A Homily from Acts 11:1-18
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
May 9, 2004 (Fifth Sunday of Easter)
During the season of Easter, the texts for any given Sunday are generally more diverse than the texts for other Sundays in the Christian Calendar. They normally include a post-resurrection account from the gospels, a passage from Revelation encouraging us in the hope of our own resurrection and the resurrection of the Earth; and – from the book of Acts – an historical account of the development of the Early Church. The choices for the sermon focus, then, are: What God Did with Jesus, What God Did in the Early Church, and What God Will Do for Us.
Those are all pretty tempting, but the Acts passage for today describes a moment in the life of the early Church that is so pivotal that – particularly in light of current events – it deserves our attention. The setting for today’s text is Jerusalem, the center of the early Church. Peter has returned there, after spending time in Joppa and Caesarea preaching the gospel.
Generally such a homecoming would have been cause for rejoicing, as the gathered Apostles celebrated the spread of the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In this case, however, Peter probably approached his return with some trepidation. He had made a fairly major decision while in the field, and he hadn’t cleared it with headquarters first. While in Joppa, Peter had baptized an entire household of Gentiles, joining them into what had been an exclusively Jewish body of believers. The early believers thought that following Jesus also meant following the Torah. For them, being a faithful Jew and a good Christian are inseperable.
So, when Peter arrives in Jerusalem, he faces some tough questions. We are told that the Apostles and the whole community had heard about what Peter had done. Our NRSV translation says, “the apostles and the believers” had heard; but the Greek literally reads, “the apostles and the brothers” or “the apostles and the brothers and sisters.” This isn’t about Peter letting Gentiles into a club or a civic organization or even a “church” as many people think about churches. This is about Peter letting people into the family. As Paul Duke once commented on a similar passage, “I can choose my friends, but I don’t get to choose my family.”
Peter has made a decision with consequences for them all. From this point on, Gentiles – people who scorn the very words of God regarding faithfulness and purity – are part of their family. The Christians in Jerusalem will have to love them and care for them and, perhaps even worse, socialize with them. The faithful brothers and sisters of Jerusalem sound less than thrilled.
When Peter gets back, the offended Christians pounce. “Peter, why did you eat with uncircumcised men?” “Why did you share a table with those kind of people? You know that God says all throughout the Bible that we’re not supposed to dirty ourselves by eating with those kinds of people. Now, because of what you did, we are going to be expected to associate with them too! It may be OK for a radical like you, but why did you have to drag us into it to. Not only will we have to share in one of their filthy, disgusting meals; but now they get to share in the promise of the Lord’s Supper as well. Unclean, unfaithful lips will taste the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Peter, how could you do such a thing?”
Before we go on to Peter’s response, it might be good to pause and remember that it is difficult for us to hear the outrage of the early Christians without some bias. After all, we are the unclean gentiles who so concerned them. We do not observe the ritual or dietary purity that defined God’s faithful followers for thousands of years. It is us they are speaking against.
But that does not mean that they don’t have a point. The very scriptures which Jesus cited to prove his legitimacy also carry excruciatingly specific instructions about what God expects of us. They describe what a person can and cannot eat and how they can eat it. They describe what a person can and cannot wear, whom they can touch and whom they cannot, and what they can or cannot do on certain days.
Everything is very clearly worded, and there are no exceptions given. You are either a faithful follower of God or you are a member of “the nations”, the “Gentiles”. Adhering to those standards allowed the Jewish people to preserve their cultural and religious identity despite unbelievable persecution. When the other groups in the region were getting assimilated, the children of Jacob stayed together and stayed separate.
In addition, clear standards and specific expectations made it very easy to tell who was being faithful and who was not. Bagels and lox for breakfast, you’re faithful. Bacon and eggs? Heathen!
Peter’s decision to eat with, and then baptize, uncircumcised Gentiles threatens to throw that entire setup out of whack. If ritual and diet don’t define the faithful followers of Christ, then what does? How can we be brothers and sisters if we cannot agree about what God has told us to do? If we aren’t willing to accept the same rules, the same guidelines, the same identity; how can we be one body?
Peter, what were you thinking?
Peter says, “Well, you see, I had a dream.” Right there you know they’re not going to like what Peter has to say. Dreamers are dangerous people. And Peter’s dream is every bit as bad as they probably expect it to be.
Peter describes a large sheet, perhaps like a picnic blanket, being lowered from heaven. On it is every kind of animal you can imagine, including reptiles and birds. Then God speaks in the dream and tells Peter, “Get up, go kill those things, and then eat them.”
Peter is horrified. (I must confess, he couldn’t be more horrified than I am. This is a miserable text for a vegetarian.) Nevertheless, it seems equally unpleasant for him as an observant Jew. Peter says, “I’ve never eaten anything like that! You told us not to, so I didn’t.”
God’s reply is indisputable, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” With that, God yanks the blanket back up to Heaven, and Peter awakens to find three messengers waiting for him. He is led by the Spirit to follow them, and they take him to Caesarea, to the home of a Gentile named Cornelius.
When he gets there, he shares the gospel; and we have the gist of his message recorded in the preceding chapter. (If you ever need the gospel in short form, Acts 10:34-44 is the place to find it.) If you will forgive me for abridging Peter further, he says in essence, “I know that God shows no partiality. God sent the message to Israel that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. Jesus healed the sick and did good things, and we saw it. He was put to death, and we saw him after he was raised from the dead. We are commanded to preach this to all people, that all prophets testify that anyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
That message requires no embellishment, no modification, and no changes to be preached today; two thousand years after Peter proclaimed it to Cornelius and his household. When it is proclaimed, lives are transformed; and that’s what happened in Caesarea that day. Peter describes watching as the presence of the Holy Sprit transforms the Gentiles who had brought him to their home.
Peter reports that the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles just as it had come upon the Apostles, Jesus’ closest friends. The evidence of the Spirit’s presence was so clear, that Peter could not dispute it. He tells his critics in Jerusalem that he realized at that moment, “If God gave them the same gift that we were given when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Who am I that I could hinder God? That’s a good question. The short answer, regardless of who asks it, is, “Quite frankly, we are inconsequential little bugs when it comes to hindering God.” There is nothing Peter could have done to hinder God. God had already sent the Holy Spirit. Cornelius’ family had already accepted the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. They were going to do God’s work, no matter what Peter said; the Holy Spirit wasn’t going to give them a choice.
Peter’s only choice was to either be a part of what God was doing, or miss out. Peter chose to get on board; and from that moment, Christianity became a religion open to all who accepted the gospel.
Peter’s account of the happening at Cornelius’ house leaves his critics in stunned silence. They realize that there is only one response, they praise God saying, “God has given the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
But what of their valid concerns? What about the identity of the faithful? How would inviting those who did not live under the authority of the codes of the Law affect fellowship and unity? Were their fears unfounded?
Apparently not. We can tell from writings like Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth that some of the new believers took the idea of freedom in Christ to mean that they were free to do anything. In addition, various heresies would quickly develop and distort the gospel as Christianity spread to more and more people.
The leaders of the early Church were right to be concerned. The simplest way to preserve a group’s identity is to keep it small and to keep the entrance requirements strict. When you throw wide the doors and say, “Anyone who believes the gospel is welcome here,” you never know who might walk in.
Then again, we never know whom God may have invited in the first place.
That’s an easy message to preach here at Virginia-Highland, where we decided years ago to make a distinction between the gospel of Jesus Christ; and all of the external trappings that people like to tack on to what they think “Christian” behavior is.
Unfortunately, that battle continues elsewhere in the larger Church family. One large Christian denomination met only this week to repudiate the actions of a church court that had failed to discipline a lesbian minister. For them, the evidence of God’s clear call in the minister’s life is not sufficient. They are not alone in drawing that line.
Even as we ask, “Who are they to hinder God?” they almost certainly ask us, “Who are we to contradict what God has said?”
Who was Peter, to go against the very scriptures and prophets who testified to Jesus’ divinity? Who are we to do the same when we ordain women, or when we unite two men or two women in marriage? Like Peter, we aren’t trying to contradict anything. We are just trying to keep up with what God is doing. When the call of God, when the power of the Holy Spirit, so obviously have no respect for lines of sex or sexual orientation or gender identity; we can only do what Peter did and praise God that divine power is greater and more generous than our understanding.
Again, that is an easy message to preach here; but no biblical text should be too easy. So where is the challenge for Virginia-Highland Church in Peter’s story? Where should we be chastised, or self-critical.
Perhaps we should ask, “Who are our Gentiles? Who are the people that we assume aren’t real believers because they do not observe our rituals or read the scriptures as we do?” For each of us the answer may be different. It may be that Pentecostals, with their exuberant worship, are our Gentiles. Perhaps fundamentalists, with their insistence on biblical literalism are our Gentiles.
However we define those groups, when we consider them we should echo Peter: “Who are we to hinder God?” Wherever the gospel is preached, wherever lives are transformed, there we will find our brothers and sisters; and we don’t get to pick our family. If God can work in vessels as flawed as we are; God can work with anyone. Just because they don’t have it all figured out, don’t presume to think that we do.
Yet along with that reminder, Peter’s story offers us perhaps another word of caution. Even as the early Church realized that they could no longer define themselves according to the Jewish purity code; they likewise realized that they had to center themselves on something. They chose the gospel. It is the gospel that drew Cornelius into the family, and it is the gospel – the good news of our redemption from our sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – that held the ever-expanding family of the Church together.
Over the centuries, our understanding of the “rules” of doing Church has changed considerably; but the gospel never has. In every generation, people come to our door seeking hope, seeking healing, seeking mercy, seeking forgiveness; and they find it in the loving faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
Even as we strive to let everyone know that they are welcome through our door, we are called to also remember to share the good news that Peter proclaimed so many years ago. If we preach it, if we trust it, the gospel will do its work; and who are we to hinder the work of God?