Keeping Up

 

“Get up; kill and eat!”

I have never seen a cross stitch made from this particular piece of Scripture; I doubt it makes many people’s lists of inspirational quotations.

But something significant happens in this very strange story. God is breaking the early church wide open.

Acts 10:1-17, 34-48

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 7When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

9About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.13Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 17Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate.

34Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Before I talk about the text, we should probably stop and get our bearings. Entering the month of May, we have 6 weeks left in our Narrative Lectionary journey. Here is the schedule:

May 5                                           Acts 10:1-17, 34-48

May 12                                         Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

May 19                                         Romans 1:1-17

May 26                                         Romans 5:1-11

June 2                                          Romans 6:1-14

June 9 (Pentecost)                    Romans 8:14-39

That is two weeks in The Book of Acts, followed by four weeks on Romans. Taken together, it is a series that leads us to ponder the central dilemma of the 1st generation of Christians: how do we keep up with a relentlessly inclusive God?

Last week we heard the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel—often called “The Great Commission”—in which the Risen Christ instructs the first Christians to “go make disciples of all the nations.” That word, “nations,” is εθνη –root of the English word “ethnic” and most likely meant to be the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word goyim. For Matthew’s Gospel, this is a move toward radical inclusivity. The Risen Christ charges the early church with opening its life to non-Jewish folks. It is time to find out just how much God loves the people who are not like us.

The next six weeks—Acts and then Romans—can be read as the story of the church struggling to keep up with the radical inclusivity of God.

The full name of the book is The Acts of the Apostles. Beginning with the 11 disciples in Jerusalem just after Easter, it tells the story of the church expanding out from Jerusalem into the entire known world (i.e., the Roman Empire). Along the way, it opens its life to Gentile (non-Jewish) believers.

This week’s text tells of a crucial turning point in that expansion.

Let’s meet the cast of characters:

The Apostle Peter. Leader of the early church. His stature—and impeccable Jewish credentials—are critical to this “only Nixon can go to China” story.

Cornelius. An officer in the Roman army and worshipper of the God of Israel. In 1st century Judaism, non-Jewish folks—so called “God-fearers”—could worship and keep some traditions but were not permitted to convert to Judaism. They were, in effect, second-class citizens.

God, the Great Matchmaker, wants to put these two together. In a very real sense, each one needs the other in order to become complete.

Peter’s vision—inviting him to slaughter and eat non-kosher animals—is God’s way of preparing him to welcome a Gentile into the church. The baptism of Cornelius and his household represents a hinge moment for the early. From now on, Christianity will not be defined by any one ethnic group. God is breaking things wide open and not one of us will be complete until we meet the stranger who holds the secret to who we are. For Peter, it was Cornelius; for Cornelius it was Peter.

I wonder who it might be for you?

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