I Saw a Vision
I SAW A VISION
Acts 11: 1-18
Mt. Vernon First UMC
April 28, 2013
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
The Associated Press questioned a doctor who treated the Boston bombing suspect killed by the police. “From head to toe, every region of his body had injuries,” said Dr. Schoenfeld. Unable to revive the suspect after 15 minutes of treatment, they pronounced him dead. “We did everything we could to try to save his life,” said Dr. Schoenfeld. Hearing that, a reporter threw the doctor a test question. “How did the medical team react when they heard he was the bombing suspect?” In other words, was the suspect treated differently when the trauma team learned he had killed and hurt so many people? Dr. Schoenfeld admitted that the trauma team had a brief discussion. However, it soon ended. “It really doesn’t matter who the person is. We’re going to treat them as best we can,” said Dr. Schoenfeld. Sounds like the ethical vision of the Hippocratic Oath taken ruled the day.
The Apostle Peter had a similar response. Circumcised members of the church heard that Peter had accepted uncircumcised men into their church. Worse still, he ate with them. Bottom line, Peter the leader, broke Jewish law forbidding fraternization between Jews and gentiles. Asked why? In so many words, Peter retorted, “God made me do it. God showed me that the Holy Spirit and his salvation are meant for everyone. It does not matter if they are Jew or Gentile.” Peter explained his shift in perspective to the Jerusalem Conference in a story; I’ve entitled it “I Saw a Vision.”
One day, I (meaning Peter) was praying. And I saw a vision. A large sheet came down from heaven landing by my side. In it, I observed “four-footed animals, wild beasts, reptiles and birds.” Then, a mysterious voice ordered me to slaughter and eat them. “I couldn’t do it” replied Peter. “I never ate food that wasn’t kosher, i.e., foods that did not conform to Jewish dietary regulations. And I wasn’t about to start.” I heard the voice from heaven again. God warned me to avoid labeling unclean what God had declared “clean.” But I still said No to God. This scenario happened three times. Just as quickly, it disappeared into heaven. Disturbed, I woke up trying to discern its meaning.
Peter’s audience quickly understood that several issues disturbed their leader. First, a heavenly voice urged him to eat food that was banned by his religious faith and practice. Though hypothetical, he refused, thus affirming the dietary covenant of eating kosher.
When I had visions of marrying my wife of 43 years, I had to face some dietary decisions. Her Seventh Day Adventists beliefs spoke against the consumption of pork. I liked bacon, ham and pork chops. But I liked her even more. So I set about making some dietary adjustments whenever I visited her parent’s house. Courting their daughter called for respecting some of their dietary laws connected with their faith. Peter’s refusal echoed this notion.
However, the most disturbing aspect of Peter’s vision concerns God. God or the voice Peter identifies as God repeatedly asks Peter to break religious rules. How so? Jews believe their dietary practices were consistent with the Mosaic Law and the laws of God. How strange? To have the voice God urging members of the chosen people to transgress so-called divine law seems paradoxical. It turns their world upside down. At worst, it exposes a place or places where a particular belief is inconsistent. Given Peter’s initial response to the visionary request, his Jewish counterparts would breathe a sigh of relief on one hand and be troubled on the other. God not Peter is advocating radical change -change which is antithetical to longstanding beliefs. If that had been the end of Peter’s vision, everything may have been alright. Nothing could be further from the truth as revealed in the rest of the story.
Cornelius repeats the transgression of Peter. Gentiles know he is breaking a social moray by sending for Peter. What would other gentiles think of him? Nevertheless, the moment Peter begins to preach a message of Jesus’ salvation to the gentiles, the Holy Spirit falls upon them. Peter is amazed. He saw the Holy Spirit bring three thousand people into the church. Now, he sees the same Holy Spirit break out in the home of a gentile. Peter is convinced and converted. God in Jesus Christ extends his love, mercy and salvation to gentiles despite Jewish law. By accepting that reality, Peter informs his flock that will not stand in the way of gentiles joining the church even though it is clearly against Jewish law. “What God has joined together, let no man or wo-man put asunder.” Because of Peter’s testimony, his critics fall silent. And everybody praises God. Yet they know from now on, the church will be different.
When Paul wakes from his startling vision, three strangers come by his house. They invite Peter to Joppa on behalf of Cornelius, a centurion and a gentile. Peter accepts his invitation immediately claiming the Holy Spirit told him so. (In passing, we note that two persons in the Trinity have given direction to Peter, God and the Holy Spirit.) Accompanied by six men, presumably Jewish; Peter makes the 30 mile trek to Joppa and the house of Cornelius. Cornelius tells Peter about his vision. One afternoon when he is praying, an angel of the Lord shows up. The angel directs him to send for Peter so that Cornelius and his extended family might hear the message of salvation.
The first century church finds itself at that juncture because Peter saw God’s vision and dared to act on it. What about us? What are those watershed moments where God in Jesus Christ reveals his church as a place for all God’s children? Sometimes we recognize those moments in things we do not have. For example, United Methodism is a mainline denomination, i.e. primarily middle class. Why is there a dearth of rich and poor in our midst? Roman Catholicism, at least the North American branch, suffers a similar fate. If Catholicism’s new Pope is correct, he names himself Pope Francis to remind the church that God stands ready to receive the poor into the fellowship of the church. Class is no barrier to God or community. It is for humankind. God’s church is a salad bowl of all classes. Even so, class difference remains a dividing line in our church.
When George Whitfield introduced John Wesley, founder of Methodism to field preaching, Wesley resisted the methodology until he saw the vision. Wesley thought that evangelization was confined to the four walls of the church. Hence, it is no surprise that he thought the “idea of field preaching” as a way to reach the unchurched “almost a sin.” Through field preaching, Wesley soon recognized that he was able to reach men and women who never darkened the door of the church. So, John Wesley preached in the fields, on street corners, in halls, cottages, chapels and on his father’s tombstone. The Holy Spirit came upon them and new folk came into the church. Consequently, the ranks of Methodism swelled more from the success of field preaching than four wall preaching. Now we connect folks to the good news of Jesus Christ by live streaming, Twitter, Facebook, text, cable etc.
Last night, I attended the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the United Methodist Children’s Home. A number of poster boards with historic information were spaced outside the ballroom for our consumption. On one of the boards, its title read Rev. Marion Farmer’s Tenure. Rev. Farmer was quoted. “July 2, 1962, after having earlier signed an agreement with the state to accept children without regard to race or creed; our first Negro children were enrolled. (Rev. Farmer 1963) Like Peter, Farmer received some pushback. But Rev. Farmer prevailed, unwilling to turn back from offering the ministry of UCMH to another segment of God’s children. To be sure; it took nearly fifty years. But it happened. What you’ve done to the least of these, my brethren, you’ve done it unto me.
Some of you have been following the saga of the bombing suspects. Now you know the younger brother is out of the hospital after having been treated for a gunshot wound to the throat as well as other injuries. As with his elder brother, the trauma team at a hospital with a Jewish name, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, worked to save the life of one who helped kill three people and wound nearly two hundred more. Our doctors saved his life instead of allowing him to die. Some critics said. “Why didn’t they let him die? Just as first century Jews had no dealings with gentiles, America should have no dealings with its enemies.” One person made this comment on the Internet. “So this guy gets free medical care and the people who were injured by him don’t…There’s really something wrong here!!” Then, our Lord might say, there’s something right here as well. You have heard it said “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Who said that? Answer, Jesus the Christ. Watch out for this Jesus.
This same Jesus is behind bringing gentiles into the church. This same Jesus is behind the statement “what you’ve done to the least of these my brethren, you’ve have done it unto me.” This same Jesus is behind saving a dying thief on the cross whom society said deserved to be put to death. This Jesus is behind encouraging folks from BIG MUDDY Correctional Center to join your church. This same Jesus is behind the amazing grace that saved a wretch like you and me; that brings us all in community regardless of race and station in life. Why, because Jesus, like Peter who came after him, could say from carrying out his Fathers will “I Saw a Vision” of a new heaven and a new earth. Amen.