|| "Who do you say
that I am?" Jesus asked. Simon Peter answered, "You
are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus
answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are
Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra)
I will build my church..." Jesus then began to speak of
the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get
behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling
May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
"Turning the head"
Message preached May 9,
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Acts 11:1-18
Order of Worship
I can still hear her voice, standing there in her kitchen on their dairy farm. Irene and Roger Hawbaker were members of a previous church I served. They were married long ago by an old-order Brethren preacher. Before the wedding this minister counseled her with these words - a piece of advice she passed on to Karen and I with a chuckle. "Irene," he said, "Roger may be the head of your household, but you are the neck. Make sure the head is turned in the right direction."
Now, speaking of who is the "head" of a household in this day and age can become fightiní words. Itís not my intent on "Motherís Day" to stir up a battle of the sexes. I just like that image of a neck which has the power to turn the head in the right direction. On a day like this, we have celebrated the influence of women who take on the role of wife and mother. They are a powerful influence, thatís for sure. Even from the distance of miles or years. We may live a few states, or even countries, away. They may be in the arms of Jesus now. But our mothers continue to turn our head. Right?
We are gathered in this place and time, however, not because of that influence, as powerful as it may be. Granted, it may have been the gentle nudge or the outright push of a mother or a wife who turned us in this direction a while back, or even just an hour or so ago. Still, the turning of the head which has truly moved us goes beyond a womanís touch. And that, my friends, is good news.
As powerful as the influence of a wife and mother may be, it gets tiring - doesnít it? The truth is, husbands and children can be a real pain in the neck. There, I said it. If I donít get an "amen" from the female side of this congregation for that line, someone must be asleep. Of course, I could state the obvious in a bit different way, and hear an "amen" from the other half. It would have to do with trying to change somebody, and how "turning the head" really needs to be done by the person him or herself.
The truth is, we canít make somebody do something. We donít have that kind of influence. None of us do. Even mothers and wives. We canít "change" someone, unless (of course) weíre talking about an infant with a smelly diaper. By the way, I never could understand any father unable or unwilling to become involved in the manly art of diaper changing, but thatís me. If you canít handle poop, donít make it yourself. Did I just say that? From the pulpit?
Speaking of Ďuncleaní things, maybe Iíd better shift over to our scripture for the morning and turn our heads toward the good news found there. Well, to be honest, I canít make you turn your head in that direction, but I invite you to come with me back to the Acts of the Apostles and a story that is recorded not once, but twice in this book. My experience is that when something is repeated, I need to listen. At least thatís what my wife says.
What we heard earlier was a flashback. The apostle Peter remembers an event that happened previously (see Acts 10:1-48), right after the story we recalled last Sunday. This is the abridged version in which Peter is forced to answer for his actions by those whose eyebrows are raised. Theyíre upset because it seems like this manly apostle has gone and stuck his hands in the toilet, so to speak. Real men of God donít do that - get their hands dirty in unclean things, that is.
At issue is the direction in which the followers of Jesus are headed. Our Lord came to redeem the children of Israel, you see, not those who havenít committed their lives to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The sign of this commitment, the mark of Godly manhood for those of Jewish faith, is circumcision. Now, letís not go into detail about what circumcision involves, other than to say that the folks Peter had just spent time with ... werenít. And this was a problem for some, a concern that just didnít go away for the early church, even after everyone seemed to be in agreement at the end of this morningís scripture story.
Forgive me, women, for all this discussion of circumcision and other manly stuff on a day such as today. I wonder how different this Bible story might have been had women been involved. They might not have focused so much on certain aspects of the anatomy, as upon the meal in Peterís dream. Or they might have been more concerned with the people in the story, asking who exactly was in Cornelius' "household" - a wife, children, servants, who? Those guys who questioned Peter? Well, once he shared what he had to share, they pretty much took it at face value and said, "Hmmm!" (Actually it says they shut up and praised God).
Could you imagine women leaving it at that? ...
"What color was the sheet?" ...
"How, exactly did you prepare the meat?" ...
"Come on! You mean you really ate a snake?" ...
"Iíve got a recipe that, though itís not exactly kosher,
can do wonders with even the Ďfowlestí meat.
Do you want it?" ...
"I donít suppose there was any chocolate in there,
was there?" ...
"What did the wife have to say? Did you even ask?" ...
"Was it a nice home?" ...
"Children well-behaved?" ...
"Did you thank them for their hospitality when you left?" ...
So much for a man trying to think of how women might have responded had they been in charge. But they werenít. It was the men, with Peter at the top of the leadership list back then.
To recap, he was in Caesarea at the time. As we remembered last week, he was not ignorant of womenís concerns. With Godís help, heíd even revived the person and ministry of a widow named Dorcas. But his head was aimed in a particular direction, and on that day in Caesarea it all changed. Mind you, itís not easy to change a manís mind, nor a womanís for that matter. God is the one who had the greatest influence here, and thatís good news.
As I said, we canít make somebody do something. None of us can. I donít care if you are the greatest mother in the world. You can assert all the subtle or overt influence you want, you can get the neck moving back and forth to the best of your ability, but if a person doesnít want to change directions, he or she is not going to do so. I know that can get frustrating. It can also lead to heartbreak if the stakes are high enough. The truth is we are, in reality, beating our head against a wall if we believe we have the influence to force another person to change. How many marriages have started out with that belief, only to flounder when the truth settles in? Thatís true of children as well. I donít care if youíre an Italian mother, a German mother, an African-American mother, a Brazilian mother, or just a plain Heinz 57 variety. We canít make anybody do anything. Not and really mean it.
Our scripture story this morning, however, involves a serious change of heart. Letís be clear, Peter is a good boy. Heís not doing something wrong, like the apostle Paul was - you know, persecuting people and all (Acts 9:1-31). Heís doing the job he was called to do. And in Caesaria, he was taking a siesta on the roof of his hostís home. To be truthful, now, it says that Peter was praying up there, or at least thatís what he went up to do (10:9). I donít doubt it. I do know, however, that sometimes when I go to pray, I fall asleep. Anyone like me? Anyway, whether he was praying or sleeping, I donít think he expected what then happened. Now, guys, you think itís a pain when you get interrupted while watching a game or a movie on television? Imagine if the One doing the interrupting is God. Thatís what happened to Peter.
We donít need to repeat the vision he had. Suffice it to say it involved all sorts of stuff Peter considered unclean. He had been taught not to stick his hand in the toilet, if you will. But God kept bugging him. It was like the Lord was saying, "Listen, you may be the head of my church in Jerusalem, but Iím the neck and thereís a direction I want to point you in. Cause, if the truth be told, Iím the real head of my body." His dream was about Peter heading in a direction this apostle wouldnít have gone, had it not been for God sticking his neck out.
I mean that literally. Not only was this man whom God wanted Peter to connect up with a Gentile, he was a Roman soldier. Not only that, he was an officer of the occupying force in that land. Think. Who killed Jesus? Roman soldiers commanded by a Centurion. And here Peter was supposed to go and share the gospel with someone in charge of one hundred Roman soldiers. Had it been me, it might have taken some strong neck turning on Godís part to get me to face in that direction. But thatís what Peter eventually did, of his own will. If he hadnít had a change of heart, he wouldnít have defended his action to his colleagues back home like he did.
With this step, the church of Jesus Christ changed. Thatís why the story is told twice. No longer was it to be just a little in-house Jewish affair. God had a wider fish-tank in mind for these simple fishers of men and women - the world and all its people, Jew and Gentile. And it was to begin with this Roman officer and his family, in response to the prayer of that Centurion.
"What God has made clean, donít call impure," the voice from heaven spoke to Peter in his dream. To put it differently, "If God says itís okay, itís okay" (10:9, The Message). When Peter later shared the good news about Jesus with those uncircumcised Gentiles, and they received the Spirit just like the disciples did on Pentecost, he figured, "Who am I that I should get in Godís way?" (10:17). He changed his mind.
Amazing, isnít it? Men can change their mind! So can women. Heads can turn. Of course, nobody can be made to change by someone else, even if that someone else is as influential as a mother or a wife. It is possible, however, to change. Thatís good news. Even better news is that the real change agent is God. That takes a lot of weight off of those who care. Freedom comes, you see, with realizing that you canít make someone else change. God, on the other hand, has a habit of turning heads, even rock heads like Peter. Maybe thatís why prayer is a much more effective tool than talk.
With this in mind, letís turn back toward this special day of honoring mothers and wives, and say the following: Never underestimate the power and influence of a woman ... who prays! Thatís what really turns the head.
|online resources for this scripture text||
For commentaries consulted, see Acts.
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)
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