It was a number of years ago now when a well known and well respected news anchor of one of the big networks broke a story about then President Bush and how badly he behaved in relation to the draft and Vietnam, the National Guard, and serving this country. It made the President look like a terrible person and might have ruined his reelection chances except for one thing. It was not true.
The news anchor got the scoop off an obscure website and failed at Journalism 101. He failed to verify the information. It turned out the document was forged, and the result was the news anchor was the one who lost his job and had to step down.
I recall Woodward and Bernstein, their investigation into the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post – the scandal that eventually brought down former President Nixon. I remember the book and the movie, All the President’s Men, and in particular their hard-nosed editor. The editor really only had one line in the movie, though he often repeated it. Is it verified? Do you have a second source that can back up this assertion, this information? He was not going to put anything in print that was not verified. He did the job right.
My own writing tends to gravitate to fiction, young-adult adventures in the science fiction and fantasy direction. But when I am not living, as my wife calls it, in my own little fantasy bubble, I am focused on commentaries and meditations on the faith and the scriptures. I have written a number Lectionary Reflections which I suppose will one day be collected into book form. I have penned magazine articles, educational materials, even sermons and lectures when I am invited to give my two cents. I even managed a few lines of translation in the NRSV back in the days when I was being a student and all around intellectual dork at Princeton. But I never forget the basic lesson. Verify.
I am not the journalist, but my father was and my brother is and it is in my blood and pounded into my head. The testimony of two is true, the scriptures say. This matters. Try Wikipedia. You won’t have to search very far before you find an article where there are notes asking, “What is the source for this information?” Verify, verify.
In our Christian faith we have two sources and two back-ups which can guide us in our days. The sources are the Holy Spirit, which is not at all understood in these secular, skeptical days, and the Bible – the Word of God, written. These two must agree before we act as a church or as individual believers. A great deal of trouble would be avoided if those feelings and thoughts that we believe may be the inspiration of the Spirit of God were only verified first by the Word of God before they were done. Indeed, a great deal of heresy and foolishness would be avoided as well.
For back-up, we have 2000 years of Christian teaching, most of which is consistent and clear. Christians may argue around the edges, like what baptism might be appropriate and why, but baptism itself is not questioned. Neither is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Neither is the salvation which is grace to us in his name. Neither is all that really matters in terms of faith and grace and love for God and neighbor. We have a great cloud of witnesses, as the scriptures tell us. And then we also have this: 2000 years of church tradition.
Church tradition is the least reliable back-up, but not without meaning. Church tradition is the main reason we are divided into so many denominations. It is the reason there are so many struggles in congregations. It is the bright young Pastor who comes in with a suggestion and someone on the board stands up and mouths those seven deadly words: “We never did it that way before.”
Church tradition is the reason those two gentlemen stranded on the deserted island founded the First Baptist Church and the Second Baptist Church.
I recall that meeting of the board where they discussed the little graveyard that nestled up to the side of the church. Some people were determined to see a fence built around the site because the graves were being disturbed by people tromping through en-route to some other destination. Most strongly wanted a fence and only needed to determine how to pay for it. But then one stingy scrooge stood up and reasoned this way.
“I don’t see any need for a fence around the graveyard. I believe the people who are not in there don’t really want to go in there, and the people who are in there certainly are not trying to get out.” I suppose some people just cannot stand to spend money. There is one in every congregation.
Church tradition is not reliable in itself. I repeat, the testimony of two is true, and we must always refer to our sources (Scripture and the Holy Spirit), but after 2000 years, it is not a wholly unreliable back-up and sometimes worthy of consideration. We can all learn from church tradition, even if it is just a new way to share the Lord’s Supper (Communion, the Eucharist, etc.).
So now at last we come to Acts 11, and what do we find? We find that Peter is guilty of a serious breach of Jewish teaching and tradition (synagogue, like church teaching and tradition) Peter went into a gentile house and broke bread with a gentile. Lordy, Lordy!
What did Peter do? He appealed to the sources. He told how God (the Holy Spirit) showed him what God calls clean, he should not call unclean. So he went with the gentiles and into the house because God lead him there by visions and angels. Then he hit the two source notes. While he was telling them the Word of God (the Good News, the Gospel, Evangel, all about Jesus – source one), the Holy Spirit (source two) fell upon them even as it fell upon the apostles at the beginning. What could the objectors say?
They had no more objections. They said, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”