by David Baer, April 19, 2015
Text: Acts 10:1-17,34-35
My wife and I met when we were students living in a house with three other people as part of an intentional Christian community. I later learned that in those first few months, she described me to her family as “that guy I never see,” because I ate my meals in the dining halls on campus and spent my evenings studying in the library. But whatever happened during the week, all five of us had a standing engagement on Saturday evening—we cleared our schedule to sit down and share a meal that one of us had prepared. It was around that table that we built up and mended our relationships with each other, sorting out expectations and misunderstandings around cleaning and chores, and growing in respect and love for one another. We came from different backgrounds, we had different goals, and although we worshiped together and shared a belief that Jesus was important, we were still figuring out faith too. But there’s something equalizing about sitting down and sharing food. You have to acknowledge, whether anyone says so or not, that whatever differences you might have, you’re all human, and you all need nourishment. And since we took turns preparing Saturday dinner, each of us got to be, in time, a giver of a gift to other and a receiver of others’ gifts.
Table fellowship is where you see a community come to life, where you see how it works, for good or ill. It’s no coincidence that the earliest believers in Jesus, though they continued to pray in the Temple, came together to remember him over a meal that continues to be at the heart of Christian worship today. They remembered that they were the people who shared in his body and blood as they offered food and drink to one another. We’re gathered together, we’re in relationship, we’re one body, because Jesus loved us and laid down his life for us, they told each other. And when they ate together, you could see it happen. You could see what linked them together.
Today’s story is about how that early church community pushed up against the limits of how far they were willing to go in sharing community and food with other people, and it’s about how God brought them crashing through to the other side, to a bigger, more generous vision of what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ.
Before we talk about our story, we have to remember something, and that is that all the very first people who followed Jesus were Jews. Peter, Andrew, Philip, James and John and their mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and all the rest were Jewish men and women. And so they kept the customs of the Jewish people. They celebrated Jewish holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur and Purim and Chanukkah and Sukkoth. They went to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem to pray and make sacrificial offerings. They circumcised their sons at eight days old, just as Jesus was circumcised. And they kept kosher. No ham, no cheeseburgers, and no shrimp were to be found on the dining tables of the members of the very first churches. Those who belonged to this movement were a tiny minority within the broad stream of first-century Judaism. Not every Jew believed in Jesus, not by a long shot. But the reverse was true: if you believed in Jesus, you were a Jew. The story of Jesus was good news, they believed, for the world, but this good news was a Jewish story, told by Jews to other Jews.
Now, understand that this was not a hard, fixed boundary that no one could ever cross. If you were a Gentile, if you were someone on the outside who wanted to be part of the Jesus movement, you could. You could become a Jew. You could undergo a conversion to Judaism, and take on Jewish practices. The story of Jesus could be good news for you too, but you had to take on the identity of the people to whom the good news was addressed before you could hear it.
The story begins in Caesarea. This is a newly built city with a state-of-the-art harbor, named to honor the emperor Caesar Augustus. It connects Roman Palestine with the rest of the Roman world, through trade as well as the presence of Roman troops that are garrisoned in that city. Caesarea is the Roman administrative and military capital for the whole province. And part of that Roman military presence is Cornelius, who we’re told is part of the Italian cohort, where he serves as a centurion, a company commander in charge of a hundred fighting men. We’re told that he’s a devout man who fears God, which means that he has somehow come to believe in and worship the God of Israel, without becoming a Jew. We don’t know his whole story. We don’t know how he came to hear about the God of the Jewish people, or why he developed his devotion to this God. We don’t know why he held back from becoming a Jew, though we do know that would have involved a radical change of lifestyle, including circumcision. We also know that being a patriotic Roman, and a military man at that, at least in later times, meant making offerings to the spirit of the emperor and other practices that divided Jews and Christians who believed in worshiping only one God from their pagan neighbors. The book of Acts tells us that Cornelius gave alms, presumably to the poor Jewish subjects that Rome ruled over, and that he prayed constantly, and that consequently he had a good reputation among the Jewish people. One day, while he is praying, he has a vision of an angel telling him to send for a man named Peter who is staying in the city of Joppa, along the coast to the south.
Next, the story brings us down to Joppa for another vision. Joppa is a bustling port city on the Mediterranean Sea. Some of you might remember that a few years ago we told the story of Jonah in this sanctuary with pageant and song. Jonah was called by God to carry a message to foreigners in the city of Nineveh, and instead of going to Nineveh he went in the opposite direction, to Joppa, where he caught a ship that was supposed to carry him to Spain. The fact that Joppa reappears in this story is a little bit more than a subtle hint that God is once again going to expand the boundaries, to widen God’s embrace to encompass those outside the Jewish nation.
Peter is on a housetop praying, and he gets hungry. While in a trance he sees a sheet containing all kinds of animals being lowered to the ground, including animals that Jews are forbidden to eat. He hears a voice telling him to take these animals and satisfy his hunger, and three times he protests: “No way, Lord! I’ve kept kosher my whole life, and I’m not going to blow it now!” But the voice comes back to him each time, saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” When the men sent by Cornelius come to him, Peter goes with them, because he realizes that the vision he had isn’t about food. It’s about what kind of people are acceptable to God, what kind of people can be transformed by the good news of Jesus. And so Peter, instead of telling Cornelius to give him a call after he converts to Judaism, goes to his home. Let’s underscore what a step that was for Peter, because to this extent it is about food. He is going to be entertained and fed by people who don’t keep kosher, whose dishes haven’t been washed and separated in the right way. Peter is going to take a risk. He is going to risk his standing in the Jewish community, even among those who follow the Lord Jesus like he does, in order to share the news with these outsiders, because God has made them clean, has made them acceptable, has called them into community, called them to break bread with Jewish Christians, not by changing, not by losing what makes them distinct, but exactly as they are.
And that’s what we hear Peter saying as he begins to preach to these Gentiles: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Peter can’t even finish his sermon before the Holy Spirit takes over. What happened to the disciples at Pentecost happens right in front of his eyes, and Cornelius’s household begin praising God and sharing the good news in other languages. God works on these outsiders in exactly the same way as God works on Jesus’ inner circle. So Peter baptizes them. He acknowledges them as members of the same community he belongs to, which shares their possessions and their food. He makes no distinction between them and the other followers of Jesus, because God made no distinction. What God has made clean, he can no longer call profane.
For some reason this book of the Bible is called the “Acts of the Apostles.” It ought to be called “God Acts, and the Apostles Race to Keep Up.” Every time you turn the page in the book of Acts, God is doing something new that unsettles the gathered community, that turns their assumptions upside down, that makes them feel uncomfortable and upset, particularly at those like Peter who are on the front lines. This radical breaking down of the barrier between Jewish and Gentile Christians ripped apart the early church. There were those who just couldn’t see their way clear to crossing that boundary, and they split off, went their own way, and had their own church. And they were never heard from again. You can’t find a church today where people believe what they believed, that you have to become Jewish before you can be Christian. These churches withered and faded away, because the people in them couldn’t keep up with the Holy Spirit.
As a denomination we’ve been led through many years of prayer, study, and conversation to discern that God makes no distinction when it comes to which gender people are oriented to fall in love with. As a denomination we’ve discovered first that God calls gay people as well as straight people to positions of authority and leadership in the church, and most recently that God calls gay people as well as straight people to make promises to one another and live together and form families in the covenant of marriage. And I know that this has been difficult for a lot of folks who were raised, as I was too, with a very clear sense of those boundaries and distinctions. It’s difficult because it sounds every bit as radical as it sounded for Peter to sit at a table with Cornelius, and to invite Gentiles to share a meal with Jewish believers in Jesus. It’s a breaking down of barriers that used to be firm and unshakable, and it’s made people uncomfortable. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that feeling. Peter was uncomfortable enough that he said no to God three times—and if there’s anyone who ought to think hard about denying something three times ever again, it’s Peter! God is not going to judge you or cast you out on the basis of feeling uncomfortable or uncertain when boundaries are taken down. But as a church we do well to watch the example of what happens when groups of Christians continue to call profane what God has made clean, what happens when Christians continue to keep out those God has invited in. The Holy Spirit that set Gentile tongues on fire with good news does amazing things, but you can only see it at work, you can only be warmed and animated by its fire, if you’re willing to follow the Holy Wind where it blows.
I’m speaking to you all as though I were speaking to a nervous Peter, because we happen to be inside a church building on a Sunday morning. For Peter to say “God makes no distinction” is an uncomfortable thing. But for Cornelius and his family to hear Peter say it is a wonderful, joyous thing. To hear the story of Jesus, to hear the promises of forgiveness and new life, spoken to you as you are, not to you as someone hopes you might someday be, is incredibly good news. There are men and women and children who aren’t here, who don’t think they’re acceptable to God—maybe because they’re gay, or maybe because they’re addicts, or because they’ve been abused and told they’re no good, or for any other reason. What would it mean to that person who lives on your street, to that coworker, to the child in your extended family, to hear, “God makes no distinction.”? And, to tell the truth, there’s a little piece of each one of us that never feels totally at home. There are things about ourselves that, deep down, we think might be disqualifying, that might mean we’re not acceptable to God. Inside each one of us there is always an outsider longing for acceptance and grace. Each one of us needs to hear the good news that the Lord is never content with ninety-nine sheep in the fold when there’s still one more outside, wandering and alone. Each of us needs to know that we have a God whose Spirit will not rest, that races ahead to the outermost edges of the world and the loneliest parts of our own spirits, to make sacred what we considered profane.
God makes no distinction. There may be a million reasons to change your circumstances, but winning God’s love isn’t one of them. You are loved, you are treasured, you are embraced exactly as you are. My child, says God, don’t do wrong to me by condemning yourself. What God has made sacred, you must never call profane. You are mine. You are holy. You are loved. Amen.