Last week I heard a Christian comment, “I would rather offend someone into heaven than flatter them into hell.” I could not get over the absurdity of this statement. As if this person had totally forgotten it is by grace we are saved. That it is kindness that leads us to repentance. That God is infinite and unfathomable love.
I somewhat understand the sentiment behind the statement—that sometimes speaking the truth offends people inadvertently, and it simply will not do if we never speak up for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. But far too often, instead of hearing Christians speak up in love and compassion, I hear them going on the offensive. I think they think they are on the defensive, but either way, they sound as if they speak in order to insult.
This notion that we have to defend the truth by mocking our opponents is nonsense. I have never in my life met a person who was converted by a Facebook meme or a bumper sticker. I have never witnessed the grace of God invade a person’s life via ridicule of their former beliefs. It just doesn’t happen.
I know we would all be in agreement that it is past time we Christians took stock, not just of what we say but how we say it. I get it, that sometimes it just feels nice to say what we like, no restrictions, just let it out. Freedom of speech and all that. But we all know that authentic conversation isn’t quite that simple. There is a give, and there is take. I talk and I listen. I open myself up and I hold myself back. I speak up and I grow silent. Back and forth, back and forth until we call this a relationship, and it is the only, only way by which we learn and grow and love. Relationship is the only arena in which conversion occurs. Yes, of course, sometimes we say hard things that people don’t want to hear, but we say them on a foundation of mutual respect, thoughtful deliberation, and loving compassion.
No matter how good it might feel to release some steam, no matter how desperate you may feel to speak your mind, spewing is plain antithetical to the Gospel. The Gospel, which radically tears apart hostility and converts us again and again and again to the path of deeper love, demands a certain way of being and speaking and engaging God’s precious creation. No matter how theologically-correct your opinion, the attitude with which you share means more. Our words matter. And the way we string them together, and the tone of the whole endeavor—these things matter.
Take a look at how Peter handles this controversy with his fellow Jews. This is no small disagreement. Both parties feel that the truth, that God’s way is at stake.
Just think about what Peter was doing here. He was hearing, essentially, a new word from God. It’s not like he really had “Scriptural” support to back him up; the part of Scripture we rely on for these matters concerning the Gentiles was currently in the process of being lived out. So for now, it’s pretty much Peter and the Spirit versus the other leaders and tradition, his word against theirs. And he is clearly stepping out of bounds. He ate with people who don’t eat kosher, he’s consorting with Gentiles, he’s calling clean what was formerly impure. Peter is breaking the rules.
This made the other leaders anxious big time, and who can blame them? They were already breaking with convention by following this Jesus guy, and now Peter wanted to effectively toss their dietary laws and other restrictions out the window. Jesus would be more palatable if they didn’t stir the waters too much. Now they were really going to seem off the wall, with Peter of all people going rogue. He was supposed to be the leader! It would probably be okay if someone on the fringe of the movement—a teenager, perhaps, or a little old lady—thought outside the box, but not freaking-hold-the-keys-to-heaven-Peter. It simply would not do to have their leader gallivanting among Gentile homes. And so, they began to criticize Peter in an attempt to corral him back into obedience.
Peter could have gotten offended. Don’t they trust me? How dare they sabotage my ministry! This is so a power play. He couldn’t have gotten superior. Stupid apostles, can’t believe they call themselves apostles. Can’t they see what I see? That God has opened up the Gospel for everyone? Peter could have gotten confused and timid: Wait a second, maybe I have this all wrong. Maybe I misunderstood.
But instead, Peter just got friendly and honest and unashamedly open. He told his story, without hesitation or embarrassment or apology, without coercion or anger or frustration. He simply told a tale without demanding anything in return, and what would you know, it worked! They were silenced by his words, the text says. Peter had an impact just by telling a story.
One of the reasons his story was so effective is that he was anxious, just like them, at least to begin with, when God first showed up in a vision and told him to eat four-footed animals. “Surely not!” he replied to God with indignation, much in the same fashion these circumcised believers responded to the news that Peter had eaten with a Gentile (“Surely not!”). There was a kinship between their two reactions, but something happened to slowly change Peter’s perspective, despite his dogged persistence to stand firm.
But before he shared the part where he changed, he shared the part of the story where he resisted. It was if to say, “It’s okay to be on a journey about this. You may feel resistant at first—so did I! You may feel alarmed at first—so did I! You may even feel guilty at first—so did I! And then the guilt faded away into marvel, the alarm became gratitude as I witnessed the Spirit be so generous as to fall upon any and all.”
It wasn’t just a story about the conversion of Cornelius. It was a conversion for Peter too, and by humbly retelling this surprising sequence of events, Peter let his friends know, “It’s okay to change.” He made it clear for all of us that from the beginning of the Christian story that the Gospel doesn’t just get to you once; the Gospel transforms you over and over and over. If you find yourself dispensing it with the arrogance of someone handing out old news, chances are you’re no longer speaking of the Gospel at all. But Peter didn’t accomplish this message by cramming anything down anyone’s throat; he merely lived his story, then told about it, then trusted the story to do it’s own work, in its own time. Think of Jesus too, who lived a certain way and told parables and let himself be mocked rather than mock. There simply is not room in the Christian way for the haughty slander of our opponents; only space to tell stories, to listen to our enemies, to reenact the love of God.
Of course, I know myself to be preaching to the choir on this topic. Covenant is the kind of church that is determined not to be mean or ugly, and that is one of things I love the very most about this place. Here is a people you can trust. No one is going to bite your head off if you’re too liberal or too conservative. No one is going to call you a heretic just because you’re on an authentic journey of doubt and discovery. No one is going to shun you for your politics, your positions, or your denominational heritage.
But I guess what I wonder about is whether we would have the courage to tell a story like Peter’s, even if our friends wouldn’t agree with us. The occasional problem with being such nice people is that sometimes nice becomes a substitute for real encounter and honest dialogue. But church isn’t the place we come to cover up our opinions. Church is where we expose our opinions to the Spirit of God and to the spirit of our fellow believers, the place where our hearts get converted again and again.
For example, if we leave this text today in the realm of Gentile/Jew relations, it hardly has much relevance for us non-Jewish, non-kosher eating, non-first-century folk. But when I read Peter’s line, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us,” I can’t help but think, here’s a concept we are meant to broaden. But if we stopped and asked ourselves the question, “What is the biggest point of tension in our world today—the biggest dividing wall between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” I’m wondering to what extent we’d have the courage to speak our thoughts out loud? You may think there’s an anti-Gospel wall of hostility between this group and that group, but I may be stuck resolutely on my side of the wall, appalled that you could ever imply I need to move positions. It is risky, risky business to allow the biblical story to expand itself all the way into our narrow lives, and it turns out that if there’s anyone we are going to offend by speaking our truth, it’s probably the person down the pew, not the supposed heathen down the street. But though there’s potential for offense, the same rules still apply. Conversion, even the ongoing conversion of Christians, only happens in relationship, in conversations of mutual respect, by swapping stories, by using words with love and compassion, even when they are very hard words to say.
How might we risk increasing vulnerability with one another? How might we risk the expansion of the Gospel, so that we never find ourselves stuck in one place? How might we ask ourselves the hard questions, face up to the difficult points of tension in the world, become voices of bravery and beauty amidst the clamor of cheap contempt? I don’t exactly know how it is we grow braver and kinder instead of “scareder” and harsher, but I think it starts with telling our stories and listening to others, even if we or they sound too radical.
If, at any point along this risk-laden journey of ongoing conversion, we feel ourselves begin to reel off course, then we stop everything. I mean, halt literally everything, and go back to our Center, that is, the pulsing heartbeat of this place and it’s fundamental orientation towards kindness and the hostility-breaching love of Christ. We lean in, lean in far and long to this thing called Grace and we listen deep, and once we’ve heard the strains, we open our mouths and echo them back into the world, without pretension, letting the Wind carry our words where it will. Amen.
This is my sermon on Acts 11:1-18 from April 28, 2013 at Covenant Baptist Church.