This Sunday I will be teaching a Sunday School class. Since the class just finished a series I have free reign on the subject matter. I have chosen to talk about one of the lectionary texts for this week, specifically Acts 10:44-48. This passage, the whole chapter really, is incredibly rich with profound implications for the early church, as well as for the church today.
Here is the immediate text:
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
I'm drawn to the words in v.45, "even on Gentiles." Can you hear the shock, and the disdain, in those words? To be counted among the "circumcised believers" didn't just mean you were of those who had a similar medical procedure; rather, to be among this group meant that you were part of God's chosen people. You were among the elect and the privileged, and you were to be different from those around you, i.e. the Gentiles. It was through this chosen people that God was to be made known in the world. This was no small matter. This was part of your identity as a people. And now God seemed to be doing a work outside of this group. How on earth could God work through them? After all, they're the outsiders!
In similar fashion, earlier in the chapter, God tells Peter to kill and eat from among the reptiles, birds, and other four-footed animals. Peter replies to the Lord, saying, "Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean." Again, Peter wasn't just giving a list of his dietary preferences. Not eating these foods was part of Peter's identity as a Jew. Being faithful to the Lord meant abstaining from that food which was prescribed in Leviticus 11. To be part of the faithful people of God meant that you didn't eat these kinds of animals. But in Peter's trance he hears a voice tell him, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."
I'm not surprised that the events in Peter's trance occurred three times. Old habits die hard. It takes us a long time to come to grips with new things. Peter's food choices weren't driven by commercials and billboards, but by his theology. Who God was, and what God asked of God's people, informed every detail of their lives. And now God seemed to be doing a new thing.
So here's the question for us all, and I mean ALL, especially me. Are we open to God doing a new thing in this world? Before you reply too quickly with the Sunday School answer, let me ask again...are you open to God doing a new thing among us that will completely change the way you have understood who you are and what you are to be about? Are we open to the work of the Holy Spirit? Will we be conduits of God's grace and love, holding the door open for others? Or would we rather play the role of gatekeeper and pretend like we have control of who is in and who is out in God's church?
We can respond in one of two ways. Option 1: We can respond like those among the circumcised believers who criticized Peter for going into the house of uncircumcised men and eating with them (11:2-3). We can try and set the parameters for who is in or out, clean or unclean, worthy or unworthy. As a word of warning, this option is exhausting and you will never tire of finding folks more unworthy than you. Option 2: We can respond like Peter, being sensitive to the work of the Spirit in our heart and life, following one step at a time, and calling others to do the same. Peter came to say, "But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean" (10:28). God's plan of reconciling all things and all people was going to go forward with or without Peter, and it will go on with or without us. The question is, are we open to the work of the Holy Spirit among us? Will we quit pretending like we hold the keys to the kingdom? May it be so.
Father, forgive me when I have acted as gatekeeper. Forgive me for trying so hard to be right and faithful to what you've done in the past that I neglect what you are doing right now. Lord, help me to love you and love my neighbor. Holy Spirit, you are welcome here. In the name of Jesus, Amen.