Reading: Acts 11:1-18
Our reading today takes place in Jerusalem. Peter has just returned from Caesarea. Caesarea, built by Herod the Great, was the administrative capital of Judea — or if you prefer, the seat of Roman power. This city, which was at the time the largest city in Judea, featured an artificial harbor which made Caesarea one of the most impressive harbor cities in the ancient world. It was an impressive city, one of power, wealth and of course an occupation force.
Peter went to Caesarea because he was summoned by a Roman Centurion named Cornelius who happened to believe in God. There was a place in Judean society for gentiles who believed in God; it was far from a place of honor and if such a place were made in our time we would likely call it segregation, but there was a place, and Cornelius must have taken that place. He must have gone to Jerusalem and stood in the court of the Gentiles. Acts tells us that he gave generously and that he always prayed, and that he had a good reputation among the Jews; that last part tells me a lot about him, because how many officers of occupying armies have a good reputation among the people they occupy?
Before Peter got the call, he had a vision of a sheet coming down filled with unclean animals, and he heard God tell him to take and eat. Peter, of course, refused, and God told him that he was not to call unclean what God had made clean. After the vision when the summons came for him to go to the Centurion, and Peter, knowing what the vision meant, decided to go with them to see Cornelius.
When Peter got there, he told Cornelius what he learned saying:
“You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.” (Acts 10:28-29 NRSV)
After talking with Cornelius, Peter went on to address the people that Cornelius gathered and preach the gospel to them, including the good news that God does not show favoritism. When Peter was with the gentiles, there was a second Gentile Pentecost, and everybody with Peter saw that the Holy Spirit was poured out on uncircumcised Gentiles. Because God addressed Peter’s bias in a vision, and because Peter saw that the Holy Spirit didn’t care about the rules that men made to exclude other people, Peter realized that he should obey God rather than men.
Of course, when Peter went to Jerusalem, those who heard what happened were unhappy. Peter just, as he said to Cornelius, did what was unlawful when he went to the seat of the occupation government to meet with an officer of the occupying army. It did not matter that Cornelius believed in God, nor did it matter that he was respected, there were rules of segregation, and Peter broke them.
It is no surprise that people were unhappy with Peter’s decision to ignore the law. When Peter broke the segregation laws, he did not just break a custom, he disobeyed the clear teachings of scripture. Now, how this is a clear teaching of scripture is lost on me, and it is likely lost on you as well. I can read Leviticus 19:34 which says to treat the foreigners no different than the native-born, because of the time the people of Israel were foreigners in Egypt, and reading that, my mind leaves no place for segregation, but clearly they read Torah differently than I do.
One thing that stands out to me is that Peter manages to convince his critics. He simply tells what happens, and they believe that he is a prophet with the authority to contradict what had been accepted as God’s law. You and I know that this can’t be the end of the story. If somebody offers a prophecy that something that we believe that the scripture teaches is wrong and that the Godly thing to do is violate the clear teachings of scripture — we are going to reject that. Peter surprisingly convinced the critics who approached him, but this isn’t about a few people — this is about a belief that is spread through the whole community. It is not going to be easy to convince anybody.
I’m getting ahead of myself in the story told in Acts, but there is an upcoming business meeting that happens in Acts 15. In that meeting, they will side with Peter’s experience and they will write a letter that makes Christianity something other than a sect of Judaism, and into something that welcomes Gentiles without asking to do anything more than abandon idolatry and to avoid eating blood.
When we read Paul’s letters, we learn that like any business meeting, those who agreed with the decision honored it, and those who did not agree with it ignored it. Almost every one of Paul’s letters spoke of the issue of those who did not want to welcome Gentiles into Christianity. Paul made it his mission to bring the gospel to the Gentile world, and part of his mission was to defend the Gentile Christians against those who would exclude them.
The lesson I learn from this is a very hard one. Peter’s vision calls him to violate the law and the clear teachings of scripture. When the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to the Gentiles, it shows that this law and this clear teaching of Scripture seems to be in error. Now, granted, I see the error more than I see the clear teaching — but I’m also aware that segregationists in the United States saw that same clear teaching that Peter and the law saw. From this, I learn that sometimes people can embrace clear teachings of scripture that are not so clear. Religious rules can be made that are simply wrong. I know I think that I’m right, but I do need to consider the possibility that I’m wrong from time to time.
The next lesson that I take away from this whole ancient segregation argument is the context of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he writes:
11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:11-19 NRSV)
It is so easy for us to spiritualize what we read, to think of Ephesians as if it is talking about spiritual battles rather than literally talking about many members of the church wanting to exclude people who had a different ethnicity than they did. Paul is talking about segregation being a reality within living memory. We don’t like to think of an early church that struggled with forgiveness, and even one that struggled with something like what we know as racism. We imagine the early church as being close to God, and not having profound problems — but they did have profound problems, and sometimes even similar problems to what we see now.
And that is another lesson that stands out to me; like the Early Christians, American Christians too often prefer our rules and our customs to forgiveness. We look for any excuse to exclude outsiders. I’ve seen too many arguments about which people are not welcome in Church, and some of these arguments quoted scripture. American Christians, just like Early Christians have an impulse to build the same kind of walls that Jesus tore down.
We need to remember that Jesus is the one who tears down walls and that we are wrong to keep building them. I know we build because we are afraid, we are afraid of losing our customs, our history, or our culture. The fear comes from a place of either lacking faith or of placing our faith in the wrong things. Customs do not save, history and culture do not save. This is not an easy lesson, the Early Church learned it slowly, and doubtless, the American Church will learn it slowly too — but we must keep learning.