Did you know that there are different stages in the journey of faith? What works for us at one stage of life, often doesn’t work at a later stage. We’re not surprised when children grow out of old clothes, but too often we imagine that the life of faith is static. The upshot is that there may be times in life when we experience holy discontent. At such times, it can feel like we’re losing our faith when in fact it may be that we're simply growing.
I’ve heard it described like this: one day you discover the beach and your new friends there teach you how to swim. You love that beach for a long time, and you even become a lifeguard. Eventually, though, there comes a time when you feel the call to explore deeper waters. For that you’re going to need courage, an instructor, and different gear: scuba gear.
Or, to shift metaphors, there may be times in the life of faith when we need to leave the familiar paths behind and go off-roading or bush bashing. When God is growing us, God may lead us into the wilderness. And the wilderness has many gateways: death, sickness, loss of a job or a relationship. The growth we experience there can feel destabilizing and disorienting, but growing pains are growing pains.
In Acts 11, we get to read of a growth spurt that Peter experienced. While Peter is praying on the rooftop at Simon the Tanner's place, he has a vision about food. Luke describes it like this: "I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’"
Peter is horrified. The issue is that this sheet contains unclean animals. For a conscientious Jewish man committed to strict dietary laws, it’s a nightmare. Notice Luke's irony here. It's in the home of Simon the tanner, the home of someone who handles “unclean” animal carcasses every day, where Peter has his vision of — surprise! — unclean animals.
The horrified Peter replies: ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ The voice from heaven speaks a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ I love how the Message paraphrases this: “if God says it’s OK, it’s OK”. Luke tells us that this happened three times, and then the sheet with all the animals is pulled up to heaven again.
As Peter sits there puzzled, there’s a knock on the door. It's an envoy from the home of a God-fearing Gentile, Cornelius. An angel had visited Cornelius, telling him to send for Peter, who was staying at the time of Simon the Tanner in Joppa. That's when the penny drops for Peter. He realizes God orchestrated this meeting and that the vision was not just about “unclean” food but about “unclean” people. With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the door has been thrown wide open: Gentiles are in! The outsiders are now insiders, as evidenced by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on these non-Jews.
It strikes me that God helps us to grow as a wise parent, only giving us what we’re ready for when we’re ready for it. In the life of Israel, there’s a time for boundary keeping, for food laws and purity codes, for who’s in and who’s out, just as there’s time for the healthy development of ego in the life of a young person. But a young person doesn’t stay young, and eventually that same ego needs to take a back seat if a person is to mature.
The sociologists say it often takes a crisis to shift us from one stage of faith to another. The death and resurrection of Jesus was the ultimate crisis for the disciples, the ultimate invitation to step into God’s new world, to swim beyond the flags. When we accept Jesus’ invitation to go deeper, we’ll see things we didn’t see before: outsiders who have become insiders.
Is there anyone currently outside our circle of care and compassion that needs to be included? I believe we’ll be known by our love, not just for each other, and not just for those who believe differently or act differently, but also for the more-than-human creation.
Just as the outpouring of the Spirit on Cornelius and his household opened Peter’s eyes to the wideness in God’s mercy, may our eyes also be opened to the wideness in God’s mercy, a mercy that encompasses all of what God has made. As our eyes are opened, may we draw the circle of care wider, to accept as insiders those who have been outsiders.
P.S. A health and safety reminder: Please actually swim between the flags on any NZ beach where flags are present.
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We have invited these writers to share their experiences, ideas and opinions in the hope that these will provoke thought, challenge you to go deeper and inspire you to put your faith into action. These articles should not be taken as the official view of the Nelson Diocese on any particular matter.