The Southern writer Flannery O’Conner once said, “God can do whatever he needs to do with what little we give him…but he shouldn’t need to.”
(Note: I heard this from a Duke graduate student in a Sunday school class at Blacknall Presbyterian Church in Durham, North Carolina. I have not been able to track this quote down, so if anyone has the source, I would them to share it!)
In other words, God is able accomplish his will through even the fragile and fallible work of humans, but you would think the almighty could better than just depending on us frail human beings!
It is a scary thought when you think about it. Our Creator wills that the work of God be done through us. Every week we pray, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done,” but what we may not realize even as we pray it is that if “thy will” is to be done, it is to be done through us! Well, through us and God. I will get to that later.
Look at the lesson from Acts we read today. Peter has just come back from converting a bunch of Gentiles into Christians. Now up until Peter did that, all the followers of Jesus were Jewish, and some of the Jewish followers of Jesus, who did not anticipate that Jesus could change things all that much, were more than a little concerned about what Peter had just done.
So Peter gives them the rundown.
He was sitting on his roof praying, when he has a vision. In his vision, a sheet, like a table cloth comes down, and you would not believe what was on it. Shrimp. Lobster. Good ole, North Carolina Barbecue. Clams. Caviar. Pepperoni pizza!
And a voice says to Peter, “Eat up!”
But Peter, who is a good Jew as well as a follower of Jesus, knows that he is not allowed to eat anything on that tablecloth. This might be a fine picnic for pagans, but he will have nothing to do with it. At first he must think this is a test of some kind, and he may be a little proud of himself, because he passed with flying colors, even if it was a little hard to turn down the BBQ!
And Peter goes back to his prayers, but he has the same vision. This time, however, after the voice says, “Eat up,” and Peter refuses, the voice then says, “Peter, if I have made it ok, it is Ok indeed!” So Peter files that away in his noggin, and goes back to his prayers, until he is interrupted again, but this time it is not by a vision. It is by a knock on the door. There a servant out there who says he represents a man named Cornelius, a God-fearing man, who believes in the God of the Jews, but who is himself a Gentile. Cornelius was praying and in HIS prayers, he was told to fetch Peter.
So Peter shows up at Cornelius’s house, and starts to tell Cornelius about Jesus. While he is talking about Jesus, God’s Holy Spirit comes down, and Peter can see that the Spirit has rested on Cornelius, just like it rested on the heads of all those Jewish people at Pentecost. And Peter remembers his vision. “If I say it is holy, don’t you go around saying it is unclean!” So Peter prayer for Cornelius and his family, and welcomes them into the faith.
The very first Gentile followers of Jesus.
Well, word spread about what Peter had done, and it got back to some of the other bigwigs in Jerusalem, who called Peter in and wanted to know that the sam hill he thought he was doing, bringing Gentile into the faith. After all, we all know that the God of Jesus Christ was a Jewish God, and that Jesus was a Jewish Messiah, so why bring these pesky Gentiles in? I mean, it is ok to have Gentiles as friends, I guess, but would you want your daughter to marry one? And what if they decided to come to worship? Where would they sit? Would you want one sitting next to YOUR wife? And think of pot lucks, Peter! They are going to bring BBQ, and we are going to have smell it, but we won’t be able to eat it! What were you thinking?
So Peter tells them about the vision, and more importantly about how the Holy Spirit came down on these people, just like at Pentecost. And then Peter says a very interesting thing: Who am I to hinder the work of God? This was clearly a God thing, not a Peter thing. It’s not like I woke up this morning and said, “Hey, I know what I’ll do today! I’ll go convert a bunch of pagans and get them to join our church!”
No, he was told by God, and he realized that if he refused, he was hindering the work of God.
That leaves us with an uncomfortable question. Can we be hindering the work of God?
The fact is we are able to participate in the work of God. We are an essential part of the work of God. God chose Peter to bring the Gospel to those Gentile and to change the face of what it meant to worship Jesus. Had Peter not done that, Christianity would be little more than a small Jewish sect, and most likely would have died out after Jerusalem fell to the Romans. But in fact God sent Peter to preach to Cornelius, and that changed everything.
What would have happened if Peter refused? I have no idea, and it is a theoretical question. Because Peter did listen to God and he did go to the house of Cornelius and he did accept Cornelius and his family into the faith.
But there is another question that is worth asking—what does it mean to participate in the work of God? The key word here is “participate.” On the one hand, all Peter did was to listen to God, go to Cornelius’s house, and preach to him. And then after the Holy Spirit came down on Cornelius, he accepted that God was at work here.
Peter was not told he had to turn Cornelius into a Christian. Peter was not told he make sure the Holy Spirit came down on Cornelius. God did not tell Peter, “I want some Gentiles to worship me. Go find me some, and make them worship me!”
That is not the way God works with us. That is not how we participate in the work of God. We work with God, alongside God, we participate in the work together. We have a part to play and God has a part to play.
Sometimes I think when we think about doing the work of God, we feel it is more like, say when I am going on a trip on a trip, and I tell Steven, “Make sure the yard is the house is clean and the yard is mown when I get back.” When that happens, I leave it all to him. I’m not there to work with him. I’m in Honolulu drinking Mai Tai’s and he is at home busy working.
Sometimes I get the impression we think that is what the work of God is like. Jesus has ascended up into heaven, and he expects us to keep the world in good spiritual shape until he gets back. I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Jesus is coming back soon…and boy is he angry!”
So in the Gospel Lesson we heard this morning, in John, Jesus tells us to love one another. Sometimes I am afraid we hear that and think, “The world has to be a loving place, and Jesus expects me to help make it happen. So, everybody, I am going to make you all love one another! It’s God’s will! Now Do it!”
No. That is not how we participate in the work of God. On the one hand, we are merely participating. It is our job to show up. Woody Allen once said that eighty percent of life was just showing up, and that kind of describes how we participate with God.
We are only responsible for so much. So, for example, Jesus told us to love one another. So maybe at some point you decided that for you, loving one another means helping out with food bank. Or Wednesday Night Live. So you show up, and you do your thing. You help some person get their food, or you teach a Bible lesson for to a kid. Now in your mind, you may be thinking, “I am doing the work of God here. I am going to change this person’s life. I am going to show them the love of God.” But what happens is the person you are helping seems to show little or no evidence of being totally changed by the good deed you are doing for them.
And you get a little frustrated. “Don’t they see I’m trying to do God’s work here?”
You see, God did not tell Peter he had to make sure Cornelius becomes a Christian. He just had to go to him, and preach to him. Jesus did not tell us we have to create a loving world. We just have to the people who are in front of us. And when we do that, we are participating in the love of God. Now granted, we have to do our best job at these things. When I say that we just have to do our part, I don’t mean to imply that we can do it badly and God will take up the slack. It’s not like Peter when to see Cornelius and said, “So there’s this God, who is kind of in heaven, and he like, has this son, Jesus, you know. And uh, yeah, you should, like follow him.”
No, we give it our best. And the rest is up to God. We do the part we are called to do, and the rest is up to God.
Next week we will be taking communion, and I want to help you prepare for that by thinking about how we participates in Communion with God. We start with the elements. On the one hand, the wheat the grapes are a miracle of nature. We did not have to invent wheat, or invent grapes. They are a part of God’s creation. We cannot MAKE wheat or grapes grow. We can plant it, fertilize it, tend a grape vine, weed the fields, and like a miracle, grapes start to show up on the vine, or wheat appears at the top of stalks.
But now comes our part. We harvest the wheat; we harvest the grapes. We do our part. We grind the wheat. We crush the grapes. But then an amazing thing happens; the wheat rises. The grapes ferment. The wheat becomes bread. The grapes become wine. We cannot make that happen. That is another miracle of nature. (I know that we use grape juice here instead of wine, so I was more thinking about the historical elements of communion, bread and wine here, so bear with me.)
And then we come here. Someone puts the elements on the table. I stand up and say a few words. Those words are important. I remind us of God’s work in the past, how God created the world, and put us here to live in it, how God, working with Moses and Aaron, helped free the people from the slavery in Egypt, and ultimately how God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, fully human and fully God. Then I say a prayer that goes like this:
pour out your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these your gifts of bread and wine,
that the bread we break
and the cup we bless
may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ.
By your Spirit unite us with the living Christ
And we believe that God does that. God joins us in the meal. We participate with God. The farmer plants, but God makes it grow. The miller grinds, but God makes it rise. The minister and the elders serve the elements, but God infused them with his spirit.
We go out to do the work of God, but God is the one who infuses that work with the Holy Spirit. God uses what we do in ways we cannot imagine. I don’t think Peter knew was he was getting himself into that day. He could not foresee how that one sermon would change the world. But it did, because God worked with him.
God is not “up there” somewhere, watching to see if we might mess up this world he left us in. God has not given us instruction, then taken off for a while, until he comes back and judges whether we did what he wanted or not.
God participates in the work we are called to do with us. Whether that work is pushing around a shopping cart for a person who needs food, teaching a kid, handing out a bag lunch, talking to someone about the love of God, caring for you neighbor, loving one another; God does these things with us.
So who are we to hinder the work of God?
1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If 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?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”