The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Acts 11:1-3 (NIV)
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting Letters from Pella, a one-act play I wrote some years ago to an academic conference. The academic conference celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of H.P. Scholte, the founder of our town. Scholte, a secessionist pastor in the Netherlands, led hundreds of Dutch immigrants to carve out a new home on the Iowa prairie in 1847. Historians from both the Netherlands and the U.S. participated in the conference.
Each year in our town’s annual Tulip Time festival we celebrate a polished narrative about our founders, but as I researched the actual events that transpired in those first years I found a very different story. Letters between the first immigrants and their families back in the Netherlands gave evidence of anger, conflict, discord, and disagreement. I sought to give voice to that story in my play.
Newton’s Third Law states that for every action there is an opposite reaction. Along my life journey I’ve observed that there are, at times, parallels between physical and human interactions. As both leader and participant in many human organizations I’ve observed that any action or initiative that introduces change to a human system will create a reaction from that system.
In today’s chapter, Peter returns to Jerusalem from his experience of being called by God to the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius and his entire household became believers. They had been filled with Holy Spirit and Peter realized that God was doing something “new” in this rapidly growing Jesus movement. The movement was expanding beyond the Jewish tribe to include non-Jewish “Gentiles” whom Jews found religiously unclean. There was a general attitude among the Jewish people of that day despising and looking down on anyone who wasn’t born Jewish.
In going to the home of a Roman Centurion and befriending Cornelius and his household, Peter had crossed a whole host of religious, social, and political lines that his tribe religiously held with systemic rigor. Now he returns to Jerusalem and the Jewish believers hear what happened, they criticize Peter for what he’s done. Peter’s action has created a powerful reaction.
Peter provides his defense, explaining his vision, God’s call for him to go with the three visitors, and his experience in Cornelius’ household. According to Luke’s description, the believers in Jerusalem “had no further objections.” The Greek word translated “no further objections” is esuchasan which is defined as “quieting down,” “rest,” and “becoming silent.” In other words, no one pushed the issue with Peter, but my experience as a leader tells me there were those who kept their mouths shut publicly and began to whisper their questions and criticism of Peter behind his back. Radical change to deeply rooted human system doesn’t quickly result in “no further objections.” This Jew-Gentile conflict is not going to go away.
This morning I’ve been thinking about some of the “reactions” to systemic change that I’ve observed and experienced over the years. Some of them are instructive. Some of them are tragic. Some of them are downright comical. Yet this spiritual journey had taught me that spiritual growth always necessitates change. God is always calling me and challenging me to love more expansively, forgive more deeply, and to be more sacrificially generous. Those things don’t happen unless there is a willingness within my spirit to things changing, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.
H.P. Scholte certainly experienced his share of “reactions.” Twice the pastor was thrown out of the pulpit by his own congregation when they didn’t like the changes he had introduced into their social and religious system. They called him a scoundrel. Those are the things our town politely forgets to talk about. Yet, all of those radical, uncomfortable changes brought about a really bright future for our town.
Growth happens through change and struggle, while human systems tend to cling to a comfortable status quo. I see this paradigm wherever God is working in the Great Story. If I want to grow, I have to prepare myself for the reactions I know will be coming my way.