Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Before reading the text from Acts 11, let’s look back one chapter. In Acts 10, Peter climbs up on a rooftop to pray and has an unforgettable vision. A sheet drops from the heavens, and it’s full of animals that the Hebrew scriptures declare unclean. A voice tells Peter to eat the animals. Interpreting the vision as a temptation rather than an invitation, Peter refuses. This happens two more times, and each time Peter hears the same pronouncement: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter soon learns that he received this vision as preparation to receive Cornelius, a Gentile, as a full member of the church. And during Peter’s first meeting with Cornelius, the Holy Spirit descends on the Gentile and his family, and they begin praising God.
Peter and the small group of circumcised brothers who are with him are thunderstruck. Having been taught—as a matter of identity and purity—to separate themselves from Gentiles, they never expect to welcome such outsiders into the family of faith. But they can’t deny what they’re seeing and hearing.
In what is, for that context, an unthinkably radical move, Peter says to his colleagues, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)
With that story in mind, let’s read our text from Acts 11.
Now the apostles and the brothers and sisters who were in Judea heard that the gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “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. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 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.13 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; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.16 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.’ 17 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?”
18 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.” (NRSV)
Did any of that sound familiar? In back-to-back chapters, Luke tells the same story. In chapter 10, Luke narrates the story. In chapter 11, Peter shares his story with the “circumcised believers” in Jerusalem. In all of this, Luke makes clear that Peter’s vision of an open and inclusive community is both a prerequisite to and a sign of a faithful understanding of God.
There are at least a couple of things in play here. For one, biblical literature often uses repetition to emphasize the significance of a teaching or an event.1
Now, the ancient kosher laws had important purpose. They helped to set the Hebrews apart as a kind of anomaly—a monotheistic culture in a polytheistic world. And Israel perceived Yahweh as deeply involved in all aspects of Hebrew life, telling the people what to eat, what to wear, what animals to sacrifice, and, of course, what kind of people to associate with.
While the ancient Hebrews lived as an anomaly in the world, there’s also a foreshadowing anomaly in the midst of all those restrictive laws. In Leviticus 19, God gives specific instructions on dealing with “aliens,” that is non-Israelites. “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in…Egypt.” (Lev. 19:33-34)
With telling repetition, scripture bears witness to God’s expectation that faith communities show hospitality to people from other lands and cultures.
Peter and his fellow “circumcised believers” live in the midst of a growing tension between the laws that set them apart as Chosen, and Christ’s command to love as we are loved by him. That tension continues because the life and teachings of Jesus make clear that whatever can be gained through hospitality takes precedent over whatever might be merely preserved through protectionism.
One aspect of true faithfulness is the will to demonstrate compassion to those who get labeled other and treated with suspicion and contempt. Faithlessness tries only to keep itself safe. This lesson had to be learned through repetition—thus the recurring stories of the Pharisees learning it, the disciples learning it, Saul, Ananias, the Galatians, and the temple leaders learning it. And now, their stories are teaching us.
That brings us to the second thing in play. When Peter shares his vision with the council, he invites them into a transforming experience—an experience that called him to defy legalism and to recognize God’s presence in and love for all people. “Who was I that I could hinder God?” he asks. By implication, he’s asking all of us, Who are WE that WE can hinder God? In defiantly grateful love, Peter opens the doors of the church as wide as the arms of Jesus are opened on the cross.
While those who oppose Peter have plenty of scripture to support arguments against his reformist preaching, Peter doesn’t argue some new doctrine. Like Jesus, he tells them a story. He shares his purely subjective experience the way one might open curtains in a dark room. He sheds light on something hopeful and renewing in the world.
One commentator on this passage says, “Stories, not arguments, change lives…Generally,” he says, “arguments…tend only to crystalize differences…to keep two sides apart…[creating] winners and losers.”2 And isn’t that the way so much of our own culture is dealing with differences now—one side trying to defeat the other side with arguments and insults?
Stories work differently. They’re invitations into another person’s life and perspective. When we listen to stories, with compassion for the teller, they have the power to move us toward rather than away from each other.
For several months now, our missions ministry team has been working with three other Presbyterian churches in Holston Presbytery to welcome an Afghan refugee family. We’re getting our ducks in neater and neater rows, and when everything is in place, we’ll get connected with a specific family.
One of the great joys of this process is that we’ve also reached out to the local Muslim community. For many years, many of us have struggled with how to interact with a population that has been associated with some very painful memories. And in working with the Muslim community in Johnson City, we have met people who are themselves reminded every day that their heritage is one that makes them vulnerable to suspicion and to the potentially dangerous consequences of that suspicion. Nonetheless, they are warm, receptive, generous, and good-humored. They’re faithfulness to the mandates of hospitality within their spiritual tradition also makes them eager to offer their gifts to help welcome people that helped to support our nation’s interests in a predominately Muslim nation over the last 20 years.
In addition to a lot of work, we have much to learn and to gain through this process, and I hope we will all help to embrace and encourage the family that gets assigned here. I hope we’ll listen to their stories, and get to know them as fellow human beings who not only want but desperately need a new place to belong and to call home.
I pray just as fervently, that we share our stories with each other, within our own families, neighborhoods, and congregations. And as we share our stories, may God heal us of the fears that drive us apart and lead to suspicion, hatred, and violence.
May we commit ourselves to living in, and to living as a sign of, God’s realm of love, justice, and peace—right here and right now.
May we truly become one in God’s eternal Christ.
1Robert W. Wall, Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. p. 451.
2Ibid. From Stephen D. Jones’ article Homiletical Perspective. p. 453.