Imprisoned by the Past
The most memorable line President Obama spoke about his recent meeting with Raul Castro was, “The United States will not be imprisoned by the past.” I have thought a lot about that over the last few months, not only as an American, but what that means as a Christian. How can we know when we are imprisoned? And how can we change without losing our moorings and commitments to those permanent values that define us?
Change comes in all sizes. Sometimes the transitions are almost unnoticed and we just wake up one day finding that things we once believed have been replaced by new beliefs. Things we once held dear are obsolete or forgotten.
Other changes are more traumatic – even violent. We take the Protestant Reformation for granted but many people on both sides died during that period. The abolition of the slave trade scandalized some Christians because they believed it was justified by God and Scripture.
It is difficult to find the line between apostasy and progress – between the changes that create new life and those that destroy. I’d like to look at one of those changes: Peter’s vision at Joppa. This change literally saved the life of the church itself.
The story seems to open peacefully with Peter waiting for dinner up on the roof of a house by the sea, but we soon read he was there because the Church was experiencing the first broad persecution and was in danger of being destroyed – only weeks after Christ’s ascension. Thousands of new believers were on the run and looking to Peter for guidance. Normally, these are the times you rally the troops around the few things that are certain and not suddenly change the rules of the game, but what happened next should not have come as a total surprise. After all, Peter had been with Jesus when the game started changing, “Man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath was made for man.” He had been there when Jesus challenged the devout by not washing his hands before eating or, worse, eating and associating with known sinners and low life.
“Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
There is a certain safety about customs and traditions. We like the “no surprise” God who is stable, predictable and reasonable. Our identity is secure and we have the approval of friends and our community. We know the rules. We know what Scripture says and everything is settled.
As I get older I have realized I am even less interested in having things unsettled. I don’t want to have God change the game just when I have it down. Besides, the stakes are higher, the losses are greater, the chances of recovery are less, and the approaching sense of judgment for how well I have done makes following the known rules more appealing than counting on the riskiness of grace. This stage of life is about making sure you pass the final exam. Am I alone in this?
But how do we know what to hold tight and what to let go? What is heretical and what is a rightful earthquake from God to shake us up? These are not perfect but let me offer four guidelines.
First, Peter had a disciplined, trusting relationship with God. He did not just follow rules. He followed Jesus and while that made it difficult to change, it made it possible for him to recognize God’s voice when he heard it.
Second, there were two visions that were in agreement. Peter did not just wake up and say, “The Lord spoke to me and everything is changing.” Cornelius had the same vision. The same is true with Paul and Ananias. God spoke to both of them and his message was consistent.
Third, the Holy Spirit confirms the change. Acts 10:44 says, “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” Look also at Acts 15:8. “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.”
Fourth, there is a confirmation by others. Look at Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem as James and the others hear the reports from Paul and Barnabas about the ministry to the Gentiles.
Finally, I would repeat what we read in Peter’s own words to the Church: “Do not fear what they fear.” Fear of change. Fear of displeasing God. Fear of losing standing or friendship or status. Fear of God changing the rules. All these would have us say, “Not so, Lord.” All of these would encourage a spirit of fear. Instead, let’s always be open to God’s changes and ways that we do not understand. We will trust that He is leading and the eternal God is our refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.