Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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.’
What God Has Made: Acts 11:1-18
There is one practice that that Christians have been perfecting since before we were even called Christians. Communion... maybe you think I'm talking about what we have come to call the sacrament of Holy Communion. We've been doing that for a long time. Nope. I'm not talking about communion. Baptism... maybe you think that I'm talking about baptism.
Nope. I'm not talking about Baptism. The practice I'm talking about we were doing this well before baptism became common practice among Jesus' followers. Wonder what it is? Arguing. I'm talking arguing, and about how the disciples seem to do a lot of arguing, often when they/ we are anxious or worried about changes in our ministries. Twice in the book of Luke, Jesus had to break up arguments among his disciples because they were vying for the title of the "greatest Apostle." Both times they seemed to be arguing when their ministries were in transition: the first time, shortly after Jesus gave them the power to heal on his behalf and the second, shortly before his arrest. Neither of these would be last argument in this story.
Knowing that the apostles resort to argumentation in times of anxiety and fear of change, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to see the newer disciples here in the book of Acts arguing again. This was a time when the early Jesus movement was getting ready to make some significant change. The argument in this case was between some Jewish disciples in Jerusalem and Peter, who has been spending time in the cities of Joppa and Caesarea. These disciples didn't understand why Peter has been hanging out with Gentiles while he was there. In fact, hanging out with Gentiles seems to be well outside of the whole movement's missional purview. Remember, despite a few exceptions here and there, at this point in the Christian story, Jesus' followers were mostly Jewish. In fact, it was often assumed that in order to follow Jesus, one had to become Jewish. It is this assumption that is at the root of the argument that we are talking about today. We would do well to remember the Jews, some until this very day, lived a lifestyle rooted in the Law and in religious codes that shaped their everyday behavior. They understood their religious codes to be a gift from God. To follow the codes was to demonstrate one's faith in God. Included in these codes were instructions on right familial relationships, calls to charity and compassion, limitations on interactions with people of different religious and ethnic groups, and instructions for religious rituals, hygiene, and food preparation.
Beyond serving as faith practices, these religious laws also helped to preserve a specific Jewish identity, a very important purpose for this small ethnic group that was often surrounded by powerful and warring neighbors. Colonizing empires who could easily swallow up and destroy smaller ethnic communities. Living according to religious codes based in the law seemed like one way that God saved them from destruction and kept them alive as a community. Their faith was their culture. It kept them together in the face of oppression. You can probably imagine that for some people, to threaten or dismiss the law was to threaten the very thing that held them together... it was to threaten God. Even Jesus was clear that he had no plans to ignore the law. His own ministry seems to emphasize certain parts of the law, in particular the parts about loving God and loving one's neighbor. Given the importance of the religious codes in everyday Jewish life, we should not be surprised that the Jewish disciples would question Peter, who was also Jewish, if his actions seemed to go against the law. Something important must have happened in he was willing to ignore the rules around which he had built his life.
It turns out that Peter thought something pretty incredible happened in Caesarea, something that would greatly expand his idea of what Jesus' actual mission was. He seems happy to tell the other disciples what had happened. They needed to know the new ways that God was working in this world. He learned all of this while in the home of people that he had been taught to see as unclean. The first incredible thing happened when Peter was staying in the home of a man named Simon, a tanner, who lived in Joppa. This is how Peter described what happened: Peter was hungry and a member of Simon's household was making him lunch. Peter fell into a trance while he was thinking about the meal that was being prepared for him. He saw a large sheet being lowered down towards him, like a tablecloth over a Thanksgiving table. As the table was being set in front of him, he saw an abundance of animals on the table, including animals that he was not supposed to eat. He probably saw a lobster and some shrimp, maybe a pulled pork barbeque sandwich, or even a cheeseburger. He was shocked when heard a voice tell him that he could eat all of it. Peter knew the law forbade it and said no. He had never eaten anything that was not included in his religious code. But, the voice told him two more times, to eat what had been placed before him. The voice said, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane or unclean." Then, just like that, the whole surf and turf table was zipped back up to heaven.
Peter told his friends in Jerusalem that while he was standing there, puzzled about this heavenly meal, three men showed up. The Spirit told him to go with them. It turns out that these men were sent by Cornelius, the God-fearer. So, Peter and several more Jewish disciples, went with them to Cornelius' home. When he arrived, Cornelius told him of his own amazing vision. Cornelius was a God-fearer, a Gentile who loved the Jewish God and followed some of the commandments, though he hadn't officially converted. He is described as devout, sharing his wealth and praying constantly to God. Cornelius said that an angel had appeared to him and said that Cornelius' prayers and acts of justice had ascended as a memorial before God. The angel then told Cornelius to send for Peter. Cornelius then waited for Peter to share what God had told him to share.
It was at this very moment that Peter realized why he had seen the vision of the heavenly banquet. The vision was to help him know that all people who worked for justice and loved God, regardless of their ethnicity or whether the followed all of the law, could be a part of the kin-dom of God that Jesus was helping them build. The vision helped him see that all people were welcome. He said that he now truly understood that God showed no partiality, and he began to share with Cornelius and his whole household the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. While Peter was teaching, something else amazing happened... Like upper-room, Pentecost morning, tongues of flame amazing. The Holy Spirit, yes, that Holy Spirit, poured out onto the Gentiles, and they, too, began to speak in languages they did not know and extol God.
And, in yet one more miracle, Peter looked around at a room full of people whom he had been taught his whole life to avoid... people he may have even been taught were dangerous and could pull him away from right relationship with God, and he saw God working in them just as surely as God had worked on his own heart and through his own hands. He said to the other Jewish disciples, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" He could not deny that the Gentiles were part of Jesus' on-going, ever-evolving mission. He knew that they were his siblings in Christ. He said, "Can anyone withhold baptism from these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" No. Nobody could. The Gentiles were baptized. And, the Body of Christ just got a little more interesting.
What Peter shared with the disciples back in Jerusalem was that the Body of Christ will always be rooted in the Law, but the law is more like roots that spread across a field than walls that define strict, immovable boundaries around God. What he shared was that the walls which they had once felt were absolutely necessary for their survival were now not the only way to enter into a relationship with God. The Holy Spirit was moving beyond those walls, expanding God's reach into the hearts all kinds of people, even the people that they had always been taught to avoid. I believe that this scripture is asking Jesus' modern day disciples an important question: who are the people we need to be reminded are included in God's grace? Maybe immigrants, transgender folks, people with little education, people who have different political views that we do? Who would we be surprised to see across the table of a heavenly banquet? Are we ready to see the image of God in all of God's people? I hope we are. It sure makes the heavenly banquet more interesting.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Mitzi J. Smith: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2828
Kyle Fever: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1617
James Boyce: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=566
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.