"Standing up to criticism"

Message preached May 20, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Acts 11:1-18

Order of Worship

I can be one stubborn character, you know. Just ask my family - theyíll tell you. I pray that with the advance of years has come (and will further come) a "mellowing," an ability to back up and see the bigger picture of a situation about which I feel strongly. There have been days, especially when I was younger, that criticism could evoke a very stubborn response in me. Perhaps you can relate to that.

What is it about criticism that is so threatening? Of course, there is good, constructive criticism, and then there is the destructive variety. Early on in life it isnít easy to figure out which is which. Maybe thatís why we tend to approach all criticism with the same response, whether with stubborn, defensive pride or with a "I must be a terrible, awful, horrible person" kind of reaction - beating ourselves up. Sometimes we begin with the one but, once we cool down (or get hotter under the collar) we end up with the other. I know thatís been true for me. How about you?

Granted, there is intentionally destructive criticism out there, from folks whose purpose is not to build us up in the long run, but rather to tear us down. Sometimes there is an underlying harmful edge even to the good criticism, as those who offer it can be blind to their own inner motivations. Thatís why Jesus encouraged us to examine the log in our own eye before speaking about the speck in our neighborís (Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:39-42).

However, there is also good criticism, offered by those who care about us. I recall, early on in my ministry, crafting a series of childrenís stories that revolved around a wolf calling forth various animals, one at a time, to follow him as disciples. Eventually there were to be 12 animals around this main character who, to our adult ears, sounds like Jesus, right? The only problem was that I approached this series as an adult, not a child. You see, children are very literal. Symbolism is often lost upon them.

Well, there was this farmer in that congregation, Veloris Neff, a fellow about my fatherís age, whom I deeply respected. After church one Sunday he spoke his concern about what the children were getting out of my stories. Even he was having a hard time understanding what I was trying to get across. This was good, healthy criticism, offered in a salt-of-the-earth way. I learned a great deal from it, let me tell you. I confess, however, that I was devastated by it at the time. I looked up to this man so much, respecting his integrity, that I felt crushed. It wasnít a stubborn response I had then. No, I immediately pulled the plug on the series, probably leaving some parents and children wondering why. My "Iím a terrible, awful, horrible person" reaction was not right, either, was it? But we grow from such experiences, donít we?

Life is full of criticism, good and bad. How we deal with it is a measure of our maturity, how we are growing into the persons we were created to be. Now, part of my reason for talking about this today, following yet another baptism in what has become a "season" of fresh starts in this congregation, is because every new venture brings forth criticism, both good and bad.

On the one hand are those for whom new beginnings are threatening. Not everyone understands, for instance, why a personís life changes. "So, youíre following Jesus now. What does that mean for Ďus?í Are you going to be a Ďgoody-two-shoesí kind of "prude" now? Youíre never going to keep up with this, you know. You try the latest fad, but it never lasts long. Itís still the same person in there, just different clothes on the outside." ... After a person takes a new step of faith, many are the voices that speak out against it. Sometimes this criticism is very subtle, but it can still wear away at our ability to walk with Christ.

Now, not all criticism is destructive. The critique of others is very important for our growth as disciples. After all, the word "disciple" is connected to the word "discipline." Discipline is not, as we so easily think, punishment. Rather, discipline is what sharpens the metal of our character, it is what helps us grow. Discipline, at its best, is critique offered up in such a way that we are empowered to change from within, that it is our own "will" that grows into the likeness of the One of whom we seek to be a disciple - Jesus Christ. Discipline is for building up, not tearing down. Itís how we grow best. Criticism is not necessarily a bad word. The best criticism, however, is motivated by Christ-like love. Again, the log our own eye versus the speck in anotherís is like a divining rod in discerning good criticism from bad. After all, Jesus didnít say "donít speak the truth." No, as the apostle Paul once wrote, we are to "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15), fully aware of our own motivations.

Allow me now to turn, just now, to the disciple Peter, and some times of criticism he faced. The first I want to recall is from what was, perhaps, his lowest moment. Jesus had been arrested and beaten and brought before the religious and civil authorities. Peter followed as best he could, trying to remain inconspicuous, but an annoying voice kept speaking up asking if he wasnít connected to this Jesus guy. He was afraid, and so he denied it - three times. And then the rooster spoke up, and the earlier critique of Jesus nearly blew Peter away. (Luke 22:54-62)

You see, earlier that night Jesus spoke with his disciples about what soon was to happen, and he predicted that they would all desert him. Peter, however, didnít buy this. "Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you," he said. With words that later would sting, Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." Again, stubborn Peter said, "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you" (Matthew 26:30-35, see parallels - Mark 14:26-31, John 13:36-38, also Luke 22:61). We hear in this the echo of an earlier critique, when Peter stubbornly rebuked Jesus for talking about being crucified. "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus then told Peter. "For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" (Mark 8:31-38, Matthew 8:21-26).

Peter grew from those words, as hard as they may have been to swallow. As a leader of the church that later sprouted from the watering of the Holy Spirit, Peter still faced critique. The 10th chapter of Acts (10:1-48) shares the wonderful story of the View of the Mediterranean Sea from a rooftop in Joppa, perhaps like where Peter had his dream (Acts 10:9ff)Lord discipling Peter once again, this time in a dream. You see, Peter and the rest of the church were focused upon a mission which God sought to widden. Their vision was to spread the good news of Jesus only among those who had been circumcised, the Jews. Peter and the others could not yet conceive the possibility that Gentiles (non-Jews) might be part of Godís plan. Those who were not connected to the covenant, who did not follow the law of Moses, were seen as lost already in the grime of the world. Contact with Gentiles could only spread their "unclean" nature like a fungus. God, however, saw things differently.

In a dream, Peter envisioned a feast spread before him, full of all sorts of food he knew he should not eat, for it was "unclean," forbidden by the Torah, the law. "Stand up, Peter," a voice said, "eat." Like before, stubborn Peter resisted. "By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean" (10:14). The voice in the dream then said, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" (10:15b). This interchange happened not once, not twice, but three times. Do you hear an echo of that rooster crowing?

The difference between that horrible nightmare on the night Jesus was arrested, and this daydream, is that this time Peter didThe traditional site of Simon the Tanner's House in Joppa. Peter stayed here with Simon for many days (Acts 9:43, 10:5-6, 17-18, 11:5). not run away from criticism. He learned from it. When the dream ended, and the doorbell rang, Peter was ready to step out into a new day. He went with the messengers of Cornelius, who had come searching for him, and discovered God already at work in the household of this Roman soldier, a Gentile. All Peter had to do was speak from the heart about his Lord and, it says, "the Holy Spirit fell upon those who heard" (10:44, 11:15). What happened in Jerusalem on Pentecost occurred again, this time among Gentiles. And Peter could not help but baptize them, drawing them into the covenant. (for more on this episode in Acts, see "Catch up Faith")

Of course, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, you better believe he faced into some strong criticism for what he had done. Perhaps some of the words spoken to him then were seeking him harm, to pull him down as a leader. Some people just do that so naturally. But others were, no doubt, very sincere in their objections. They wanted to do right by God. Is it wrong to question what doesnít seem right? No. Any new beginning will encounter criticism, constructive or destructive. Sorting out which is which is not easy. All we each can do in the face of criticism, good or bad, is to do as Peter did.

And what did he do? He didnít run away. He didnít belittle himself, questioning whether he was indeed a "a terrible, awful, horrible person" for having done what he did. Neither did he stubbornly punch back at those who criticized him, as if "how dare you question me!" No, he merely stood up and spoke the truth as he understood it. He shared his story, as honestly as he could, empowered (I believe) by the Holy Spirit. As weíve said before, this Spirit is spoken of as a "comforter" who comes into our lives "with" (com) "fortification," strengthening us with the Godly vitamins we need to stand tall, and say and do what God desires.

What happened after Peter shared his story, again from the heart? Well, at first everyone was quiet - taking in this change. Then silence gave way to song, and they praised God, rejoicing that "God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life" (11:18).

I encourage you, next time you encounter criticism (good or bad), not to run away or beat yourself up, nor to allow your pride to throw up defensive walls of protection. Instead, do as Peter did. Stand up in the face of criticism and simply speak what you know to be true, empowered by Godís gracious Spirit. Now, if youíve never opened your life to Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, or if you are at a point where you are ready to more fully rely upon his strength, and wish to step forth in a fresh start of faith with Jesus, then stand up and come forward... For all of us, now, letís stand and sing.

©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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