July 24, 2016
Today we’re looking at Acts chapter 11. And this is actually a sneaky way of talking about Acts 10, which is the story of Peter and Cornelius. And it’s a much longer story in that chapter! But here in chapter 11, we have Peter ‘esplainin’ it all to the “council” in Jerusalem. So here we have more of the impact of the story, more of what other people felt about all the changes that were taking place.
If you remember the story, Peter was on his rooftop, and he saw a vision. And in that vision, he saw – three times! – something like a giant sheet being lowered from heaven. And the sheet was filled with all kinds of animals. More specifically, it was filled with all kinds of “unkosher” animals. And the voice of God told Peter he was now free to eat them. Well of course Peter said “No!” “I’ve always kept kosher, God!” But God persisted. And the key sentence in that story is, “What I say is clean is now clean!” In other words, the kosher laws were being ended! We can’t imagine what people felt about that!
Meanwhile, there was a parallel story going on. There was a man named Cornelius, and he was having his own vision. And in that vision, he saw a man named Peter coming to teach him something important about God. He didn’t know what that would be! But he obeyed the vision, and he sent for Peter. And by the way, Cornelius, and all of his household, were Gentiles.
Well, Peter realized (at some point) that those two visions were related. God was telling him, that, not only were the foods that used to be “off limits,” ok now, but the people who were considered “off limits,” were ok, too! That meant the Gentiles – the non-Jewish people – people like Cornelius and his family, they were to be part of God’s plan, too! (Not that they weren’t before, but God really meant it this time!)
Well, I have to tell you that, reading this story again, it was really impressed on me what impact this had on those people! That’s why I wanted us to deal with chapter 11, instead of just the story in chapter 10.
The time of Acts was a difficult time for God’s people. They meant well. They were proud of their traditions. They loved their faith. (Just like we would have!) Yet, there was a whole lot of new stuff going on! This guy Jesus was changing everything! God was working in powerful ways. The Holy Spirit was touching and empowering people in ways they had never experienced before. And if that weren’t enough, as all of these things were happening, now the people they were uncomfortable with were being included!
As Peter ‘esplained’ to the council, in all that was going on, the one thing that could not be denied was that “the same spirit” – the spirit that had come upon all of them – all the believers – at Pentecost, was now coming upon… the Gentiles!’
If we stop and think about that, I think we’ll see that it’s really hard for us to imagine what that was like. As I always say, we know it happened! We know what was going to happen! And we often think to ourselves, “wouldn’t it have been great to have been there, and to have witnessed all the mighty ‘Acts’ of God! But would it? These were disturbing things that were going on! Long held traditions were changing. And I’m betting many of us would have resisted that!
Think of old Peter. I actually like seeing him going through this time. It gives me a little more of a feel for him. Because Peter was the “leap before you look” guy. He was impetuous! He was brash! He often ‘spoke before he thought.’ “Hey Jesus, let me walk on the water, too!” “Crucified and killed? Surely that will never happen to you!” I think, if anyone would have spoken any objection to all of this, it would have been Peter!
But here in our story for day, he was telling the Council about his vision. And he told them how the vision came three times. And he told them of his objections. He said how three times he had argued against God! (Or twice, anyway!) But now he was convinced he understood. And now he was having to convince others! In doing so, he had to set aside his pride, his assumptions, and his impetuous nature. Here, above all, we have Peter learning to listen to God!
This was a tough subject for God’s people. What about these Gentiles? What should we say about them? That controversy would go on for a good part of the next few chapters of Acts. And here in Jerusalem, Peter was trying to convince the people, and he was having to answer to those who were called the “circumcision party.” At first, they wanted to know why Peter had gone to the Gentiles – the “uncircumcised” – in the first place! But later, we would see how they dealt with his story. They would eventually say, “Ok, if these Gentiles are going to be Christians, they’ve got to be made Jews, first!” (If you know what I mean!)
As crazy as that sounds to us – and as “uncomfortable” as it is to talk about – we have to know that it was a big issue! And it was about their traditions. It was about their laws. It was about all the religious “rules” and guidelines they were used to! There was a lot of “discomfort” flying around in those days! And it had to do with more than just the idea of “circumcision!” The bigger part of the “discomfort” was about the great changes that were happening all around them.
That’s tough, isn’t it? Change can be hard to accept! And we have seen many changes in our world, haven’t we? Moving from the 1900’s to the 2000’s, moving from the “Modern Age” to the “Post Modern Age,” we’ve seen a lot of changes in the word around us. We’re not living in a “Judeo-Christian” world the way we once were. Many of us may be struggling with the same visions Peter had. We may be called on to accept, and to ‘esplain’ our faith to people we never thought about before. God may be doing some new things among us. He may be calling us to reach out to people we never thought about before.
But whatever happens, the bottom line is what Jesus said to Nicodemus. We have to remember that Jesus said, “For God so loved the world…” he said. Notice that he didn’t say, “For God so loved his chosen people…” I think we can assume that. But this was about the fact that God so loved the world! And we can never short-change God’s love. And if we are to be the instruments of God’s love, we too must love the world. That may be just as uncomfortable to us as it was to the believers of Acts.
So, let us struggle. Let us seek God’s wisdom. Let us truly strive to know where God is leading us. It’s way too easy for us to get in the way of things. It’s way to comfortable just to go back to what “we’re used to.” As we look to the future, let us strive to step aside, and to look to what God may be doing in our world. And let us strive to love as he loved.
Eternal God, who so loved the world, help us to have your love within us. Help us to reach out with acts of kindness and understanding and respect for all your people. Help us to be instruments of your peace. We need your strength to do so. Helps us, that the same spirit may be within us, too. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.