Let us pray:
We believe, Lord, that you are here, present. Although our eyes do not see you, our faith senses you. Take any stray thoughts from our minds. Enable us to understand the truths you desire to teach us today. Empower us to put them into practice. Your servants are listening; speak, Lord, to our souls… Amen.
For the past two months, I have been experimenting with intergenerational formation activities within the context of our worship together. One of the reasons I have been doing this is related to my dissertation work. I am happy to report my final academic essay for this past term earned a 98 out of 100, which was also my grade for that class. On occasion I have offered meditations based upon some of my doctoral work. Today, I would like to briefly comment on the whys before moving into addressing today’s scripture.
Why have I been doing these experiments? They are experimental practical applications of the research I have been doing concerning how and why one generation offers and passes on faith successfully to another or doesn’t. Why have I chosen to pursue this? The underlying premise of my research to date has one focus: why aren’t younger generations happily committed attendees in weekly Sunday morning church worship services in the main line Protestant traditions?
One of three main emerging reasons shows that in younger generations’ world view today, the precept of narrative, or story, is key in formation-building. The other two driving forces in young peoples lives are image and music – both of which have now been readily available with instantaneous inundation via smart phones and the digital age.
Frankly, the Church is finding it hard to compete. I am deeply grateful that here, at least, we are about building real-time, face-to-face relationships with one another, the community of Creation, and God. Now, the challenge before all of us is to do that intergenerationally.
I will preface the rest of this sermon with this: it is geared specifically for challenging formation of adults – but it also has at its core a foundational precept of story. Why? Because stories have the power to change lives; and spiritual formation, at its best, is exactly that.
Let me begin with a question: If you had to position yourself on a continuum stretching from being a follower on one (gesture right) side to being a disciple somewhere in the middle to being an apostle on the other end (gesture left), where would you stand? Would you consider yourself a follower? A disciple? An apostle? If one leads to another, what triggers movement along the continuum? Baptism by water? Sunday School as a child? Bible study in youth, young adulthood, and adulthood? Baptism by the Holy Spirit? The death of a parent or someone we love? Certainly, to be a “Follower of the Way” originally meant a person of Jewish faith following the teachings of the rather unorthodox Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. But what about being a disciple of that rather unorthodox Jew? An apostle?
Here is today’s story in a nutshell: Jesus called and Peter the fisherman followed. Peter tried to be a fisher of people. Peter tried to be a fisher of people. Peter tried to remain faithful. Peter struggled to comprehend at times, and even refused to acknowledge his teacher and Lord, denying him three times under pressure at the end. But then he went fishing one night with some friends and swam to shore overwhelmed with a real and present image of the risen Jesus, not to mention 153 fish.
Now stay with me here as I bring in a rather esoteric field of Biblical interpretation: Numerology. Here is a numerologist’s interpretation of the catch of 153 fish: The number 153 is a Pathagorean numeral, meaning the sum of the three numbers is a number with three as its base foundational unit; that is, 1 + 5 is 6, 6+3 is 9 and the square root of 9 is 3. Three is the “perfect” number of the Cosmos, of Creation, and of humanity. Humanity is made in the image of God, the Trinity. It gets stranger: In music, all whole tones, or musical expressions of this reality, have various healing properties. Peter became a leader of those known as “the twelve” (another Pathagorean numeral). Peter saw many miraculous things occur in the… three… short years he spent with Jesus. Like us, he had many ups and downs in following, in discipleship, and in his ministry. That is his story.
The good news for Peter – and for me and for you – is that moments of falling down are met with a much bigger gift – even the gift of a Holy Spirit that blows where God wills it, not necessarily where we wish – and definitely not under our control.
Consider another of today’s stories: Cornelius and his household, complete outsiders to the Jewish faith; men, women and children, listen to Peter speak of a part of his story, interpreting it as revelation of Jesus, and all of them received the Holy Spirit and were saved. Men, women, children; who knows, perhaps that household even had slaves who quivered and quaked with the intensity of religious ecstasy as the Holy Spirit descended upon all of them in its power. The scriptures say the Holy Spirit poured out upon them and they spoke in tongues, just as the disciples had.
I would suggest the vision that led Peter (a vision in three by the way) and subsequent short mission to Cornelius’ Gentile household is a pivotal moment of internal change for Peter; internal change meaning deep spiritual transformation that helped set the course for his future ministry. Now return to our continuum for a moment: I wonder, at what point in Peter’s story does he go from follower to disciple and then to Apostle? Was this one of those moments?
Remembering more of his story, we recall when he walked on water, answering the call of his Lord, then grew frightened and sank beneath the waves until Christ’s very hands reached out, took his and placed him back in the boat. Or, do you recall when Jesus was sleeping in the boat in the midst of a terrible storm over the Sea of Galilee and the disciples called out and woke Jesus in their fear – Jesus stood up and rebuked the wind and sea which then became still and calm. In Holy Terror, they exclaim, “Who is this that the even the winds and waves obey him?” Peter was there.
Or, recall when Peter, James and John (three) witnessed a dead girl rise in Capernaum at the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler? Or, again when James and John and Peter witnessed the long dead Moses and the undead ascended Elijah appear like living men and speak with Jesus, all three figures dressed in dazzling white on the Mount of Transfiguration?
Or, remember when Peter and John run to the tomb on the third day and peer inside to see the grave clothes rolled up, lying where Jesus had lain. Peter didn’t just look in, though, did he? He had to go bodily into that tomb of death and experience the place where Jesus once lay lifeless.
Perhaps that is where all of us need to begin. Perhaps all of us need to go right on in and experience places of death in our lives before we become disciples. Up until that point perhaps we are just followers, milling around and doing what the crowd does. But at some point, we cannot remain a follower. At some point, our story intersects with the story of Peter, of James, of John…and of Jesus himself.
What does that mean for us who are called to be the body of Christ in the world today? Are we, like Peter, called to be spokespersons of the Kingdom of God where all things are possible – even to those we would normally consider outsiders or “others” not like ourselves?
I can only imagine what great courage it took for Peter to step out of the narrow, rigid rules of his upbringing and take on new faith experiences. Maybe it began with getting out of the boat and walking to Jesus on the sea. Maybe it was nudged with the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Maybe it was when Peter saw Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and being overwhelmed with the very voice of God saying, “This is my son, listen to him!”
I can only imagine what it was like when Peter and the others were night fishing, finding nothing until the Master Fisher appeared in the early dawn walking on the beach and called out across the water saying, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat,” then later on the beach asking Peter “Do you love me?” three times, instructing Peter to, “Feed my sheep…tend my lambs…feed my sheep….”
In today’s scripture passage, Peter has to make an account of all that happened at the nonkosher house of Cornelius, a nonkosher Roman, nonkosher Gentile. Here, before critiques in his own tribe, Peter tells his story, and his story changes their lives.
Perhaps there, in the family, so-to-speak, is where Peter finally becomes an Apostle. When he tells the story he believes to his own disbelieving tribe, implicitly challenging them to decide what they believe for themselves.
In that, my friends, is a challenge to all of us in this day and age when intergenerational formation is becoming critical. So what is your story? What do you believe? How do you live that out and tell your story in your family and among your children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren? And perhaps most importantly of all: How do they receive your life’s story into their own? The answer may be more critical than you know.
May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.
Questions for Reflection from “Feasting on the Word”
In Acts 11:1–18, Peter, led by the Spirit, discloses God’s new directions to heal creation, and the church re-configures its social boundaries. The Gentiles, who were excluded from the church in Jerusalem because their eating habits were judged to be vile and unclean, are now included by the reconciling work of the Spirit. Where is God’s Spirit opening us to new directions in mission this day?
Household Prayer: Morning
Delivering God, each day we awaken to your goodness and our hearts cry out in praise as you set us to tasks for the life of the world. Do not let us hinder your love, but strengthen our will, as we offer thanks in every simple gesture of this day. Amen.
Household Prayer: Evening
Faithful God, the nightly dance of earth, moon, and stars speaks of your gift: love given, love received. We give thanks this night for the love you have shown to us this day. Let us rest in your peace and awaken in joy. Amen.
 Stephen D. Jones, “Homiletical Perspective, Acts 11:1-18” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0