Change happens gradually; not all at once; step by step. I remember these words of my up-bringing. They were meant to be wise and cautionary in the culture I grew up in. My parents and teachers made clear, they weren’t against the change I was exploring, they just wanted to guard against the day they thought I would be disappointed – when I found out there would be opposition, even to a good idea, even to justice, or a message of freedom.
Their reasons were good and logical. Sometimes people needed time to get used to change. And, freedom to one person, may be a loss for another. And, most of all of us learn to make due with what we have, and are suspicious of change anyway – we like to return to the comfort of what is familiar, more than we feel empowered to reach the new thing we first had desired.
I don’t know, maybe that’s the reason my parents were able to out-wait me, step by step, when it came to getting that dangerous motorcycle, that would change my world!
But seriously, how we broker change is a funny thing. For example, looking back now we can see how this is the story women had to tell themselves when they sacrificed their talents as librarians and nurses, to bear fine broods of children, as full-time unpaid housewives in the 50’s and 60’s. Most mothers did, in those baby-boom years after the war, even though throughout the 40’s they had served in the work force: in factories and the military, as teachers and in so many other capacities. Step by step - two steps forward, one step back – that’s how it goes.
Or, how Peter decides to explain the unexplainable, a sudden change that happened to him, “step by step,” to the apostles, the leaders in the Jerusalem church, when they heard about what he had done.
When I read this story in Acts again, as well as our gospel today, I can’t help but think of all the steps the apostles, and growing number of baptized followers of Jesus took, since coming down the staircase, step by step, from the upper room. To get to this point, this turning point in the early church, was “staggering,” a story “on which the future of the church pivots,” as Walter Brueggemann describes Peter’s defense, in our reading from Acts.
In the upper room, is where Jesus held the Last Supper with his disciples, in John’s gospel, though John emphasizes the foot washing, as a sign of the love we are to have for one another, over the meal. In our gospel reading today, the foot washing has already taken place, and, “Judas had gone out,” after having been given the piece of bread from Jesus, to signal, he was the one who would betray Jesus.
In the upper room, is also where the disciples go, after the crucifixion, when they are afraid of what the authorities will do to them. They retreat to the upper room, and lock the doors! And presumably, they would have remained safe there. As long as they kept to themselves, and waited for change to happen, step by step, in its good sweet time, no one probably would have bothered them. But as you may recall, someone suddenly stops by. He doesn’t take the step of knocking on the door, waiting for a response, and being let in. He has the key, of course – he has their number – and let’s himself in. Jesus, appears, in the upper room, bringing “peace,” in all the strange, unfamiliar newness, of the first born of the dead.
Peace and justice, even when they are delivered in a non-violent way, are not always received peacefully, however.
Peter, you might say, brings a peace-deal to his fellow apostles – having returned from the Gentile city of Caesarea, where he broke bread, and ate the forbidden pork roast, with the uncircumcised Roman lieutenant, Cornelius, and his six brothers. It seems trivial and a bit weird to us, all these centuries later. But it is also no weird-er or less important, to how we live in the world today. We do the same in our own way, defining ourselves by our differences, our slights of others, assuming “we” are the “normal” ones. Diversity is one thing, but holding one group of people at arm’s length, behind barriers, walled off in an upper room of “separate but equal,” is another. Slavery, women’s rights, and Marriage Equality, all come to mind. Celebrating the colorful variety of human gifts and orientations there are, should be beautiful, and a joyful expression of what God has made. Whereas, defining difference in order to keep one’s own privilege, or requiring they slow down and take appropriate steps, or stay holed up in their upper room, to keep my purity intact, is something else.
Peter knows what he will be up against, so he tells it to his colleagues, step by step, at their pace, not to push his own agenda, but to tell the story of what the Holy Spirit was doing, had already done. He wouldn’t have believed it either, just days earlier. But Peter’s story works on the apostles, just like it worked on him, just like Jesus walking right through the walls of our upper room fears and prejudices, suddenly convinces us, without the courtesy of a knock. I didn’t ask for this change either, says Peter, but “who was I that I could hinder God?”
The great thing about our faith is that we are convicted, as people who come from the same human pool of finitude as everyone else. No one is perfect, but we, as followers of Jesus, we have been redeemed and made new by the promise made to us in the death and resurrection of Christ. The change that the chosen Son brought happened at the right time, after many steps in the story of God’s chosen people, step by step in a long process, you might say. But, if it wasn’t for the courageous act, in a moment, by a prophet called by God, in the twinkling of an eye, on the first day of the week, the 8th day, and beginning of a new creation, by the One who continues to walk through the walls of our own fear, and deliver a dangerous word to us, “Peace,” would we ever change?
If the disciples had remained in the upper room, and never gotten over their fear, the Christian church would never even have been born. On the one hand, the upper room was a great incubator for Jesus’ teaching of having love for one another, as he loves us. It was a safe place to take off his robe and get down on his hands and knees and wash the disciple’s feet. And, the upper room was a gathering place to hold the Passover meal, a remembrance and celebration of a people’s freedom, that moment of “staggering” change when they suddenly walked out of the slavery of their former lives, into a new day of liberation, which Jesus then transformed into a fellowship meal of forgiveness and life for all, the long awaited next step. But all of that would have been meaningless, if it stayed locked inside there.
Only after the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, did they open the doors on their own, and begin to share the good news. It was an incredible risk. But now they no longer feared death, because they understood they had been made as dead as they ever could be with Christ. In the promise of the Spirit, they had been joined to the death, and now also the resurrection of Christ, and the chains of fear were burst!
New life was happening all around them. No one was profane or unclean. Jesus had led them step by step, from their fishing boats in Galilee to power struggles of Jerusalem. It took Peter his whole life to get to this day, and then it happened in a moment. And so, in order for his fellow apostles to understand, he explained it step by step. And when he finished speaking, they were tongue tied, and suddenly, in a twinkling of an eye, “they praised God, saying, ‘then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”
The Spirit is our agent of change, the same Spirit that empowered Jesus to appear to the disciples behind closed doors, as the risen Christ. Jesus doesn’t wait for step by step. Agents of change don’t operate like that. “God sent Jesus at the right time.” That’s step by step, the story we need to write looking back. But as God says in Isaiah, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” That is resurrection change. And we say with Peter, “who am I that I could hinder God?”