“It’s Not Any More Unusual to Be Born Twice Than It Is Once”
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
May 14, 2017
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What sort of miracle person are you? Think about it for a second. What sort of miracle person are you? In my experience in the church for low these many years, when it comes to it, miracle people are all over the map. Let me tell you what I mean. Some people are big miracle people. They believe fully in all the miracles and visions described in Scripture and they believe miracles and visions are still pervasive in the world. Others tend to think that miracles and visions were kind of limited to the historical time when Scripture was being recorded and that these days God isn’t as active in those ways. And finally there are people who sort of read around the miracles and visions in Scripture. These folks see those as embellishments to the greater story of Jesus’ life and the story of God. I know that there are people here this morning who fit each of those categories, and some who fit others I did not name.
Either way you slice it, most of us have been in church long enough to the point where the miracle and visions stories contained in Scripture don’t hold much awe for us. The virgin birth. The parting of the Red Sea. The healing of the leper. The conversion of Paul. These well chronicled events, and others like them, sort of lose their power because of familiarity. They are further eroded because we live in a world that, popularly at least, tends to view unexplainable phenomenon with a skeptical eye. And so the greater point is this, whatever type of miracle person you are, and you could be any type, there is no doubting that the supernatural stories we find in Scripture do not have the currency they once did.
But we lose something when we grow insensitive to the wonders around us. The Bible, for example, is a pretty amazing thing. That we can tote it around and read it at our leisure is no small thing. It’s pretty strange in the history of the world, yet we think nothing of it. Just like we think nothing of stories like this one from Acts. I suspect most of you were not familiar with this story but I likewise suspect it did not trouble you. As soon as you heard about the twin visions bestowed upon Cornelius and Peter you may have thought, “oh yes, this is a miracle story. I know these.” And certainly you do. You know the stories of miracles and visions in Scripture. There are loads of them. They happen with such staggering regularity in Scripture that we grow accustomed to their presence. But when we do that, when we get used to them, we lose something important. We lose our sensitivity to the strangeness and then we lose their power.
Let’s revisit this story for a minute. I didn’t give you the whole thing because it would’ve taken too long to read. The story goes through almost two full chapters, but our key characters are the apostle Peter, yes that Peter, and Cornelius. Not the doctor from Planet of the Apes, but rather a Roman military leader. Cornelius is described as devout, which meant he had some sensitivity to Christianity but was not yet Christian. He has a vision where he is instructed to send some of his men to the town of Joppa to collect Peter. Around this same time Peter had a vision of a bunch of different animals. In the vision, the Lord commanded him to eat of these animals, but Peter refused saying they were unclean. God’s response is the pivotal moment in the story, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” In other words, Peter’s understanding of what was clean and unclean was about to change.
To make a long story short, Peter and Cornelius meet up and Cornelius and his family are baptized after the Holy Spirit descends upon them. And that is pretty much it. The course of Chapter 10 of Acts is dominated by the twin visions of Cornelius and Peter. Their visions shape their behavior and the visions take center stage in our reading of the story. If I asked you to tell someone what happened in this story, the supernatural experiences of Peter and Cornelius would be your headliners. But here is the thing in this passage, and it is what we often miss when we consider miracle stories. The visions, as colorful as they are, are not the point. They were not written down to leave you in awe. They were written down to make a point, because they had a point.
During their conversation, Peter offers another money line that has had great influence on the course of the Church, he says, “God shows no partiality.” I want you to think about that for a minute. Peter, a Jew, stands in front of Cornelius, a Roman soldier who is in Judah solely for the purpose of controlling and oppressing the Jewish people, God’s chosen people, and Peter says to Cornelius and his household, “God shows no partiality.” I mean, that’s incredible! That is the sort of thing that had never really happened until Jesus came along. One minute the Jews are the chosen people and the next minute one of them is saying, to a Roman nonetheless, that God shows no partiality! That’s the point of the story. That’s the big takeaway. The visions are just the set up. The visions lay the foundation for the a-ha moment!
And what’s even worse, is we gloss over this stuff even more than we do the miracles, except this time it’s not because we have heard it so many times, it is because we just don’t really want to apply it. God shows no partiality, but you can bet your bottom dollar that we do. Quick, don’t say it aloud, but make a list in your head of people who you think are somehow flawed or inferior as a group. There, got it? I bet it didn’t take long, and I know it didn’t because I live in this world too and I have my own working list. We show tons of partiality! Tons!
It’s like this. Perhaps these are on my mind now because we are doing annual reviews as a staff, but I remember my first annual review when I worked at 2ndPC in Indianapolis. It is a huge church and much more professional than any church I’d ever worked at full time so our annual reviews were basically like corporate reviews. I remember sitting in the senior pastor’s office with two other pastors and going over the ups and downs of my first year. Suffice to say it was a harrowing experience. But what I remember most was the time in the review when we got to the areas where I had, let’s say, struggled. They had a special name for these areas. They called them “growing edges.” So, like behaving professionally all the time was a growing edge for me. As was making sure that I didn’t miss details in my tasks. Sound familiar? Anyway, growing edges were a nice way of saying, fix this!
Here’s the thing. Miracles and vision stories, more often than not, point not back to themselves but to our growing edges. And this passage is no difference. God shows no partiality. Implied in that sentence is, “yeah, but you all do!” And it’s true. We all do. These stories in the Bible often serve as highlights for us, and what they highlight is not God’s amazing creativity, but rather things that we humans need to fix. The early Church was not allowed to basically ban non-Jews, and this story reiterates that point. To the contrary it was to be an engine for social change.
And this is why I’ve never really worried about what type of miracle person anybody is. Ultimately when we come across miracles in Scripture it doesn’t really matter if we believe them or not if we fail to examine our own lives. They are, in many ways, a reminder that performance review is necessary for all of us. So let’s have one very briefly. These visions, the ones which brought polar opposites Peter and Cornelius together reiterated the truth that God does not want an ethnically or culturally homogeneous church. And that brings us to this question, if God shows no partiality, then why do we? Amen.