BELONGING IN THE WORLD
“With No Distinction” – Acts 11:1-18
May 19, 2019
I still get surprised when reading the Bible.
I have been reading the Bible for my whole life, and still I find myself inspired and encouraged
when I come across a passage that speaks directly to something I have been thinking about.
I find myself amazed when a biblical passage about God’s activity long ago
relates directly to some social issue that is at the forefront of the news today.
I encourage you, this Easter season, to read through the Acts of the Apostles.
The cultural locations and characters are far different from today’s world, some 20 centuries later,
but the force and impact of what God’s Holy Spirit was doing then
seems very familiar to what God is doing in and through the ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ today.
Our text for today is the last act of a seven-act drama.
This text completes the longest narrative in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
The narrative outlines this wonder-full, extraordinary encounter between a fisherman-turned-apostle,
Peter, the Rock, and a God-fearing officer in the Roman army, Cornelius.
This seven-act drama, sixty-six verses, is a “pivot for the entire book of Acts,
and a (definitive) turning point in the long drama of (God’s) redemption (of the world).”
(Will Willimon, Interpretation: Acts)
The drama begins with Cornelius, a devout Roman soldier, praying at the designated hour, 3pm,
at his home in Caesarea.
He is a Gentile by birth and a man known for giving alms regularly and praying constantly.
This outsider to the early disciples and the promises of Israel receives a strange vision.
An angel appears, compelling him to send his men to Joppa to find a certain man named Simon,
who is called Peter.
Scene two turns to Peter, who also has a vision. While praying at noon on the very next day,
on the flat roof of a home in Joppa, Peter has a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven
filled with unclean animals, foods not deemed kosher, foods which would break Jewish dietary laws
and seemingly cause a disruption in the very identity and survival of the particularity of Jewish people.
Three times a voice commands, “Get up, kill and eat.” Peter is baffled.
In Acts, we are discovering this interplay in language between foods deemed unclean
and people deemed unclean.
Scene three – At once, 3 messengers from Cornelius arrive to usher Peter for a visit to the Roman officer.
Peter consents to go with them, and brings along six companions as well.
Scene four – Many friends and relatives have gathered at Cornelius’ home
and they warmly and hospitably welcome Peter and his companions.
In the dialogue between Peter and Cornelius, old divisions fade away as the two men
share their stories with one another. Within a home that had been off limits to a law-abiding Jew,
we discover a warm encounter and fresh new possibilities for the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Scene five – Peter offers a speech, in reality a sermon, to those gathered about the expansive grace of God
made known in Jesus Christ. Peter boldly proclaims: “I now understand that God shows no partiality,
but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to God.” (Acts 10:34-35)
As Will Willimon wrote: “Can we hear what an upsetting, exciting, world-reversing word
this must have been to those whose faith was based upon assumptions of partiality,
who had suffered in spite of and because of this partiality…
It was not an easy word to hear.” Not in the first century, and for many, not in the 21st century.
“God shows no partiality…”
Scene six – While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit falls upon all who had gathered,
and Peter’s companions are astounded that the gift of the Spirit has been given even to these Gentiles.
So Peter orders that Cornelius and his household be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
Scene seven, our text for today – Peter returns to Jerusalem to report on these extraordinary happenings.
Given the explosive nature of this boundary crossing event, Peter has some explaining to do.
Hear the Word of God from 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.”
The Spirit told Peter to go with the Gentiles and not to make a distinction between them and us.
In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, this verse is paraphrased:
The Spirit told me to go with them, no questions asked.
You may notice a footnote in the NRSV pew Bible on this verse:
“not to make a distinction” could also be translated “not to hesitate”.
That seemed to be a significant difference in “not making distinctions” and “not hesitating”,
so I pulled out my old Greek New Testament and my old seminary Greek-English Lexicon.
I found that the words in Greek read: ma-den dia-krinanta – in no way discriminate.
The Spirit told Peter to go with these Gentile strangers and “in no way discriminate.”
Discrimination is learned behavior.
Babies do not discriminate. We are not born with discriminatory eyes.
But even very young children will reveal what they have already been taught.
It often begins with the names that children learn.
I still remember sitting in my grandfather’s lap as a young child and hearing him tell a joke
about a little boy up the road.
Pop used a word that I had not heard very often before, the “n-word”, a word that was finally deemed
unacceptable for use in reference to those who have darker skin than others.
I remember that day because I had never seen my father correct my grandfather before.
The event made an impression upon me because I remember it even to this day.
I am grateful for a father and mother who did not use the “n-word” and who,
when that word was used in my presence, made sure that I knew they did not approve.
Not everyone among us was so fortunate.
Phil Noble can tell you about the days in Anniston, Alabama,
after the Freedom Rider bus had been bombed there,
when he was working with a group of black and white clergymen to bring unity to the city.
A certain member of the KKK kept calling Phil on the phone and making threats,
threats against his family.
Finally, one day Phil said, now hang on a minute. Let’s talk about this…
and, as I understand the story, talk they did.
Over time, Phil and this threat-breathing man had a number of conversations on the phone,
and Phil claims that, over time, he believes that man’s heart began to turn.
Discrimination, making distinctions between people based on the color of their skin,
or based on their station in life, or based on their gender or sexual preference,
or based their political persuasion, is learned behavior.
Human beings quickly label one another as too white or too dark, too northern or too southern,
too rich or not rich enough, too much of a geek or too much of a jock,
too academic or not academic enough, too conservative or too liberal,
too progressive or too traditional – you name it, whatever labels we can find
to separate ourselves from one another and establish some sort of pecking order or division,
we will do so, and then we will teach our children to do so, and the dividing walls continue to grow.
However, by the grace of God, the behavior that we have learned can be un-learned as well.
Today is DPCC Sunday, a day on which we celebrate the church’s preschool ministry
and a day we honor a long term, recently retired, staff member of the church, Ellen McClure.
You may not know that one of the highlights of being the Director of DPCC
is that you get to stand in the drop off line every morning and greet the children as they arrive.
Every weekday morning for over thirty years, Ellen would stand at the drop off line
and greet every child with a warm smile.
It did not matter what kind of car the child arrived in.
It did not matter whether the child’s family were members of this church or members of any church.
It did not matter the color of the child’s skin or whether their clothes matched
or whether their hair looked like they had just gotten out of bed that morning.
Ellen would make each one feel special. She would call them by name.
She would appreciate each one’s unique personality and she would often seek some way
to relate personally to each one.
Whatever walls of distinction other children might try to build,
whatever walls other parents, or even faculty members, might manifest through their words or actions,
Ellen would break down those walls.
As the Director, Ellen sought to create an atmosphere of welcome and peace,
so that each child would know love, so that each child would have the opportunity to flourish and grow.
Our text includes the realization that God gave the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.
We forget sometimes that the vast majority of us are, of course, Gentiles and not Jews.
Our ancestors are the branches who long ago were engrafted onto the vine of Israel.
By the grace of God, our foremothers and forefathers received the repentance that leads to life,
life connected to the vine of Jesus Christ, life that enables us to bear good fruit in this world.
Though we Gentiles have been fortunate enough to have been engrafted onto the vine,
there remains a spirit among us that wants to make distinctions,
that wants to separate ourselves from others,
that wants to decide who belongs and who does not belong, who is an insider and who is an outsider.
This is a mindset that is detrimental to the Christian faith, that works against the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is a mindset that can be un-learned; this is a spirit that can be removed.
The Bible calls it repentance. Repentance, metanoia, literally “a turning around”
of our hearts and our minds, leads to life, life as God intends.
Will Willimon writes: “Repentance, contrary to popular misconception,
is not a heroic first step I make toward Christ nor is it a feeling sorry for my sins.
(Repentance) is a divine gift, the gift of being able to be turned toward truth.
Turning toward the truth about myself and my situation is quite beyond my power to accomplish.
Like Cornelius, I cannot repent—turn around—on my own.
So God does it for me. In Christ, God turns toward us and grants us (a turning)…
(This) is more than a decision we make…or some good deed we offer to God…
Repentance is an act of God’s grace…”
Repentance is “the necessary, quite appropriate turn of our lives”
when we have been the recipient of God’s gracious turning toward us.
(Will Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, p. 100)
Not too many years after the encounter of Peter and Cornelius,
the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus (Ephesians 2):
“You Gentiles, who were once far off, have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For Christ is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one,
and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
Jesus Christ broke down the dividing walls of hostility that we had built between us.
When I officiate at a wedding ceremony, which is such privilege and a joy,
I have the bride and groom face one another and join their right hands in the sign of a covenant
as they make their solemn vows to one another.
These solemn vows are made to one another with joy, and sometimes fear and trembling,
and, after the vows are made and I have proclaimed the announcement of their marriage to one another,
I grasp the couple’s joined hands, and I say to them and to everyone present:
“Whom therefore God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”
Twenty centuries ago, as part of the Acts of the Apostles in the first century,
the Holy Spirit of God, through the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
broke down the dividing walls between Jews and Greeks,
between slaves and free, between men and women, between rich and poor,
between righteous and unrighteous, between clean and unclean…
What walls God broke down, let no one ever build back up.
When Peter saw that the Holy Spirit had been given to the Gentiles,
he knew that what had happened was of God and was far beyond his ability to control it.
So when the skeptics in Jerusalem questioned what he had done in welcoming the outsiders,
Peter cried out: “Who was I that I could hinder God?”
Friends, may we never be ones who would hinder the work of the Holy Spirit,
the Spirit who, very intentionally, has broken down the dividing walls of hostility between us,
the Spirit who gives, even to us, the repentance that leads to life.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church