Going First

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“Going First”
Rev. Stephen Milton
May 15th, 2022
Acts 11:1-18.  

Today is a classic post-Easter reading from the Book of Acts. Jesus has been resurrected, stayed with the disciples for 40 days, and has gone back to heaven. He has instructed them to go far and wide to spread the Good News. He leaves the movement in Peter’s care. At this point in time, it is a Jewish movement. Peter, John, and the rest of the disciples believe that Jesus is the culmination of Judaism, the Messiah which the Hebrew Scriptures have been expecting. They spend their days talking to other Jews in the Middle East, trying to convince them that the Jewish hope has been fulfilled in Jesus. But they are not getting much of a response. Some Jews are convinced, but not many. It looks like the Jesus movement may stall and become a footnote in history.  

But then Peter has a vision as he is praying on the roof of a house (Acts 10:9). He sees a sheet come down from heaven, filled with every conceivable animal that a good Jew would never eat. There are reptiles, birds, and wild beasts. To an observant Jew like Peter, this sheet might as well be filled with worms and slugs – it is all disgusting. Yet the heavenly voice instructs him to eat, not once, but three times. When something happens in the Bible three times, it is a way of driving a point home. It’s like saying, I’m not kidding, this is important. I want you to eat the kind of food that non-Jews eat. In his vision, Peter says no way, I could never do that. The vision ends, and the sheet with the disgusting food disappears.  

Peter is then given an even greater challenge. He is told to go to a Gentile’s house in a town up the coast from where Peter is staying. It is called Caesarea Maritima, the capital city of the Roman government in Judea. This is Gentile territory, filled with non-Jewish soldiers and government officials. We know this based on ancient writings, and because of the ruins that are still there. I visited it the summer before the pandemic.     

The city had all sorts of buildings Jews should avoid. A racetrack for horses – the seats are on the far right of this picture. There were pagan temples.        

This was a theatre for pagan plays.          

During Christ’s day, this was where the governor Pontius Pilate lived. Here is an inscription that was found in the ruins with part of his name on the second line.  

To a Jew like Peter, this town was abomination. The Romans ate pigs and other forbidden foods. They worshipped pagan gods in temples, and no good Jew would ever enter the house of a pagan, much less a soldier, the occupying force. Yet that is exactly what the Holy Spirit has sent Peter to do here.  

We tend to think of the conversion of the Gentiles as an unambiguous success story. Once the apostles like Peter and Paul took the faith to the Romans and Greeks, the faith exploded in popularity.  

Yet, for Peter, none of that has happened. This radical change does not start with changing the minds of the Gentiles. It starts with something much more personal, more challenging: the instruction to eat forbidden, disgusting foods. The Spirit is saying before you can change the Gentiles, I need you to be willing to change yourself. This spiritual change will not be simply a question of teaching other people to take on a different perspective. No, this revolution starts with Peter, personally, physically being willing to change. The Gentiles will not be met in a park, or on a road, or in some neutral zone, but in their unclean, forbidden home. Which means for this change to begin, Peter has to be ready to change, too.  

What does it take to change the world? That is a question we have all been asked to consider over the last few years. The pandemic presented us with a worldwide crisis which demanded significant change in how we led our lives. Masks, vaccines, staying at home.  

In our culture, we prefer to make up our own minds about personal lifestyle issues. We tell ourselves that we are rational, and that given enough evidence, we are willing to make informed choices. In practice, that doesn’t seem to be how things work. Our decisions are made not only based on intellect, but also based on emotion. What feels right. We, like Peter, have grown up with a certain way of being. It becomes engrained in us, it becomes who we are, how we act and move. Those longstanding habits can be very hard to change. We chafed at wearing masks at first. We are so used to seeing people speak that many people continue to pull their masks down to speak to another person. This is not safe, nor is it evil. It is just force of habit, and habits are hard to break.  

But sometimes, the world needs us to change our habits. Peter was lucky – he had a direct order from the Holy Spirit. In our day and age, the Holy Spirit doesn’t make that kind of house call for most of us. We are not told by God what we should do next. Instead, we try to make decisions based on evidence and our values. In our time, our modern prophets, the scientists, have told us that this entire world is in deep, deep trouble. Greenhouse gases created by human civilization and our farms have dramatically altered the composition of the atmosphere. Methane and carbon dioxide levels are much too high and will cause catastrophic climate change in the decades to come. The ice caps at the poles will melt, cities will flood, crops will fail, sparking mass famines the likes of which we have never seen, and which will affect everyone, not just people in far off countries. [1]The situation is so dire that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that unless we radically change our lifestyles by 2030, just eight years from now, this terrible future will become our reality.[2]  

And faced by all of that – life seems pretty much the same. We are not freaking out. No one bangs pots at the end of each day to protest climate change. The streets have not emptied of carbon-burning cars, and few of us are demanding that our buildings and homes switch from natural gas to electric heating. The pandemic caused a crisis, but the climate scenario has not. In churches, we sing lovely hymns about the beauty of nature, but we don’t demand that anyone change their lifestyle. Even among Evangelicals and Catholics, where orders are regularly given from the pulpit, the emphasis has been on abortion and homosexuality, not the climate.  

Let’s face it, we do not want to change our lives much for this. We’ll pay a higher carbon tax if we must, and if the price of electric cars come down some more, we might buy one, and some people already have. But we are not on a crisis footing. Peter didn’t want to change, either. He was told to eat Gentile food three times, and he declined each time. He did go to the Gentile’s house, though, and in time, good Jews like him did change the way they ate. The Apostle Paul reminds Christians that what is unclean is what we think, not what we eat. We should be willing to eat anything if it can help others draw closer to God. (1 Corinthians 8:8)  

We in the modern world face a conundrum. We value personal freedom above all else. We want to change on our own terms. The need for a radical lifestyle change is clear as it can be. The best and brightest among us have used science to predict both the present and the future. But we still don’t want to change. We would prefer to wait until the government and the economy force us to do it. If gasoline leaps from two dollars a liter to five, that will probably force many of us to stop driving, but not now. If the price of natural gas becomes prohibitive, then we may consider switching our gas furnaces to electric systems like heat exchanges. But not now. If the government rations gas like the US did in 1973 during the oil shock,[3] then maybe we’ll switch the way we get around, and travel by carbon-burning cars less. But not now.  

Our current situation poses an interesting question about the scope of ethical action in our times. If most of us will not act ethically unless forced to by the government or the economy, what does that say about our definition of ethics? Traditionally, ethics has been defined as the individual’s willingness to change their behaviour to achieve a moral good. Most of our ethical heroes are people who changed their behaviour for the greater good, often at significant personal cost. The change they adopted was often not popular at the time. In 1967, the world heavy weight boxing champion was Muhammad Ali. On April 28th, he went to the Houston army induction office and refused to be drafted as a soldier to fight in Vietnam. He was stripped of his heavy weight boxing titles and threatened with five years in jail. His reply was:        

Ali quote: My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me [the N-word] they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. ... Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.[4]  

In 1971, the Supreme Court decided in his favour, as a conscientious objector, and he returned to the ring. Today his denunciation of the Vietnam War sounds prescient and ethical, but at the time, he was considered a traitor to his nation.  
Ethical action is not about doing what is popular, nor is it inspired by coercion from the government or the market. Doing something because you have no choice is not ethical, because ethics require choice. We have ethics because we can choose what we do. Those choices are meant to be inspired by principles we want to live by, not by legislation or prices at the gas station. Peter had a choice. And he knew it. He had chosen not to follow God before. He had defied and even denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest. He had the capacity and a history of saying no. I suspect that’s why this vision of the forbidden animals came to Peter, because he was so clearly a man who makes up his own mind. He was not a yes man. To follow the Holy Spirit into that Gentile’s house was like walking off a cliff for him. Everything in his soul was telling him it was forbidden, but he trusted in the Spirit to try this new thing. And when he came back to tell his fellow Jews, he said “who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17) Peter decided to go with God, willingly, and told his fellow disciples that something wonderful was happening.  

Today, we have the capacity to make something wonderful happen. We, as individuals, can choose to change our lifestyle to help save the world that God created. It may feel lonely at first, but all truly brave ethical actions always do. You may be the first among your friends to do something new in the name of saving the planet. Something more than what the government or the economy requires. More than recycling. If angels were to send down a sheet in front of you this afternoon, what would be on that sheet? What would the angel of the environment ask you to pick up, to start doing? Perhaps an electric car, a Presto Pass, more insulation for the house or condo, and maybe, food.  

Perhaps a climate angel would send a sheet full of wonderful food, but in one way, this modern sheet would be different from Peter’s. A modern climate angel might send down a sheet with no animals on it at all. No chickens or eggs, beef or poultry, no fish, either. Experts have been telling us for a while that if we changed the way we eat, we could make a significant difference to overall greenhouse emissions, and we could likely save the oceans.[5] Your initial reaction when seeing a sheet with vegetables and tofu might be “I can’t change, I like my steak too much.” No doubt. But ethical action doesn’t start with the comfortable or the familiar. It starts with the strange.  

God doesn’t expect us to change the world by changing nothing or doing as little as possible. Like Peter, God expects real change to start with individuals who are brave enough to overcome deeply engrained habits. Not for themselves, but for the greater good. Christianity as a world-wide faith began when it widened its scope beyond Jews to reach the Gentiles. That required a revolution in thinking and in living for Christ’s loyal Jewish followers.

That change started with the personal. Because if we aren’t willing to change personally, why should anyone listen to us when we ask them to change? Integrity starts with us, with the individual. The planet is begging us to change. We have been given a vision of how to change by Peter’s experience. He didn’t like what was on that sheet, either. But he got over it, and he went to meet and dine with the Gentiles. He came to be seen as a hero, but only because he was willing to change, and say yes, even when a big part of him was saying no. Let his example give us the courage to rise to the occasion, to make an ethical choice for God’s creation. 

For who are we to stand in God’s way?  



[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/feb/28/what-at-stake-climate-crisis-report-everything [2] https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/cut-global-emissions-76-percent-every-year-next-decade-meet-15degc [3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_oil_crisis#Price_controls_and_rationing [4] Ken Makin, ‘My conscience won’t let me’: What Muhammad Ali teaches us today” The Christian Science Monitor, April 29, 2022 [5] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/21/giving-up-beef-reduce-carbon-footprint-more-than-cars; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth