When We Don't Get Defensive
A sermon on Acts 11:1-18
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash]
One of my most consistent personal development goals is working on being less defensive in situations of conflict or misunderstanding.
There are many reasons this is important to me.
I don’t like the way that I present myself when I am defensive, or the impact that has on my relationships.
I don’t like how I feel when I am in that headspace.
I know it pretty much NEVER actually helps to resolve misunderstandings when I am acting defensively, because it inevitably triggers the same defensive response from others.
But the reason this has been a personal GOAL for the last 25 or 30 years is because I have to keep working on it. All. The. Time.
Just as an example of how automatic the defensive instinct is for me, I recently had an extended conversation with my oldest son about a scene in a show we both love where I thought one of the characters had done a poor job of explaining the situation, leading to another character getting upset.
And I realized that I was so bothered by this because it was triggering my defensive instincts… for a fictional character getting unfairly blamed for something… in a made-up story… where the misunderstanding was necessary to advance the plot!
I might have a problem.
The strength of my defensive instinct is why I am so impressed by the way that Peter handles the criticism he faces in the Jerusalen church when he returns from Caesarea.
Peter knows – by Divine confirmation - that he was in the right when he answered the call to go and share the message of Jesus with the Gentile household. Nevertheless, when he was challenged “he began to explain it to them, step by step.”
In other words, his response was not to DEFEND what he had done, but rather to INVITE his critics into understanding.
I think the lessons from Peter’s example are important not just for me, but for all of us who are trying to find a way to witness to truth in the context of a cultural moment where divisiveness, distrust, and – yes – defensiveness are the status quo.
So, what are the lessons that we can glean from Peter’s handling of the people accusing him?
Perhaps the most essential thing that Peter is does is NOT to offer an explanation of his reasons for doing what he did, but rather to tell the story of his experience.
The thing about telling our stories is that it’s a lot harder to argue with a story than with an explanation.
If you make a statement that I disagree with, it’s really easy to slip into an argument.
But if you share your story, what are we going to argue about? I cannot, with any integrity, claim to be the better authority about what you have experienced.
What is more, human beings are wired for stories. It’s how we learn best.
This is why every ancient society has origin stories to explain its fundamental cosmology and social rules.
It’s why fairy tales exist and continue to captivate each new generation of children.
It’s why Jesus taught in parables far more often than making direct, propositional claims.
Stories invite the listeners to imagine ourselves in the tale, which in turn invites us to experience the challenge directly and to ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation. We might answer that question differently than the storyteller, but we will at least have some level of experiential connection to the matter at hand.
And so, Peter tells his story of a vision, and a rebuke, and call to come, and a personal experience of God taking over when he got there.
It’s a pretty compelling story! But even if we don’t have this kind of story, we can still learn from the way that Peter tells it.
Because the second lesson we can learn from Peter is that he does not cast himself as the hero of the story.
If people are wired for story, we are also familiar enough with self-aggrandizing tales to be suspicious of a narrator who toots their own horn too loudly.
But Peter does the opposite. He tells the story of his own need to be changed.
It’s a vulnerable decision.
It cannot be fun to hear God’s literal voice from heaven telling him – three times! – that he is getting it wrong. I can’t imagine any of us would want to publicize that kind of correction.
But in his vulnerability, Peter connects to the people who have challenged him. He expresses his deep understanding of their hesitancy to try a new way. He tells them that he thought the same way, so he is not entitled to stand in judgment over them.
And, by lining up beside them in their hesitancy to embrace those they have always been taught to view as polluted and dangerous, Peter invites them into the same grace that he himself experienced from God.
Peter was stubbornly confident that he already knew who was in and who was out, but God didn’t give up on him.
God repeated the message again, and then again. And it was a message of provision… an invitation to eat.
God told Peter that his confidence in what he thought he knew was blocking his ability not only to hear God, and to see the needs of the neighbors he had been taught to distrust… it was blocking his own ability to be fed with the abundance of God’s provision.
To a community captive to fear, Peter told the story of God calling him out of fear into abundance.
And so, the third lesson from Peter’s gentle, step-by-step response to his critics is that it is not centered in who it right or wrong about the issue under contention; It is centered in celebrating what God has done.
Can you hear the wonder in his voice as he comes to the end of his story:
“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.” (Acts 11:1-18)
Peter is inviting his listeners back into the transforming moment when Jesus’s promise of the Spirit was fulfilled in their own lives. He’s calling them back into the joy and awe of the connection with God that was never about doctrine and always about gift.
It’s only in the context of this celebration that Peter finally offers his argument:
“If God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
If he had started there, this could have easily become a condemnation of his questioners: “Who are you to hinder what God is doing through me?”
But, instead, Peter has walked his community, step-by-step, through the process of transformation:
He has placed himself alongside them in their hesitancy;
He has denied any special insight or righteousness that would allow him to condemn them;
And then he gently defines the journey out of their comfort zone as a journey that God is leading, and he invites them to follow God’s lead alongside him.
The joy of this story is that they do! They move from accusation and distrust to celebration of the new thing that God is doing!
Of course, in reporting such a result, I have to add the disclaimer that stories are not promises.
This is how the process worked with Peter and the Jerusalem church, but we are offered no guarantee that if we follow Peter’s 3-step path, we too can disarm all criticism and draw our accusers into celebration of the new thing we believe that God is doing.
The Bible is not an instruction manual that we simply need to decode in order to gain the secret formula for success.
The Bible is a witness.
It’s the story (or rather, the many stories) of our shared faith,
stories that invite us to see things from new perspectives and question how God might be lowering down a sheet from heaven for us, to embrace the gifts of God that we haven’t recognized before.
Whether you share my deep-rooted defensive instincts,
or are struggling with fear about changes in the church or in the world,
or are just feeling depleted and wondering where there is nourishment for your soul, I think that Peter’s story has an invitation for all of us.
It is an invitation to be fed by God’s provision, to release our defenses and hear God’s blessing on all that God has made… which includes you!
Thanks be to God.