God’s On The Move
Old Testament kosher laws ban the eating of pork, shellfish, and so on. I'm not preaching on bacon today. But if you want to know why Christians can disregard Old Testament dietary rules, today's text is one of the three main reasons why you're allowed as a Christian to have a bacon double-cheeseburger. Your doctor's permission is quite another matter. But in ancient Judaism, when God's people were dominated by one empire after another... these purity laws were crucial to national and religious identity. First, surrounded by foreigners and ruled by distant empires, kosher laws were a sign of ethnic patriotism: to violate them was a sacrilege akin to a veteran desecrating the U.S. flag. Second, these purity laws were not an act of strict legalism as they're often caricatured but rather a sign of faithfulness and piety. In an ancient world where anything goes, restraining from certain foods reflected God's total call upon your life. So this fact must be understood if anything wonderful is to come from today's text: these dietary and purity laws were integral to faithfulness and Jewish identity in ancient days.
In the months after Jesus Christ rose from the dead and then returned to heaven, the Apostle Peter—Jesus' right hand man and selected successor—has a trance-like vision. In his vision, all sorts of animals are presented to Peter—both those permitted by Jewish kosher law as well as those forbidden—and the voice of God declares that all these animals are for eating. Peter replies in shock, “Heavens no! Nothing impure or defiled has ever entered my mouth!” And the voice declares, “What God has purified, you must not call defiled.” Three times this happens: “Eat!” “Oh but I mustn't!” “I insist!” “Oh but I mustn't!” This kind of back and forth signifies serious intent, like we might back and forth insist today when debating who picks up the dinner bill. It shows that Peter in this vision doesn't break kosher law willy-nilly, that he's a devout Jew, that Peter would argue against God himself before eating the wrong food. But then Peter wakes up, puzzling over the meaning of his bacon-filled dream, only to find visitors approaching.
The story immediately seems to drop all discussion of food... as three men invite Peter to travel back with them to their master, Cornelius. Cornelius is a complicated man. We learn in Acts 10 he's a centurion, meaning he is an officer of Rome's legions, aka the hated occupying armies. Despite this, we're told he's beloved by Jewish locals for his generosity and integrity. We also learn that he's a God-fearing Gentile. "Gentile" means he's ethnically non-Jewish. But "God-fearing" means he's spiritually sympathetic to Jewish monotheism... but not yet ready for full conversion, circumcision, strict kosher obedience, etc. He's not Jewish but is as close as a Gentile could really get back then. But since he was still Gentile, there were purity regulations about how much a Jewish man like Peter could associate with Cornelius. Since the centurion wasn't fully converted, Peter wouldn't be allowed to stay at the Roman's house, for fear of ritual contamination from non-kosher food or other impure things a Gentile household might have. He's someone an observant Jewish man like Peter might be friendly towards in the street... but never go to his house for dinner, a man you could have public dealings with but weren't allowed full friendship for fear of ritual defilement. But despite these barriers, Peter—just as with the vision of foods pure and impure—hears God's Holy Spirit telling him, “Go with these Gentile men, and make no distinction between them and you.”
Meanwhile, Cornelius likewise might have had misgivings over inviting Peter to dinner. Just as ancient Jewish people didn't associate with Gentiles for fear of impurity, defilement, or the generic assumed wickedness of non-believers... Gentiles in turn held deep prejudices against Jews. Where ancient pagans freely honored each others' gods as a sign of shared community, Jewish people refused to join in the parties and sporting competitions held at pagan shrines. Ancient Jews uniquely took one day off from work each week, while their Gentile neighbors took breaks only on pagan holidays. When pork was the cheapest and thus most common meat available, Jewish people refused to eat it, which left them out of most Gentile dinner parties. This prejudice was bad enough, according to one Bible commentator, that if anything was stolen from a pagan temple, the Gentiles often blamed the local Jewish community first, on the assumption that, since they rejected the city's gods in favor of their one private, ethnic God, they would have no scruples robbing the city's pagan temples. Of course, in the case of Cornelius, this centurion seems to have avoided the prejudices common to his day. But it's still important to note that in ancient days Gentiles hated and feared Jewish people just as much as they were mistrusted in turn. Yet just as the Holy Spirit spoke to Peter—first in a vision and again upon waking—so too it spoke to Cornelius: “Send men to the city of Joppa and bring Simon, who's often called Peter. Peter will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.”
The Holy Spirit has spoken three times thus far: telling Cornelius to reach out to Peter, speaking to Peter in a dream about purity laws, and telling Peter to accept Cornelius' invitation. God's on the move here, and the Lord seems to be repeatedly crossing all sorts of divisions, boundaries, and prejudices. Speaking of prejudice—that's a heckuva way to start a story—speaking of prejudice, three men went to a football game but found some nuns seated in front of them. Wanting to drink beer and swear at referees without being scolded by the nuns, the men decided to heckle the nuns to get them to move. The first guy yells, “I want to move to Idaho: there's only 100 Catholics there!” The second man sneers, “I'd go to Montana: I hear there's only 50 Catholics there!” The third guy laughs, “I'll move to Utah: there's only 25 Catholics there.” Finally, one of the nuns turns around and says, “Why don't you go to hell! You won't find any Catholics there!” Joking aside, the divisions between Peter and Cornelius were truly great. That's why we get this story in Acts 11. All these events actually happened one chapter prior in Acts 10, but Peter retells it here because when he gets back home to Jerusalem he finds nasty rumors and criticism circulating about him. These are Christians criticizing Peter, mind you: not pagans, not Jewish people, not any sort of outsider to the Church but actual Christians doubting Peter's integrity and sanity in sharing a meal with the Gentile Cornelius. So after reading all these events in Acts 10, in Acts 11 Peter tells them all over again to defend himself. Why would the author of Acts doubly record this story? a) Because it's one of the most pivotal moments of the ancient Church, so it's repeated for emphasis. b) Peter connects any theological dots readers might overlook in the first telling, because this transition is a big shift in how Christians viewed other people. And c) It was so controversial that an extra explanation is needed, both for the readers of Acts and the Christians of Peter's own day who were skeptical of this event.
Despite divisions over who could eat what, despite purity laws telling Peter that piety demands he avoid the house of Cornelius lest he disobey God, despite years of animosity telling Gentiles like Cornelius that Jewish men like Peter were best avoided... the Holy Spirit was at work. And so at last the two men meet face to face, and Peter shares the message the Holy Spirit gave him. And as Acts 11 reveals, as Peter spoke, “the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household just as it fell upon the disciples at the beginning,” way back in Acts chapter 2. Seeing this miraculous anointing of God's Spirit upon this Gentile household, Peter suddenly remembers what Jesus told him long ago: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Apparently that “you” wasn't just Peter and friends but anyone who believed in Jesus, whether they be Jewish or Gentile, of Peter's ethnicity or someone quite foreign. Peter himself then reasons, “If God gave these Gentiles the same gift he gave us Jewish disciples when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who was I to hinder God?” The heavenly vision of food was a build-up to this moment: showing old purity laws no longer applied. Cornelius' answered prayers were a build-up to this moment: revealing the Holy Spirit was now bringing Gentiles into the family of God. Peter's second vision of the Holy Spirit was a build-up to this moment: teaching that national divisions must similarly no longer keep people from hearing the gospel. Everything in this chapter—the food, the dreams, the prayers and prophecy—was building up to this moment where the Holy Spirit fell upon these new, foreign, Gentile believers... just as it fell on the pious Jewish disciples of Jesus Christ. At last the Church was opened up completely to the world. And those critics of Peter's who shamed him for this act? At the end of the retelling even the critics marvel: “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
We Christians today are no different than our ancestors, whether Jewish or Gentile. Sure, few today would refuse dinner solely because of others’ race or religion. But I cannot count the stories my female colleagues in ministry have of men dismissing their decades of faithful service to God, simply because they have a uterus. One pastor I know, having cited all the scriptural and theological arguments for female ordination, found her male critic still insisting God didn't want her to be a pastor. Exasperated, my friend finally replied: “Well, I am a pastor! The Holy Spirit has worked through me to change lives! If you don't like that, take it up with God, not me!” In smaller way, whenever I preach at a new church, one of the first responses I inevitably hear is surprise that someone at the 'young' age of 30 could ever be a pastor. These days I mostly just echo my colleague: “If you've got a problem, blame God, not me.” In the same way, we Christians write people off as too old. Or too uneducated or too educated: I've heard both complaints. I recall one case where folks said someone was too annoying to be called by God. I even once visited a pastors’ Bible study here in Lapeer where everyone agreed if you were a Democrat you certainly were going to hell. Many where I grew up would likely say the same of Republicans. But I can tell you political affiliation certainly wasn't a requirement for salvation in 20 or 200 AD, and so I severely doubt politics in 2000-something AD determines whether Christ’s grace is sufficient for you. I confess I myself am sometimes guilty of failing to recognize the ministry of others, when personal bias or ignorance or even prejudice causes me to overlook the very serious calling God plants in the heart of another. Of all the sins I ever confess, those are among the bitterest, for in them I not only impede fellow believers but also God's heavenly mission through them. And as Peter says, who am I—who are any of us—to hinder God?
So what do we learn from Acts 11:1-18, when the Holy Spirit acts four times: in a vision of foods both pure and ritually impure, in a calling to reach out to mistrusted people, in a calling to go stay among those once despised as unclean, in a baptism of heavenly power as at last the gospel news of life through Jesus is shared not only with the people of Israel but with all nations. Well first, we learn that, yes, it's now okay for Christians to eat bacon and the like. But second and more importantly, we see how God doesn't care about the things that divide us. Christ will have us whatever our nationality, our ethnicity, our history, our gender, our past. And Christ would have us likewise be united as one Church across all those lines. And third and most of all, we see the power of the Holy Spirit truly is powerful enough to work through anyone, including those we often write off as not good enough, not Christian enough, not clean enough to do God's will. Peter—the right hand disciple of Jesus Christ—witnessed with joy that indeed the good news of Christ wasn't just meant for a select few but was to be spread around the world. So in your own walks of faith, when you doubt your fellow believers or even when you doubt your own self and the power of the Spirit in you... remember the words of Peter: “Who am I that I could hinder God?” Today just as in Acts 11, God is powerful enough to work through any whom he chooses. And God is on the move, working that mission of redemption through you and me, for you and me, and even sometimes despite you and me. And who are we to hinder God? So instead, let's join in that universal mission of the Holy Spirit. Praise be to God. Amen.