a sermon on Acts 11:1-18 and Galatians 6:14-16
preached on April 28, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Back in college, my second semester freshman seminar required us to read and discuss a very interesting book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. While it isn’t quite as familiar as The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird, it is nonetheless a classic book in the history of science that describes the process surrounding paradigm shifts. A paradigm shift, also known as a scientific revolution, is a moment when a new way of thinking takes hold because the available evidence no longer lines up with the assumptions and theories that have previously explained everything. In the scientific world, these shifts start out slowly, with a few intrepid researchers recognizing that what they are seeing doesn’t fit within the assumptions and calculations that have always guided their thinking. Then, over time, more and more people see that these new observations require a different way of thinking about the world, and ultimately, a new theory takes hold to explain what has been seen and experienced.
In the scientific world, one of the best-known paradigm shifts came back in the Renaissance, when astronomers changed their understanding of the relationship between heavenly bodies and the sun. Before that time, the guiding assumption—the paradigm—about the planets and the sun was that everything revolved around the earth, as originally explained by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy. Although many things were—and still are—explained quite well by the calculations in this system, over time new measurements and observations just didn’t match up with what was expected under the Ptolemaic system. Finally, in the early sixteenth century, as the exceptions became far more complicated than the rules, Copernicus proposed a new theory that fit much better with the observations of that era, placing the sun, not the earth, at the center of the solar system, and his theory still stands as the centerpiece of our own emerging observations about our solar system and the universe.
By now, you’re surely wondering what Ptolemy and Copernicus and paradigms have to do with Peter’s vision that we heard from the book of Acts this morning. Ultimately, you see, Peter’s vision was the first dramatic paradigm shift in the life of the early church, the first spiritual revolution for Christianity. The story of this vision seems to have been so important to the early church that it is told twice, first in chapter 10 of Acts by a narrator, and now in chapter 11 in Peter’s own words. Almost all of the followers of Jesus up until this point were Jews, and so the early church seemed to be just another sect of Judaism who recognized the particular man Jesus as the Messiah. But ultimately what gave Christianity its staying power is that the church began to welcome non-Jews into the community of faith.
This was not universally accepted—our telling of the story today actually comes from Peter’s defense of his actions when he was called before the council of elders in Jerusalem. He had previously supported the party line that required non-Jews to become Jews and be circumcised if they wanted to join the church. Then one day he was praying and saw a vision of unclean things—animals prohibited from the Jewish diet—coming down from heaven on a sheet. As the sheet came closer, Peter heard a voice speaking to him: “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” He refused, insisting that to do this would make him unclean. Then it happened again, with the voice this time proclaiming, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” After this happened a third time, Peter knew that something was up and that the Spirit was speaking to him, and then three men arrived at the house with instructions from the Spirit to take Peter to a Gentile household in another town. Along the journey, he felt the Spirit instructing him “not to make a distinction between them and us.” Once he arrived at the house, heard their story, and started speaking to them, the Holy Spirit fell upon them as well, and so he decided that he could do nothing but welcome them and acknowledge what God was doing in them and through them.
When word of this started to spread in the early church, Peter was criticized for eating with Gentiles and making himself unclean, but he insisted that this was the movement of the Spirit. As he put it to the council in Jerusalem, “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?” The council could find no further objection and were silenced by Peter’s story, and they too praised God for the wonder of salvation that had spread to the Gentiles.
Peter’s encounter here, then, was the first paradigm shift in the life of the early church. They moved from being an exclusively Jewish sect to establishing a welcome for all people. After this, the church began intensive engagement with people who were different from the first disciples, without regard to nationality, ethnicity, or past religious history. The church recognized that God might work and speak in new and different ways, and so it was called to do the same. And the church was forced to acknowledge the differences that stood at the core of its community even as it still found a way to stick together. The Gentile question was not settled once and for all—our brief reading from Galatians this morning reminds us of another moment when the apostle Paul was confronted by a group who wanted to require that all Gentiles be circumcised before joining the church—but the ultimate pathway to the new paradigm was clear after Peter’s meeting in Jerusalem: all people would be welcome in the church.
The church has experienced, even endured, many paradigm shifts in the two millennia since Peter’s vision of clean and unclean foods. Our understanding of God shifted as the doctrine of the Trinity took hold after the Council of Nicaea. The Protestant Reformation brought a renewed focus on scripture and deepened the doctrine and practice of salvation by grace through faith. More recently, our particular branch of Reformed Christianity has come to welcome women to ordained ministry, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) just two years ago removed nationwide restrictions on the full participation of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church. These are paradigm shifts— maybe not quite as radical as what Thomas Kuhn described when he said, “What were ducks in the scientist’s world before… are rabbits afterward” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p. 111), but they certainly are radical changes for us that emerge out of the depth and breadth of our experience of God and our world in these days.
And so as our world changes in these days, the church is called to continue to reexamine the assumptions—the paradigms, if you will—that we have held about our life together. As participation in the various institutions of our world declines, the church must reconsider its own organization so as to ensure that mission and not institutional survival stands at our forefront. As more people identify a spiritual longing and yet have no traditional religious affiliation, the church must rethink how it responds to the spiritual needs of our world. And as we struggle to maintain the financial and human resources to survive in traditional ways, we might just have to imagine a different, more fluid, more flexible way of being church together so as to be good stewards of our limited resources and offer an effective proclamation of the gospel to and for our changing world.
The question in these days is not whether we will embrace this shift but how and when—and will it be too late to make a difference? How do we let go of the constraints on our thinking that limit our vision of our changing world? How do we imagine that God might be calling us to a very new and very different thing? How do we welcome the new frontiers of this age as new things emerge and challenge the assumptions that have shaped us into the people and church that we are? These are not easy questions, just as the changes around us are not easy to accept. But it was not easy for Peter to understand his vision of the Spirit on that rooftop and it was not easy for the council in Jerusalem to welcome his story—and yet I don’t think any of us can imagine the church being anything like it is today without these paradigm shifts from its early life.
So as our world changes and our church changes, may God open our hearts and minds to the Spirit moving in our midst to change how we see our world, may God open our ears to the stories that reshape us and remake us, and may God strengthen us to be all the more faithful amidst our changing world as we show our love for one another and all our world through Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.