David A. Davis
May 15, 2022
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It couldn’t have been the last time Peter told that story. The story of the vision: a large sheet coming down from heaven full of four-footed animals, the voice tell Peter to get up, and kill and eat, another denial from Peter, “by no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth”, the voice repeating three times “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” But its not just a story about the vision. Peter goes on to tell the circumcised believers in Jerusalem about the Spirit telling him to go with the men from Caesarea and to “not make a distinction between them and us” and the visit to a man’s house and the Holy Spirit falling upon the Gentiles in the house, Peter concludes the story of what happened to him by saying “If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God.”
“Who was I that could hinder God”. It couldn’t have been the last time Peter used that sermon illustration. In fact, it’s not the first time the reader of the Acts of the Apostles has encountered the illustration of the sheet, the animals, the voice, and the boundary shatter trip to Caesarea. Just before Peter goes up to Jerusalem here in chapter 11, Luke records what happened to Peter in pretty fine detail. It takes up the entire 10th chapter, all 48 verses. The Gentile who summoned for Peter is identified as Cornelius. In a vision, an angel of God tells Cornelius to send for Peter in Joppa. Chapter 10 then tells of Peter’s vision pretty much in the exact words that Peter uses when he tells it in chapter 11. The chapter concludes with Peter preaching. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Proclaiming Christ crucified and Christ risen. The Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. Peter had the whole household baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. And they invited him to stay for several stays.
The story of Peter and Cornelius takes up a lot of New Testament space. I mean that both literally here on the page and more importantly, theologically, The witness of the gospel and the boundless reach of God’s grace. The exhortation that what God has made clean, you must not call profane. That conversation with God, according to Peter, happened three times. Here in Act, Luke tells the reader about it twice. A six-fold affirmation that God has shown that no one is excluded from God’s love. Acts 10 and 11; it is an example of the old preacher’s adage. Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you just told them. There is no distinction between them and us and who are me to hinder God.
No, it could not have been the last time Peter used that sermon illustration. Because it never gets old. A story that embodies the promising stretch of the gospel never gets old. A first hand account of the always challenging, often annoyingly persistent push of God’s grace never gets old. A lived word proclamation of the unsettling impartiality of God never gets old. A memorable step by step witness that exhorts the followers of Jesus to stop hindering God when it comes to the idolatry of “us and them” never gets old. It never gets old, not because Peter’s vision and his telling of it is so captivating, certainly not because it has a compelling literary efficiency like some of the parables of Jesus, and not because it has the heart-warming comfort of a timeless bedtime story.
No, the story of Peter and Cornelius never gets old because the people of God, then, now, and pretty much always, never seem to get it. The visions told may sound like the strange old world of the bible. Talk of the Holy Spirit falling upon all who heard, and the Spirit telling someone to do something and to think something, that might all seem strange to our post-modern ears. But what is timeless and hits oh so close to home, is the reason Peter dropped in the sermon illustration at all. Luke’s first telling of the story in chapter 10 concludes with the newly baptized Gentiles inviting Peter to stay for several days. Chapter 11 begins like this: “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?”
What seems to upset the Jewish believers in Jerusalem the most is not that the Gentiles accepted the word of God, or even that Peter had baptized them. It was that he went and ate with them. You can almost hear their disgust. You imagine their look. “Why did you go and eat with them?’ Of course, it wasn’t “them. It was Cornelius and his household. So, Peter began to explain it them, step by step. He told them his own experience of the boundless, ceaseless, tireless, matchless grace of God. What makes the whole story from Acts all the more universally understandable is that reaction to sharing meal. What really repulsed the believers in Jerusalem was the Peter ate with Cornelius. What aggravated them most was that Peter made no distinction between “them and us”. They were more upset with Peter than they were with God. Because Peter saw no distinction between Cornelius and himself.
And there is nothing about that is just the strange old world of the bible. Us and them. It is such an insidious quality of humankind that is pretty much on display everywhere and all the time. Relating to visions and hearing the voice of God may be a stretch for you and me. But everyone of us understands the tyranny of “us and them” in the world, in the nation, in our communities, and in our lives. Everyone one of us can relate to “Why did you go and eat with them?” In contrast to the unilateral, unrequested, non-mandated, unmerited, boundary shattering act of God, humanity’s sinful portrayal of anyone defined as other is relentless.
Our granddaughter Franny just turned one a few weeks ago. She attends a very small daycare that is close enough for her parents to walk to in their neighborhood. Almost every day our daughter Hannah will send us a picture or two that has been shared with her by the staff at the daycare. Of course, the texts immediately become the highlight of the day no matter we look at them or how many times we look at them. Any picture with Franny in it is priceless, but the pictures of the whole group of children are my favorite. After I stare at Franny in the picture for a long while, I take a look again at the other children. There are around ten of them, all very young. There are kids of all colors. Some of the staff only speak Spanish so I am guessing while bi-lingual even before she learns to talk. They call Franny “roja.” She doesn’t have much hair but they are convinced it will be red. The first arts and crafts project Franny brought home which has now been gift to us is the popsicle stick Star of David she painted. I am guessing there are multiple faiths and traditions represented among the children.
When you look at a picture like that of a diverse group of children, you have to heave a sigh and say to yourself, “that’s the way it should be; that’s what God intends”. Not just the diversity but the innocence of friendship and acceptance before all everyone else and everything else in the world creeps in. God knows you want them all to grow up and be healthy and thrive but if you could just preserve, save, multiply just a little of that. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
The people of God don’t have the luxury of allowing “them” to become a four-letter word. As if life in the community of faith were a cable news show where a liberal leaning host invites a gun advocate on just to excoriate him and make fun of him. Or as if being a faith leader today grants you the authority to pronounce that all who disagree with you on important matters are going to hell; a sort of church sanctioned demonization of “them.” As if we Presbyterians, steeped in the tradition where people of good conscience can disagree about important things, as if we could ever settle for the rhetoric of our life together being shaped by two people on television trying to talk over one another, or radio talk shows intended only for like-minded listeners, or a two party political system that has elevated “us and them” to an apocalyptic, scorched earth way of life. I’m not sure there is any room for “them” (the term “them” with all the scandalous and disgusted tone I can muster intentionally left dripping from the word), I’m not sure there is any room for “them” in the Body of Christ. The sermon illustration will never, ever get old. The sermon illustration about “them” in scripture, in the New Testament Church, Because it wasn’t about “them”, it was no longer “them”, it was Cornelius.
We remain committed to it and stand for it and live into it because of God; the grace of God, the unpredictable grace of God, the wondrous grace of God. The prevenient grace of God. The unearned grace of God. The undeserved grace of God. The grace of God that is new every morning, new every morning. The grace we celebrate every with each and every baptism.
There is no room for “them” in the Body of Christ. I mean that word that comes with all the intended sinful disdain of humanity’s collective use of the term. God is so much greater than our hearts (I John). “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians). “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on them” (Acts). The unilateral, unrequested, non-mandated, unmerited, boundary shattering act of God.