Thank You, Peter!
We owe a big thank you to Peter for our spiritual existence. Without Peter's response to the insight God planted in his heart, there's a good chance we would not be on this spiritual and lifestyle journey we know as Christianity. Without his taking on the issue of exclusivism, there's the possibility the message of Jesus would have only been regarded as a renewal effort within Judaism. Let me set the stage for this remarkable change of heart on the part of Peter and thus future generations of Christ followers.
The story is recorded in chapters 10 and 11 of the book of Acts. I think it's one of the really significant stories in the history of the church and thus we need to do some serious reflecting on it and what it might be saying to us, the church locally, nationally, and internationally in our own day.
One of the key characters in the story is a centurion in the Italian battalion by the name of Cornelius. Because of his position we know he was a man who knew what courage and loyalty meant. He's also referred to as a "God-fearer"" - a term used to describe Gentiles who had tired of the popular idea that there were a whole bunch of gods influencing the world. Cornelius was a pious Roman who had become disillusioned, frustrated by the accounts of the behaviors of these ancestral gods. God-fearers were non-Jewish people who had gravitated toward Judaism and its belief in one God. They attended the synagogues and even adopted some of the Jewish ethical teachings. Cornelius was a man who was seeking after God and who God found and blessed. We also learn that he was a giving and praying man. Even though he might not yet have fully understood what his new relationship with God was, he was living a life close to God.
So, this devout - God-fearing - charitable - praying - Roman soldier had a vision. It happened in the middle of the afternoon, around 3 p.m. An angel appeared to him and informed him that his prayers and gifts had been observed by God and that God was pleased. The angel further instructed him to send word to Peter in Joppa and that Peter would share with him further about what he sought to know. So, Cornelius sent a soldier and two of his slaves to Joppa.
While they were on their way to Joppa, Peter was having a vision while on a rooftop. The vision was of a sheet-like thing coming down from the sky appearing to be filled with all sorts of strange animals and birds. And Peter heard this voice in his mind say: "Rise, Peter, kill and eat." Peter was a little bewildered. In fact, he at first argued with the thought in his head. What the voice told him to do was not possible for a practicing Jew. The voice in his head continued explaining that nothing God cleanses is common or unclean. Three times Peter and the angel exchange words until finally the sheet-like thing ascends back into the sky leaving a puzzled Peter to further mull over the meaning of the vision.
About this time Cornelius' messengers show up and the spirit instructed Peter that he should go with them right away. Peter first interviewed them a bit at the front door and then finally invited them in and hosted them overnight.
The next morning all of them left Joppa for Caesarea. To satisfy Jewish law six others of the faith accompanied Peter and Cornelius' messengers in order to validate whatever happened. Upon their arrival they discovered a house full of Cornelius' friends and relatives. Cornelius greeted Peter and the others by worshipfully falling on his knees. Peter assured him such homage wasn't necessary. Then Peter said: "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or even visit with him. But God has revealed to me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?"(Acts 10:28-29, NIV)
Cornelius then shared his story and invited Peter to tell him more about this one God and the relationship to Jesus. Peter began by making one of the most noteworthy statements in all of scripture! It proclaimed a radical shift in the way this new movement was to be understood and would function from then on. It changed everything. Here are Peter's words: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right." (Acts 10:34-35,NIV) And then he went on and reviewed the good news about Jesus Christ. And those who were present - Jew and Gentile alike - were moved by the Holy Spirit, had a spiritual experience, and Peter baptized the Gentiles on the spot.
It was a radical message Peter proclaimed that day and a radical act he performed. Peter reinterpreted Christianity as a faith for everyone - a religion with no barriers to God - a religion where everyone has access to God - a religion where God reaches out without regard for a person's worthiness. What he did expanded and changed Judaism and ultimately ended up creating a new faith - Christianity.
Not everyone immediately agreed with Peter's new understanding and actions. There were some at old First Church Jerusalem who criticized Peter for what he had done and what he was saying. What we read in Acts 11 then is basically Peter answering those who criticized what he did with Cornelius and his people - who criticized his opening up the faith to those unlike them. You see, even in the early church there were major differences of opinion about the way things should be - about who should be allowed in - about who should be included and who should be excluded. Sadly, there are still those who want it to be a closed club - who haven't been able to continue to expand their understanding of the vision Peter had about including and excluding.
Luke, the author of the book of Acts as well as the Gospel of Luke, ends this water-shed story with the news that those who heard Peter's explanation there at old First Church Jerusalem had no argument with Peter's explanation and all hell broke loose - er, they broke into praise and thanksgiving, worship, glorifying God for this new understanding of God's inclusive nature and desire. I just wonder if there's a message in Peter's vision for the situations we find ourselves in today? Who do you suppose the strange animals might represent in our day? Who do some want to exclude that God might want us to include?
The painful truth is that we have a long history as the church of resisting such liberating thoughts and actions and desires on the part of God. The Holy Spirit sometimes has to push us - sometimes kick us - sometimes drag us - into new areas of ministry. It's that nagging voice of the Holy Spirit in our consciences, in our spirits, that causes us to often ask if the limits we've set in our lives are God's limits or one's we've created for our own interests?
Where do we need to allow the Holy Spirit to prod us into action in this day? Where might the vision of the Holy Spirit be leading us to sense and share the wideness of God's mercy? The Holy Spirit's role is to break down barriers so that the whole world might come to know the living God. Are we going to hunker down in our comfortable fellowship and keep the boundaries firmly in place or are there ways we might become instruments of the living God to a needy world?
May those who have ears to hear, hear, and hearing may we gain courage to act!