Another conversion of Peter | 24 April 2016

Text: Acts 11:1-18

 During the Easter season we’ve been talking about different conversions.  Not just a one and done experience, but a series of experiences that convert us toward the overflowing love and grace of God.  We looked at Thomas, then Saul, the artist formerly known as Paul, and last week Chris talked about Oscar Romero.  With Peter up this week I’m aware that makes for four men in a row, so I’m glad to report that next week the lectionary features Lydia, the seller of purple cloth, and the week after that, Mother’s Day, we’ll meditate on the Divine feminine.

As I looked at this Acts 11 story, which is one of Peter’s many conversions, I was reminded of a model I’ve found helpful in thinking about spiritual growth.  We’ve included an image of that as a bulletin insert.  It’s a pretty simple model, based on concentric circles, or in this case concentric hearts.  Rather than being linear, it starts inward and moves outward, from egocentric, to ethnocentric, to world centric.  And then there’s a fourth ring which for some reason isn’t in this image.  It’s sometimes called cosmo-centric, or being-centric, or Christ-centric.  I’m not even sure who to credit for this model.  I learned about it through the writing of Ken Wilber, who has done a lot of work integrating different wisdom traditions.

So I invite us to think about conversion this way this morning, as a process of expansion, growth outward in all directions.  And we can see how this Peter story follows this trajectory.

In the egocentric phase our awareness is pretty much limited to ourselves.  Ego is just Greek for “I”, so to be egocentric is to be centered on I, me, oneself.  This carries all kinds of negative connotations, nobody wants to be “egocentric,” but like these other circles, this is an important part of development.  This is how we all begin life.  For the infant, the young child, they are the center of the world, at least their world.  This is sometimes much to parents’ chagrin, but there’s a certain beautiful necessity to this.  Being egocentric, in its best sense, has to do with getting what we need to survive and even thrive as a self.

The bulk of Acts chapter 11 is something of a flashback.  Peter has had a transformative experience with Gentiles, non-Jews, in the Roman city of Caesarea, and he’s recounting all of this to the Jewish members of the Jesus movement back in Jerusalem.  Acts 10 is the first telling of this, the live event, and Acts 11, which we read, is Peter’s retelling.  Peter had been in the coastal city of Joppa, staying with a man known as Simon the tanner.  The story begins in the most basic and human of ways.  It’s noon and Peter’s hungry.  He wanted something to eat, and is waiting for the food to be prepared.  Hunger is the unavoidable I-centered experience we all have multiple times a day.  We won’t say how multiple.  But it’s a good thing we do.  Hunger is our body’s friendly reminder that we need more than just the self to survive.  We need sustenance.  We need nourishment from outside the boundary of our body to give us life.

Hungry Peter falls into a trance and has a vision of animals, lots of animals.  They appear to Peter on something like a sheet, lowered from heaven by its four corners, like a large high definition projection screen.  We aren’t told any names or species, just that there were four-footed creatures, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.  A number of them would have been on the “do not eat” list of the Mosaic law, which Peter, an observant Jew, would not have dreamed of eating.  Except that he is dreaming, and there is a voice which says, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”  Peter refuses, claiming that nothing profane or unclean has ever entered his body.  This happens three times, each time the same way, and each time the final response of the voice is, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

So Peter is in this ego-centric state of hunger, but the story is subtly, or not so subtly, transitioning to the ethnocentric.  Ethno is related to ethnic and has to do with being part of a group.  And there are different levels to this.  The group can be held together by shared blood line, the biological family; shared experiences and practices, a culture; shared boundaries and laws, a nation, a state.  Ethnocentric can also have negative connotations.  And it can be quite destructive.  But gaining and maintaining a sense of group identity is an important part of human and spiritual development.  It’s hard to move beyond ethnocentrism when one has no group that helps define who they are, or when one’s group or family has been traumatized.

This is one of the reasons why the “Black Lives Matter” movement is so important and responses of claiming to not see color, or claiming that “All Lives Matter” misses the point.  The ethnos, like the ego, has a body, a collective body, and that body rightly seeks its own health, its own survival, its own healing.  There is a sacredness to the collective body, which needs to guard against whatever seeks to profane it.

It is this collective body, and the question of the sacred, the holy, that becomes a major focus of this Peter story.  Peter soon realizes that his vision is not so much about food, but about people.  Not so much about his own body, but about the collective body he thinks of as “my people.”  His ethnos.  As soon as that visionary sheet goes up the third time, Peter is visited by a contingent from outside his people.  They are agents of Cornelius, an officer in the occupying Roman army.  Cornelius has had his own vision, and has sent these people to search and find Peter.  They are to bring Peter, if he’s willing, from Joppa up the coast to Caesarea, where Cornelius is stationed, for Peter to speak whatever message he has to these Gentiles.  Gentiles was a word that meant, simply, not-Jewish, or, for Peter, not-my-people.

As Peter later describes it to the Jerusalem believers, he felt compelled by the Spirit to go with these Gentiles, and “not to make a distinction between us and them.”

Not to make a distinction between us and them.  This is the next shift, the next concentric heart outward, Worldcentric.  On the diagram it goes from “us” to “all of us.”  We could also say it goes from “us and them” to “We.”  The family gets expanded.  The nation gets transcended.  This doesn’t displace the ego or the ethnos.  Ken Wilber and others are quick to point out that the inner rings are included, and transcended, moving outward.  Include and transcend.  Include and transcend.

For Peter, it involves the shocking experience of witnessing these Gentiles filled with same Spirit he and others had come to know.  This spirit is specifically called Holy Spirit.  Peter discovers the holy, the sacred, outside the boundaries of his own group, and it leads to a conversion that has direct impact on us.  Being here this morning is a direct result of the early believers eventually accepting this major shift in how one went about being considered eligible for the people of God.  We are the Gentiles, the non-Jews, and this becomes good news for us because there is an opening up taking place where God’s covenant with the Jews is being made available even to those who don’t convert to Judaism.  Don’t take on physical requirements of the law like circumcising all males, eating kosher food, observing the specifics of Sabbath commands.  We are saved, loved, embraced, welcomed, as Gentiles.  And there’s nothing wrong or unholy or unclean about being a Gentile.  What makes us clean is that we receive the Spirit, which leads us into Jesus’ commandment of love, the law of the Spirit, as Paul would later call it.

Ramon Panikkar was a Spanish Catholic theologian, born of a Hindu mother, who dedicated his life to  interfaith dialogue, listening to the religions of the world.  In an essay, he uses this vision of Peter’s as an example for how the Christian tradition contains at its inception this boundary breaking kind of openness to the Spirit.  He says that the lesson from Peter’s vision is that we have no control over God and that God can show up in any household of any particular human group.  And so we are constantly in the process of being awed and surprised, like Peter, at where we detect the lively Spirit of God at work.

We could ask ourselves, in our relationships, friendships with people of other faiths, how we have detected in them the Spirit that we would call Christ.  And just as the Gentiles were affirmed as Gentiles, without having to take on the particularities of Jewish religion, we can wonder if there are ways that our Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish friends can be affirmed in their identities without taking on our particular expressions of faith.  Because God is in the process of making all of us holy and clean.

On this Earth Day weekend we might consider how a world-centric awareness informs how we live and pray on our home planet.  We might revisit that vision of Peter, filled with animals of all kinds, and ask how these creatures exist not just for our own consumption, but as manifestations of the Creator. We might seek peace not just among our species, but between ours and other species.

There’s one more conversion which I think is also happening here, a cosmo-centric, or Christ-centric awareness.  And maybe there no ring on the diagram for this because at this point it becomes unbounded.  The book of Colossians speaks of Christ as the force behind the entire unfolding of creation.  The self-emptying action of Christ is the very power that generates and holds together all things.  “In Christ all things hold together,” Colossians says.  This is the Cosmic Christ.

The part of the Acts 11 passage I’d like to identify with this Christ-consciousness comes in the very last verse that was read.  When Peter tells the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem about his experience with Gentiles, and the Holy Spirit’s presence with them, Acts says, “When they heard this, they were silenced.”  That’s the NRSV translation.  Rather than “silenced” the NIV says “they had no further objections,” and the King James, eloquently as always, says, “they held their peace.”  But in this case “silenced” is a good translation.  There’s one Greek word involved, which means, pretty much, “silent.”

I asked Jenny to pause when she read that part, just to give a bit of an effect.  It was a necessarily brief pause, but I like to think that the live event involved a much longer period of silence.  Like much longer.  Like the kind of silence where someone eventually has to get up to take a bathroom break, their footsteps back into the room still the only sound.  And not just that, but the kind of silence that lives on no matter how long the actual time of no-talking lasts.  A silence that moves through the rest of the Christian scriptures, a silence that hovers over the decades and centuries of history that follow.  A silence we still live with.

Christ-centric, cosmic silence is the kind of silence that has that unique quality of being both empty of words and full of all words.  Nothing to say and too much to say.  Like the way the human eye experiences white light.  It is both the absence of color, and the combination of all wavelengths that make up the color spectrum.  Run it through a prism and all of sudden the white light is bursting with the colors that were there all along.  It’s a full silence, pregnant with meaning and possibility.  One gets a glimpse of the immensity of what one is dealing with, and the only adequate response is to be silenced.  This kind of silence is an essential form of prayer, a way that we practice Christ-centric awareness.

Peter’s report is full of good news, and it leads to this silence, but I feel like we’ve also gotten a taste of the other side of this in our congregation recently.  We’ve experienced among us the deaths of parents.  Some of you are giving time and energy to care for aging parents and struggling family members.  There are reports of cancer and arrangements for treatment plans, the upcoming years suddenly full of the unknown.  We scramble for words of love and care, to adequately address one another, as we should, but we are more aware than ever that what we are really doing is entering more deeply together into the silence.  Facing the immensity of mortality, and the wideness of a grace we can’t yet fully detect.  With nothing and everything to say about it.  When Job’s three friends heard of his plight, they left their homes and went to visit him.  As the text reports: “They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word.”

Eventually the silence hits the prism, words soon separate themselves out and give their message, but even when they do, the silence remains.

Whether it be overflowing good news, or overwhelming troubling news, I hear an invitation in this passage, in Peter’s conversion, for us to enter the silence together.  I pray that this silence can both include and take us beyond our own ego, our own group, even our own pale blue dot of a planet, and set us more firmly in the presence of the one who holds all creation in being.  The one in whom all things hold together.  The one reconciling all things, and drawing all things toward itself.  We are not yet there, brothers and sisters, but the Holy Spirit beckons us, and Jesus has led the way.

I ask that we have about five minutes of collective, prayerful silence, after which we will sing Breathe on me, Breath of God.

If you aren’t sure how to pray with silence, one way to do it is to choose a simple word like Love or Healing or Peace.  You let your breath in be a way of receiving that, and let your out breath be an act of giving that away.