Sermon Given May 15, 2022
What God has made clean, you must not call profane.
Our reading from Acts today is profound, not only because Peter has a vision that breaks down the boundaries between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, but this vision is actually told twice, once in the chapter before our reading today, with much more detail, and then in our reading, where we hear Peter describe what happened to his detractors. With back to back tellings of the same thing, we see that this vision is the central moment in the book of Acts. This vision highlights what Acts is all about. It’s not just about breaking down barriers, though it’s certainly about that. It’s about calling out gatekeepers, those people who try to set standards of who is in or out based not on someone’s belief in Jesus, but any other category. Those who don’t eat Kosher, those who aren’t circumcised, those who have never been to the temple and may never go there, they are invited into the Jesus Movement. They are a part of what God is doing through the world. They can know Christ and be known by Christ. They count too.
This is not only the central message, the heart of the book of Acts, but we know that the book of Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke. We see at the very beginning of Luke the promise that Jesus will be the Christ for all nations, the salvation of the world. We proclaim these messages in the evening when we pray, saying together in the song of Simeon that Jesus is “A light to enlighten the nations”. This is the song of a man who held an eight day old baby in the temple and saw the vision of God for the world. Throughout Jesus’ teaching and ministry, we find this expansion moving out from Israel, God’s covenant being expanded to include everyone. One professor of mine described it as an ever widening spiral, it starts small in Israel, then gets bigger and bigger. The gates are being broken open, the Holy Spirit is appearing all over the place. There is no stopping God’s Spirit and God’s power.
God moves in powerful ways in Cornelius and his family, in ways that disrupt the status quo and call into question the cultural norms of the Jewish people. Cornelius hung around the temple in the courtyard of the Gentiles and learned in synagogues. He was known as someone who gave to Jewish people in need and prayed to God constantly. His relationship with God was firmly established before Jesus rose from the grave. But there were things Cornelius, as a Gentile, did not do. They weren’t required of him. He was not under the Jewish law. He didn’t keep dietary restrictions. He didn’t bring sacrifices to the temple. He didn’t get circumcised or had his children circumcised. There was a distinction between him and the people he worshiped with. It wasn’t a distinction made out of distrust or dislike. They loved each other. It was simply that the people of Israel were bound to the covenant God made with them and Cornelius was not. That created a distance between Cornelius and the Jewish community. He wasn’t Jewish and they were.
But Cornelius saw an angel who told him to send for Peter. God came to Cornelius in the same way God came to Mary. An angel, a messenger, led the way. Miracle upon miracles, a vision came to Peter as well. He saw all the unclean foods he could never eat come before him on a sheet. Three times this happened, with God proclaiming cleanliness. Gentile was no longer a distinction. There wasn’t something about being Gentile that created a distance between them and the Jewish people. All were brought into the Jesus Movement. All were clean. Peter came and ate their non-kosher food off their non-kosher plates, breaking the expectations and laws of Judaism in order to have a closer relationship with Cornelius. Peter was changed in order that he might have a stronger kinship with Cornelius. Cornelius didn’t need to change, Peter changed. God then used Peter to affirm the relationship Cornelius had always had with God.
I think that’s important to hear. The one who is considered in his society to be more righteous has to change in order to see the righteousness of the person right in front of them. There were and are plenty of God fearers, people who have their own deep relationship with God who aren’t considered particularly good religious people. Sometimes it was simply a fact of birth. Cornelius couldn’t change the fact that he was born a Gentile. Others can’t change the fact they were born with certain disabilities, gender identities, sexual orientations, you name it. We run into the danger of gate keeping these followers, of denying them access because our understandings of what it means to follow God are faulty. It is the person with the power in the relationship, the person who is already considered “in” who needs to open up their hearts and change their lives in order to see the Holy Spirit working in the people they encounter. It is their job to listen, to search out God’s Spirit, to recognize it when they see it, not the other person.
In this way of being, the powerful are continually being broken open, called to listen and respect those with less power. Their goal is not to amass more power but to listen and discern with those around them and with God what is best. Their leadership comes from their ability to listen to God and others, to lead with love and kinship. Can you imagine if our world worked that way? Could Putin force upon others a deadly and unnecessary war? Could people abuse one another? Could legislatures make laws about people they’ve never met and don’t know their stories?
Would we even put people on pedestals, or would we find those we want to put over there as special and untouchable in their greatness forever coming down and being themselves among us? If the goal of leadership is to be a great discerner, to work with others to try to do what is best for all, that which God wants, our world would be in a very different place.
But there is also an impulse and a reason why we often don’t go this route. Not only is it harder, it’s messier. It makes it hard to label certain groups, to create blanket distinctions between my group and yours. One person or one group can never have too much in this system, and that means some will have to give things up. Giving up power, or giving up distinctions, as Peter did, is often one of the hardest things a person can do. Peter didn’t want to give up the distinctions and the boundaries between Gentile and Jew. He saw no problem with having things as they were. He couldn’t see the better way until it was shown to him. The Jesus Movement was stronger when the distinctions collapsed, when they could easily break bread together. But Peter had to give up the idea that the dietary restrictions laid out in his Bible, those that were given to Moses, were central to his faith. He had to trust that the rules were secondary to the Holy Spirit.
There is also the question the Jewish believers were asking when they confronted Peter about his relationship with Cornelius: What are the rules here? Who counts? How do we know?
The answer too comes in this story. Peter saw the Holy Spirit. The Spirit dwelt in Cornelius. It lived there in his house. God gifted him and enabled him. But Peter was only able to see the Spirit because of the work God did on him. Prejudices had to be broken. Biases had to be examined. God had to call him out and declare the truth to him. Only then could he notice the Spirit that was already there. We know that boundaries and rules create structure, that structure is not bad. But we always have to critically examine together our structures to see who they leave out. The rules then are simply to look for God in the other, to listen to their stories, and to work together to discern God’s way forward.
We have the power to build community in new ways. We don’t have to ask people if they believe X,Y, or Z. We don’t have to conduct tests or prescribe physical things like dietary restrictions. Those aren’t bad, but they aren’t the only way to get closer to God. It’s all about relationship, connecting with others and with God. That’s what the Body of Christ is, a divine relationship. We take Christ into ourselves, to help us examine our lives and discern the best way forward, and we seek Christ in others, asking where the Spirit is moving in their lives. We examine the structures of our society together and look for God’s way in it all.
May we open ourselves up to experiencing God in the people around us, those who are like us and those who are not. May we constantly be filled with wonder at the power of the Holy Spirit. May we become ever closer as community, discerning God’s way together and building each other up in love. Amen.