Acts 11:1-18 CEB
The apostles and the brothers and sisters throughout Judea heard that even the Gentiles had welcomed God’s word. When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him. They accused him, “You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!”
Step-by-step, Peter explained what had happened. “I was in the city of Joppa praying when I had a visionary experience. In my vision, I saw something like a large linen sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. It came all the way down to me. As I stared at it, wondering what it was, I saw four-legged animals—including wild beasts—as well as reptiles and wild birds. I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!’ I responded, ‘Absolutely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ The voice from heaven spoke a second time, ‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’ This happened three times, then everything was pulled back into heaven. At that moment three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered that man’s house. He reported to us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter. He will tell you how you and your entire household can be saved.’ When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”
Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, “So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.”
This week, we have just heard one of the most important scriptures of the church. BLTs, popcorn shrimp, and spiral-cut honey hams are all okay to eat thanks to this scripture! … Okay, maybe the scripture has a message beyond just letting Christians know they can eat things like pork and shellfish. This start to Acts 11 actually echoes the events of Acts 10, as Peter recounts his story to the Jerusalem church to answer the criticism of the Jewish believers who are aghast that Peter would enter the house of a Gentile. Throughout the New Testament, the early Jewish followers of the Way struggle to understand how Gentiles can be part of the church. Many demand that Gentiles first become Jewish before they can fully follow Jesus, and for many, non-Jewish Gentiles remain outside of the salvic work of God. Looking at these verses, we can easily tell that these early believers were not hesitant at all about voicing their difference of opinion in who is in and who is out. In focusing on sticking to their labels, they run the risk of excluding people through whom God’s Spirit is moving and working, and it is not until Peter tells his powerful story of his experience that minds are changed and God is praised! What about us today? Are we still just as keen on labeling? Are we caught up in deciding who is in and who is out at the cost of ignoring God’s work? Finally, are we willing to receive the powerful stories of God’s work outside our experiences in order to build a church where our differences are celebrated rather than being a cause of dissension?
One of the major questions that comes up in Acts 11 is why would Acts repeat the very story readers would have just covered in Acts 10? In the previous chapter, Peter has received a vision while still in Joppa where we left him last week after healing Tabitha. Now, he receives a vision where he sees a large linen sheet unfurl from the heavens, and upon it is every kind of animal imaginable. He is told by a voice to “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!” Peter is horrified! Many of these animals like reptiles are unclean and not fit to eat for a kosher Jew, so he responds that he has never let anything unclean or impure cross his lips. The voice responds, “‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’” Peter receives this vision three times before a group of Gentiles shows up asking him to come and share the gospel with their master, Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Peter goes, enters the house, and delivers the gospel. What is most astonishing is not the vision or even that a Roman centurion would like to hear the gospel, but what happens next, which shocks even Peter for the Holy Spirit descends on the household of a Gentile much like what happened to the disciples at Pentecost. They are saved and incorporated into the God’s salvic work in this world.
When Peter returned, the Jewish believers asked him to defend himself, to make an argument, but when does something like that ever go well? When has an argument, no matter how well argued, convinced an opponent that your cause is just and your actions right? In arguments and debates, there are winners and losers, those who are right and those who are wrong. In trying to defend his position, Peter could have lifted up a complex theological argument, citing scripture and building his case, but arguments like this, even as well reasoned as they might be, tend to only polarize difference. In making an argument, Peter would have been asking the Jewish believers the hardest task of any human being: admitting that they were wrong and that another was right. Humanity is terrible at this! When is the last time you can think of two people getting into an argument over a hot issue, and someone’s mind actually being changed at the end? Hardly ever! Instead, arguments like this only tend to bolster each side, as each side does everything they can to win and cause the other side to lose. There can be no listening or compromise because that would be tantamount to losing! Every word out of an opponent’s mouth becomes a potential counterpoint, and every hint of compromise becomes a sign of weakness or hypocrisy that must be attacked! If Peter and the Jerusalem church had gotten into an argument, we would probably have had no Gentile inclusion in the church because they would still be arguing about it to this day!
Instead, Peter tells a story, one that we the readers have heard before but must now listen to again with different ears. In repeating this story in Acts 11, this disciple invites his audience into his experience, sharing his vision from God and what happens when he entered the house of the Gentiles. Stories do not have winners and losers, instead there is only the invitation: will you join with me and share my experience? In storytelling, everyone is a winner because everyone goes through the same shared experience of the storyteller and emerges changed on the other side. Why, for instance, do you think Jesus told so many parables? Perhaps it is because a parable asks you to put yourself in the story and go on the journey to an answer that changes you. Jesus told stories rather than giving complex theological proofs because Jesus understood the power of stories to change hearts and lives. We see this kind of change in our own scripture today, as Jewish believers upond hearing Peter’s story, “calmed down,” and they then “praised God and concluded, ‘So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.’” They emerge from Peter’s story as changed as he was.
You know, I noticed something else in our story today, the Jerusalem church did something that we are terrible at today, they voiced their differences directly. In turn, Peter directly conversed with his critics. Today, we do not voice differences or enter into direct confrontation with those who we disagree with. Instead, we try to be nice and cordial, sidestepping controversy and issues, especially in the church. If we do argue with an opponent, it ends up being opponent we’ve created, a label. In our society, we love labels. We build up labels like “conservative,” “liberal,” “traditional,” “progressive,” “big city folk,” and “small town people.” We add qualities to these labels, what they mean and what these groups look like, but I do not think they actually describe real people. Instead, they describe strawmen, things that look like people but who in reality are filled with voiceless and lifeless straw. They are easy to setup and easy to tear down. They are the perfect opponents because we can easily win against them because they cannot argue back because they are not actually people.
To give you an example, I have lived in suburbs, cities, and in small towns out in rural areas. When I lived in suburbs, those there decried the people living in cities and in rural areas as dangerous or backwards. When I lived in cities, I heard how those in the suburbs only sought to gentrify and exploit, and how they could never ever live in boring small towns. In rural places, I have heard how those living in cities and suburbs are living in crime-ridden moral wastelands. Each one had built a label about the others, validating their own experience as the right one and diminishing everyone else’s as wrong. I have lived in all three places across this wide country, and you know something, I have never met the people who matched these labels. I have encountered good and bad in each because I encountered actual people who cannot be so easily labeled.
I don’t think I have ever met a “liberal” or a “conservative” or someone who is “rural” or “big city” because these labels describe a group that does not exist, instead they are created strawmen that are simply convenient to build and destroy. Fortunately, a story is much harder to tear down because a story is about something real and someone real who cannot be denied or torn down any more than Cornelius and his household could be told they had not experienced the Holy Spirit. With Peter, he experienced the Lord working through the lives and stories of other people, causing him to be changed and question, “‘If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?’” Peter had been hesitant about what he had labeled as non-kosher foods and non-kosher people, but God’s invitation to experience the divine story changed his heart. Peter’s story changed the hearts of the early church. The Gentiles became part of the church’s story which changed the direction of the Way to become the very path of salvation open to the ends of creation.
What I appreciate most is that Peter does not dismiss the critiques of the Jewish believers and their underlying anxiety. Their distinct practices and beliefs had sustained the Jewish faith through slavery, wanderings, hardships, exile, and conquest. Those called outsiders threatened all of this, and no argument would necessarily convince them otherwise. Instead through this story, Peter invites them not to abandon what they share but to expand what is shared, namely the Spirit who nourished all people. Our quest as a church is not to erase difference, silence identities, and seek sameness, but rather, it is to recognize that the Spirit lives and breathes through a thousand different stories in a thousand different ways. We all receive the invitation to drop false labels, cease trying to win at another’s expense, and instead, trust in our God, who alone “judges the living and dead” (Acts 10:42). We are free then to hear stories, to praise God, and celebrate the movement of the Holy Spirit even among those who we might have previously called opponents or even bad company. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman