It will be helpful, I think, before we read this story, to set it in context. The scripture we are about to hear is the earliest record we have of a serious dispute in the Christian world. In Acts 10, we read the story that is often referred to as “The Conversion of Cornelius.” If you recall, last week we left Peter in Joppa, where he had raised Dorcas back to life. After that, Peter stayed in Joppa, at the home of Simon the tanner, a man who tanned hides, and therefore was considered unclean -- someone for a good Jew like Peter to avoid. While he was in Joppa, Peter had a vision, which he describes in this text. Meanwhile, a fellow named Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, also had a visitation, from an angel of the Lord. Following the angel’s instructions, Cornelius sent for Peter, who came to his house. Peter saw that Cornelius had believed the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and baptized the entire household. It is crucial to recognize, as you hear this story, that in Chapter 11, we have a kind of transcript of Peter’s testimony justifying that baptism. He has, in essence, been called on the carpet for including someone in the gospel who was excluded by every tradition, practice, and interpretation that the church had held to that point. This is Peter’s explanation of what God has revealed to him through his visit with Cornelius. Now listen for God’s word to the church, and to us, today:
Acts 11: 1-18
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Same Gift, New People
April 28, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
One of the first tasks we were given in my church history class in seminary was the memorization of important dates. Those important dates were of church councils, gatherings called by Christian leaders to resolve issues that arose about interpretation, scripture, tradition and what they meant for the church. It is easy to forget, in this post-modern era, a time of seemingly endless disputation, controversy and church splits, that this has been the situation from the beginning of Christianity!
This scripture is the testimony of Peter, and forms the basis for his position at the Jerusalem Council, dated about 45 AD. This meeting in Jerusalem foreshadows that formal council, described in detail farther along in the book of Acts. That Council is the first recorded church council, called to resolve a difference in opinion about God’s word, God’s intentions, and God’s grace. In short, it is a dispute about who is in and who is out.
The crux of the argument is whether Gentiles need to follow Jewish law in order to become Christians. Do they need to be circumcised? Can they eat meat offered to idols? Do they need to follow all the Jewish law, in short, convert to Judaism in order to become Christians? To fully understand this controversy, we need to know that scripture was abundantly clear about this question.
Genesis 17:10-11 said: This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.
Exodus 12: 48 said: If an immigrant who lives with you wants to observe the Passover to the LORD, then he and all his males should be circumcised. Then he may join in observing it. He should be regarded as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat it.
It is really impossible to interpret these scriptures in ANY other way. If you want to be Jewish, you have to be circumcised. Since the People of the Way, as the early Christians were called, were Jewish, following a Jewish Messiah who fulfilled Jewish prophecy, they need to follow Jewish law. It was obvious.
But then here comes another revelation from God. Like the appearance of Jesus to Saul on the road to Damascus, this is a dramatic vision, an in-breaking of the presence of God, and a surprising NEW disclosure of God’s will for people. You see, the people who followed Jesus thought they had gotten it. Of course, Peter, if you remember, was always thinking he had gotten it, always shooting off his mouth, telling Jesus this and that, and turning out to be mistaken.
He even sassed God, in this vision. God shows Peter an array of foods, both clean and unclean according to Jewish dietary law. And God says, “Eat!” Peter knows what the Bible says. “No, sorry – can’t eat it. It is unclean.” But like a Jewish mother, God says, “Eat! You should eat!” No, seriously, God says, “I will decide what is clean and what is profane.” But wait, God! You said something else, before. It is right here in the Bible. Didn’t you mean it? And God says, “I decide. Not you.”
And then come the messengers from Cornelius. And so Peter goes to Cornelius. When he arrives he finds a man who is a Gentile, observant, pious, faithful, even though he is not accepted in the synagogue as a Jewish adherent. These people were known as “God-fearers,” believers in the God of Abraham who followed Jewish law but were not converts, not circumcised, not Jewish. But here he is, hearing and believing the good news of the Messiah.
Somehow, Peter overcomes a lifetime of training and teaching, generations of tradition, and what he KNOWS scripture CLEARLY says. And he baptizes Cornelius. Not only Cornelius, but his entire household. Peter asks, “Who am I, to hinder God?” Who, indeed? And who, indeed, gets converted here? Cornelius, to be sure, but also Peter. Peter comes to understand that his thoughts are not God’s thoughts.
Whose mind is changed? God’s?
Apparently not – the visions are pretty clear, and there is no reason to think that either Peter or Cornelius misinterpreted them. So we seem to be on the horns of a dilemma. Roughly ten or fifteen years after the events of Calvary, Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, what everybody knew and affirmed turned out to be mistaken. Because God was still revealing God’s will.
This is as much a truth of Christian history as the bodily resurrection: the message of God’s love and grace is for everyone. Christ’s church is for everyone. Everyone. We tend to imagine that God’s revelation in Jesus Christ was it – the totality of God’s work in our world, and that now it is all done and over with, we just need to live as Christian disciples and follow God’s word. But clearly, God’s word continued to unfold, in the word written in the Bible, and in the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.
The church continued to struggle with understanding:
whether Gentiles could be Christian;
whether meat offered to idols could be eaten;
whether the Holy Spirit was of the same substance, or a different substance, as God the Father and Jesus the Son;
whether Christ was created by God or co-eternal with God;
whether salvation comes by faith alone or more is needed;
whether the Pope is infallible;
whether an intermediary priest is necessary;
whether slavery is permissible;
whether Christians must submit to government rule when it is evil;
whether Christians can believe in evolution;
whether Christians can serve in the military as combatants;
whether divorced people can be leaders in the church;
whether divorced people can be ministers;
whether women can be allowed to lead;
whether women can be ministers;
whether gay and lesbian people can lead and be ministers.
Every single time such disputes arise, faithful people on both sides of the issue turn to scripture, to scholarship, to tradition, and hopefully, to God in prayer. And every single time such disputes arise, one side or the other prevails, and the other side must decide what it will do.
In our own denomination, we have seen congregations split away
and new denominations form,
over the ordination of women,
and most recently,
over the ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians.
In our own community, we have seen churches torn apart over that issue. And those who instigated the split have done so with the deep conviction that they are right. They know what scripture teaches, and they understand God’s intention. They know what is clean and what is profane. Just like Peter did.
We are faced every day with the same sort of questions. Who is in, and who is out?
We wonder if we are called to forgive someone who injured us. We lay awake at night trying to decide whether we should or should not. We watch political campaigns and try to determine whom we should vote for. We are unsure about how to understand a certain scripture. We struggle with doubts about matters of life, of faith, of truth.
It is not the job of the pastor in a Presbyterian Church to tell you what to believe, or to decide who may receive the sacraments. It is the job of the pastor in a Presbyterian Church to order the sacraments rightly and proclaim God’s grace. So I’m not here to tell you what each of us should decide about such issues. I’m here to tell you how we are called to decide.
The way we are to decide is to deploy our reason, experience, and intelligence alongside scripture, tradition and prayer. Just as we take the Bible too seriously to take it literally, we take our faith seriously, seriously enough to believe that Christ is still at work in the world, and that God is still revealing truth to us. We know that we are called to obey Jesus, and his repeated command is
to love God and love neighbor,
to forgive and to show mercy,
to extend grace and peace
to walk the path of righteousness and charity that Jesus followed.
St. Augustine said it so clearly:
If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them.”
So when what we have learned from Scripture is on a collision course with our lived experience, we don’t simply ignore what the Bible says. But we would do well to pause, as Saint Peter did, and examine our own understanding, asking ourselves whether we’ve correctly understood the Bible’s teaching. Theologian Mark Achtemeier said: “if the Bible’s teaching does not help us make powerful sense of life and experience, if Biblical faithfulness is not life-giving, that is a sure sign we have not understood our Scripture properly.”
So we are led to conclude, as Saint Peter did,
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Herein lies our salvation.
Christ continues to be at work in the world, with light and life and love for everyone.
Thanks be to God!