There are some people you just don’t want to say “No” to.
You’re asked by the pastor to take a shift at the soup kitchen. Are you going to say, “No”? You might try: 1) No thanks. 2) I think I’ll pass. 3) Maybe another time. 4) Nah, I’d rather stay in bed and watch Netflix. 5) I’m not really into helping people, but thanks for asking.
The pastor might let it slide and move on to the next person.
But, there are some people you just don’t say “No” to people of power and influence; people whose very voice carries the weight of authority imbued with a tone that bespeaks consequences and retribution; people who have the power to bend you to their will; people who are an immutable force of nature, and who can bring you to your knees with just a withering look, reducing you to a whimpering fool.
But enough about your high school English teacher.
Great leaders usually have people around them who have the courage to say “No,” because the great ones know that it’s not a good policy to be surrounded by sycophants. But what if you were working for the late Steve Jobs? He thought that being tough was the only way to keep Apple from suffering what he called a “bozo explosion,” meaning that if he tolerated mediocre people, “they would hire others like themselves, and soon there would be a company filled with employees who weren’t very good.” If Jobs asked you for a favor, could you say “No”?
How about other people of influence and power? Go back a couple of decades or more to when Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch were churning up the waters of telecommunications and other forms of media. You might not remember Turner, but from 1970-2000, he was big stuff.
Sometimes called “the Mouth of the South,” Turner was frequently controversial. But he was also an entrepreneur, television producer, media proprietor and philanthropist. He founded the Cable News Network (CNN) and donated a $1 billion gift to support the United Nations. He once owned more land in the United States than any other private individual. He founded the Goodwill Games. He maintains the world’s largest bison herd on his Montana ranch. When Murdoch’s sailing vessel once rammed Turner’s in a yacht race, Turner (also known as Captain Outrageous) challenged him to a fist fight. (It never happened.)
Turner’s mantra was “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Say what you want, but he was, and probably still is, a hard person to say “No” to.
Finally, if you’re of a certain age, you will remember the Chiffon TV spots in the 1970s in which Mother Nature has a taste of what she thinks is sweet, creamy butter, but is told that it’s not butter but Chiffon margarine. Whereupon, Mother Nature raises her arms and says with an evil glint in her eyes, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” and then all hell breaks loose – gale-force winds blow, trees topple and elephants stampede.
These examples explain why it’s astonishing to read in today’s text from Acts that the apostle Peter had the temerity, the chutzpah, the courage to say “No” … wait for it … to God! And he did it not once, but three times!
God is not Ted Turner, Steve Jobs or any megalomaniac to whom it might be hard to say “No.” But when Peter said “No” to God three times — echoing his three time-denial of the Lord in the dark hours before the crucifixion — he was hindering and attempting to thwart the purposes of Almighty God, who:
- according to the Nicene Creed, is the “Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible”;
- according to Saint Anselm, is a “being in which nothing greater can be thought of”;
- according to Saint Aquinas, is the great Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause, and who has revealed Himself in creation and written His law in human hearts;
- according to Scripture, is the trinitarian God before whom Isaiah trembled and said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ (Isaiah 6:5).
And this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the nature of the eternal and transcendent God. Still, was Peter crazy to say “No” to God?
To be fair, Peter didn’t resist God in a conscious state; he was deep in REM sleep, and it was in a dream that he said “No” to God three times. In the vision, it goes down this way:
While in Joppa, Peter was praying and slipped into a “trance [and] saw a vision.” A ginormous tablecloth came floating and twirling down from heaven, and before him were some entrees prepared for his consumption, things like “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air” (v. 6). He then heard a “voice,” and we have no reason to assume it was not a divine voice. He was told to “get up … kill and eat.”
But Peter offered his first objection: “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” This happened three times.
We can assume that he was mystified by what he’d seen in his vision. After all, what he saw and was told to do went against his upbringing and education in Sabbath school, against everything he was as an observant Jew, and against the teaching of the rabbis and counsel of family members. Were he to act on what he’d seen in this vision, his ancestors would be rolling in their tombs. It was unthinkable that Peter would eat this stuff and defile himself in this way. He was a Jew!
It wasn’t until later, when he was in a conscious state, that the meaning of this vision came into focus. The process began when three Gentiles, men from the north, arrived and invited him to go to a house in Caesarea.
You can imagine the scene. Let’s put the men in sunglasses. They’re in black suits, white shirts, black ties, and driving a black SUV, perhaps a Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows. They arrive at 31 Falafel Street, jump out of the car and “invite” Peter to get into the car. Their boss wants a word.
“Who is your boss?” Peter asks.
“Who is Cornelius?”
“An officer in the army of Imperial Rome. Enough with the questions!” (See Acts 10.)
Peter is worried, of course, but then decides, “Okay, who am I to resist these guys?” He gets into the car. Think “NCIS” or “Men in Black.”
They arrive in Caesarea. Peter meets his host there and gets the surprise of his life. Cornelius explains that an angel told him that Peter would give him “a message by which [he] and [his] entire household will be saved” (v. 14).
This is when it began to dawn on Peter (whose ministry had been and would always be primarily to the Jewish community, in contrast to the apostle Paul, who became known as the “apostle to the Gentiles”) that God was doing something incredibly new. He began to understand that God had blown away the old categories, paradigms that no longer applied and stale structures that no longer served the purposes of God.
So, naturally, he said, “Who was I that I could hinder God?” (v. 17).
Let’s pause here to ask of ourselves: Have we ever said “No” to God? Are we still saying “No” to God?
Think about it: Don’t we say “No” to God …
- every time we are not hospitable and welcoming to the stranger among us? (Hebrews 13:2);
- every time we refuse to love our enemies and “pray for those who persecute” us? (Matt. 5:44);
- every time we hesitate to “repay evil with blessing”? (1 Peter 3:9).
In fact, often our lives are such a flat-out “No” to God, that one has to wonder in what way we’re saying “Yes” to God at all … ever!
Perhaps we have a problem with saying “Yes” to God because we’re used to adding a qualifier. “Yes” is a simple, monosyllabic word, but our complex human nature wants to respond with two words: “Yes, but …”
We get cases of “Yes, but …” all the time in normal life:
- “Yes, but just give me a sec.”
- “Yes, but so-and-so won’t like it.”
- “Yes, but we’ve never done it like this before.”
- “Yes, but I’m going to need more money.”
- “Yes, but I’m going to need more time.”
- “Yes, but I’m going to need more help.”
- “Yes, but I think others should take their turn.”
- “Yes, but you should really ask someone else.”
Fortunately, Peter did not come down with a case of “Yes, but ….” He understood that it was best not to hinder God. He was sharing the gospel with Cornelius, the Roman soldier, and as events began to unfold, he realized that God was with them. The “Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had” fallen on the original apostles in the upper room on the day of Pentecost (v. 15). Peter recalled what Jesus had said to them about this. And then he reasoned that if Cornelius and his family received the same “gift” of the Spirit as he and the other apostles had received, “Who was I that I could hinder God?”
Maybe it is in our nature to be conservative and default to the negative when something new, unusual and uncomfortable is happening. We resist change. Peter did and then he didn’t. Peter said “Yes” to God, not “Yes, but….”
Peter said that it is best not to hinder God. But hinder God at what? About what should we not hinder God?
It could be that God wants us to remember that God is a God of new things. Gracie Allen of the 1950s comedy duo, Burns and Allen, put it this way: “Don’t put a period where God has placed a comma.”
What does God want? God wants:
- all people to live and “come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:19, NKJV);
- to remember those too often forgotten;
- to support those who are oppressed;
- to scatter the proud and topple the high-minded;
- to lift up the lowly and fill the mouths of the hungry (see Luke 1:46-55).
Can we say “Yes” to these ideas?
There’s a lot of chatter these days about who is clean and who is unclean, about who is right and who is wrong, about right choices and wrong choices. This story about Peter changing his mind can teach us a lot, especially that it is okay to change one’s mind, opinion or point of view.
Our reading has a curious observation near the end. Peter finishes explaining to the leaders of the nascent Christian community in Jerusalem how and why the good news has been delivered to the Gentiles, and immediately after he utters the words, “Who was I that I could hinder God?” The text goes on to say that “When they heard these things they fell silent” (v. 18, ESV).
This is precisely opposite of what is going on today. We’re many things, but one of them is that we’re not silent. We are too busy shouting, condemning, and being unloving and unkind than thoughtfully wondering if there might be more going on here than we realize.
We will generalize, scrutinize, jeopardize, antagonize, stigmatize, demoralize, victimize, brutalize, ostracize and marginalize, but we will not under any circumstances apologize, harmonize or even socialize with those who may be leading us into new territory.
These old saints, however, were silent. Imagine that! Some translations say that they stopped arguing … but then began to clap! They broke into applause, saying, “Okay then, God has given the good news to the Gentiles …”
The church too often has been on the wrong side of justice, fairness and numerous other social issues. The church has listened to scores of prophetic “Peters” urging Christians to support a woman’s right to vote, encouraging Christians to join the abolitionist movement, and pleading with Christians to advocate for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to cite a few examples. Eventually, the church “praised God” and helped change the lives of countless people.
Today, the church continues to struggle with how to engage with the issues of our times. Let us take time to listen to our prophets as did our ancient forebears to the apostle Peter. Let us be silent and engage in prayerful reflection. And then let the church erupt into praise and thanksgiving, saying, “Who are we that we could hinder God?” Amen.