Sermon: “What Were You Thinking, Peter?”

April 24, 2016: Easter 5 – Earth Sunday – Pacific Islander/Asian American Ministries Sunday

Church of the Holy Cross UCC
Hilo, Hawai’i

Text: Acts 11:1-18

It must have been an odd meeting.

Imagine it for a moment: Peter and Cornelius, Peter coming into the house, and Cornelius kneeling. Peter, embarrassed, telling him to get up. A sense of wonder in the air. People watching, somehow aware that they’re witnessing something astounding.

Still, a very odd meeting.

Cornelius was not just anybody. He was a centurion, a respected military officer in the service of the most powerful empire in that part of the world – they hadn’t been to China. He was a representative of the occupying power, living in a city founded for outsiders to live in, and named after their emperor. He was power incarnate.

Peter, in contrast, was an unemployed fisherman, an associate of a man crucified for rebellion against this same empire, and who had gone on to get a criminal record of his own with the local authorities. He was poor, he was essentially homeless, and as we know from the gospels, he had impulse control problems.

This was a very odd meeting.

Because there was a major reversal of roles going on. Cornelius, the man with the sword, approached the meeting as an outsider. He worshiped the God of the Hebrew people, but had never fully become one of them. They distrusted him at best, and many feared him.

Peter came to his door as the respected leader of a significant new movement within Judaism. Nobody knew how important it would become, and nobody expected it to emerge as a separate religion. Nobody had any notion that it would span the world – or come to a set of islands in an ocean they didn’t know existed.

Cornelius was both the man who could have Peter executed, and the man asking an impossible favor. He asked Peter to do things he was forbidden to do: enter his house, and have a meal with him. Both religious obligation and social pressure would have kept Peter away.

What a strange, strange meeting.

This meeting set the future course of the Christian Church.

Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, tells each element of the story twice. He offers it as a continuous narrative in chapter 10, and then comes back and has Peter present it as a report here in chapter 11. That’s a lot of time spent on this one story. In fact, it takes about the same amount of space on the page as that which Luke gives to Jesus’ resurrection.

The people of the Way – they weren’t even called Christians yet – believed that they were a new reform movement within they faith they’d been raised in. This wasn’t particularly new. There were three major directions of Jewish faith and practice in the first century; we hear about two of them, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, in the gospels. We know there were other smaller groups as well, and there could have been many of them.

These followers of Jesus were certainly ambitious. They aimed at nothing less than the complete reform of their faith, to bring all the children of Israel together. They did not, however, expect to include people of other nations in their new Jerusalem.

Until Peter came back from Caesarea.

The leaders in Jerusalem greeted him warmly. Or perhaps that should be hotly. “What were you thinking, Peter?” they demanded. You don’t enter the homes of Gentiles. You don’t share a meal with them. You don’t make them people of the Way when they’re not even part of the people of Us!

UCC General Minister and President Rev. John Dorhauer. Photo by Eric Anderson

UCC General Minister and President Rev. John Dorhauer.

UCC General Minister and President the Rev. John Dorhauer calls this the most important passage in the New Testament. I heard him say these words last fall, and I know he’s said them many times before that and since:

“The question for the Church in that time and from that time forward has always been, not can you accept the other, but can you accept a God who already has?”

Let’s hear that again:

“The question for the Church in that time and from that time forward has always been, not can you accept the other, but can you accept a God who already has?”

Can we accept the God who has already accepted, indeed embraced, the other: my neighbor – the stranger – the scary person – the whiny person – the lazy person – the bully – the oppressor – even me?

Can we?

Peter said, “Who was I that I could hinder God?”

And his fellow leaders in that early church said, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles – even to these foreigners – the repentance that leads to life.”

Without this meeting there would have been no mission to the Gentiles, led with so much courage by the Apostle Paul. We would not have his letters, filled with his humanity and his inspiration.

Without this meeting there would have been no early missionaries to Africa, or to Europe, or to the Asian plains, or to India.

Without this meeting there would have been no American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to respond to Henry Opukaha’ia when he asked for help bringing a new faith to his home islands.

Without this meeting there would have been no Rev. Jiro Okabe to found this church and serve the growing Japanese speaking population of Hilo.

Karen Georgia Thompson

Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson

Another UCC minister, the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, notes that this story is frequently summarized as the conversion of Cornelius and his household. But who, after all, was changed? She writes, “Peter and the entire Jerusalem Church are converted as a result of Peter’s vision and his visit to Cornelius’ home.”

Where do we need conversion today?

Most households in America are filled with bad habits. I, personally, should have less stuff. I’m unpacking boxes right now, and I really really wish I had less stuff. I should eat better. I should exercise more.

But this Sunday is also Pacific Islander and Asian American Ministries Sunday in the United Church of Christ – which in Hawai’i, is also every Sunday.

And it is the Sunday after Earth Day. Some call it Earth Sunday. The UCC has issued a summons to a “preach-in” on climate change today, calling for us to #keepitintheground, to leave 80% of fossil fuel resources in place. #keepitintheground

Why? Because global levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen to over 400 parts per million, when the highest it’s ever been in human history is around 275 parts per mission. That comes from burning things for fuel. According to NASA, 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have been since 2001, and the warmest of all was 2015. When the world warms up, things happen.

Wind and moisture patterns shift, changing what will grow where. You get more mosquitoes, who like warm places. And sea levels rise.

These children in the Maldives are likely to become refugees in their lifetime. Photo by Mohamed Rasheed Ahmed. Used by permission of

These children in the Maldives are likely to become refugees in their lifetime.
Photo by Mohamed Rasheed Ahmed. Used by permission of

Four years ago, I was at a conference and heard Bill McKibben speak. He’s the founder of, a group advocating for measures to roll back human influence on the climate. He showed us this picture:

We’re all too familiar with the photos of refugees, today from Syria, but on other days from other places around the world. These children are not refugees. They have homes.

But they are almost certain to become refugees.

They’re from the Republic of Maldives, a series of islands southwest of India. It’s the lowest country in the world. The highest point is less than eight feet above sea level. 80% of its land area is less than three feet above sea level.

At current rates, the United Nations forecasts that Maldives could be uninhabitable by 2100. These children may have become refugees. Their children certainly will.

It’s not just Maldives. Twice in the last eight years, a combination of rising seas and heavy surf breached the walls of Majuro, the capital city of the Marshall Islands. The highest point in that nation is only 33 feet above sea level.

Right here, we’re about 120 feet above sea level.

What do we need conversion for today?

Two thousand years ago, the plea of Cornelius and a vision from God spurred Peter and the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem to action. The world changed.

We have the plea of these youngsters, and of thousands upon thousands more.

What will it take for us to take action? What will it take that we might change the world?

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on April 24, 2016

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1 Comment

  1. by voyage maldives de luxe

    On May 12, 2016

    It’s nearly impossible to find experienced people in this particular subject, however, you seem like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks.

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