Being Humble When You Know You’re Right

A Sermon on Acts 11:1-18 by the Rev. D. Mark Davis
Covenant Network Regional Conference
St. Mark Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, California
November 22, 2014

I know that the title of this sermon sounds incredibly arrogant. But, if it is any consolation, when I speak of “being humble when you know you’re right,” I am not speaking about me, primarily, or you, primarily, or the Covenant Network, primarily, or some other person whom you or I might find agreeable, primarily. I’m speaking primarily about the Apostle Simon Peter, particularly as Luke describes his encounter with the church in Jerusalem in our Scripture reading. I invite you to see the book of Acts as a series of stories about what happens when a gaggle of folks are suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit. And what the Holy Spirit does is she brings the power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ into the heart of this community as the animating power that makes them tick. So, the stories of the book of Acts tell what happens when the power of this spirit is let loose in the world through a community of people.

And what happens is a bit of a hot mess, really. All of the assumptions that folks grew up accepting – with or without even thinking about it – are suddenly called into question because the resurrection power at the heart of these folks has even called into question our most basic distinction between life and death. All of the barriers that folks assumed were simply written into the DNA of humanity are suddenly called into question because the Spirit at the heart of these folks is the same Spirit that was in Jesus Christ when he touched lepers and asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. Even that ubiquitous catch-all phrase, “That’s just the way it is,” was suddenly nonsense, because “the way it is” meant that the religious and state powers always have the last word, whether by the sword or the cross, and the Spirit at the heart of this community laughed every time she heard that silly thought. And so, the book of Acts is the stories of this community forming and reforming itself, trying new things, thinking new thoughts, embracing new values, and bouncing between being bold and being nervous, failing and succeeding, arguing and reconciling – all because this Spirit at the heart of the church has re-defined holiness for them. Holiness is no longer the product of following a code in the book of Deuteronomy. It is the power of life that breaks through all of our human vanities.

The story that we’ve read today is one of those glimpses at the church trying to reckon with the new power at work in them. You know the story behind this text. In fact, Mark Achtemeier makes reference to it as one of the stories that has continued resonance with the experience of the church today. The story of Simon Peter and his call to enter the home of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, is told in Acts 10, and Peter recounts it here in our reading. But, the occasion of Peter telling this story is a difficult one. As you heard from the very opening, “When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” So, fresh off the experience of seeing a house filled with Gentiles being filled with the Holy Spirit just like the “circumcised” believers were on the Day of Pentecost, the first thing Peter faces is criticism from the church.

It would be easy for Simon Peter to be arrogant here. He knows what he knows. He knows that the Holy Spirit spoke both to him and Cornelius in visions and brought them together. He knows that while he was speaking the Holy Spirit filled all of those Gentiles every bit as much as she filled the believers on the Day of Pentecost. He knows he’s right. Someone can argue with him about this scripture or that scripture; someone can argue with him about the interpretation and meaning of scripture. There are plenty of conversations where Simon Peter would simply be an interlocutor in an exchange. But, when it comes to his experience, there is a kind of certainty there that Simon Peter cannot shake. It’s not that his subjectivity is the important thing here. The reason Simon Peter must tell his story, the compulsion he has for sharing his experience, is that it was the Holy Spirit who brought it into being. So, Simon Peter is right and he has every reason to feel arrogant, not just because of the unshakable nature of his own experience, but because he must testify to what the Holy Spirit is doing, even if she is violating every religious code these folks had ever known. He does not have the certainty of citing chapter and verse. He has the certainty of participating in what the Spirit is doing in the world.

Simon Peter has every reason to be arrogant … except one. And Simon Peter ‘fesses up when he tells his story. He’s not arrogant because when the Holy Spirit first began preparing him to enter the house of a Gentile, he said ‘No.’ Simon had a vision and a clear voice from the heavens saying, “Rise, Peter, eat these foods” and Peter said, “No, the Bible says those animals are unclean!” Then the voice from the heavens pulls out a trump card and says, “Listen here. I’m alive, not dead. If I say they are clean, you will not say they are unclean.” It was a hard argument to take. Three times Simon Peter had to contend with this voice from the heavens until finally he gave in. The reason Simon Peter can speak from the certainty of his experience – and still be humble – is because he remembers that there was a time when he was no different from his critics. There was a time when he resisted the Holy Spirit for biblical reasons. There was a time when he was uncomfortable with this new territory and worried about where it would all end if we relented on this one issue. There was a time when he was more concerned about the purity of his heart than the peace and unity that he might have with others. There was a time when he was faithfully wrong.

What it means to be part of a church that is empowered by God’s Spirit, is to spend our lives playing “catch up” to a Spirit who disrespects our prejudices and will not be hampered by our anxieties. None of us follows this Spirit easily, without some wrestling with God, without some difficult transitions from naïve certainty to perplexity to a chastened and transformed certainty. When we follow this Spirit, we are humbled, even when we’re right. We can listen to even our severest critics, because we know that the same Spirit whose work is confounding them is the same Spirit whose work once confounded us. What we can only do is to tell Mark_Davisour stories with confidence and tell them with grace.

The loveliest part of our reading today, the thing for which we long and pray when it comes to our own church striving to embrace what the Spirit is up to among us, is this: “When they heard [Simon Peter’s story], they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

And that is the prayer in the hot mess of a church that is animated by God’s Spirit. Thanks be to God.

Mark Davis is the pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California.


  1. http://Thomas%20Fultz,%20Ruling%20Elder says

    Thanks for reminding us of God’s grace – ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

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