Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The circumcised believers criticized Peter …
so he began to explain it to them, step by step.” (Acts 11)
What is it that makes us able to change our mind about some deeply held conviction? Or conversely, what is it that prevents us from doing so?
I’ve been thinking about those questions ever since attending a meeting of the City Council a couple of weeks ago, where the issue of allocating city funds to assist asylum seekers was being debated. First, a number of speakers in support of the proposal spoke, many of them carefully explaining that this was not a case of assisting illegal immigrants—in fact, asylum seekers have been lawfully admitted into the United States.
Then a speaker opposed to the proposed allocation came forward, and began his speech by saying, “We just can’t have all those illegals in this country.” He had clearly not heard, or registered, what had already been said. And so the thought went through my mind: What is it that makes us to hold onto our opinions so tightly, even if they have been shown to be inaccurate?
The situation in the City Council chamber that night was not so unlike the one facing Peter in today’s reading from Acts. There, the situation is this: Peter has been away from the other apostles in Jerusalem, staying in Caesarea with a centurion named Cornelius. Now, even though Cornelius was a Gentile, he had been powerfully touched by the Spirit, and he came to Peter asking to be accepted through baptism into the fledgling Christian community.
Of course, except for Cornelius, all those who were with Peter were Jews, and so it was their absolute conviction that only those men circumcised like them according to the law were eligible for baptism. But Peter, recognizing God’s activity in Cornelius’ life despite his status as a Gentile, chooses to baptize him and his household anyway. It was an incredibly bold thing to do—completely out of the box.
So in the part of the story we read today, Peter has returned to Jerusalem, and there he is roundly criticized by the other apostles for having broken with the legal requirements of the Jewish religious tradition. And so Peter has to defend himself. And he sets out to change the apostles’ minds about what is permissible and what is not. His strategy is to explain in great detail all that he has seen and heard of God’s activity (including the visions by which both he and Cornelius were brought together) trying to convince them that something has radically changed—and that it is God who has done it.
So what is it that Peter has to do, in order to change their mind—which is another way of asking, what is that has to happen for any of us to change our mind? Peter’s challenge is to detach the apostles’ sense of personal identity away from their religious conviction—to separate their ego from their opinion. They can still be who they are—Jewish men in the Christian movement—and have a different opinion. Peter has to get his colleagues to see that the meaning of circumcision is being grafted into God’s life—and that in the case of Cornelius and his household, God has done the same thing but through baptism into Christ. “If God gave them the same gift he gave us,” Peter asks, “who was I that I could hinder God?” All have been gifted by the same Spirit, but in a different manner of God’s own choosing.
In short, Peter has to awaken in the apostles an attitude of humility regarding their own experience and conviction: circumcision as the sign of belonging was real for them, but it was also only partial. God is now widening the circle, and their self-identity has to widen with it. Relying on what had been their self-limiting convictions is no longer enough.
And being able to change one’s mind in a way that does not undermine personal identity, it seems to me, always involves some shift in our thinking toward a greater humility that is willing at least to consider the possibility of being wrong—or only partially right. We have to be able to see ourselves as part of a larger moral universe in which there are in fact legitimately competing accounts of right and wrong, good and evil, sacred and profane—and without negating the importance of our own experience and conviction, we have to be aware of our continual need for growth and adaptation if we are to mature spiritually and morally.
And if you think about it, all of our ideas about human growth and development are predicated upon the assumption of just this sort of continual reassessment of how we perceive and understand ourselves and the world around us. That’s why our Christian life is permeated with words like self-examination, repentance, renewal, reform, amendment of life … if we aren’t continually changing, we aren’t entering more deeply into who God calls us to be.
Perhaps you have come across David Brooks’ latest book, The Second Mountain. His organizing metaphor is that in the first part of our life, we scale a mountain that is defined by individual success and achievement, only to find at some point that being on such a mountain is ultimately unsatisfying. That realization knocks one down into a valley of uncertainty and even despair, from which one has to begin ascending a second mountain—the mountain that is made up of a life oriented to community, commitment, interdependence, relationship, and self-sacrifice. Only on that second mountain to we find a deep sense of joy—not material happiness, but a deep sense of worth and fulfillment.
In Brooks’ metaphor, you’ll notice that the whole process of finding such joy, is predicated upon changing one’s mind: changing one’s mind about what is valuable, what is meaningful, and what one gives one’s life to. It is not (contrary to the way so many people behave in today’s world) predicated upon staking out a position and then defending it aggressively and angrily against all challenge. The moral life, is a life of change.
So perhaps that’s the thought we can take away from our reading today: contrary to what most people may think (that to lead a moral life is all about having fixed and unchanging beliefs that one defends at all costs), what God really asks of us is to continually change our mind. Not in the sense of being vague and uncertain, but in the sense of deepening, widening, expanding, rethinking our convictions. But what else would you expect, from a God who is in the end beyond our knowing, and so must be ever known afresh? It’s yet another way, as I have been pointing out in these sermons, how counter-cultural authentic Christian life is in these contentious days. And the good news is that we are all more capable of changing than we ever thought possible—why, just look at what happened to the apostles. “When they had heard Peter,” the scripture says, “they were silenced. And then they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the way of life.’” Amen.