The news traveled fast and in no time the leaders and friends back in Jerusalem heard about it—heard that the non-Jewish “outsiders” were now “in.” When Peter got back to Jerusalem, some of his old associates, concerned about circumcision, called him on the carpet: “What do you think you’re doing rubbing shoulders with that crowd, eating what is prohibited and ruining our good name?”
So Peter, starting from the beginning, laid it out for them step-by-step: “Recently I was in the town of Joppa praying. I fell into a trance and saw a vision: Something like a huge blanket, lowered by ropes at its four corners, came down out of heaven and settled on the ground in front of me. Milling around on the blanket were farm animals, wild animals, reptiles, birds—you name it, it was there. Fascinated, I took it all in.
“Then I heard a voice: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, Master. I’ve never so much as tasted food that wasn’t kosher.’ The voice spoke again: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’ This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the sky.
“Just then three men showed up at the house where I was staying, sent from Caesarea to get me. The Spirit told me to go with them, no questions asked. So I went with them, I and six friends, to the man who had sent for me. He told us how he had seen an angel right in his own house, real as his next-door neighbor, saying, ‘Send to Joppa and get Simon, the one they call Peter. He’ll tell you something that will save your life—in fact, you and everyone you care for.’
“So I started in talking. Before I’d spoken half a dozen sentences, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us the first time. I remembered Jesus’ words: ‘John baptized with water; you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So I ask you: If God gave the same exact gift to them as to us when we believed in the Master Jesus Christ, how could I object to God?” Hearing it all laid out like that, they quieted down. And then, as it sank in, they started praising God. “It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to Life!”
The book of Acts is believed to have been written by Luke who is also the author of the Gospel of Luke. Originally Luke and Acts were one continuous text. When the New Testament was put together into what we have today, the 4 Gospels were grouped together. Scholars of that day decided the order—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, then Acts. Reading Luke and Acts as one book gives you a sense of Luke’s passion for Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises, the reliability of God’s word, and the work of the Holy Spirit.
The book of Acts is also known as the story of the “birth” of the church. It is helpful to know Jesus is portrayed by Luke as having set the stage for the gospel to be spread beyond Jerusalem. The lesson for today is about halfway through Acts. We find Peter defending something that happened in Joppa. A Gentile, non-Jew, and therefore, not circumcised, had been filled with the Holy Spirit and baptized by Peter in Joppa. His name is Cornelius.
“What were you thinking, Peter? You were with these outsiders, these Gentiles…and you ate with them. What were you thinking?” Remember these were Jews who followed Jewish law. “You just went ahead and baptized them without consulting us, Peter?” Peter tells them the whole story.
“I was in Joppa praying…and I had this vision. Right after I had this vision— which by the way, happened not once, not twice, but three times—these men show up to take me to Cornelius, a Gentile.”
“The vision…well, you just wouldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t believe if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. This sheet comes down and on it—these things we have never eaten and were they ug-g-g-ly. Pigs, and birds of prey, and shellfish, and…well, let me just remind you that nothing unclean has ever touched my lips. Yet God told me to kill and eat those unclean animals. Then when I get to Cornelius’ house and I begin to tell them about Jesus, the Holy Spirit falls on them just like it did on us in Jerusalem. “If God was giving them this same gift, how can I object to God?”
In chapter 10 we read the whole account of Peter’s vision and what happened when he visited Cornelius. Peter learns in that experience that God plays no favorites. Even in those days, news like this travels fast and by the time Peter gets back to Jerusalem, he is called on the carpet and has to explain himself.
This story changed the course of Christianity—Gentiles could be followers of the Christ…and they did not have to be circumcised and become Jews first. What we don’t always remember is the Christian faith has always struggled with these kinds of issues.
God called Peter to reach beyond himself and learn to love differently. Those who were with Peter said “we’ve never loved that way before.” When God calls us to go beyond our comfort zones, it may mean doing things we’ve never done before. It may mean learning to reach past our old experiences to new methods, ideas, and possibilities. We may have to re-invent, adopt, embrace new ministries, new methods, new images, new extensions of our faith.
History is evidence of the places and times where humanity has struggled to allow God to love the “Gentile.” Humanity has the hang up with who’s worthy—not God. Peter had never done it this way before. Not only was Cornelius converted, so was Peter.
At one point in my life, I was Peter to the core. Nothing unclean had ever touched my lips. I knew the only way to God was through Jesus and being saved was the only way to heaven and eternal life. The Bible was quoted as confirmation of those things and many more. The Gentiles in my life were those who were not Christian, including Jews who needed to accept Jesus. But it wasn’t only other faiths who were excluded from my list of who’s in and who’s out—it was other Christians, too. I was taught to not associate with people who were not Christian and even those who were “different types of Christian.” It seemed weird because I had friends who were Catholic and Lutheran and Presbyterian—at that point I’d never heard of the UCC. Working in Chicago when I was a college student I got to know people who were Jews, people who were atheists and people who believed things I’d never considered before. And I liked them.
The message in my head said I was in dangerous territory. I wasn’t reading the Bible and following God in the way I had been taught. Actually I was reading the Bible and going to church, but not as my family wanted. I took a job in a United Church of Christ as choir director and I married one of the choir members. And then when our first child was born, and he was baptized as an infant—pardon my language—all hell broke loose and I began a long, hard journey to figure out what I do with all this. The short version of this long story is God sent me to seminary and called me to be a pastor in the United Church of Christ. God lowered a sheet, not just three times, but over and over and over again—guess I was a slow learner. On the sheet instead of animals were Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, gays, lesbians, agnostics and atheists, people of color—the whole rainbow of God’s humanity. And God kept reminding me—these people are my people, too. They are not profane or an abomination—they are loved like you.
At times I wanted to just walk away from the whole thing—scrap the Bible and scrap Christianity. God just kept putting people in my way—people who opened the Bible to me and revealed a God who was stillspeaking; people who I got to know like Peter got to know Cornelius; people who showed me that God shows no partiality . And through it all was God who kept pulling me out of my comfort zone. God broke through and opened me up to Life.
It isn’t always easy to be where I am and where we are as a congregation. We are often told what we practice here at St. John is not acceptable, usually with the tagline “because the Bible says….” There will always be someone who will challenge our understanding of God and our reading of the Bible. I’m not sure what we can do about that other than to keep taking the Bible seriously but not literally, trusting God, and being open to God’s call. God will take care of the rest of it. Jesus left us with a task and if someone says to you “the Bible says”—here’s one you can quote:
“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 you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35