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10.22.17 Entering the Wood Acts 10-11 Sermon Summary

by on October 23, 2017

Your religion can be either a lamp or a flashlight, unless you’re a Christian—then it’s both.

Summary Points

  • When Peter helped open the gates of salvation to non-Jews
  • How Peter’s mind was changed
  • How the dark wood leads to religious reformation
  • Reformation may require breaking the rules

We Christians who are non-Jews have a lot to be thankful for to Peter. Without him, we may never have known salvation. Peter’s baptism of Cornelius opened gate to non-Jews. Psalm 24 says, “Lift up your heads, O Gates, that the King of Glory may come in.” Until Peter, the king entered only Jewish courts.

But with Cornelius, the good news of the Bible took direction. The light of God among the Jews shifted from being a lamp to being a flashlight. It evolved from a beacon of illumination in a dark world to a searchlight for those who are lost.

This was a major shift for Peter, for his thinking and for his religion generally. When religion is a lamp in the darkness, it means we have to keep it shining. Through sacrifice, ritual, worship, and devotion, humans are responsible for maintaining the light. It also means you can’t stray too far without risk finding yourself in the dark. So we build fences around the light, religious rules that keep us from wandering away.

For Peter, this religious lamp is symbolized best by dietary rules. Leviticus 11 outlines the dietary restrictions he inherited as a Jew. By such religious scruples we claim that, “We are different, we live differently. We have instructions from God, and our obedience to the rules sheds light in this world.”

So when the vision of Acts 10-11 comes, it challenges Peter to the core of his religious identity. How did Peter come to his change of mind? As always, reform is initiated by the Spirit of God. But don’t think reform means a complete repudiation of tradition.

Peter was a person of regular prayer. He had gone to the roof for prayer at the prescribed noon hour. It is suggested that he was also fasting, for he became hungry up there. In other words, Peter faithfully practiced his traditional religion.

It was through these traditional religious practices that the Spirit came to him. But it came with something different, something new. The Spirit came with something even contradictory.

This is the moment we realize—we have entered the dark wood. In the dark wood, we hear strange sounds. We become disoriented. Our mind plays games on us. Did we really just see that?!

In the dark wood there is also a spiritual darkness which can lead us to confusion, fear, and doubt. We may even feel abandoned by the Spirit in the dark wood. Ironically, however, it is in the dark wood where Spirit finds us, and we find the Spirit. The Spirit came to Peter and Peter came to the Spirit in the dark wood of religious reformation.

Religion is in perpetual need of reform. This month marks the 500 year anniversary of the Reformations of the Western church. But the reform Spirit was moving long before that. Christianity had become exclusive, elitist, and alien to the people. Reform efforts included making the Bible more accessible by translating it out of Latin, making communion more meaningful by sharing both bread and cup, and caring for the marginalized in society instead of collecting money for the institutional church.

Martin Luther represented a turning point for sure, which is why this month is particularly recognized. But before him was Jan Hus, Thomas a Kempis, Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, Hildegarde of Bingen, and Teresa of Avila. All of whom walked the dark wood. And all of whom advocated reform.

Peter had his own dark wood experiences before this one on the rooftop. There was the Transfiguration fiasco in which he wanted to stay on the mountain top with the vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Then there was the time he resorted to violent resistance when Jesus was being arrested. There was the night he spent frustrated for not catching any fish, only to have a net-breaking haul early in the morning.

In all those dark wood experiences, Jesus came to Peter and guided him through the disorientation. Jesus brought light to Peter’s darkness. And now on the rooftop this strange Spirit says, “go with the Gentiles, for I have sent them to you.” The abomination is no longer an abomination. The outsider is to be included. The alien is to be welcome.

And Peter, remembering his dark wood experiences, recognized in that moment the Spirit of Jesus, the light of Christ, and followed—even against the rules. In fact, he even broke the rules. He associated with, visited, even ATE with the Gentiles. And not just any Gentile, a Roman centurion, the symbol of the oppression of his people and the execution of his Lord.

In this moment, Peter’s religious lamp became a flashlight. God was showing a new way. Peter understood Zechariah’s prophecy about Jesus’ birth differently: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” God’s intention for the light is to shine in the darkness, yes; but also to seek. So Peter broke the rules.

As we prepare to welcome the light of Christ at Christmas, maybe the Spirit will come to us and ask us to follow in a new direction. Maybe we’ll have to break a rule in order to do so. The rule might be one you grew up with. It might be one that has helped you in the past. But maybe it is the one that now should be broken in order to let the light of Christ come in. Maybe this rule has to be broken for Christ to shine on a new path for us.

May God honor our worship this season by coming to us in the Spirit and illuminating our path in the way of Christ. And may we be willing to break some rules of our own in order to follow. Amen.

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