Grace Presbyterian Church
May 8, 2016, Easter 7C
First of all, let’s make sure we get one thing straight: that’s not a typo in your bulletin.
No, the sermon title is exactly as I instructed our church secretary to enter it, so don’t go fussing at her (as I know some of you do). Leave her alone.
It’s printed this way because you need to read it this way. It’s not “those people,” it’s “those people.” You know how the conversation goes: “…oh, one of those people.” The inflection has a world of meaning.
And that world of meaning, and how it gets broken down and exposed, is what you need to understand about this story, a story of Peter making a leap he never expected, in today’s lesson from Acts.
The part we heard a few moments ago is basically Peter’s defense speech, given when he is summoned (a much more sinister-sounding word than merely “called”) before the council of the church, in Jerusalem, to account for his actions regarding a certain Gentile named Cornelius, whom he had first encountered while staying in Joppa in the days after the raising of Tabitha, or Dorcas (remember her?) from the dead.
While staying at the home of a tanner named Simon, Peter gets hungry one day. In this case, though, getting hungry becomes the occasion for the Holy Spirit to visit, to show a vision to Peter, a vision which called upon Peter to take a step that he could never have imagined taking, one that, literally, charged Peter to do something that went against the way he had been raised and against everything he had ever been taught about scripture.
In the vision, which is recorded directly in chapter 10, Peter sees something like a great sheet being lowered from heaven, containing animals of every kind, including all the creeping things and bottom-feeders you could imagine, and hears the divine voice – at least that’s clearly how Peter hears it, as his reply makes clear: “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” It’s actually a lot like an incident recorded in the book of Ezekiel, in which that prophet utters very nearly the same thing. This time, though, the voice of the Lord says virtually the most shocking thing possible: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Let’s not try to soften things here. Peter is not wrong, or just making stuff up. You can, if you’re so inspired, look to Leviticus 11 or Deuteronomy 14 for a starting point in surveying the amazing and very particular detail on dietary law in the Torah. And this wasn’t minor stuff in the Jewish mind of the time. Peter’s response might have been heated, but it was also virtually a reflex – “we don’t do that.” And yet here God is telling him to do exactly that, and getting in Peter’s face about it just a little bit – “must not” is never wishy-washy language in scripture, and that’s what Peter has just been hit with.
As if all this wasn’t shocking and destabilizing enough, Peter sees this vision a total of three times. If you remember Peter’s story, you remember that he has a bad history of things happening three times.
Finally the visions are done, no more sheets full of unkosher food descending from heaven. Peter is left trying to sort out just what he has seen and just what it means. Little does he know that the Holy Spirit has already been at work well before this set of visions. The messengers who come from Cornelius, the Roman – and very Gentile – centurion are there because the Holy Spirit has already been at work responding to the earnest prayers of a God-worshiper.
You might remember a similar term being used for Lydia in last week’s scripture. Apparently Cornelius was a Gentile who nonetheless claimed allegiance to the God worshiped in the synagogue community, but had not become a Jew. The extent of such dedication was that he was a generous giver and was constantly in prayer, and that “the whole Jewish nation” spoke well of him, according to 10:22. Those prayers got a dramatic answer when Cornelius – well before Peter’s vision, at least a day – received instructions to send for Peter. Of course his messengers arrive as Peter is trying to sort through his own vision, one that must have seemed far more nightmarish to him than Cornelius’s to him.
For all his confusion and distress, Peter at least seems to get that his vision must have something to do with these visitors. That doesn’t mean he’s immediately comfortable with what he’s being asked to do; even if the spirit tells him to go with these visitors “without hesitation” that doesn’t mean he’s going with comprehension or ease. But he does do a remarkable thing nonetheless, giving them lodging for the night before making the trip with them the next day to Caesarea, a thoroughly Roman city, like Philippi from last week’s reading.
Why is all this so remarkable? Well, Peter is associating with those people. The regulations in the Torah about associating with Gentiles and purity are as precise and fixed as the ones about food and purity. You didn’t just have Gentiles in your home, and you certainly didn’t go into their homes and share meals and things like that. Torah was quite clear that one was not to be cruel to Gentiles, and that one was not to abuse them if they were travelers in their land, and that one was to live in peace with them. But there were limits, and Peter, if still a bit uncomfortable as he makes clear in 10:28, was about to do all those proscribed things and more.
And it was this choice that had caused Peter to be brought before the church leaders in Jerusalem, which is where his account is given that is recorded in Acts 11. Notice how in verse 3 of that chapter, the leaders in Jerusalem had thoroughly failed to understand what has happened; all that they can think about is not that Gentiles have received the word of God, but that Peter ate with Gentiles. As you might have noticed, we today live in a world, and in a church, where God’s work is too often and too easily ignored in favor of humans taking offense.
So Peter has to relate his experience to them. In the end, what finally gets through to the church authorities is that the story is not really about Peter, as much as he is the one telling it. The actions that matter here are not Peter’s, but God’s.
It was God who answered Cornelius’s prayers and instructed him to send for Peter. It was God who gave Peter that strange and disturbing vision. It was God who told Peter directly to go with those messengers from Cornelius.
And it was God the Holy Spirit who came upon Cornelius and his household, right in front of Peter. Peter was at Pentecost; he knew what it looked like. He knew exactly what was happening. And it happened at the Spirit’s own initiative, without waiting for any cues. The Spirit came upon them while Peter was still speaking, giving what might have been his more-or-less standard introductory sermon. Other unexpected converts had received the Holy Spirit upon being baptized, but not Cornelius and his household; the Spirit didn’t wait. Peter called for their baptism, because after what the Holy Spirit had just done, how could he not?
We moderns really aren’t always any quicker than Peter to catch on to what the Spirit is doing in the world. We are more prone to seek comfort and familiarity rather than be open to those among whom the Spirit is moving. To put it rather bluntly: when was the last time you invited someone to this church who was in some demonstrable way – in race or ethnic background, or class, or orientation, or national origin, or (shudder) even political party – different from you? Clearly we do not reject persons of different races or backgrounds; we have welcomed, we do welcome, we will welcome – but do we invite? Do we take the initiative to reach out?
The silos in which we live in society can be composed of very nearly anything, not just the classifiers noted above, and we in our homes, our workplaces, our social circles, and most certainly our churches can fall into the trap of sticking with what’s comfortable, what’s familiar, instead of practicing the welcome of Christ, or following the initiative of the Holy Spirit. But we can’t do that, and not just because – not even primarily because – the church dies if we don’t follow. We’ve got to open ourselves to where the Spirit will lead us because that’s how we follow. That’s how we submit to the Lordship of Christ, not by memorizing rules, but by being active followers of Christ and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit always.
We worship a God who does a new thing. We worship a God who makes clean. What God has made clean, we dare not call unclean.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): “Alleluia! Alleluia! Give Thanks” (240); “Help Us Accept Each Other” (754); “Dream On, Dream On” (383); “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (640)
Peter wasn't into barbecue, I guess...