Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10: 34-35)
The Book of Acts is written by the same author who wrote Luke’s Gospel, and it consists of a series of conversion stories. The conversions are important because through them God brings about new beginnings in the life of the church. Now, the Greek word for conversion is “metanoia” which literally means “to change one’s mind.” Luke is testifying that a change of mind, or a shift in thinking is what opens the church to fresh new chapters in its life. So, conversion is never an end in itself, conversion is part of the larger story of how God is growing the church and bringing needed change to the world.
In Acts, we learn that Paul has a conversion on the road to Damascus and he turns from persecutor of the church to Apostle of the Church. Peter’s conversion experience, however, is different from Paul’s. Instead of just one conversion at the beginning of his discipleship, Peter seems to have several along the road of discipleship... first when Jesus calls him, then when he confesses Jesus as “the Christ of God,” and here again in today’s passage when he finally concludes that “God shows no partiality.”
This last conversion is a difficult one for Peter – in fact he’s brought to it kicking and screaming because it runs counter to what he’s always believed to be true. It started with a vision. Peter was resting on a rooftop in Joppa when God came to him in a dream. He saw a large tablecloth of food being lowered from the heavens down before him... all sorts of un-kosher foods were on that tablecloth. A voice commanded him to get up and eat. He refuses to eat this food because it was all unclean. The voice responded saying: “What God has made clean, don’t you call profane.” This happened three times before he’s awakened by a knock at the door... Cornelius, a Gentile centurion is requesting Peter come visit him at his house. So, Peter goes, reluctantly, and discovers that Cornelius is a godly man who has the Spirit of God. So, despite his heritage, Peter is forced to confess: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality but, in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Now, that’s a powerful conversion because after Peter has it, the gospel breaks out beyond the bounds of Jerusalem and spreads like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire. The church grows exponentially! Why? The early church understood that God shows no partiality... God shows no distinction... it proves to be a cornerstone metanoia (shift of thinking) for the Church. But this is no easy conversion – Peter was dragged to it, because like us, he loves to build little categories of distinction – Greek and Jew, male and female, slave and free, gay and straight, black and white. Why do we insist on making distinctions when it’s clear that God does not?
Which brings us to the topic of the day – racism. Historically, America has had an ongoing struggle with the issue of racism. As a nation, we’ve never really kicked the habit. It still haunts us. And the church has been implicated in it – we are wrapped up in the struggle, too. Oh, I know we’ve made strides, but it always seems to be two steps forward, one step back: Yes, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal,” but it didn’t end slavery in the land, not even at Monticello!
Yes, slavery was finally abolished after a dreadful war, but then Jim Crow laws were instituted to assure segregation continued in public places throughout the south.
Yes, Jim Crow laws were finally abolished, but then private schools quickly popped up with tuitions too high for most black students to afford.
Yes, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached and protested and lifted us up to catch a glimpse of the great vision of racial equality, but look what we did to the messenger!
Yes, we elected our first black president ever with Barack Obama, but look at the knee-jerk reaction that followed and the claw-back of so much of the fruit of his presidency!
Down through the centuries this has been the dance of racism in this country – two steps forward and one step back. With dreadful predictability, we dance the dance with plodding feet, and heavy hearts because this is not the dance of freedom! This is not the dance God calls us to. This is the American shuffle... reserved for the chain gangs, the protest marches and the Black Lives Matter rallies, but there’s a better dance than this!
But forgive me for dredging up our painful history... as if that can save us. I can’t. But metanoia can! A change of mind can, a shift in thinking can bring us to a fresh beginning, a new dance. We need an awakening like Peter’s.
This fall I finished reading the book “Waking Up White” by Debbi Irving. I had planned to buy it and read it a year earlier, but I put it off. I knew it wasn’t an easy afternoon of reading. So, I put it off, but then PEVA made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – they offered it for free. And it was such a great Presbyterian price I had to go for it. And it wasn’t an easy read – it was one of those books that you read and put down awhile and let it do its work on you as you reflect about it.
The book is about the author’s examination of her life from a racially awakened perspective. She grew up a in a white family in Winchester, VA, sheltered and naïve to the issue of race in America. She married and moved to Boston where she became a teacher in an urban school. While there, she became increasingly disturbed and perplexed by the racial divide among the students. She took a coarse on racial and cultural identity thinking she would learn more about other races and cultures so she could better help them with their problem. Instead, the course turned the lens on herself, and white culture, and asked her to look within herself for solutions to the race problem she imagined belonged to others. It opened her eyes to the problem of race and shattered many of her assumptions about the way things worked in America. One of the things the book highlights is white privilege – how the system in this country is stacked to favor whites over blacks.
She begins by relaying her own insulated childhood growing up in Winchester. As I read her story, my own story began to replay in my mind as well. I too grew up in an insulated suburban white neighborhood north of Toronto and very seldom came into contact with other races. Not until I was 16, when the family moved to London, England, and was enrolled in an urban school that was like the United Nations! Suddenly there were people of every race and nation in my classroom. My best friend turned out to be a guy whose family had emigrated to London from Pakistan about 10 years earlier. He turned out to be a life-long friend. He told me that his father hated the whites because when they came to London nobody would rent a house to him. The landlords wanted to keep the neighborhood white. He finally found one place available, but the landlord insisted on a certain number of people living in the house, and no more. The family had one more child than the limit, but they took it anyway, and one of the kids (my friend Hitesh) had to go live with his grandparents for his entire childhood. He’d only recently been reunited with his family because they found a new home. Debbi Irving in this book claims that American realtors were guilty of similar discriminatory practices here in America to keep blacks and white neighborhoods segregated. We’re still living with the fallout of much of that segregation!
The author also says, “white people have been given not only better access to America’s goods and services, but disproportionate amounts of comfort, safety and choice, including the ultimate choice – whether or not to deal with racism.” (pg. 177) And herein lies the problem – those who are members of the dominant culture aren’t as aware of their privilege as those of the minority culture are aware of the inequity. It means that whites can go through life benefitting from an unfair system without losing any sleep over it! The unfairness of the system is just not so obvious from the perspective of privilege. This probably explains why blacks surveyed said they talk about racism on a daily basis in their families and friendship circles, while whites only talk about racism occasionally. We whites are out of touch with the race situation in our own country... it’s more pervasive, more complex, more severe than we actually realize because it doesn’t affect the dominant culture the same.
I have been struggling with this reality the way that Peter struggled with his final conversion...and as a privileged white person I realized I need more people of color in my life. I don’t have enough black friends. I need to seek out some new friends, and we need to have lunch, and play golf together, and have conversations and I need to learn from these new friends of mine so I am more awake to racism today. We can’t change things if we remain asleep! Even Peter knew he had to get down off that rooftop in Joppa and answer the door!
And in our churches, we need to encourage more diversity in our pews and we need to invite that diversity to also be part of our boards and committees. It’s disturbing how colorless our churches are in this day and age, but it can’t change if the leadership is also all white. To quote the author on this: “Diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being invited to dance.”
“Inclusion is being invited to the dance.” That’s the secret, isn’t it? Inclusion. It’s not the dance of freedom if it’s just a bunch of sleepy white people... it’s just the American shuffle. We’ve been shuffling way too long.
But look at Peter... he was sound asleep on his rooftop when the knock came: “Hey, Peter, we’re having a little party over at Cornelius’s place – some good food, some good tunes, gonna move back the furniture and do a little dancing. Would you come?” He went; and he’d never danced like that in his whole life! He said to them all: “Truly, I understand – I finally get it... God shows no partiality...”
Time to wake up! Someone’s knocking at the door. Who’s gonna answer?