When I was in Denver a week ago, I heard a sermon from Anna Carter Florence, the Peter Marshall professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary. For those of you who remember Peter Marshall, those are big shoes to fill! Marshall was a Scots-American preacher and pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. He was also appointed as Chaplain of the United States Senate. His widow, Catherine Marshall wrote a hugely popular biography of him, A Man Called Peter, in 1951. In any case, Peter Marshall leaves a legacy of powerful preaching, and now Anna Carter Florence has taken the chair endowed in his name.
Her sermon did not disappoint! I won’t rehearse it for you, but I will tell you that she gave us preachers some exegetical advice. She said that the nouns of scripture get far too much attention! The nouns convey content. We can argue about them and build walls with them. But the verbs – these are the things to give our attention. The verbs tell us what action happened. They are the doing, the being, the living of the text. She applied this technique to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and that story came alive in a whole new way.
So I went through this passage in Acts and highlighted the verbs in yellow. What actions do they suggest which would take this story from ancient history to our everyday lives? There they were, staring at me in glaring yellow. Heard. Criticized. Eat. Explain. Praying. Heard. Saw. Answered. Remembered. Hinder. Were silenced. Praise. This isn’t a complete list, but these are some of the key verbs in the story. What do they tell us?
I recognized what was going on immediately when I listened to the verbs. The Jerusalem believers heard about what Peter had done. The rumor of his actions preceded him and they all rushed to judgment. By the time he got home, the whole community was in an uproar about the rumors they had heard and they criticized him immediately. That might even be a mild verb to express their disgust with Peter’s actions.
Has this ever happened to you, your family, your children, in your congregation? It is an all-too-human phenomenon. We hear the rumor, we make judgments, even before we hear the story, and consider the love we (and God) have for the one maligned. We become “holier than thou.” We know better what should have been done, even though we don’t know the whole story. We hear, we judge, all this before we listen. So we hear the disciples of Jerusalem saying the age-old famous last words of the church: We have never done it this way before. Yes, we are in this story!
The next set of verbs are Peter’s. He began to explain himself. Have you ever been in that situation where you have to explain your actions to a hostile audience? It is an uncomfortable place to be! We become defensive and try to justify ourselves to them. When we get into this defensive mode, we quit listening. We don’t hear the criticisms and what might be legitimate things for us to hear, things about our own behaviors which may need to be examined. Yes, Peter too began in the defensive posture of defending himself. At this point we have an explosive situation. The community is criticizing and Peter is explaining. Neither is listening.
Fortunately, this is not the “foot in mouth” Peter we often meet in the gospels. In this case, he took his time, explained what he did step by step. Rather than self-justifying, he lays out exactly what happened and in a sense, invites them walk in his shoes. He tells the story in a manner “wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove” (Matthew 10:16).
How does he win them over? Look at the verbs! Praying. Saw. Heard. Peter sets the stage. I was praying. Now, who could criticize that ?! He goes right to the source of all this rumor mill: God. I was talking to God and God talked to me. Actually, first God showed Peter a picture. There in front of him was a pen full of all the creatures the Torah calls unclean. These creatures are forbidden to all faithful Jews – by God, through Moses’ Law.
…I am a visual learner. Maybe Peter was too. Maybe a picture could get through where words might not. Anyway, God gave him a picture, a vision. The picture came with a voice. Now Peter has another verb – he hears the voice. Sometimes in Greek and Hebrew, hearing and obeying are the same word. But not here. This time hearing has the common meaning – his ears received a sound. “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” What did Peter think of this? Was he horrified? Repulsed? Did he think about doing it?
Peter’s reply sounds so calm. Like he didn’t even think about it! Of course not, Lord! I have never and would never do that! I get the feeling that he thinks this is a test of his faithfulness to the Torah, and he is not about to fail this test. It was simply his standard response. He used it whenever he was traveling. Nope! I am Jewish. None of that for me. But I am fine. I can eat vegetables and bread. Don’t worry about me. (Humble Peter).
A voice answered Peter’s protest. His refusal was not the last word. In between the lines, we could infer that Peter was confused, frustrated, angry, and who knows how many other verbs. How was Peter answered? “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
So what are God’s verbs here? Has made – past tense. It has already been done. What God has made clean…. The word “to make clean” is a ceremonial word. Essentially it means that God has hallowed this thing for God’s own purposes, God has made it holy, for holy use. Profane, on the other hand is also a ceremonial word. It refers to things that are common to everyone and not for holy, particular uses. So the contrast is: what is appropriate to use in God’s presence and what is only for human uses.
Before we get bogged down in nouns again (or adjectives in this case), I wonder when God made these things clean? Suddenly this past tense takes me all the way back to Genesis 1, when God saw all that God’s own word has made and said it is good, very good. What has God made clean…, good? All of creation, from the beginning. All animals and people and trees and plants and stars and moons. Who are we to call these things profane, inappropriate for use in God’s presence?
Next verb: Happened. This happened three times. For emphasis, for perfection, for completeness. Do you begin to wonder how this defense is going with the listeners? Growing discomfort? Some might be getting angrier. Some are just confused.
Now the vision is over. The picture disappears. New verbs: Arrived. Told. Go. Make no distinction. Accompanied. Entered. Immediately after this picture was withdrawn, the request came. Visitors arrived. The Spirit told Peter to go with them. Do not make any distinction between holy and profane. So he took six believers with him. Went to the centurion’s house and entered. So far, so good. He entered the house, accepted the Gentile hospitality. He made no distinction.
Here Peter is letting his action be guided by the picture God gave him. He didn’t just receive a new law to be written down, taught and understood. He was given something to do. Makes me think that following Jesus is always more about the verbs – what we do, than the nouns – what we think.
After brief introductions, Peter began to speak. This was not a Peter Marshall or Anna Carter Florence sermon. He has just barely begun his opening illustration when the Holy Spirit fell upon them – the Gentiles! Like electricity and fire, the Holy Spirit took over. Just like Spirit took over the lives of the disciples on Pentecost. Peter recognized it right away.
Lesson to Preachers: It is not about us! Our words don’t matter very much. There is more power in the gathering of God’s people than any word we can bring! God will do what God will do, especially when we are all praying like Peter and the house of Cornelius were doing!
It was then that Peter remembered – his next verb. Peter remembered that Jesus had said this would happen, that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. And when he remembered, he was humbled and admitted, who am I to hinder God? Hinder. What a powerful verb. Sort of absurd in this use – hinder God?
The Jerusalem disciples have their verbs now. They were silenced – a passive verb. They did not silence themselves, but they were acted upon – by Holy Spirit – one presumes, or by the power of Peter’s story. They were struck dumb. I imagine that they were overwhelmed with the significance of what this meant. Everything was new. Everything they always thought was just turned upside down. Who could speak? They were silenced.
I am reminded of Job. “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” (Job 42:3-5)
The whole of creation is holy, made holy by God’s life-giving breath: it is very good. Who are we to set up boundaries for love and life? Who are we to restrict God? The church faces a time when the way we have always done it is not working. The powerful sermons and wonderful children’s programs and excellent Bible studies are not gathering disciples. But we have always done it this way. We love this way. We may find ourselves rushing to judgment about those “outsiders” who don’t come to church. But maybe the Spirit is doing a new thing. Who are we to hinder God?
The Holy Spirit is not to be contained. She will burst out anywhere and everywhere. It is our job to recognize and take off our shoes. Who are we to second-guess God? The Creator of the Universe is still creating at a rate mathematics can barely calculate! If this Creator is so abundant, who are we to criticize? The Creator of the Universe, the Creator of Life, the Creator of the Body of Christ cannot be contained. Get ready. Hold on tight! We are in for a wild ride. And it will not be what we expected!
We are in this story! We know all these verbs. Will we too be silenced and …, and what?
The last verb: Praise. I wonder if that isn’t always the last verb, the last action: Praise. There is no where else to end up than in giving thanks to God and marveling at what God is doing. In the end, it is not us, but God who is doing. May we be grateful and praise the One who is beyond anything we could ask or imagine.