Acts 10:1-17, 34-35
First Lutheran Church, Galveston
April 19, 2015
The text in Acts takes us into the strange and wonderful world of visions. Through angelic visitations, God speaks first to Cornelius, a Gentile, then to Peter, the apostle. They are brought together to demonstrate God’s intention that all people hear the Good News and profess their faith in Jesus Christ because all people are loved by God. When we consider the context of what Peter says within the flow of Luke-Acts, his speech is monumental. It reflects Peter’s gigantic “aha!” moment when he comes to realize that the prophetic words of the Old Testament are not abstract, but a clear reflection of God’s impartial will. He also is confronted with what that means in his own life and that of the worshipping community.
By the beginning of Acts 10, both Jews and Samaritans are worshipping side by side, which was no small thing for orthodox Jews. Both groups had been baptized and received the Holy Spirit as equal brothers and sisters under the lordship of Jesus Christ. By Acts 10:33, however, everything was changed forever because God confronts Peter to come to the astonishing realization that God has decided to include Gentiles as part of God’s people.
Up to this point in Luke and Acts, neither Jesus nor his followers had set foot in such a pagan location as Caesarea Mauritania where these visions took place. Yet, because of what transpired in both visions, Peter entered the house of Cornelius, an Italian officer in the Roman army. Jews did not enter the homes of Gentiles as Peter initially reminded Cornelius. Indeed the only reason that Peter is in such a Gentile location speaking to a house full of Gentiles is that God has arranged this encounter. The emphatic first words out of Peter’s mouth in the Greek of 10:34b are by truth. Peter has perceived the truth of what God’s impartiality entails. It was a theological concept with which he would have been familiar because the Hebrew scriptures are full of such teachings. But it is one thing to accept such a notion in the abstract and quite another to live the life required by our impartial God. In his vision, God makes it clear that this is not an abstract notion, but a God-willed reality.
What is absolutely new here are the implications of divine impartiality. The character of the impartial God now requires Christ’s community to be impartial. The dividing lines separating Jew and Gentile based on who is clean and who is not according the law have been obliterated. This does not mean Israel as God’s people has been obliterated. But their purpose as the Chosen People is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is not by their ethnic identity that God saves them, but by grace through faith. This is the universal promise.
In his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, Peter said that the gospel would be preached in every nation, meaning that the apostles would go out into the world to preach to Jews wherever they are. But by 10:35am, Peter is preaching God’s radical new inclusivity. He uses the same phrase every nation but here it means something entirely different. Now, every nation includes Gentiles as well as Jews. All people hearing about and receiving Jesus have access to God’s salvation by the work of the Holy Spirit. And because of that, Peter pronounces forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name for everyone who believe in him.
I have never had a vision, but I have had an “aha” moment that gave me some real insight into what it means that we are all beloved children of our impartial God. I was young when I started seminary, and not wise in the ways of the world in the big city of Chicago. I did not understand how the Chicago Loop worked, the elevated train system. I got on the A train when I should have gotten on the B train, and missed my stop. The next stop was an AB stop, about 8 blocks away. It was a beautiful spring afternoon and I decided to walk. I passed a young black man on the way, who came up behind me, put his hand over my mouth, jerked me backwards and stole my purse. I was unhurt but it terrified me. For the next 3 years, every time I waited for the train and a young black man was in the vicinity, I became terrified again.
With enough time and distance from that experience, the sociologist in me was able to recognize that these are experiences which contain the seeds of hatred and fear of those who are different from us. We extrapolate from the initial bad experience and assume that all people of that race, class, gender or whatever, are just as threatening. With that insight, I have discovered that personal interaction with people who scare me almost always dissipates the fear. For a variety of reasons, Jews took that fear and hatred to the extreme, refusing to have any interaction with Gentiles. Peter was abhorred at the idea of eating what he had been taught was unclean food, and of associating with unclean people. But in his vision, God communicated to him that there are no unclean people because all people are created and loved children of God.
Jesus calls us to go out into the world and make disciples of all people, not just those who do not frighten us. To do that, we must, in fact, go out into the world, and we must invite the world in. It is a very human thing to be afraid of people who are different from us. But what God has made clean, we must not call profane.
Christ is risen.
Alleluia and Amen.