Changing Our Minds
Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed!
Good morning, and welcome to the third Sunday of Easter. Though many of us grew up with the idea that Easter was one day, in truth the calendar of the church year gives us a whole season of Easter…and it’s a good thing, because getting our minds around resurrection is going to take awhile, isn’t it?
You may have noticed that our theme in worship for these seven weeks of Easter is “Building a Church.” We chose that theme for various reasons, not the least of which is: it’s in these weeks that we have begun the work to restore our beautiful apse windows, and to complete that project we’ll be putting up an elaborate structure of scaffolding right up front here. Today you’ll just see a cleared out chancel, but every week the front of the nave will look different. By the end of the Easter season there will be a whole new extended chancel platform area here in front, including a whole lot of scaffolding. And this new platform is the location from which we’ll celebrate worship.
But in these seven weeks, we’re watching the building process unfold before our eyes.
And, coincidentally, we’re also reading lectionary passages from the book of Acts, which is a book in the New Testament in which the writer of Luke tells the story of the first disciples of Jesus, who were trying to make sense of their life together in the light of resurrection.
Just imagine how they felt: for most of three years they’d been following Jesus around the countryside, listening to him preach, watching him heal and feed people, trying to understand the gospel message he was teaching them.
Though they could see mounting tension, Jesus’ death and then unlikely resurrection had taken them by surprise; by today’s passage in Acts, Jesus had ascended—gone—and they were left holding the bag: a group of confused, bumbling, unprepared, and traumatized people, suddenly tasked with taking the gospel message and creating a community in which it could take deep root.
They were, all of the sudden, building a church.
So as we read along with their story, it might do us some good to take a look at some of the building blocks, or practices, that those first disciples undertook, practices that allowed them to create community in which the gospel was lived out in ways that were transformational—not just for them, but for anyone who came into contact with their community.
Today’s practice for building a church is a commitment to changing our minds—to seeing possibilities where we only saw problems, to shifting the perspectives by which we evaluate situations, to altering even the way we look at each other.
Today we’re given a tricky passage in the third chapter of the book of Acts (PAGE ##), frankly the kind of passage we preacher types like to avoid. It’s one of several sermons of Peter’s in the book of Acts, and some scholars might say his weakest.
After reading commentaries this week ranking Peter’s sermons, I started to feel a little sorry for him. It reminded me of the first time I became a pastor. In the first eight weeks of that pastorate, six members of the church died.
This was bad for many reasons, including but not limited to the fact that folks had died.
But also there weren’t all that many members to begin with. Six in eight weeks can have a serious impact on the membership rolls of a small church.
But I think the worst thing of all was that I, a pretty green young preacher, had maybe one good funeral sermon in me. And the thing was, pretty much the same audience attended all six funerals. And many in the audience, while grieving the loss of their friends, also—I could tell—were thinking: can this preacher pull off a good funeral, or am I going to have to make arrangements for a visiting preacher to step in for mine?
At the end of every funeral service, I almost felt as if there would be placards raised, like they used to do at the Olympics. The pastor’s score for today’s sermon comes to a 7.8, not enough to keep her in contention for the gold….
Well, scholars do just that to Peter, probably partially because this sermon comes right on the heels of his Pentecost sermon, where 3,000 people were converted after listening to him…a tough act to follow, for sure.
By contrast, this sermon is harsh and scolding, and we modern readers have to be very careful in its interpretation, perhaps even more so this week when we’ve commemorated Yom Hashoah, Holocaust remembrance day, because this Acts passage is one of many scripture passages that has been used as justification for horrific acts of discrimination and violence toward our Jewish brothers and sisters.
I’ve always learned that if a passage of scripture makes you uncomfortable, look a little harder, engage in a dialog with the text. So that’s what we’ll do today as we try to figure out what Peter was thinking, preaching a sermon like that.
First, remember that this passage comes immediately after a rather dramatic event at the Temple in Jerusalem. Peter and John were headed to the Temple for prayer, as was their custom, being devout Jews. A beggar near the gate of the Temple, a lame man, asked them for money. In response, they said they had no money, but they would heal the man in the name of Jesus Christ.
Well, you can imagine the crowd that gathered to see what was going on—this lame man, a fixture at the gate of the Temple for years—was suddenly running around the Temple grounds, in and out of the holy space, jumping and running, the text says, shouting for joy! Everybody wanted to see what was going on, and when they saw the man running and jumping, the whole crowd was filled with wonder and amazement.
And that’s when the sermon begins.
Remember, Peter is a devout Jew, in the Temple with other devout Jews. He has some harsh words for his fellow worshippers, the people who are astounded at what they’ve seen; basically he says this: “Why are all of you acting like this is so amazing? We told you—Jesus told you when he was here—that he had a message of healing and hope from God. But did you listen? No, you did not.
Instead, you were part of the system that ultimately orchestrated his death, complicit! Maybe you missed it then—sheer ignorance or a stubborn refusal to hear his message—but please, please don’t miss it now. Look at this man, healed and whole in the name of Jesus; see the healing gospel message lived out in real time; and repent, would you? Change your minds.”
Now, our Bibles translate the Greek word metanoia as “repent,” which, to you and me and every fire and brimstone preacher around is a word that means feeling really bad and being sorry for something you did. Instead, the Greek word really means something more like: to turn around and go the other way, or to change one’s mind.
The true meaning of this word got lost in translation since the second century, when monks translating the Greek text into Latin began using a phrase for the Greek word metanoia that actually meant something more like: “the confession of sins.”
But Peter was asking the crowd to witness the work of God in the world and to begin to see their lives through the lens of all that Jesus represented: the power of life over death, God’s insistence that the world as we have made it is not the world as it should be.
In the same way that the prophets of old constantly called the Israelites to repentance, Peter was asking the people to change their minds. And by doing this, Peter was exhibiting a building block of the first church, and perhaps of any community of Christ that seeks to be a vital and transforming presence in a world so desperate for hope and healing: Peter insisted that following Christ required a changing of our minds, a reorienting of perspective in light of the resurrection.
At the beginning of worship today, our children reminded us that we are called as followers of Jesus Christ, to care for the earth with which we have been entrusted, and if there’s any modern issue around which Christians must change their minds, care for the earth is it. Scholars point out that while 97% of scientists agree that global warming is happening, in America, the more religious a person is, the more likely they are to deny climate change.
You know what Peter might say about that? Friends, you’re going to have to repent…you’re going to have to change your mind.
Care for the earth is an issue on which the church in many institutional expressions has, in fact, begun to change its mind. This summer it’s widely expected that Pope Francis will issue a Papal Encyclical that will call the Catholic Church and all of us who call ourselves people of faith, to change our minds:
He will call issues of environmental care and climate change critical issues for people of faith.
He will remind us that the world’s most vulnerable bear the greatest environmental burdens, and that the lives of the world’s poorest are severely impacted when we ignore the care of the earth.
And he will insist that we change the nature of the debate—not to whether this issue is real or relevant, but rather to how we can enact sustainable development and care for the earth as a response to what is a critical moral issue.
The Pope is going to ask us to change our minds.
And that’s appropriate, isn’t it? The practice of changing our minds lies at the very heart of living in a community that is being transformed by the work of God’s Spirit. If we’re going to build a church, it had better be a community of people who want to be changed by the constant work of God, which will then galvanize us to act with each other and in the world, in the way of Jesus the Christ.
But here’s the thing: the practice of changing the world by changing our minds doesn’t always begin with major issues of international importance. In fact, we learn to change our minds, to repent, by engaging that practice right here, with each other, at church.
Maybe the way we’ve always done it is not the way we should do it now. Perhaps there are people who have been alienated from our community, our lives, to whom we should extend welcome, reconciliation. It’s likely there are better and more creative ways to exercise the stewardship of our gifts.
In what ways do we need to change our minds? Right here?
One essential element to building a church, one important thing we just don’t want to forget to include as we’re crafting our life together, is an ability to shift with the wind of God’s Spirit, to open our lives and our community to transformation. In doing this we can become, more and more, a community of Christ followers whose life together transforms us individually and transforms our world.
It’s not an easy thing to do, this building a church. But one thing I know: if we’re going to try, we’re going to have to be ready to change our minds.