The past couple of months, we’ve been studying the Book of Acts in the Tuesday Adult Bible Study. Fascinating, exciting book, telling of the origins of the first churches.
This past Tuesday, we were studying Acts 9 and 10- the Conversion of Paul, and the conversion of Peter.
What? you say. The conversion of Peter? He was already converted; he’s the one that Jesus told, “Feed My sheep.” But apparently he wasn’t converted enough. Apparently, we all need many conversions. And the 10th chapter of Acts is a major conversion for Peter.
It is customary, when doing a Bible study, to read what went on before, and after the verses we are reading. Well, as I was studying the passage, I looked at what we had studied the week before. What comes immediately before the conversions of Paul and Peter is the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip.
First the conversion of the eunuch, immediately followed by the conversion of Paul, immediately followed by the conversion of Peter, which, if you read ahead, is immediately followed by the challenge of conversion of the church in Jerusalem and the first church fight.
What were they all being converted to? Conversion- repentance: it means you take a 180 degree turn from what you believed before. And what all the disciples believed before was that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was only for the Jews. It was to lead the Jewish people into a deeper experience of God. But apparently, the whole church had gotten it wrong. Yes, the Gospel was for the Jews- but not just the Jews.
In Acts 8, an angel of the Lord tells Philip to get on the road going from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he did. And there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a powerful man in charge of all the finances of the queen of Ethiopia. As he was being driven in a chariot along the road to Jerusalem, he was reading a scroll. Philip, a complete stranger, runs up to the chariot, and as he’s running beside the chariot, he hears the eunuch reciting passages from the prophet Isaiah.
“Do you understand what you’re reading?” asks Philip, because it was obvious that the eunuch was deeply moved by this scripture. And at the eunuch’s invitation, Philip starts to explain the passage that the eunuch
had been reading, explaining how Jesus was the suffering servant in that passage.
And Philip shared the gospel with this Gentile eunuch who doesn’t even have a name- he’s just, ‘the Eunuch.’ And the eunuch says, “What can prevent me from being baptized?” And Philip says, “Absolutely nothing.”
And Philip baptizes the first Gentile convert.
Immediately after this, in chapter 9 verse 1, Saul, who will later be known as Paul, is breathing threats against the disciples of Jesus. He wants nothing more than to kill or imprison every Jesus-lover he can find.
And suddenly, on the road to Damascus, the Spirit of Jesus comes upon him, saying, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” And Saul says, “Who are you, Lord?” And the voice of Jesus replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.” And Paul gets up, now blind as a bat, and is led to Damascus where he stays in prayer until God sends an old Christian named Ananais to heal him, and be present when the Holy Spirit falls upon him, and he gives his life to Jesus. This is Saul, now Paul, who becomes the greatest apostle to the Gentiles. And then right after the Ethiopian’s conversion and Paul’s conversion comes chapter 10: the conversion of Peter.
It starts off with a Roman centurion named Cornelius, who is praying to God. He’s a Gentile, but he is praying to the God of the Jews, doing everything he knows to give himself to God. He’s giving alms to the poor, he is teaching his household about the God of the Jews, he is praying constantly. And in the midst of his prayers, an angel of God comes to him and tells him to send over to Joppa where a man named Peter is staying, and have him brought to you here in Caesarea.
A couple of days later, Peter is up on the roof of a friend’s home praying while waiting for dinner. And he begins to have a vision- a bizarre vision, where a large sheet comes down from heaven, and in it are all kinds of unkosher, unclean animals that he, as a practicing Jew, would never dream of eating. And the Lord calls out to him and says, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” And Peter says, “No, Lord! I have never eaten anything unclean in my life!” And God proclaims, “That which I have made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter must not have been convinced, because God did the same thing 3 times.
Meanwhile, the men sent from Cornelius the centurion have showed up at the house Peter is staying in, and tells him that he is to come with them to Caesarea. So he does. And when he gets there the next day, there is Cornelius and a household full of his family and underlings.
Peter starts off a little harsh, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile…” I think that’s the introduction to “How To Win Friends And Influence People.”
And then Peter goes on: “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” And Cornelius starts telling Peter about the vision he had, and Peter is stunned. “Truly, I now understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”
And while he is sharing the story of Jesus with this roomful of Gentiles, the Holy Spirit sweeps down upon them- just like the Spirit had swept down upon Peter and all the Jewish believers at Pentecost. And like the Jewish believers, these Gentiles started speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter cries out, “Can anyone withhold the water baptism from these Gentiles who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have???”And everyone in that household was baptized, full Christians in the eyes of the Lord.
Do you hear the mounting, powerful momentum of these 3 chapters, cascading on each other like an overwhelming waterfall? Who is acceptable to God? Every people is acceptable to God. Is there any person or people who are profane, unclean, unkosher, unwanted by God? No, not one. The Ethiopian eunuch. Saul, the killer of Christians? Cornelius, the Roman officer? Every single one of them is a full and equal member of God’s household. God shows no partiality for any people.
And so are we to live: no partiality among God’s people. If God loves you, we love you. If God wants the best for you, we want the best for you.
You need to know, however, that this profound statement of grace was the cause of the first church fight. It was nasty. It was brutal. In chapter 11, Peter comes back to the church in Jerusalem and tells then what had happened in Caesarea. And throughout the following chapters of Acts, we read how the Jewish Christians oppose Peter, keep trying to make rules by which Gentile Christians can become Jewish Christians.
Just get circumcised. Just eat kosher. Just stop doing Gentile things like going to the public baths: show a little more modesty, please! Peter, having to deal with the heads of the church in Jerusalem, starts to back off his inclusive stance under pressure from his colleagues. He starts to compromise. Well, maybe if you just tried to be a little more Jewish…
And that was the start of the first and most defining church fight in Christian history. Who belongs. And how much do you have to become like us in order to belong.
I think of the missionaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, going to African, Asian, and Native American villages, preaching the gospel. They meant well; I think the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem meant well. But they packaged their culture in with the Gospel, and tried to make these people into Europeans. Teaching them the hymns that the Europeans liked and knew; dressing them in clothes that the Europeans deemed modest and appropriate. And teaching them that white Christians were in fact superior to other followers of Christ. That there should be a church for white people, and a church for black people.
It’s just a part of human nature to want to make other people like us. What is it that we require of people in order to be acceptable? What ways do they have to act, or think, or talk?
In Acts 10:13, God says an interesting thing to Peter as God is dropping down the sheet full of unclean animals.
God says, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” I’ve never really liked this verse. It’s too bloody. But I was reading a commentary last week that opened my eyes.
“Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” It sounds like Christ at the Last Supper, in the Gospel of Matthew: “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it, He broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took a cup, and after giving thanks He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28)
Rise, Peter, and take these animals into your own body, into your own being. Let them feed you, and become a part of you, as you become a part of them.
Friends, who is not welcome in our church? Who is not welcome in our homes? Who is not welcome in our communities? Of whom would Jesus say to us, “Bring them into your own heart, and let their heart change yours.” For this is the command and desire of God.
In the Name of the One who will never let any of us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Scripture for May 19, 2019 ACTS 11:1-18
Now the apostles and believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the Jewish believers said to him, “Why did you go to these unclean, Gentile people and eat with them?”
Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step. “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and while I was in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners. 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 came from heaven, saying, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.’” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again into heaven.
At that very moment, three men sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house we were staying in. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to see differences between them and us. My companions, the six Jewish brothers who had come with me, came as well, and we all entered the Gentile man’s house.
He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon 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 Pentecost! And I remembered how Jesus had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Now, if God gave them the same gift that God have us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to try to stop God?”
When all the Jewish believers had heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.