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‘Let’s dream our half’ of the future of preaching, professor tells Festival of Homiletics

Dr. Anna Carter Florence explores Acts 10, one of the crazier accounts describing the early church

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Anna Carter Florence

LOUISVILLE — “As great as it would be to have precise blueprints for preaching and the future church, I’m kind of glad we don’t,” Dr. Anna Carter Florence told more than 1,300 people listening to her preach last week during the Festival of Homiletics. “Especially after a passage like this.”

The passage at hand for the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary was Acts 10:1-36 and 42-48, the account of Peter and Cornelius finding one another so that the spark of the early church would continue.

The story includes two separate reports. In one, Peter sees something like a sheet descending from heaven filled with “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” A voice tells him to eat and Peter resists. As he’s puzzled by the vision, Cornelius the centurion’s men appear at the house where Peter is staying and urge him to go see Cornelius. The Spirit confirms the invitation, and so, accompanied by believers from Joppa, Peter goes to where, Florence said, “a bleacher full of Gentiles is waiting for what Peter has to say.”

After he arrives, Cornelius tells Peter of the second startling report: A man in dazzling clothing instructed him to send for Peter. “So now,” Cornelius tells Peter, according to Acts, “all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” Peter delivers his famous speech about now realizing that God shows no partiality, the Holy Spirit falls upon everyone who hears the word, and Peter orders baptisms for all those “who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” Peter is invited to stay with Cornelius for a few days.

Imagine, Florence said, someone from the future saying, “God is going to do a new thing in your preaching. We have developed a biblical model for your preaching based on Acts 10 that will let you preach your way into the future church without a hitch. We have great lectures and theories on what the future church will look like.”

But what we preachers are expecting,” Florence said, “we don’t really know.”

“We’re expecting to be surprised. We know that,” Florence said. “We’re expecting God will show up and the Spirit will move and take us with it — forward, we hope. But maybe there’s another question, an Acts 10 question: Who is expecting us? Because whatever new thing God is doing, we can’t perceive it on our own. Whatever vision God gives us, we only get half, and we need to find who holds the other half.”

“Who is expecting us, and what vision has God given them to join with ours?”

According to Florence, Peter had an explanation for everything God was doing in the first days of the early church, and he didn’t hesitate to speak about it. “Maybe he disrupted so many people’s theologies, he needed reminding that God could disrupt his, too,” Florence said. “He was good, but he wasn’t God.”

By chapter 11, Peter and Cornelius are no longer together. The spotlight moves with Peter to Jerusalem, Florence noted, and Cornelius doesn’t appear again. “But the story is one Peter continues to tell, over and over, as he tries to explain his own conversion, and his preaching conversion,” Florence said. We thought we were God’s people, Peter tells anyone who will listen, but that was before I had my dream and my friend Cornelius had his vision, and God brought us together.

“It’s such a beautiful story, a familiar story about insiders and outsiders, befores and afterwards,” Florence said, “and God’s astonishing act of messing with our heads no matter what we think the game or the menu is about, no matter how hard and fast the rules. God likes to change things up at a moment’s notice, to flip the switch on what we think qualifies as clean and profane, faith and unfaith, Christian and unchristian — or just wildly unexpected. God likes to do a new thing — even in our preaching, just to keep it lively, just to keep the church vital and people hopping while amazing grace floods the field.”

Cornelius wasn’t like Nicodemus, Florence said, going to Jesus at night. “He was willing to risk what his family and friends would think about this situation, and he invited them to witness it,” Florence said. “Cornelius was expecting that God might do something new, that the vision he had was incomplete —not profane, just startling. Not awe-inspiring, not yet, but a two-dimensional view on the screen, with potential.”

“Peter preached a great sermon that day — arguably his best,” Florence said. “But Cornelius shows us where that sermon came from. It came from deep listening, great expectation, an encounter with the other — which the other initiated.”

What if, she asked, “the vitality of the church’s witness in the future is totally dependent on our willingness to discern that, to recognize that our biggest diversions, our greatest fears, are really invitations to God’s new thing? I wonder about that.”

Is this what preachers should be praying for, “that God will send us our own Cornelius, someone with whom we share deep theological differences as well as overlapping dreams? Will the Pentecosts of the future take place in someone’s living room instead of our own sanctuaries? Perhaps so.”

“Maybe we proclaim God best when we stop aiming for the conversion of others and start listening for our own conversions,” Florence said. “Maybe vitality is the willingness to be depleted so that God can do a new thing and form us for a future church.”

While “it would be nice to have blueprints for how to emerge from a pandemic with a church that’s still vital … I don’t think we need those blueprints,” Florence said. “We’ve got this wild book of Acts, which puts the words ‘reformed and always reforming’ into perspective.”

“We’ve got Peter, for whom God arranged a nice little rumpus of a picnic on the roof that day, and we’ve got Cornelius, who is out there somewhere expecting us to bring our half of a messy, cryptic, crazy vision,” Florence said.

“What God has made clean we must not call profane. What God will make vital, we must go out and seek.”

“And what God is doing next in our preaching for the future of the church, it will spring forth. Let’s dream our half of it. Amen.”

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