This post covers the readings from The Acts of the Apostles for the Fourth Week of Easter, Acts 10:17 through 13:12. For a list of all the readings through the Easter season, click here.
This phrase, with an image of a ship slowly sinking, is one of my favorite illustrations by Jay Sidebotham, Episcopal priest and church cartoonist extraordinaire.
Copyright Jay Sidebotham
Favorite may be a strong word. Maybe I like the cartoon because it, with great accuracy, acute precision, and flawless humor, calls out one of the great sins of humanity…being a stiff-necked people.
This describes the people of God quite frequently in the words of the Bible. Acts, with its account of the first 30 years of the early Church in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, even mentions that we humans are a stiff-necked people.
The image resonates. If you’ve ever woken up from a night’s sleep with a stiff neck and tried to turn your head right or left, you know the feeling. When we’re stiff-necked, we can face one direction, unable to turn our gaze to see a different direction or unwilling to shift our vision to see another viewpoint. In the agricultural world (of which our ancestors of the faith were superbly familiar), a stiff-necked animal cannot be guided with bits, bridles, yokes, and the traditional aids to communicate to them the direction we’d like them to go.
Being stiff-necked is an exquisite image for being stubborn, inflexible, and obstinate. And it communicates more. A stiff-necked animal cannot be guided, and because of that unwillingness to be guided, to be led in different directions, becomes quite useless to working the land or providing any benefit to the people.
Oh yes, we are a stiff-necked people.
If we return to the very beginning of Acts, we read about this small group of followers of Jesus listening to Jesus tell them they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit and will be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
That may not sound very outrageous to our 21stcentury ears, but make no mistake, the idea that the Gospel of Jesus would be spread to “those people” was met with some grumbling and rumbling from the people. In fact, we read of how the people were indeed turning against the early followers of Jesus, stoning them, imprisoning them, and being otherwise unpleasant to each other.
Nevertheless, they persisted.
Acts recounts the steady movement and flexibility of the expansion of the early Church, into Samaria and Judea (just like Jesus said) and now, in this week’s readings, to the ends of the earth (which still didn’t include North America at this point but did include Asia Minor).
Peter baptizing Cornelius the Centurion – Detail on baptismal font in Holy Cross Church Hildesheim, Germany. Photo from Wikicommons by Hildesia.
Peter encounters Cornelius, a centurion, who we read is a devout man who, with his household, feared God. Like the description of Stephen, we are to understand Cornelius is a really good guy, despite being a Roman soldier and not a Jew. But he has a vision and is compelled to find Peter. Cornelius (we can infer from the text) is among the many Gentiles who are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
This a moment of movement, when Jesus touches the reins and the Holy Spirit guides our vision from what we have seen to a different perspective. Our necks are turned to a new vision. Or at least Peter’s is.
Cornelius was a Gentile, which is a term used generally to refer to those who were not of the professing faith of the God of Israel. It could also be used to mean foreigners. In other words, Cornelius was not one of us, the majority of the early followers of Jesus would say.
In Acts 10, Peter speaks (again, because in the first part of Acts, Peter is talking ALL THE TIME), but this time Peter speaks to the Gentiles, those who weren’t Jews. They were thosepeople. He begins his speech, “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.”
Make no mistake, this is a new understanding for Peter. He has had to allow God to move his head (and neck) and guide Peter in a new direction.
Peter has had to change.
To change, Peter cannot be stiff-necked. How has Peter had to change? For one, he recognizes an equality of nations before God. Nations are not favored because they are Israel or the United States or any governmental entity. Peopleare who God loves, and God is looking not for words in a motto or repeated ideology or a clever slogan, but instead God is interested in what we do, our acts, if you will, of faith and love.
And what happens in the midst of this change, this new thing Jesus has brought into the lives of those who followed him and seemingly had the rules changed from how they initially experienced the Gospel?
The Holy Spirit comes…again. It’s another Pentecost moment, but this time the Spirit rests upon the Gentiles, those other people. And the Jewish people gathered are the ones astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit could be poured out “even on the Gentiles.”
And the Church continues to grow in love because the faithful people had their necks turned and their vision guided into this new thing.
We read Peter returned to Jerusalem and the older members of the Church grumbled about these new people, those people, who were also now part of this new thing in Jesus.
Being stiff-necked, it seems, is a hallmark of the people of God. We get unsettled and undone by change, especially change that expands our vision, that invites others to the table where we’ve sat for years, becoming very comfortable with our place. We use tradition and scripture to justify our prejudices, our biases, and our predispositions. When something new eases into our field of vision, we tighten our necks and constrict our souls as we reply, “But we’ve never done it that way!”
Maybe not. But Jesus is about life and love, and neither one of these foundational aspects of faith is rigid and unyielding. A mystery of faith is its ability to root in the deep experiences of the past and grow to in love to the ends of the earth. God yearns for us to be part of this life-giving growth.
As we continue our journey in the holy words of Acts, spend some time this week re-reading from the beginning of the book, noting what beliefs the early disciples and followers of Jesus held and how those beliefs have changed in the span of 13 chapters (and we’re not quite half-way through the book yet).
Most scholars think Acts covers a time span of about 30 years. Thinking about the last 30 years or so of your life, where have you experienced significant change in your personal faith and in your institutional faith? How did you respond to that change initially? Where are you now with this change? What helped you accept and/or welcome the change and what invites you to resist change?
Can you identify particular times when you and/or your congregation has been stiff-necked? What were the circumstances? How did you and/or your congregation experience the Holy Spirit in this time? Where are you now?
What changes do you think are on the horizon of the Church? How have you begun to discuss these changes? What fears do you and your faith community have about change?
This week, end your time engaged with Acts with this prayer. It’s from our service of Compline and reminds me God recognizes how wearying change in our life and in our church can be. Experiencing that feeling is part of being human, as is recognizing that God is with us in the midst of all the changes and chances of our lives as we grow in faith and love.
Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night (day), so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.