Acts 10:1-17, 34-48
This week, we move from the Gospel of Matthew into the book of Acts. And that’s a little odd, because the Book of Acts was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, as a sequel to that Gospel to show the beginnings of the early church. So even though Acts could still be looked at as a sequel to the Gospel, this author is going to have some different concerns as he tells the story than what Matthew’s Gospel had. And, we’re starting in the middle of the story of Acts, so I’m going to try to fill you in on what’s happened in the book so far.
The Gospel of Luke ends with a brief description of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and Acts, its sequel, begins with a more detailed story of Jesus’ ascension. Jesus promises that the disciples will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Pay attention to that, because that is how Luke structures his book of Acts: by telling stories of how the disciples witness to others first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, and then all the way to Rome. Jesus then ascends into heaven, and an angel comes and tells the disciples to stop standing around and get to work. The disciples first take care of some “administrative business” by choosing Matthias to take the place of Judas, who betrayed Jesus and died. Then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples; we will come back to that story on June 9, which is when we celebrate Pentecost this year. In the next few chapters, Luke recounts stories of Peter and the other disciples preaching to the crowds and healing those who are ill, with many people converting and the Christian community sharing their goods with one another and caring for one another. Luke also tells about how the disciples get brought before the authorities to explain what they’re doing. In chapters 6 and 7 we get the story of Stephen, who is, according to tradition, the first Christian martyr. In chapter 8 the disciples are scattered out from Jerusalem because of persecution, and we get stories of Philip witnessing to others and the Holy Spirit converting people to belief in Jesus through him. Chapter 9 tells us the story of how Paul, who was the great persecutor of the church, came to believe in Jesus and began preaching to others powerfully about Jesus. And then we return to Peter, who has landed in the town of Joppa, and is ministering to the Christian community there.
So now I want to take a look at a couple of things that we might otherwise miss in today’s story of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius was a centurion, a member of the Roman force that was occupying Judea and ruling over them. But, Luke tells us, Cornelius was a “devout” man. This means that, instead of worshiping the Roman gods like his fellow soldiers most likely did, he instead followed the Jewish God. That means that, as again Luke tells us, he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. There were people like this among the Romans: those who found the Jewish faith appealing, but who would not convert because of the requirement for men to be circumcised. So, here’s this Roman centurion, doing his best to follow what he knows of the God that the Jewish people worshiped and performing his duties as a soldier, when suddenly he sees a vision of an angel telling him to send for a man named Simon Peter. And so Cornelius sends his men on the 33-mile trip from Caesarea to Joppa.
In the meantime, in Joppa, Peter is also having a vision, but his vision is of a sheet full of animals, both clean and unclean. Peter is an observant Jewish man, and God has laid out in the Torah a list of animals that can be eaten and a list of animals that cannot be eaten. Among those considered unclean are, for example, pigs: so no bacon, ham, or pork products of any kind. Also not acceptable for eating are animals like the eagle, vulture, weasel, mouse, crocodile, gecko, and various other birds, rodents, and reptiles. Peter has had these rules drilled into him since he was a little boy, and so when he sees this sheet full of animals that are both clean and unclean, and hears the voice telling him to kill and eat, he is naturally horrified. Lord, he says, I have followed your law all my life; I will not eat anything unclean. And then God says that what God has made clean, Peter should not call unclean. This happens three times, and then the vision ends. Of course, Peter is puzzled. What does God mean to tell him? That it’s now okay to eat anything? That doesn’t seem right.
It is at this point that the messengers that Cornelius sent to get Peter arrive. Now, we who live so far removed from this time and place don’t always get how frightening this would be. For Jewish people, especially Jewish Christians who knew that they could be persecuted for their faith, this might be the equivalent of having a state trooper arrive at your doorstep. Even if the trooper has come for some reason other than to deliver bad news or to arrest you or someone in your house, your immediate reaction is going to be one of extreme fear. But, when the messengers tell Peter why they’ve arrived, Peter begins to think that God might be revealing what that vision he had was really about, and on the next day, he goes with the messengers to see Cornelius.
And here is where the really important part of the story comes. Peter states that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, that is, a non-Jewish person. This is an overstatement of the matter: Jewish people did interact with Gentiles on a regular basis, but they did so with care, so that they would not be seen to be worshiping idols or eating prohibited foods. But up to this point, the Christian movement had largely been a Jewish sect, and non-Jewish people had not been included. But as Peter preaches Jesus to Cornelius and the other Romans there, the Holy Spirit falls upon them, and Peter realizes that this is what the vision of the animals was about: God gives the Holy Spirit to everyone, Jewish or not, and Peter realizes that he cannot withhold water for baptizing these new believers in Jesus Christ.
So, what does this mean for us today? Well, I’d like to approach that by telling a story. Last week, when I was visiting friends in upstate New York, I went to church on Sunday with my friend in Utica. We went to Grace Episcopal Church, and this is what I experienced there: Utica has been very open to having refugees resettle in their city, and at Grace Church, I saw many people worshiping there who were Karen. The Karen people are a minority group who originate from Burma and who have been persecuted by the Burmese government. In the church, the Karen people were fully accepted and appreciated in the congregation. They sang a song in their native language during the service, and they participated in the large choir. Grace Church is also very welcoming of LGBTQ people, of whom my friend is one, and at the lunch afterwards I observed people welcoming him, conversing with him, and laughing with him. The fact that he is gay was not an issue for these people who loved him as a fellow Christian, just as there was love and acceptance shown to all the different ethnicities who were present on that day. And, as a guest, I was also welcomed and fully included in the conversation around the table at the luncheon.
This is the kind of community that we should aspire to be. Now, my friend did tell me that, like any congregation, Grace is not perfect, and they still have some work to do. But from what I saw last Sunday, they have done a wonderful job welcoming everyone who comes to worship with them and supporting those in Utica who are not with them on Sundays without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. In our communities of Steelton and Oberlin, however, we have a longer road to walk. Right before I left on vacation, it was brought to my attention that there is a refugee family from Syria, living in Steelton, who has been experiencing harassment from people in Steelton. Despite intervention from the school district and the police, and despite a supportive presence to walk alongside the family from volunteers in the community, the harassment has continued, and the family has decided to relocate. Funds are being raised to help the family as the father looks for work and the family decides where they can safely relocate; I will have the information available after worship if you would like to donate to this cause. We as Christians need to do more to witness to God’s love and to act to show God’s love in our communities, so this kind of thing does not happen again.
On that long ago day in Joppa, Peter and the Jewish believers who had gone with him were very surprised at who God welcomed into the kingdom. I bet that God will surprise us, too, on who God welcomes into the kingdom. We will be astounded when God seats us at the banquet table next to someone who we did not treat well in our lifetime. Our call from God is to love everyone, not just our Christian sisters and brothers who think like we do, but also our Christian brothers and sisters who believe differently from us, and not just our white neighbors, but also our black neighbors, our Karen neighbors, our refugee neighbors, our LGBTQ neighbors, our Jewish neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, and so on and so forth. In short, EVERYONE. Any time we draw a boundary between us, Jesus is there behind us tearing down that boundary. Therefore, let us love our neighbors and welcome them regardless of who they are or where they come from. Amen.
To donate to help the family mentioned in this sermon, please follow these instructions:
- Go to www.nrcdv.org, Click the Donate Button on the top left
- Choose either the Donate with PayPal or the Donate with a Debit or Credit Card option
- Enter the amount of your donation
- In the “Special Instructions to the seller” section, type in “For the Syrian family”
- Complete the rest of the section