34 Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. 35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! 37 You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. 38 You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, 41 not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (CEB)
It isn’t always easy to learn something new, especially if the new thing goes against what you’ve always known. I remember when I was first started playing guitar, my Grandpa taught me to play the G chord a certain way. And I got comfortable playing G that way. Sometime later, someone told me to try it with different fingers. They said it would be easier to transition to several other chords, and I could make the changes faster.
I didn’t like it. It was difficult, uncomfortable for my hand, and it made my pinky hurt. It wasn’t how my Grandpa taught me to play a G chord. The new way was messing with what I had always known. But, as I kept practicing, I realize the person was right. If I played G the other way, switches to other chords were faster because my hand barely had to move. Now, I can play a G chord in a lot of different ways.
Learning something new is even more difficult when it goes against something that’s deeply ingrained within us. Especially if the old thing is something we KNOW is right and the new thing is something we KNOW is wrong. We’re liable to put a lot of energy into fighting the new thing rather than giving it honest consideration. That’s what happened to the Jerusalem Council, the full assembly of Israel’s elders, when the apostles came along doing weird new things: preaching, teaching, and healing in the name of Jesus Christ. Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel, suggested that the Council let the apostles go after they were arrested. If their new thing was of human origin, it would fail just like all the other failed movements. But, if this new thing originated with God, then no one would be able to stop it. Instead, the elders of Israel might find themselves fighting God. The Council let the apostles live but had them beaten and told them not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore. Most of them couldn’t accept the new thing God was doing.
Learning something new is what happened to Paul. You might remember that he was called Saul before he took the name Paul, and he used to hunt Christians down to arrest them. Acts 8:3 puts it this way: “Saul began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison” (CEB). Later, as he was on his way to Damascus to arrest more Christians and drag them as prisoners to Jerusalem, a vision of Jesus showed him that the new way was a God thing, and Saul needed to get on board with it. Within a few days, the man who had been breathing murderous threats against Christians was preaching the good news all over Damascus.
Peter had a lesson to learn, too. Now, note that this is the Christian-Peter; the leader-of-the-church-Peter; the Peter who was the reason people would set their sick friends and family members out in the streets in the hope that when Peter walked by, his shadow would touch them-Peter. This Peter still had a hard lesson to learn about the new thing God was doing.
You see, Peter was a faithful Jewish man, and he knew, to the core of his understanding of God’s ways, that salvation was for Jews. His Jewish faith also told him that Jews were not supposed to associate with Gentiles. He knew that as truth. Faithful living required that he have no association with Gentiles. But then, he had this weird vision. He was up on the roof of a house in Joppa when he saw heaven opened and a large linen sheet being lowered by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds. A voice told him to get up, kill, and eat. But Peter said, “Absolutely not, Lord! I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean.” Then, the voice told him, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This scenario happened three times, and left Peter bewildered. Then, three Gentile men who had been sent by the Centurion, Cornelius, showed up at the gate looking for him, and God told Peter to go.
You know what the first thing Peter said to the crowd of Gentiles gathered inside Cornelius’s house was? “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28 CEB).
Now, at this point, it doesn’t seem like Peter was convinced of any new thing, any serious challenges to the certainty of what he already knew. The way Peter puts it, all he knew for sure was that God told him he couldn’t call the Gentiles dirty. He was obviously ill-at-ease, and it’s a racial-ethnic kind of ill-at-ease.
If God had not specifically told Peter to go, there is no chance that Peter would have gone to the house of an officer in the Roman Legion. Rome had conquered the independent Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom and occupied their homeland less than a hundred years prior. You can almost hear the reluctance and distaste dripping from Peter’s lips when he says, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders.” <Deep Sigh> “However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean. For this reason, when you sent for me, I came without objection. I want to know, then, why you sent for me” (Acts 10:28-29 CEB).
Then, Cornelius told Peter his story, about an angel who visited him during his 3:00 prayers and said, “Cornelius, God has heard your prayers, and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to him. Therefore, send someone to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter” (Acts 10:31-32a CEB). Cornelius told Peter that he sent for him immediately, and Peter was kind enough to come, and now, here they all were, ready to listen to what the Lord had directed Peter to say.
Peter’s message begins with himself. “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35 CEB). Before this moment, it was inconceivable to Peter that Gentiles could become disciples of Jesus. But there he stood, in a house full of Gentiles, ready to preach the good news of Jesus Christ because God had led him there and showed Peter that God was doing something new.
The message was this: God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone and overpowering the devil. The disciples bore witness to the things Jesus did in Judea and Jerusalem. Then, Jesus was killed by crucifixion on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen by those who knew him in life, who ate and drank with him on a daily basis. Jesus commanded the apostles to preach and testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. And, everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins.
Even though it was contrary to what Peter had always known and held as faithful truth, Peter learned the new thing that God was doing, that people in every nation who worship God and do good are acceptable to God, even those who have no previous experience with Jesus, the Jewish faith, or what makes Jesus significant within it. It was unheard of! It was unimaginable! Throughout the whole of Acts 10, Peter’s long-held assumptions get replaced by God’s new thing.
We all have long-held habits and assumptions that we know, to the fullness of our conviction, are sacred and holy and right. With the same conviction, we know that those on the other side of those lines are sinful, unholy, and wrong, just like Peter thought of Cornelius and those of his household. We might even have Scripture to back up our positions, just like Peter did. But, when God moves outside of our interpretations of Scripture, when God decides to do something different, something like Easter, that new thing can turn our convictions and Biblical interpretations upside-down. Even the Scriptures tell us that God confounds human wisdom, so why should we be surprised, or affronted, when God proves our holy certainties false?
Our assumptions need adjusting from time to time, because God is not a prisoner of our assumptions. God is not constrained by what we think is right and holy. God acts. And when God acts, we’re often surprised—if not scandalized—by the things God does.
God took on human flesh and was born of a poor young virgin from some backcountry town? Most people had different ideas about God, believing God was too holy and set apart to ever do something so icky as becoming a human being.
Even the disciples rejected the idea that God’s Son would be killed by being crucified on a tree. They wanted to follow a victorious Messiah to restore the Kingdom of Israel, not a failure who would be killed. You might remember that Peter took Jesus aside a chewed him out for suggesting it.
And this resurrection thing: a mangled body, full of holes and a back flayed raw, with a chest cavity and heart pierced by a spear got up and walked around for forty days? He spoke to people, ate and drank with them, appeared to people inside of locked rooms?
In a day when the church is confronted with divisions of all kinds: race, ethnicity, beliefs about gun laws, abortion, human sexuality, immigration, war in the Middle East, to name only a few, it’s important for us to hear that no matter how many ways we try to tear ourselves apart, divide and separate from each other, and draw lines in the sand over issues, God continues to find ways to put us back together again. Peter came to realize that Jesus is Lord of All, and that’s a lesson we need to learn, too.
The resurrection of Jesus threw the doors of the church open wide—probably wider than we’re comfortable with. Sometimes we try to wrench them closed just a little more. But we are recipients of God’s Kingdom, not its doorkeepers. Resurrection means that whoever worships God and does what is right is acceptable.
Now, we can try to qualify what’s meant by “does what is right,” but the comments in the text about Cornelius suggest it’s quite simple. Cornelius loved God enough to pray, and he loved his neighbors enough to give generously to meet their needs. He loved God, and he loved his neighbors. He did works of justice, he loved mercy, and he walked humbly. That’s what God finds acceptable.
Resurrection means that anyone who believes, anyone who trusts in Jesus, receives forgiveness of sins. The question is, can we learn that lesson as well as Peter?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay