of God did not eat at table with Gentiles.
- Nor did they eat their food.
What you did or did not do with your body, what you put into it or did not put into it – these were foundational practices that declared the true Way – these were foundational to the collective identity.
And in one sense we cannot nearly appreciate just how significant this was, but we can admit that we, too, have our outward signifiers about who keeps the right ‘law’ in our day and age.
We have flags and bumper stickers and yard signs that make clear a fidelity that runs deep for a certain group and their way.
“Peter, Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
“Why did you put your body next to those people? In their house…and eat with them?”
“How is it you would in one motion break God’s law, break so many fundamental signifiers of what it means to follow God?”
The moment is incredibly tense. The questioners probing how one from their side went and embodied something so far outside of their side. And it makes me wonder about Peter….Peter who was often known to speak and act before thinking – I wonder how he might have been tempted to react in this moment when he is being pressed.
In his book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What you Don’t Know, Adam Grant explores how often – especially when are thinking or talking, especially about difficult or divisive issues – we default to one of three ways of being and often, even though they often seem attractive options, frequently they actually further blind us and others from seeing the truth. Grant says we are often tempted to go into preacher mode (the irony is not lost of me), prosecutor mode, or politician mode.
Preacher: We raise our voice and make abundantly clear all the reasons we are right. We are good. We are just.
Prosecutor: We make lucidly clear just how wrong the other side is. All the shortcomings and pitfalls of their logic. All the wrongheadedness and foolishness of their side.
Politician: We seek to win over our audience, our people to ensure that whatever happens, we have the numbers. “See, all these people agree with my thinking.”
With the pressure on around such an act of apparent unfaithfulness – I do wonder was Peter tempted to respond as Preacher, Prosecutor, or Politician? How often are we?
I remember a number of years ago when the Presbyterian Church voted to change the definition of marriage in our book of order so that it does allow for marriage between two people – whether man and woman, man and man, woman and woman.
In particular, I remember I was serving a church and the day after that vote happened, a very well-respected elder in the congregation who had served the church for decades – he came to me. And at 6ft 3 he stood all of six inches from me, looks down with a good fifty years of life experience on me as well – and he said, “This church’s Session needs to make a statement immediately. Marriage is between a man and a woman, and the leadership needs to be clear on that.”
Preacher. Declare the ‘rightness’ of this side. And one I didn’t agree with, but tempting no matter what you thought.
And so began the beginning of a tremendously tense summer in a church where the lines felt thick all of the time.
Peter, when the room is tense around issues of fundamental faithfulness and identity, Peter when some people embody the faith in ways notably different, Peter, – what do you?
Peter tells a story.
No preaching, no prosecuting, no politician-ing but rather “Step by step,” we read, he tells them a story about what God has been doing recently.
“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision.” How often a good God story starts in a prayerful space – a space far more about receiving than doing, far more Sabbath than busy.
Peter tells of seeing something like a large sheet coming down from heaven – and there too he saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air – animals unclean and therefore not to be put into the body of the faithful. And there was a voice: ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat. ’
Peter replies,‘ By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth. ’
Which is to say, “I get it, Jerusalem leaders. Eating like this as something good, something right, something holy…this made no sense. Was entirely wrong.”
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. Three times God spoke a word that contradicted or changed or somehow expanded a previous word I thought was set in stone. And the story, Peter goes on to tell, the story does not just involve him.
“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.” I was to treat Gentiles like Jewish people – like complete insiders to the same faith though they embody life differently and in ways that cut divisively against how we had said faithfulness goes.”
“Well,” Peter goes on, “these six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.”
And then the story takes on yet another level because Peter shares not only was God leading him a very new way… but the house where Peter enters is the house of a Gentile man named Cornelius who says he saw an angel of the Lord not long ago who had told him to send for Peter to come over.
“Men of Jerusalem, God was working on me…and working on them when I didn’t even know it. And bringing this together. And then when we were all together, “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning… 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?”
In an atmosphere fraught with tension over the fundamental issue of identity and faithfulness, Peter does not preach, does not prosecute, does not go and gain votes to ensure that he’ll be ok because he has the numbers…he tells a God story where God was working on him, and God was working on them…and how can I hinder God if the Holy Spirit is at work with them? What do I do if I can see God’s Spirit on them? through them?
To be sure, four chapters later in Acts 15, there would be a great council at Jerusalem to address how to think about these Holy Spirit stories in light of Scripture. The early church did not just put aside Scripture – but when God started working in ways bigger than how they first understood Scripture, they had to recognize maybe they needed a fresh listening to Scripture itself because – again – how can I deny the Holy Spirit at work in him? In her? In them?
This church I served decided not to make a statement that summer. They instead had elders go in groups of 2 or 3 to different houses of various members. And members of the church could sign up to attend a house gathering with 2-3 of the elders present. And the elders were there to listen.
“The Presbyterian Church has changed the definition of marriage…what are your thoughts? Your questions?”
And then they opened the floor to these groups of 6 or 8 or 10 or 12 members to share. And slowly and anxiously and hopefully people began to share. Stories came out that nobody had ever heard. Parents with gay children who’d never spoken of how significantly that story shaped and changed them. Congregants wrestling to reconcile various Scripture passages with the fact that their favorite co-worker is gay.
Eventually that summer there was a longtime leader in that church who was just beloved by everyone. Very faithful. A very gifted musician who offered that gift regularly in worship. Servant-hearted – did a lot behind the scenes to help and serve the congregation. And one day he asks if he might buy me lunch.
And for a variety of reasons he decides he is at this point where he just needs to say this openly: “Bobby, I’m gay. And for over a decade I have lived with my partner – without anyone in the church aware. But my partner (and eventual husband once it was legal to do that), my
partner is integral to who I am and who I have become and how I love and serve others.” And he told me their story. Eventually, he would slowly let the congregation hear the story.
Stories flooded the summer of anxiety.
Eventually, the elders reported back to the congregation about all they had heard and learned in listening to the varied and pained and hopeful and tearful and joyful and anxious hearts of the congregation. The report was given at a congregation-wide luncheon after the 11am service of worship.
And after the elders reported, and after I shared a few remarks where I told a couple of stories myself…I opened the floor to questions.
The first hand up also moved his whole body to a standing spot. Suit and tie.
- It was the man whose reputation as a strong and faithful leader preceded him,
- The man whose voice spoke infrequently but when it did its because he had something to say and folks leaned in,
- The man who had called for the preacher posture early that summer.
I closed my eyes.
“Church. This issue has divided us for too long. We must drop this division, and we must figure out how to love each other.” And he sat down, and in all my years of ministry I have only witnessed twice God parting the waters right before my eyes – and that was one of them.
The entire room went silent. Not with seething anger or quiet anxiety…but more like the way ice melts under a new sun.
A couple of months later that beloved congregant in whom everyone could readily see the fruit of the Holy Spirit alive and well in him and who was also gay – well, he married his partner and the entire music ministry (notably, including those quite conflicted about what to think and those quite excited), truly every person in that ministry put together and threw such a joyful, music-filled, food-filled congratulatory celebration because the thing was, “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?”
For another couple more months the church leaders studied Scripture, wrestling with this expansive work of God, and did we all need a fresh listening than at what and how we read and hear?
The point is: that summer of great anxiety before one of the most pressing issues of identity and faithfulness, God-stories were told and the people of God eventually heard both the silence and the praise. When is the last time you heard that miracle?
Amid so much that acutely divides us in this time, do we not ache for that miracle in our families, in our church, in our country, and even within our own selves…
Do we not ache for the joy of that profound peace and praise to be shared?
- We will not preach our way there.
- We will not prosecute our way there.
- We will not vote our way there.
- We will not get ourselves there, period.
That kind of peace and joy is a gift of God and God alone. But the good news of our passage is this: God’s already working on the gift.
Look for the Holy Spirit stories. In your life. Our lives. The ones breaking boundaries within and without, the ones pressing and stretching us within and without, the ones where we still have lots of questions and so they do not tie into a nice bow…the stories however small but real that are unfolding right in the midst of the most pressing and even divisive realities of our time.
And tell those without coercion or exaggeration, just step by step – here’s what God is up to.
Because it is, right, what sits at the center of our faith? Not a list of do’s and don’t’s…but a story.
The story of God showing up among very unlikely people in a feeding trough located in a backwater town and walking his days as a person from a people group who were among the persecuted minority.
And against all odds and logic, he loved
- Those who were overlooked and under-loved,
- Those who were poor and those who were wealthy,
- Those with the wrong religion and those with Scripture memorized…
And at the climax of the story, the place of deepest division – where Jesus’ followers are divided from him by fear, where Jesus’s clothes are being divided among people below the cross, where Jesus’s life is being divided from his very being, where sin and death are doing their level worst against the innocence of God – there, there of all places in the story he is raised for us.
And he gives us his Spirit that we might know the gift of the same surprising love showing up in all the wrong places and all the wrong people and on all the wrong sides and amid all the deepest of divisions – time and again.
It is a story of Good News that lies at the heart of our faith – and it is still unfolding.
As you think once more about our acute divisions around issues that run to the core of our identities and understanding of faithfulness and keeping the right ‘law’… what if we pull back for a moment and listen for the God stories at work in us, among us, over there? And what if we told some of those?
“When they heard (Peter’s story), they were silenced. And they praised God.” Amen.