Isaiah 55:6-13, Acts 10:1-16
July 13, 2014
This story begins the next big controversy in the book of Acts. The first one was about the Jewish leadership and their reaction to this new ministry, the ministry which was being carried out in the name of “Jesus the Christ.” We’ve been looking at that over the last few weeks. Well, next on the “hit parade” was the question of what the new Christian Church was to think about the Gentiles who were coming to the faith?
Now, from our perspective, we can’t imagine how that could have been a problem. But it was. As Jews, they believed in the purity of their race, and orthodoxy of their religion. Already they’d had a problem with the Samaritans. Remember them? The Samaritans had “sullied” the purity of the race. While much of the nation of Israel was in exile in Babylon years before, the Samaritans had remained behind in the land. And they had done the unthinkable! They had intermarried with the other people of the region. And because of that, there was a wall of animosity between them and the Jewish people.
So now, what were these new followers of Jesus – again, these good and faithful Jewish “Christians” – what were they to think about the Gentiles who were responding to the new Gospel of Jesus the Christ? Let alone the Samaritans! How were the Gentiles to be included? As I said, that became a big controversy that would go on for several more chapters of Acts.
Well, while you’re thinking about that, remember that these new “Christians” were also trying to figure out their relationship with their regular Jewish brothers and sisters, those who had not come to the new faith! At first they were worshipping together with them in the Temple and synagogues, because they believed the Good News about Jesus was just the next stage in Judaism. So it was natural that they worship with their fellow Jews – just as they had all their lives!
But now, they seemed to be moving toward a separate tradition. They were having to find new places to worship. And while that was happening, the were now beginning to see many Gentiles coming to the new faith, and doing so in miraculous ways! That would seem to indicate that God himself was orchestrating this! All of that is the context of our story for today. How was the church to deal with all these other people coming to the faith?
Well, today we have the story of the vision of Peter. Here we find Peter on the rooftop of the house where he was staying. Luke tells us that he was in a “trance.” That seems to mean that he was in some kind of “spiritual state of mind.” And he had a vision. He saw what looked like a giant sheet being lowered in front of him. In it was an assortment of the animals that the Jewish people considered “unclean.” In other words, “un-kosher.” These were animals they were not permitted to eat!
A voice accompanied the vision. And the voice said, “Go ahead, Peter.” “Eat any of these things!” And Peter said, “No way, God! I’ve always kept Kosher!” (This would sound better with a Jewish accent!) And the voice said, (also with a Jewish accent!) “What I have now called ‘clean,’ you must never again call ‘unclean.’” As you can imagine, this was not a very easy thing for a “good Jewish boy” to take! But after he protested, Peter was shown the same vision two more times! Clearly, God was telling him that things were about to change.
Then, to add emphasis – to add an exclamation point to this whole thing – there was a knock on the door. And very quickly we find this to be a story within a story. (We see those a number of places in the scriptures. Remember the story of the servant of Jairus and the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment!) At the door are these men who are there to find Peter, and to ask him to come tell the Good News to the people of the household of this man named Cornelius. And Cornelius was a Gentile. He was considered “unclean” to the Jewish people!
Peter soon realized that this whole thing had a dual message. Yes, God was changing the dietary laws for the people – perhaps to accommodate the new converts to Christianity. But he was also telling him that the views they had of which people were ‘unclean’ also needed to change! The Gentiles were to be included!
I don’t know if we can really appreciate how difficult that would be for these disciples in the early days of the Church! Sometimes we see these guys as saints in paintings, or as statues with haloes over their heads. Or at least we see them as the authors of the Bible, or spiritual leaders of the Church, guys who already knew what was happening to them. (Which of course we now know!) But they were humans like us. It took a while for them to get some things through their heads. These things were uncomfortable for them! And I’m sure they would have for us if we were in their place.
So think about that. If God told us the rules we live by were changing, how would we react? I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that our ways are very important to us. Those thing that are familiar are comforting to us. Upset our thinking, or our social norms, or even our schedule, and it can be very difficult for us! Change our beliefs that we hold very dear, and it can be distressing! Just imagine what it was like for these people!
I think Peter himself was probably pretty amazed and maybe even a bit bewildered by all this. God told him to go with these men, which he did. He was told to preach to the household of Cornelius, which he did. And they all responded and were baptized!
I wonder if Peter felt a bit like Jonah. Remember that Jonah didn’t like the Ninevites to which he was sent. Again, they were Assyrians. They were foreigners. They were Gentiles. But he was obedient. (Though not until running the other way and having that that little “fish story!”) And when he finally obeyed God, he went to the center of the city and said just one sentence of warning! And the entire city repented!
Well, Peter was a good Jewish boy. He had to have felt the same way – at least a little bit. I have to think he wasn’t all that sure about all this “Gentile stuff.” I’m sure he wasn’t crazy about being told to go with these men. But, like Jonah, he was obedient in his way. And I also have to think he was amazed at their response!
I think Peter got a good picture that day of the new ways of the early church. Even so, in future chapters he was going to have to answer for what happened that day in the house of Cornelius. And his explanation was going to be part of the debate in the Church council in Jerusalem.
So again, what about us? Do we really seek to follow God’s will and to know his desires for our lives? Do we really know that we follow a God whose plans are much bigger than our plans? Or do we insist on our own plans?
Remember that Jesus was not what the people were expecting. Throughout their scriptures, there were passages proclaiming the restoration of Israel. In the latter chapters of Isaiah, for example, the people were told of a time of hope when God would redeem them. The prophecies of the coming Messiah were woven into that promise. So for centuries they lived in the hope that someday God would someday redeem his people. The problem was that they believed that “his people” meant Israel. But God in Jesus was planning to redeem all of his people. The world is redeemed. And ironically enough, their scriptures said that, too. But of course, that didn’t match their expectations.
As it turned out, it was literally true that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” Peter and the boys were learning that. So how does that look in our lives? When Jesus came he broke down the walls. He reached out to other people in unexpected ways. In his ministry, he had an affinity for the poor, the downtrodden, and the outcast. So, is that the Jesus we will follow?
Eternal God, in Jesus Christ you have redeemed your people. Help us to know what your redemption means. Help us to obey Jesus’ commandment that we love one another as you have loved us. Challenge us through your spirit to follow, to love, and to minister as Jesus did. For this we pray in his name, Amen.