*Sermon preached on 19 May 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton. There are a number of directions this text affords conversation, which is why a pastor can indeed preach on the same text every three years! – Vinson
Book of Acts 11:1-18
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and 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 answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called 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 the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Who didn’t love the TV show “I Love Lucy”? As a kid, I watched that glorious, hilarious redhead get into more fixes and then —- get herself in deeper most of the time before she got out again! And probably six times out of ten, we all heard that famous line:
“LUUUUUUCY! You’ve got some ‘Splainin’ to Do!!!”
From time to time just about all of us have some explaining to do, in some fashion, to someone. I know I do. Reasonably often. Just ask Julie!
Sometimes though, it’s serious. In today’s lesson from Acts, we hear how Simon Peter finds himself explaining himself twice. First to Cornelius and then to the church leadership that would be seated in Jerusalem until its destruction in 70 AD. It’s no ordinary thing Peter unpacks, and which Luke retells for us.
We’ve read as Peter has been drawn into a less and less Jewish area. We talked last week about him coming to Joppa, a mixed area, as much Gentile as Jew, where he healed Tabitha and then stays at the home of Simon the tanner. That particular occupation, though needed, wasn’t exactly looked upon in favor by most – as it involved a certain amount of stench, in dealing with dead animals and the lye to process the skins. We forget, President Grant was a tanner by trade, returning to the Army having utterly hated that life. It wasn’t an easy one.
Fittingly enough, it’s here, in this setting, that Peter has a vision, a dream. He comes to with the insight that ALL things God has made are good. What we would refer to in our age as “privilege” will be cast away – right along with the tendency to pretend that there is an ownership of God – making one’s feelings toward “those people” more justified. At just about the time Peter had his dream, so does Cornelius. This centurion lives about nine miles away in Caesarea, a Roman seaport that is still seen as an engineering marvel. His would have been no small responsibility. So… — not unreasonably – Cornelius did according to his dream, sending emissaries to Peter. There’s a knock on the door, and the story begins – one that brings Peter to a whole new way of thinking. Completely. 180 degrees out. When they get together, Peter tells him about Jesus, and before the day is over Cornelius and all his friends are baptized.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
God does that. Putting us in places, with people, and with decisions we likely might not choose otherwise. If anything, it is God reminding us that it is God’s idea and not ours – so we can be certain of his will.
It isn’t a snap. Peter apparently went to great lengths to explain himself to Cornelius. He doesn’t want to be there. That’s the first thing Peter has to say as he hangs back, the image one of him standing in the doorway. He lays it out. ”You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.” It isn’t just his pet religious conviction, it the Jewish law at that time in the land where Peter lives and moves and has his being. It would have been a no-no, for Peter to sit down and dine at the same table. The law and all his upbringing said so. And yet, here God had sent him. Cornelius would have probably attended the synagogue there in Caesarea, where he worshipped God, but things were different in Jerusalem and in the Galilee that was Peter’s home. Let’s call it what we once called it here in our land: segregation. That was Peter’s frame of reference.
In his next breath, Simon says with emphasis, “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” There is an undercurrent of reluctance, as if saying, “GOD is making me do this, but IF it were up to ME…” So, finally… Peter goes on to basically say, “I came without objection. Now, what’s go-ing on?”
The body language must have been noticeable, don’t you think? Standing at the door. Able to make a quick exit.
Cornelius tells Peter his story of how he has faithfully served God. He is one of constant prayer, generous in his giving alms to the poor in God’s name, and having a personal relationship with God. But clearly, he knows God has something more in mind. Cornelius and Peter basically compare notes. They find they truly have something in common, or rather someone, as Peter ends up not only baptizing all of them, but staying with them for several days.
I have to imagine Peter, who was not a solo act, had to wonder what he was going to say when he got back to Jerusalem. There will be unhappiness. Maybe even elements of conflict, and we all know how fun that is. The council of apostles will have some hard questions, even of Peter. There is an accountability. When one goes and starts messing with some of the most sacred beliefs and ideas, it will be dicey. Sure enough, before he has a chance to tell them, word had already been received and they jump on Peter.
Old ways die hard.
Peter knows this. He’s been there, after all. Many times, if one reads the Gospels. We know that if you’re trying to give old, worn-out beliefs a decent burial, it’s best to take your time and go slow. Ironic, given the times the Gospels demonstrate his impatience. This is the one who resisted so strongly that Jesus had to rebuke him, when Jesus started talking about suffering and persecution and death. We’re talking about Peter, the one who always had a way of saying the wrong thing. But, Easter has changed him. Grace has changed him. It has opened him to change, the kind he had struggled with for the entire three years Jesus and the disciples crisscrossed the land.
At times, maybe always in some cases, we want to sanitize things. But church. Real church. Well, it can be messy sometimes, especially when God is doing a new thing.
“Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?,” Peter is asked. I think it’s reasonable to hear real anger in these words. They don’t simply refer to them as Gentiles by using the least flattering of descriptions. It would have been easy, surely understandable, if this had become a contest of wills. Instead, Peter tells them his story, about his vision, his encounter with Cornelius and his household. Step-by-step. What. Why. How. If they believe Peter, it isn’t because – as Peter is clear on the day of Pentecost – he isn’t a person of eloquence. The Spirit of God has dragged Peter – and the larger church – into this encounter to make THIS point: There will be NO Distinction between people with regard to salvation and table fellowship. “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life,” they say.
Wherever you find God, expect to find God doing a new thing. God is always in motion, calling forth those willing to journey with him into new and uncharted waters of the faith – among people and tasks one might not otherwise choose.
Luke makes it clear that God chose Cornelius not because he is a pious person who prays a lot and is generous with his gifts to the poor, but rather, — and this is the larger point here — that WHAT HE DOES reflects his openness to what God Can Do with — and in – him!
Perhaps it is fitting that this is the word in the lectionary for today, as we continue to look to the path ahead for our congregation. Who will lead? What vision would we cast? What path are we called to follow? How might God be talking to you and to me on a personal, individual level? How open are we all to the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives? Do we still have “some ‘splainin’ to do”… both publicly and internally as we seek to listen to and serve our Lord with our whole hearts? Let us listen, my friends. Let us open our hearts wide. Let us continue to seek our new thing!!!”