The Rev’d N.J.A. Humphrey
A decade ago, I thought that my future might be in academia, and so I arranged to take a study leave at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom at the start of its Easter Term. One of the books I read closely and ended up citing in the major paper I wrote that term was entitled, Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making in the Church by Luke Timothy Johnson. Professor Johnson is a Roman Catholic layman and professor of New Testament at a United Methodist seminary. He wrote another book entitled, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, and he has, as I do, a very “high” view of the authority of Scripture. His book on discernment dwelt at length on the decision-making process that led to the early Church’s recognition that the inclusion of Gentiles was not simply led by, but commanded by, the Holy Spirit. Since most, if not all, of us in this room this morning are Gentiles, that discernment two millennia ago is directly responsible for the fact that we are here today. Without the Council of Jerusalem, I daresay none of us would even have been born, let alone “born again.” How’s that for a “high” view of Scripture? In other words, discernment matters.
One of the points I gleaned from my reading of Johnson’s analysis of the Book of Acts is that discernment always has two dimensions, a vertical and a horizontal. Much of the time, we humans are used to thinking of decision-making as existing only on the horizontal level: we marshal the evidence pro and con, we debate, we talk amongst ourselves, and then we decide. Often, we do so recognizing that we might be right, or we might be wrong, but we act in good faith and hope the stakes aren’t so high that if we are wrong that we harm either ourselves or our community. The problem with looking at decisions in this way is that they basically boil down to a crap shoot, and we can even fall prey to a sort of indifference. After all, if we can’t be sure we’re right, why expend the effort in doing discernment in the first place? Just choose a course of action and stick with it for as long as it “works for us.” Since there’s no way of knowing what the right decision is, all we have to do is muddle along in faith until we stand before the great judgment seat of Christ.
On the other hand, sometimes we have too vertical a view of decision-making. I grew up in a fundamentalist church that believed that for every question, there was a direct Scriptural answer. All you had to do was know your Bible well enough, and its right interpretation would be made plain by the Holy Spirit to the reader. In this way of looking at things, there is no room for error or muddling along at all. God has already provided the answers, and if we don’t get the right one, it is our own fault, and we have no excuse. While some might see this as the “highest” view of Scripture possible, I have come to think that this way of reading the Bible actually does not take into account the very point of the Incarnation: that in Jesus Christ the divine and the human, the vertical and the horizontal, intersect. Or, to use an even more theologically rich word, in the crucified and risen Lord, the vertical and the horizontal cross.
The passage from Acts chapter 11 that we heard this morning recounts in great detail how in one particular instance, the vertical and horizontal dimensions of decision-making intersected in a cruciform pattern in Peter’s life, leading him to a new understanding that completely changed the direction of the expected course of the young Church’s development as a missionary endeavor.
In Acts chapter 11, Peter recounts to his Jewish brethren why it was that he ended up eating unclean food with Cornelius the Roman Centurion and his household, when to do such a thing was unthinkable as a pious Jew. He tells them of a vision he had, not once, not twice, but three times: a significant number, since something must be attested three times to be admissible as evidence under Jewish law. This vision was not something he invited, but it was initiated, he claims, by God. The message Peter receives is, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
When messengers arrive to bring him to Cornelius, we are told, “And the Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting.” Those last two words in Greek, Professor Johnson tells us, can mean either “without hesitation” or “without discrimination,” and it seems plausible that Luke, the author of Acts, intends that double entendre, because Peter is indeed to go without delay, and when he arrives he is not to make any distinction between himself as a Jew and his hosts as Gentiles.
We hear next how Peter himself sees that God makes no distinctions, because he testifies that when he proclaimed the Gospel to these Gentiles, “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.” He remembers something that Jesus himself had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” After this vertical outpouring of the Spirit comes the horizontal dimension, the crux of the matter; Peter concludes: “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?” Luke then tells us that when his Jewish-Christian audience “heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’” And the rest, as they say, is history.
What strikes me most about Peter’s conclusion is its utter humility: “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?” Professor Johnson comments, “Peter states it neatly. To refuse to recognize the clear evidence of God’s action is to oppose God.”
Later on in the book of Acts, Peter’s decision to respond to God’s action by taking action of his own and baptizing the Gentiles without requiring that they be circumcised is subjected to the scrutiny of the whole Church. Those Christian believers who still “belong to the party of the Pharisees,” in Luke’s words, stand up and say, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.” They do not appear to oppose the fact that Peter had baptized the Gentiles, but they claim that now that they have been baptized they need to convert to Judaism. And in fact, the Pharisees have all the authority of scripture, reason, and tradition behind them. As Johnson writes, “If part of God’s revelation consisted in the practice of circumcision as the symbol of the entrance into the people (and it did); and if all the previous revelation by God had taught the necessity of keeping the Law as a full part of being the people and receiving its blessing (as it surely did); then…the weight of evidence would seem to be on their side.”
The story of how the discernment of the early Church moves from the side of the Christian Pharisees to the perspective that Peter advocates is one of apparent discontinuity, but which ultimately is based on the firmest grounds of scripture, reason, and tradition imaginable: that to refuse to recognize and respond to God’s action in the world is tantamount to rebellion against God.
Professor Johnson notes that in Peter’s defense of his actions to the Council of Jerusalem that follows, “God is the subject of every verb in this account. God chose, testified, did not discriminate, and cleansed the hearts of the Gentiles by faith.” The focus of discernment is entirely upon what God is doing in the lives of those whom God wills to be saved, and not at all on what we do. Our actions and decisions are important only insofar as they reflect an obedient response to God’s initiative. Peter did not baptize the Gentiles because he thought it was a “good idea” or because he thought that it was “about time” that the Jesus Movement should be progressive and “evolve” in that direction. He baptized them because he could not deny that the Holy Spirit had already been poured out on them just as the Spirit had been poured out on the Apostles at Pentecost.
It is tempting to try to make this apostolic narrative into a template for discernment in our own day and to apply it to whatever hot button issue du jour we face. Indeed, Professor Johnson’s book attempts to do just that, with mixed results. From my perspective, in Acts we are not handed a mathematical formula for determining what is of God and what is not, but at most a set of standard operating procedures, if you will, that do not necessarily guarantee infallible results, but do perhaps keep us at the intersection of the horizontal and the vertical, at the crux of any matter that demands our active discernment. I will not enumerate these procedures here, because this is a sermon and not an academic paper, after all, but I do hope to leave us with the following three takeaways:
- Until you see divine evidence to the contrary, stick with the Church’s traditional teaching. It is not our job to be innovative, simply to be faithful. Peter did not act on his own initiative but was attentive and responsive to the evangelical stirrings of the Spirit.
- From that position of faithfulness, never presume that you know what God is really up to in anyone’s life—even your own. “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform,” as the old hymn puts it, and if we keep this in mind, we will, I hope, remain appropriately humble before the God who works wonders.
- Remember that in our own day, God is indeed capable of surprising us. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like surprises. One of my mottoes, as our Treasurer can tell you, is “No Surprises.” But Acts challenges me to make an exception where God is concerned, and so I leave you with this: Were God to surprise us at St. John’s, would we be ready to say, “Who am I to hinder God?” Or would we refuse even to consider that anything that stretches us beyond our comfort zones could possibly be of God? You see, I suspect that if we are indeed to grow as a church, God will have some surprises in store for us. I don’t know what they are. I don’t have any initiatives up my sleeve. But I have a sneaking suspicion God does. And I hope that, like the early Church, this church can be surprised by God, because if we can’t be, we will never be, in C.S. Lewis’ words, “Surprised by Joy.”