Hindering God

Acts of the Apostles 11:1-18

1 The apostles and the brothers and sisters throughout Judea heard that even the Gentiles had welcomed God’s word. 2 When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him. 3 They accused him, “You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!”

4 Step-by-step, Peter explained what had happened. 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying when I had a visionary experience. In my vision, I saw something like a large linen sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. It came all the way down to me. 6 As I stared at it, wondering what it was, I saw four-legged animals–including wild beasts–as well as reptiles and wild birds. 7 I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!’ 8 I responded, ‘Absolutely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 The voice from heaven spoke a second time, ‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’ 10 This happened three times, then everything was pulled back into heaven. 11 At that moment three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered that man’s house. 13 He reported to us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter. 14 He will tell you how you and your entire household can be saved.’ 15 When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. 16 I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”

18 Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, “So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.” (CEB)

Hindering God

I joined a fraternity in my freshman year at The University of Findlay. For the most part, I enjoyed it. I had a great group of brothers. We studied together, we had fun together, we occasionally caused a little trouble together. But there was one part of the fraternity experience that I really didn’t like. At the end of each recruitment rush, we got together to talk about the potential recruits. We discussed each person and either our desire to include them or our desire to not. We decided who we would let into our brotherhood, and who we would fence out.

Now, I could maybe understand it if such discussions included the examination of a high school transcript and concern about grade point averages. After all, our fraternity was supposed to be a scholarly social club. But the discussions that transpired rarely rose above the ridiculous. We talked about how this person looked or dressed. We bantered over the manner in which this person greeted or didn’t greet a certain brother at a party. Or whether we thought they were cool or a dork.

We made every decision based on trivial nonsense. And I hated it. I hated how we judged others and made decisions about whether or not we would allow them to associate with us based on such ridiculous distinctions. It made me wonder how I got in. I was never one of the cool kids. I certainly had no fashion sense. I’m fairly certain I made it because one particular leader in my fraternity vouched for me after getting to know me in a campus ministry organization. In our fraternity, we set boundaries. We excluded people for reasons I found unsatisfactory.

It’s a common phenomenon, this desire to fence-out, to set close boundaries, to keep a level of control over our community. The early church faced just such an issue, and it threatened to tear the young movement apart.

After Peter healed Aeneas and raised Tabitha to life, he was led to the household of Cornelius the Centurion. He preached the message about Jesus Christ to this Gentile man’s household, and the Spirit of God fell upon everyone who heard the word. Peter and his companions were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on even the Gentiles.

It might help to recall part of Peter’s sermon from Acts chapter 3 after he healed a crippled man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. Peter proclaims, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of our ancestors—has glorified his servant Jesus.” (Acts 3:13, CEB). Peter’s message was about the God of the Jews and good news for people of a certain genealogy. Prior to Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, the idea of Gentiles being included in the promises of God hadn’t crossed their minds. Gentiles were people on the outside, even righteous Gentiles like Cornelius.

The other apostles and believers in Jerusalem heard the news that the Gentiles had accepted the word of God, and it disturbed them. So, when Peter returns to Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians leaders called him on the carpet. They demanded to know why he ate with Gentiles. Eating was a sign of acceptance. It’s why Jesus caused so much controversy when he ate with tax collectors and other known sinners. It meant he accepted them, and his acceptance of sinners was a theological and practical problem for the Jewish religious elite.

They probably assumed Peter had unilaterally decided to do some evangelism among some Gentile folk and, when they accepted and believed, he baptized them of his own accord. The problem with Peter having done this is that the other believers in Jerusalem didn’t want some dirty Gentiles associated with their holy church. This Christian thing is a God-movement. We can’t have some unclean, ungodly Gentiles associated with us. You can’t just invite those kind of people here!

So Peter got up and, contrary to his usually impatient style, he explained everything that led up to the Gentile incident. Peter described the vision he had while praying. Unclean animals were lowered down from heaven in a sheet. When Peter saw the animals, he heard a voice say, “Get up, Peter! kill and eat!” But he replied, by saying that nothing unclean had ever entered his mouth. Then he heard another voice say, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”

This whole vision scene happened three times, then it was taken back up into heaven. At that moment, three men who had been sent by Cornelius in Caesarea, arrived at the house. The Spirit again spoke to Peter, telling him to go with the men and to not make a distinction between “them”—meaning the dirty Gentiles—and “us”—meaning the Jewish believers. Six others also went with Peter. When they arrived in Caesarea, Cornelius explained to them how an angel had stood in his house and told him to send to Joppa for Simon Peter who would give him a message by which he and his entire household would be saved.

As Peter began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had to the disciples on Pentecost. Peter asked, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way? Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, ‘So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.’” (CEB).

The Jewish Christians were left with a choice. They could have said no. No, Peter, these Gentiles can’t be a part of the church. They’re unclean. They haven’t converted to Judaism. They’re outside the Law, they’re not heirs to the promises God made to Israel. They aren’t welcome.

They could have said that, but they knew too well that the church didn’t belong to them. The church belongs to God. They can try to stand in God’s way by grasping for control. But, the thing about getting in God’s way—attempting to hinder God—is that God really can’t be hindered. God will either work around us, work through us, or plow us over and work right over top of us. When it comes to the church and the work to which God calls us, we’ve never been anything more than along for the ride.

Thankfully, the early believers responded to the radical shift God had just thrust upon them with rejoicing. Their first response was anger. But when they realized it came from God, they praised God for this unexpected, unbelievable thing. Even Gentiles can repent. Who knew? Who knew God would include those people, the outsiders, the unwanted?

No one. God has a long history of doing the unexpected. And yet, we always act surprised when the Holy Spirit moves in a way we didn’t anticipate! That God would extend such good news to all of humankind was indicated in Genesis 12:3, where God says to Abram, “I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.” (CEB).

God revealed long ago what was going to happen; yet the believers in Jerusalem were astonished when they heard that Gentiles had accepted the word of God. They were angry. They demanded an explanation from the one who was, they thought, responsible. I love Peter’s response: I didn’t do it. This was totally God’s fault. Blame God. I didn’t do it.

Peter made it clear to his critics that what happened to these Gentile sisters and brothers was not his own doing, but God’s! Peter didn’t arbitrarily decide to go baptize some Gentiles; all along the way he was guided and moved by the Holy Spirit. The Good News of God’s salvation offered to all through Jesus Christ is not something that was to be limited to the Jews. It is for all who come to believe.

The Holy Spirit made this happen. This story from Acts should scare us a little bit. We have no control over the Spirit’s movement. We cannot tie the Holy Spirit down. The Spirit of God is going to do what the Spirit of God will do, whether we like it or not. Our job is to expect the unexpected outpourings of God’s grace and mercy because we, too, were once on the outside.

One of the things we need to remember, especially when some unexpected thing comes to us, is that the Holy Spirit only acts for the good of people. Even if our initial reaction to God’s action is visceral repugnance, we must recognize that sometimes it’s not only about us. Yes, we’re special to God, but so are the people we don’t like. That’s not an easy lesson to learn. The Holy Spirit consistently acts for good, and expresses God’s love in ways that we, with our many limitations, could never do.

In this case, the Jewish believers were flabbergasted that God gave Gentiles repentance. Repentance is God’s gift to us. We often think of it as something we do—a first step we make toward God by overcoming our doubts and faithlessness. When it comes to our relationship with God, not one of us ever acted first. We can only respond to what God has already given. Repentance is a gift from God. It is our response to the way God has already given God’s self to us. What this story tells us is that everyone—even those we least expected—can turn away from their sins and receive the life God has offered. Everyone can have life.

But it’s easy to forget. Paul had to remind the Gentile Christians in Ephesus not to get too proud. He reminded them: “At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God.” (Ephesians 2:12, CEB).

I don’t know your genealogy, but I’m one of those Gentiles. It is only through the blood of Christ that I have been brought near to God, and the early Christians initially weren’t fans when they heard people like me had accepted the word of God. They were surprised. Come to think of it, I was, too. God is full of surprises. I wonder what the next one will be.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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