The message I listened to today in the online Chapel Street Church service was about the prayer Jesus prayed for us in John 17:20-23:
“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
It got me thinking about what I see in my social media platforms: the polarization, division and disunity among the people with whom I am connected. Our nation is as divided as it ever has been in every possibly way.
When we look at the church, do we see a contrast to what we see in the world? Or do we see the same kind of division and disunity in the church?
I know my initial reaction to those questions, but let’s not jump to conclusions yet. God’s word doesn’t go out and come back void. If Jesus prayed for unity, can’t God accomplish it?
When I look out on the Church and think about Church history, I see a lot of division and disunity. Our history books focus on the disagreements, rather than the agreements. In fact, we see disagreement right from the beginning: Paul disagreed with the Gnostics; the Corinthians were fighting over following Paul or Apollos; and even Peter and Paul disagreed over whether to continue to follow Jewish laws on foods and religious rituals.
Disunity seemed to spring up immediately. Or did it?
Paul would say the Gnostics were not true believers. They denied the deity of Jesus and the reality of the resurrection, among other things. Paul urged the Corinthians not to identify either as followers of himself or Apollos, but to identify as followers of Jesus only. The Holy Spirit settled the disagreement over the eating of foods and Jewish rituals when He gave Peter a vision that was repeated three times followed by a “divine appointment” with Cornelius, a Gentile (though Paul would have to confront Peter before Peter finally go it).
In the rest of this blog post I will explore Peter’s story, and what it might mean for us, and maybe I will come back to the other examples in future posts. Take a moment to read Acts 10:9-23 with me. In this story, the Holy Spirit gives Peter a vision three times of a sheet coming down from heaven with animals, clean and unclean. God told Peter to kill them, prepare them and eat them. Peter responded initially, saying, “I have never eaten anything unclean!”
As I was meditating on these things and looking up Peter’s story, Google brought me to a commentary first (rather than the passage itself). One aspect of the commentary jumps out at me that I wouldn’t have likely seen if I had gone to the passage immediately. While Peter was pondering the vision, he sensed the Holy Spirit saying to him,
“’Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” (Acts 10:19-20)(ESV)
I would likely have never focused on the phrase, “without hesitation”, but for the commentary. As I thought about it, I noticed the ESV Bible footnotes the phrase and provides this alternative translation: “accompany them, making no distinction”.
The Greek word translated “hesitation” is diakrinó. It means “to distinguish, to judge” from the words diá (meaning “thoroughly back-and-forth”) and krínō (meaning “to judge”). Thus, it means to investigate (judge) thoroughly.
According to the HELPS Word-study on the Biblehub website, it means, literally, ‘judging ‘back-and-forth’ which can either (positively) refer to close-reasoning (discrimination) or negatively ‘over-judging’ (going too far, vacillating)’” depending on the context.
In the context, it seems, the translators used the second meaning: the Spirit told Peter to go without hesitation (without over-judging and vacillating). Other translations use the following phrases: “doubting nothing”; “without misgivings”; and without “worry”. We might say that the Spirit told him to go without overthinking it, without questioning or without judging (to go with an open mind).
It strikes me that this is the way, perhaps, that we should approach our differences in the Church (universal). We should not overthink those differences. We should remain open and refrain from jumping to conclusions and digging in on our differences, especially without an open mind to consider the reasons the differences.
We all have limited perspectives, and no one (who is human) can claim to have the only true view. Perhaps, we need to allow for differences, and those differences, in turn, should not inhibit our unity.
This can be difficult, especially when our own views are deeply ingrained, from our youths. It can especially be difficult when those ingrained views are generational, like Peter’s..
Peter’s commitment to avoid certain foods was part of the fabric of his very being, having grown up a sincerely religious man intent on following the law of Moses handed down many generations and centuries before. It was tradition. It was part of who he was and how he related to the world around him.
Jesus, himself, called Peter and told Peter he would be the rock on which Jesus would build his church. Peter naturally would have felt divinely endorsed by Jesus and reluctant to abandon the things that were so much a part of his commitment to God.
These things were sacred to him, and the invitation in the vision to eat the unclean food spread out on the sheet before him elicited a reflexive reaction: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean”! (Acts 10:14)
Significantly, I note the Holy Spirit didn’t compel Peter at that point. That’s not how God works. He doesn’t overwhelm us or coerce us. While the vision occurred three times (for emphasis it seems), and while Peter was pondering it, feeling perplexed, the Spirit took a different tactic. He told Peter that three men were looking for him, and he should go with them without hesitation (without distinction, without judging, without overthinking it – just go).
When the men appeared at Peter’s house, Peter did as he was prompted. Peter invited the men in, and the next day he went with them at their request to the house of Cornelius, the Roman (pagan) Centurion. The rest of the story is in Acts 10:23-48.
It turns out that Cornelius had a vision also while he was praying alone in his home. A man standing in “bright clothing” appeared before him and instructed him to send for “Simon who is called Peter”. (Acts 10:32) This was a divinely orchestrated encounter.
Though Peter was being obedient to the urging of the Spirit to go, Peter still stumbled over the traditional prohibition against associating with Gentiles (non-Jews). They were the first words out of his mouth, but he realized immediately after he said it that he was not to consider any person common or unclean. (Acts 10:28-29) That was the message of the vision.
What a lesson there is for us in that statement! We can learn from the way Peter responded in this story. He set aside his long held assumptions because God, through His Holy Spirit, was clearly intervening.
God had orchestrated this divine meeting, and Peter was open to what God was about to show him. Understanding from the vision that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34), Peter shared the Gospel with Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:36-43); “the Holy Spirit fell” on them (Acts 10:44); “the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out” on them (Acts 10:45); and they all spoke in tongues and extolled God! (Acts 10:46)
I bet Peter didn’t see that coming!
Because of the personal visions and shared experience of the presence and outflowing of the Holy Spirit, Peter asked the rhetorical question: “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) Obviously not!
God used a perplexing, but clear, vision, a divine appointment and the outpouring of His Holy Spirit to show Peter that His purpose and plan was bigger than Peter supposed from his limited perspective as a First Century Jew: God intended to take the “show on the road” to the Gentiles! And this was proof.
This experience was a pivotal change in Peter’s worldview. I don’t think we could possibly understand how radical it would have been for Peter to let go of his preconceived notions that were rooted in everything that he knew from generations and centuries of tradition maintained through hard fought commitment to the Law of Moses. When Peter shared his experience with other believers in Jerusalem, they were initially resistant, but they couldn’t deny the hand of God in the story. (Acts 11:1-18)
Sometimes, we have honest disagreements over things that we, in good conscience, hold sacred. Resolving those issues may involve much prayer, meditation, reliance on God to show us the way, openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and a shared experience of the Holy Spirit with those with whom we disagree.
This isn’t the end of the story. Disagreement continued, which I explore in a subsequent post. The unity for which Jesus prayed doesn’t come easily.
If we are going to participate actively in realizing the prayer that Jesus said for us (His followers, the universal church), we need to take the call to unity seriously and learn from the record of the early Church as it dealt with disagreement.
In short, we need always to be going to God in prayer and meditation, opening our hearts to what God will show us, and be responsive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. When we can’t make immediate sense out of the issues we see, we shouldn’t overthink it. We can’t hold too tightly to our own presuppositions and assumptions when God may be suggesting a paradigm shift. Of course, even a “new” view on things should find its grounding in the Scripture. That is our anchor.
It occurs to me, also, that disagreement does not necessarily mean disunity, but disagreement should not be allowed to fester into disunity. It’s important to seek God, together, with the people with whom we disagree, especially when God is clearly working in the lives of each other.
Peter’s early encounter that opened his eyes to God’s intentions for the Gentiles didn’t resolve the issue in the early church, or even for Peter, despite the obvious hand of God in the experience. The tension would continue, and Peter and Paul would go on to clash over the Jewish/Gentile thing. Paul would even part ways with Barnabas, his long time traveling companion. Yet , God works His purposes even through our disagreements.