Discerning Church Learning to discern the movement of God's Spirit


A few weeks ago, I was directed by the lectionary to Acts 11. I found this passage so compelling that I decided to spend an extended period of time mediating on it. I slowly read through each verse and looked for words that stuck out to me. I found this story astonishingly relevant to the issue of discerning in churches.

In Acts 11, Peter is undergoing criticism from other church leaders because he ate with Gentiles.

(Acts 11:1-3 NIV) The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

If you have served in ministry for any length of time, you know that criticism is not uncommon in the church. In fact, to serve in ministry without criticism is nearly impossible. But this time, Peter is involved in something that he himself would have considered out of bounds just a short time earlier. Peter relates his story. I love how Luke describes it.

(Acts 11:4 NIV) Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story:

Peter describes a vision from God in which animals are let down from heaven on a large sheet. Many of the animals were considered unclean by Jews. God instructs Peter to eat.

(Acts 11:7 NIV) Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’

Peter’s response is one of mixed emotions. While confessing that God is in charge (he calls him Lord v.8), Peter refuses to consume what he considers unclean. God continues to point Peter in the same direction.

(Acts 11:9-10 NIV) “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.

The assumption is that Peter refused the second and third time. The number three seems to be a common theme for Peter, doesn’t it? (Mark 14:66-72, John 21:15-17). As we follow the story, three men show up at Peter’s house (there is that number again). The language indicates that Peter has little time to consider his options (Right then … v. 11). I love this next part. Look at what Peter says.

(Acts 11:12 NIV) The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them.

While Peter is skeptical about what is happening, he is attentive to the prompting of the Spirit. I wonder how he knew this? Was it an audible voice from the Holy Spirit? Did he somehow feel the Holy Spirit’s urging inside of him? Peter had much experience with the Holy Spirit. He was at Pentecost (Acts 2) when the Holy Spirit descended on the church. He navigated various trials and promptings throughout the book of Acts. It seems safe to say that Peter was familiar with the Holy Spirit and when pricked by the movement of the Holy Spirit, Peter recognizes it and acts in obedience. A second dynamic in verse 12 should be examined. Peter does not go alone.

(Acts 11:12 NIV) These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house.

While Peter identified the occasion as a Holy Spirit moment, he had the wisdom to include others in his action. The men travel to Caesarea and witness a powerful movement of God in that place. Peter speaks and the Holy Spirit descends on the Gentile believers. So Peter is attentive to the Holy Spirit and has the foresight to bring others with him on his venture. Yet one final observation should be noted. Peter recalls the words of Jesus and relates his experience to Jesus’ prediction. The words of Jesus (the Word of God) affirm Peter’s encounter with the Gentiles in Caesarea.

(Acts 11:16 NIV) Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

At this point, Peter is able to discern God’s movement; he concludes that God is in this.

(Acts 11:17 NIV) So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

I love this story. The elements of surprise, courage and action inspire us as we seek God’s movement in our world. As discerning churches, we should consider the application of this story. First of all, Peter is surprised by God’s promptings. As I have been active in various discernment processes, I have almost always encountered elements of surprise. Some new insight or fresh direction is usually a part of discerning. Secondly, Peter has the courage to go with God. While the opportunity seems to happen fast and without much warning, Peter acts. Too often, we miss out on Spirit led opportunities because we need to consider the implications a bit too long. Sometimes, God will require us to move quickly. Thirdly, Peter is wise as he includes others in the experience. He does not advance into unknown territory alone. As we step into risky ventures, may we do it collectively. When God calls us, He will affirm (through the Holy Spirit) His direction in others. You might remember that even Jesus sent his disciples out two by two (Mark 6:7). Finally, we can ratify God’s direction through consistency with His Word. God will not call us on tracks that are contrary to His Word. As we affirm the Bible’s authority for the church, God will uphold His Word as He sends us out. Paul speaks of testing and approving (Romans 12:2) the direction of God in our lives. We must be careful to allow the Word of God to be central in our discerning.

How might God be calling us into the new and unknown? Are we hesitating because of fear and uncertainty? Are we discerning in teams rather than alone? Are we keeping the Word of God at the heart of our discerning? My prayer is that the Acts 11 story would become a key part of our discerning narrative in 2016.