Here’s a question for you:
In the last five years, what is the most significant way that you’ve changed your mind? If you can’t think of anything in the last five years, then go back further – 10 years, 20 years. Think of one major thing in the last while where you used to feel and think one way, and now feel quite strong another way.
How has your mind changed about a certain person? How has your mind changed about politics and any of the issues out there about which to have an opinion? How has your mind changed about you life path? How has your mind changed in regards to your faith? In regards to God?
That’s what this sermon is about: When we change our mind.
It springs from this lectionary reading from Acts chapter 10, one of the great changes of mind in the Bible that colors the whole New Testament, when Peter and his companions are standing there in the home Cornelius, a non-Jew, an officer in the occupying Roman army. Peter and his companions are astounded when they see that these Gentile outsiders have the same gift of the Holy Spirit that they themselves had experienced. They are astounded, and they change their mind about Cornelius, and his household, and the Gentiles.
More on that in a bit.
Depending on where you find yourself in society, changing your mind can be met with varying degrees of acceptance. It’s very difficult for a politician to change their mind. Not because politicians are incapable of changing their mind, but because it is so quickly seized upon by the opposing side as a sign of weakness and reason for distrust. A weak-willed person. A flip-flopper. In politics, unfortunately, it can be a vocational hazard to change one’s mind.
Others might have an easier time. Wendell Berry embraces his identity as an essayist, noting that “an essayist is, literally, a writer who attempts to tell the truth….An essayist, when proved wrong, may claim to have been ‘just practicing.’” (From essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community, p. 93)
The Christian Century magazine has, from time to time, carried a series called, “How my mind has changed.” They ask different theologians and leading faith thinkers who have been at it for a while to reflect on how their thinking has changed over the course of their career. At times this can be rather heady stuff, but often it expands beyond the finer points of theology. Poet Scott Cairns wrote this:
This …is one of the ways in which my mind has changed. Some 30 years ago, I still assumed that writers generally wrote to tell us what they knew; these days, I am convinced that the writers I treasure most are men and women who have written in order to see what they had not apprehended beforehand. Rather than understanding their art as a vehicle for transferring known matter from one mind to another, writers (and, ideally, the theologians among them) are men and women who trust their vocations as a way of knowing, or at least as a way of glimpsing the magnitude of what none of us can wholly apprehend. Presumably, this is what every one of our vocations is capable of doing, as long as we remain true to their attendant gifts.”
This sounds similar to what Wendell Berry was getting at. We’re all, no matter what our vocation, “just practicing,” and, it is through this practice, that we come to see more clearly, to know, to have our minds changed.
This past week we hosted the Central District Conference pastors meeting. They come down to Cincinnati once a year and in past years we’ve made a day of it, after our morning meeting, going to something of interest in the city. We’ve gone to a few Reds games, and last year went to the Freedom Center. This year we decided that we’d go to the Creation Museum. None of us were literal six day, young earth, creationists, but all thought it was valuable to understand what this place, and many Christians, find to be so important about that perspective. This actually did use to be a pretty important part of my faith. I spent most of my high school days convinced that this was the only true Christian understanding of how we came to be, so, coming back to this almost half a lifetime later was an exercise in observing how my mind has changed.
One of the things the museum emphasizes is that if you don’t take the first 11 chapters of Genesis literally, then the whole edifice of faith collapses. In some ways this is completely untrue, and in other ways it’s completely true, and highlights that changing one’s mind can be dangerous, and threatening to one’s whole sense of being. Changing your mind is rarely a linear process, especially when it comes to matters of faith. In the transitional period, there’s often a time of crisis, when the old order has fallen away, but the new order has not yet presented itself. It’s chaotic, and even terrifying. The whole edifice does collapse, and we grope for a new way of making sense of things. If you ever go to Creation Museum, ponder this thought: It’s not about science or geology; it’s not about the age of the earth, or whether the dinosaurs died in Noah’s flood or from the meteor 65 million years ago. It’s about having a sacred way of understanding our place in the world, and it’s about the deep psychological threat when one’s sacred way of understanding the world is challenged. That’s why this is never simply a rational conversation. It’s charged with emotion. Changing your mind can be a treacherous journey and, if you can’t see any light on the other side of the chaos, there’s good reason to hold on to what you’ve got with all your might.
Which brings us back to Peter and his companions standing, flabbergasted, disarmed, in the home of Cornelius the Gentile. Prior to this, we may recall, both Peter and Cornelius, who had never met before, had coinciding visions. Cornelius, stationed in the city of Caesarea, had been praying and saw an angel of God tell him that his prayers had been answered, and that he was to send for a certain man by the name of Peter who happened to be in the city of Joppa. Being a centurion, skilled at receiving and giving orders, Cornelius promptly calls three people under his rank and sends them to Joppa to get Peter. Meanwhile, Peter’s host in Joppa is late in serving lunch and Peter, hungry, goes up to roof of the house to pray. Sounds like a very apostle-like way of passing the time when you’re waiting on lunch. While on the roof he falls into a trance, and sees a vision. Heaven opened up and something like a large sheet came down lowered by its four corners. And on this sheet were all kinds of animals – four footed creatures and reptiles and birds. Peter is hungry, but these are just the kinds of animals that the holiness code of his people – their Bible, our Bible – forbade him to eat. A voice comes from heaven – “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Is this the voice of God, or the voice of the devil? Peter refuses: “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice comes back at him: “Do not call unclean, what I am making clean.” The sheet goes up, but this happens two more times, each time a voice telling him to eat what he sees, and each time Peter, in his sense of all that is holy and right, refusing.
And right about the time Peter is starting to really rub his head and puzzle over this recurring vision, Cornelius’ people show up, ask for Peter, and Peter senses that he is to go with them, to Caesarea, to the home of Cornelius. So he goes. And they meet – this righteous man of the people of Israel, a Jesus-follower; and this occupying soldier, who takes his marching orders from Rome, who certainly doesn’t follow the holiness code of Jewish law, but who is seeking to honor the God of Peter. And Peter gets inspired, and he starts preaching. He starts making the connection between his vision and this encounter, and he talks about how he is beginning to see that God shows no partiality, that the Jesus-way is accessible to all people. And he gives a nice sermon that last for about ten verses. But then he gets interrupted, and this is the last bit that Tim read. “While Peter was still speaking (he’s getting interrupted), the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter (so Peter brought his own people) were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”
This event has been referred to as the Gentile Pentecost, the same expression of the Spirit that happened in that upper room with the inner circle of Jesus’ followers in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, when they all started speaking in all the languages/tongues of that cosmopolitan city of Jerusalem during festival season. And here, this is happening to Gentiles.
And Peter’s revelation, his change of mind, which apparently hadn’t completely happened up to this point, even though he had preached a pretty good sermon – his change of mind is this: These people are just like us. Those people, those outsiders, are just as much on the inside as any of us. God is present here and can’t be contained within one’s limited boundaries. The Spirit is creating one humanity. And from this, the holiness code, and the Hebrew Scriptures, come to be reimagined as a story of inclusion.
And it is this change of mind, this dangerous change of mind that overturns all sorts of sacred ways of constructing the world, that ripples out throughout the entire New Testament. The rest of Acts, and the letters of Paul are, in many ways, ad hoc attempts of sorting out all the implications of this change of mind. This chaotic crisis, which leads to a whole new way of being in the world. They are just like us. The other is not other. The Holy Spirit has been poured out on all peoples.
One of the things about these biblical stories is that they can make changing your mind look so easy. Or, at least, make it look like it happens must faster than it usually takes. Peter’s conversion here is pretty fast. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, changes him from being a staunch opponent of follower of Jesus to being their number one spokesperson. These stories are given to us in condensed form. We are usually given the before and after, without a whole lot of the process in between.
How long does it take to change your mind? When you’ve been taught one thing your whole life, how long does it take to unlearn, and then relearn? To let go one of way of making sense of the world, to enter the fearful chaos of the unknown, and to emerge will a new sense of stability and expansiveness. To change your mind.
It can take a very long time.
We have a word for this in the Christian tradition. It’s the Greek metanoia, meaning to change one’s mind, appearing throughout the gospels and the letters of the New Testament, according to Matthew, the first words off the tongue of John the Baptist, and Jesus when they begin their ministries. It is most often translated “repent.” “Repent, for the reign of God is at hand.” By which they meant, “Change your mind, for God’s beloved community is coming to a neighborhood near you.”
The Christian life, the life of the Spirit, of being a follower of Jesus, is a life of constant openness to having our mind changed. To allow ourselves to encounter, time and again, those realities which challenge our assumptions, and break us open to seeing the other, seeing God, in a new light. Metanoia.
Once we do this a few times, become practiced at changing our mind, there is less to fear. Because we come to know and trust that on the other side of the chaos of the in-between, there is grace. The Spirit accompanies us through each change, and gives us a new place to stand, which is always more loving, more expansive, more freeing than where we were before.