From the Acts of the Apostles:
[Peter said to the circumcised:] “I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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?” When they heard this, they were silenced.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 11:16-18 – September 1, 2012)
A couple of days ago I talked about Cornelius’s conversion from pagan to Christian through some time spent as a pious not-quite-proselyte Gentile. In today’s reading Peter defends his decision to baptize the Gentiles (Cornelius and his entire household) with this great question, “Who was I that I could hinder God?” It certainly shut down his critics!
How often do we stand in God’s way? Well, how often have you heard these words: “We’ve never done it this way before”? Or it’s more affirmatively stated equivalent, “We’ve always done it this way before”? Both usually said in that dismissive, fatally negative tone of voice.
“How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?”
It happens again and again in our churches. Nearly everyone will acknowledge that we need new carpet for the Nave or the Parish Hall, but then someone will ask, “What’s wrong with our old carpet? I like the old carpet.” I once served a church where there was universal agreement on the need to replace the carpet in the worship space, and everyone agreed that it should be red (the color of the previous carpet), but the Vestry debated for six months about the shade of red! (Finally, a member of the board just went out and ordered the carpet and put all out of our misery!)
I read recently about a church where a recently deceased parishioner had left a bequest of $15,000 for a new prayer garden. The memorial committee met for months, but eventually disbanded because they couldn’t decide where to put it or what it would look like. “We’ve never done it this way before!”
Wouldn’t be great if that were a cry of delight and adventure instead of the fatally negative dismissal of change it usually is?
A few years ago my wife and I made our first trip overseas together to Ireland, a country neither of us had ever visited. Everything we did on that trip was something we had never done before. We had never before driven on the narrow back-country lanes of Ireland, the single-track roads where one might meet a flock of sheep or a herd of cows and have to back up a hundred yards or more to wide spot and let them pass before you could go on. We had never before climbed the cliffs of County Antrim and seen the Giants’ Causeway. We had never before eaten “the full Irish breakfast” with black pudding, baked beans, sauteed mushrooms, and grilled tomatoes added to our usual fare of bacon and eggs. For eighteen days we lived an almost hourly experience of never having done nearly everything this way before, and we loved it.
Wouldn’t it be great if folks in the church, instead of fearing change and difference, would greet new things with “We’ve never done it this way before!” as a cry of delight and adventure?
We always need to remember Jesus’ words, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” (John 15:16) We have been invited by God to a surprising adventure. Just like Peter we need to ask (some of us constantly), “Who am I to hinder God?” Ours is not to hinder God, but to follow God; not to stand in God’s way, but to journey in God’s way; not to say dismissively, “We’ve never done it this way before,” but to cry with delight and excitement, “We’ve never done it this way before!”
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.