Saturday, 1 May 2010

5th Sunday of Easter: Cognitive Dissonance - How easily do we change what we believe?

Acts 11:1-18

Peter’s Report to the Church at Jerusalem

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

John 13:31-35
The New Commandment

When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’


We, as Christians, are regularly challenged in the media about what we believe. There are numerous secular voices, and now some prominent comedians and writers who feel that our beliefs are fair game. I’m sure that for some Christians it can be very difficult to cling to what they believe in, in the face of some of the difficult questions that we are asked.

However, I think that there is a much more difficult task that faces us sometimes than withstanding the verbal assaults of the faithless. We think we are stalwarts of the faith, but what happens when someone we trust, who has a living faith, challenges us about something that we believe and hold firmly to?

How difficult is it for us to give up believing in something that has been proven wrong? What kind of processes do we have to go through in order to stop believing something when we are confronted with the possibility that we may have been genuinely mistaken?

When I was a new Christian, back in my mid-teens, I was typically enthusiastic in that kind of way that more mature believers can find a little tiresome. I firmly believed that God was in control of everything, and that whatever happened, happened for a reason. I managed to maintain that belief for quite a number of years, that is until people close to me, people my age, started dying.

I lost one friend to a coach crash, another to cancer and a third to suicide. Gradually within my deepest self I felt ill at ease with this belief, and had to start to search for something new to replace it with. That was a long journey of several years into my early thirties before I finally accepted that God creates the universe with the freedom to be what it is. He can pull goodness out of disaster, but disasters do not necessarily have any reason for occurring.

I had believed God controlled everything, and I went from that to believing God permits freewill and freedom to have a large stake in the future. It has been quite a journey, but it began with a sense of what I observed did not match up with what I thought was true. The technical name for this is ‘cognitive dissonance’, which describes beautifully that journey we go on from where something that used to make sense to us begins to nag away at us and we have to choose either to ignore it or explore it.

Now let’s turn to our reading from Acts because there we see a beautiful example of Peter going on just such a journey. If you remember from last week Peter has been healing people and raised one women, Tabitha, from the dead. The story ended last week with the line that he stayed for a lengthy time in Joppa at the house of Simon the tanner.

Now this is deeply significant because Simon the Tanner worked with animal carcasses. That meant that he was considered to be pretty much unclean and disreputable by the standards of Jewish law. The very fact that Peter was staying with him suggests to me that he was already being challenged deep within his spirit about his beliefs regarding who was acceptable to God and who was not. Peter was already in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Into that situation, we read, came a vision from the Holy Spirit in which something like a large sheet from heaven was lowered to Peter, and on it were all sorts of unclean animals, and the divine command from heaven was that he should kill and eat. When Peter describes the vision he doesn’t mention that he was actually hungry at the time, according to the story as it originally happened back in chapter ten, so the Holy Spirit was working with Peter’s situation.

Peter declares that nothing unclean has ever entered his mouth, yet we know that he is already living with someone who is not exactly clean in Jewish terms. The Lord shows Peter this vision three times, significant because to get the same vision three times underlines its truth and its importance. Finally the penny drops and Peter comes out through the end of his tunnel of cognitive dissonance with a new understanding that the Gospel is for everyone, not just Jews.

At precisely that moment, and don’t we love God’s timing, the gentiles from Caesarea arrive and invite Peter to come back with them. He goes to the house of Cornelius the centurion and as he begins to preach, so the Holy Spirit descends on the gentiles and the spread of the good news beyond the Jews begins.

Now look at the reaction of the apostles and believers right back at the beginning of the passage. Peter’s actions has sent them on this journey of cognitive dissonance. They could not understand why he had gone into the house of unclean gentiles. So outraged were they that they questioned Peter, Peter the one to whom Jesus had said, ‘I give you the keys to heaven.’

The whole reason for Peter recounting the story as we have it here is for him to take them on the journey that he has travelled, to go through that place of dis-ease within the spirit into a place of accepting a new truth, a radical truth, a vital truth, that the Gospel is for everyone. Can you imagine how it could all have turned out differently if it hadn’t been for Peter’s courage?

We sometimes belittle Peter for being a bit of a hothead, prone to speaking his mind before engaging his brain. But here it is his courage that makes a huge difference. He was challenged about what he believed and he went with the challenge, and because of that a new and deeper truth released the Gospel into the wider world where eventually it would reach our distant shores.

So now let’s turn the spotlight on ourselves. What are the kinds of things that we are ill at ease about? What are the issues in our faith that we are challenged about? How do we respond? When something challenges what you believe, what do you do with it? Do you try and ignore it and hope it goes away, or instead do you go with it, taking your courage in both hands and start to investigate?

At the heart of this is a very deep question. Are we willing to admit to ourselves that we might be mistaken? And are we willing to do something about it? So let me offer this to you. Part of my job, and it should be a big part, is to listen to you and to help you work your way through such things. If you want to talk about matters that trouble you, you need only ask.

You see it may be the Holy Spirit who is prompting you. Amen.

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